Anarchic Modernism: Blake and Herbert Read

Although the application of the term anarchism as a label for a coherent political doctrine wouldn’t have made sense to Blake (just as it would not have made sense to William Godwin, often appealed to as the source of philosophical anarchism), because the use of that term as principled opposition to compulsory government and state as opposed to the mere absence of government had not gained currency during his lifetime, there is no doubt that plenty of those who have followed after him have seen Blake as an anarchist.

Just as Shelley, who although he actually identified the tyranny of god, priest and king of tyranny with Anarchy in his famous masque remains the most anarchic of nineteenth century poets in the philosophical sense, so Blake’s necessary ignorance of a later political ideology cannot disguise how much he would influence anarchist thinkers, as in his mockery in The Book of Urizen of Urizen’s despotism:

One command, one joy, one desire,
One curse, one weight, one measure
One King, one God, one Law.  (4.37-40, E72)

Algernon Charles Swinburne, author of one of the first work of critical importance on Blake, was later to offer qualified support to the Parisian Communards and, in 1883, was one of several men of English letters who signed a petition by Victor Hugo protesting at the show trial of Pyotr Kropotkin, the most famous of the late nineteenth-century anarchist theorists. Nor was admiration for Kropotkin restricted to Swinburne: Olivia and Helen Rossetti, the daughters of William Michael Rossetti, were excited enough by their enthusiasm for the Russian anarchist to publish The Torch: A Revolutionary Journal of Anarchist Communism in 1895. It may be very true, as George Woodcock observes, that the “fiery earnestness” of The Torch soon burned out (Anarchism, 378), but it is more than mere coincidence that the teenage daughters of one of the most important early editors of Blake should have been inspired to write in support of an international idea that, in the 1890s, was the most important source of opposition to imperial ambitions.

After his death in 1827, Blake lay dormant for a generation: when he was rediscovered, for many internationalism was best espoused not by Marxism but by anarchism (a fact often forgotten due to the dismal successes of the Bolsheviks in 1917). Whether or not Blake was an anarchist is probably as useful as trying to work out his specific Christian denomination, but if we do feel the need to pigeonhole the man who had to create his own systems rather than be enslaved by any other man’s, it is probably the closest label we have to describe his politics. I can never be as enthusiastic as Peter Marshall who, in William Blake: Visionary Anarchist, signs him up as a card-carrying member, but I was rather irritated by the fact that Saree Makdisi’s essay on “Blake and the Communist Tradition” in the 2006 Palgrave Advances in Blake Studies focuses pretty much entirely on Marxism and post-Marxism to the neglect of more disreputable devils who actually spend more time discussing Blake than the figures he advances.

All of this serves as a preamble to the work of Herbert Read. Read (1893-1968), most famous as an art critic and one of the founders of the ICA, demonstrates a particular peculiarity of British anarchism. Although his public espousal of anarchism, influenced in particular by Kropotkin and Max Stirner, would have seen him imprisoned or at least excluded from elite society in just about every European country and the USA, in the UK he was knighted for services to literature in 1953. Of course (and this was noted by anarchist colleagues who were furious), his acceptance of that knighthood compromised his politics, as did his willingness to be co-opted by the elite art establishment of Britain. Yet although Read’s politics may thus often appear deserving of Lenin’s sneer against left-wing communism as an “infantile disorder” (dismissed by Lenin as petty-bourgeois “revolutionism”), Read’s theories of art (far more important than anything Lenin had to write on the subject) owe a great deal to anarchism – and not a little to William Blake.

Herbert Edward Read was born in the Vale of Pickering in Yorkshire, and his accounts of childhood are related in The Innocent Eye, first published in 1933 then reissued as part of Annals of Innocence and Experience in 1946 and revised once again as The Contrary Experience in 1963. In the first part of his biography, Read demonstrates the profound influence of Wordsworth (about whom he had written in 1930) in his accounts of Muscoates Grange, the farm where he was born, and his exile to Halifax following the death of his father. Yet implicit in the early title of this autobiographical work, and made explicit in his later versions, the importance of Blake cannot be underestimated. Though the  influence of Blake was to ebb and flow throughout his life, in many respects he was the most significant of pre-twentieth-century artists for Read,  not least because he combined the visual and verbal arts to which Read himself was devoted. As he wrote in an essay “Parallels in English Painting and Poetry” in his 1936 collection, In Defence of Shelley and Other Essays:

it is in the nature of romanticism to confuse the categories, to make painters poetic and poets painterly. The extreme case is that of the painter-poet, represented for example by William Blake, and later by Rossetti. There are some who decry Blake as a poet, others as a painter, but I feel certain myself that his genius finds equal expression in both mediums… In a case like Blake’s the geometrically impossible has happened: the parallels have met in some infinity of genius, and the conditions of our problem are thus cancelled. (247)

That meeting of parallels in “some infinity of genius”, a phrase that could almost have come from Blake’s own early tractates on the poetic genius, is treated by Read as almost unique (significantly, Rossetti as the only other candidate mentioned as a painter-poet is not interesting enough to be taken up again). Certainly Read knew of the work of a contemporary painter-poet, David Jones, although they were not friends despite sharing the experiences of the first world war, but the exemplum of Blake is perhaps the sole narrative for Read of the truly successful artist, the only one to have leapt the boundaries of a logic that had decreed the separation of word and image.

The infinity of genius, the logical impossibility that Read appears to ascribe to the condition of Blake, is perhaps a condition of absolute freedom that Read also viewed as essential to anarchism. Although he never treated Blake extensively, in the way, for example that he treated Wordsworth, or Shelley, or Nash or the Surrealists, yet when Read does write of Blake, as when he describes him as “the English Nietzsche” in The Contrary Experience, there is no doubt as to Blake’s importance. Read’s sometimes official, sometimes unofficial, position as national advocate of modern art to an unreceptive British public added some piquancy to the role that the Romantic engraver was to serve, for Blake’s art simply did not make sense to majority of the public before the rise of Modernism. In a world before Picasso and Ernst, before Eliot and Pound, Blake’s art failed to connect and so it was hardly surprising that he had been unable to find a wider audience. Equally significantly, however, is the fact that to seek, to achieve, such an impossible art required a freedom that all political philosophies other than anarchism sought to circumscribe in some way. In pamphlets and books during the 1930s and 40s, such as Poetry and Anarchism (1938) and The Philosophy of Anarchism (1940), Read had little to offer as a political (or anti-political) and economic philosopher beyond the classical anarchist theories of Kropotkin, Malatesta and Godwin. He did, however, develop an aesthetic theory that meant – probably for the first time if one excludes writers such as Oscar Wilde and William Morris – anarchism could be considered a rich and fertile ground for the arts.

Blake is frequently present in Read’s work, although on first reading he appears peripheral to the critic’s main aims in espousing Modernism. As an art critic, Read’s principal concern was with the contemporary art of his day rather than art history (although he would frequently allude to the roots of modern art in Romanticism in books such as The Grass Roots of Art and Art Now). As a literary critic, he is more concerned with history, although it is Wordsworth and Shelley who dominate his critical efforts. To see Blake as unimportant, however, is to completely misunderstand Read, for whom Blake is the archetype of the artist.

It is not simply that Read values Blake’s technical abilities, although this is eminently clear in many instances, such as his introduction to Stanley Hayter’s New Ways of Gravure (1949), in which he lists Blake as one of the “four great artists” of engraving along with Dürer, Rembrandt and Goya, and for whom “art was something more than a reflection, however subtle, of the phenomenal world – that it is in some sense epiphenomenal.” (16) Throughout different essays and books, Read may alight on a particular artist, writer, or activist, whether Eric Gill, Shelley or Gandhi, but it is Blake who is frequently the synecdoche of this epiphenomenal vision.

The significance of Blake to Read’s philosophy and theoretical positions, as well as his practice as a writer, then, should not be overstated, but Blake remains a guiding vision. Other individuals may be the focus at particular times: when Read wishes to discuss the effects of Romantic creativity in writing, it is Wordsworth, Shelley or Coleridge he turns to at length; for political and philosophical positions, Kropotkin, Stirner or Nietzsche are more momentous; likewise, the role of the artist is to be analysed in detail via reference to Cezanne, Nicholson or Nash. However it is Blake alone who brings together all three strands of poetry, art and politics. Thus, as well as the artist of epiphenomenal vision or the prime example of English Art, Blake was the absolute voice of poetry in Annals of Innocence and Experience and The Contrary Vision, as well as his introduction to alternative philosophies of the self that lead him to Stirner and Read and, in The Philosophy of Anarchism, Blake is one of those invoked as the visionary of a new, anarchistic society:

Certain writers – and they are among the greatest – St. Francis, Dante, St. Theresa, St. John of the Cross, Blake – rank equally as poets and as mystics. For this reason it may well happen that the origins of a new religion will be found in art rather than in any form of moralistic revivalism. (The Philosophy of Anarchism)

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