Saturday, August 27, 2011

Morning stars -- a Saturday reprise


For some years this William Blake watercolor hung in my living room, blown up photographically to enormous size (that was back in my darkroom days). An illustration from The Book of Job: "When the morning stars sang together..." The original watercolor is small, not a lot larger than what you will get if you click on the image here.

That's Job and his family at the bottom, enclosed by the thickest clouds, representing the flesh. Under the Lord's left arm is the Moon goddess Diana, the heart or feeling, delicately holding the passions in check. Under his right arm is the Sun god Apollo, the intellect, pushing back clouds of ignorance. Above the thinnest wisps of cloud, a choir of singing angels, representing the imagination.

Here, then, is Blake's vision of fourfold human nature, as imagined in his mystic dreams, and which Job presumably encountered in the whirlwind. Binding all together is the Divine Imagination.

When I was young I took this image as a guiding icon, a promise to myself to keep flesh, intellect, heart and imagination in balance, and to always aspire to the stars. At some point, early in the fuss of marriage and family, the big photographic reproduction of Blake's watercolor got shifted to the attic, where presumably it still resides amid dust and cobwebs and the discarded detritus of a lifetime.

Has my understanding of the human self changed in the forty intervening years? I have more respect for the flesh now than then. I cannot think of the unceasing activity of the DNA in every cell of my body without esteeming those trillions of tiny whirlwinds. I am less confident than in my idealist youth that Apollo can hold back the clouds of unknowing and that Diana can keep human passions in check. But I still choose optimism. That at least has remained constant since this, one of Blake's most optimistic images, hung on my wall.

Blake roiled between optimism and pessimism, shaken by his visions (oh, the mystery of that unquiet mind), steadied by his art (he died with a pencil in his hand), and bouyed by his beloved wife Catherine (imagine being married to such a soul on fire?).

(This post originally appeared in November 2006.)