Readorama: Scholar Leo Damrosch offers primer for William Blake novices

Leo Damrosch
Leo Damrosch

Type the name of poet and musician Patti Smith name into a search engine.

Then add the name of British poet, painter and engraver William Blake, and you may find a video of Smith putting Blake’s six-stanza 1794 poem “The Tiger” to melody.

“When the stars threw down their spears, / And water’d heaven with their tears, / Did He smile His work to see? / Did He who made the lamb make Thee?”

It’s not hard to find evidence of Blake’s grip on recent popular culture.

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg also put Blake verse to music.

Jim Morrison named his band after Blake’s quote regarding the “doors of perception.”

Hannibal Lecter’s murderous protege, Francis Dolarhyde, portrayed by actor Ralph Fiennes in the 2002 film “Red Dragon,” poses as a scholar while visiting an art museum and actually eats Blake’s dragon image.

Even in “Bull Durham,” baseball fan and adjunct lecturer in English Annie Savoy quotes Blake to the exasperation of minor league catcher Crash Davis.

And yet scholar Leo Damrosch, author of “Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake,” wrote his 2015 book because he felt the artist’s impact was fading.

“More recently, I’m sorry to say, fewer people seem interested in him,” Damrosch said recently.

“The main goal of my book is to widen, if possible, the audience that appreciates Blake and has a good notion of what he was trying to do.”

Damrosch’s book walks the novice through the essentials.

Born in London in 1757, Blake described visions of God to his parents at age 4.

His adult contemporaries sometimes were rattled in his presence and, from a likely self-portrait rendered by Blake in his 40s, it’s easy to understand why. He had piercing eyes and a noticeably prominent head — no small matter when many attributed an individual’s character and intelligence to that person’s hat size.

Blake apprenticed as an engraver and later resented the condescension he would suffer in comparison to painters and sculptors, whose work many considered more elevated.

Often Blake refused to work in styles that pleased public tastes. When he did decide to exhibit paintings in an 1809 show, one critic pounced, trashing Blake as an “unfortunate lunatic.”

However savage the review, it freed Blake, said Damrosch.

“The vicious review was empowering in the sense that Blake then gave up completely on trying to please potential buyers of his art and was liberated to follow his own inspiration wherever it might lead.”

Before his death in 1827 Blake created the poems, paintings and engravings for which he today is celebrated.

“Only well after his lifetime did the world begin to realize how brilliant his works really are,” Damrosch said.

Blake’s work enjoyed a revival among academics in the 1940s, and soon Jim Morrison discovered him.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite,” reads the Blake quote that Morrison admired.

Blake’s work seems to be put in service of an ecstatic principle of unfiltered consciousness. Damrosch, in that spirit, took the title of his book from an unpublished Blake poem: “But he who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in Eternity’s sunrise,” it reads in part.

Another example, emailed by Damrosch, quotes jazz pianist Bill Evans.

“It’s the same thing with technique in music,” Evans, a Blake admirer, once said.

“You try to express a simple emotion — love, excitement, sadness — and often your technique gets in the way. It becomes an end in itself when it should really be only the funnel through which your feelings and ideas are communicated.”

Damrosch speaks at 6:30 p.m Wednesday at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza branch, 4801 Main St.

Damrosch last visited Kansas City in 2014 to discuss his book, “Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist in biography and winner of the National Books Critic Circle Award in biography.

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Brian Burnes: 816-234-4120, @BPBthree