The Ancient of Days, an illustration by William Blake
The Ancient of Days
William Blake, 1794. Relief etching with watercolor.

Both America: A Prophecy and its sequel, Europe: A Prophecy, deal with the upheavals of Blake’s own time. In Europe the troubles are traced back to the misunderstanding of the true message of Christianity. Under the baleful influence of the harsh law-giving deity Urizen, Europe develops a repressive and materialistic society that eventually provokes the violent reaction of the French Revolution. The magnificent frontispiece shown here, one of Blake’s most famous designs, shows Urizen measuring out the material world. Dividers, a traditional attribute of God as creator, were frequently used by Blake as an image of soulless construction, as in Newton. [See below.]

          —fromWilliam Blake, by William Vaughan.

detail from Newton, by William Blake
detail from Newton
William Blake, 1795. Monoprint with pen and watercolor.

The famous British scientist has been transposed here into an allegorical image of materialism. Using a pair of dividers, like the harsh diety Urizen in The Ancient of Days [above], he imposes a rational order on the world. Like the other monoprints, this composition shows Blake’s interest at this time in creating succinct, monumental forms. In this case the figure is based on Michelangelo’s representation of the prophet Abias in the Sistine Chapel.

          —from William Blake, by William Vaughan.

What in the world did William Blake have against the great English scientist Isaac Newton, you might ask? At the risk of vastly oversimplifying ideas that whole books have been written about, you might say that Blake objected to the implications of Newton’s new ideas when carried to their logical extreme, as I think Blake correctly foresaw that they inevitably would be. Blake was always an imaginative, passionate, mystical type of person, and much of his life’s work that survives is in some way inspired by or related to his revolt against the materialistic, reductionist, purely logical and scientific view of man and the universe. When taken to an extreme, the idea that everything can be investigated, measured, categorized, and eventually scientifically explained, leaves no room for Blake’s visionary imagination, emotion, and mysticism. Blake always held his elevation of imagination above reason in opposition to the prevailing new world-view of Newton’s rational “clockwork universe,” a view he famously referred to as “Newton’s sleep” in a verse he included in a letter to Thomas Butts (probably c. 1803), who purchased many of Blake’s engravings:

Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
’Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulah’s night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newton’s sleep!

          —from Imaginary Commentaries on the Early Works of William Blake, Vol. XVII, by Zimmerman Skyrat,

          William Blake (1757-1827), one of the world’s great visionaries, transmuted not only the burning events and issues of his day (The American War of Independence; the French Revolution; colonialism, slavery and the expansion of empire; the Industrial Revolution) but even details of his intimate existence into an elaborate personal mythology in which titanic forces of revolt struggle for freedom against the guardians of tradition.
          A printer by profession, a trained engraver and illustrator, and a poet of striking power, Blake enshrined much of his thought and emotion in a series of unique “illuminated” books. Both his calligraphed text and his images were engraved on copperplates in an unusual technique (the lines to be printed being higher than the metal surface rather than incised within it), and then printed in colored inks.
          The time-consuming coloring in of the images—either with watercolor applied by hand to the printed sheets or via opaque pigments spread onto the plates themselves—was apparently undertaken by Blake only when there was an immediate prospect of selling such a copy; of the sixteen known copies of the book America: A Prophecy only four are colored, while only eight of the twelve known copies of Europe: A Prophecy are colored. Obviously, no two copies are exactly alike.

          —from the “Publisher’s Note” in Blake’s “America: A Prophecy” and “Europe: A Prophecy”, Facsimile Reproductions of Two Illuminated Books With 35 Plates in Full Color, published by Dover Publications, Inc.

A selection of William Blake’s poetry is located in the Bag Full of Poems.