For this month's Romanticism theme, I thought I'd start at the beginning, with William Blake--especially with some things he wrote in the 1790s. I've read Songs of Innocence and Experience a few times, and various other bits and bobs--Jerusalem of course--but I had never read these sort of mythic pieces, long poems or whatever they are. Blake etched and printed these as illuminated books, as he did so much of his writing. (I must confess that though I know I should properly read them in the watercolor-painted images, I always find that very difficult. It's hard on the eyes! So, Norton Anthology it is.)
The Book of Thel is a mythic story about Blake's favorite theme of innocence and experience. He was working on this at about the same time as the poems. Thel is an airy spirit dwelling in "the Vales of Har," --at least, it's hard to tell. She might be an unborn soul, or a desire not yet materialized. I like the unborn soul theory myself, but at any rate she has not yet achieved real existence; she lives in a state of innocence, unable to understand physical life or death. Thel meets a Lily of the Valley and a Cloud, who try to explain to her how happy they are in their places; she should be too. But Thel longs for real experience; she is unfulfilled as she is. She then meets a Clod of Clay--physical substance-- which introduces her to the Worm (her unborn child?). The Clod doesn't know much, but invites her to try physical life. In a short coda, Thel questions the senses and, frightened, flees back to her airy but unsatisfying shelter.
Visions of the Daughters of Albion is another illuminated book, composed a few years later, featuring a very different heroine. Oothoon, "the soft soul of America," is very much looking forward to experiencing life and love. She sets off to meet her lover, the Atlantic Ocean, but is abducted by the villain in a thunderstorm, who robs her of her maidenhood. Enraged, Theotormon (the ocean) ties them both up in a cave, and they all speak in turn. Blake compares English people (especially women), oppressed by incorrect religion and society's mores, to the literally enslaved black people in America. Oothoon, being America, is a revolutionary spirit who longs for freedom for both, and is seen as a black woman herself. It's very strange, and moderns probably don't think much of the comparison. Blake was really opposed to society's rules, to dogmatic and oppressive religion, to the subjugation of women, and to slavery. He finishes off with a line he uses more than once: "...every thing that lives is holy!"
Blake presents a series of vignettes--"argument"s, dialogues, "memorable fancies" which are kind of like visions, and more. He reads the Proverbs of Hell, meets Isaiah and Ezekiel, and has an angel take him to Hell, which is only such when the angel is present (after a labyrinth of odd images representing the twisting of religion). He even finds a skeleton in a mill which "was Aristotle's Analytics." (In other words, Blake doesn't think much of logic.) Finally, there is "A Song of Liberty," which ends "For every thing that lives is Holy."
I'm not sure what to make of all this, except that Blake had some really unusual ideas for his day--or any day, for that matter.
Blake certainly fits right into Romanticism--well, better than anywhere else, at least. He was a strange guy. But in his love of nature and the world, his emotionalism and disdain for cold logic or philosophy, his belief in imagination as a purifying and supernatural good, and his mysticism, he is a Romantic. Everybody should try a bit of Blake sometime.
He mostly lived in London, with a short stint in Sussex. That would hardly seem to count, so I guess I'm out of luck for a new county.