William Blake’s Revolutionary Tradition

William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ginsberg on William Blake continues

AG:  Let’s see.  What else?  In his notebook of 1798, (in the) marginalia, there’s a portrait-like drawing of a face of Paine‘s and the note written “Well done, Paine.” He may have gone to the revolutionary circle that included home meetings that included Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin.  These are friends of (Percy Bysshe) Shelleys also.  Like Mary Wollstonecraft wrote Frankenstein, was it?

Student: No, that was Shelley.

AG: Mary Shelley, but Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.  That would be …

Student: Oh.

AG:  … so William Godwin married Mary Wollstonecraft, who was the feminist leader and reform lady.  So it was revolution in every direction.  Liberation in every direction.  Their daughter married Shelley and wrote Frankenstein

Student: Oh, I see.

AG:  I think.

Student: So Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley are the same person?

AG:  No, Mary Wollstonecraft was Mary Shelley’s mother, I believe.

Student: Oh, I see.

AG:  And married to William Godwin, the Socialist Utopian Anarchist Collectivist theoretician.  Godwin is a figure that all anarchists know.  One of the great English  theoreticians of radicalism.  Some of that inspires David Dellinger and David McReynolds and Liberation magazine and workshopping non-violence and (the) Catholic Worker movement and the Quakers and still inspires radical anti-war protest to this day.

So Blake was of this same lineage, you see, as the American Left, except, like the American Left, there’s a psychedelic, cosmic, eternal note that is struck that lifts it out of the angry political backbiting radicalism that in revolution devours its own children.

So actually some of Blake’s best notions and work is founded on this conflict he had between the radical idealism and the realistic realization of the police states that arrive to Socialist countries, or to rebellious countries.  So all through his life he’s got this, like we have, problem with what do you do? – We love Castro’s revolution but it’s a police state and they beat up fairies.  What do you do with the Russian Revolution? Twenty million went to Siberia and 15,000,000 never came back. What do you do with the Chinese Revolution?  They look great now and they’re planting trees all over, but how many million people got killed?

So Blake was stuck with this, as all of the poets of his day  – (William) Wordsworth and the others – were stuck with what happened to the French Revolution.  Lafayette was a hero for a while because he was sort of a liberal aristocrat who fought in the American Revolution, went to France and fought in the French Revolution, led the armies against the King, but then he saved the King at the last minute because of pity or something.  He was sort of a moderate.  He didn’t want full revolution.  Blake was for full revolution.  So he wound up having to write a big poem later, after this “French Revolution” poem, attacking or pitying Lafayette, also.  Which we’ll get to.

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