Updated: Apr 14
Yves Bonnefoy considers the primacy of the “cosa mentale” over the Newtonian conceptual in the poetry and illuminations of William Blake and affirms, “Blake opens up a field where Freud, Jung, Kafka and other thinkers of the human night will soon confirm the soundness of his testimony.”
“[…L]et’s simply have a look at Songs of Innocence, that slender booklet – thirty or so lightly coloured plates – he published, if that’s the right word, in 1789, at the time of an event that may seem of a completely different scope. And let ourselves become bewildered, should we consider what art and poetry was in the society of that era or even throughout the Occident since the beginnings of the Renaissance. It was a synthesis of representation and thought. The artist had something to say but, increasingly attentive with the passage of the centuries, studied no less the appearance of those things around him, even if he knew them hardly concerned with his intentions: in fact thought concealed itself behind the coming into existence of the proximate world, which granted some authority to what is known as material reality, to bodies as they are, as one lives with them and loves to live. Whence an entire art of the fortunate gaze practiced by poets as well as painters, who understood them easily, illustrating Ariosto, Tasso and even Milton, whose evocations of Paradise or descriptions of the Fall gave rise to paintings and engravings bristling with fine earthly mountains and forests, if indeed it wasn’t aspects of the English countryside. The divine was incarnated in its horizons, its sublimity made landscape painting legitimate. Only popular imagery could cut these standards short.
Here, in the illuminations of Songs of Innocence, the contours of things or beings they evoke no longer condense our desire to delve into the depths of sensorial immediacy. Henceforth a line is diverted from these enticements and so no longer merely expresses the thought it conveys. It clings moreover to outlines of tiny twigs and fresh leaves so as to suggest that they are the irresistible sprouting that, from its tendrils, penetrates – in order to take it apart, to dissipate its illusion – ordinarily experienced reality, that which had held Western painters’ attention. And even these tendrils envelop the poems’ text, written on these very pages; they slip in among its words so as to forge meaning within them or incite this very refusal, to put it briefly, of matter. These tiny illuminations, then, represent a great rupture, for we must not commit the error of seeing in them a decorative course of action embellishing idyllic scenes. True, these involutions seem facile, as much as might appear free of truth the happy shepherd or the lost child happily found, about whom these seemingly naïve poems speak. But soon enough in Blake’s next books he indicates that the line which had pared material observation away becomes more autonomous still. He thereby indulges himself in intuitions that leave the insipidness of the pastoral tradition far behind, unless it should be thought, and this is what I for my part believe, and I will return to this, that they bring its nature to light. In these new books intermingling word and image, the brush stroke continues to gain greater independence and audacity, imposes rhythm and cuts across appearances, and frequently imprints horizontals and verticals expressing nothing but thought: the gaze that had alighted on outer things has yielded to an inner gaze, a net in which strange visions are caught. It is as if, sweeping along the poems’ words, the hand tracing the brush stroke, which renders the line omnipresent and dominating, dived far deeper than they ever could, into the unknown depths of psychic life and uncovered an extraordinary cosa mentale.
It is tempting at this point to try and understand in its very forms and figures what this could well be, what Blake says, what he believed he had discovered in the midst of his night and was bound to record in his lyric; yet this is not where is found, in my eyes at least, that which makes it important for our time, and I will stick to what I see as intrinsic power, infinite potentiality and meaning almost clearly suggested in the line he revealed to himself. Admittedly, his intuitions about what took place within us from below various censures may be pondered, as they are moreover fundamentally true. We may but subscribe to his conception of Urizen, that massive old man trudging through the fen of matter and who has bent reality to the categories of time and space, introduced measurement, instituted laws, fragmented infinity and deadened freedom of the spirit through dogma.
What is denounced, as it ought to be, by this radical vision, expressed in such an uncommonly arresting way, is each and every conformity, each and every ideology. But we would be well advised to understand this message in a way that makes it possible to shake loose its imprudence while at the same time broadening its reach.
[…Blake] views his subjectivity as a passageway between spirit and truth, he shows us that the relationship of self to the speaking being is the path; and that for a start says a great deal about the nature as well as the locus of a vast continent within the depths of the psyche which till then had been little delved into only by travellers laden with dogma and troubled by religious prejudice, less as good observers than themselves an object of observation for the thought to come. Enlightenment thought had just then brought this continent to light, in contrast to its aims; it thereby begged to consider and visit it, but without making the means available for descending into the abyss; whence dread, vertigo and fascination, as for instance in Sade, pulling up the very roots of social responsibility and morality. And what did Blake do in these circumstances if not to say forcefully what was needed in order to seize the threshold, to settle and abide there all life long, absorbed in truth. As the abyss on the underside of reason is composed of desire, hunger and aspiration, beings such as they are, stripped down to their finiteness and thereby bounded to their subjectivity, must travel this route in order to understand, he tells us, that there exist in this dimension ways of perceiving, feelings and thinking that one must not only endure in the nighttime dream, like a Fuseli, or let seep into works of art left conceived at our rational and diurnal level, but boldly add – indeed, oppose, if necessary – to reason’s proposals. Blake opens up a field where Freud, Jung, Kafka and other thinkers of the human night will soon confirm the soundness of his testimony.
And as to the unknown realities which appear beyond this threshold, going to the Night as Blake did – and resolutely, explicitly: ‘After Night I do crowd’, he writes, ‘And with Night will go’– doubtless plays a great role, whateverthe truthfulness of the formulations he proposes concerning the economy of the mental world. As extravagant as some of his thoughts are, one can board this ship of warranted folly in order to reach the ports that our new science of the depths attempts to establish on the other shore: it would be to the ship’s advantage, in the course of its unstable navigating, if it were to take Blake seriously. But let’s take a further step in the reflection on the part played by the poet who, turning away from the clear horizons of his early images, plunged into the dark in order to shed light on being in the world.
By observing now that at his thought’s most extreme, the point where his visions take shape, what has taken place, in fact, and in a sustained and even explicit way, is an indictment of conceptual thought, that approach to things through their outer dimension which assuredly is exclusively destined to geometric space and clock time, condemning the five senses, and all the others, to the illusions of measurement, binding them to Newton.
(Blake’s monotype of Newton, 1795-1805. Collection Tate Britain.)
The conceptual is the guilty party because it retains in its necessarily generalising formulations the experience of finiteness which nevertheless each human being must undergo if we should wish to remain attentive to our most veridical needs, those which define his relationships to others and might render them harmonious. We find ourselves faced with this concept just like, in the allegory Plato devised, the prisoners of the famous cavern. Urizen is merely the troublemaker of this shadow world. Call it the power in us which out of this concept – which remains worthwhile, if it can put itself into question – panders to the propensity to turn itself into a system, a closed world, forgotten by the face of the Other who, Blake repeats, is the very face of the true god. Urizen is ideology, with harmful consequences. And the author of the Book of Urizen thereby helps us understand that it is at the heart of all speech, indeed in the use of each word, that the concept it conveys may, yielding to gross temptation, blind the gaze that might otherwise have known true hunger, true values, and the genuine circumstances of life. Which would have been poetry itself.”
(Yves Bonnefoy, 1923-2016. Photo Louis Monier.)
The above paragraphs are excerpted from Yves Bonnefoy’s essay on William Blake, “A Writing Prophet,” his contribution to the 2009 Blake exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris, in my translation. The full essay appears in Yves Bonnefoy, Prose, edited by Stephen Romer, Anthony Rudolf and John Naughton (Manchester: Carcanet, 2020), along with others on his conception of poetics but also on the visual arts, music and theatre, all rendered into English by diverse hands. For the Carcanet page, see link here: