The fierce old man squats down, wielding a pair of fiery compasses that extend from his outstretched arm like thunderbolts hurled from the heavens by the hand of Zeus. He looks like he might have stepped from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. His powerful form appears unclothed, and his thick white mane and beard are blown about as if by a violent wind. The William Blake engraving, “Ancient of Days,” appeared originally as the frontispiece to his poem Europe: A Prophecy. Each hand-colored print was made from copper plates using a technique that Blake said had been revealed to him by his dead brother in a dream.
William Blake was not simply a visionary artist, as such things are reckoned, but an artist who had visions. His misfortune was to see things others didn't see, which always makes people nervous. Coleridge and Wordsworth both admired his work but thought he was mad. Had he been an aristocrat, people might have overlooked his eccentricities -- but he was not, and they did not. He barely scratched out a living as an engraver and eventually died a pauper. It is perhaps fortunate for English literature that he lived at a time when the source of his inspiration was not regarded as a symptom that required medication.
Blake saw God's face in a window as a four-year-old. When he was eight or ten, his father threatened him with a beating when he insisted he had seen a tree filled with angels "bespangling every bough like stars." The figure depicted in "Ancient of Days" had been inspired by a vision he had seen hovering at the top of his staircase. There are indications Blake recognized that these visions sprang from his own imagination, but that did not make them any less real to him. Quite the contrary: in an age of reason, he always insisted on the primacy of imagination. He scorned the "single vision" of Isaac Newton, the reigning deity of this age. His portrait of Newton shows a naked figure seemingly oblivious of the iridescent beauty that surrounds him as he sits hunched over a geometric design with compasses in hand.
The obvious similarity to "Ancient of Days" has led some critics to conclude that Blake's antipathy toward Newton extended to the figure portrayed in this other work. Blake's biographer, Peter Ackroyd, speculated that its white-maned subject may be the demonic Urizen ("Your Reason"), the creator of a fallen world in some of his most powerful poems. "Ancient of Days" is a term applied to Jehovah in the Old Testament Book of Daniel. Blake's original illustration in Europe: A Prophecy appeared over an inscription from the Book of Proverbs that read: “When he set a compass upon the face of the deep.” The use of compasses to symbolize the act of creation is found in Freemasonry and in biblical illustrations from the Middle Ages showing God circumscribing the world with a pair of compasses.
As an exponent of unfettered imagination, Blake might be expected to resist any effort to contain the creative impulse. And yet as a creative spirit himself, he was surely aware that no idea can find expression without submitting to the limitations of form. With some exceptions, his poetry adhered to conventional rhyme and meter, and his drawings were something of a throwback to a classical style. He also was aware, as a created being himself, that he was no less subject to the limitations of form, of breath and heartbeat. He reworked "Ancient of Days" a few weeks before he died and continued working feverishly on his drawings even on his deathbed. But then he put his pencil down and seemed to be transported by a final vision, and in the end it was he who was circumscribed.
Peter Ackroyd, Blake