William Blake was a madman. Or was he a genius?

Newton. Painting.

How quick we are to reject anyone who thinks differently from us.  William Blake was considered quite mad by his contemporaries, but now that some time has passed (and we don’t have to live next door to the fellow who talks to angels in his front yard), we are happy to hail him as a visionary and genius.

I first studied Blake in college. In my senior year, I was informed by my college registrar that I was a few credits short of a second degree –  in English Literature.  I had come to Caltech to study Biology, and study it I did, but I have had a lifelong problem with insomnia.  The connection may seem tenuous, but bear with me.

The one thing that has always worked to put me to sleep is reading.  When I read, especially beautiful literature, my mind is lulled into a state where the barrier between this world and the dream world disappears and I can finally sleep.  I love to discuss my mid-night’s reading, and to write about it, so of course every term in college I signed up for English classes.  I really had no intention of taking a degree, but the more I thought about it the happier I became.  I’m all for learning for learning’s sake, but there’s something to be said for a document certifying your efforts.

It seems I needed one more class – and because of the small size of Caltech, there weren’t that many classes in English literature offered each year.  My senior year, I had actually already taken all of the offerings in the last term.  The solution was to do an independent study.  I had just finished a course on Romantic Literature with one brilliant Professor Gilmartin, who agreed to mentor my independent study so I could claim my official document.  But what would be my course of study?  My first impulse was my darling, dear to my heart,  witty, wonderful, Jane Austen.   Why in the world didn’t I pick her?

Instead, I went the way of madness.  The very morning I was to turn in my choice of independent study topic, the sky turned a strange yellow and grey, and it hailed.  As I stumbled across campus, form clutched in my hand and shards of ice in my hair, I thought, “I will study Blake.”

Our latest Great Thinker, my “dark secret love”  (his words), William Blake: