Also on Blake’s 250th, Terry Eagleton on What Blake Has to Teach Us About Politics

In the Guardian:


Blake grew up in a lower-middle-class Christian milieu. But the culture from which Blake sprang was one of the most precious Britain has produced, in which Jacobin artisans and Republican booksellers rubbed shoulders with Dissenting preachers and occult philosophers; the country was effectively a police state, ridden with spies and hunger rioters. Brown’s Britain is not yet a police state, but its technologies of spying and surveillance surpass the wildest dreams of the autocrats of Blake’s day. Blake himself was tried for sedition and acquitted, having allegedly cried in public: “Damn the king and his country!” Today whole sectors of the labour movement bow the knee to monarchy, or at least tolerate it as a minor irritant. The history of labour from Blake to Brown is, among other things, how dissent became domesticated.

Blake’s politics were not just a matter of wishful thinking, as so many radical schemes are today. Across the Atlantic one great anti-colonial revolution had held out the promise of liberty, and to the poet’s delight another had broken out in the streets of Paris. Together they promised to bring an end to the rule of state and church – “the Beast and the Whore”, as Blake knew them. Most of our own writers, however, seem to know little of politics beyond the value of individual liberties.