What immortal hand
Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake by Leo Damrosch
is strangely appropriate that William Blake’s sphere of influence is as wide as it is, despite the density of much of his work. The English artist, poet, and visionary, born in 1757, created works so rich in characters and mythology — much of which was invented by Blake himself — that they merit volumes of annotation. Even if some of his conceptions now seem obscure, their force has not diminished in the centuries since they emerged, and as a result, everyone from the suffragettes to 1960s counterculturalists to Donald Trump has referenced their creator.
Yes, Donald Trump. The library at his 1 Central Park West building is reportedly adorned with framed Blake quotes: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” Blake, a humble man with strong convictions about social justice, would surely have written an impassioned rejoinder to such a use of his words.
Stripped of their context, Blake’s words are perhaps too easily malleable. Context is not crucial to appreciating Blake. Viewers of his engravings, drawings, and paintings do not need to know character names in order to admire his tortuous figures and meticulous line work. Readers of “The Tyger,” his most famous poem, can marvel at its thumping rhythms and extraordinary wonder without taking into consideration the oddly meek tiger who stands below the verse in the original illustration. And his children’s poems from (1789), when read individually, are charming at any age.
Yet with an imagination as fecund as Blake’s, understanding whom and where it came from can only enhance our appreciation for what it produced, and it certainly helps to have a guide as thoughtful and thought-provoking as Leo Damrosch, the author of Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake. (The title comes from a short unpublished poem: “He who binds to himself a joy/ Does the wingèd life destroy,/ But he who kisses the joy as it flies/ Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.”) Damrosch, a Harvard professor of literature, explains early on that his book is not a straight biography or thorough guide; instead, it is “an invitation to understanding and enjoyment,” one that unquestionably meets those goals.
Damrosch does provide some valuable biography. In brief, Blake, a hosier’s son, “self-taught and fiercely
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