“To generalise is to be an Idiot”

On the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Blake – Tate Britain has an ongoing exhibition of his work and there’s more at the Blake online archive – Terry Eagleton [previously noted on Beckett] has some fun contrasting Blake’s “vision thing” with current writers and politicians.. although not as much fun as Ian Sinclair and Michael Horowitz had on Radio 4’s Today programme – listen to the last 6 mins or so here.. and then the reaction to the birthday greetings at the beginning of the next segment [RealPlayer files]. From Eagleton’s Guardian article. Adds More on Blake’s vision here

In his own mighty epic – Milton – Blake turned back to his great Protestant forebear from a Britain now scarred by industrial capitalism. He raided Milton’s work to foster his own visions of liberation, passing on the revolutionary torch to WB Yeats. This self-appointed mythmaker to the Irish war of independence was inspired by Blake’s notion of the poet as prophet and public activist.

Politics today is largely a question of management and administration. Blake, by contrast, viewed the political as inseparable from art, ethics, sexuality and the imagination. It was about the emancipation of desire, not its manipulation. Desire for him was an infinite delight, and his whole project was to rescue it from the repressive regime of priests and kings. His sense of how sexuality can turn pathological through repression is strikingly close to Freud’s. To see the body as it really is, free from illusion and ideology, is to see that its roots run down to eternity. “If the doors of perception were cleansed,” he claims, “everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Political states keep power by convincing us of our limitations.

They do so, too, by persuading us to be “moderate”; Blake, however, was not enamoured of the third way. The New Testament that Gordon Brown reads in his Presbyterian fashion as a model of prudence, conscience and sobriety, Blake read as a hymn to creative recklessness. He sees that Jesus’s ethics are extravagant, hostile to the calculative spirit of the utilitarians. If they ask for your coat, give them your cloak; if they ask you to walk one mile, walk two. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, and those who restrain their desires do so because their desires are feeble enough to be restrained.

Update From the added link

“Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets”, he wrote, thereby including everyone in the task of speaking out about what they saw. Prophecy for Blake, however, was not a prediction of the end of the world, but telling the truth as best a person can about what he or she sees, fortified by insight and an “honest persuasion” that with personal struggle, things could be improved. A human being observes, is indignant and speaks out: it’s a basic political maxim which is necessary for any age. Blake wanted to stir people from their intellectual slumbers, and the daily grind of their toil, to see that they were captivated in the grip of a culture which kept them thinking in ways which served the interests of the powerful.

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  • parci

    “To generalise is to be an Idiot”

    This may well be so. However as we look back on history, we find trends and tendencies, and discover thereby currents of reflection that have influence in their confluence of approach as much as in any individual consideration.

  • joeCanuck

    Having not (yet) read a biography of Blake, I know nothing about him other than that tiger.
    It never ceases to amaze me, however, that many critics and commenters claim to be able to understand the psyche of another through analysis of their writings.
    Is that for real or are they just projecting their own psyche unto the person they think they are analyzing?

  • joeCanuck,

    If it’s all a matter of projection, why do you bother reading literary biography?

  • susan

    Those eager to give the impression of earning a day’s pay may wish to refrain from clicking on the “Anglo-Saxophone” included in the birthday greetings.


    Pete, I would not have imagined you to be such an impassioned admirer of a man who cheered on revolution, saw God at the window, Satan in the doorway, and angels in the trees. Thank you for this gorgeous thread.

    Loveliest book I ever saw in my life was a hand-coloured first edition of The Songs of Innocence and Experience a professor unlocked from a Rare Books collection for a small group of us dazed eighteen year olds struggling unsuccessfully to find something coherent to say about it. In my whole life I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another man-made object quite so beautiful.

  • Pete Baker

    Oopsie indeed, Susan.

    “a man who cheered on revolution, saw God at the window, Satan in the doorway, and angels in the trees.”

    Well, we all have our little quirks. ;o)

  • joeCanuck

    Hugh, there’s a difference between researching and writing about a person’s life and times, what they did, what they said, who their friends and aquaintances were etc and trying to discern what their unspoken thoughts were.

  • Yes, but it would make for pretty boring literary biography, don’t you think?

    ‘That evening, after spending most of the afternoon doing a spot of engraving, Blake sat down and wrote one of his finest poems, London. It was about London. We need not detain ourselves about what the poem means, nor what Blake intended it to mean, nor the things that might have led Blake to write the poem in this way. We do know, however, that after he wrote it, he had a sausage roll, and didn’t get up the next morning until at least 10 o’clock.’

  • susan

    Pete Baker: Now you are cooking with diesel.

    lol, Hugh.

  • Pete Baker


    “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets”

    Couldn’t agree more.

    Quirks aside ;o)

  • Mick

    Great headline quote. You don’t think Eagleson was thinking of us when he highlighted Blake’s remark? Apropos of not very much, three of my own favorite visionary poets.

    London is one of my favorites:

    I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
    Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
    And mark in every face I meet
    Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

    In every cry of every Man,
    In every Infants cry of fear,
    In every voice: in every ban,
    The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

    How the Chimney-sweepers cry
    Every blackning Church appalls,
    And the hapless Soldiers sigh
    Runs in blood down Palace walls.

    But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
    How the youthful Harlots curse
    Blasts the new-born Infants tear,
    And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

    Worsworth, The World Is Too Much with Us (1807)

    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
    The winds that will be howling at all hours,
    And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
    A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
    Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
    Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

    And this snippet from Yeat’s 1916:

    Hearts with one purpose alone
    Through summer and winter seem
    Enchanted to a stone
    To trouble the living stream.
    The horse that comes from the road.
    The rider, the birds that range
    From cloud to tumbling cloud,
    Minute by minute they change;
    A shadow of cloud on the stream
    Changes minute by minute;
    A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
    And a horse plashes within it;
    The long-legged moor-hens dive,
    And hens to moor-cocks call;
    Minute by minute they live:
    The stone’s in the midst of all.

    Too long a sacrifice
    Can make a stone of the heart.
    O when may it suffice?
    That is Heaven’s part, our part
    To murmur name upon name,
    As a mother names her child
    When sleep at last has come
    On limbs that had run wild.

  • joeCanuck


    You can’t fool me. I know that was Pepys not Blake.

  • Generalizations

    To generalize

    all generalizations are wrong

  • Wilde Rover

    There’s a lot of truth in that headline.

    After all, only an idiot would wander from the blissful ignorance of the specific to stand and gaze at the horror of the general.

  • Peadar O’Donnell

    More Wordsworth:

    ‘Plain living and high thinking are no more’

    doesn’t that describe Gordon Brown’s current predicament?

  • DavidD


    Thank you for those poems. It is years now since I have read anything written by Blake and I had quite forgotten how profound and unfettered his thinking was. Blake was not only a poet and an engraver but also something of a scientist and this serves to remind us today, in this age of specialisation, that there was a time when people with of enquiring mind did not artificially limit themselves to any one sphere of knowledge or any one method of expressing their creativity.

  • snakebrain

    He also liked nothing better than a spot of unfettered kinky sex. His wife apparently found it rather difficult to deal with…

  • Mick Fealty


    I’m this close [demonstrates with virtual hand movements] blogging Gordon’s situation to the ‘tune’ of a Jim Morrison riff… Venice Beach no more…

    Telegraph are flagging a really nasty nip on really nasty nip for Labour in their YouGov poll, but I think they may be working off back end rather than headline figures.

    Am holding off until tomorrow to blog it.