A Last Word about Isaac Newton and a First Word about William Blake

Sorry that there hasn’t been a post here for a couple of weeks; sometimes real-world deadlines intrude. I hope to get back on schedule soon.

A peek through the main gate of the British Library in London, where you can just make out the colossal statue of Newton, hunched over, measuring with a compass, or as the British would say, with compasses.

Although I’ve never posted about the British Library in London, it’s one of my favorite places over here. Heck, it’s one of my favorite places on the planet—and while that’s mainly because of the books, manuscripts, maps, and more that they keep inside, there’s also the sculpture outside to consider.

The first thing you see if you enter through the main gate is a statue of Isaac Newton, by artist Edouardo Paolozzi. With a name like that, of course he must be…Scottish. He came from the north side of Edinburgh, but perhaps, given that his parents were Italian, he felt at home in the pedestrian court enclosed by the wings of the British Library, as it’s officially called the piazza.

Paolozzi’s Newton

Paolozzi’s bronze version of Newton is almost 4 metres tall—that’s about 13 feet, and that’s to the top of the curve of its back.  If that hunched-over giant stood up, it would tower over the rest of us. That’s common enough for public statues, but perhaps especially appropriate for Newton, who said that if he saw farther than others had seen, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants—those scientists and mathematicians who went before—and Einstein presumably stood on the metaphorical shoulders of the giant Newton in his turn.

Blake’s Newton

But the giant Newton in the Library’s piazza isn’t standing at all, nor is it looking out at the world, because Paolozzi based his design on William Blake’s painting of Newton. While Blake would have appreciated the monumental size of the statue, I’m guessing that’s about the only thing he’d approve about the piece. He wouldn’t have found Newton a fit subject for a national institution dedicated to human thought, life, art, philosophy, and more. The Blake engraving that inspired Paolozzi is actually titled Newton: Personification of Man Limited by Reason.

Blake’s The Spiritual Form of Nelson Leading Leviathan

I say he’d approve of the scale of the bronze Newton because Blake lamented, back in the earliest 19th century, that huge civic artworks had fallen out of fashion, because he liked the idea of getting to paint 100-foot-high versions of his works The Spiritual Form of Pitt and The Spiritual Form of Nelson. That would be something like an American artist today saying it’s too bad the country has lost its taste for what Blake called “paintings on a scale that is suitable to the grandeur of the nation” and proposing 100-foot-high interpretations of The Spiritual Form of Obama and The Spiritual Form of General Petraeus. Even in 1805, I think that was probably seriously weird.

Blake was a poet, a painter, a visionary, an illustrator, a prophet, an engraver, and possibly a madman. He began seeing visions at age 9 and saw them all his life, so you can see how, since he thought these were glimpses of something eternal, divine, and true, he’d think that using reason might but a damper on things.

A page from Blake’s America: A Prophecy, typical in that he printed the page from his own engraving, and colored the illustrations by hand.

Blake eventually worked out an entire mythology involving a pantheon of figures you might call demigods, as an illustration of his ideas of the divine and eternal, and of mankind’s place within the grand scheme of things.  He presented his creations in epic poems as well as in artwork, usually in illuminated books which he engraved and then, helped by his wife, painted on the colors by hand.

In this mythology, mankind’s long-ago fall from grace was a fall out of eternity and into time and space, which fractured Albion—the Cosmic man and, while we’re at it, the personification of England—into four parts. Now, here it really gets messy, because everything is overloaded, carrying more than one meaning. But we only need to look at one of the four: Urizen.

The title page of The Book of Urizen. Behind him there’s a tree which has bent over and re-rooted, to grow again. If you read the previous post, you might recognize that as something you’ve heard of before…

Urizen is a creator god (except that he isn’t) and maps in some ways to the Biblical Jehovan (except that he doesn’t; I told you Blake was seriously weird). Urizen is man’s reason, without the stabilizing balance of the three other qualities Blake found essential—emotion, imagination, and instinct—and is an oppressor, an enslaver, of humanity.  His name is a pun on horizon, indicating that his vision is limited, and on your reason.

Urizen as The Ancient of Days

Blake’s painting of Newton casts him as Urizen (compare the illustrations), and shows him measuring and calculating, having turned his back on the beauty and variety of nature as shown in colors on what looks to me like lichen-encrusted rock. Blake despised Newton’s approach; 100 years or so after Newton, when rest of the world venerated Newton in large part for his experiments with light and vision, Blake said Newton brought us night rather than light, and that Newton’s single vision didn’t compare to Blake’s own fourfold vision. Newton might have stood on the shoulders of giants, but Blake suggested that Newton saw so little from his perch that he might as well have been asleep. He lumped Newton, materialist philosopher John Locke, and Francis “Father of Empiricism” Bacon together as what has been called an infernal trinity. They were to Blake ‘the three great teachers of atheism, or Satan’s Doctrine’, though Newton was not an atheist at all, but quite the contrary; he thought the precision and mechanics of the universe was evidence of the Creator.

In this view of the sculpture, the bolts/pivots for the joints show up a bit better–look at his shoulder, and at his ankle

Paolozzi took Blake’s view of Newton as advocating a mechanistic universe and ran with it, making his Newton out of metal and making the features of his body segmented, idealized, and symmetrical; removing the colors, the lichens and the rock entirely; seating his figure on some kind of rectilinear constructed box; and even showing the bolts that hold the body together, the pivots of the joints, making sure we can see the linear divisions between the pieces of the head, suggesting Newton’s head was made of precisely manufactured units. Paolozzi might as well have said “Yeah, Newton gave us a measured, understandable, reasonable, quantifiable view of the world—and isn’t it great?”

In any case, Paolozzi’s Newton provides the perfect segue from the previous posts on Newton to the next posts, which will involve Blake—because it was Blake who wrote the lines of the hymn “Jerusalem” that one little choirboy sang near the beginning of the opening ceremony of the Olympics, and I figured there must have been lots of Americans who, if they understood what the song was about at all, didn’t understand why the English apparently chose a piece about Jerusalem as a patriotic song. It’s just one more basic fact of British life in the collection of elements of Britishness set out in that ceremony, and one I plan to tell you about next time.



Filed under Architecture, Arts, Culture, History, Travel

6 responses to “A Last Word about Isaac Newton and a First Word about William Blake

  1. So nice to have an anglophile writing with such enthusiasm and obvious passion about our heroes.

  2. Malcolm

    I agree with the foregoing–both of them! But Dalecooper begs a deeper question: Is it ‘anglophile’ for an American to entertain such passion for anything British that predates the Declaration of Independence? That document cut the political ties but left those of culture and history intact. Boudicca, Magna Carta, haggis, and Cornish pasties are as much part of America’s cultural baggage as they are of ours, whether they like it or not. It’s wonderful that most of them do.

  3. Candida

    You know, I kept looking at that statue when I was there and wondering what it reminded me of – it never clicked! I think the strangest Blake thing I ever read was the bit about walking on Blackheath and being struck by a shaft of sunlight and entered by the spirit of Milton through the left foot. What the left foot was good for, I’m not sure, unless Milton had some penalty shoot out prowess that has gone unrecorded.
    Looking forward to your post on Jerusalem – which in my opinion should replace our current dirge of a national anthem, especially since we seem to have that only on a timeshare basis with My Country ’tis of Thee – or should that be ‘Tis Of Thee? So, we share not only Boudicca and Newton, but even some of our patriotic songs!

  4. “A tremendous misunderstanding, it seemed, Blake’s glowering ecstatic grumble at myopia mistranslated by Paolozzi as splendid and autarch.” – China Miéville, _Kraken_ (2010)

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