William Blake’s radicalism

William Blake’s born in 1757, so he’s born
into disturbed political times when there were all kind of currents going on. Blake is wandering about the London streets
wearing a red bonnet, which is a symbol of being a radical and being a dissenter, of
being one of those people who are against the Monarchy, who see prophetic writings on
the wall and this goes into the spirit of the French Revolution, which happens 1788/89
– a lot of the radicals in England respond to that – to the idea that you can get rid
of the aristocracy, you can get rid of your debts, you can get bread, the social unrest
of England is boiling up. There’s a spirit of the American colonies
wanting to throw off English imperialism, get rid of the King and Blake’s writing reflects
that. Caption: The Gordon Riots [01.06] There are riots, non-conformist riots, where
Protestants in England are – working-class Protestants are whipped up in London to fear
the Catholics. Blake is caught up in a mob, a London mob,
that goes from Soho, where he lives, right through to Newgate Prison, where the prison
doors are burnt with great apocalyptic scenes and Blake, the radical poet, witnesses this,
he’s not himself a revolutionary, but he would have been in danger of being hanged. This is a militarised city – people are frightened. It was rather like the London riots of 2011,
when suddenly something disturbs the fabric of the city and people are joining in for
all sorts of reasons. There are underlying senses of unrest and
unease and disenfranchisement and Blake’s writing comes out of that. Another aspect of these times, apart from
these revolutionary moments, was the Industrial Revolution – a different kind of revolution
altogether, in which machines are beginning to replace workers and quite close to here,
in Blackfriars Road, were the Albion Mills – huge flour mills – with machines made by
John Rennie, turning out unheard of quantities of flour and therefore, threatening the working
people and these mills were burnt down, I mean, in the same way that Newgate disappears. Whether this was arson or not, I don’t know,
but there were astonishing little publications, chapbooks and so on brought out about this
with illustrations of the burning building and a spirit of fire and apocalypse that Blake
finesses into his works, which he’s making himself in Hercules Buildings – his home is
his studio and his garden is The Garden of Eden and this Industrial Revolution is going
along with the ‘dark satanic mills’, right on his doorstep. These are not just metaphors – these are facts
about the condition of England. Blake’s poem, ‘London’, really touches
on the social ills of the time which were there too. I mean, the fact that child labour was appalling,
he was very taken with the figure of the boy chimney sweep, who he sets against often a
snowy backdrop – the blackness of these children covered with soot, starving, deformed and
legislation is brought in much later, which points out the fact that children are being
employed as young as four, five, six and are being forced to go up these very narrow flues
by having fires set under their feet, being poked and prodded and by the time they were
twelve years old, they were described as little wizened old men – I mean, more or less thrown
onto the streets. So, Blake’s desperately aware of that – so
he’s someone of enormous passions and anger and these social ills which affect London,
affect him deeply and work their way into his poems as metaphors. And the other aspect would be the level of
prostitution – that the city is full of women who cannot make a living in any other way. It’s a really – a nightmare city of the rich
and the poor. Very much, as in some ways, it’s going back
to now. I mean crossing London this morning to come
here – I’m near the City of London, I’m stepping over dozens of rough sleepers who are on the
streets at the same time as the bankers are commuting into their offices and their new
glass buildings. It is that sense of a schizophrenic city – city
of terrible social ills that Blake touches. We’re very close to the ground of Cumberland
Gardens, where this Declaration was created, which householders had to sign to indicate
that they were not radicals – they were not part of this – that they were part of the
established system and they were obliged, door to door, to sign this document and were
essentially pledging themselves to the established order and I don’t think there’s any record
that Blake ever did sign it, though his household would have been visited obviously. Whether he managed to hide himself away and
not become part of this, I don’t know – but being in front of the MI6 building now, where
these records are kept of all of us, and we’re well aware of CCTV cameras panning everywhere,
that this atmosphere, where the State wants to challenge and sort out and make yourself
pledge, is still very much present, so coming back to this ground is quite a big moment
I think. In the poem, ‘London’, Blake uses the
terms ‘chartered streets’ and ‘chartered Thames’ and the charter is this sense that
we have to be given of permission to be in certain streets – we have to be there by charter,
that the Establishment will do that and the chartered streets are streets, for example,
whereby cattle would have been brought to Smithfield Market for slaughter and you would
be allowed to have fairs, or stalls, or pubs, or brothels along these streets – they were
chartered, so all those social horrors are there almost by charter by the Government
allowing them. There is a sense, as with the signing of the
Declaration, that you have to negotiate everything through a sort of official bureaucracy and
it’s a double city and it’s the same as the chartered MI6 building, or the chartered cameras
that are watching us everywhere we go across the city. That’s why Blake is so relevant – in just
that single word, slipped into that poem, sets it up and makes it a pivot into contemporary

15 thoughts on “William Blake’s radicalism

  1. Comparing the Gordon Riots with the 2011 London riots is disingenuous liberal drivel. Blake also held some pretty reactionary and contradictory views, but these seem to have been white-washed from the narrative by revisionists.

  2. William Blake, a true revolutionary and his weapons were Art and [email protected] Sinclair time traveled to the past and explained what was happening on that time and what provokes William Blake to write and visualize all his majestic works. He explained everything with such calmness that i almost time traveled with him !! Truly amazing video. Thanks to +The British Library.

  3. Blakes poetry is all about perception. About how the industrialised machine of society has stolen from us our soul and implanted an empire in our heads that mines our minds of its true perspective of the world around us, of its beauty and our place within it. The war between the mechanistic and holistic worldviews. Somethings never change. First read him when i was 14 and haven't stopped since.

  4. fascinating! thank you! something about Biographia Lieraria enjoy! https://youtu.be/O30y6TGxvQA

  5. When I first found Blake I was 48 and from a country and a religion.. I'm now from god and the universe I'm from love itself

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