With the 2010 UK election contest now underway, I have wondered who William Blake would vote for. A few years ago, the answer would have been immediately obvious to me – if ever there was a Labour voter, I thought, it was Blake, but the answer in 2010 is much less clear cut.
Blake himself never voted, probably because he was not registered to in the restricted franchise of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (although his father, James Blake, voted in the 1749 Westminster elections, and a number of electors of the same class – including not a few Blakes – were active around Golden Square, where Blake was born, during his lifetime).
Blake’s own politics are fairly notorious – not least because of his trial for sedition at the beginning of 1804 – and Blake’s early biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, provided the following account of his enthusiasm for the French Revolution:
Blake was himself an ardent member of the new school, a vehement republican and sympathizer with the revolution, hater and contemner of kings and kingcraft. And like most reformers of that era… he may have even gone the length of despising the “Constitution”. Down to his latest days Blake always avowed himself a “Liberty Boy,” a faithful “Son of Liberty”; and would jokingly urge in self-defence that the shape of his forehead made him a republican. “I can’t help being one,” he would assure Tory friends, “any more than you can help being a Tory: your forehead is larger above; mine, on the contrary, over the eyes.”
Towards the end of his life, Blake also despised what he called the “Tory translation” by Dr Thornton of the Lord’s Prayer as a corruption of Christian virtue, writing his own satirical version:
Our Father Augustus Caesar who art in these thy Heavens Holiness to thy Name Thy Kingship come upon Earth first & thence in Heaven Give us day by day our Real Taxed Bread [& take]whatever cannot be Taxed> [debt that was owing to him]lead us not to read the Bible & deliver us from Poverty in Jesus For thine is the Kingship & the Power or War & the Glory or Law Ages after Ages in thy Descendents Amen
Saree Makdisi, drawing on such comments, placed Blake in the Communist tradition in an essay in the 2006 book Palgrave Advances in Blake Studies, but before assigning Blake to any party I have sometimes mulled over the following, from his Public Address to announce publication of his engraving of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims in 1809-10:
I am really sorry to see my Countrymen trouble themselves about Politics. If Men were Wise Princes could not hurt them If they are not Wise the Freest Government is compelld to be a Tyranny[.] Princes appear to me to be Fools Houses of Commons & Houses of Lords appear to me to be fools they seem to me to be something Else besides Human Life
Blake himself had plenty to write about politics, but I have often wondered whether his failure to vote was an almost-anarchistic refusal to engage with party politics of any kind. Certainly faced with the choice of Labour, Conservative and Lib Dems today, I find it hard to imagine him racing with prophetic pencil to scrawl his X against any of them. Despite their attempts to claim the hymn “Jerusalem” as one of their own, the BNP is out from the start (and that is not simply prejudice on my part: in Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion Blake explicitly talks about the English as emerging from a racial melting pot), and I don’t see him as much of a UKIP supporter: Albion falls when he excludes the rest of the world. Would he be tempted by Respect, the left-wing socialist unity coalition? It’s easy to see some crossover with some of their ideas, but I can’t envisage him stomaching the authoritarianism of Marxist-Leninism even if the UK Communist Party is generally a much more benign body (nor do I see him opposing objections to a capitalist, militarist EU, as the UKCP states as one of its objectives).
In the end, I am inclined to see Blake as a person who had little truck with voting per se – perhaps rather like Voltaire who saw the English nation as free once every four years to vote for its own slavery the following four. Of course, the franchise was so restricted, boroughs generally so rotten and parliament so entrenched in its own corruptions that politics at the turn of the nineteenth century had no potential to connect with the majority of the populace in general and Blake in particular. No parallels at all, then, with the situation today.
Who do you think Blake would vote for? Please add your comments below.