Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake [New ed.] 1789142873, 9781789142877

Although relatively obscure during his lifetime, William Blake has become one of the most popular English artists and wr

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Table of contents :
Title Page
Copyright Page
Introduction: This World Is a World of Imagination and Vision
1. Early Life and Work
2. Visions of Innocence
3. A New Heaven Is Begun
4. Lambeth and Experience
5. A New System of Mythology
6. Night Thoughts and The Four Zoas
7. England’s Pleasant Land
8. Creating Systems
9. Final Visions
10. Death and Resurrection: The Legacy of William Blake
Select Bibliography
Photo Acknowledgements
Recommend Papers

Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake [New ed.]
 1789142873, 9781789142877

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DI V I N E I M AG E S The Life and Work o f

W I LLI A M BL A K E Jason Whittaker

r ea ktion book s

To the memory of my grandfather, John Blake, who first piqued my curiosity with jokes about being the reincarnation of William Blake.

Published by Reaktion Books Ltd Unit 32, Waterside 44–48 Wharf Road London n1 7ux, uk www.reaktionbooks.co.uk First published 2021 Copyright © Jason Whittaker 2021 All rights reserved No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers Printed and bound in India by Replika Press Pvt. Ltd A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library isbn  978 1 78914 287 7


Introduction: This World Is a World of Imagination and Vision  7 1 Early Life and Work  27 2 Visions of Innocence  57 3 A New Heaven Is Begun  91 4 Lambeth and Experience  121 5 A New System of Mythology  159 6 Night Thoughts and The Four Zoas  187 7 England’s Pleasant Land  223 8 Creating Systems  257 9 Final Visions  301 10 Death and Resurrection: The Legacy of William Blake  335 References   365 select Bibliography   377 Acknowledgements   381 Photo Acknowledgements   383 Index   385

Introduction: This World Is a World of Imagination and Vision


The Ancient of Days, c. 1827, relief etching, Indian ink, watercolour and gouache on paper.

ccording to a story by an early biographer, the poet and author Allan Cunningham, three days before his death William Blake was in bed completing a new version of The Ancient of Days. The image, one of the most famous and most easily recognized produced by Blake, had first been printed by him more than thirty years previously. Now, ‘bolstered up in bed’, according to Cunningham, he took the printed page and ‘tinted it with his choicest colours and in his happiest style’. After working on it for a while, according to Frederick Tatham, a friend and follower of Blake who provided Cunningham with much of his information, Blake laid it aside with the exclamation: ‘There! That will do! I cannot mend it.’ His wife, Catherine, realizing that this would be the last of his works, began to cry, whereupon William told her: ‘Stay, Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me.’1 The story of Blake working until the last hours of his life, painting and drawing in the small rooms in Fountain Court off the Strand, would become a familiar one during the nineteenth century. Alexander Gilchrist, today still the most important of Blake’s biographers, recounted the episode, capturing the image of a saintly man and his loyal, loving wife attending his final days before he passed into obscurity after his death in 1827. 7

divine images

‘The sublimity of Raffaelle or Michel Angelo’ In the immediate period after his death, the fading of William Blake’s memory appeared to be almost complete. By the time that Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake, Pictor ignotus was published in 1863, few of his closest friends at the time of his death remembered his life and work. Many of these young men had been known as the Shoreham Ancients because one of their number, Samuel Palmer, had a home in the Kent village of Shoreham. It was they who preserved the memory of one of the most remarkable artists ever to have lived and worked in Britain. After the appearance of Gilchrist’s Life, Blake’s reputation exploded among a Victorian audience: he was celebrated by Pre-Raphaelites such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who collected his works and edited his poetry. As we shall see in the final chapter, the Rossettis had an important role to play in the transmission of Blake’s reputation, as did Gilchrist’s wife, Anne, who completed the biography after her husband’s sudden death. Such was the spell that the Romantic artist cast on the poet W. B. Yeats, among other late nineteenthcentury writers, that one of Yeats’s earliest publications was a collected edition of Blake’s complete works. In the twentieth century his ‘difficult’ later writings often became a source for Modernists such as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, while his ever-popular Songs of Innocence and of Experience inspired musical artists and composers as diverse as Benjamin Britten, Bob Dylan and u2. Into the twenty-first century he is continually cited by writers and artists including Patti Smith, Kae Tempest and Alan Moore, and such is the appeal of his art that at the end of 2019 Tate Britain dedicated an ambitious, wide-ranging exhibition on the legacy of his work. The artist and poet who died in poverty has now become one of the most popular and best-known figures of the Romantic era. There are a few of his works that are known by many: ‘The Tyger’, with its invocations of forests of the night and the fearful 8


symmetry of the tiger, is familiar to almost every child, while the brooding dystopian vision of ‘London’ is commonly taught in the English school system. Although a considerable number of people may not know that it was William Blake who composed the stanzas beginning ‘And did those feet in ancient time’, they will recognize the song, better known as ‘Jerusalem’, from perform­ ances on television or radio, or from sporting events such as cricket and the Commonwealth Games. Nor is Blake’s legacy restricted to poetry: he trained as an engraver and artist, and there are a number of his images that occur again and again. His large colour prints from the 1790s have frequently appeared in the popular imagination, with one in particular – a depiction of Isaac Newton as an angelic, sublime figure – reproduced and adapted repeatedly: a large bronze version of it by Eduardo Paolozzi is seated outside the British Library. Likewise, Blake’s depiction of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar as a mad beast of the field is an image that, once seen, is not quickly forgotten. As remarked at the beginning of this chapter, however, The Ancient of Days is probably his most famous artwork. The image is a striking one, and was reportedly a favourite of the artist himself. Certainly it remained significant to him long after he first engraved the design in 1794. Frederick Tatham told the story of Blake finishing the image on his deathbed, and it was only one of a small handful of designs from the 1790s that Blake returned to in the 1820s. The design is striking: in a circle of light that appears as a sun surrounded by clouds, a muscular, bearded figure with long, flowing white hair reaches down into the darkness, extending a compass with which he intends to circumscribe the universe. The engraver and biographer John Thomas Smith, who had known Blake well, said of the piece that it ‘must at once convince the informed reader of his extraordinary abilities’, and claimed that it approached ‘the sublimity of Raffaelle or Michel Angelo’ (br 613, 620). The final version was commissioned by 9

divine images Tatham for what Smith described as ‘the truly liberal sum of three guineas and a half’, far more than Blake was used to receiving for individual prints. For most viewers, the subject at the centre of the print is probably instantly recognizable as a relatively straightforward, if unconventional, depiction of the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Such an interpretation would appear even more likely because of the title of the piece: the Ancient of Days is one of the titles ascribed to God in the Book of Daniel, ‘I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him’ (7:13). Although the title was not used by Blake himself in his writings, John Thomas Smith referred to the picture as such in his Nollekens and His Times, published the year after Blake died, and Tatham also called it The Ancient of Days in his letter to Rossetti. Title and image also seem to reference other parts of the Bible, such as the line from Proverbs 8:27 that begins: ‘When he set a compass upon the face of the depth’. As the art historian Anthony Blunt was the first to point out, this theme was a common one in medieval illumination and thus would seem to fit well with Blake’s painting as a representation of God.2 Yet the white-bearded figure is not God but Blake’s own demiurge, the creator of our fallen world whom he called Urizen. The scene of Urizen marking out the universe with his compass is not referred to directly in Europe a Prophecy, where this image first appeared, but the poem invokes him several times as the tyrant figure who fights with Orc, the spirit of rebellion in Blake’s poetry. Leo Damrosch observes that this particular representation of God is crouched within the sun, his shoulders jammed against its circumference in an awkward posture as he reaches down into the depths: yet while this God is compressed, confined, Damrosch also observes that ‘powerful energy’ flows through the figure, 10


invoking the lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost in which the Son uses compasses to measure out the circumference of the world: Then staid the fervid Wheeles, and in his hand He took the golden Compasses, prepar’d In Gods Eternal store, to circumscribe This Universe, and all created things: One foot he center’d, and the other turnd Round through the vast profundity obscure, And said, thus far extend, thus far thy bounds, This be thy just Circumference, O World. (Paradise Lost, 7:224–31)

That it is the Son, or Messiah, who creates the universe complicates the source for Blake’s depiction of Urizen, who is elsewhere described as the ‘Father of jealousy’ (Visions of the Daughters of Albion, 7.12, e50). That the demiurge, Urizen, is the creator of a fallen world indicates another important theme that will run throughout Divine Images: the notion of deism. Deism is an obscure term in the twenty-first century but was a respectable doctrine during Blake’s lifetime, influencing many major figures such as Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. At its simplest, deism proposes a supreme being who sets creation in motion but then no longer interferes in it, and many Enlighten­ ment thinkers considered this the most rational response to religion in the universe: God exists, but as a distant, uninvolved figure. That Blake satirized deism through the Ancient of Days draws attention to how much he despised this attitude. He equated such an approach to natural religion and natural morality, individuals projecting their own prejudices onto a cosmic backdrop and then ascribing them universal value and pretending to make such values scientific. As he wrote in the section of Jerusalem dedicated ‘To the Deists’, ‘Man must and will have some religion; if he has not 11

divine images the religion of Jesus, he will have the religion of Satan, and will erect the synagogue of Satan, calling the Prince of this World “God”, and destroying all who do not worship Satan under the name of God’ (Jerusalem 52, e201). While Blake was capable of writing some of the simplest and most lucid poetry ever to be composed in English, his verses and artworks were also often complex and profound, wrapped up in a personal mythology that can be hard to decipher, even for experts. The Ancient of Days is an image that demonstrates Blake’s highly idiosyncratic reading of the religious and political events of his day, showing his wide-ranging knowledge of other writers and artists, and appears strangely familiar even though its subject matter may be completely obscure. It is the aim of Divine Images to provide a guide to Blake’s art and poetry, to untangle some of the meanings of his more complex works by explaining them in reference to his life and the events and movements of his day.

Blake as Artist and Poet One of the most compelling features about Blake is his combination of artistic and poetic talents. He was not unique in terms of being skilled in both the visual and verbal arts: Michelangelo was a prolific poet as well as painter and sculptor, while Dante Gabriel Rossetti almost certainly enjoyed Blake more because he saw an affinity between the sister arts. Blake began his career as an artist and was better known to his contemporaries in that capacity. In general, his visual work may be considered in three categories: as a painter, a printmaker and, as a special sub-category of engraving, a book artist. As a painter, he loathed working in oils: in the Descriptive Catalogue that accompanied his one-man show of 1809, he remarked, ‘Let the works of modern Artists since Rubens’ time witness the villainy of some one at that time, who first brought oil Painting into general opinion and practice: since which we 12

Introduction William Blake, frontispiece to The Grave (1808), intaglio engraving by Louis Schiavonetti after a portrait by Thomas Phillips on paper.

have never had a Picture painted, that could shew itself by the side of an earlier production’ (e530). Blake’s own preferred method was what he called ‘fresco’, a version of tempera painting mixed with glue that had little in common with classical techniques of fresco. Many of his biblical paintings used this method and while the technique could produce some astonishing works, such as his 13

divine images The Ghost of a Flea, the way that these paintings subsequently darkened and cracked with age does not demonstrate his best abilities as an artist. Alongside tempera, Blake was a masterful watercolourist. That these paintings were often held to be inferior to those of his contemporaries was owing to the false dichotomy between oil and watercolour that became entrenched during the eighteenth century. Blake would work with relatively thin colours on paper without a ground, so the whiteness of the paper could shine back through his pigments, making them appear to glow. He often used this technique when illustrating other writers, most notably Milton: his paintings of Paradise Lost, for example, remain some of the most widely reproduced to this day. While Blake’s results as a painter were often mixed, his mastery of printmaking is second to none. Indeed, in contrast to many of his contemporaries whose names are barely remembered now, other than a very few such as James Gillray and William Hogarth, Blake was experimental and viewed printmaking as an opportunity to produce original designs. In his advertisement for a print of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims, he wrote: ‘Execution is only the result of invention’ (e576). By this, as Morris Eaves has pointed out, Blake took issue with the separation of painting as an original art of designing or inventing images, and printmaking as the mere execution.3 It had been this artificial separation that, among other things, prevented printmakers from becoming full members of the Royal Academy until almost a century after Blake’s death. As a printmaker, Blake’s initial training as an apprentice was largely in the craft of engraving. This method, as we shall see in Chapter One, was intensively laborious and required considerable skill, patience and strength on the part of its practitioners. Intaglio engraving required cutting into a copper plate, to produce either lines or stippled effects that could be replicated quickly once the hard work of preparing the plate was completed. Most of Blake’s commercial work was produced this way, as well as a 14


number of original designs such as those for the Book of Job. It was through his experimentation with etching, however, that Blake demonstrated his true originality. Experts such as Robert Essick, Joseph Viscomi and Michael Phillips have shown just how unusual were Blake’s methods of relief etching, what he referred to as his stereotype method: by drawing upon a copper plate with an acid-resistant ink, Blake could then use nitric acid to burn away the unprotected copper, a relatively fast means of production that still retained enough detail for him to produce his illuminated books. It is for these books, most notably the various printed copies of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, but also his truly magnificent epic poems Milton and Jerusalem, that Blake is often best known. These books show what W.J.T. Mitchell called Blake’s ‘composite art’, a mode of production where he displayed ‘an energetic rivalry, a dialogue or dialectic’ between word and image.4 As an artist, then, Blake’s position in the history of British culture is assured: at Tate Britain he takes his place among a tri­ um­virate of great British Romantic artists that includes Turner and Constable. To this, however, must be added his achievements as a poet, an activity that attracted only a little attention during his lifetime. For the great majority of readers, he is probably better known as a lyric poet, the author of works such as ‘The Tyger’, ‘London’, the stanzas from Milton a Poem and Auguries of Innocence, which famously begins: To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour (e490)

The formal simplicity of such verses, combined with a complexity of temporal and spatial vision, placed Blake alongside contemporaries such as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats. In 1818 Coleridge 15

divine images described Blake as ‘a man of Genius’ and ‘a mystic emphatically’ (br 336), while Wordsworth saw more of value in the supposed madness of the engraver-poet than the sanity of Byron and Walter Scott. Although his lyrical poetry has achieved more fame, Blake himself devoted the greater part of his time to the complex works that have come to be known as his prophetic books. He began to compose these at a very early stage – The Book of Thel was printed about the same time as his Songs of Innocence, for example – and the prophecies fall into two main categories: those produced during his and Catherine’s residence at Lambeth during the 1790s, and the later pieces that he began work on following his return from Felpham in 1804. These latter include Milton a Poem and Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, huge books in comparison to his Lambeth Prophecies and works that attempt to provide truly epic accounts of the complex mythology that Blake began to devise from the 1790s onwards. It is this personal mythology – provided most extensively in an unfinished and unengraved work, Vala; or, The Four Zoas – that is frequently most confusing to new readers of Blake and to which, in part, this current title has been written as a guide.

Religion, Politics and London The structure of this book is largely chronological, moving through Blake’s life as the most straightforward means of exploring his poetical and artistic works. That he lived during a time of rapid political and social upheaval, however, also means that there are some significant themes that cross the various chapters. One important aspect of this book is Blake’s attitudes to religion and the divine. Blake himself appears not to have specifically distinguished between religion and politics, an attitude that was familiar to many of his contemporaries but which would soon seem a little old-fashioned a century and a half after the Restoration of the 16


monarchy and dismantling of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. For modern readers and critics there may often be a tendency to focus more on Blake’s politics, but it is important to note that, as Naomi Billingsley observes, for Blake ‘Jesus & his Apostles & Disciples were all Artists’, and that his work was a means for readers and viewers to ‘internalise the process of regeneration and inspiration’.5 The early radical publisher with whom Blake worked, Joseph Johnson, published radicals such as William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft but was also the distributor of a wide range of Unitarian and Nonconformist religious tracts. A close connection with the spiritual world was a fact of life for many in the eighteenth century, for example in the works of the Swedish engineer Emanuel Swedenborg, who had mystical visions in which he conversed with angels: On the grounds of all my experience, which has lasted for several years now, I can say with full confidence that in their form, angels are completely human. They have faces, eyes, ears, chests, arms, hands, and feet. They see each other, hear each other, and talk to each other. In short, they lack nothing that belongs to humans except that they are not clothed with a material body.6 Swedenborg, whose New Church in London was the immediate cause for one of Blake’s most startling works, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, is an example of the fact that for many writers the division between religion and philosophy, or religion and science, was not yet complete. The temptation to easily oppose Blake to Enlightenment philosophy is a false one; rather, as with all the Romantics, he was engaged in a dialogue with the most important ideas of the Enlightenment. For Blake, as for Wordsworth and Coleridge, simplistic assumptions about the perceiving subject as a passive recipient of sense impressions in the wake of John Locke’s 17

divine images empirical philosophy made art effectively impossible. By contrast, a fuller approach to Enlightened thinking would embolden each person to fulfil their senses and abilities in a way that Blake considered holy, an ideal that was espoused by his maxim in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.’ In terms of religious sentiment, the application of this cleansed perception can be seen in the final stanza of the poem that provides the title for this book, ‘The Divine Image’: And all must love the human form, In heathen, Turk, or Jew; Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell There God is dwelling too. (e12)

The profound humanism of this poem contrasts with one of its sources, ‘Praise for the Gospel’ by Dr Isaac Watts, included in his Divine Songs: Lord, I ascribe it to thy grace, And not to chance as others do, That I was born of Christian race, And not a Heathen, or a Jew.7 Blake’s vision of the human form divine is one that appeals to a much wider sensibility than that of Watts. Yet the fact that Blake was responding to Watts comes from a shared tradition of Non­ conformism. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the easy assumption among Blake scholars was that he belonged to a Dissenting or Nonconformist tradition, that is, those believers who, following the Restoration, refused to accept the complete authority of the Anglican church. Such a view has been challenged more recently, most notably by Keri Davies who observes 18


that the marriage of Blake’s parents and baptism of their children in a parish church, but burial in Bunhill Fields (a favourite site for Nonconformists), suggests that ‘the Blake family were members of the Church of England at the time of their marriage and moved toward religious dissent during William’s childhood’ or that their opposition to the Church was a political stance against its clergy, rather than a religious one against its theology.8 The move towards dissent, if it did take place within the family, may have been inspired by Blake’s mother, whom recent research has identified as a member of the Moravian Church, one of the oldest Protestant sects, which had its origins in fifteenth-century Bohemia and was very accepting of its members belonging both to Moravian and Anglican congregations.9 The relationship between religious and political dissent, then, is an important theme that runs throughout this book. The appreciation of Blake’s works is made easier by an understanding of his religious ideas and of the language of the Bible, which informed his work in a way that is unfamiliar to many readers today. This is by no means to ignore the fact that those works are also profoundly political in their nature: his birth in 1757 was, after all, only a century after the great religious wars between Protestants and Catholics that had torn apart Europe and had been reflected in the civil strife of the British Isles. During his lifetime he witnessed not one but two revolutions, first that by means of which the American colonies were transformed into the United States, and then the revolution in France that led to the bloodiest conflicts in Europe prior to the First World War. David Erdman, in his book Blake: Prophet Against Empire, was one of the first to write persuasively of how the political antagonism between the crown and a largely metropolitan group of ‘patriots’ opposed to the attempt to subdue America shaped Blake’s own views from an early age. It was the French Revolution, as with all the great Romantics, that catalysed his own radical views. According to 19

divine images Gilchrist, Blake wore the bonnet rouge, the cap of liberty that was a symbol of adherence to the ideals of the Revolution: ‘Down to his last days Blake always avowed himself a “Liberty Boy,” a faithful “Son of Liberty”.’10 His radicalism became overt in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution: his only conventionally set poem after the early Poetical Sketches was entitled The French Revolution (1791), and during the 1790s he turned to the theme of liberty and tyranny in a series of prophetic books that began with America a Prophecy, a retelling of the American War of Independence in the light of events in France. Political and religious radicalism infuse Blake’s poetic and visual art, providing a context for many of his most original – and often challenging – opinions on psychology, sexuality and all aspects of human relations. He was also affected by the changing urban environment in which he lived. By the time of Blake’s birth, London had a population of about three-quarters of a million people; by 1815 it was already the largest city in the world with nearly 3.2 million inhabitants. At this stage, many of those living in London had not, like Blake, been born there, with most flooding into the industrializing city from the countryside as rapid changes in agrarian practices both enabled a population boom and removed the means of subsistence living that had been in place for generations. By the time of his death, the number of people living in the capital would grow even further, especially with an influx of immigrants from Ireland. The changing nature of the city did not escape one of its greatest poets: many readers are surprised to read so much pastoral poetry in Blake’s early work, assuming that lyrics such as ‘The Ecchoing Green’ are fantasias. And yet, as maps of London in 1770 show, areas such as Green Park and St James’s Park were not minor incursions upon the urban landscape but actual limits of the city. As a child, Blake could have easily walked from his home in Soho to the farms and countryside that surrounded London, and when he and Catherine 20


moved to Lambeth in the 1790s it was to take up residence in new developments that were only just starting to cover the area south of the Thames. These pastoral surroundings had not entirely disappeared by the time of his death, but London was already well on the way to becoming the City of Dreadful Night envisaged by the Victorian poet James Thomson. The wealthy areas of the West End were increasingly distinguished from the slums of the East End, and by the early decades of the nineteenth century the middle classes were moving from the squalor of the older buildings in central London to the suburbs of Highgate and St John’s Wood. Although I am sceptical that the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ invoked in stanzas from Milton a Poem are explicitly about the Industrial Revolution, Blake was indeed living during a period that saw rapid industrialization and urbanization. In 1812 the docks of London were integrated by Act of Parliament into a growing national canal system, bringing more trade and people to London, and the Albion Mills, the first factory in the capital, was constructed in 1786 by Matthew Boulton and James Watt. Although it burned down in 1791, its steam-powered mechanisms would be adopted by an increasing number of manufactories, especially as the new canals allowed the cheap import of coal. While Blake’s own language was shaped by older, more familiar motifs of the blacksmith, it is this city of industry and darkness that Blake mythologizes in his later works such as Jerusalem.

Blake’s Legacy As well as exploring Blake’s art and poetry in the context of his life and times, the final chapter of Divine Images is also concerned with the legacy of those words and images. The appearance of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake in 1863 was something of a literary sensation. One of the reasons for its success was 21

divine images that, in contrast to more famous contemporaries such as Byron, Wordsworth and Shelley, Blake’s very obscurity allowed him to be remade in the image of those who discovered him first. For Gilchrist, he was a saintly figure neglected by the world, while the Rossettis began the transformation of Blake into a ‘complete artist’, one who was concerned only with art for art’s sake. While appreciating the aestheticism of the Pre-Raphaelites, Swinburne re-created the Romantic as a true poet who was very knowingly

William Blake in Youth and Age, c. 1830, graphite with brush and brown ink on paper.



of the Devil’s party and, slightly later, Yeats would re-imagine him as an occultist and more thoroughgoing Swedenborgian than Blake had ever been. In a sense, this re-creation of Blake in the artist’s or writer’s own image has continued ever since. In terms of Blake’s influence, the most immediate effects were felt in the art world. This was because of the role played by the Shoreham Ancients, particularly figures such as Samuel Palmer and George Richmond who, in turn, were influential on later generations of artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites, a transmission of Blakean ways of seeing the world that were not always fully conscious in the immediate decades following his death. In the aftermath of the publication of Gilchrist’s Life, however, that influence came to be very fully invoked, with Blake playing an important role in such things as the Arts and Crafts Movement. By the end of the century his poetry also had an important role to play in the work of figures such as W. B. Yeats, but it was in the early twentieth century, with the rise of Modernism, that his complex illuminated prophecies finally began to be appreciated. Writers as diverse as Joyce, Eliot and Auden would invoke Blake as a forerunner of the difficult literary style they were promoting at the same time that his art – so widely emulated by the PreRaphaelites and in Art Nouveau – was starting to look rather old-fashioned. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a pattern of vogues and fashions for Blake become apparent: for a while he would be the new discovery and thus become all the rage, but then, with time, reproductions of Blake’s art or his poetry would oversaturate the market. People grew bored of him and so he fell out of fashion, only to be rediscovered by a later generation, so that interest in Blake has often been cyclical. After the Second World War, for example, Blake was adopted wholesale by the Beats but then, from the 1980s onwards, seemed to fall out of favour a little (including, even, in academia, where by the 1990s 23

divine images there were rumblings to remove him from the list of the ‘Big Six’ as not being a proper Romantic). The change in interest appeared to rise at the end of the 1990s when, among other things, an increasing sense of millennial anxiety seemed a good context in which to revive the works of the most visionary of the figures from the Romantic era. Much of Blake’s legacy has, unsurprisingly, centred on art and writing, but he has been important to other areas such as filmmaking, philosophy and even science: his continual opposition to the worldview of Isaac Newton finally found favour at the end of the twentieth century when the revolution begun by Einstein and quantum mechanics almost a hundred years earlier seemed to require a new paradigm beyond mechanistic philosophies. In one area outside the visual arts and writing, however, that of music, Blake appears to have been more influential than just about any other poet. In the first years of the twenty-first century, I and other critics could place Blake just behind Shakespeare and Robert Burns in terms of the number of times his works had been set to music, but in the intervening time musical adaptations of his lyrical poetry in particular have soared in number while settings of Shakespeare and Burns have remained relatively static. This book can only look at a few examples of Blakean music, but it is a field that is rich and growing. At his simplest, as in Songs of Innocence and of Experience or Auguries of Innocence, Blake writes in a way that even the smallest of children can understand – yet such works comprise only the smallest fraction of his output. Much that is difficult is so because contexts that were common to Blake, such as a profound knowledge of the Bible, are no longer widely shared. At other times, however, Blake is difficult to understand because he is obscure, sometimes deliberately so: as he wrote to Reverend Dr Trusler in 1799, ‘That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care,’ the same letter in which he explained ‘The World is a 24


World of Imagination and Vision’ (e702). As anyone who has ever appreciated the work of William Blake will know, this ‘World of Imagination and Vision’ can sometimes be the simplest thing to comprehend, immediately known by the smallest child: elsewhere, however, a deeper, richer appreciation of Blake’s work will come through understanding the range of his works, visual and poetic, and the history of the times in which he lived. Divine Images is intended as such a guide for readers who wish to know more about what motivated and inspired this most original of artists.



Early Life and Work


brown granite tower occupies the spot where William Blake was born. Built in 1966 by Stillman & Eastwick-Field to house shops, offices and flats, William Blake House in Broadwick Street stands on the site of 28 Broad Street where William, the third son of James and Catherine Blake, was born on 28 November 1757. That terrace house was demolished in 1965 to make way for high-rise accommodation and the street renamed; a plaque notes his birth at this location in Soho, and some of the old buildings that survive on Broadwick Street give an idea of what the family home, where he lived until 1782, would have looked like.

Infant Joy

Joseph of Arimathea among The Rocks of Albion, composed 1773, copy made c. 1803, intaglio engraving on paper.

Blake’s parents were married on 15 October 1752 at the church of St George, Hanover Square. The church had been built after the parish of St George was established in 1724 to accommodate the growing population in the city, in an area that included some of the most fashionable parts of London such as Belgravia and Mayfair. Catherine Blake (née Wright) had been wed to Thomas Armitage before she married James, and her new husband took over the Broad Street hosiery and haberdashery shop that had previously been run by the Armitages. Despite previous assertions 27

divine images that Blake’s family may have had links to dissenting traditions such as the Muggletonians, a movement that had grown from the Ranters during the English Civil War and which opposed philosophical reason,1 more recent research has offered a stronger link between Blake’s mother, Catherine, and the Moravian Church.2 The Moravians, formally known as the Unitas fratrum (Unity of the Brethren), took their name from Protestant exiles who had fled from Moravia to Saxony in 1722, with roots dating back to the fifteenth-century Bohemian Reformation led by Jan Hus. The followers of Hus, who wished for Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular as well as for other reforms such as the abolition of indulgences, were some of the earliest Protestants in Europe, pre-dating Martin Luther by fifty years. Some of those living in Moravia fled their Catholic homeland and established themselves on the estates of a German nobleman, Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf; under his protection, the Moravians established missions as far afield as the Americas, Africa and the Far East, setting up a congregation in England by 1742. Much more than this simple congregation, however, the pietism that these German missionaries brought with them was to have a profound effect on the eighteenth-century evangelical revival, inspiring Wesley, among others, with their faith.3 As Keri Davies observes, the marriage of the Blakes and baptism of their children in Anglican churches – but later burial of family members at Bunhill Fields – suggests that the family originally participated in the rites of the Church of England but then may have become part of a dissenting congregation. The Moravians had been recognized by Act of Parliament as an episcopal and thus sister church, but their places of worship had to be licensed as Dissenting Chapels. As such, ‘they were and then again were not Dissenters . . . Accordingly, one could be an Anglican and a Moravian at the same time – and it turns out that a majority of the English brethren were and remained loyal 28

Early Life and Work

members of the Church of England.’4 In these circumstances, Blake would have been accustomed to an evangelical upbringing in which God’s agency in everyday life was very much expected, in contrast to the cooler, Latitudinarian tendencies of the established Anglican Church. Later in life he would refer to the more distant attitudes of the Church of England and of deism and, as we saw in the introduction, deism very much affected his vision of Urizen, the tyrant god of reason. William was baptized at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, the parish church in an area that had only recently been developed into what G. E. Bentley Jr describes as a ‘solidly bourgeois’ neighbourhood.5 By all accounts, Blake’s early childhood was a happy one: the biographer Stanley Gardner observes that ‘William had chosen his parents well,’6 not least because they took the enlightened view that their son would not benefit from education at school and thus taught him at home. While contemporaries be­moaned his lack of formal education, he avoided the drilling in the classics that would have stultified his imagination, for all that it often left him at a disadvantage among his later, upper-class patrons and customers. Nor did his parents discourage his more un­­­usual perceptions of the world around him. In letters and accounts recorded by his earliest biographers, Blake and his acquaintances spoke of visions from an early age, such as when he saw God putting his head to the window of the family home, or angels in the trees at Peckham Rye. The stories and incidents from this period that survive are largely drawn from Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake. Gilchrist also recorded how the young boy’s artistic talents were recognized by his parents, so that at the age of ten he was enrolled in the drawing school of Henry Pars. Train­­ing mainly consisted of copying plaster casts of Greek and Roman models (thus shaping Blake’s neoclassical visual tastes, if not his literary ones), as well as prints of famous paintings. The young William was given an allowance by his father to build up a collection of prints and 29

divine images books, developing an appreciation of literature as well as art that was to have a lasting effect upon him. Blake’s lifetime saw a radical period of change across Britain, its colonies and Europe. In 1760 George iii was crowned king of Great Britain and king of Ireland, his accession being acclaimed by politicians of all parties, although political tensions and a perceived preference for the Tories would soon end that period of accord. Unlike his two predecessors, George iii spoke English as his first language and, although he would eventually become king of Hanover, he never visited the country of his forebears. The new king came to the crown during the Seven Years’ War, a global conflict between the powers of Europe that would end with British victories against France in 1763, but which also placed great strain upon the kingdom’s finances. What is more, those financial difficulties led to increasing tensions with the largest of Britain’s colonies across the Atlantic in North America, which would eventually boil over into full revolution. As well as immense, even catastrophic, change abroad, the United Kingdom itself was to be transformed during the reign of George iii. London grew relentlessly, containing more than a million inhabitants when the first census was conducted in 1801 – a very different place to the city of Blake’s childhood, when the capital was much smaller and more rural than it would become in the nineteenth century.

Apprenticeship and Marriage The young William’s attitude to school may be surmised from one of his later Songs of Experience, ‘The School Boy’: But to go to school in a summer morn, O! it drives all joy away; Under a cruel eye outworn, 30

Early Life and Work

The little ones spend the day, In sighing and dismay. Ah! then at times I drooping sit, And spend many an anxious hour. Nor in my book can I take delight, Nor sit in learnings bower, Worn thro’ with the dreary shower. (e31)

When taken to a potential schoolmaster, William Wynne Ryland, according to Gilchrist, young William had told his parents that the teacher had a face that ‘looks as if he will live to be hanged’ (Life i.13); that Ryland was indeed later hanged was seized upon by Blake’s biographer as an example of his prophetic talents. It is more likely the story was apocryphal but, in any case, his parents decided that his education would be better served by an apprenticeship when he was fourteen years old to James Basire, an engraver who lived at 31 Great Queen Street, near Covent Garden. Basire’s father had been an engraver, and his son and grandson would follow in their footsteps. While he worked for a number of clients, much of his most important work was carried out for the Society of Antiquaries, of which he was a member, and Blake’s apprenticeship from 1772 to 1779 established a lifelong love for history and antiquarianism. As Joseph Viscomi observes: ‘No printmaker before Blake had incorporated the tools and techniques of writing, drawing, and painting in a graphic medium, though the materials and tools were commonplace.’7 Blake’s education began in earnest with Basire, during which time he lived at the engraver’s home, as was common at the time, learning the style of line engraving as well as other techniques that would establish a trade by which he would be able to make a living. His parents had been sensible in their choice: recognizing their son’s artistic talents but also aware that painting 31

divine images was a risky career, they had provided him with what seemed a more secure route to explore his creativity. From the seventeenth century on, the explosion of print production had generated markets around Europe for reproductions of art and luxury goods, and such was the demand for prints that it was said that in cities such as Augsburg, engravers outnumbered bakers by the eighteenth century.8 While there were decidedly more bakers in London, it would still have seemed to the Blake family that the apprenticeship to Basire was a wise choice. The engraver was eminently respected and Blake learned a great deal from his master. As Mei-Ying Sung observes, the tendency to focus on Blake’s method of etching – drawing with an acid-resistant ink on copper plates with the exposed parts eaten away, a technique that we shall return to in following pages – tends to mean that the more exacting art of engraving is often overlooked and that it has ‘lost its golden age forever’.9 Using great skill and care,


Letter press printing in a print workshop, from Diderot’s Encyclopaedia (1763), intaglio engraving on paper.

Early Life and Work

An Account of Some Ancient Monuments in Westminster Abbey, in Vetusta Monumenta, vol. ii: The Figures supposed to be those of King Sebert and King Henry iii, 1780, intaglio engraving on paper.

the engraver would use a burin, a steel cutting tool, to carefully groove lines in a copper plate: the process was laborious and, as Sung observes from examining the 38 surviving copper plates engraved by Blake (mainly for the Book of Job), the artist would often have to resort to a form of repoussage, hammering the back of the plate to smooth its surface and so remove mistakes. At the time when Blake was work­­ing, most commercial engrav­­­ing was via this intaglio process or, alternatively, by scraping lines through a waxy varnish, with acid then eating the exposed copper plate before the lines were once more worked over and enhanced with the engraver’s burin. At an early age Blake seems to have demonstrated skill as a draughtsman and so was entrusted to make accurate copies and prepare sketches in Westminster Abbey for a commission on Richard Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments of Great Britain, which would be completed in 1786. The drawings that Blake produced show the early influence of medieval and Gothic art on his own style: for example, in the watercolour and pen sketches of the north front to the monument for King Sebert in Westminster Abbey, Blake captures the slender, elongated figures framed by ornate Gothic arches, an elegant piece that has long been recognized as Blake’s handiwork although the surviving copies bear the inscription of Basire. A more dramatic example of the influence of antiquarianism and the Gothic on Blake’s work, however, is to be found in the first engraving we have to bear his name: Joseph of Arimathea among The Rocks of Albion. 33

divine images Engraved by Blake ‘from an old Italian Drawing’, Blake includes the observation that ‘Michael Angelo pinxit’, that is, the Renaissance master painted the original. What Blake almost certainly saw was a copy of an engraving by Nicolas Beatrizet after the figure of Joseph painted on the walls of the Sistine Chapel.10 The idiosyncrasy of Blake’s engraving is to transfer Joseph from the Holy Land to ancient Britain, writing in a caption beneath the image: ‘This is One of the Gothic Artists who Built the Cathedrals in what we call the Dark Ages Wandering about in sheep skins & goat skins of whom the World was not worthy such were the Christians in all Ages’ (e671). This transferral to Albion was probably brought to Blake’s attention from his reading of John Milton’s History of Britain, in which the historian briefly noted that Joseph was meant to have travelled to Roman Britain, thus beginning a fascination with the earliest history of the British Isles that would be explored more fully in the epic poem Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion and the lyric from the Preface to Milton a Poem, better known today as the hymn ‘Jerusalem’. After completing his apprenticeship, Blake applied to be a student at the Royal Academy in June 1779, submitting a historical painting for exhibition the following May, The Death of Earl Goodwin. The importance of the Royal Academy was that it produced names – such as Henry Fuseli, Benjamin West and Angelica Kauffman – who are still recognized as significant artists today. Furthermore, it provided a variety of teaching and learning styles designed to appeal to a range of students beyond the typical upper classes. As Holger Hoock points out, the educational process offered at the Royal Academy followed the standard pattern of academies throughout Europe although, in contrast to them, tuition was free of charge.11 Emphasizing this opening up of the Academy’s purpose, its Summer Exhibition was one of the first open submission exhibitions in the world, providing a democratic 34

Early Life and Work

basis for the display of art that was profound in its implications for the development of British art.12 Entering into this institution, Blake’s choice of historical subjects corresponded to the tendency at the time to consider history as the height of the painter’s art, as demonstrated in famous productions such as James Barry’s King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia (1786). As part of his studies at the Royal Academy, Blake would have engaged in life drawing and copying plaster casts that were kept on display for the training of artists. Through such activities, Blake concentrated on what was seen as the ideal human form, which, from the mid-eighteenth century, was far removed from the slender forms he had copied in Westminster Abbey. Instead, the influence of classical and Renaissance art was everywhere, with muscular, naked torsos demonstrating a vision of harmony that was often held up as the height of artistic taste – even if it was far from the everyday experience of bodies in the streets of London. Joshua Reynolds, the Academy’s president, greatly emphasized the importance of the classical and Platonic ideal form as the most forceful way to convey power and majesty, as in the art of Michelangelo and Raphael; for all that he may have objected to Reynolds, Blake was clearly affected by this element of instruction at the Royal Academy, as evidenced in his early work. One such study, a sketch from 1780 for what would become known as ‘Albion Rose’ (or its erroneous older title from Gilchrist, Glad Day), a version of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, shows how Blake’s vision of the giant Albion as representative of the country was taking shape very early in his career. Another sketch, of a naked youth seen from the side, is a classical academic study of the type that would become even more familiar throughout the nineteenth century. It is beautiful, refined – and may not even be by William, although he took care to preserve it. William’s younger brother, Robert, also demonstrated an aptitude for art and was lovingly trained by his sibling. 35

divine images Although Blake left the Royal Academy shortly after en­­rolling, he made some of his longest-lasting friendships there, including John Flaxman and George Cumber­land, as well as an acquaintance with the artist Henry Fuseli. Born Johann Hein­rich Füssli in Switz­er­land, and most famous today for his Gothic painting The Nightmare, in 1779 Fuseli had taken up an extremely profitable commission to paint pieces for John Boydell’s Shake­ speare Gallery. Although they were not close friends in the same way that Blake was with Flax­­­­­­man and Cumberland, Fuseli reportedly told others that ‘Blake was damn good to steal from’. Amid such friendships, however, in 1780 London was in a state of turmoil. Following an Act of Parliament in 1778 to ease conditions for Catholics, Lord George Gordon, president of the Protestant Asso­ciation, stirred up popular sentiments against the Act when it finally came into effect two years later. June 1780 saw nearly a week of rioting, known to history as the Gordon Riots, during which participants defied the authorities during widespread looting and attacks on Newgate Prison and other buildings. According to Gilchrist, Blake himself was caught up in the events: That evening, the artist happened to be walking in a route chosen by one of the mobs at large, whose course lay from 36

A Naked Youth Seen from the Side, Perhaps Robert Blake, c. 1779–80, black chalk on paper.

Early Life and Work

Justice Hyde’s house near Leicester Fields . . . bound for Newgate. Suddenly, he encountered the advancing wave of triumphant Blackguardism, and was forced (for from such a great surging mob there is no disentanglement) to go along in the very front rank, and witness the storm and burning of the fortress-like prison, and release of its three hundred inmates. (Life i.35) The houses of rich Catholics were, unsurprisingly, attacked, but so were the Bank of England and the home of the Lord Chief Justice. The army was called out on 7 June and order was slowly restored over two days, during which time some 285 people were killed and many more injured before the ringleaders were arrested. Twenty-five of them were hanged; Gordon was charged with high treason but found not guilty. Rioting was far from uncommon in eighteenth-century London, but the events of the Gordon Riots went beyond normal incidents, the authorities clearly having lost control of the city for a brief period of time (an experience that would make them far harsher when dealing with future threats in the wake of the French Revolution). Even the former radical John Wilkes ordered his men guarding the Bank of England to open fire on rioters. Gilchrist presents Blake as an unwilling bystander in the riots, although the young man may have been swept up with the violent excitement of potential revolt, even as that same violence caused him to respond with horror throughout his life. The events of the Gordon Riots were dramatic but, as Gardner relates, the circumstances of the American Revolutionary War could create further dangers in London. Conflict had broken out in 1775 following a period of unrest caused by attempts to impose taxes upon the colonies (in part to help pay for the expenses caused in defending those colonies during the Seven Years’ War). Fighting began at Concord in April 1775, and though the British forces 37

divine images originally had the better of it, Dutch and French entry into the conflict sapped the United Kingdom’s ability to wage a long war of attrition, resulting in a peace treaty signed in Paris in September 1783. During this time tensions were greatly raised at home and it was probably in September 1780 that Thomas Stothard, who was to remain a friend until the end of Blake’s life, went on a sketching trip with William and his former fellow apprentice, James Parker. Sailing up the River Medway to Chatham, the trio anchored and began to draw the scenes around the military base at Upnor Castle. The troops there, suspecting them to be French spies, arrested the trio. Although they were soon released, in the late eighteenth century ‘authorities everywhere, not only in London, suspected that sketching pencils spelt treachery’.13 The most important change in Blake’s life, however, was neither involvement in rioting nor arrest for being a suspected spy; it was, rather, the beginning of his lifelong love with his future wife. Following an encounter with a young woman who called him a fool when he complained after seeing her with another man (which incident, wrote Gilchrist, cured him of jealousy), Blake lodged for a time in Battersea at the home of William Boucher (or Boutcher, according to Frederick Tatham). There he met Catherine Sophia, the youngest of nine daughters and four brothers, who later claimed to have instantly recognized her future partner as soon as she saw him.14 William and Catherine were married on 18 August 1782, a marriage that was to last for 45 years. As a member of such a large and relatively poor family, Catherine’s formal education appears to have been largely non-existent (she marked the parish register with a cross). Blake probably taught her to read and write, as well as drawing, engraving and the preparation of colours to help him in his work: throughout his career, Catherine was to provide invaluable help in preparing the printed works and during the early 1780s Blake was starting to receive his first commercial commissions. After the death of his father 38

Early Life and Work

in 1784, he started a print business with James Parker, marking one of the happiest – and certainly one of the most profitable – periods of his life.

Poetical Sketches and An Island in the Moon It was around the time of his marriage to Catherine that William was introduced to two figures who would enable his entry into the literary world, Reverend Anthony Stephen Matthew and his wife, Harriet, the latter of whom, as Gilchrist would later note in his Life, was a socialite and patron of the arts. Their house at 27 Rathbone Place drew musicians, artists and poets and it was at these gatherings, as Gilchrist later recorded, that Blake was supposed to have sung some of his early compositions. The Matthews were impressed enough by his singing to provide funds, after the solicitation of Flaxman, for the printing of his first collection of poems, called Poetical Sketches, which also included some of the juvenilia written in his early teens. Printed in 1783, the copies were made without binding and had had little in the way of proofreading, for Blake later corrected eleven copies in his own hand. This small print run disappeared entirely without notice during his lifetime, although William admired the work enough to give away copies in later years. The collection is divided into two main sections: the first, ‘Miscellaneous Poems’, consists of lyric poetry in the form of songs, eulogies and ballads; the second part includes an unfinished Shakespearean drama, ‘King Edward the Third’, as well as prologues to two further pieces, ‘King Edward the Fourth’ and ‘King John’, and the prose poems ‘The Couch of Death’, ‘Contemplation’ and ‘Sampson’. Unsurprisingly, considering he was still a teenager when he wrote a number of them, many of the works derive strongly from fashions of the day, although they are also a good indi­­cation of just how widely read in contemporary poets the young Blake 39

divine images was. The opening quartet of poems – ‘To Spring’, ‘To Summer’, ‘To Autumn’ and ‘To Winter’ – draw their theme and much of their style from James Thomson’s The Seasons, published from 1726 to 1730 and extremely fashionable in eighteenth-century England. Likewise, the ballads ‘Fair Eleanor’ and ‘Gwin, King of Norway’ demonstrate the influences of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the Norse and British poetry of Thomas Gray and the prodigy Thomas Chatterton, whose death by suicide at the age of seventeen in 1770 had made him a cause célèbre even as his poetry was increasingly denounced by those in the know as forgeries of verse in the medieval style. Blake was clearly familiar with such writers, as well as William Collins, whose Odes and Persian Eclogues had marked a turn away from the heroic couplets of Alexander Pope from the 1740s onwards, and Thomas Macpherson, whose ‘translations’ of the ancient Scots-Irish poet Ossian (actually forgeries like those of Chatterton) had made him one of the most famous writers across Europe. By writing in the style of such poets, Blake had indicated that he was fully aware of the popular poetical styles and tastes of his day. Yet Poetical Sketches is more than merely derivative, and one clue to the writers’ future progress is indicated in its most ambitious text: the unfinished play ‘King Edward the Third’. Doubtless Blake sought to establish his poetic and dramatic credentials by completing the work of Shakespeare: while The Raigne of King Edward the Third had been printed anonymously in 1596, it was not included in Shakespeare’s Folio edition and neither eighteenthcentury nor modern scholars believed it to be his work. By laying claim to a missing masterpiece (unlike Edward ii, which Shakespeare clearly avoided because Christopher Marlowe had made that tale his own), the young William was demonstrating considerable confidence in his own abilities, a confidence that was not always misplaced:


Early Life and Work

Here on the fields of Cressy we are settled, ’Till Philip springs the tim’rous covey again. The Wolf is hunted down by causeless fear; The Lion flees, and fear usurps his heart; Startled, astonish’d at the clam’rous Cock; The Eagle, that doth gaze upon the sun, Fears the small fire that plays about the fen; If, at this moment of their idle fear, The Dog doth seize the Wolf, the Forester the Lion, The Negro in the crevice of the rock, Doth seize the soaring Eagle; undone by flight, They tame submit: such the effect flight has On noble souls. Now hear its opposite: The tim’rous Stag starts from the thicket wild, The fearful Crane springs from the splashy fen, The shining Snake glides o’er the bending grass, The Stag turns head! and bays the crying Hounds; The Crane o’ertaken, sighteth with the Hawk; The Snake doth turn, and bite the padding foot; And, if your Majesty’s afraid of Philip, You are more like a Lion than a Crane: Therefore I beg I may return to England. (Scene 3: 111–33, e430)

In this long speech, through which Dagworth offers a clever turn of argument to convince Edward that apparent cowardice is actually a source of cunning, we see some of the subtle arguments that will be more pithily expressed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as well as echoes of phrases in The Book of Thel. More significantly, however, this is also the clearest indication of one source of Blake’s style: while the influence of Milton is, of course, profoundly felt throughout all of Blake’s works, in many respects it is Shakespeare who first serves as the 41

divine images source for his poetry. This is immediately apparent in his more conventionally printed poem The French Revolution, but it also informs, to give one example, the speeches of the American revolutionaries in America a Prophecy. Shakespeare’s dramatic output was about to undergo a huge revival in fortunes during the Romantic era and, with this early work, Blake demonstrates himself as very much at the forefront of late eighteenth-century poetic taste. And yet, remarkable as this pastiche of Shakespeare is, the most astonishing example of Blake’s immediate talent lies in some of the shorter lyrics, such as perhaps the most famous poem from the collection: How sweet I roam’d from field to field, And tasted all the summer’s pride, ’Till I the prince of love beheld, Who in the sunny beams did glide! He shew’d me lilies for my hair, And blushing roses for my brow; He led me through his gardens far, Where all his golden pleasures grow, With sweet May dews my wings were wet, And Phoebus fir’d my vocal rage; He caught me in his silken net, And shut me in his golden cage. He loves to sit and hear me sing, Then, laughing, sports and plays with me; Then stretches out my golden wing, And mocks my loss of liberty. (e412–13)


Early Life and Work

In this short song, four quatrains long, Blake vividly demonstrates some of the power that he will wield as the author of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The poem is almost perfect in its metre and rhythmic quality, offering a simplicity that is almost un­­­­paralleled in eighteenth-century verse. There is but one spasm of contemporary poeticism that Wordsworth, in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, would have denounced as ‘defective’: ‘Phoebus fir’d my vocal rage’ is the only example of this piece deviating from ‘the real language of nature’. In every other sense, this is something new in poetry of the period, as though the more direct speech of the Elizabethans had been revived by a young man, largely self-schooled in his understanding of poetry. As Bentley observes of the collection as a whole: ‘had he written nothing more, Blake would deserve our remembrance.’15 By contrast, most of Blake’s contemporaries would have probably agreed with Reverend Matthew’s prefatory comment that the ‘Sketches were the production of untutored youth’ (e846). Similarly, Allan Cunningham observed that while the non-dramatic poems were ‘rude sometimes and unmelodious’, they were also ‘full of fine thought and deep and peculiar feeling’ (cited in br 629). It was Gilchrist, however, who caught most fully the mood in which Poetical Sketches came to be seen by later Victorian readers: ’Tis hard to believe these poems were written in the author’s teens, harder still to realize how some of them, in their unforced simplicity, their bold and careless freedom of sentiment and expression, came to be written at all in the third quarter of the eighteenth century: the age ‘of polished phraseology and subdued thought’ – subdued with a vengeance. (Life i.23) Poetical Sketches represents a singular demonstration of Blake’s early talent, placing him as a talented successor to poets such as Gray, Collins and Chatterton. A different, unfinished work, 43

divine images however, places him in the context of the Augustan age of satire and the London of Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson. The opening to his manuscript comedy An Island in the Moon is among the most charming things that he ever wrote: In the Moon, is a certain Island near by a mighty continent, which small island seems to have some affinity to England. What is more extraordinary the people are so much alike their language so much the same that you would think you was among your friends. in this Island dwells three Philoso­ phers Suction, the Epicurean, Quid the Cynic, Sipsop, the Pythagorean. (e449) This group of philosopher friends, from whom later critics have identified Quid the Cynic as the alter ego of Blake, are joined by a small and thoroughly eccentric cast of characters, many of whom, such as Inflammable Gas the Wind Finder, are barely disguised caricatures of contemporary figures, in this case Joseph Priestley who in the 1770s had discovered oxygen or, as he called it, ‘dephlogisticated air’. It was William Doxey who first observed the similarities between the inhabitants of Blake’s island in the moon and members of the Lunar Society, a dining club and learned society in Birmingham that included Priestley and other luminaries, such as Josiah Wedgwood and James Watt, among its membership.16 The easy-going nature of the satire in An Island in the Moon, which gently mocks the salons of the Matthews as well as people such as Priestley, whom Blake actually admired in many ways, indicates a degree of comfort in Blake’s satire that is not often evident in his later works. His print business with Parker was going well, his marriage to Catherine a happy one, and the London of late 1784 had resolved to put aside the tensions of the war with America and concentrate on the business of daily life. Not that 44

Early Life and Work

the conditions of life in the capital were perfect. One feature of the manuscript, recognized very early on, was its role in the genesis of a number of poems that would later gain fame as his Songs of Innocence, including a draft of ‘Holy Thursday’: Upon a holy thursday their innocent faces clean The children walking two & two in grey & blue & green Grey headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow Till into the high dome of Pauls they like thames waters flow O what a multitude they seemd, these flowers of London town Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own The hum of multitudes were there but multitudes of lambs Thousands of little girls & boys raising their innocent hands Then like a mighty wind they raise to heavn the voice of song Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heavn among Beneath them sit the revrend men the guardians of the poor Then cherish pity lest you drive an angel from your door. (e462–3)

As Gardner observes, Blake’s humour is tempered by his ‘creative solicitude for children in distress’ and the conditions of the poor, a concern that was widely shared in the 1780s, not least by Priestley, who set up Sunday schools for deprived children in Clapham at this time.17 Even on an island in the moon, the poor are always with us. 45

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Early Career and Experiments in Printmaking On 12 August 1787 William was hit by a tragedy that affected him much more deeply than the death several years earlier of his father. His younger brother Robert, who had come to live with William and Catherine, succumbed to tuberculosis, leaving a sense of deep loss that the poet and artist would still feel much later in his life. It was following the death of Robert that Blake began to experiment with a new kind of etching process, what he would later refer to as stereotype printing in The Ghost of Abel (e272). Because of his interest in writing and producing his own designs, Blake sought to combine text and image without the expense of hiring additional typesetters. Relief etching – burning away the copper to leave behind raised lines in relief – was intended by Blake as a means of producing books more quickly. Typically, when employing etching techniques, the artist would cover the entire plate with acid-resistant varnish (also called the ‘ground’) before using tools to score or scratch lines through that varnish down to the plate. By covering the plate with nitric acid, or aqua fortis, the exposed lines would be eaten away, creating grooves in the plate that would hold ink while the level surface of the copper was cleaned for printing, a process reversed by Blake. Instead of covering the entire plate with a varnish or ground and cutting his design into it with engraver’s tools, he used the varnish like ink and the copper plate like a sheet of paper. Dipping his quill pen or fine pencil brush into the acid-resistant varnish, he wrote his text and drew his design directly on the polished surface of the plate, just as a writer would write out fair copy and as an artist would draw. All of the surfaces that were not protected were then corroded or eaten away by the acid, leaving raised lines that would be inked for printing.18 The whole process was described poetically by Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:


Early Life and Work

I was in a Printing house in Hell & saw the method in which knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation. In the first chamber was a Dragon-Man, clearing away the rubbish from a caves mouth; within, a number of Dragons were hollowing the cave, In the second chamber was a Viper folding round the rock & the cave, and others adorning it with gold silver and precious stones. In the third chamber was an Eagle with wings and feathers of air, he caused the inside of the cave to be infinite, around were numbers of Eagle like men, who built palaces in the immense cliffs. In the fourth chamber were Lions of flaming fire raging around & melting the metals into living fluids. In the fifth chamber were Unnam’d forms, which cast the metals into the expanse. There they were reciev’d by Men who occupied the sixth chamber, and took the forms of books & were arranged in libraries. (e40)

Here the various elements of preparation are alluded to metaphorically: the viper folding around the cave is acid eating away the copper plate, while the wings of the eagle refer to the feather used to brush away bubbles in the acid that can cause irregularities. John Jones points out that relief etching ‘would appear crude compared to regularized typesetting and intaglio line engraving’, something that did not appeal to conventional publishers. For Blake, however, the handmade look of his prints could also appear much more artistic than the ‘perfection attained through mechanization’.19 Joseph Viscomi, in Blake and the Idea of the Book, emphasizes just how important this process was to Blake, allowing him to 47

divine images compose freely on the plate rather than (as was previously thought) creating designs first on paper, which would then be transferred onto the copper: ‘While Blake often used tools of the printmaker in addition to the tools of the poet and painter, the initial design was executed like a pen and wash drawing.’20 Blake came to refer to this process as stereotype printing some time after 1820, but he said that the technique had actually been developed in 1788, the time that he was working on All Religions are One and There is No Natural Religion. Only one copy remains of All Religions are One. Held by the Huntington Library, it comprises ten small pages, some six by four centimetres in size, each of them combining illustrations with seven principles as follows: The Voice of one crying in the Wilderness The Argument As the true method of knowledge is experiment the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences. This faculty I treat of. principle 1st That the Poetic Genius is the true Man. and that the body or outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic Genius. Likewise that the forms of all things are derived from their Genius. which by the Ancients was call’d an Angel & Spirit & Demon. principle 2d As all men are alike in outward form, So (and with the same infinite variety) all are alike in the Poetic Genius principle 3d No man can think write or speak from his heart, but he must intend truth. Thus all sects of Philosophy are from the Poetic Genius adapted to the weaknesses of every individual principle 4 As none by traveling over known lands can find out the unknown. So from already acquired knowledge Man could not acquire more. therefore an universal Poetic Genius exists 48

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principle 5 The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nations different reception of the Poetic Genius which is every where call’d the Spirit of Prophecy. principle 6 The Jewish & Christian Testaments are An original derivation from the Poetic Genius. this is necessary from the confined nature of bodily sensation principle 7th As all men are alike (tho’ infinitely various) So all Religions & as all similars have one source The true Man is the source he being the Poetic Genius (e1–2) Some of this voice will become familiar in the tone of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell produced by Blake two years later: there it is transformed into the voice of the Devil, an implacable logic that refutes the common certainties of conventional religion. Important to what Blake considers the source of religion is ‘Poetic Genius’, that which the great Blake scholar Northrop Frye argues is synonymous with another term: imagination. Thus, for Blake, the reason why all religions are one is because all of them have their source in the imagination. This is an astonishing claim. Essentially, Blake is arguing that all religions are invented, manmade. Rather than being the same in terms of external appearance – ‘As all men are alike in outward form, So (and with the same infinite variety) all are alike in the Poetic Genius’ – religions may be one in their source (the poetic genius or imagination) but their forms are infinitely varied. This truly revolutionary claim is further supported by the accompanying work There is No Natural Religion. Eight copies survive, with different numbers of pages and ordered variously, but again combining image and text in a format that would be used regularly by Blake over the coming decades. It develops the argument offered in All Religions are One, drawing upon a common opinion of the Enlightenment that sought to explain the origins of religion in a historical fashion, one we would 49

divine images perhaps understand today as sociology. The technique had its origins in the Scienza nuova, or New Science, of Giambattista Vico, published in 1725. In this work Vico argues that myth and folklore came not from deities but were socially produced and structured responses to natural phenomena, a line of thinking that became increasingly familiar through works such as David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1776) and, later, William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802). While Blake sometimes appears to hold a position similar to these historians of natural religion, as in plate 8 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell where, as we shall see, he holds to religion as a human invention, throughout his life he remained constant in his opposition to natural theology, frequently referring to it as deism. For Blake, deism – which maintained that, in accordance with the dictates of reason, God must be a creator who then no longer intervenes in his creation – was the very worst of worlds as opposed to Leibniz’s assertion that it was the very best. The fundamental problem for Blake with regard to deism was that it reduced the human mind


There is No Natural Religion, Plate 1, frontispiece, c. 1788, relief etching on paper. There is No Natural Religion, Plate 9, relief etching on paper.

Early Life and Work

to a passive recipient of external stimuli, a tabula rasa that could do no more than respond to sense impressions. By contrast for Blake, ‘Mans perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception. he percieves more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover’ (e2). Imagination, or poetic genius, is the sign of man’s agency: as he put it pithily in The Marriage, ‘A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees’ (e35). While experimenting on works in relief etching, Blake also continued to produce commercial prints during the late 1780s. One such commission included a frontispiece for the English translation of the book Aphorisms on Man by the Swiss theologian Johann Caspar Lavater, published in 1788. Lavater, whose work is now largely unknown, was something of a celebrity in eighteenthcentury Europe. As Sibylle Erle observes, he was esteemed for his religious writings, although his new system of reading character via the face in his Essays on Physiognomy attracted opprobrium as well as sympathy.21 Blake produced a series of engravings for the Essays as well, having received the commission via Fuseli, who was friends with Lavater. Erle points out that the success of Lavater’s attempts to systematize human character was due to the rise in popularity of portraiture at the time, and while Blake rejected the attempts by Joshua Reynolds, the leading portraitist of the day and president of the Royal Academy, to define portraiture in terms of an idealized or generalized form of the subject, he appears to have adapted Lavater’s system. Rather than depicting the likeness of an individual, Blake’s subsequent art copied the imaginative form to reveal the character of a person.22 Blake thus largely ignores the pseudo-scientific approach of Lavater, which had already been discredited on the Continent, in favour of an aesthetic system of depicting the human form divine or infernal. Nonetheless, by adapting the Swiss physiognomist to his own system of archetypal representations, Blake appears to have held Lavater in high regard: on the front page of Aphorisms on Man he 51

divine images Rev. John Caspar Lavater, 1800, intaglio engraving on paper.

signed his name beneath that of the author’s and enclosed them both in a heart. If affection and friendship characterized Blake’s responses to Lavater, the final work of this early period to be considered here is very much an essay in anger, resentment and hatred. Throughout 1789 he worked on a dramatic poem, Tiriel, which although never published exists in a fair copy manuscript that is very different to the rougher notes of An Island in the Moon. Drawing upon Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare’s King Lear, Tiriel is 52

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the first of Blake’s prophetic books, its tone echoing the style of Old Testament books such as those dedicated to Ezekiel and Isaiah while also reflecting the rhythms of Macpherson’s Ossianic poetry. It tells the story of the Sons of Har and Heva, who revolted against and abandoned their parents, with Tiriel becoming a tyrant in the west and enslaving his own children. The poem begins when they have turned against him, with the now-blind Tiriel cursing his sons for the death of his wife, Myratana:

Tiriel Supporting the Dying Myratana and Cursing His Sons, c. 1789, pen and ink and grey washes on paper.

And Aged Tiriel stood before the Gates of his beautiful palace With Myratana once the Queen of all the western plains But now his eyes were darkned & his wife fading in death They stood before their once delightful palace & thus the Voice


divine images Of aged Tiriel arose that his sons might hear in their gates Accursed race of Tiriel behold your father Come forth & look on her that bore you. come you accursed sons. In my weak arms. I here have borne your dying mother Come forth sons of the Curse come forth. see the death of Myratana (e276)

The work, which was accompanied by twelve sepia drawings that were never etched by Blake, shows how even before his more famous works of the 1790s he was beginning to explore an allusive, mythographic style that would flourish in his illuminated books. There is a considerable irony in Swinburne considering Tiriel too difficult (or, indeed, silly), as much of Blake’s style derived from one of the most popular writers of his day. Macpherson’s Ossianic poetry was full of references to legendary figures that readers probably barely understood but still read in their thousands, as in this introduction to Fingal, Macpherson’s epic poem published in 1762: Cuthullin sat by Tura’s wall; by the tree of the rustling sound. His spear leaned against the rock. His shield lay on the grass by his side. Amid his thoughts of mighty Cairbar, a hero slain by the chief in war; the scout of ocean comes, Moran the son of Fithil! ‘Arise,’ said the youth, ‘Cuthullin, arise. I see the ships of the north! Many, chief of men, are the foe. Many the heroes of the sea-borne Swaran!’ – ‘Moran!’ replied the blue-eyed chief, ‘thou ever tremblest, son of Fithil! Thy fears have increased the foe. It is Fingal, king of deserts, with aid to green Erin of streams.’ – ‘I beheld their chief,’ says Moran, ‘tall as a glittering rock. His spear is a blasted pine. His shield the rising moon! He sat on the 54

Early Life and Work

shore! like a cloud of mist on the silent hill! Many, chief of heroes! I said, many are our hands of war. Well art thou named, the mighty man; but many mighty men are seen from Tura’s windy walls.23

Blake’s early works, prior to Songs of Innocence, are often dealt with in a very cursory fashion, but they provide an important insight into his later development as a poet and artist, as well as an indication of the social milieu in which he lived and worked. Texts such as Tiriel or artworks such as his engraving of Joseph of Arimathea among The Rocks of Albion are far more explicable when we place them in the contexts of antiquarian interests in the early history of the British Isles, or a public obsession with the forged epics of Ossian. Blake’s early poetry is very much part of the pre-Romantic period that produced poets less well-read today – Chatterton, Collins and Gray, as well as Macpherson – while his visual style derived from both his apprenticeship to James Basire and a fascination with the history painting that was widely available in London during the 1770s and ’80s. Relatively prosperous, happily married and still only in his early thirties, Blake was poised to begin a series of experimental books that would establish him as a far more original figure than his pre-Romantic contemporaries. These works, beginning with Songs of Innocence and The Book of Thel, would earn him lasting fame even as they failed to win him a more immediate audience and fortune.



Visions of Innocence


n his 1809 Descriptive Catalogue, an older and somewhat embittered Blake remarked caustically that the poetry of Chaucer ‘is a little difficult to him who has only blundered over novels and catchpenny trifles of booksellers’ (e539). This wry observation turned on the notion that difficult poetry was increasingly eschewed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in favour of sentimental fiction and Gothic horror. That Blake was not being entirely fair, as evidenced by the mass fame that Lord Byron would achieve a mere five years later, bears witness more to the fact that his own poetry had found little favour in the preceding decade than to the idea that the readership for poetry as a whole was declining. The comment, however, is also testimony to the transformations that had taken place in the book trade during the previous century, a trade that made possible Blake’s ambitions to become his own publisher, even if it did not provide him with fame and fortune during his own lifetime.

Songs of Innocence, Copy G, Plate 1, frontispiece, 1789, relief etching with pen and ink and watercolour on paper.

‘Novels and catchpenny trifles of booksellers’: The Eighteenth-century Book Trade The half century before Blake’s birth had seen the beginnings of a truly national book trade throughout England. While the 57

divine images industry was still very much centred on London, as John Feather observes, this was the period when it began to spread throughout the provinces, caused by a series of events set in motion by the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695. Until this time, printers could hope for no more than small and uneconomic markets outside of London, Oxford and Cambridge, but the failure to pass replacement legislation resulted effectively in an end to censorship. Not that the House of Commons’ refusal to renew the Act was an unmitigated success for London printers: publishers were concerned that the new liberty of the press would lead to a period of chaos as they were denied the crucial privilege of having sole rights to a particular work. For a period of time this led to what Feather called a potential ‘economic catastrophe’ as texts were widely pirated, a state of affairs that was eventually averted only with the Copyright Act of 1710.1 Nonetheless, despite these early fears, book publishing in the eighteenth century was to flourish in England as never before, and nowhere was the growth of this trade Thomas Rowlandson, The Author and his Publisher (Bookseller), 1784, watercolour and grey wash over graphite on paper.


Visions of Innocence Beggar’s Opera, Act iii, 1790, intaglio engraving on paper.

more in evidence than in the rise of the novel. The publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 established the public’s taste for sustained fictional accounts, a trend that was cemented by the publication of the first best-seller, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, in 1740. Richardson, who only turned to writing in his fifties, had built his fortune before that time as a printer and bookseller. After the success of Pamela and then Clarissa, no one could doubt that the eighteenth century was the age of the novel. Nor was publishing restricted to this format. One successful bookseller and publisher who became increasingly significant to Blake was Joseph Johnson. Born to a Dissenting family, in the 1760s Johnson set up business in London, primarily selling religious books. Over the next two decades he became more and more successful, befriending figures such as Henry Fuseli and Joseph Priestley, as well as issuing books by other religious dissenters such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld and philosophers such as Thomas Malthus. By 1770, months after a fire that had threatened to completely ruin him after it destroyed his shop, Johnson 59

divine images established himself at 72 St Paul’s Churchyard, the largest shop on a street of booksellers, where he was to remain until the end of his career. Offering a wide range of dissenting books, he became a major publisher in distributing nonconformist works around the country. In the 1780s he began to use Blake as an engraver and throughout the 1780s and ’90s his reputation as a publisher, especially of politically and theologically freethinking works, began to grow. His home became the centre for a group of radical thinkers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, although as Joseph Byrne remarks, the idea that Blake was a fully fledged member of this group, as is often assumed, is not necessarily supported by the evidence.2 Regardless of how well he knew the individuals who met regularly at Joseph Johnson’s house, the Johnson circle offered one route for Blake to make inroads into commercial print and book markets. It was in such circumstances that his method of relief etching, outlined in the previous chapter, offered him possible commercial advantages over traditional engraving methods. It enabled him to combine text and image without the expense of hiring typesetters to lay out the words of his books and, because he controlled every aspect of production, it allowed him to pursue highly idiosyncratic art forms. It used to be common to view such experimentation on Blake’s part as an act of deliberate opposition to profit, but his first major works to be printed using relief etching – The Book of Thel and Songs of Innocence – were produced to take advantage of a growing market for children’s books in particular. As Andrew O’Malley has demonstrated in his comprehensive book The Making of the Modern Child, children’s literature during the eighteenth century was greatly transformed, moving from simple chapbooks, aimed at semi-literate adults and children alike, to specialized texts produced for the sons and daughters of the middle and upper classes.3 Blake’s unusual education, as we have already seen, made him much less sympathetic to many of the 60

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pedagogical intentions of fellow writers. For him, as O’Malley has observed, childhood was linked to the plebeian as the potential site for revolutionary change,4 and if the full effects of the French Revolution had yet to be felt in his work, he nonetheless shared some of the underlying ideals that motivated the Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Emile; or, On Education. Blake’s method of illuminated printing was not to reinforce ignorance and compliance, but to unveil instead the human form divine in all children. For Songs of Innocence, Blake refined greatly the fairly crude experiments he had made for All Religions are One and There is No Natural Religion. Michael Phillips provides a comprehensive account of how Songs came to be composed and printed, observing that there are two surviving sources for some of his poems.5 One of these, the manuscript of An Island in the Moon, contained versions of ‘Holy Thursday’, ‘Nurses Song’ and ‘The Little Boy Lost’; the other, a copy of Poetical Sketches, contained an early version of ‘Laughing Song’ handwritten on the pages. At a later date, Blake also began to produce drafts of his poems that would become Songs of Experience, such as ‘The Tyger’, revising them until he was satisfied enough to prepare them for printing. Songs of Innocence has 31 plates, of which 22 surviving copies include all of the plates (and a further eight with only 27 plates when Blake moved ‘The Little Girl Lost’ and ‘The Little Girl Found’ to Songs of Experience). Some of these copies were printed posthumously, probably by Frederick Tatham, who befriended Blake towards the end of the artist’s life and cared for Catherine after his death. Blake had also taught Catherine how to print and colour the copies of the books they made together, both of them sharing the task of illuminating the prints.6 Viscomi observes that Blake had a very relaxed attitude towards his Songs, regularly moving poems between Innocence and Experience.7 By considering individual copies as part of print 61

divine images runs or editions, it is easy to see that there are distinct phases in the production of the Songs: for example, many of the early copies of Songs of Innocence produced in 1789 are hand-coloured with delicate washes, in contrast to the more vivid colour-printed versions of the mid-1790s and heavily hand-painted copies from the nineteenth century. According to Viscomi, while some choices made by Blake – such as the decision to completely change colours in some copies – are significant, others are not necessarily intentional on the artist’s part: not every printed copy is a unique version, but rather they are copy-editions, reflecting Blake’s attitudes to his Songs at different periods in his life.8 Blake’s hopes for his new printing techniques had been to create copies of books for children that could be sold in sufficient quantities to support him and Catherine, if not necessarily make his fortune. The process of creating his lavishly beautiful illuminated books, however, was such that few copies were distributed during his lifetime. Among the owners of the Songs were the English Swedenborgian and politician Charles Augustus Tulk, who lent his copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience to Coleridge. Other collectors included Thomas Butts and George Cumberland. Although she did not own a copy of the Songs, a fascinating insight into the milieu of early Blake collectors can be seen via Rebekah Bliss, who purchased a number of Blake’s works, including one that we shall consider later in this chapter: For Children: The Gates of Paradise. Bliss lived in a romantic partnership with another woman, Ann Whitaker. Rebekah and Ann were accepted quite happily into a London society that constantly denounced male homosexuality. By contrast, as Lillian Faderman has shown, passionate friendships with other women were a constant feature of the lives of many middle-class women in the eighteenth century, and Keri Davies has gone as far as to suggest that Rebekah, who appears to have struck up an acquaintance with Blake, may have been in part the inspiration for characters such as Thel and 62

Songs of Innocence, Copy F, Plate 29, ‘Infant Joy’, relief etching with pen and ink and watercolour on paper. Songs of Innocence, Copy L, Plate 5, ‘Infant Joy’, relief etching with pen and ink and watercolour on paper.

Visions of Innocence

Oothoon.9 It is an astonishing feature of Blake’s early works in the late 1780s and early 1790s – and in marked contrast to the mores that would prevail in the nineteenth century – that, while fundamentally believing in the innocence of children, he also believed such innocence to partake in an enlightened and liberated understanding of all forms of human sexuality and behaviour.

Songs of Innocence: Pastoral Visions When Blake began to work on Songs of Innocence, the market for children’s books had grown considerably but was still dedicated to teaching readers a conventional morality. Hannah More, writing at the end of the century, would observe that it was ‘a fundamental error to consider children as innocent beings’, and Andrew Lincoln observes that Blake ‘probably had little 63

divine images sympathy with the education aims of these books, or indeed with much of the children’s literature written for the polite market. But he seems to have known the market well.’10 Popular books throughout the eighteenth century, such as Isaac Watts’s Divine Songs (1715), were intended to provide moral instruction for children. Even liberal-minded writers such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld sought to improve readers in her Hymns in Prose for Children (1781), following the advice of John Locke who, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), had argued that the minds of children were blank slates and education must be carefully managed to create worthy citizens. To make them more appealing, children’s books were often illustrated with engravings or woodcuts, some even being coloured by the end of the century. Their designs created a familiar vocabulary of images: children playing, mothers with their young, sheep and shepherds. They emphasized the moral and religious nature of their compositions, but almost none of them drew attention to the special nature of childhood that Blake was to present, what Alexander Gilchrist called a ‘Golden Age’ (Life i.71). Perhaps the only exceptions before Blake’s Songs were the works by Christopher Smart, Hymns for the Amusement of Children (1770), and Sarah Trimmer, Fabulous Histories (1786), both of which were much less morally judgemental in their stance. The poems from Songs of Innocence are some of the simplest and clearest that Blake ever wrote, even if – as many commentators have remarked – such simplicity masks a piercing irony, as in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ or ‘Holy Thursday’. The themes that run through the collection, the relations of children to nature, the love of mothers for their children, the likeness of Christ to a child, are often straightforward and direct: while Blake could be a complex thinker, the reader should not always rush to look for hidden depths of meaning in a collection that truly was intended for children. There is plenty of time in life to view the world with the eyes of experience, as Blake would demonstrate again and again 64

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in his later poetry, but it is also important that we understand the perspective and perceptions of childhood. In this respect, some of his ideas would have been clearly familiar to those who followed Rousseau’s school of thought, who argued that malign society corrupted the true nature of children; although he would later show himself hostile to many elements of the Swiss writer’s philosophy, poems such as ‘The School Boy’ (itself from Songs of Experience) indicated considerable sympathy towards Rousseau: How can the bird that is born for joy, Sit in a cage and sing. How can a child when fears annoy, But droop his tender wing, And forget his youthful spring. (e31)

Blake is clearly at the forefront of those later Romantics, particularly Wordsworth, who would see something special in the time of childhood. Blake’s radicalism as a writer was often due not to his clear ability to perceive the injustices of experience, but rather his belief in the power and importance of innocence as a fundamental part of our humanity. Nelson Hilton has suggested that Songs of Innocence may be ‘imagined as a series of vignettes concerning the psyche’s birth into language’.11 Such a view is complicated, as he himself points out, by the varying order of different poems in different copies, so any pattern of a child’s growth and development must be inferred rather than explicitly stated. Nonetheless, certain poems such as ‘Infant Joy’, ‘The Lamb’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ do seem to move from a child incapable of speech to one who can invoke a simple, even pure, language – sometimes very much in contrast to their guardians. This entire progression can be viewed as the theme of the ‘Introduction’ that opens the collection:


divine images Piping down the valleys wild Piping songs of pleasant glee On a cloud I saw a child. And he laughing said to me. Pipe a song about a Lamb; So I piped with merry chear, Piper pipe that song again – So I piped, he wept to hear. Drop thy pipe thy happy pipe Sing thy songs of happy chear, So I sung the same again While he wept with joy to hear. Piper sit thee down and write In a book that all may read – So he vanish’d from my sight. And I pluck’d a hollow reed. And I made a rural pen, And I stain’d the water clear, And I wrote my happy songs Every child may joy to hear. (e7)

This entire poem moves from the inarticulate music of piping, which reflects the cheerful sound of the infant without language (from infans, one who does not speak), through to song and then writing. Critics such as Stephen Power perceive an ambivalence in this progression, from the simple innocence of the piper who then stains the ‘water clear’ to write his songs just as the Christlike child vanishes.12 Such a reading should not be pushed too far: the songs, after all, are happy ones that every reader ‘may joy to hear’, but 66

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the child in the clouds weeping as he hears a song about a lamb is also surely reminded of the story of the Paschal lamb and Christ’s sacrifice. Even at their simplest, Blake’s poems contain multitudes. It is also important to recognize Blake’s vibrant, even daring, fluidity of rhythm and metre. In the Songs he perfects the music evident in his earlier Poetical Sketches. This was an element of his poetry that appealed greatly to contemporaries such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, and Victorian commentators such as Alexander Gilchrist and Algernon Swinburne too recognized that much of the delight of the poetry is its musicality, for example in ‘Spring’: Sound the Flute! Now it’s mute. Birds delight Day and Night. Nightingale In the dale Lark in Sky Merrily Merrily Merrily to welcome in the Year (e14–15)

Perhaps because of its lack of semantic and symbolic complexity, ‘Spring’ has tended to attract less attention than many of the other Songs, but its simple pleasures of rhythm and rhyme demonstrate Blake’s virtuosity: the truncated metrical foot of the first eight lines is an iambic dimeter, the first, unstressed syllable being omitted in each line to create a more vivid effect, balancing the final, explosive word, driving home the sheer joy of the season. After a century dominated by the regularity of the heroic couplet and iambic pentameter (or, if a poet was feeling particularly adventurous, tetrameter), these short, joyful lines were truly radical, capturing in their rhythm the song and dance of a rejuvenated natural world. 67

divine images The Songs of Innocence brim with nature, which can appear odd considering Blake’s attacks on natural law and natural religion. As we shall see later, Blake considered nature (as defined by the scientists and moralists of his day) utterly unnatural. Kevin Hutchings has rightly criticized the commonplace view that Blake is a poetic adversary of nature, indicating just how much the lines and illustrations of his Songs are full of living creatures and natural settings in opposition to the materialist philosophies of Bacon, Locke and Newton.13 Throughout his life Blake’s work was often pastoral, and while he may only have lived fully in the country for a short period, when he and Catherine resided at Felpham, nonetheless late eighteenth-century London was a very different city to the one that it would become over the following hundred years. Although north London was becoming increasingly dirty and polluted, south of the Thames was still largely rural and, according to Stanley Gardner, Blake often took long walks to Peckham, Dulwich and Camberwell: ‘From Golden Square, Westminster Bridge led into the country.’14 Pastoral poetry was a popular form in the eighteenth century and Blake had already experimented with it in Poetical Sketches. Beginning with the Idylls of Theocritus in the third century bc, the pastoral was established as a classical genre via the highly influential Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil, passing into English poetry through works such as Edmund Spenser’s The Shepherd’s Calendar (1579) and Milton’s Lycidas (1637). Throughout the eighteenth century, many poets turned their hand to this type of poetry, as in Alexander Pope’s Pastorals (1709) and Thomson’s The Seasons (1730). As such, images of Arcadian fields and happy leisure away from the city were a familiar theme when Blake invoked them in verses such as ‘The Shepherd’: How sweet is the Shepherds sweet lot, From the morn to the evening he strays: 68

Songs of Innocence, Copy B, Plate 29, ‘The Lamb’, relief etching with pen and ink and watercolour on paper.

divine images He shall follow his sheep all the day And his tongue shall be filled with praise. For he hears the lambs innocent call, And he hears the ewes tender reply, He is watchful while they are in peace, For they know when their Shepherd is nigh. (e7–8)

These simple verses, written in a lilting, anapaestic metre, suggest the peaceful nature of the pastoral ideal. Nicholas Marsh suggests that there is some uncertainty in the poem, hinting as it does at the fear of the sheep when their shepherd is not nigh,15 yet this should not be overstated: its clearer meaning is to emphasize the Christian imagery of Blake’s poetry – for, unlike even the most Christian of his eighteenth-century forebears, as a poet he looks less to the classical tradition of the pastoral than the JudaeoChristian tradition of the Psalms and New Testament proverbs. The role of the shepherd reminds us of Christ as the good shepherd, who ‘giveth his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11), and this implicit religious symbolism is made explicit in ‘The Lamb’: He is called by thy name, For he calls himself a Lamb: He is meek & he is mild, He became a little child: I a child & thou a lamb, We are called by his name. (e9)

Divine Innocence The classical tradition of pastoral poetry had frequently been associated with sexual love, but the love of Songs of Innocence is the love between parent and child, or child and the natural world. 70

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In ‘The Lamb’, as in ‘The Little Boy Lost’ and ‘The Little Boy Found’, as well as ‘The Divine Image’, it is the love of the father for his children that is most clearly expressed, as in the convention of Christian love from God the Father towards his creation. And yet, more often than not, it is maternal love that is given primacy. The Little Boy poems, full of anxiety as they are, were later transferred to Songs of Experience, but this ambivalence is completely missing in Innocence when it is a mother’s love for her child that is the subject of Blake’s poetry. In ‘The Little Black Boy’, for example, the verses begin with the speaker’s relation to his mother: My mother taught me underneath a tree And sitting down before the heat of day, She took me on her lap and kissed me, And pointing to the east began to say. Look on the rising sun: there God does live And gives his light, and gives his heat away. And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive Comfort in morning joy in the noon day. (e9)

The end of the poem transfers this love to God the Father, but several critics have noted an ambivalence within those final lines and the illustration: both children may be freed from their black and white clouds, yet it is on the little white boy that Christ stares more intently. Upon his mother’s lap, by contrast, the speaker receives God’s love equally with all flowers, trees, beasts and men. The protective, nurturing role of mothers is evident in many other poems in the collection. ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, for example, begins ‘When my mother died I was very young, / And my father sold me while yet my tongue, / Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep’ (e10). Paternal love can be fickle, but that of the 71

divine images mother is constant and requires no explanation in Innocence, as when a mother sings ‘A Cradle Song’ to her child: Sweet dreams form a shade, O’er my lovely infants head. Sweet dreams of pleasant streams, By happy silent moony beams. (e11)

This sustaining maternal love may become complicated in the later Songs of Experience, but throughout Songs of Innocence it is not viewed cynically or critically. The importance of innocence to Blake cannot be emphasized enough. While many of his fellow radicals succumbed to the despair of cynical experience after the collapse of their earlier hopes, Blake’s belief in the importance of innocence kept his radicalism alive. An example of how such belief in innocence endures – while at the same time being very much aware of the exploitative conditions of the society of his day – is to be found in one of the most famous of the poems from Songs of Innocence, ‘Holy Thursday’: Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean The children walking two & two in red & blue & green Grey headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow O what a multitude they seemd these flowers of London town Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands


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Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door (e13)

In the early eighteenth century a tradition began in which charity school children would attend a special service at St Paul’s Cathedral. As Gardner points out, these children were not destitute, nor rescued from the ‘lowest order of poverty’, but rather came from the families of the ‘deserving poor’.16 It has been estimated that as many as six thousand of them had attended the ceremony by the time that Blake saw it at St Paul’s, although it did not actually take place during Easter week. The services were an opportunity to educate the children and for them to express their thanks, and Gardner observes that it was more of a festival than a strictly disciplined procession. From this not unfamiliar sight, Blake has created one of the most exemplary verses in the entire Songs, and it is worth noting that part of the arresting effect of this poem comes from its metrical form. While couplets were common in eighteenth-century verse, Blake’s long fourteener lines (that is, fourteen syllables rather than the more common ten syllables of pentameter) were not. Like many of the songs included in the earlier Poetical Sketches, Blake seemed to take particular delight in experimenting with forms that had last been commonly used during the Elizabethan period. Here the fourteeners create a slow, stately rhythm, making the pace of the poem gentler; as Gardner observes, Blake’s intention is not at all satirical – rather, in the careful pacing of this poem the poor children of London are as elegant and noble as any prince or statesman. David Fairer believes that in this particular poem ‘Blake’s texts lose their innocence more easily than most’, while Andrew Lincoln argues 73

divine images that ‘the exuberant tone of the poem is to some extent modified by a sense of anticlimax’,17 but it is a mistake to assume any sarcasm on Blake’s part to the ‘wise guardians’ watching over the ‘flowers of London town’. That the final moral of the poem seems sentimental to modern readers draws attention more to our cynicism: Blake, seeing a multitude of children in the cathedral, was filled with awe at the sight, even as he recognized (and the version of ‘Holy Thursday’ in Songs of Experience makes this very clear) the terrible social conditions that made such poverty possible. Again and again in Songs of Innocence, Blake uses apparently familiar motifs of eighteenth-century verse written for children, whether pastoral themes or the love of a mother for her child, yet the aim and tone of his poetry is radically different, sometimes deceptively so. The underlying break between the Songs and much of what was published during his lifetime becomes very clear in one of his most beautiful pieces, ‘The Divine Image’: To Mercy Pity Peace and Love, All pray in their distress: And to these virtues of delight Return their thankfulness. For Mercy Pity Peace and Love, Is God our father dear: And Mercy Pity Peace and Love, Is Man his child and care. For Mercy has a human heart Pity, a human face: And Love, the human form divine, And Peace, the human dress.


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Then every man of every clime, That prays in his distress, Prays to the human form divine Love Mercy Pity Peace. And all must love the human form, In heathen, turk or jew. Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell, There God is dwelling too. (e12–13)

Upon first reading, this poem seems very familiar from generations of Christian devotional verse, its pronouncement that God is love apparently no different to hymns such as Charles Wesley’s ‘Stupendous love of God most high!’, first published in 1780. However, as Andrew Lincoln and others have pointed out, the fundamental, startling difference between Blake’s poem and the hymns of his contemporaries is clearest when considering the following lines from Isaac Watts’s ‘Praise for the Gospel’:

overleaf: Songs of Innocence, Copy L, Plate 10, ‘Holy Thursday’, relief etching with pen and ink and watercolour on paper. Songs of Innocence, Copy F, Plate 25, ‘The Divine Image’, relief etching with pen and ink and watercolour on paper.

Lord, I ascribe it to thy Grace And not to Chance, as others do, That I was born of Christian Race, And not a Heathen, or a Jew.18

Watts published his Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children in 1715, and many of the hymns promise justice and retribution for those who fail to follow the message of God’s word. ‘Praise for the Gospel’ ends with the promise that Gentiles and Jews will ‘in judgement rise’ against the speaker if he does not keep God’s law. In ‘The Divine Image’, by contrast, there is no mention of God’s anger or retribution (just or otherwise), only the constant refrain that God is mercy, pity, peace and love. Lincoln suggests that Blake’s hymn asserts that all religions have 75

divine images the same emotional basis, but also that all religions are essentially Christian. There is no reason to doubt that Blake may have believed this, but the poem does not state this quite as clearly as Lincoln suggests. It ascribes, rather, the simple belief that God is a series of gentle virtues, nothing more than this, and it is easy to see how this Song of Innocence could be adapted by certain types (though by no means all) of Muslim, Hindu, Pagan or various other creeds. In All Religions are One (1788), Blake had written that ‘The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nations different reception of the Poetic Genius which is every where call’d the Spirit of Prophecy’ (e1). And this is where Blake’s poem reveals its radicalism. God is not something separate to man, but revealed entirely within and through man: it is the human face and human heart that demonstrates to us the reality of divinity. Rather than a metaphysical presence behind this world, we encounter God whenever we experience (or, indeed, demonstrate) the virtues of mercy, pity, peace and love. While these are familiar Christian virtues, their choice is significant: it would be very easy to conceive a God based on righteousness, or obedience, but these are far from Blake’s conception of the human form divine. In his later works, particularly the epic poems Milton and Jerusalem, Blake was to identify this tendency to self-righteousness as the Moral Law, and to ascribe it as a spiritual condition closer to the Devil than to Christ.

The Book of Thel Around the time that Blake was completing his Songs of Innocence, he began a new work that would introduce a very different tone to his poetry, both in terms of its poetic metre and also the subject matter, which was a foretaste of some of the mythological themes that would dominate his illuminated books from the 1790s onwards. While it may have been radical in some of its suggestions, 78

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overleaf: The Book of Thel, Plate 2, title page, 1789, relief etching with pen and ink and watercolour on paper. The Book of Thel, Plate 3, relief etching with pen and ink and watercolour on paper.

Innocence was clearly recognizable as a collection of lyric poetry that would have been familiar to many readers in the eighteenth century, and while the tone of The Marriage was startling, it was at least in a spectrum of religious polemical pamphlets and texts dating back at least to the time of the English Civil War. The Book of Thel, however, in its gentle form introduces a new way of story­ telling, one that Blake was experimenting in with an unpublished manuscript poem, Tiriel, at the same time that he composed the eight plates of Thel. The plot, what there is of it in The Book of Thel, is extremely slight. Thel, a shepherdess and a virgin, is troubled by her own sense of mortality, so that the apparently idyllic Vales of Har, where she lives under the auspices of Mne Seraphim (who appears nowhere else in Blake’s work), begins to take on the dimensions of a prison to her. As such, she seeks out various creatures in the valley, seeking some answer to her questioning lament: O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water? Why fade these children of the spring? born but to smile & fall. Ah! Thel is like a watry bow. and like a parting cloud. Like a reflection in a glass. like shadows in the water. Like dreams of infants. like a smile upon an infants face, Like the doves voice, like transient day, like music in the air; Ah! gentle may I lay me down, and gentle rest my head. And gentle sleep the sleep of death. and gentle hear the voice Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time. (1.6–14, e3) All the flowers and elements she encounters are unable to provide a suitable response until the ‘matron Clay’ summons her beneath 79

divine images the earth, promising her something more definitive and assuring her that she will not come to any harm – immediately at least. Accepting her invitation, Thel descends into the land of the dead, where she sees them fixed within fibrous roots, until finally she encounters her own grave. There she is given an answer at last: Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction? Or the glistning Eye to the poison of a smile! Why are Eyelids stord with arrows ready drawn, Where a thousand fighting men in ambush lie? Or an Eye of gifts & graces, show’ring fruits & coined gold! Why a Tongue impress’d with honey from every wind? Why an Ear, a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in? Why a Nostril wide inhaling terror trembling & affright. Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy! Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire? (6.11–20, e6)

Thel’s reaction to this is to run with a shriek from the grave back to safety in the Vales of Har: however claustrophobic those valleys may seem, what lies beyond this life is very much worse, as both those epic heroes, Odysseus and Aeneas, realized when they descended into the lands of death to consult with prophets there. What makes The Book of Thel so unusual is not merely a profoundly philosophical – and, it must be said, adult – understanding of sexuality and death in what may be read as a children’s book, but the style and form in which it was told. Blake had already begun to experiment with his wonderful form of illuminated printing with Songs of Innocence, but in addition he adopts an unusual metre in Thel as well as increasingly strange symbolic creatures. Thel is the first of Blake’s books to use extensively the long fourteener line. This was a verse form that had been relatively common from the medieval period until the 82

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The Book of Thel, Plate 7, relief etching with pen and ink and watercolour on paper.

sixteenth century, when a preference for iambic pentameter in the work of Shake­speare and Milton, along with the occasional alexandrine (twelve-syllable) line in Spenser’s poetry, had meant that the fourteener had become increasingly overlooked. Blake’s own use is loose, with lines typically between eleven and fourteen syllables in length, but his deployment of that metre allowed him to convey a slower, more weighty effect in his verse. He would next use the form in The French Revolution and then throughout most of his illuminated books. As well as the unusual poetic form, Thel is also the first indication that Blake was considering a new style of mythological thinking in his work. In The Book of Thel it is perhaps best seen as a text on the brink of Blake’s full mythology: the young shep­ herdess speaks to animated creatures – a lily, a cloud, a worm, a clod of clay – that are unusual in terms of the animation attributed to them, but which would have been familiar to readers of Pope’s The Rape of the Lock or Shake­speare’s A Mid­ summer Night’s Dream as part of the supernatural ‘machinery’ of a poem, spirits that live among us and are made visible by the poet. Yet previous writers almost always tended to work within an established mythos, whether Chris­tian or pagan, and those few that did not, such as the inventions of Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, clearly intended their satirical inventions to look ridiculous. The Book of Thel, however, is our first introduction to Blake’s style of world creation, which will become increasingly important 83

divine images throughout the 1790s. The indications that some new process is at work are subtle, consisting of little more than two names. Mne Seraphim is only mentioned once, but alludes to a more occult world behind the apparently simple pastoral of Thel’s world. S. Foster Damon thought the name a misspelling of ‘Bne Seraphim’, or the sons of the seraphim angels.19 More significant, because repeated more frequently, are the Vales of Har themselves. In Tiriel, composed alongside The Book of Thel, Har and his wife Heva sit beneath an oak ‘like two children’ (2.5, e277), although it is made quite clear that this is a sign of their increasing senility rather than some happy state of innocence. Har and Heva appear again in The Song of Los and The Four Zoas, occupying only minor roles but clearly established as the parents of mankind who were restricted and diminished, as when Los and Enitharmon gave ‘Law and Religions to the sons of Har binding them more / And more to Earth’ (The Song of Los, 4.4, e68). At the same time that he was composing what would become some of the most famous children’s poetry ever written in Songs of Innocence, Blake was also weaving the complex fabric of his personal mythology.

Stories for Children By the time that Blake had completed Songs of Innocence and The Book of Thel, Joseph Johnson had published the first edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life. The first edition of 1788 sold well enough for Johnson to decide to release a second version in 1791, for which he commissioned Blake to prepare a series of illustrations. Of the eleven produced by Blake (of which ten are still extant), Johnson then selected six to be engraved, which were also included in the third print run of 1796. Johnson’s friendship with Wollstonecraft was such that in 1787 he had found her accommodation at 49 George Street. He had taken 84

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Original Stories from Real Life, 1796, intaglio engraving on paper.

sympathy on his new protégée when she had confessed to him her sense of ‘despair and vexation’ that she would not be able to take care of her sisters as well as herself. Wollstonecraft feared that she would need to return to her previous grim existence as a governess, having been devastated by the death of her friend Frances Blood in 1785.20 It was during this period that she first met William Godwin (although the two of them were, initially, somewhat disappointed in each other) – as well as beginning her infatuation with Henry Fuseli – and she would work on her writings and studies during the day before visiting Johnson’s house for dinner each day. It was after publication of Original Stories from Real Life that she went on to write her much more famous A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which Johnson published in 1792. That work, written in response to Talleyrand’s assertion to the French National Assembly that women should only receive a domestic education, would have a profound influence on Blake in the 1790s, but there is some evidence that he was perhaps less than impressed with Original Stories. Wollstonecraft wrote the book to provide a model of moral education to teachers and pupils that would ‘fix principles of truth and humanity on a solid and simple foundation’.21 As such, the book consists of a series of conversations between Mrs Mason – a thinly veiled alter ego of Mary herself – and two children of wealthy parents, Mary and Caroline, whose upbringing has taught them ‘every prejudice that the vulgar casually instill’. Through these 85

divine images conversations, the two girls learn how to deal with emotions such as anger, the true dignity of character and the proper treatment of animals. While Mrs Mason was truly horrified by the ‘wanton cruelty’ of people who mistreated such creatures, there was also a great deal of the Enlightenment ideologue about her, as when she instructs Mary and Caroline of mankind’s innate superiority to animals, which ‘have not the affections which arise from reason’.22 Despite – or, indeed, because of – her best intentions, there is something intrinsically Urizenic about Mrs Mason, who can be viewed as a more benevolent version of Blake’s rationalist despot. As well as a frontispiece depicting Mrs Mason with her wards, Blake’s five illustrations show scenes of domestic life and, in one instance, his fascination with traditions of bardic music in the figure of a Welsh harper included in Chapter xiv. One particular illustration, however, demonstrates the gulf between illustrator and author: Chapter xxiv relates the visit to a poor family in London, who are reduced to extreme distress as the father is made unemployed and unable to find further work: They ascended the dark stairs, scarcely able to bear the bad smells that flew from every part of a small house, that contained in each room a family, occupied in such an anxious manner to obtain the necessaries of life, that its comforts never engaged their thoughts. The precarious meal was snatched, and the stomach did not turn, though the cloth, on which it was laid, was died in dirt. When to-morrow’s bread is uncertain, who thinks of cleanliness? Thus does despair increase the misery, and consequent disease aggravate the horrors of poverty!23 We are very far here from the simple virtues of Songs of Innocence, yet Blake was clearly as aware of such circumstances of extreme poverty in London. What is very different is his attitude to the poor 86

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themselves: as we have already seen, Blake rarely neglects an opportunity to depict the poor with a sense of their own dignity – or, indeed, as in ‘The Little Vagabond’ from Songs of Experience, to raucously reject middle-class definitions of virtue. In Wollstone­ craft’s Original Stories, by contrast, the dereliction of the poor becomes an opportunity not only for charity but for moral instruction: tellingly the line that Blake decided to illustrate for this chapter was ‘Economy and self-denial are necessary in every station, to enable us to be generous, and to act conformably to the rules of justice’, and, according to Dennis Welch, he would parody some of the attitudes of Original Stories in Songs of Experience.24 Despite the charity of these well-meaning children, it is impossible not to read the story and feel that Wollstonecraft considered the filthiness and indigence of the poor a condition at least partly of their own making. Even among radicals and liberals, then, the temptation to moralize was strong, making the achievement of Songs of Innocence even more profound. Nor was this a one-off event for Blake: shortly after he sent his engravings to Johnson for Wollstonecraft’s book, he completed a remarkable little book of emblems, For Children: The Gates of Paradise, in 1793. At this time he was living in Lambeth and listed Johnson on the title page as co-publisher (although there is little in the way of evidence that Johnson ever sold the book). Unlike the majority of his illuminated books, this delightful piece is not an example of relief etching but intaglio engraving: scenes with delicate cross-hatched shading that would have been familiar in style from children’s books at the time. What seems much less familiar to a reader today is the strange subject matter of those eighteen plates: the frontispiece depicts a child wrapped in a chrysalis as a caterpillar climbs on a leaf above it, with the single inscription ‘What is Man!’ beneath it. Other plates depict the elements of air, water, fire and earth in human form, striking poses – in particular for Fire – that will become very familiar in Blake’s 87

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later works. One of the most famous illustrations from this little book shows the moon in the sky with a group of figures looking on while one of their number reaches up to rest his ladder on the crescent, accompanied by the simplest yet most poignant of human cries: ‘I want! I want!’ Blake returned to these astonishing images at the end of his career, providing them with the more ambiguous title For the Sexes, along with the following enigmatic prologue: Mutual Forgiveness of each Vice Such are the Gates of Paradise Against the Accusers chief desire Who walkd among the Stones of Fire Jehovahs Finger Wrote the Law Then Wept! then rose in Zeal & Awe 88

For the Sexes (For Children): The Gates of Paradise, Plate 1, title page, composed 1793, copy c. 1826, intaglio engraving on paper. For the Sexes (For Children): The Gates of Paradise, Plate 11, ‘I want! I want!’, intaglio engraving on paper.

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And the Dead Corpse from Sinais heat Buried beneath his Mercy Seat O Christians Christians! tell me Why You rear it on your Altars high (e259)

These lines, written towards the end of 1793 and then included in the version printed by Blake in 1818, demonstrate some of Blake’s intentions with the collection of strange, surrealist pictures. As Joseph Salemi has observed, while many critics have been unable to comprehend the very brevity of these pages, The Gates of Paradise is best seen in the tradition of emblem books, collections of allegorical images that were popular in the sixteenth and seven­teenth centuries, and which drew their inspiration from Aesop’s Fables and Plutarch’s Lives. While the poetry of such books was, as Salemi points out, frequently banal and the allegorical connections between image and meaning tedious, Blake’s take on this familiar form is subtle and intriguing. Rather than simple, moral didacticism, The Gates of Paradise was meant to lead its readers to an understanding of the human condition, to understand the limits of mortality not as fatalism, but as the opportunity to transform the world by imagination.25 In the sphere of children’s literature, both traditional Christian doctrine and the new Enlightenment morality inspired by John Locke tended to view the capacity of the human soul in limited terms. For both, the task of the child was to obey – whether God or the dictates of the material world. In perhaps his most remarkable work, completed shortly after he had printed Songs of Innocence, Blake was about to turn upside down all the conventions of morality, religion and politics as he sided with the devils against the angels.



A New Heaven Is Begun As a new heaven is begun, and it is now thirty-three years since its advent: the Eternal Hell revives. And lo! Swedenborg is The Angel sitting at the tomb; his writings are the linen clothes folded up. Now is the dominion of Edom, & the return of Adam into Paradise; see Isaiah xxxiv & xxxv Chap: Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason . . . Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell. (e34)

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Copy H, Plate 1, frontispiece, composed 1790, printed 1795, relief and white line etching, handcoloured on paper.


he Marriage of Heaven and Hell, published in 1790, is one of the strangest and most remarkable books ever written. Although little noticed during Blake’s lifetime, it has also become one of the most important of his works to writers as varied as Algernon Charles Swinburne, Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie, whose books have been greatly influenced by its astonishing ideas and rhetoric. The Marriage began as a pamphlet denouncing the system devised by the eighteenth-century mystic and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg, but it quickly developed into a much 91

divine images more radical assault on the conventions of religion, politics and morality, as well as providing ironic critiques of the theology of Milton and the Bible. Blake’s idiosyncratic, unsettling style and his resolution to write in the voice of the Devil was also a response to the drama of the French Revolution, a time when the entire world appeared to have been upended, when the conventions and certainties of Europe became less certain.

‘The Commons convene in the Hall of the Nation’ [A]bove all, it was not reason that created the French Revo­ lution. Man is only great when he acts from the passions; never irresistible but when he appeals to the imagination.1 At the time Blake was working on Songs of Innocence, France – and, indeed, all of Europe and much of the world – was in the early stages of being turned upside down. A century of new political ideas that had emerged from the Enlightenment, the example of the American War of Independence (in which many French soldiers had served), disastrous levels of debt and econ­ omic mismanagement, agricultural failure and rising levels of social and political inequality had made the most powerful nation in Europe effectively ungovernable. The decline of the ancien régime, the system of absolutist monarchy established most effectively by Louis xiv in the seventeenth century, had been in decline throughout the latter part of the eighteenth century. Support for American rebels had been a rare instance in which France had been able to bloody England’s nose, but the cost of that war had rendered the already unstable system of French finances – in which the wealthiest members of the country all but evaded taxation – untenable. Successive Comptroller-Generals, Jacques Necker and Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, attempted to reform the tax system, but when they failed Louis xvi called a meeting 92

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of the Estates General in May 1789, the assembly to represent the three estates of the country: nobility, clergy and commoners. It was the first time that the Estates General had been called since 1614, and by this means Louis and Calonne hoped to bypass the parlement of Paris, whose noble members were resisting his reforms. The royal edict of 24 January 1789 promised to address the grievances of the people, with elections taking place in spring of that year. It appeared as though the malaise that had gripped the country would finally come to an end, heralding a new dawn, as Wordsworth would later write: Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy! For mighty were the Auxiliars, which then stood Upon our side, we who were strong in love! Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven! – Oh! times, In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways Of custom, law, and statute, took at once The attraction of a country in Romance! When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights, When most intent on making of herself A prime Enchantress – to assist the work Which was then going forward in her own name!2

This enthusiasm, reflected in the words that begin this section, which have been drawn not from Blake but from Benjamin Disraeli in his 1844 novel Coningsby, would become a defining feature of what later generations would recognize as Romanticism – and, within a few short years, would also cause many of those Romantics such as Wordsworth himself to despair. His extract, as printed in his 1815 Poems, is titled ‘French Revolution, as it appeared to enthusiasts at its commencement’. By the end of the Napoleonic 93

divine images James Gillray, The National Assembly Petrified/ The National Assembly Revivified, 1792, etching, hand-coloured on paper.

Wars, Wordsworth, like many of his generation, was no longer an enthusiast. In 1789, however, those in England who recognized that something was changing in France were largely sympathetic. If France was finally calling its national assembly, then this surely meant that it was following the constitutional lead of England. A 94

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sour note came from Edmund Burke, who wrote (to the surprise of some, considering his support for American independence) in Reflections on the Revolution in France: To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide; it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government; that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.3 Burke himself had written in August 1789 with something approaching admiration for the French people, but the violence that was spreading across the country caused him to refrain from further approval. The immediate cause for Burke’s Reflections was a sermon by Dr Richard Price, A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, in which Price compared the French Revolution to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which James ii had been banished as king. During the summer of 1789, the Estates General had dissolved itself, forming instead a National Assembly the better to represent the will of the people. In the weeks following the storming of the Bastille, this had abolished the feudal rights of nobility and clergy. Blake himself would write in The French Revolution an encomium to this remarkable state of affairs: For the Commons convene in the Hall of the Nation. France shakes! And the heavens of France Perplex’d vibrate round each careful countenance! Darkness of old times around them Utters loud despair, shadowing Paris; her grey towers groan, and the Bastile trembles. (e286)

Yet while Blake was an enthusiast who, according to Gilchrist, wore the bonnet rouge, or red cap, of liberty – at least before the events of 95

divine images the September Massacres – some premonitions of the later terror were already stalking France. Rumours of counter-revolution led peasants and townspeople throughout the countryside to mobilize themselves, giving rise to what later historians called ‘the Great Fear’ and peasant uprisings against the feudal regime, which Burke saw as a bulwark of order against anarchy. Burke’s defence of the ancien régime, in which he mingled rhetorical love of a passing chivalric age with political commentary on the new situation, prompted the pen of another major political figure who had been on the same side during the American war. Thomas Paine published the first part of Rights of Man in March 1791 as a direct riposte to Burke. Over the following months it was estimated that a million copies of the book were in circulation, meaning that Paine’s arguments for the reform of the British


James Gillray, French Liberty – British Slavery, 1792, etching, hand-coloured on paper.

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government entered into a wide discussion among reformers, dissenters and democrats. Burke saw that his own Whiggish principles did not correspond with those of the ‘New Whigs’ who had succumbed, in his opinion, to the siren call of Paine’s words. Those New Whigs included his friend Charles Fox, leading to a break between the two men in June 1791. By that year Britain would be in a state of political foment that, while not as extreme as events in France, would lead to a threat of revolution that continued in fits and starts into the nineteenth century. In the months following the first meeting of the Estates General, however, Blake’s own early enthusiasm for the French Revolution was also mingled with his experience of finding – and then rejecting – a new faith, one that had failed to create the new heaven it promised: Swedenborgianism.

Swedenborg and the New Church Emanuel Swedenborg was a remarkable figure in eighteenthcentury Europe, a man of Enlightenment and science who also established a new church dedicated to his particular type of mysticism. His father, Jesper Swedberg, was a pious man who would later become Bishop of Skara. Jesper’s own beliefs included the importance of communication with God as well as the presence of angels and spirits in everyday life, beliefs that would become factors in his son’s religious system. Born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1688, the young Swedberg went to university in Uppsala and, upon completing his degree in 1709, travelled throughout western Europe, remaining in London for four years before returning to Sweden in 1715 to work on scientific and engineering projects. By 1719 Emanuel was ennobled like his father, the family name having been changed to Swedenborg. Throughout the 1720s Swedenborg concentrated on his scientific and technical work, being offered the chair of mathematics 97

divine images at Uppsala (a post he declined), but it was in the 1730s that his attention turned to religious and philosophical subjects. In works such as De infinito (On the Infinite, 1738–40), Swedenborg attempted to reconcile scientific and religious world views in order ‘to show that God in natural philosophy is the same as God in Christianity’,4 a stance that shared some elements with the rationalism of deism although, unlike deists, Swedenborg did not believe that the creator of the universe did not intervene in his creation. In 1743, having requested permission to travel abroad to gather materials for another scientific book, he began to experience strange dreams and, a year later, had abandoned his scientific study and instead devoted himself to understanding the nature of the divine. He published The Worship and Love of God the following year, later resigning from his post at the Board of Mines to devote himself to biblical studies. In his final years until his death in 1772, Swedenborg travelled between Stockholm, London and Holland, writing a number of theological works that expounded his new theological system. In The Last Judgment in Retrospect, he claimed that the Last Judgement had begun in 1757 (the year of Blake’s birth) and that it had been a spiritual judgement, God having seen that the churches had lost their true purpose. His last book, Vera Christiana religio (The True Christian Religion), was completed in 1770, the year after which he suffered a stroke during a visit to London and was buried at the Swedish church in Shadwell. In an entry in his Spiritual Diary for 27 August 1748, Swedenborg wrote that he would have ‘five sorts of readers’: the first type would reject his writings entirely, the second would take interest in them as curiosities, the third would accept them intellectually but not be influenced by his ideas, the fourth would change some of their behaviour in accordance with his teachings, and the fifth type would ‘receive [these teachings] with joy and [be] confirmed in them’.5 Some, such as the Bishop of Gothenburg, condemned them outright, believing them to be tinged with 98

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‘Mohammedanism’, but others among his early followers, such as C. F. Nordensköld and Thomas Hartley, considered Swedenborg’s system to be a necessary corrective to the failings of the Church. During his lifetime Swedenborg had relatively few followers because he was unwilling to proselytize. Where he did attract followers, this itself brought difficulties, particularly in Sweden where prominent Swedenborgians such as Johan Tybeck, a Luth­ eran minister, were persecuted for their adherence to his teachings. His influence gradually spread through Europe, however, and as George Trobridge observes, it was in England that his ideas found most acceptance (and where his influence has proved most lasting).6 John Clowes, rector of St John’s church, Manchester, translated Swedenborg’s works into English and by the 1780s a small group of enthusiasts gathered regularly to discuss the mystic’s works, including William Cookworthy, a Quaker, and John Augustus Tulk, the father of Charles Augustus Tulk who was a patron of Blake. Because of their relative isolation in these early years, Sweden­ borg’s followers often formed societies to discuss his works. Nordensköld established the Exegetic Philanthropic Society in Stockholm after Swedenborg’s death, and by the late 1780s a ‘Society of the Friends of Peace’ had formed in Rouen. His doctrines were even taken up in Moscow and Constantinople.7 The most significant development, however, took place in London on 5 December 1783. At the Queen’s Arms Tavern in St Paul’s Churchyard, six people – John Augustus Tulk, Peter Provo, Thomas Spence, William Bonington, Henry Peckitt and Robert Hindmarsh – established a ‘Theosophical Society’ to discuss and promote the doctrines of the ‘New Jerusalem’ through activities devoted to translating and disseminating Swedenborg’s works.8 Among the names of early sympathizers with the project were the engraver William Sharp and Blake’s friend John Flaxman. The discussions that took place among these theosophists included 99

divine images those on the wisdom of establishing a new Church to consolidate Swedenborg’s teachings, and there was considerable disagreement among his followers. Clowes, for example, who had done so much to make Swedenborg’s works available in England, vehemently rejected any notion that there should be a break from the established Church of England. The New Church, or New Jerusalem Church, remained small in terms of membership, but it continued to spread throughout the English-speaking world (helped in no small part by Clowes, who set up the Swedenborg Society in 1810, for all that he opposed an ecclesiastical organization). In America, the spread of Swedenborgianism was helped by the missionary work of John Chapman, more popularly known as Johnny Appleseed, who preached the New Church gospel alongside the nurseries that he cared for. Blake had begun reading Swedenborg’s works in the 1780s, annotating his own copies of Heaven and Hell (1784) and Divine Love and Divine Wisdom (1788). As such, he received a general invi­­t­­ation sent in late 1788 that invited sympathetic readers to a conference, the purpose of which was to establish a Church based on Swedenborg’s teachings. At the meeting, which both William and Catherine attended in Great Eastcheap, all participants were asked to sign the following paper: We whose Names are hereunto subscribed, do each of us approve of the Theological Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, believing that the Doctrines contained therein are genuine Truths, revealed from Heaven, and that the New Jerusalem Church ought to be established, distinct and separate from the Old Church.9 A manifesto of 32 resolutions, including the rejection of the notion of the Trinity and a separation from the ‘Old Church’, was accepted unanimously. Bentley suggests that although Blake must 100

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have agreed to these resolutions at the time his attitude quickly became ambiguous, then openly hostile. He never attended the New Church itself, and within a year he was satirizing Swedenborg­ ianism in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Yet while The Marriage is Blake’s most sustained commentary on Swedenborg’s teachings, it is not his final word on the subject. In Milton a Poem, he describes the Swedish mystic as ‘strongest of men, the Samson shorn by the Churches’ (Milton 23.50, e117), and in his solo exhibition of 1809 he cited the Swedish mystic favourably as inspiration for his painting The spiritual Preceptor, an experiment Picture.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell According to Robert Rix, the general appeal of Swedenborg at the end of the eighteenth century was his apparent ability to explain occult material ‘scientifically’, and for some of his followers this became a social gospel that combined radical Christianity and politics.10 While Blake took issue with Swedenborg’s analytical approach, as well as finding that elements of the Christianity and politics of him and his followers were not radical enough, it is important to note that he adapted as well as attacked Sweden­ borgianism. Joseph Viscomi argues that plates 21 to 24 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell were originally composed as a separate pamphlet aimed at the New Church before Blake developed it into a much more ambitious project:11 I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise; this they do with a confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning: Thus Swedenborg boasts that what he writes is new; tho’ it is only the Contents or Index of already publish’d books A man carried a monkey about for a shew, & because he was a little wiser than the monkey, grew vain, and conceiv’d 101

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himself as much wiser than seven men. It is so with Swedenborg; he shews the folly of churches & exposes hypocrites, till he imagines that all are religious. & himself the single One on earth that ever broke a net. Now hear a plain fact: Swedenborg has not written one new truth: Now hear another: he has written all the old falshoods. And now hear the reason. He conversed with Angels who are all religious, & conversed not with Devils who all hate religion, for he was incapable thro’ his conceited notions. Thus Swedenborgs writings are a recapitulation of all superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime, but no further. Have now another plain fact: Any man of mechanical talents may from the writings of Paracelsus or Jacob Behmen, produce ten thousand volumes of equal value with Sweden­ borg’s. and from those of Dante or Shakespear, an infinite number. But when he has done this, let him not say that he knows better than his master, for he only holds a candle in sunshine. (Plates 21–2, e42–3)

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Copy H, Plate 15, relief and white line etching, handcoloured on paper.

As it is not clearly indicated on its title page, for some time there was considerable confusion as to when Blake published The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, with scholars selecting dates between 1790 and 1793 according to contextual hints that they sought within the text. It is now accepted that Blake completed all 27 plates in 1790 and that most extant copies come from this time, although he produced three more in the mid-1790s and two richly coloured versions in 1818 and 1827. As the editors of the William Blake Trust/ Tate Gallery edition of the book have observed, the overall effect of this mashup of revolutionary political, religious and philosophical themes is frequently disconcerting and always entertaining: 103

divine images The Marriage, provocative, mocking, sexy, pushy, and playful, bristles with . . . rebellious optimism. Its gumption is never exposed as bravado, and, although it hammers mercilessly on Emanuel Swedenborg and his ‘angelic’ followers, the mockery is never disillusioned but youthfully, cheerfully antagonistic to foolish conventionality.12 S. Foster Damon called it a ‘scrap-book of Blake’s philosophy’, while Michael Ferber thought it a ‘structureless structure’ and Martin Nurmi argued that the book ‘developed according to no traditional logic or plan’.13 One attempt to escape the formal impasse offered by the book was to label it as a ‘Menippean satire’ after the works of the Greek cynic and parodist Menippus of Gadara, whose works are necessarily fragmentary because they only remain as citations in other authors. Although it defies the logic of normal literary structures, there is a remarkable similarity of tone of voice throughout The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, with a mocking lightness of touch that motivates Blake’s use of dynamic contraries: attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate and, of course, heaven and hell. For a truly dynamic system, Blake argues that the opposing elements of human experience must engage equally with each other, although his attempts to avoid hierarchy ultimately fail in a text that, perhaps for the first time in the history of English literature, knowingly places itself on the side of the devils. Despite the difficulties created by the form of The Marriage, some coherence is provided by thematic consistencies as well as repeated formal motifs. As Howard suggests, there is an infernal philosophy to the book and it does have ‘a unity, though it escapes the reader at first’.14 The clearest example that there is not a complete absence of formal structure is by the repeated series of Memorable Fancies, which comprise a substantial part of The Marriage. The precise incidents recounted in each – whether 104

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dining with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, for example, or witnessing an angel and devil conversing over the true nature of Jesus – may vary, but there is an unusual coherence in the joyful anarchy of each episode. The first of these is offered as a short prologue to another recurring form throughout the work, that of the Proverbs of Hell: As I was walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity. I collected some of their Proverbs: thinking that as the sayings used in a nation, mark its character, so the Proverbs of Hell, shew the nature of Infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings or garments. When I came home; on the abyss of the five senses, where a flat sided steep frowns over the present world. I saw a mighty Devil folded in black clouds, hovering on the sides of the rock, with corroding fires he wrote the following sentence now percieved by the minds of men, & read by them on earth. How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five? (e35)

Many of the individual proverbs that follow, such as ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,’ or ‘Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion,’ have become famous in their own right, easily detached from their context in The Marriage. They take their source from biblical proverbs such as those found in Ecclesiastes, but their tone is far from conservative, and perhaps only Nietzsche’s aphorisms have ever approached Blake’s in terms of disturbing boldness. In its final two lines, this Memorable Fancy, as Blake refers to his short pieces of imaginative prose, also introduces an important 105

divine images theme of the work, the transformation of perception that Blake expects from the act of reading: as he more famously expressed it, ‘if the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.’ (e39) Throughout the eighteenth century a common notion of perception and experience had developed from John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), which argued that the human mind was originally a blank slate, a tabula rasa, which responded to external stimuli in the process of creating thoughts. For Blake, this philosophy rendered the mind too passive, a closed cave of human senses that could only be illuminated by the external world: Blake unfolds the cave, opens up the abyss so that the bird becomes an ‘immense world’ when understood by the imagination. Rather than the operation of transcendent reason organizing passive sense impressions, active imagination proceeds from the desires of the body. This idea had been first formulated as the idea of ‘Poetic Genius’ in All Religions are One, and is expressed in a similar form in that Memorable Fancy where the poet sits down to dinner with Isaiah and Ezekiel: I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert. that God spake to them; and whether they did not think at the time, that they would be misunderstood, & so be the cause of imposition. Isaiah answer’d. I saw no God. nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in every thing, and as I was then perswaded. & remain confirm’d; that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences but wrote. Then I asked: does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so? He replied. All poets believe that it does, & in ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed mountains; 106

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Copy H, Plate 21, relief and white line etching, handcoloured on paper.

divine images but many are not capable of a firm perswasion of any thing. (e38–9)

As such, the form and structure of The Marriage is designed to compel this perception of the infinite in everything, the ‘firm perswasion’ that it is imagination that shapes the world rather than vice versa. Blake’s point is polemical and contentious – deliberately so – but the important point here is that by refusing the conventions of an orderly narrative, the support of rational, organized, and also restricted thought, the book brings reason to the abyss of senses so that by falling into the precipice at the edge of rational thought it will be forced to take flight, for ‘No bird soars too high. if he soars with his own wings.’ (e36)

The Devil’s Party While Blake’s Marriage may have begun life as an antiSwedenborgian pamphlet, it very quickly transformed into a much more wide-ranging satire as the events of 1790 unfolded. David Erdman was one of the first critics to trace in detail the connection between The Marriage and the events of the French Revolution, although unfortunately the fact that he dates its composition between 1790 and 1793 means that he frequently looks for allusions that are simply not there, seeing the final ‘Song of Liberty’, for example, as a celebration of ‘the casting out of French monarchy and the rout . . . of Brunswick’s starry hosts’ at the end of 1792.15 By contrast, if we view Blake as being inspired into a new way of thinking by the progress of the Revolution in 1789–90, it is possible to understand more profoundly what Eaves, Essick and Viscomi recognize as the optimism of his diabolic support for what was taking place in France. After the meeting of the Three Estates in 1789 and the formation of a new National Assembly at 108

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the end of that year, which brought with it the promise of potential republicanism or at the very least constitutional monarchy, the Revolution was largely still in its benevolent phase. Certainly, there had been the Great Fear of the summer of 1789, which betokened the potential tyranny that would come, but the brief fits of violence that occurred, such as the storming of the Bastille, could still be presented as part of the progress of France towards enlightened government. Feudalism had been abolished and in May the Assembly had even renounced any involvement in wars of conquest. With the exception of Edmund Burke, few suspected that the Revolution itself would lead directly to despotism, and even he could not have realized just how bloody the Terror would be when it was unleashed in 1793. As such, Blake’s Marriage is a joyful manifesto, one which celebrates fully the revolutionary fervour that had exploded in France. Announcing himself as being of the Devil’s party, he launched into radical visions with an exuberance that rapidly disappeared from his illuminated books as the decade progressed. Although Blake had originally sought to mock the tenets of a fashionable but still slightly obscure sect in London, he quickly expanded his vision to politics, religion and philosophy, easily sweeping in literary giants such as Milton. In tone and style, if not always in content, the source of the various errors that Blake seeks to attack is a mistaken understanding of the relations between body and soul that he outlines on Plate 4: All Bibles or sacred codes. have been the causes of the following Errors. 1 That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul. 2 That Energy. calld Evil. is alone from the Body. & that Reason. calld Good. is alone from the Soul. 109

divine images 3 That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies. But the following Contraries to these are True 4 Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that calld Body is a portion of Soul discernd by the five Senses. the chief inlets of Soul in this age 5 Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is The bound or outward circumference of Energy. 6 Energy is Eternal Delight (e34) The origins of good and evil lie in religions and the errors of their sacred codes, fundamental to which is the separation of soul and body, the latter being repressed in the service of the former. However, religious folly, which denies the true nature of humanity by denying the body, is also served by philosophy. Since Plato’s division of reason from appetite, at least, philosophy had been complicit in the error of dualism and this is an important area in which Blake distinguishes himself from Enlightened anti-religious commentators: Cartesian dualism may have been an extreme version, but to Blake most if not all Enlightenment philosophers had mistakenly deposed a theistic god, only to replace him with deistic reason, which was equally effective in repressing the desires and energy of the body, forgetting the origins of intellectual life that lay in those desires: The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could percieve. And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country. placing it under its mental deity. 110

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Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood. Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales. And at length they pronounced that the Gods had orderd such things. Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast. (e38)

Much of what Blake writes here would not look entirely out of place in the works of Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume, Voltaire, Pierre Bayle or Constantin Volney, but Blake’s attitude to perception creates an important distinction from them: to the philosophes, reason operates upon the faculties of sense as a higher order, ordering and categorizing sense impressions. For Blake, by contrast, the role of energy and imagination as the animating motivation of such systems of categorization (whereby poets placed cities and countries under mental deities) returns the desires of the body to the highest capabilities of which humanity is capable. Blake’s final statement, that ‘All deities reside in the human breast’, can be read as remarkably close to atheism; however, it is more accurate to emphasize that in this and his other works he emphasizes again and again the divine nature of humanity. God is a creation of imagination, and Blake appears to have no problem with conceiving of man as the creator of God. Man’s mistake is to apotheosize his reason, abstracting a system of mental deities as separate from the material world and projecting it onto the heavens. Plate 11 explicitly attacks priestcraft, denounced by many Enlightenment philosophers as that scheme by which God was removed to the heavens from where he could still meddle in human affairs. The radical nature of Blake’s critique is that ultimately he sees little difference between such abstraction and that 111

divine images of the philosophers themselves, who removed the divine entirely from the universe and, through deism, contented themselves with a prime mover which, like Newton’s pantocrator, established an immutable system of nature that imposed upon the passive perception of mankind. Both priest and philosopher forgot that all divine energy resides in the human breast, not in an abstract out there, whether heaven or the origin of the universe. While The Marriage began as a counter-argument to Sweden­ borgianism, as the events of the French Revolution unfolded Blake himself seemed to engage in a more profound argument with the most famous of revolutionary English writers, John Milton. On plates 5 and 6, Blake provides a summary of his response to Paradise Lost that has become one of the most famous readings ever to have been made of that epic poem, which is even more remarkable considering its brevity: Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling. And being restraind it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire. The history of this is written in Paradise Lost. & the Governor or Reason is call’d Messiah. And the original Archangel or possessor of the command of the heavenly host, is calld the Devil or Satan and his children are call’d Sin & Death But in the Book of Job Miltons Messiah is call’d Satan. For this history has been adopted by both parties It indeed appear’d to Reason as if Desire was cast out. but the Devils account is, that the Messiah fell. & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss This is shewn in the Gospel, where he prays to the Father to send the comforter or Desire that Reason may have 112

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Ideas to build on, the Jehovah of the Bible being no other than he, who dwells in flaming fire. Know that after Christs death, he became Jehovah. But in Milton; the Father is Destiny, the Son, a Ratio of the five senses. & the Holy-ghost, Vacuum! Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it (e34–5)

It is important to note that, as with Swedenborg, Blake’s comments on Milton in The Marriage do not represent his whole opinion of the poet, which was much more complex throughout his later poems and illustrations to Milton’s work. If, as Lucy Newlyn points out, Milton is more important in Blake’s works after the return to London from Felpham then his concerns have also deepened, for he saw that ‘the classicist had won out over the Hebrew prophet’,16 impairing Milton’s poetic craft and corrupting it to the service of war. While being aware, then, that Blake’s response to Milton is much more complex than the few lines from The Marriage cited previously would indicate, there remains a pugnacious attitude that runs through all his references to the poet. Although much more receptive to Milton’s revolutionary credentials than many writers of the eighteenth century, Blake had little time for the hagiography that had attended the epic creator of Paradise Lost. The irony of the rebuke to one who could only write at liberty when writing of the Devil’s party should not be forgotten (after all, this is not Blake’s voice, but that of the Devil); it is also quite clear from Milton a Poem that Blake does not regard Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost. However, the remark in The Marriage draws attention to the unconscious energies of Milton’s work and seems especially perceptive insofar as it highlights the repressed 113

divine images features of the poet’s life: the pamphleteer of political liberty could also serve a republican dictatorship, the theological freethinker ended with a vision of God as predestinarian tyrant, and the biblical prophet was seduced by the possibilities of neoclassical militarism. Aside from occasional notices of sale, there was little in the way of response to The Marriage in Blake’s lifetime, and if his original intention of provoking a reaction among Swedenborgians met with any success there is no record of it. Of those later acquaintances such as John Linnell and Samuel Palmer who read the book, they left few comments and the reason why may be gathered from a letter that Palmer sent to Anne Gilchrist in 1862, in which he recommends she censor the text: I think the whole page at the top of which I have made a cross in red chalk would at once exclude the work from every drawing-room table in England. Blake has said the same kind of thing to me; in fact almost everything contained in the book; and I can understand it in relation to my memory of the whole man, in a way quite different to that roaring lion the ‘press,’ or that red lion the British Public.17 Anne did, in the end, allow substantial portions of The Marriage to be published in her husband’s Life of William Blake, although with very little in the way of critical commentary, remarking instead in the second edition that ‘the student of Blake will find in Mr Swinburne’s William Blake, A Critical Essay, all the light that can be thrown by the vivid imagination and subtle insight of a poet on this as on the later mystic or “Prophetic Books”’ (Life i.78). Swinburne himself declared The Marriage ‘the greatest of all his [Blake’s] books: a work indeed which we rank as about the greatest produced by the eighteenth century in the line of high poetry and spiritual speculation’18 and, in contrast to the majority 114

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of nineteenth-century commentators, saw the variety and audacity of its paradoxes, heresies and eccentricities as examples of Blake’s writing at its most profound.

The French Revolution The Marriage ends with a ‘Song of Liberty’, a prophecy that concludes with the line: ‘Empire is no more! and now the lion & wolf shall cease’ (e45). During the early months of 1790, as he was concluding this remarkable work, it must have indeed seemed that the old order was coming to an end. On 19 May the National Assembly completed the task begun when it had removed feudal rights by abolishing the nobility and, in July, introduced a civil constitution for the clergy, dismantling two of the pillars of the Ancien Régime. Power now resided in the commons, an act that turned the monarchies of Europe and the papacy more fully against the Revolution. This was, as Peter McPhee has called it, the period of ‘the Revolution triumphant’.19 In England, attitudes to events across the Channel largely ranged from optimistic to indifferent, so much so that Burke’s fellow Whigs largely considered his warnings alarmist in 1790. While Burke considered his Reflections a defence of ‘Old’ Whig principles established in the Glorious Revolution of 1788, plenty of pamphlets from English radicals and dissenters quickly appeared to refute his support of the old order. Thomas Jefferson probably spoke for many when he remarked: ‘the Revolution in France does not astonish me so much as the revolution in Mr Burke.’20 The most important rebuttal came, of course, from Thomas Paine. Rights of Man carried the subtitle ‘Being an Answer to Mr Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution’, and it was addressed to George Washington as a project to continue the advance of the rights of man that had begun during the American War of Independence. Paine’s attack on Burke was direct and to the point: 115

divine images When the French Revolution broke out, it certainly afforded to Mr Burke an opportunity of doing some good, had he been disposed to it; instead of which, no sooner did he see the old prejudices wearing away, than he immediately began sowing the seeds of a new inveteracy, as if he were afraid that England and France would cease to be enemies. That there are men in all countries who get their living by war, and by keeping up the quarrels of Nations, is as shocking as it is true.21 Paine’s twisting of Burke’s defence of more conservative constitutions against revolution into a desire to maintain enmity between Britain and France is untrue – of which Paine himself was probably aware. His words also had the most profound effect on Blake, who would echo them over a decade later when he wrote in the Preface to Milton a Poem, ‘believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying’ (e95). Joseph Johnson had contracted to publish Rights of Man in February 1791 but quickly transferred the project to Jeremiah Jordan of Fleet Street. Why Johnson suppressed his own printing of Paine’s work is not immediately clear: sedition laws were passed after publication of Rights of Man, and though Johnson would eventually be tried and imprisoned that did not take place until 1798. John Bugg’s observation that ‘it is notable that Johnson was able to stay out of jail for as long as he did’ may indicate an incipient sense of self-preservation that would serve him well for most of the ensuing decade.22 The notion that events in France would be increasingly difficult for English radicals may have also affected his involvement with another project of Blake’s, the poem The French Revolution. This manuscript, only one copy of which remains in the Huntingdon Library, bears on its title page the information that it was printed in 1791 for J. Johnson at the price of ‘One Shilling’. It is only the second conventionally typeset version of Blake’s 116

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works after Poetical Sketches, and although it was conceived as a project in seven books, only the first of these is extant, with no evidence that Blake ever wrote the rest. William Richey has rightly pointed out that the tendency of early critics to treat the book purely as a backdrop for his evolving personal philosophy is incorrect and that, rather, it should be treated in the immediate contexts of late 1790 and early 1791, when a number of radical writers published works attacking Burke’s conception of the revolution in France.23 As with Paine, Blake sought to provide an overview to his contemporaries of the events taking place over the Channel, via poetry rather than prose in this particular instance, and what remains of the poem focuses on the early incidents in the summer of 1789. The long, septenary lines of The French Revolution create a slow, sombre effect, and the verse is clearly intended to present as heroic the actions of the early participants in the Revo­ lution. Unlike Blake’s later work of the 1790s, with the partial exception of America a Prophecy, this book is concerned entirely with contemporary figures from the time: the poem opens with Necker approaching the king when he is summoned, and the work is full of references to familiar names such as the dukes of Burgundy and Orleans, or Abbé Sieyès and Mirabeau. While the metre is an unusual one, some of its style would not be unfamiliar to other radical poets from the period, such as Robert Southey who, in 1796, composed his epic Joan of Arc on themes similar to those of Blake’s. While The French Revolution should by no means be treated as a workshop for the later prophetic books, it does invoke ideas that Blake would return to again and again throughout his artistic career, as in the following opening lines: Hear, O Heavens of France, the voice of the people, arising from valley and hill, O’erclouded with power. Hear the voice of vallies [sic], the voice of meek cities, 117

divine images Mourning oppressed on village and field, till the village and field is a waste. For the husbandman weeps at blights of the fife, and blasting of trumpets consume The souls of mild France; the pale mother nourishes her child to the deadly slaughter. (e295)

At this point, as indeed throughout much of the poem, Blake’s immediate concerns are for the poor and the dispossessed. Also, while his opinions of the Revolution would change as it entered its darker phase (though he, unlike Southey, Wordsworth or Coleridge, would never renounce his earlier support), Blake appears to have been generally consistent in terms of his pacifism. The lines above certainly refer to the crop failures that had affected France, but also to the consequences of war, announced by the ‘blasting of trumpets’. Perhaps only America offers a possible defence of revolutionary violence – and even that, as we shall see in the next chapter, was at best ambivalent; in all other circumstances, Blake’s art and poetry denounced war in all its forms. The French Revolution offers an insight into the development of Blake’s poetic forms and styles. While agreeing entirely with Richey that the poem should be seen within the immediate contexts of responses to Edmund Burke, it also provides us with clues as to how Blake’s later prophetic form emerged. The long line of The French Revolution, with its seven beats employing either anapaests or iambs, is a complement to the fourteener line that Blake was already experimenting with and which would become a familiar element of his later work. The poem also dem­on­­strates how Blake’s use of Shakespearian form in Poetical Sketches was now developing into something more unique to him, combining Shake­speare’s elevated language with a highly metaphorical and symbolical style of writing that mythologized revolutionary figures just as he would later mythologize Orc, Urizen and Los. 118

A New Heaven Is Begun

Furthermore, if The Marriage of Heaven and Hell carried within it the exuberant energy of the early months of the Revolution, the sombre tone of the later poem, while viewing events in France in a wholly positive light, appeared to presage the darker experience of the coming years that would utterly transform Blake’s work.



Lambeth and Experience


Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Copy F, Plate 39, ‘London’, colourprinted relief etching with pen and watercolour on paper.

n 1791 the Blakes moved from their residence in Poland Street to 13 Hercules Buildings in Lambeth on the other side of Westminster Bridge, where they settled in what would be their home for nearly ten years. This was a two-storey house with a garden at the front and back, located near Lambeth Vale which, along with the surrounding areas of the Surrey Hills, was still largely rural. Clapham, Peckham, Brixton and other villages were still separated from the capital and would only slowly be connected during the nineteenth century, although the convenience of Lambeth’s location had long made it a place of ‘commercialised charity, tough factories and seedy pleasure’.1 Storehouses, stables and timber yards lay between the river and nearby marshland; just west of the bridge was Lambeth Palace, while Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens further south were popular with crowds from the city who, until Vauxhall Bridge was constructed in the 1810s, would be ferried across the Thames in boats. These gardens were immensely popular: a fancy-dress jubilee in 1786, for example, attracted more than 60,000 revellers. Yet the pleasure gardens were also famous for their ‘dark walks’, where prostitution was so frequent that it was assumed any woman on her own there was a sex worker. Indeed, such was the acceptance that girls born to poor families would be sold into 121

divine images prostitution that attempts were made in Lambeth to prevent the trade. Near to the Blakes’ residence, the old Hercules Inn had been converted into the Female Orphan Asylum, a workhouse that had been established in 1758. Girls aged between nine and twelve, more often from one-parent families than true orphans, would be admitted to be trained as domestic servants and thus prevented from entering prostitution. Gardner cites a letter from The Observer in 1791, which remarked that a West Country gentleman was surprised ‘at the flocks of chicken prostitutes [a derogatory term for child sex workers] which he observed before Somerset House, and which he actually mistook for the pupils of some large boarding-school’.2 The lives of such young prostitutes, as Gardner points out, was as desperate as those of the chimney sweeps whose existence was brutal and short; many of them contracted syphilis before they even reached their teenage years. The life of William and Catherine, then, was one of innocence in comparison to that mere streets away. It is at Lambeth that the probably apocryphal story is recorded by Gilchrist of the pair being discovered naked in their garden and telling their visitor that they were playing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Life i.112), but they were also aware of the grim world of experience that lay beyond their garden walls. It was in his later poem Milton that Blake referred to ‘Lambeths Vale / Where Jerusalems foundations began’ (6.14–15), and clearly there was a transforma­ tion that took place in his writing at this time. A mere seven years lay between publication of Poetical Sketches and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, yet in that short space of time Blake’s writings had changed as utterly as the world around him. Henceforth, his works would frequently take on a much darker tone. It is not correct to assume that he was suddenly radicalized by the events of the French Revolution: even in Poetical Sketches, he was aware of the depredations of the wealthy and powerful against the weak and poor, but increasing political agitation in the capital, as well 122

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as his own involvement on the fringes at least of the Johnson circle, intensified his own sense of engagement with social and political justice. Lambeth was also the scene of a period of greater artistic activity in Blake’s life, resulting in a series of illuminated works that have since become known as the Lambeth Prophecies. While The Marriage had been infused with the beginnings of a spirit of revolutionary politics prompted by the outbreak of revolution in France, these books of the 1790s explicitly dealt with social and political upheavals in a new light. In texts such as Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), America a Prophecy (1793), Europe a Prophecy (1794) and The First Book of Urizen (1794), Blake also introduced the personal mythology that was to become an important feature of his art, with figures such as Orc, Los and Urizen engaged in titanic struggles in this new form of poetry. In America Blake develops the first chapter of those struggles as the direct conflict between Urizen and Orc, a development from his earlier French Revolution. Blake’s best-known work from this period, how­­ever, is Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The addition of Songs of Experience transformed the perception of Blake’s original Songs of Innocence in order to show ‘the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul’. Several of the later poems directly reflect those in the earlier collection, sometimes sharing the same title, as with ‘Holy Thursday’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, while others echo their counterpart, such as ‘The Divine Image’ and ‘The Human Abstract’. The later collection includes some of Blake’s most famous and powerful lyrics, such as ‘The Tyger’ and ‘The Sick Rose’. Whereas Songs of Innocence had concentrated on a world of child-like freedom and artlessness, Songs of Experience drew attention to that view as sometimes limited. All the time that Blake was working on these books that would bring him posthumous fame, even if they were not widely read during his lifetime, he also engaged in commercial activities, 123

divine images engraving designs produced by other artists for publishers such as Johnson. Despite Blake’s hopes for illuminated printing as a means of reaching a wider market, these early prophecies were still time-consuming to produce and did not sell particularly well. After 1795 he did not return to the format for nearly a decade. Part of the reason for their failure was almost certainly the obscurity of Blake’s style, but also the fact that by the mid-1790s London had become a much more dangerous place for anyone with revolutionary sympathies. ‘Church-and-King’ mobs attacked notable radicals across the country, and the government led by William Pitt passed the Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act (which defined as high treason any conspiracy to overthrow the constitution) and the Seditious Meetings Act (whereby any meeting of more than fifty people had to be approved by a magistrate). These two acts, the so-called ‘Gagging Acts’, became law in 1795, having a severe effect on free speech in Britain during the period of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. By 1798 Blake would write in his copy of An Apology for the Bible by Richard Watson, the Bishop of Llandaff, that ‘to defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life’ (e611).

Visions of the Daughters of Albion Aside from his emblematic book For Children: The Gates of Paradise, the first of his illuminated works that Blake etched and printed in Lambeth was Visions of the Daughters of Albion in 1793. The existence of the female workhouse in the old Hercules Inn clearly weighed heavily on his mind during this time, and after the ecstatic celebration of revolutionary feeling that had blossomed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the first of his Lambeth Prophecies concentrated on the struggle of women rather than that of men – with much darker forebodings than had been apparent in his earlier works. From the very beginning, the Lambeth 124

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Prophecies would be books of experience. Perhaps his thoughts were turned to the subject in part because of the death of his mother, who had succumbed to illness on 7 September the previous year. The more obvious and immediate influence, however, was publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Blake’s attitudes towards Original Stories from Real Life are perhaps best described as ambivalent, but his reactions to the Vindication were much more profoundly enthusiastic. Wollstone­ craft’s book was actually the second of her responses to the events and political milieu of the French Revolution, following on from A Vindication of the Rights of Men. This title had been issued in 1790, around the same time that Paine had published Rights of Man, and, like his work, was a reaction to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. This was made clear in the full title of the book, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France. Both this and her Vindication of the Rights of Woman were published by Johnson. As Gordon observes, the two books were successful – a second edition of Rights of Woman appeared in the same year – establishing her not only as a liberal opponent of Burke but as ‘an original philosopher in her own right’.3 Prior to Wollstonecraft, those books that appeared arguing for a reformation of the education of women tended to do so from an assumption that they should be made more fitting companions to men. In her introduction, by contrast, Wollstonecraft wrote: The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove, that their minds are not in a healthy state; for, like the flowers that are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk, long before the season when they ought to have arrived 125

divine images at maturity. One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men, who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than rational wives; and the understanding of the sex has been so bubbled by this specious homage, that the civilized women of the present century, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect.4 As Elizabeth Bernath observes, this passage contrasts two types of mind: that of matured rationality versus immature, sensual minds, a ‘surfeit of sensibility [that] Wollstonecraft identifies is a cultural epidemic akin to a poorly kept garden’.5 The immediate cause of the Vindication was a report by Charles-Maurice de TalleyrandPérigord to the French National Assembly that the education of women be restricted to domestic matters. At the same time that the Revolution in France appeared set to advance the cause of all men, regardless of class and status, it seemed that at least some of its leaders were more than happy to restrict any similar progress by their fellow women. Reactions to Wollstonecraft’s book were often hostile. Thomas Taylor wrote what he considered a witty rebuke in the form of a bitter pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, arguing that if women were to receive rights then so should animals (which idea, indeed, Blake would later take up non-ironically in his Auguries of Innocence), while a journalist for the Critical Review attacked the author’s unmarried status and wished her book to be condemned ‘to oblivion’.6 Even among liberals she was treated with caution, in particular because the Vindication attacked Rousseau’s ideals of education in Emile. Among both liberal and conservative male readers, then, with some notable exceptions 126

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such as Johnson and William Godwin, Wollstonecraft proved a difficult pill to swallow. Female readers were often, although by no means always, more appreciative. Anna Laetitia Barbauld published her poem ‘The Rights of Woman’ in the same year, which advocated a similarly enlightened attitude towards women’s education (although still ended by suggesting that marriage was more important), while Mary Robinson and Mary Hays specifically alluded to the Vindication in their work. As R. M. Janes suggests, the notion that Wollstonecraft’s book was greeted with shock, horror and derision was not true, although by 1798 with the publication of Godwin’s ill-judged memoir her reputation would decline inexorably.7 Blake, however, appears to have been one of the few men to have enthusiastically taken up her ideas in his Visions of the Daughters of Albion. The Visions begins with its main protagonist, Oothoon, in America, lamenting her condition and seeking flowers to comfort her, to which one, a Marygold, she speaks thus: Art thou a flower! art thou a nymph! I see thee now a flower; Now a nymph! I dare not pluck thee from thy dewy bed! The Golden nymph replied; pluck thou my flower Oothoon the mild Another flower shall spring, because the soul of sweet delight Can never pass away. she ceas’d & closd her golden shrine. (e46)

The exchange, and Oothoon’s reaction, has long been recognized as a sexual one. Plucking the flower, Oothoon flies to her lover, Theotormon, seeking delight in him, for which ‘sin’ she is raped by Bromion: 127

divine images Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Plate 1, frontispiece, 1793, relief etching with pen and watercolour on paper.

Bromion spoke. behold this harlot here on Bromions bed, And let the jealous dolphins sport around the lovely maid; Thy soft American plains are mine, and mine thy north & south: Stampt with my signet are the swarthy children of the sun: They are obedient, they resist not, they obey the scourge: Their daughters worship terrors and obey the violent: 128

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Now thou maist marry Bromions harlot, and protect the child Of Bromions rage, that Oothoon shall put forth in nine moons time (1.18–2.2, e46)

Some aspects of Bromion’s speech, apparently to Theotormon, are ambiguous: it is most likely that Theotormon is a mythical form of the American fathers, and Oothoon his European lover (although the speech may be directed to Oothoon herself), whom Bromion has treated like one of his African slaves. As James Heffernan observes, this makes the poem complicated and disturbing, in that its central figures are all tainted by the legacy of slavery. While accepting this ambiguity, it is also clear that Heffernan is correct when he identifies Oothoon as ‘the most remarkable woman Blake ever conceived’.8 The reason for this, as other critics such as Helen Bruder have noted, is that she remains potently in control of her imaginative and rational faculties, even when raped by a slave-master and falsely imprisoned for her ‘sin’ by her lover. The truly astonishing extent to which Oothoon remains in control of her faculties is demonstrated by the series of incredible speeches that she delivers: With what sense is it that the chicken shuns the ravenous hawk? With what sense does the tame pigeon measure out the expanse? With what sense does the bee form cells? have not the mouse & frog Eyes and ears and sense of touch? yet are their habitations. And their pursuits, as different as their forms and as their joys: Ask the wild ass why he refuses burdens: and the meek camel 129

divine images Why he loves man: is it because of eye ear mouth or skin Or breathing nostrils? No. for these the wolf and tyger have. Ask the blind worm the secrets of the grave, and why her spires Love to curl round the bones of death; and ask the rav’nous snake Where she gets poison: & the wing’d eagle why he loves the sun And then tell me the thoughts of man, that have been hid of old. (3.2–13, e47)

There is much that is typically Blakean about this speech: it demonstrates a culmination of the Shakespearean and Miltonic techniques that he had been developing since Poetical Sketches, combining both with a sonorous, biblical flow. It also provides a profoundly poetic and philosophical response to what Blake saw as the limitations of materialist philosophy of the day: if the human mind is formed by the senses, then that multiplicity of senses, which we can observe in creatures around us, indicates that we are not restricted to the five conduits of the soul Blake had so caustically mocked in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Theotormon, entering the room and seeing his lover on a bed with Bromion, was all too eager to believe his limited perceptions and thus discover her a harlot. Helen Bruder powerfully argues that Oothoon is broken by this rape, even perverted – in contrast to contemporaries who all too often used ‘ravishment’ as entertainment before putting the abused woman on trial.9 Oothoon is literally rent on Bromion’s bed by the patriarchal world of slavery that sees both other races and women as chattels; tellingly, this poem is the first to refer to Urizen, ‘Creator of men! Mistaken Demon of heaven’ (e48), and the cause of this world. I would, however, add that what makes her probably the most remarkable female character 130

Lambeth and Experience Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Plate 7, relief etching with pen and watercolour on paper.

in Blake’s works is that her imagination is not similarly destroyed. Bromion cannot see her as more than a possession for his pleasure, while Theotormon cannot move past his sense of her as a harlot. Oothoon, however, invoking the great, rhythmical vision of Job in his tribulations, perceives an entire universe of creation in the long speech that dominates plates 5 to 7. While Theotormon sees her as a whore and a ‘crafty slave of selfish holiness’, Oothoon herself refuses this definition, just as Job faced with his false friends 131

divine images who argue that God’s punishment must be because of his sin. Instead she cries: But Oothoon is not so, a virgin fill’d with virgin fancies Open to joy and to delight where ever beauty appears If in the morning sun I find it: there my eyes are fix’d In happy copulation (6.21–7.1, e50)

The poem remains a dark one, dealing directly as it does with rape and slavery, yet in this speech she returns to the vision that opens the poem: innocence is not a one-off thing to be bought and sold with virginity and defined by penetration. Oothoon declares herself still a virgin, for when a flower is plucked ‘Another flower shall spring, because the soul of sweet delight / Can never pass away’.

The Continental Prophecies Blake’s interest in America as symbolic of revolutionary change in the world was evident in his most direct commentary on the events of the American War of Independence, which had concluded little more than a decade previously. America a Prophecy is, rightly, one of the most famous of Blake’s works and important because it introduces a recurring theme of his mythic cycle: the battle between Urizen as the forces of convention and tradition and the spirit of revolution that is Orc. Before leaving Visions of the Daughters of Albion, however, it is worth diverting slightly from a strict chronology of Blake’s works to consider another book that he was commissioned to illustrate during his residence at Lambeth: John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative, of a Five Years’ Expedition, Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. Although Stedman’s Narrative was published in 1796, Blake began work on it in 1791. John Gabriel Stedman was of mixed 132

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‘A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows’, from John Gabriel Stedman, Narrative, of a Five Years’ Expedition, Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796), intaglio engraving, hand-coloured on paper.

Dutch and Scottish heritage, having left the Dutch Republic in 1772 to serve in the West Indies, where he was given the rank of captain and served in seven campaigns in Surinam, a colony that had passed between the English and Dutch during the seventeenth century before becoming wholly ruled by the Dutch from 1668 onwards. Most of the work in the South American colony was done by African slaves, who frequently fled the brutal conditions in which they were kept. Known as maroons, the escaped slaves frequently attacked the plantations for supplies. Stedman arrived at the colony in 1773 and remained there until 1777; al­­ though no abolitionist, he witnessed a number of events there that sickened him, including a woman who received two hundred lashes for her inability to complete a task and a man who was broken on a wheel and left to die over a period of several days. Stedman kept a diary of his time in Surinam, which he wrote up ten years later as the Narrative, a heavily edited version that, for example, omitted most of the sexual encounters he purchased from enslaved women. His publisher was Johnson, who commissioned Blake to produce sixteen separate plates and a title page for the book. So impressed was Stedman by a number of the designs that he sought the acquaintance of the engraver after seeing them in 1793, staying with Blake a number of times between 1794 and 1796. As well as depictions of the natural beauty of the South American colony, 133

divine images Blake illustrated a number of scenes involving the torture and brutalization of slaves there, which influenced his depiction of slavery in Visions. In the most enigmatic and sophisticated of his designs, ‘Europe Supported by Africa and America’, he portrays a naked, pale Europe held up by two other equally nude women, one clearly an African slave, the other a Native American. While the Euro­ pean woman has her eyes closed demurely and avoids the viewer’s gaze, the other two figures stare out boldly at the reader, challenging him to recognize the economic and im­­ moral reality of slavery and colonialism in upholding European wealth. The transatlantic slave trade was one way by which the world had been bound into a net of cruel commerce during the Enlightenment, the extension of capitalism and colonial power that the revolutions of the late eighteenth century were meant to abolish. The promise of those revolutions, and the intimations of their ultimate failure, provided Blake with many of his themes in the Lambeth Prophecies, beginning with a series of short books that have become known as the Continental Prophecies because their titles, America, Europe, ‘Asia’ and ‘Africa’ (the latter two combined in The Song of Los), explore in Blake’s idiosyncratic style a global geopolitics. It is in these books that he also begins to explore some of the features of his emerging mythology of the four Zoas, archetypal represen­ tations of human characteristics at war with each other, which would recur throughout his work for the next two decades. 134

‘Europe Supported by Africa and America’, from Stedman, Narrative, of a Five Years’ Expedition, intaglio engraving.

Lambeth and Experience America a Prophecy, Copy M, Plate 1, frontispiece, 1793, relief etching with pen, watercolour and opaque colours on paper.

Of the Continental Prophecies, America is both the simplest to understand (in a series of works that are frequently opaque) and the most influential. Unlike the remainder of the Continental Prophecies, it follows a loose narrative after a prologue in which Orc, the spirit of revolution, and the ‘shadowy daughter of Urthona’ are revealed. Although early readers found the book 135

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difficult and obscure, critics in the twentieth century have tended to agree with David Erdman who, in Prophet Against Empire, saw it as a conflict of ‘tyrant and patriot facing each other across the Atlantic on the world stage’.10 Erdman’s reading has been hugely influential and is clearly reflected in the vision of George iii envisaged as ‘Albions wrathful Prince’, who takes on ‘A dragon form’ to fight the Americans. Against him rises up Orc, the first appearance of one of the most iconic of Blake’s mythical figures: As human blood shooting its veins all round the orbed heaven Red rose the clouds from the Atlantic in vast wheels of blood And in the red clouds rose a Wonder o’er the Atlantic sea; Intense! naked! a Human fire fierce glowing, as the wedge Of iron heated in the furnace; his terrible limbs were fire With myriads of cloudy terrors banners dark & towers Surrounded; heat but not light went thro’ the murky atmosphere (4.5–10, e53)

America a Prophecy, Copy M, Plate 2, title page, relief etching with pen, watercolour and opaque colours on paper.

Alongside this ‘terror’, who clearly brings to fruition many of the elements of the devils from the earlier The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake depicts the American revolutionaries in that high, Miltonic-Shakespearean style that he had experimented with in The French Revolution. As Albion’s Angel, the dragon repre­ sentative of Britain’s tyranny, prepares to unleash plague on the newly United States, Blake describes the oncoming battle in terms reminiscent of Milton’s war in heaven: In the flames stood & view’d the armies drawn out in the sky Washington Franklin Paine & Warren Allen Gates & Lee: And heard the voice of Albions Angel give the thunderous command: 137

divine images His plagues obedient to his voice flew forth out of their clouds Falling upon America, as a storm to cut them off As a blight cuts the tender corn when it begins to appear. Dark is the heaven above, & cold & hard the earth beneath; And as a plague wind fill’d with insects cuts off man & beast; And as a sea o’erwhelms a land in the day of an earthquake ... Then had America been lost, o’erwhelm’d by the Atlantic, And Earth had lost another portion of the infinite, But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire The red fires rag’d! the plagues recoil’d! then rolld they back with fury (14.1–20, e56)

Blake’s sympathies clearly lie with the American revolutionaries: Linebaugh and Rediker see in Orc the ‘symbol of energy, desire, and freedom’,11 recognizing in this eternal revolutionary a representation of Neptune, an African slave who had killed an overseer and was tortured on the rack, as depicted by Blake in his illustrations to Stedman’s Narrative. The reading is convincing in many ways, in particular as the Prologue to America has the Shadowy Female address Orc as ‘the image of God who dwells in darkness of Africa’ (e52). Yet the sexual encounter between the young Orc and the Shadowy Female is not so simply dismissed by Linebaugh and Rediker’s prim, ‘They make love.’ Although it is not explicitly described as a rape, as in Visions of the Daughters of Albion, her womb is described as both ‘struggling’ and joyous, and in the later Lambeth Prophecies as well as The Four Zoas the Oedipal familial relationship between Orc, Los and Enitharmon is dark and jealous. Experience, both as an abstract, structuring motif in Blake’s work and as his literal experience of 138

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the aftermath of the early, optimistic phase of the French Revolution as it slowly turned to terror, made his visions of revolution in the 1790s extremely complex. America, an emblem of revolution, also remained a slave-owning nation and in such conditions how could sexual relations be anything but corrupt? Blake had depicted the torture and murder of the Surinam slave Neptune in a way that would deeply affect abolitionists throughout the nineteenth century, but he was also aware of the female slaves that Europeans such as Stedman used for their own pleasure. Julia Wright captures this complexity when she declares that Orc, in America, is closer to ‘a nihilist than a revolutionary’.12 Wright sees the encounter between Orc and the Shadowy Female more unambiguously as rape, one that owes much to the politics of Wollstonecraft and forces the reader to face the realities of sex in a slave-owning society.13 Blake’s views of the American Revolution – as indeed, of its successor in France – quickly became much more complex in the 1790s. Gilchrist wrote that he refused to wear the bonnet rouge, the cap of liberty, after hearing of the September Massacres, and those who rush to equate Orc with a wholesome consummation of the devils of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell neglect an important critique of the ebb and flow of revolution that Northrop Frye famously referred to as the ‘Orc cycle’. ‘As soon as we begin to think of the relation of Orc to Urizen,’ wrote Frye, ‘it becomes impossible to maintain them as separate principles.’14 This is clearest in two of the most striking images from the poem in plates 10 and 12, in which both figures are presented in the same pose, arms outstretched and leg resting as a reflection of the other figure. Urizen, bearded, ancient, coloured in blues and greys in later editions of the poem, rests upon a cloud – clearly a representation of trad­itional forms of God in heaven. Orc, by contrast, appears in red and gold, rising from the flames of hell, his hair like fire upon his youthful head. God and Devil: if in The Marriage Blake had 139

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seemed to more clearly belong to the Devil’s party, by the time he wrote America his earlier, innocent hopes for the French Revolution were tinged with the experience of what such a revolution would actually mean. Throughout the remainder of his prophetic books, Urizen and Orc would need to reconcile the divorce that led them to war throughout the world and throughout the ages. While Blake was already beginning to consider the complexities of revolutionary politics, while writing America in 1793 there is much in the poem that retains his earlier optimism, as in these glorious lines from Plate 6:

America. A Prophecy, Copy M, Plate 3, preludium, relief etching with pen, watercolour and opaque colours on paper.

The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations; The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up; The bones of death, the cov’ring clay, the sinews shrunk & dry’d. Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing! awakening! Spring like redeemed captives when their bonds & bars are burst; Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field: Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air; Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing, Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years; Rise and look out, his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open. And let his wife and children return from the opressors scourge; They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream. Singing. The Sun has left his blackness, & has found a fresher morning And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night; For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease. (6.1–15, e53) 141

divine images Blake’s next illuminated book, Europe a Prophecy, is not such a panegyric to revolution. Darker and more obscure in style, this Continental Prophecy deals with the events of the French Revolution but, unlike America, it does so entirely through the prism of Blake’s mythology. Unlike the previous text, there is no Robespierre or Mirabeau to ground the reader in the events of the early 1790s: instead, we are introduced more fully to Enitharmon and Los, two more of Blake’s ‘Eternals’, whose significance would increase throughout his lifetime. During the period that Blake was writing Europe, the French Revolution had entered its darkest phase: between June 1793 and the fall of Robespierre in July 1794, the Terror was at its height, with some 17,000 official death sentences being passed in France by the Committee of Public Safety, while civil war in the Vendée claimed the lives of tens of thousands more. In London, government reaction against revolutionary sympathizers was also beginning to take effect. In 1792 the London Corresponding Society had been formed by Thomas Hardy, calling for a reform to voting rules and for annual parliaments, but in 1794 Hardy and two other of its members, John Thelwall and John Horne Tooke, were placed on trial for treason. While they were acquitted by a jury because of patent falsehoods on the part of the government, others ended very differently, as in the case of Thomas Muir who, after a show trial in Scotland in 1793, was transported to Botany Bay. Anti-French sentiment was spreading across the country: Joseph Priestley, who had fled to London after his home in Birmingham had been burnt down by an angry mob in 1791, finally decided in 1794 that he could no longer remain in England under Pitt’s government, leaving for Pennsylvania shortly before radicals were being arrested for seditious libel. In such an environment, open opposition to the crown was increasingly dangerous and Blake’s own writing may have become deliberately obscure in part to prevent easy accusations of sedition. 142

Lambeth and Experience Europe a Prophecy, Copy A, Plate 2, title page, 1794, relief etching with pen and watercolour on paper.

After a strange prologue, in which a fairy sings to the narrator from a tulip on the theme of how we restrict ourselves to the world of the five senses, a theme that Blake had been exploring since the very first of his illuminated books, Europe opens in the aftermath of the Preludium of America, with the ‘nameless shadowy female’ rising from Orc to address Enitharmon, a mother goddess whose role in the poem is far more significant – and sinister – than 143

divine images that of her consort, Los. In a print from 1795, entitled The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy (and previously referred to as Hecate), Enitharmon is shown in darkness, her hand resting on a book while two figures hide their faces behind her, with animals surrounding the trio. It is easy to see how this print could be misrecognized as a depiction of the goddess of witchcraft, and Enitharmon’s baleful influence is felt in the following lines of Europe: Enitharmon slept, Eighteen hundred years: Man was a Dream! The night of Nature and their harps unstrung: She slept in middle of her nightly song, Eighteen hundred years, a female dream! Shadows of men in fleeting bands upon the winds: Divide the heavens of Europe: Till Albions Angel smitten with his own plagues fled with his bands The cloud bears hard on Albions shore (9.1–9, e63)

This dream of Enitharmon corresponds with European history after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, a period of war and bondage for people that will end with the events of the American and French revolutions. Yet when Enitharmon is awoken (significantly by the spirit of Newton), the apocalyptic act ends with a hiatus rather than revelation: Then Los arose his head he reard in snaky thunders clad: And with a cry that shook all nature to the utmost pole, Call’d all his sons to the strife of blood. (15.9–11, e66)

The concluding ‘finis’ has the feel of ‘To be concluded’ about it, with Los and his sons gathered to engage in the wars that, no one realized in 1794, would consume Europe for the next two 144

Europe a Prophecy, Copy A, Plate 10, relief etching with pen and watercolour on paper.

divine images decades. In the final part of the Continental Prophecies, however, Blake turns not to the end of days but the beginning of history. The brief Song of Los, printed in 1795, is divided into two parts: ‘Africa’ outlines the origins of the error that have lain across Europe during the night of Enitharmon’s dream, how Urizen gave ‘his Laws to the Nations’ to Adam, Noah and Moses. No religion is free from the error of priestcraft: Islam, Hinduism, classical and northern paganisms all fall under its sway, and even Jesus ‘receivd / A Gospel from wretched Theotormon’. The Song of Los includes a remarkable frontispiece in which a white-haired figure (presumably Urizen) kneels at an altar to prostrate himself before a black sun, its dark luminescence spreading poisonous rays across the earth. In the companion piece, ‘Asia’, this religious error is compounded by political power as the kings of Asia react with horror to the cry of revolution from Europe. As they gather to prepare for battle, so the final revelation starts to become apparent, the possible end of days in which the motif of resurrection is deployed by Blake in a startlingly sexual fashion to indicate the possible new age to come: Forth from the dead dust rattling bones to bones Join: shaking convuls’d the shivring clay breathes And all flesh naked stands: Fathers and Friends; Mothers & Infants; Kings & Warriors: The Grave shrieks with delight, & shakes Her hollow womb, & clasps the solid stem: Her bosom swells with wild desire: And milk & blood & glandous wine In rivers rush & shout & dance, On mountain, dale and plain. (7.31–40, e69–70)

After his early enthusiasm in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake did not view revolution as the easy road; rather it was ‘the 146

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perilous path’ where roses would be planted and springs found, but which could also fall to villains. In his frequently bizarre Continental Prophecies, Blake attempts a new kind of verse that had not been tried before, employing the Miltonic style of Paradise Lost (and, before that, the poetry of Shakespeare and of the Bible) to create his own mythology, an imaginative recreation of the political events of his day that will chart the difficult task of undoing millennia of falsehood and repression. It is no accident that Urizen, the ‘mistaken Demon of heaven’ who, more than any other of Blake’s eternals represents error, concludes the Continental books as he looks on the prophecy of revolution: ‘The song of los is ended. Urizen wept.’

Songs of Experience At the same time that he was beginning to explore his complex mythology of the forces of oppression and revolution, Blake would also complete the most famous of his works, which demonstrates a lucidity and clarity rarely achieved in English poetry. Northrop Frye once made the astute observation that it was foolish to see the relationship between Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience as reflecting a transformation in the author’s own sensibilities, ‘for when Blake engraved the latter he was no longer a child of thirtytwo but a grown man of thirty-seven’.15 Nonetheless, as we have already seen, the French Revolution and its aftermath in London were to have a remarkable effect on a great many people in Europe. In 1789 many liberals in England had looked optimistically to the early events of the French Revolution, but on 1 February 1793 France declared war on Britain. This conflict was to last – with one brief intermission – 22 years, and between the summers of 1793 and 1794 Paris ran red with the blood of the Terror. Blake issued seventeen copies of the collection in 1794. The following year, he printed several more complete copies of Songs 147

divine images of Experience, although from then on he almost always issued it alongside Songs of Innocence (despite occasionally printing separate copies of Innocence until 1818). In contrast to the earlier publication, Experience was always colour printed or hand-coloured, with some of those, particularly of the combined Songs of Innocence and of Experience, being very richly illuminated. When he issued the combined Songs, Blake added a title page with the additional heading, ‘Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul’. Although Songs of Innocence had been intended as a complete and discrete work, it was clear that from 1794 onwards Blake now conceived many of the songs from the two volumes to be read in conjunction, neither one alone capable of offering a complete view of mankind. This contrary, and complementary, vision is frequently reflected in the repetition of titles across both volumes, such as ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ or ‘Holy Thursday’. In the most famous pairing, the titles relate to each other as the clear opposites of ‘The Tyger’ and ‘The Lamb’. While the former has become the more famous of the two, despite being overshadowed, in many ways ‘The Lamb’ is an archetypal song of innocence: Little Lamb who made thee Dost thou know who made thee Gave thee life & bid thee feed. By the stream & o’er the mead; Gave thee clothing of delight, Softest clothing wooly bright; Gave thee such a tender voice, Making all the vales rejoice! Little Lamb who made thee Dost thou know who made thee Little Lamb I’ll tell thee, Little Lamb I’ll tell thee! 148

Lambeth and Experience Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), Copy F, Plate 32, frontispiece, colour-printed relief etching with pen and watercolour on paper.

He is called by thy name, For he calls himself a Lamb: He is meek & he is mild, He became a little child: I a child & thou a lamb, We are called by his name. Little Lamb God bless thee. Little Lamb God bless thee. (e8–9) 149

divine images The apparently conventional imagery that links together child, lamb and Christ in the song is handled with what Marsh points out is a beautiful simplicity, as a conversation between child and lamb: the child is talking to the lamb, asking the question (‘who made thee’) before providing an answer in the second stanza.16 Significantly, while the poem could be read as an example of anthropomorphism, strictly speaking this is not entirely the case: Christ becomes both child and lamb, Godhead entering into all things. Blake’s own view of divine humanism prob­ably would find little to object to in the anthropomorphism of the natural world, but he was also happy to see divinity infused throughout that world, as in ‘The Little Black Boy’ in Innocence. The nature of the divine is approached much more ambiguously in ‘The Tyger’, one of Blake’s best-known works: Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night; What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry? In what distant deeps or skies. Burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand, dare sieze the fire? And what shoulder, & what art, Could twist the sinews of thy heart? And when thy heart began to beat, What dread hand? & what dread feet? What the hammer? what the chain, In what furnace was thy brain? 150

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What the anvil? what dread grasp, Dare its deadly terrors clasp! When the stars threw down their spears And water’d heaven with their tears: Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee? Tyger Tyger burning bright, In the forests of the night: What immortal hand or eye, Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? (e24–5)

The popularity of ‘The Tyger’, unlike much of Blake’s other work, began during his lifetime. The poem was reprinted in Benjamin Heath Malkin’s A Father’s Memoirs (1806), translated by Henry Crabb Robinson for the Vaterländisches Museum (1811), and appeared in Alan Cunningham’s Life shortly after Blake’s death. Charles Lamb thought it ‘glorious’, and Dorothy and William Wordsworth copied the poem along with several other of Blake’s songs into a commonplace book, although William Beckford made a note in his copy of Malkin that the lines of Blake’s verse were stolen ‘from the walls of bedlam’. Many readers have been perplexed by the poem, despite the fact that it is often anthologized in collections of children’s verse such as the Oxford Book of Poetry for Children. Similarly, plenty of critics have drawn attention to the incongruities between the forceful, sublime text and the rather domestic example of a tiger included in the illustration to this Song of Experience, looking for all the world like a stuffed toy. The rhythm of the ‘The Tyger’ is relentless, and the constant repetition of words such as ‘what’ function as hammer blows, pounding away at the stanzas in an act of ruthless creation. The question of who is responsible for this creation is one of the 151

divine images fundamental reasons for the perplexity of the poem, and Stanley Fish in Is There a Text in This Class? (1980) took great pleasure in providing two equally forceful, equally clear examples of readings of the text by Kathleen Raine and E. D. Hirsch that demonstrated completely opposing answers to the question ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ Ronald Paulson believed, by contrast, that this question was only superficially to do with the act of creation, and of God’s justice and mercy: on a deeper level, it was concerned with the conflicting experiences of the French Revolution.17 Certainly, the events of the Revolution, especially the Terror, appear to have influenced Blake’s verse, but the lines that precede the question are an allusion to the Book of Job (‘Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth . . . When the morning stars sang together’) and Book vi of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Blake reacts strongly to the political situation of his day, but for him to reflect on the world about us is not to choose between ‘real’ and ‘spiritual’ life – rather, that real world reveals itself as simultaneously one of the spirit when viewed with imagination. By 1794 the events of the Revolution and the war between Britain and France were at the forefront of most people’s thoughts. After a period of enthusiasm in Paris following the fall of the Bastille, tensions had increased throughout 1790 and 1791. Factions in the French National Assembly were also beginning to form, between those who supported a constitutional monarchy along the lines of that in Britain and a radical group known as the Jacobins who spread their ideas throughout the country. It was against the backdrop of these conditions that Louis xvi attempted to flee the country, being arrested at Varennes on 21 July 1791. As France declared war on Austria, Prussia and then Britain, waves of violence and massacres shook the French capital in September 1792. Attempts to find a constitutional compromise failed and on 21 January 1793 Louis Capet, no longer king of France, was executed 152

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in Paris and the country became a republic. Many features of government had now passed to the Committee of Public Safety, dominated by Maximilien Robespierre, and for a year the Terror was instituted in an attempt to suppress counter-revolutionaries at home and ensure support for the war abroad. The Jacobins were able to avoid defeat and expand the military capabilities of France, but Robespierre was now accusing many former companions of being counter-revolutionaries and on 27 July 1794 the Thermidorian Reaction saw his arrest and execution. Fear of revolution in Britain led the government of William Pitt to a loyalist reaction, first felt in Scotland where a series of sensational trials for seditious libel took place in 1793, resulting in draconian sentences against Thomas Muir and Thomas Palmer. Historians are divided about the extent of the British government’s reaction: figures such as Boyd Hilton (2007) see this period as an extension of the coercive powers of the state, while Edward Royle (2000) has argued that it was a reasonable reaction to a genuine threat.18 In 1794, as members of the London Corresponding Society called for an English Convention, Pitt suspended habeas corpus and ordered the arrest of its leading members, as well as those of the Society for Constitutional Information. The radical Thomas Paine had already fled the country at the end of 1793, and although the three men finally brought to trial were acquitted there could be no doubt that Britain was a dangerous place for those with radical sympathies. It was against such a context that Blake composed and published another of his most famous poems, ‘London’: I wander thro’ each charter’d street, Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. And mark in every face I meet Marks of weakness, marks of woe.


divine images In every cry of every Man, In every Infants cry of fear, In every voice: in every ban, The mind-forg’d manacles I heart How the Chimney-sweepers cry Every blackning Church appalls, And the hapless Soldiers sigh Runs in blood down Palace walls But most thro’ midnight streets I hear How the youthful Harlots curse Blasts the new-born Infants tear And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse (e26–7)

As we have already seen, the final stanza of the poem does not refer to some abstract horror but the very real social problem of child prostitution that existed in London at that time and would remain for much of the nineteenth century. In four simple stanzas, Blake encapsulates the despair of such existence and also the oppressive atmosphere of a city at war. For E. P. Thompson, ‘London’ is ‘among the most lucid and instantly available of the Songs of Experience’.19 As he and several critics have pointed out, the drafts of the poem in the notebook show how Blake was responding very directly to the events of his day. Thus the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ were originally ‘german forged links’, a reference to the Hanoverian dynasty of George iii and the billeting of Hessian mercenaries in London to maintain order in the capital. Similarly, the change of ‘dirty street’ and ‘dirty Thames’ to ‘charter’d’ was a direct allusion to Paine who, in Rights of Man, had argued that charters granting liberties actually worked by taking away the intrinsic rights of the people so that they could be permitted only by those in power. 154

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In the end, however, it is cruelties against the young that provide much of the anger in Songs of Experience, an anger that contrasts so clearly with the blissful state of childhood in Innocence. If the earlier collection had been a golden Arcadian vision, Experience depicts the city of dreadful night that London could become at the turn of the nineteenth century. ‘Holy Thursday’ in the later collection refers to ‘Babes reduced to misery’, and one of the most significant elements of Songs of Experience is how it depicts innocence corrupted by those who should be its protectors. In some cases that corruption was already implicit in Songs of Innocence. The version of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ that appears in Experience makes explicit the sense of anger at injustice that had been left unsaid in its companion song in Innocence. It could be argued that the clarity of this wrath removes some of the complexities of the earlier poem, replacing it with more straightforward denunciation that exemplifies Blake’s outrage towards his contemporary society: And because I am happy, & dance & sing, They think they have done me no injury: And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King Who make up a heaven of our misery. (e23)

Chimney sweeping as an apprenticeship was increasingly rejected during the late eighteenth century, and in 1788 the Chimney Sweepers Act was passed, restricting the ability to recruit apprentices. However, professional sweeps continued to use their own children to climb the narrow chimneys (made even dirtier by the increased use of coal), and the practice of sending children up chimneys was made illegal only in 1864.20 As such, while the poem ends with a general denunciation of God, priest and king who allow such atrocities, the origins of the degradation lie with those parents who seek to exploit, rather than protect, their own children. 155

divine images Another aspect of Experience that had been absent from Innocence was the subject of sex. In many respects, the sexuality of Experience is loss, rape, restriction and fear. This is not to say that Blake saw sex as something intrinsically sinful: rather, from his early poetry onwards, desire when freely expressed was an essential part of our humanity. ‘A Little Girl Lost’, for example, begins with the lines: Children of the future Age, Reading this indignant page; Know that in a former time, Love! sweet Love! was thought a crime. (e29)

As with several of his contemporaries, notably William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Blake believed that it was the treatment of sexuality as a crime and its repression that led to future perversions. One of his Proverbs of Hell made the point pithily: ‘He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence’ (e35). While the causes of such repression were manifold, including social, familial and political power relations, unsurprisingly Blake identified religion as the main root of this distortion of human desire, as in ‘The Garden of Love’: I went to the Garden of Love, And saw what I never had seen: A Chapel was built in the midst, Where I used to play on the green. And the gates of this Chapel were shut, And Thou shalt not. writ over the door; So I turn’d to the Garden of Love, That so many sweet flowers bore.


Lambeth and Experience

And I saw it was filled with graves, And tomb-stones where flowers should be: And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, And binding with briars, my joys & desires. (e26)

The contrast with the Songs of Innocence is a powerful one: play, love and the green are all elements of a past that has not been superseded as a natural consequence of development and growth. They have, rather, been vandalized, suppressed by the grim command ‘Thou shalt not’ (which also, significantly, breaks the rhythm of the poem). If it is sometimes possible to read Songs of Experience as a necessary corrective to the ignorance of Songs of Innocence, that is not at all the case here: the destruction of the Garden of Love is, rather, its own form of wilful ignorance and there is nothing but a sense of lament for what has been lost. The consequences of repression finding expression in perversity is the theme of one of Blake’s most powerful, and most famous, lyrics, ‘The Sick Rose’: O Rose thou art sick. The invisible worm, That flies in the night In the howling storm: Has found out thy bed Of crimson joy: And his dark secret love Does thy life destroy. (e25)

These two short stanzas have attracted considerable critical comment. Jon Mee, following Northrop Frye’s observation that the poem was one of those few lyrics that was popular because it provides a direct key to poetic experience for educated and 157

divine images uneducated alike, notes that it is a poem that appeals to generations of readers in an intensely personal way.21 Critics such as Michael Srigley have pointed out that the sickness caused by the ‘invisible worm’ is that of the transmission of disease, but Elizabeth Lang­land warns against traditions of prescribing how the poem should be read, taking Harold Bloom to task, for example, for seeing pity in the opening line where the tone may even be condemnation of the rose.22 Langland draws attention to the ambiguity of the words of the poem, which do not clearly express where guilt lies (with the rose or the worm). Yet the illustration that accompanies the text does, it seems to me, evoke something of the pity that Bloom expresses, with images of women falling, many of them pursued by this invisible, rapacious power. That sex so often brought with it death at the time Blake was writing, whether by the plagues of sexually transmitted diseases referred to in ‘London’, or even, as Tristanne Connolly wrote in her book William Blake and the Body (2002), the more mundane, but no less terrible, mortality associated with childbirth, which made pregnancy so dangerous for Catherine Blake and killed Mary Wollstonecraft, is an unfortunate commonplace. What is so effective about these later Songs, however, is that rather than simply adopt another commonplace, on the sinfulness of sexuality, Blake addressed rather the terrible wisdom that experience brought. This wisdom, and its terrible price, would be the subject of one of his strangest and most astonishing books, The [First] Book of Urizen, which was a rewriting of Genesis that he had promised as part of his Bible of Hell in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.



A New System of Mythology


n Book x of The Prelude, Wordsworth recalls how he heard news of Robespierre’s death on 28 July 1794 while crossing Morecombe Bay after visiting the grave of his schoolteacher: I paced, a dear Companion at my side, The Town of Arras, whence with promise high Issued, on Delegation to sustain Humanity and right, that Robespierre, He who thereafter, and in how short time! Wielded the sceptre of the Atheist Crew.1

Wordsworth, who had been at Arras to see the celebrations surrounding the appointment of Maximilien Robespierre to the Estates General, recollected that in the space of five years his feelings of early enthusiasm for the Revolution had become the experience of the folly of such hopes. Ruth Scurr, in her biography of the leader of the Committee of Public Safety, remarks that Wordsworth misunderstood Robespierre completely and that he was anything but an atheist.2 Nonetheless, it is easy to see why, by the standards of the time, Wordsworth should have thought so. The dechristianization of France under the Revolutionaries had resulted in the 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy by which 159

divine images clerics were subordinated to the national government, while a significant number of prominent revolutionaries were outright atheists or deists. It was against these figures, such as Jacques Hébert or Anacharsis Cloots, that Robespierre implemented the Cult of the Supreme Being, which was inaugurated at a festival on 8 June 1794, mere weeks before his death. Although often described as deist – that is, the belief in a rational creator who does not intervene in creation – Robespierre’s beliefs were more complex, incorporating a belief in the immortality of the human soul as a means to cultivate rational behaviour in support of civic virtue. The festival, organized by Jacques-Louis David, took place on the Champ de Mars where a huge, artificial mountain was erected. Robespierre presided over an event at which he proclaimed the


A New System of Mythology

G. Texier, The Festival of the Supreme Being, 1794, intaglio engraving, handcoloured on paper.

supreme utility of his new faith, by means of which he was also able to purge the more radical Jacobins pressing for even greater equality and redistribution of wealth. Although Blake himself did not comment directly upon the Cult of the Supreme Being – nor, indeed, give more than the briefest mention of Robespierre in his writings – nonetheless the events of the summer of 1794 appear to have had a profound influence on his development of Urizen, the ‘mistaken Demon’ who began to appear in his illuminated books at the time of the Terror. While contemporaries such as Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth increasingly disapproved of what they saw as Jacobin irreligion, it was Blake who provided the most extensive critique of the rationalist religion of Robespierre and his fellows in a series of works sometimes referred to as the Urizen books. As Robert Maniquis has observed, ‘those with an unshakeable religious belief in trad­ itional concepts of good and evil easily accounted for and condemned the French Terror. This was not so easy for philosophical radicals and rationalist dissenters.’3 This was certainly the case for Blake, who wished to account for the reasons why the promise of the Revolution had turned to terror, but also to understand the roots of its attacks on established religion. While figures such as Edmund Burke saw the Revolution as the epitome of irreligion, Blake instead gradually came to view its failures as the inability to rise above the corrupting influence of power, best exemplified as priestcraft, which was all too evident in Robespierre’s assumption of the role of high priest in a cult of reason. Unlike Wordsworth, who would increasingly turn his back on his early revolutionary politics, Blake did not believe that revolutionaries in France – or, indeed, English radicals such as Thomas Paine, who would publish the first part of his assault on conventional religion, The Age of Reason, in 1794 – were simply atheists. As he wrote in his copy of Bishop Watson’s answer to Paine, An Apology for the Bible, ‘It is an easy matter for a Bishop to triumph over Paines 161

divine images attack but it is not so easy for one who loves the Bible’ (e611). Paine’s fault, for Blake, was that in coming over to the Devil’s party and seeking the overthrow of 1,800 years of false religion (the dream of Enitharmon in Europe a Prophecy) he had forgotten that such an overthrow had also been the ambition of Jesus in his opposition to the priestcraft of the Sadducees and Pharisees and the statecraft of imperial Rome. Paine, then, was half right: in the words of E. P. Thompson, Paine had understood the failings of the Moral Law, but had not yet discovered the Everlasting Gospel.4 In his three final Lambeth books – The [First] Book of Urizen, The Book of Ahania and The Book of Los – William Blake created part of the Bible of Hell, which, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he had promised the world ‘whether they will it or no’ (e44). Much of the critique of conventional religion to be found in these three books would be familiar to Paine and other self-styled deists, yet Blake’s poetry is so oblique and strange that his attacks on the Church of his day are frequently misunderstood. At the same time that he was working on these illuminated books, he made prints of figures such as Newton and Nebuchadnezzar that are widely recognized as some of the most profoundly imaginative condemnations of political and religious oppression ever to have been created. One reason for the strangeness of Blake’s mythology is his early fascination with antiquarian historians and mythographers and their obsession with what we would call comparative religion today. Since his apprenticeship with Basire, Blake regularly read and was commissioned for antiquarian writers who sought to explain the development of religion in pseudo-historiographical terms. Such texts proliferated during the Enlightenment era, each of them seeking to explain how the ancient tribes of Israel might have emigrated across Europe or how the Druids and Jews were one and the same, but one book will suffice as an example: in 1774 162

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Jacob Bryant published his A New System; or, An analysis of ancient mythology. Bryant, who had been born in Plymouth and was eventually awarded a lucrative post on the Board of Ordnance that allowed him to pursue his antiquarian studies, tried to recon­cile all the mythologies of the world with Hebrew scripture. According to his system, Ham, the son of Noah, was father to the most energetic – but also the most rebellious – of the descendants of the original inhabitants of earth after the Flood, and his descendants, the Cuthites, had spread across Europe, creating great but also barbaric pagan civilizations in their wake. It was Steven Svatik who first, in 1969, explored the influence of Bryant on Blake’s thought, which began when Basire was commissioned to illustrate A New System. At least one of the images included in the book, an engraving of Noah’s Ark in the third volume of Bryant’s work, was made by Blake, and this moon-shaped ark would feature regularly in the later illuminated books.5 The figures of Urizen, Ahania, Los, Enitharmon and Orc appear strange, yet their roots lie in the attempts by antiquarians such as Bryant to try and reconcile the world’s mythological systems with Hebrew scripture. Even as respected a figure as Isaac Newton would attempt the same thing in his The Chronology of the Ancient Kingdoms Amended, which was published posthumously in 1728. What was different about Blake was that he did so in a clearly imaginative and poetic fashion, inventing his deities or Eternals, as he preferred to call them, fashioning a new system of mythology. This system was not intended to force the reader into rational agreement with a manifesto of (often spuriously) argued historical facts, but rather to lead them on to a different spiritual enlightenment where they would invent their own gods, thus not merely rendering priestcraft ineffective but avoiding the lure of a new cult of the supreme being of reason.


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The Bible of Hell Even today, The [First] Book of Urizen remains one of the most astonishing of Blake’s works, an overt reworking of the Book of Genesis that is utterly audacious in its ambition. Everything about this book, from its unsettling illustrations to its format that echoes the conventions of the Bible to its production history, makes this a truly remarkable work, almost unlike any other ever made. As we have already seen with regard to Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake was not averse to experimenting with the format of his printed books, moving poems to different positions and colouring plates differently to change readers’ perceptions. In Urizen, however, he deliberately undermines the fixed nature of the book at a fundamental level that is without precedent in Western art. Of the 28 plates produced for Urizen, only copies A and B contain them all, and even then in a different order, this variation being repeated in copies E and F. As Paul Mann observes, Urizen is ‘a book about books’, while Jason Snart follows W.J.T. Mitchell in observing that the ‘composite art’ on display in this book is there to destabilize the reader’s certainties and convictions – not least in deciding what the actual order of plates should be.6 If the Bible is the book that is meant to determine all meaning, according to conventional religion, and if Urizen constantly attempts to pin down that meaning in his books of brass, the better to establish the dictates of his law, then what better way to destroy that power than by writing a book that cannot be fixed and ordered: this is Blake’s Bible of Hell. In the copies printed in the 1790s, Blake included the word First in his title, although by 1818, when he printed copy G, this had been dropped. It may be that, as with Milton, the title page indicated that this was intended as part of a longer work, the plans for which changed during composition. It is also possible that the title was a satirical jab at the Bible itself, with elements 164

The First Book of Urizen (1794), Copy C, Plate 1, title page, relief etching, colour printed with hand colouring on paper.

divine images such as the first and second Book of Kings; this is also possible as The Book of Ahania, which he completed the following year, works almost directly as a sequel to some of the events included in The [First] Book of Urizen. That the book is intended to be read satirically when dealing with religion is clear from its opening Preludium: Of the primeval Priests assum’d power, When Eternals spurn’d back his religion; And gave him a place in the north, Obscure, shadowy, void, solitary. Eternals I hear your call gladly, Dictate swift winged words, & fear not To unfold your dark visions of torment. (e70)

Urizen, who had first appeared in Visions of the Daughters of Albion but more substantially as the enemy of Orc in America a Prophecy, is introduced in the work bearing his own name in the most remarkable fashion: Lo, a shadow of horror is risen In Eternity! Unknown, unprolific! Self-closd, all-repelling: what Demon Hath form’d this abominable void This soul-shudd’ring vacuum? – Some said ‘It is Urizen’, But unknown, abstracted Brooding secret, the dark power hid. (1.1–7, e70)

This creature is very different to the bearded Ancient of Days by means of which he is usually presented in Blake’s works; rather, he appears as a form worthy of Milton’s hell, where from the eternal fires ‘No light, but rather darkness visible / Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe’ (2.62–4). Urizen is a parody of the 166

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creator god, struggling with a chaotic, amorphous world of matter in which ‘beast, bird, fish, serpent & element’ merge and fight to take shape. This is a double parody, for not only is Blake’s work using the creation of the world as presented in Genesis ironically, but there is no need for this abominable act to take place at all: while Urizen seeks to assert control over the horrors he has called into existence, his fellow Eternals stand around in bemusement, wondering why he has set himself this despairing task when the universe already exists. Urizen’s answer is that he seeks ‘for a joy without pain, / For a solid without fluctuation’ (4.10–11, e71) – for, ultimately, a world without death, not realizing that all things are intimately tied to their contraries. Urizen, sitting alone with his ‘Book / Of eternal brass’, cannot endure change and so is reduced to a state of death-in-life, one dominated by ‘One command, one joy, one desire . . . One King, one God, one Law’ (4.38–40, e72). It is in Urizen that one of these Eternals, Los, is properly introduced to us, rather than as a secondary character as in Europe (following the current conventions for dating The Book of Los and The Song of Los as having been produced after The Book of Urizen). Los appears in chapter three, after another remarkable scene of false creation, in this case of a black globe, the ‘vast world of Urizen’ (5.37, e73),which shuts him off from the other Eternals and, in dreadful irony considering his search for joy without pain, for life without death, condemns him both to agony, madness and the shadow of death. For those used to the noble, calm figure of Los the prophet who appears in the later illuminated books, this first appearance of the Eternal who will serve as Blake’s alter ego comes as something of a shock: Los wept howling around the dark Demon: And cursing his lot; for in anguish, Urizen was rent from his side; 167

divine images The First Book of Urizen, Copy C, Plate 7, title page, relief etching, colour printed with hand colouring on paper.

And a fathomless void for his feet; And intense fires for his dwelling. (6.2–6, e73–4)

Rather than the quietly heroic figure who guides Albion from death in Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, in The Book of Urizen Los is an agonized individual, full of terror and apparently resentful of his task to watch over Urizen who, it appears, has been created from him. One characteristic that is established even at this early stage, however, is Los’s profession: he is a 168

A New System of Mythology The First Book of Urizen, Copy C, Plate 8, title page, relief etching, colour printed with hand colouring on paper.

blacksmith, one who labours at his furnaces to give form to his fellow eternal who, utterly unconscious now and trapped in deathly stillness, is in danger of losing all identity completely. To complete his labours, Los begins one of the most gruesome examples of a creation myth ever to be written:


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5. Restless turnd the immortal inchain’d Heaving dolorous! Anguish’d! unbearable Till a roof shaggy wild inclos’d In an orb, his fountain of thought. 6. In a horrible dreamful slumber; Like the linked infernal chain; A vast Spine writh’d in torment Upon the winds; shooting pain’d Ribs, like a bending cavern And bones of solidness, froze Over all his nerves of joy. And a first Age passed over, And a state of dismal woe. 7. From the caverns of his jointed Spine, Down sunk with fright a red Round globe hot burning deep Deep down into the Abyss: Panting: Conglobing, Trembling Shooting out ten thousand branches Around his solid bones. And a second Age passed over, And a state of dismal woe. (10.31–11.9, e75–6)

The First Book of Urizen, Copy C, Plate 9, title page, relief etching, colour printed with hand colouring on paper.

Having completed this terrible labour, Los unsurprisingly shrinks back, appalled by his handiwork just as Victor Frankenstein withdraws from his own creation. In this instance, however, Los also realizes that the act of giving form to Urizen has closed him into the fallen world, limited him to an existence of five senses cut off from the other Eternals. In anguish, his body begins to divide once more, another parody of the Book of Genesis: instead of God creating Eve from the rib of Adam, Enitharmon is formed 171

divine images from a globe of blood, branching out into fibrous roots and ‘All Eternity shudderd at sight / Of the first female now separate’ (18.9–10, e78). While those Eternals flee in horror from this scene (and, it must be admitted, every act of creation in The Book of Urizen appears grotesque to a lesser or greater degree), Los pities her and embraces her, a sexual act that ends with the birth of a child Orc. This primal family scene, here taking place in a kind of hell rather than the Garden of Eden from which Adam and Eve were expelled, is one of the most clearly Oedipal in all of Blake’s works: suffering jealousy towards Enitharmon’s love for her child, Los forms a chain from his own body with which to bind his son. These descriptions form a dreadful parody of the creation of the world and of the first man and first woman. They are an utterly astonishing reworking of the first chapters of Genesis and are accompanied by truly incredible images. A number of the illuminated plates are images with no accompanying text, such as that depicting Urizen drowning in the waters of the material world he has created, or him weeping as he is chained in the dark, cavernous world he has called into existence. Others depict the horror of the creation of the fallen human form, as when Los cries out amid the flames of his furnace when he sees the dead, shrivelled body of Urizen that he must bring to life, or leans forwards in agony, a globe of blood forming the embryo from which Enitharmon will be born. These images are abominable, horrific and utterly sublime, a truly catastrophic attempt to envisage the world as a fallen disaster calling out for revolution. The book ends with a final parody of Genesis as Urizen, setting out to explore the world in which he finds himself as a demiurge, enslaves his own children until at last one of them, Fuzon, rises up to lead his siblings to freedom: So Fuzon call’d all together The remaining children of Urizen: 172

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And they left the pendulous earth: They called it Egypt, & left it. (28.19–22, e83)

The [First] Book of Urizen was the most ambitious project of Blake’s new mythology by 1794; while he would attempt to supersede it with The Four Zoas, at this stage he provided a complex, often obscure, but also fairly coherent cosmology. The first stage of understanding his bizarre world is to realize that there are at times close parallels between Urizen and the Book of Genesis, particularly as the creation of the world is refracted through Milton’s Paradise Lost. Thus the interactions of Los and Enitharmon in the fallen globe of Urizen’s world is a parody of the creation of Eve in the Garden of Eden, while Urizen’s attempts to remove himself from the Eternals reflect the war in heaven after which Satan is cast out by Messiah into hell. The work then ends with a final parody of the closing chapters of Genesis where Joseph leads his brothers into Egypt, foreshadowing the story of Moses and the exodus out of bondage. Blake’s telling is often obscure, nearly always horrific, but unlike some of the other Lambeth Prophecies, such as Europe a Prophecy or The Song of Los, he anchors his story in one that is much more familiar to create a highly allegorical account of the creation and fall of man. What that story means is considerably more difficult to ascertain: Northrop Frye argued convincingly that the purpose of Urizen and its companion books, Ahania and Los, was to use imagination to demonstrate the falsity of a Newtonian view of the universe as ‘a vast collection of particles held together automatically by an unconscious power’,7 a view of the cosmos he equated with deism. Mitchell draws attention to the complexity of the work, how it is designed with ‘many more dividing, compartmentalizing elements than we find in the earlier Lambeth books’,8 a complexity that is increased when we consider that readers of Blake’s originals would have also had to contend with unstable, different copies with 173

divine images plates in different orders. It is a revolutionary epic not merely in its subject matter – a rewrite of Genesis via Milton – but also its form: the reader is not given the single path of truth but instead must allow their senses to expand, to be infused with the creative impulse that will allow them to see the universe in an entirely new fashion. Blake’s boldness is not to show the cosmos anew, but to furnish the reader with the tools of creation (rather like Los’s hammer and forge) by means of which they can make that cosmos in their imagination. Eron, drawing upon the interpretation that Urizen deals with the creation of humanity at the moment of the fall and is thus a radical critique of ‘our standards of both divine and artistic creation’, describes it as a story of how both god and man allowed themselves to fall into blindness and obscurity.9 The Book of Ahania and The Book of Los are much shorter works than The Book of Urizen. Ahania comprises six plates, two of which are a frontispiece and a title page, while The Book of Los consists of five plates (again, with a title page and frontispiece). It may have been that these were always intended as shorter additions to the first of the Urizen books, but it is also likely that, after the effort of producing The [First] Book of Urizen, Blake was beginning to realize that the potential audience for his illuminated prophecies was very small and so was conserving energies for other tasks. Ahania tells the story of Fuzon, the son of Urizen introduced in the previous volume, who has taken on the role of Moses to lead the other children of Urizen to freedom. In Ahania he now assumes the characteristics of Orc, rebelling against his father and making explicit the relationship between Orc and Urizen that has been at least implicit since the very beginning: Shall we worship this Demon of smoke, Said Fuzon, this abstract non-entity This cloudy God seated on waters Now seen, now obscur’d; King of sorrow? (2.10–14, e84) 174

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These words could easily have been spoken by Orc in America, and yet the ambivalence of Blake’s attitudes towards Fuzon are much clearer in this work. When Fuzon thinks he has killed his father, his first response is: ‘I am God, said he, eldest of things!’ (3.38, e86). Revolution has become repression, and when Urizen rises from his living death to slay his son with a serpent before nailing him to a tree in a parody of the crucifixion, Fuzon has become an object of contempt. This is the point where Blake’s ambivalence towards Christianity is at its greatest: this may indeed be the case in the bitter representation of Christ, but it is just as likely that Blake’s bitterness remains, as it always was, towards those misrepresentations of the divine that manifested themselves as much in Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being as in conventional religion. Ahania, Fuzon’s mother, wails around the tree of her son, a repetition of the primal Oedipal scene that will be re-enacted again and again with Los, Enitharmon and Orc. In The Book of Los, however, what we are presented with is not this family tragedy that had been introduced in Urizen but, rather, another recreation event, this time to fix Los himself into the world: Then aloft his head rear’d in the Abyss And his downward-borne fall. chang’d oblique Many ages of groans: till there grew Branchy forms. organizing the Human Into finite inflexible organs. (4.41–5, e92)

In The Book of Los, as in The [First] Book of Urizen, Blake combines two parts of Milton’s Paradise Lost into one: the creation of man and the fall of Satan into hell. Unlike most creation myths, Blake is very clear that there is a world prior to this, that Urizen first and Los after him are fashioning inferior versions of the universe, limiting their perceptions and their actions. The book 175

divine images ends with Los in this fallen world, creating a sun to illuminate the day, while Urizen, still prone, cannot awake from this living nightmare. With The Book of Los and The Song of Los, Blake concluded two incredible mythological cycles, one which sought to offer a visionary history of the world, the other a retelling of the Bible and Milton as a fall into error. These Lambeth Prophecies as a whole represent one of the most startling sets of imaginative storytelling ever created: in the twenty-first century we are used to writers, artists and film-makers engaging in world making as a task that all artists do, but when Blake was creating his cosmos of Urizen and Orc, Los and Enitharmon, he had little in the way of guidance. In addition to the ambition of his myth-making, Blake was doing so via a medium that had not been used to present stories in this way since the medieval ages, creating illuminated books that challenged readers’ expectations via their form as well as their words. The lack of an audience was not helped by Blake’s own struggles to master his material, and it was clear that the attempt to tell the story of his Eternals was full of dead ends and false leads. Fuzon who, as a parody of Moses and Christ, offers a clear satire on Blake’s vision of the ways in which both Old and New Testaments had been corrupted, does not appear again after The Book of Ahania. Blake did not abandon his other characters: they were still important to him in terms of making sense of the political and religious milieu of his day without succumbing to the systems and beliefs of others. He would continue to work at and reshape them over the following years, to try and tell their story in a more coherent form. In the process of doing so, his Eternals would take on a new name: the Zoas. Even then he would struggle to present them in a form that found an easy audience, but in so naming them he gave them a life that would eventually give them a readership far beyond the limitations of his day.


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Experiments in Colour Printing During his time at Lambeth, Blake’s experiments with printing extended beyond his illuminated books. At the same time that he was working on The Book of Ahania and The Book of Los, he also produced what the editors of the Blake Archive call some of ‘his greatest works as a pictorial artist’: the large colour prints. These images, which include his depiction of Newton looking down at the abstract drawing he is measuring with a compass, a good and an evil angel struggling for possession of a child, and Nebuchadnezzar staring out, wild-eyed, at the viewer, his face and body covered with bestial hair, easily include some of the most famous that Blake ever produced. Martin Butlin described them as ‘the first really mature individual works in the visual arts that Blake produced’ and ‘probably the most accomplished, forceful and effective of Blake’s works’.10 Along with his illustration of the Ancient of Days, which formed the preface to Europe a Prophecy, and the print better known as Glad Day, but now usually referred to by the inscription on the back, Albion Rose, these form a collection of Blake’s most famous images that for most people define his status as an artist. The subjects are drawn from a variety of sources: the Bible, Milton and Shakespeare, as well as his own personal mythology. Before considering three of these in greater detail, it is worth considering the technique that he employed for eleven of the twelve designs. One of them, God Judging Adam, appears to have been printed from a copperplate etching in relief, similar to the means by which he produced his illuminated books, but the others followed a highly innovative form. Frederick Tatham described the process of their production to Gilchrist for his biography, explaining that Blake took a common thick millboard, and drew in some strong ink or colour his design upon it strong and thick. He then painted 177

divine images upon that in such oil colours and in such a state of fusion that they would blur well. He painted roughly and quickly, so that no colour would have time to dry. He then took a print of that on paper, and this impression he coloured up in water-colours, re-painting his outline on the millboard when he wanted to take another print. This plan he had recourse to, because he could vary slightly each impression; and each having a sort of accidental look, he could branch out so as to make each one different. The accidental look they had was very enticing. (Life i.431) Once the main impression of the image was made on paper, Blake would then work this up with watercolours and ink, and there are at least two distinct printing sessions when he made these large colour prints: one in 1795 and another using the same designs in 1805 (during which time he may also have returned to some of the original impressions to rework them). The ‘accidental look’ to which Tatham refers is one of the more astonishing features of this collection of prints, bearing many similarities to the technique used by some of the Surrealists in the early twentieth century and known as ‘decalcomania’. That process, which was only named in the mid-nineteenth century but was invented in the 1750s, involved creating a transfer that could be applied to other surfaces such as porcelain (called decals today). Blake may have been completely unaware of this process, but his own technique, drawing on millboard and then pressing paper across the wet ink or colour, is very similar to that by means of which Max Ernst or Óscar Domínguez produced the fluid backgrounds to some of their works. Joseph Viscomi corrects some of the technical details of Tatham’s account, observing that gum- and glue-based colours are used for monotype printing, which creates unusual textured effects via printing from smooth surfaces such as glass or stone – or, indeed, Blake’s millboard sealed with glue size or gesso, chalk 178

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or whiting mixed with size and painted over the board to create a white surface.11 It was McManus and Townsend, working on microscopic samples taken from the Tate’s collection of the large colour prints, who established they had been printed with gumbased pigments, which although sharing some similarities with the techniques that Blake employed in some of his watercolours, were layered so thickly that they created the serendipitous patterning – what Tatham called an ‘accidental look’ and which Blake considered so enticing.12 It is this mottled effect that so catches the reader’s eye in the most widely reproduced of all the large colour prints, Newton. In this image, a highly idealized version of the mathematician sits naked upon a rock, a robe thrown across one shoulder as he reaches forwards to measure an abstract pattern drawn upon a white scroll before him. Isaac Newton had appeared briefly in Europe, where he had blown the trumpet that announced the millennial end of the old order, but throughout the late 1790s and into the nineteenth century Newton would come to take on a more significant role in Blake’s works. In Milton a Poem he appears a number of times and the first mention of him provides a significant insight into why Blake started to view the astronomer and mathematician as a troubling figure: O Satan my youngest born, art thou not Prince of the Starry Hosts And of the Wheels of Heaven, to turn the Mills day & night? Art thou not Newtons Pantocrator weaving the Woof of Locke To Mortals thy Mills seem every thing (4.9–12, e98)

The reference to the pantocrator is an unusual one for most modern readers. While we tend to know Newton as the man 179

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who formulated the rules of gravity and separated light into the colours of the spectrum, he was a figure as much concerned with theology as he was science. In an appendix to the second edition of the Principia mathematica in 1713, Newton addressed how the universe had come into being: This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. And if the fixed Stars are the centers of other like systems, these, being form’d by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed Stars is of the same nature with the light of the Sun, and from every system light passes into all 180

Newton, 1795– c. 1805, colour printing with watercolour and pen and ink on paper.

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the other systems. And lest the systems of the fixed Stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually, he hath placed those Systems at immense distances from one another.13 Newton called this intelligent and powerful being ‘Lord God Pantokrator, or Universal Ruler’ and stated that, in contrast to the typical conceptions of a personal god, this perfect deity had complete power and complete knowledge but did not intervene in the affairs of his creation: rather, he had established those perfect rules by which the universe could function from ‘Eternity to Eternity’. This understanding of the divine, an impersonal, all-powerful deity who set in motion the wheels of the universe, would become increasingly identified with Blake as deism. That Newton himself, like Locke, avoided the term – in public at least – was irrelevant to Blake: these two giants of British intellectual life had defined the science, politics and philosophy of the country throughout the eighteenth century. For Blake, they also defined the religious attitudes of the elite: God had set the universe in motion just so, and thus it was in accordance with his preordained laws of nature that the world operated according to its apparent injustices. For Blake, such an attitude became increasingly detestable for a society caught in the throes of revolution. Deism is identified by Blake in his later works with Urizen and with Satan (a very different take from his attitudes towards devils in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). Urizen, the ‘mistaken Demon of Heaven’, is a false creator in The Book of Urizen, and it is evident that Blake’s developing conflict with Newton is as much to do with his notions of religion as science. In a letter to Thomas Butts dated 22 November 1802, Blake includes a poem that ends: ‘May God us keep / From Single Vision & Newtons sleep’ (e722). The imposition of a particular way of looking at the world – literally in the case of Newton’s Opticks, metaphorically in the Principia – is reflected in his view of divinity. As Richard Westfall observes: 181

divine images ‘The concept of pantocrator caught Newton’s imagination and held it. The word appeared repeatedly throughout the theological papers from his final years. Autocrat over all that is.’14 From his very first illuminated books to his final poems, Blake rejects the notion of an all-powerful deity out there, preferring instead the god of the human imagination, the divine image of mercy, pity, peace and love rather than the all-powerful pantocrator of deism. Leo Damrosch is correct to point out that for all Blake ‘criticized Newton’s assumptions as reductive, he nevertheless had a generous admiration for Newton’s genius’.15 But then, Blake had a particular appreciation for Satan – and not as the revolutionary voice of the Devil in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In a painting for Thomas Butts, executed around 1805, Blake depicts Satan in his Original Glory with the caption ‘Thou was Perfect till Iniquity was Found in Thee’. Newton too is perfect – too perfect: self-regarding, sure that he has discovered all the secrets of the universe, what we may see is the moment of his fall into an entirely self-regarding, Urizenic false creation, ignoring the natural beauties around him in preference for the closed-in void of his mathematics. The fame of Newton makes it one of those images by Blake truly worthy the epithet of ‘iconic’, but other prints from the 1795 series have attracted considerable attention. His design of The Good and Evil Angels expands upon a design presented at the bottom of Plate 4 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which a blue-tinged angel above water holds a child while a red-skinned devil emerges from the flames of hell. In the earlier illuminated book, this illustration accompanies the first plate that conveys the voice of the Devil – in this instance, outlining the errors of conventional religion in separating body and soul and concluding: ‘Energy is Eternal Delight’. This conflict between body and soul is apparent in the later print, and yet there is something more ambivalent, even frightening, about it: the Devil, with hair like 182

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that of Orc in America a Prophecy, seems blind, with staring eyeballs that appear to terrify the child who flees to the good angel’s arms. In the aftermath of the Terror, it is tempting to see Blake as drawing back a little from his earlier, eager assertion, but it is perhaps more accurate to observe that the Revolution arose from a failure to marry reason and desire, heaven and hell. It was the repression of the people’s energy under Urizenic reason that resulted in an explosion of violence in the 1790s. That Blake has not rejected his earlier revolutionary principles is clear from the biblical subjects that he treats in the book. In God Judging Adam, The House of Death and Elohim Creating Adam, Jehovah appears in all three as a bearded, despotic figure, more akin to Blake’s critique of ‘One King, One God, One Law’ in The Book of Urizen. The most sinister of these is that of the creation of Adam: God floats above Adam with the titanic wings of one of the Seraphim, his white hair a halo and his face unseeing, almost as blind as that of the evil angel. His form is framed in a bloody sun while dark clouds and thunders blacken the horizon: beneath him lies Adam, groaning in torment as he is pulled unwillingly from the earth, his body wrapped around with a coiled serpent. A later print from near the end of Blake’s life makes it clearer how we are to read this strange, disturbing image: in ‘Job’s Evil Dreams’ from The Book of Job, Job lies tormented in his bed while Satan takes on the form of God, this false deity being wrapped around with serpents. The print from 1795, then, shares much with The Book of Urizen, depicting the God of the Old Testament as a false demiurge who, like Urizen, forces into existence a fallen world. The large colour prints are an astonishing series, but they were not the only works that Blake produced during this time. As Viscomi observes, 1795 was an annus mirabilis for Blake, seeing him begin work on the designs for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts as well as three illuminated books. The next year he was also commissioned by his friend Ozias Humphry to print a selection from 183

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his books that could be presented without words. This collection of 23 prints is now known as A Small Book of Designs and shows some of the innovative ways in which Blake could adapt his work for an art collector’s market even if, as was becoming quite clear, there was not a large audience for his prophetic works. This Small Book is interesting in that it demonstrates Blake’s increasing interest in experimenting with different types of production, in this case colour printing, but no new illustrations. This was not the case for A Large Book of Designs, a companion set to the Small Book, which as well as reproducing plates from Thel, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, America and Urizen, included prints from designs originally executed as intaglio engravings, but in this 184

Elohim Creating Adam, 1795– c. 1805, colour printing with watercolour and pen and ink on paper.

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instance colour-printed in a style similar to that used for Newton and the other large colour prints. Of these two designs, ‘The Accusers of Theft Adultery Murder’ and ‘Albion Rose’, the latter is one of the most significant. Blake would print it a number of times during his lifetime, and it represents his ideal vision of Albion, the character who will come to dominate his later prophecies. In this image, Albion appears as a kind of Vitruvian man, an ideal form of both humanity and the country. It was previously known as Glad Day, according to a mistaken attribution in Gilchrist, but the inscription on the back, which was added at a later date, reads: The Good and Evil Angels, 1795–c. 1805, colour printing with watercolour and pen and ink on paper.

Albion rose from where he laboured at the Mill with Slaves Giving himself for the Nations he danc’d the dance of Eternal Death (e671)


divine images We shall return to this vision of Albion and what it meant for Blake’s conception of his country in future chapters. What is clear in 1790 is that Blake’s new system of mythology was recreating politics in ways that many of his contemporaries would have found increasingly obscure. While the Terror had raged and then come to a halt across the Channel, leading to greater repression in London, Blake had begun to work in a more elliptical style, transferring his thoughts on the events of the day into a bizarre and strange cosmology. The poor sales of his work indicated at the very least that he was not a particularly good salesman for these visions, nor indeed that there was a market for them. Yet his ambition was astonishing: the Urizen books were nothing less than an attempt to rewrite the history of Judaeo-Christianity in a more radical form, and if few of his contemporaries encountered the prints of Newton or mad Nebuchadnezzar, half-bestial from his time in the wilderness, these would become some of the most easily recognizable images of British art.



Night Thoughts and The Four Zoas


he great artistic flourishing of Blake’s Lambeth Prophecies did not, unfortunately, bring with it the kind of commercial success that would have supported him and Catherine. From 1793 onwards the continent would be at war – with only one sustained cessation of violence – for the next two decades, and by the late 1790s William and Catherine were beginning to suffer the kind of exigency that threw many families into crisis in Britain. Their personal circumstances may also have been greatly affected by the possibility that it was Catherine who was the ‘Cathn. Blake’ listed as a patient at the British Lying-in Hospital in Holborn on 26 August 1796 (br 73). Very few particulars are recorded, suggesting that the patient had suffered a miscarriage: as Bentley observes, it is impossible to know for certain if this was the poet’s wife, although Tristanne Connolly has suggested that such an event would provide some insights into Blake’s repeated motif of nightmarish birth.1 Even without this tragedy, the final years of the eighteenth century were becoming increasingly grim for the Blakes. Abroad, the Directory had taken over the role of the Committee of Public Safety with the fall of Robespierre and sought to establish a period of stability after the Terror. Although the Jacobin club was closed and Jacobin armed uprisings quelled, radicals still played a role 187

divine images in the Directory. In Britain anti-Jacobin sentiment had become widespread as news of the Terror had filtered through the country, and it was during this period that many of those in Britain who had supported the Revolution turned their backs on it even as other groups, most notably the United Irishmen, became ever more radicalized and desperate. This was now an age of war, most clearly espoused in the remarkable career of Napoleon Bonaparte, and while that war ultimately profited those groups who had most to gain from the expansion of a nascent British Empire, many of those working in the arts suffered greatly. Blake was one of them, yet in the immediate aftermath of the production of his Lambeth Prophecies he had great hopes for a new and extremely ambitious project.

Night Thoughts In the early spring of 1797 the following prospectus was issued: edwards’s magnificent edition of young’s night thoughts. early in june will be published, by subscription, part the first of a splendid edition of this favorite work, elegantly printed, and illustrated with forty very spirited engravings from original drawings by blake. These engravings are in a perfectly new style of decoration, surrounding the text which they are designed to elucidate. The work is printed in atlas-sized quarto, and the subscription for the whole, making four parts, with one hundred and fifty engravings, is five guineas; – one to be paid at the time of subscribing, and one on the delivery of each part. – The price will be considerably advanced to non-subscribers. 188

Night Thoughts, title page, 1797, intaglio engraving, handcoloured, on paper.

divine images Specimens may be seen at edwards’s, No 142, New BondStreet; at Mr. edwards’s, Pall-Mall; and at the historic gallery, Pall-Mall; where subscriptions are received. (br 78–9) This advertisement, issued by Richard Edwards, represented the next stage of a major project that had begun two years earlier, when he commissioned Blake to produce a series of 537 illus­ trations to a popular book of meditational verse, The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality. This poem, by Edward Young, had been regularly in print since its first appearance in the 1740s. Blake had known Richard’s elder brother, James, for a number of years, having been commissioned by him and Joseph Johnson to produce engravings for Henry Fuseli’s Milton Gallery in 1791, an ambitious project that was only completed in 1799. The Milton Gallery had been envisaged as a successor to the Shakespeare Gallery, opened by the Alderman and publisher John Boydell in 1786, which was followed by the ‘Historic Gallery’ (illustrating Hume’s History of England) referenced in Edwards’s advertisement; such projects were intended both to promote an English school of art and also to make a great deal of money – in the case of Boydell, ‘to harmonize a commercial discourse with an aesthetic one’.2 By the mid-1790s, however, such literary galleries had run their course, with contents from the Boydell gallery selling at auctions for two-thirds of their original price, so that by the end Fuseli ‘could scarcely expect a commercial success’.3 One of Boydell’s imitators, Thomas Macklin, had set up two similar ventures, a Poets’ and a Bible Gallery, the latter of which included a lottery. The scope for such projects was huge: artists were commissioned at up to £1,000 for a painting, with engravers gaining fees of up to £800 for a single folio plate – all of it encouraged by the booming book market of the late 1780s and early 1790s.4 190

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Richard Edwards had come to London from Halifax in 1789, learning the book trade before setting up as a publisher in Bond Street. He produced ‘Church-and-King’ pamphlets of a very different nature to the more radical publications offered by Johnson, and sold a modest range of books. His tastes, as Bentley observes, were ‘strongly conformist’, and the project to illustrate Young must have seemed reasonable even though the conservative publisher and radical engraver could not have seemed more different. Both, however, were artists and craftsmen, and – probably aided by Fuseli – Blake and Edwards embarked on ‘the most ambitious commercial work ever undertook’.5 The landscape painter Joseph Farington, who was no admirer of Blake’s works, recorded an account of the project in his diary in 1796: Blake has undertaken to make designs to encircle the letter press of each page of ‘Young’s night thoughts[’]. Edwards the Bookseller, of Bond Str. employs him, and has had the letter press of each page laid down on a large half sheet of paper. There are abt. 900 pages. – Blake asked 100 guineas for the whole. Edwards said He could not afford to give more than 20 guineas for which Blake agreed. – Fuseli understands that Edwards proposes to select about 200 from the whole and to have that number engraved as decorations for a new edition.6 Night Thoughts had been composed by the poet and clergyman Edward Young between 1742 and 1746. Written as a series of nine ‘Nights’ in blank verse, during the late eighteenth century it was widely seen as the most important religious work since Milton’s Paradise Regained and was ‘to be found side by side with the Holy Book in almost every pious household’.7 The so-called ‘graveyard school’ of poetry to which it belonged was immensely popular during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and included 191

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Night Thoughts, Plate 25, intaglio engraving, handcoloured, on paper.

Robert Blair’s The Grave, Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ and James Hervey’s ‘Meditations among the Tombs’: the fact that these writers appear again and again in Blake’s illustrative work indicates that he, too, considered them much more highly than later generations of readers. As Rodney Edgecombe observes, the ‘medieval ars moriendi never really died as a genre, but rather went underground’ before resurfacing in secular contexts.8 192

Night Thoughts and The Four Zoas Night Thoughts, Plate 73, hand-coloured intaglio engraving on paper.

Michael Farrell, citing Stephen Cornford, notes that Young’s poem is full of the self-questioning introspection familiar to such poetry in the eighteenth century, which although shaped by the age of Newton and Locke was also a reaction to the dryness of deism and a reassertion of the ‘religion of the heart’.9 The opening of the poem begins with a somewhat dour and melancholy invocation:


divine images Tir’d nature’s sweet Restorer, balmy Sleep! He, like the World, his ready visit pays, Where Fortune smiles; the wretched he forsakes: Swift on his downy pinion flies from Woe, And lights on Lids unsully’d with a Tear. From short, (as usual) and disturb’d Repose, I wake: How happy they who wake no more! Yet that were vain, if Dreams infest the Grave. I wake, emerging from a Sea of Dreams Tumultuous; where my wreck’d, desponding Thought From wave to wave of fancy’d Misery, At random drove, her helm of Reason lost; Though now restor’d, ’tis only Change of pain, A bitter change; severer for severe: The Day too short for my Distress! and Night Even in the Zenith of her dark Domain, Is Sun-shine, to the colour of my Fate. (i.1–17)

The poet’s gloominess is both aberration (his reason must be restored) and also, in its own way, a critique of reason – for as the poem demonstrates again and again, it is only through the certainty of the Christian faith that man can find purpose for his existence. Although an unpopular genre now, it is also easy to see how the verse would have appealed to Blake beyond its Christian themes. The subject of these opening lines is familiar from Hamlet, one of those examples of secular ars moriendi referred to by Edgecombe, in which the uncertainty of whether we dream in death is a cause for troubled sleep, but it is also expounded in a highly metaphorical language that proved to be immensely fertile ground for Blake’s imagination. Working his way through the pages provided by Edwards, Blake marked on each page the line or lines that would provide inspiration for his work. In the above example, the first page is surrounded with an image of a figure 194

Night Thoughts and The Four Zoas Night Thoughts, Plate 12, intaglio engraving on paper.

lying asleep in clothes while a winged spirit descends, ‘Swift on his downy pinion[s]’. Perhaps nowhere in Blake’s work is he more clearly, in the words of W. B. Yeats, ‘a too literal realist of imagination, as others are of nature’:10 where other artists were content to allude to the personifications and apostrophes of poetry in the Augustan age, Blake makes them into vivid and literal symbols, 195

divine images and indeed the illustrations to Night Thoughts include some of the most startling ever produced by Blake. ‘Night the Second’ begins with a motif that would be used by Blake again in The Grave, in which a muscular, naked form descends with trumpet outstretched above a skeleton that is rising from its rest, a literal envisioning of the resurrection. Sometimes the illustrations are more allusive, demonstrating Blake’s visual imagination working alongside Young’s text, as in the illustration to plate 46, which shows a naked woman, long hair blowing freely about her body, about to be covered by some white-haired figure with a shroud, illustrating the lines: Where Sense runs savage broke from Reason’s chain, And sings false peace, till smother’d by the pall. (iii.52–3)

Young’s words are dire and foreboding, yet it is hard not to see in Blake’s illustration some reference to his personal mythology of figures such as Oothoon, fleeing a Urizenic demon who wishes to return her to slavery rather than expand her perceptions. That he was, inevitably, carrying that personal mythology from the Lambeth Prophecies with him can be seen in other illustrations, such as that for plate 95, which depicts the goddess of thunder in a visual iconography that calls to mind Orc. Alongside such private elements, however, are some of Blake’s most powerful examples of his belief in Christ, such as his image of ‘The Christian Triumph’, showing Christ, youthful and vigorous, leaping from the clouds that represent his grave; as Naomi Billingsley observes, these and many others of the images throughout Night Thoughts ‘endeavour to regenerate Young’s poem through a dynamic of creative conflict’.11 Blake’s illustrations, then, were complex and little short of astonishing, befitting such an ambitious project. Unfortunately, however, Night Thoughts appeared ‘at a most unfortunate juncture’ 196

Night Thoughts and The Four Zoas Night Thoughts, Plate 31, intaglio engraving on paper.

because of the banking crash of 1797 (br 80). A series of downturns in Atlantic credit markets led to the Bank of England suspending specie payments on 25 February: following the passing of the Bank Restriction Act, which would remain in force until 1821, the Bank was no longer required to convert banknotes into gold. Overprinting had resulted in too many notes in circulation so that the Bank was losing its supply of gold; longer-term problems had been evident in the collapse of banks in the north of England, but the immediate cause for passing the Act was invasion by French forces at 197

divine images Night Thoughts, Plate 43, intaglio engraving on paper.

Fishguard on 22–24 February. A run on the bank was feared at precisely that time when the total face value of notes in circulation was double that of the gold reserves. As Thora Brylowe observes, the effects of the Restriction Act, as well as the wars with France, were widespread and had a negative effect on the economy. Prior to 1793, when the Bank of England had introduced the £5 note, the smallest denomination was £20, and even smaller-value notes were introduced after 1797 when the Bank’s reserves went from 198

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£16 million to under £2 million in less than two weeks.12 Forgery was rife, resulting in the arrest of thousands and, as it remained a capital offence until the laws began to soften after 1801, a number of executions. Indeed, Blake was one of nineteen engravers who, early in 1797, signed a testimonial for an engraving process invented by Alexander Tilloch designed to prevent bank forgeries (br 78). Many of those in London, for whom paper money was still a novelty, did not trust the currency. It was into this environment that Blake and Edwards attempted to launch one of the most ambitious book projects of the eighteenth century. Only four of the nine nights appeared, a total of 43 of the projected series of 150 engravings. During this time Blake’s contact with other engravers and artists had been dwindling, drying up his potential for work and forcing him to rely on the Night Thoughts project for his income. He was paid £21 for the 537 watercolour drawings that he produced, but we do not know how much he received for the final engravings. Based on other commissions, he could have expected over £200, but Bentley speculates that he was probably paid in kind, at least in part, receiving printed copies that he could then colour and sell on his own. In any case, his ‘investment of time and reputation in Edwards’s edition of Young’s Night Thoughts went largely unrewarded’,13 and by the end of the decade he and Catherine were in increasingly desperate straits.

The End of Revolution The close of the 1790s saw the end of revolution, both in terms of the final suppression of revolutionary activities in the British Isles and the overthrow of the Directory by Napoleon. The assump­­ tion of Napoleon to the role of First Consul had been presaged to a degree by the replacement of the Convention by the Directory, a governing executive of five members, and an Assembly of upper 199

divine images and lower houses on the British and American models. This model was an outcome of a new constitution of 1795, which, it was hoped, would mark an end to the chaos in France that had been a hallmark of the Terror. But the Directory proved weak and was easily usurped when Napoleon returned from his expedition in Egypt. As Adam Zamoyski remarks, the young Napoleon was ‘by all accounts a puny child’, yet in the first years of the nineteenth century he would restore to France ‘a greatness she had not known since the days of Charlemagne’.14 The role of Emperor suited Napoleon greatly, and Samuel Palmer told Gilchrist that Blake himself had once made the eccentric observation that ‘the Bonaparte of Italy was killed and that another one was somehow substituted from the exigent want of the name, who was the Bonaparte of Empire’ (Life i.373). Blake makes two direct references to Bonaparte, in a letter to William Hayley in 1804 and in the draft Public Address to announce the sale of his print of the Canterbury Pilgrims from 1809–10, where he wrote that it is empire that follows the arts, not arts that attend upon empire (e577). Both were fairly hostile to Bonaparte, although this may be as much due to the fears aroused by his trial in 1804 as to personal dislike for Napoleon and, if Palmer recollected the conversation correctly, it is possible that Blake was indulging in a kind of conspir­ acy theory that indicated he showed some support for the early Napoleon. Born in Corsica to a modest family of minor nobility, Napoleon was serving as an artillery officer when the French Revolution began. Rising rapidly through the ranks due to a mixture of his own considerable talents and the fact that many higher-ranking nobles were fleeing France (and their commissions) as the Revolution progressed, he was finally given command of the army of Italy by the Directory after suppressing a royalist rebellion in Paris in October 1795 – the incident where he used cannon and 200

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the ‘whiff of grapeshot’ to disperse the rebels. Having married Joséphine de Beauharnais, the widow of Alexandre de Beauharnais, a general and political leader who had been guillotined during the Terror, Napoleon’s campaign in Italy established French control throughout the peninsula. His successes made him a hero in Paris and in 1797 he drove the Austrians from Italy; with new republics in the Italian peninsula and in Switzerland – the latter event causing Coleridge to finally turn his back on the Revolution as recorded in his poem ‘France, an Ode’ – this established the might of France on the Continent. Seeking to weaken British access to India, he led the invasion force of Egypt in 1798; although his army was forced to withdraw (the wounded being left to die) after the Battle of the Nile, in which Horatio Nelson destroyed the French fleet, Napoleon was able to return to France; on 9 November 1799 – 18 Brumaire in the new calendar established by the revolutionary government – he led the coup d’état that would establish him eventually as First Consul and truly mark the end of the Revolution. In Britain, fears of insurrection, which became manifest as open rebellion in Ireland against the Crown during 1798, led to increased repression on the part of the authorities. The success of Paine’s Rights of Man, as well as the rise of pro-Jacobin support among radicals in the capital, caused Pitt’s government to pass the Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act (which defined as high treason any conspiracy to overthrow the constitution) and the Seditious Meetings Act (whereby any meeting of more than fifty people had to be approved by a magistrate). As noted in the previous chapter, these ‘Gagging Acts’ were to have a severe effect on radical activities in Britain during the period of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Nor were the effects of these new laws a distant abstraction to Blake: Joseph Johnson was among a number of booksellers who were arrested and tried for selling copies of Gilbert Wakefield’s A Reply to Some Parts of the 201

divine images Bishop Llandaff’s Address to the People of Great Britain. Published in 1798, Wakefield’s impassioned book denounced British ministers as worse than ‘the most merciless tyrants of ancient or modern times’, and scorned that they treated the death of their fellow countrymen as ‘no more . . . than the fall of an autumnal leaf in pathless desert’.15 Although Johnson employed Thomas Erskine, who had successfully defended Thomas Hardy and Horne Tooke in the treason trials of 1794, the times and laws had changed in the intervening years and he was fined £50 and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, which began in 1799. Such events may very well have been on Blake’s mind when he wrote in his copy of An Apology for the Bible that ‘To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life’ (e611). He also felt the effects of Johnson’s imprisonment in more immediate ways, as when he wrote in a letter to George Cumberland on 26 August 1799, ‘Even Johnson & Fuseli have discarded my Graver’ (e704). By this time Johnson was serving his sentence, while Fuseli was struggling with the financial difficulties created by fewer visitors than expected to his newly opened Milton Gallery. The trial of Johnson indicated some of the ways in which, from the mid-1790s onwards, London had become a much more dangerous place for anyone with revolutionary sympathies. The ‘Church-and-King’ mob that had attacked Joseph Priestley in 1791 had similar roots to the anti-Catholic rioters who had been roused by Lord George Gordon in 1780, but by the middle of the next decade anti-Jacobinism was being stirred up as part of a very effective attempt to stifle radicalism in London. The London Corresponding Society, founded in 1792, had quickly become the most influential of such societies and a link to provincial societies in Manchester and Norwich. The Society’s move to create a Convention in 1793, with all the attendant echoes of the French National Assembly, stirred the ire of Pitt’s government, which turned a blind eye to increasing acts of aggression from 1794 202

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onwards. The trial of Hardy marked the effective end of the lcs, but an immediate consequence was to radicalize further many who were not galled by the atrocities of the Terror but, instead, inspired to hope for violent revolution in the United Kingdom. By 1797, groups of United Englishman were forming in the capital and throughout the country, taking their inspiration from the United Irishmen and United Scotsmen, underground groups of radicals with links to the French.16 James Gillray’s Presages of the Millennium, with a spectral, deathly Pitt riding as Death on a white horse, may have mocked the prime minister alongside the swinish multitude represented by Charles James Fox, but his sardonic vision also captured the threats of violence at home and abroad in the final years of the century. If 1789 had been the birth of hope for many across Europe, 1799 marked the year when that hope failed.

The Four Zoas The final years of the 1790s were, then, increasingly dark for Blake, both because of the changing trajectory of the French Revolution and the counter-revolution in England, and for personal reasons following the collapse of the Night Thoughts project. And yet, out of this time of great crisis, Blake was also stimulated to write what would become, alongside the great illuminated poem Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, his most ambitious work: Vala; or, The Four Zoas. The immediate inspiration for this project, what one of its recent editors has called ‘one of the richest and most complex’ in Blake’s career,17 was twofold: the emerging mythology of the Lambeth Prophecies, which had evolved and developed during the 1790s, and Edward Young’s Night Thoughts itself. The influence of Young is immediately evident: first, proofs of the impressive illustrated volume literally provided the paper on which most of the 150 pages of the manuscript were written 203

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Vala; or, The Four Zoas, title page, c. 1797–1807, pen and ink, watercolour, pencil and charcoal on paper.

by Blake; second, Blake decided to write this epic poem as a series of nine nights. Beyond those two vital sources of inspiration, however, The Four Zoas bears as much relation to the graveyard poet as the writings of the Book of Revelation to those of Leviticus. The manuscript that survives was begun by Blake around 1796, when he was completing the engravings to Young, and worked on intermittently until 1807, when it appears to have been put aside. The near 150 pages are complex and messy, with opinions differing as to the order of the unnumbered pages. Northrop 204

Night Thoughts and The Four Zoas

Frye called it ‘the greatest abortive masterpiece in English literature’, while also asserting that nothing in English literature rivals ‘the colossal explosion of creative power in the Ninth Night of The Four Zoas.’18 Some pages exist in a clear copy, easily readable in Blake’s neat copperplate hand: others are a mess of crossings out, partial erasures and cross-writings that are extremely difficult to decipher and have always made the manuscript a difficult one to edit, not helped by decisions such as that whereby Blake divided the Seventh Night midway down page 95 and reversed the order of the parts. Likewise, the title of the work changed at some point during editing, the careful script of ‘Vala’ having been crossed out and replaced with ‘The Four Zoas’. For more than sixty years after his death, the manuscript was neglected: even Gilchrist and his collaborators on the Life of William Blake did not mention it, and it was only with the first complete edition of Blake’s poetry by W. B. Yeats and Edwin John Ellis in 1893 that a version became available, heavily edited (in some places beyond all recognition) by them. Yeats and Ellis criticized Gilchrist, the Rossettis and Swinburne, remarking that ‘the reader who does not know the relation of the Four Zoas to each other, and to each living man, has not made even the first step towards understanding the Symbolic System which is the signature of Blake’s genius.’19 Yeats and Ellis pushed this systematization of Blake too far in an attempt to recon­ cile him with Swedenborg, but they were certainly correct to see it as a key to much of Blake’s thinking. Accepting, then, the chaotic nature of The Four Zoas manuscript, many editors have nonetheless come to a similar conclusion to Yeats and Ellis (and later critics such as S. Foster Damon and Northrop Frye) that the work does have some coherence. Certainly in comparison to Jerusalem, when read in a reasonably edited version such as that included in David Erdman’s Complete Poetry and Prose, it generally follows a kind of narrative structure – although one that is often broken by various incomplete editorial decisions 205

divine images or deliberate retellings of events from differing perspectives as the Zoas themselves seek to shape perceptions of the Fall of Albion, the ancient man. After invoking (with a reference to the Gospel of John) ‘Four Mighty Ones’ who are ‘in every Man; a Perfect Unity’ (e300), the epic begins with the figure who had already started to take pre-eminence in the Lambeth Prophecies: Los was the fourth immortal starry one, & in the Earth Of a bright Universe Empery attended day & night Days & nights of revolving joy, Urthona was his name In Eden; in the Auricular Nerves of Human life Which is the Earth of Eden, he his Emanations propagated Fairies of Albion afterwards Gods of the Heathen, Daughter of Beulah Sing His fall into Division & his Resurrection to Unity His fall into the Generation of Decay & Death & his Regeneration by the Resurrection from the dead (3.9–4.5, e301)

Within these opening lines Blake establishes one influence that was to be much, much greater on him than the rather anodyne verse of Edward Young – Milton’s Paradise Lost: Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed, In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth Rose out of Chaos: or if Sion Hill 206

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Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flow’d Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song, That with no middle flight intends to soar Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime. (i.1–16)

Milton’s invocation of the holy spirit to supersede the classical muses indicates just how ambitious his Christian epic was to be. Blake himself was to attempt something in its own way even more ambitious, creating his own mythology: if that attempt was, in the words of Frye, ultimately an ‘abortive masterpiece’, it also opened the doors for successive generations of writers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries who wished to create their own worlds and poetic universes. The poetry of Milton is complex and difficult to follow for those unskilled in classical and biblical allusions, but in the late 1790s and early 1800s it must have often seemed to Blake that he was writing for an audience of one, or at most two if he read his words to Catherine. The involved and personal myths that had begun with Visions of the Daughters of Albion and America a Prophecy had never sold well, and so the appeal to Los, named ‘Urthona’ in Eden, would have been meaningless to virtually every reader at the end of the eighteenth century. Yet there is a narrative – sometimes unstructured, often difficult to follow – that runs through the epic poem, which grew out of the Urizen books in par­t­­icular. Indeed, The Four Zoas is an attempt to give context to the creation myth of The Book of Urizen, and to consolidate the ideas and characters that had begun to emerge in the 1790s. G. A. Rosso describes the poem as ‘Blake’s prophetic workshop’, arising out of Blake’s extensive reading into religion and antiquarianism, as well as the political events of the 1790s; even though unfinished, it would also prove a fertile ground for Blake’s subsequent illuminated books, 207

divine images both in terms of incidents and figures, and in style. As well as being largely written in the fourteener, the metre that Blake had been developing in his earlier prophecies, The Four Zoas also introduces a disorienting feature common to much of Blake’s poetry, what Rosso calls a ‘simulacrum of sequence’ in which the causal links of history are abandoned for a typology that attempts to create the viewpoint of eternity rather than history: thus Jerusalem is not only the city of 1000 bc or ad 70, but also the contemporary site of Blake’s visions at the turn of the nineteenth century.20 Within this disorienting framework, the story revolves around the aftermath of the fall of the ‘Ancient Man’, later named Albion, who will become crucial to Blake’s mythology. Of the four Zoas, who represent mankind’s reason (Urizen), passions (Luvah), physical senses (Tharmas) and the imagination (Urthona), two of these – Urizen and Luvah – have conspired to disrupt the balance between the four. In the ensuing conflict they turn against each other with Urizen, man’s reason, apparently triumphant. Urizen’s victory, however, is short-lived: realizing that he must attempt to rebuild the world – which is at once both the internal psyche of an individual and the entirety of the cosmos – Urizen embarks upon a scheme to recreate an ideal, rational heaven. This incredible scene of creation is worth citing at length: Then siezd the Lions of Urizen their work, & heated in the forge Roar the bright masses, thund’ring beat the hammers, many a pyramid Is form’d & thrown down thund’ring into the deeps of Non Entity Heated red hot they hizzing rend their way down many a league Till resting. each his [center] finds; suspended there they stand 208

Night Thoughts and The Four Zoas Vala; or, the Four Zoas, Plate 3, pen and ink, watercolour, pencil and charcoal on paper.

Casting their sparkles dire abroad into the dismal deep For measurd out in orderd spaces the Sons of Urizen With compasses divide the deep; they the strong scales erect That Luvah rent from the faint Heart of the Fallen Man And weigh the massy Cubes, then fix them in their awful stations . . . And all the time in Caverns shut, the golden Looms erected 209

divine images First spun, then wove the Atmospheres, there the Spider & Worm Plied the wingd shuttle piping shrill thro’ all the list’ning threads Beneath the Caverns roll the weights of lead & spindles of iron The enormous warp & woof rage direful in the affrighted deep While far into the vast unknown, the strong wing’d Eagles bend Their venturous flight, in Human forms distinct; thro darkness deep They bear the woven draperies; on golden hooks they hang abroad The universal curtains & spread out from Sun to Sun The vehicles of light, they separate the furious particles Into mild currents as the water mingles with the wine. (ii.28.25–29.13)

Even though Urizen’s work is ultimately doomed to destruction, this creation is both glorious and terrible: unlike the vast majority of eighteenth-century poets who aspired to Milton’s style and failed, Blake’s own visions of Urizen as the Ancient of Days manage to give the sense both of Paradise Lost and the biblical sources that he and Milton drew upon. What is more, the intellectual complexity of this scene is utterly astonishing in that rather than being a mere pastiche of the creation depicted in Book vii of Milton’s epic, what Blake describes is a critique of Milton’s notions of creation: the deistic creator of the universe, the pantocrator envisaged by Newton, has created not Eden (Blake’s preferred name in his later poetry for the world of the Eternals) but a closed, fallen world that is more reminiscent of the accounts of the demiurge provided by Plato in the Timaeus. 210

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Blake’s intellectual scope at this point is little short of breathtaking: in these lines he brings into focus his critique of the creation of a false and fallen world by a false god that began in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In addition, not only is this an attack on the false theology of the deists, but on the false epistemology of John Locke and his followers, for the universe Urizen creates is entirely within the body of Albion, the fallen man: the ‘Caverns shut’ are human skulls in which we constrict our perceptions rather than allowing them to be cleansed and see the world as it truly is – infinite. The fall of Urizen’s false heaven leads on to another theme that has its roots in the earlier Lambeth Prophecies but is greatly expanded here – what Frye called the Orc cycle. Encountering Orc, born to Los and Enitharmon in the wreckage of his own failed heaven, Urizen sees another means to try and control existence, perverting Orc’s energies to his own ends. The creation of a body for Urizen is described in Night the Fifth, while Los’s jealousy towards Orc leads him to create an iron chain to trap his son. Los repents his folly but it is too late: Orc is now embedded in the rocks where they had bound him and is found there by Urizen in Night the Seventh. Having fixed his laws to create erroneous knowledge, Urizen then transmits this dreadful experience to Orc: Compell the poor to live upon a Crust of bread by soft mild arts Smile when they frown frown when they smile & when a man looks pale With labour & abstinence say he looks healthy & happy And when his children Sicken let them die there are enough Born even too many & our Earth will be overrun Without these arts If you would make the poor live with temper 211

divine images With pomp give every crust of bread you give with gracious cunning Magnify small gifts reduce the man to want a gift & then give with pomp Say he smiles if you hear him sigh If pale say he is ruddy Preach temperance say he is overgorgd & drowns his wit In strong drink tho you know that bread & water are all He can afford Flatter his wife pity his children till we can Reduce all to our will as spaniels are taught with art (vii.80.9–21, e355)

The slow poisoning of Orc’s rebellious spirit by Urizen is alluded to at the start of The Four Zoas when Urizen and Luvah combine to overthrow Albion. I would argue that the intersection of Orc and Urizen was implicit from the very beginning of Blake’s mythological cycle, as evident in the paired postures of both figures in America a Prophecy, which was written as the early promise of the Revolution turned into the Terror. Blake makes that connection explicit in The Four Zoas. Orc’s furious energy eventually becomes the vehicle for Urizen’s desire for power, leading to an apocalyptic end of the epic poem where chaos and destruction reign. With the continuing collapse of the French Revolution into tyranny throughout the 1790s, Blake’s secular hopes for Eden on earth became ever weaker and more despondent. Before turning to the final night, it is also important to observe how Blake’s formulation of the Zoas, in particular their relations to their emanations, is developed throughout The Four Zoas. The notion of man falling from individual unity into a divided self had first been introduced in The Book of Urizen, where the Eternals 212

Night Thoughts and The Four Zoas

gasp in horror as they witness Los divide into Enitharmon and thus give birth to Orc: sexuality as separation and otherness rather than unity and fulfilment. In the later epic Blake extends this theme to all his Zoas, providing each of them with an emanation that represents the psyche’s divided understanding of itself. Blake’s conception of the self is incredibly complex here: the eternal Zoas in Eden – Urizen, Luvah, Urthona and Tharmas – become fallen versions of themselves. Those fallen selves then further divide into male and female parts, with the emanations of Ahania, Vala, Enitharmon and Enion breaking away from their progenitors. The decision by Blake to make the emanations female leads into some of his most problematic assertions in the final epics, particularly with regard to the female will: there is some indication that a yet further development, the appearance of a ravenously masculine counterpart, the spectre, was intended as a demonstration that both male and female beings were monstrous errors. Nonetheless, the effect of continuous emphasis on emanations as somehow intrinsically inferior to the male Zoas introduces an increasingly misogynistic tone to parts of Blake’s later prophecies. The complexities that Blake worked upon appeared to be out of his power to resolve satisfactorily. Later in Jerusalem Blake would write: ‘Trembling I sit day and night, my friends are astonish’d at me. / Yet they forgive my wanderings’ (e147). Increasingly he seemed to view his own poetic practice as a kind of divine inspiration that could not be controlled entirely by the rational mind – something that is both a strength and a weakness of Blake’s poetic practice, allowing him to unlock the enormous creative potential of his subconscious mind, but which also prevents him, perhaps, from every fully understanding these gigantic visions that fill his imagination. In one of the first letters we have from Blake, written to Reverend Dr Trusler in August 1799, Blake described his artistic technique as follows: 213

divine images And tho I call them Mine I know that they are not Mine being of the same opinion with Milton when he says That the Muse visits his Slumbers & awakes & governs his Song when Morn purples The East. & being also in the predicament of that prophet who says I cannot go beyond the command of the Lord to speak good or bad. (e701) Labouring at night in London and then in Felpham on his manuscript, Blake’s constant revisions slowly gave shape to these figures that were governed not by the poet but by the muse. At times he accompanied the words with sketches of figures that were often monstrous, in a way that had not previously appeared in his art: vaginal and phallic creatures with bat wings cavort in the fallen reaches left behind by the collapse of Urizen’s heaven. Perhaps it was being faced by such chaos that led Blake to envisage that ‘colossal explosion’ of apocalyptic power described by Frye, which culminates in Los bringing about the end of the world: Los his vegetable hands Outstretchd his right hand branching out in fibrous Strength Siezd the Sun. His left hand like dark roots coverd the Moon And tore them down cracking the heavens across from immense to immense Then fell the fires of Eternity with loud & shrill Sound of Loud Trumpet thundering along from heaven to heaven A mighty sound articulate Awake ye dead & come To judgment from the four winds Awake & Come away Folding like scrolls of the Enormous volume of Heaven & Earth 214

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With thunderous noise & dreadful shakings rocking to & fro The heavens are shaken & the Earth removed from its place The foundations of the Eternal hills discoverd The thrones of Kings are shaken they have lost their robes & crowns The poor smite their opressors they awake up to the harvest The naked warriors rush together down to the sea shore Trembling before the multitudes of slaves now set at liberty They are become like wintry flocks like forests stripd of leaves The opressed pursue like the wind there is no room for escape (ix.117.6–23, e386–7)

This is Blake as John of Patmos, writing the final Revelation of the end of all things. Throughout these and other lines in Book ix, the violence and bloodshed of the French Revolution is echoed in sublime terror – and this, perhaps, may be one of the reasons why Blake could not complete The Four Zoas. The sheer monstrous complexity of the fallen world he describes, a chaos of political oppression and sexual alienation, appears impossible to reconcile other than through the same kind of violence that ends the New Testament without, yet, a clear vision of the new Jerusalem that is to replace it. As we shall see in the next chapter, there were also immediate events that shifted Blake’s ideas in a very different direction, but it became increasingly apparent that the Dionysian energies released at the end of The Four Zoas did not match Blake’s desire for a very different – and, for him, truly Christian – kind of apocalypse. This Christian revelation, rather than the violence of earthly revolution, would be Blake’s path through his final epic poems, Milton and Jerusalem.


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Thomas and Elizabeth Butts Thus far, the final years of the eighteenth century has seemed one of increasing darkness for William and Catherine Blake, whether outright failure, as with Night Thoughts, or the beginning of new projects that would ultimately prove unsuccessful, as with The Four Zoas. There were, however, flashes of light in that darkness, two of which were particularly important. In May 1799 the poet William Hayley visited an acquaintance of Blake’s, Charles Townley, a collector of Greek and Roman statues; Townley had consulted with Blake and other engravers for commissions, and may have introduced his work to Hayley. The connection with Hayley, as we shall see in the next chapter, was to have a profound, if relatively short-term, effect on Blake’s life. Much longer lasting was another acquaintance, that with Thomas Butts and his wife, Elizabeth, both of whom became close to William and Catherine. Butts, described by Bentley as ‘the perfect patron’,21 was a Joint Chief Clerk in the Commissary General of Musters, the government office responsible for mustering troops by regiment. Unlike many contemporaries, Thomas Butts immediately saw the imaginative value of Blake’s art and provided him with a much-needed income in the following decade; more than this, however, Thomas and Elizabeth, or Betsy, provided moral support and friendship. Whereas the relationship with Hayley was always that between artisan and patron, for Thomas and Betsy it was clear that the two of them viewed both William and Catherine as true friends. For many years until the 1820s, it was Butts who was the firmest supporter of Blake, buying many of his works at a time when few others looked favourably on his art. The starting commission was a series of 53 paintings illus­ trating the Bible, the majority of which were completed in 1799 although some were painted when the Blakes were in Felpham. For these works, Butts paid more than £400. Of the series, only 216

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thirty remain, of which seven deal with subjects from the Old Testament and the remainder from the New Testament. The medium for these paintings was tempera, water-based pigments bound with gum or glue, and they were intended as ‘cabinet paintings’, smaller pieces that could be hung on the walls of the Butts’ residence. When composing his paintings, Blake applied the pigment in multiple layers, often reinforcing outlines with black ink and glazing the finished work with glue. The editors of the Blake Archive say that Blake may have been trying to create ‘jewel-like paintings’, as he later described them in his Descriptive Catalogue as ‘enamels’ and ‘precious stones’ (e531). A number of the temperas were also painted on copper, further enhancing their jewel-like nature. Unfortunately, the medium was unstable, as the layers expanded and contracted at different rates, leading to cracking, while the carpenters’ glue used by Blake frequently dulled and browned over time. Despite these problems with Blake’s medium, some of the paintings in the series that have survived demonstrate his astonishing imagination when dealing with biblical subjects. Naomi Billingsley is correct to point out that we should be careful of presenting a rigid schema of interpretation of the series as earlier critics, such as David Bindman and Mary Lynn Johnson, have done. While the temptation is to treat these as some kind of narrative journey demonstrating Blake’s understanding of the role of Christ, we simply no longer have the complete sequence of paintings and such a story ‘may not have been intended by Blake in the original scheme’.22 Rather, over a period of four years, these were biblical subjects that appealed to both Blake and Butts, although the fact that five of the extant paintings are larger than the rest (around 30 × 50 cm, rather than 27 × 38 cm) and all illustrate the life of Christ indicate that these were intended as a series. The paintings as a whole do not need to be seen as explaining a consistent Christology, but there are clear innovations that mark 217

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these out as separate to the work of Blake’s contemporaries. In his depiction of The Nativity, for example, Jesus springs from Mary in an entirely unrealistic but wholly inspirational fashion, a glowing ideal who leaps towards the outstretched hands of Mary’s sister, Elizabeth. Likewise, as Billingsley demonstrates with comparisons to contemporary artworks such as J.M.W. Turner’s Holy Family (1803), Blake’s images renounce any form of naturalism: they are intended to inspire the viewer to consider the nature of Christ rather than to seek out the historical Jesus. Two very striking images are from Old Testament subjects. The first, Eve Tempted by the Serpent, is another image painted on copper, and while it also uses tempera with glue or gum binder as well as pen 218

Christ Appearing to the Apostles after the Resurrection, c. 1795–1805, colour printing with watercolour and pen on paper.

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Eve Tempted by the Serpent, c. 1799– 1800, water-based tempera, with ink and highlights in gold on copper.

and ink outlines, the use of gold highlights make this image shine. This would be a technique that Blake would use several times, most notably with the coloured copy of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, to make his artworks shine in a literal act of illumination. Blake’s study of the subject is also unique and one to which he would return several times throughout his career. Eve, naked, stands full-frontal to the viewer with no shame, befitting entirely her status before the Fall: she is an example of the human form divine that will be lost when mankind seeks to cover up its glorious nakedness. Adam is asleep next to her – the last time that man will sleep in such an innocent state – and the serpent coils alongside her body, for all the world appearing more like a wingless dragon than the typical snake of Christian art. The scene is dark and foreboding, prefiguring the collapse of the world that will take


divine images Abraham and Isaac, 1799–1800, tempera and pen on canvas.

place, yet because Blake is deliberately capturing Eve in her innocence, the overall effect is startling: as she reaches up for the apple, which we cannot see, she seems fully confident. It would be tempting to see her as revelling in the act of taking the forbidden fruit, but I think this is to misinterpret the scene: Eve does not yet know sin – the expression on her face is calm and peaceful, more like representations of the Buddha than the accusatory depictions of the fallen woman who ‘Brought Death into the World, and all our woe / With loss of Eden’ (Paradise Lost i.3–4). We are presented with mankind at the final moment before the Fall, and this picture for me inspires incredible sadness at what will be lost. Another image in the series continues the theme of the Fall in an even more disturbing way: Abraham and Isaac shows the two figures standing between an altar prepared with wood to burn a sacrifice and a thicket where a ram is caught, illustrating Genesis 22:13: ‘And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.’ Blake, however, has done something very 220

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, c. 1825, watercolour with pen and ink on paper.

divine images disturbing in his rendition of this line: as Billingsley observes, the clothed Abraham is a passive figure looking up towards heaven in sorrow for the act he is about to commit, while it is Isaac, naked and dynamic, who sees the ram that will substitute for him in an act of sacrifice.23 Abraham in his long robe with arms outstretched, a curved knife held in one hand, is reminiscent of Blake’s depictions of the Druids, and his pose makes him similar to Urizen in America a Prophecy. Rather than passive, he may even be seen to be impassive, implacable in the face of the demands of human sacrifice. Isaac, by contrast, is innocent and unafraid: as Billingsley correctly points out, it is his childlike perception that sees more clearly the way to reconcile God and man as opposed to the false religion followed by his father. Friendship with Thomas and Elizabeth Butts had provided Blake with both a sympathetic source of inspiration and much needed income, but London still proved a difficult place for William and Catherine to live. As such, when the opportunity arose to leave the city and embark upon more hopeful prospects in the country, the pair of them began what appeared to be a promising new life, but which would ultimately be the most dangerous time for William.



England’s Pleasant Land


n 20 September 1800 William and Catherine arrived in the small Sussex coastal village of Felpham, less than eight miles from Chichester. The Anglo-Saxon estate of Felpham listed in the Domesday Book comprised a much larger area than the village of Blake’s time, with many of the 67 tenants of the manor living in other parishes. Over the centuries, houses had begun to cluster around the Norman church of St Mary’s and, by the time of the first census in 1801, the population numbered 306 people. The 1805 ‘Arundel 8’ map of the Sussex coast around Chichester gives little detail of the village, but the first detailed maps of the 1870s (when the population had roughly trebled) show a location that would have been familiar to Blake, with wide fields reaching down to the shore line.

‘Away to Sweet Felpham for Heaven is there’ The Blakes themselves were delighted with the move. In a letter to Anne Flaxman, sent soon after their arrival, Catherine included a poem from her husband in which he eulogized the village: This Song to the flower of Flaxmans joy To the blossom of hope for a sweet decoy 223

divine images Do all that you can or all that you may To entice him to Felpham & far away Away to Sweet Felpham for Heaven is there The Ladder of Angels descends thro the air On the Turret its spiral does softly descend Thro’ the village then winds at My Cot it does end (e708–9)

William repeated these sentiments in a letter to Thomas Butts the following month, writing: Chichester is a very handsom City Seven miles from us we can get most Conveniences there. The Country is not so destitute of accommodations to our wants as I expected it would be We have had but little time for viewing the Country but what we have seen is Most Beautiful & the People are Genuine Saxons handsomer than the people about London. (e712) The Sussex countryside did indeed seem to be heaven to William and Catherine after the difficult final years of the 1790s. In her letter to Anne Flaxman, Catherine described London as ‘the terrible desart’ and spoke of her wish that her friend would join her in ‘a summer bower at Felpham’. The pair had ostensibly been encouraged to move to the village so that William could work more closely with the poet William Hayley on a book dedicated to his illegitimate son, Thomas Alphonso, who had died before his twentieth birthday. William Hayley had been born at Chichester in 1745 and entered Eton in the year of Blake’s birth, progressing from there to Cambridge where he first began to publish his poetry. Leaving Cambridge without taking a degree, he resided in London and continued to write poetry as well as plays such as The Afflicted Father (1711), which contemporaries such as Garrick had enough taste to reject 224

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for performance. He was most famous for his 1781 work The Triumph of Temper, which ran through multiple editions and was popular enough to lead to the offer of the laureateship in 1790 – and bad enough to attract the ridicule of Byron in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. Although he is not much respected (and even less read) as a poet today, Hayley himself appears to have been a liberal and generous-minded man who had better posthumous success as a biographer of Milton, work on which brought him into contact with William Cowper in the early 1790s. He had first been introduced to Blake via his friendship with John Flaxman, when plans were being devised in 1784 to try and send the young engraver to Rome. Having commissioned Blake to engrave pieces for his Essay on Sculpture, as well as a frontispiece illustration of Thomas Alphonso, Hayley invited the artist and his wife to the small village where he had set up home. Upon hearing of Blake’s news, Thomas Butts is said to have ‘rejoiced aloud, deeming his protégé’s fortune made’ (br 94), while Flaxman wrote to Hayley that he was ‘highly pleased with the exertion of Your usual Benevolence in favour of my friend Blake’ (br 94–5). Blake himself observed to Butts: Work will go on here with God speed –. A roller & two harrows lie before my window. I met a plow on my first going out at my gate the first morning after my arrival & the Plowboy said to the Plowman. ‘Father The Gate is Open’ – I have begun to Work & find that I can work with greater pleasure than ever. Hope soon to give you a proof that Felpham is propitious to the Arts. (e711) Food was cheaper and the country air much cleaner than that of the city, the natural beauty of the Sussex coast showing up the squalor of the capital. The cottage where they lived, and which still stands today, was a beautiful, if compact, flint and brick 225

divine images building with a thatched roof on the southern edge of the village, less than a mile from the shingle shoreline. The beauty and simplicity of their new life would pall sooner than Blake realized: working so closely with a patron was not to William’s taste, and although the cottage was beautiful it was also damp, affecting Catherine’s health during the wet winters. It was on the Sussex coast that Blake first began to fully understand his true vision of Albion, the spirit of Britain, but it was also in that same place that he would encounter the darkest incident of his life. For part of their time at Felpham, the Blakes could enjoy the relative peace brought by the Treaty of Amiens, the agreement signed by the warring powers in March 1802 that marked the only respite in the French Revolutionary Wars between 1793 and 1814: for some fourteen months, French émigrés and Britons could return to France for the first time in many years and the wax artist Marie Tussaud brought her exhibition to London (and, indeed, toured the British Isles with it when she was unable to return to France). Peace was welcomed by many across Europe, but when it ended the Blakes would be forced to leave Felpham and never return.

Hayley’s Patronage One of the first tasks undertaken by Blake when he arrived in Felpham was to decorate the library of Hayley’s home, an impressive building that included a Marine Turret, construction of 226

Thomas Alphonso Hayley, 1800, intaglio engraving on paper.

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which had begun in 1797 to allow Hayley a chance to look out to sea. Blake’s patron had always intended to decorate it with portraits of great authors and so Blake was commissioned to produce a series of paintings during his time in the village, eventually producing eighteen that included Chaucer, Milton, Homer, Shake­­speare, Dante and Spenser. The library was also a source of considerable pleasure and education to Blake. Hayley’s work on a biography of William Cowper (which involved delicate negotiations with Cowper’s cousin Lady Hesketh) provided immediate work for Blake in the form of a commission, while the collection of materials for the 1796 Life of Milton also furnished Blake with sources that transformed his understanding of the republican poet. In a rare letter to his brother James in 1803, Blake also observed that he was directly benefiting from Hayley’s tutelage in other ways: I go on Merrily with my Greek & Latin: am very sorry that I did not begin to learn languages early in life as I find it very Easy. am now learning my Hebrew I read Greek as fluently as an Oxford scholar & the Testa­ ment is my chief master. astonishing indeed is the English Trans­lation it is almost word for word & if the Hebrew Bible is as well translated which I do not doubt it is we need not doubt of its having been translated as well as written by the Holy Ghost. (e727) During the early period of their acquaintance in Felpham, Hayley was enthusiastic about the relationship and promoted Blake to a number of connections in London as well as the local gentry. One such connection that would become particularly significant was that with George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, and his then mistress, later wife, Elizabeth Ilive, Count­­ ess of Egremont. The Egremonts lived at Petworth House, which 227

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A Vision of the Last Judgement, 1807, ink and watercolour on paper.

Blake would later visit under much less auspicious circumstances, and they were keen collectors of classical and contemporary art. In 1807, long after the Blakes had returned to London, Ilive commissioned him to produce one of his most spectacular works, A Vision of the Last Judgement. Inspired by Michelangelo’s depiction of the same theme in the Sistine Chapel, which he had seen in engraved reproductions, it is one of Blake’s most ambitious works. 228

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A Vision of the Last Judgement represents a high point of Blake’s artistic career, one of his paintings in the grand style that, as he explained in a catalogue entry for 1810, was ‘not Fable or Allegory but Vision’ (e554). As such, it was not intended to draw upon memory in ascribing each figure to a particular characteristic or attribute, but rather to inspire and elevate the mind and soul of the viewer in the same fashion as Michelangelo’s work. Blake described fable and allegory as an ‘inferior kind of poetry’ – and unfortunately during his time at Felpham he would too often be involved in very inferior kinds of poetry in his work for Hayley. Alongside work on Hayley’s library, one of his first commissions at Felpham was to illustrate a broadside ballad, Little Tom the Sailor. Hayley had written this in September 1800 ‘to relieve the necessities of a meritorious poor Woman on the Kentish coast’ (br 99–100) whose son had been drowned at sea. Over thirteen days, Blake etched the text as well as head and tailpiece designs. Hayley’s poetry is very poor, particularly when compared to the remarkable productions of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, but Blake’s style of engraving offers a vivid invocation of the rougher, more vigorous approach that he would return to in his later woodcuts for Robert J. Thornton’s The Pastorals of Virgil in 1821. These commissions were accompanied by those for a series of ballads on themes relating to animals. The plan was to produce one a month, with Blake and Catherine printing intaglio engravings to accompany the letterpress text set by the Chichester printer Joseph Seagrave. Sales were less than impressive and only twelve of the ballads were set, although Hayley later expanded the series in 1805 into an edition that was mockingly reviewed by Robert Southey, who wrote: ‘[Hayley’s] present volume is so incomprehensibly absurd that no merit within his reach could have amused us so much’ (br 224). A significant problem for Blake is that instead of being paid directly for his work by Hayley, he was expected to sell his en­ gravings himself and so recoup a profit that way. This proved a 229

divine images difficult task away from London, and resentment soon began to creep into Blake’s relations with his patron. The work on the animal ballads and other commercial work, such as engravings for The Triumphs of Temper, frequently represented drudge work that was uncertain in terms of its material profits. In addition, Hayley and his more respectable friends were frequently less than complimentary about Blake’s abilities as an artist: the work on The Life and Posthumous Writings of William Cowper brought considerable criticism from Lady Hesketh, who believed that it drew too much attention to her cousin’s mental illness. Not all of Blake’s work for potential patrons comprised such drudgery. It was during the latter part of his stay in Felpham that Blake began composing a series of ballads and one longer poem, ‘Auguries of Innocence’, which would be collected together upon his return to London in the Pickering Manuscript, so named because it was owned by the collector and publisher B. M. Pickering in the mid-nineteenth century. In contrast to the dense mythology of The Four Zoas, the poems of this manuscript represent a return to the simpler style of the Poetical Sketches and Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Some of the ballads have achieved some fame in their own right, such as ‘The Smile’, which begins: There is a Smile of Love And there is a Smile of Deceit 230

‘The Horse’, from William Hayley’s Ballads (1805), intaglio engraving on paper.

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And there is a Smile of Smiles In which these two Smiles meet (e482)

By far the best known of all these poems, however, is ‘Auguries of Innocence’, the opening lines of which have been widely circulated since they were first printed in 1874: To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour (e490)

These lines, which Janet Warner maintains are ‘probably among the most widely quoted of his verses’,1 establish the crystal clarity that Blake could sometimes achieve in his visionary perception, the simplicity of the opening quatrain stripping away the difficult, often obfuscatory qualities of his prophetic works to establish precisely what Blake sought to do with his art, to cleanse the doors of perception and allow man to see the world as it really is: infinite. Throughout the remainder of the poem, which moves into tetrameter couplets, the tranquillity of these lines is replaced by a fierce anger: A Robin Red breast in a Cage Puts all Heaven in a Rage A Dove house filld with doves & Pigeons Shudders Hell thro all its regions A dog starvd at his Masters Gate Predicts the ruin of the State (e490)

It was Warner who first drew attention to the sacrificial nature of the title of the poem: the Augur was the Roman official whose task it was to predict future events, doing so from omens observed 231

divine images in such things as the flight, singing and feeding of birds, but also in the reading of entrails of sacrificial victims.2 Throughout the entirety of the poem, the innocents that are slaughtered are animals, and Blake does not need to read their entrails to understand that a world in which men commit atrocities upon living beings is one where the doors of perception are closed. David Perkins points out that there was an increasing body of literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries decrying abuses against animals, but that Blake’s poem is particularly impressive in the subtlety of its tone: it is the voice of innocence, but also ‘it is innocence at a moment of crisis, when it beholds the world of experience’.3 His time at Felpham, then, was clearly a period of intense inspiration for Blake, yet the work that he undertook for his patron all too often seemed the antithesis of his creative impulse. In his letters to friends back in London, such as Thomas Butts, as well as the correspondence to Hayley that built up once he and Catherine had returned to the capital, Blake was scrupulously polite, but in the privacy of his own notebook he was much more vindictive and scurrilous, taking revenge on a patron who, he would eventually conclude, had caused his career to go backwards rather than progress. As he observed in one pithy couplet, ‘My title as Genius thus is provd / Not Praisd by Hayley nor by Flaxman lovd’, and similarly mocking his former patron: ‘You think Fuseli is not a Great Painter Im Glad / This is one of the best compliments he ever had’ (e505). Such was his animosity towards Hayley that he also blamed friends such as Flaxman for, as he saw it, tricking him into leaving London. Blake was increasingly frustrated by his time in Felpham, being forced to engage in drudge work and having less time for his own poetry, which he rightly recognized as far superior to the Bard of Felpham. Hayley was loyal to Blake in many ways and some of Blake’s later aspersions, such as that Hayley hired a soldier to cause trouble for Blake 232

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because the other poet desired his wife, strongly suggest paranoia. Nonetheless, although Hayley opened Blake’s eyes in many respects, especially with regard to the great English poets and aspects of Milton’s life and work, in other areas the self-educated London engraver had much surer taste when it came to the virtues of poetry. Even before arriving in Felpham, Blake had chafed against the recommendation to read Friedrich Klopstock, the German author of Der Messias whom Hayley considered an equal to Milton. Blake wrote a damning and humorous attack, ‘When Klopstock England Defied’, which showed the spirit of An Island in the Moon was alive and well: When Klopstock England defied Uprose terrible Blake in his pride For old Nobodaddy aloft Farted & Belchd & coughd Then swore a great oath that made heavn quake And calld aloud to English Blake Blake was giving his body ease At Lambeth beneath the poplar trees From his seat then started he And turnd himself round three times three The Moon at that sight blushd scarlet red The stars threw down their cups & fled And all the devils that were in hell Answered with a ninefold yell Klopstock felt the intripled turn And all his bowels began to churn And his bowels turned round three times three And lockd in his soul with a ninefold key That from his body it neer could be parted Till to the last trumpet it was farted Then again old nobodaddy swore 233

divine images He neer had seen such a thing before Since Noah was shut in the ark Since Eve first chose her hell fire spark Since twas the fashion to go naked Since the old anything was created And in pity he begd him to turn again And ease poor Klopstocks nine fold pain From pity then he redend round And the ninefold Spell unwound If Blake could do this when he rose up from shite What might he not do if he sat down to write (e500–501)

The poem is crude in every sense, not least the scatological last lines. Yet the ability to dash off such doggerel is one of Blake’s defences against the supercilious middle-class aestheticism of figures such as Hayley: when necessary, Blake will write poetry the like of which the world has never seen, while at other less auspicious times, he could still excrete poesy far more vigorous than anything Hayley and his ilk could manage. While the period in Felpham must have appeared to damage his career, as subsequent critics have observed, it did modify his artistic practice. Naomi Billingsley observes that his time away from London resulted in a greater engagement with Christianity, probably because he was now less intimately engaged in the radical, and increasingly sceptical, circle around Joseph Johnson. Not that Blake could ever be fully de-radicalized: Mark Crosby has discussed in relation to the artist’s time in Felpham that this is when he came into clearest conflict with the crown.4 Alongside his worsening relations with Hayley, the trial for sedition, and eventual acquittal, marked a bleak ending to a sojourn that had begun with such high hopes.


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Trial for Sedition On 18 May 1803 the Treaty of Amiens was broken when Britain declared war on France, irritated by Napoleon’s increasing insistence on the international system on the Continent and the exclusion of the British from European political affairs and markets. At the same time, the British government did not abide by all of its conditions of the treaty, maintaining, for example, a large military contingent in Malta and Egypt. Both sides engaged in criminal acts, the British seizing French and Dutch ships without warning before the declaration of war and Napoleon, as First Consul, ordering the arrest of all British males aged between eighteen and sixty in France and Italy. Once more the south coast of England was subject to the threat of invasion when Napoleon drew together a huge army and began to build a flotilla of barges to transport them across the Channel. In response, the British government began to build Martello towers along the coast and to recruit replacement Reserve units that would only fight in Britain alongside the regular troops. In July 1803 instructions were given to volunteers to harass and pursue guerilla tactics against any occupying army, with members of the government agreeing that it was better to train the populace in the use of arms, even if this brought with it the threat of insurrection. As such, the piece of heaven that the Blakes had moved to became part of one of the most militarized areas in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. One of the soldiers sent as part of a troop of dragoons to Felpham, Sergeant John Scolfield, was invited into the garden of Blake’s cottage, apparently by the gardener, on Friday 12 August and, four days later, Blake wrote to Thomas Butts with an account of what happened: I desired him as politely as was possible to go out of the Garden, he made me an impertinent answer[.] I insisted on his 235

divine images leaving the Garden[;] he refused[.] I still persisted in desiring his departure[;] he then threatend to knock out my Eyes with many abominable imprecations & with some contempt for my Person[;] it affronted my foolish Pride[.] I therefore took him by the Elbow & pushed him before me till I had got him out, there I intended to have left him but he turning about put himself into a Posture of Defiance threatening & swearing at me. I perhaps foolishly & perhaps not, stepped out at the Gate & putting aside his blows took him again by the Elbows & keeping his back to me pushed him forwards down the road about fifty yards[,] he all the while endeavouring to turn round & strike me & raging & cursing which drew out several neighbours, at length when I had got him to where he was Quarterd, which was very quickly done, we were met at the Gate by the Master of the house, The Fox Inn, (who is the proprietor of my Cottage) & his wife & Daughter, & the Mans Comrade & several other people[.] My Landlord compelld the Soldiers to go in doors after many abusive threats against me & my wife from the two Soldiers but not one word of threat on account of Sedition was utterd at that time. This method of Revenge was Plannd between them after they had got together into the Stable. This is the whole outline. (e732) A very different version of events was recorded by Scolfield. After being forcibly escorted back to the Fox Inn by the engraver, Scolfield consulted with another soldier, John Cock, and prepared a deposition that would be delivered to a magistrate on 15 August, in which he recorded that: one Blake a Miniature painter & now residing in the said Parish of Felpham did utter the following seditious expressions viz. That we (meaning the people of England) were like a parcel of Children, that the wo.d play with themselves ‘till they wo.d get 236

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scalded and burnt[,] that the French knew our strength very well and if Buonapart wo.d come he wo.d be master of Europe in an hour’s time, that England might depend upon it that when he sat his Foot on English Ground that every Englishman wo.d be put to his choice whether to have his throat cut or to join the French & that he was a strong Man and wo.d certainly begin to cut throats and the strongest Man must conquer – that he Damned the King of England – his Country and his Subjects – that his soldiers were all bound for Slaves & all the poor people in general – that his Wife then came up & said to him this is nothing to you at present but that the King of England wo.d run himself so far into the Fire that he might get himself out again & altho she was but a Woman she wo.d fight as long as she had a Drop of Blood in her – to which the said Blake said, my Dear you wo.d not fight against France – she replied, no, I wo.d fight for Buonaparte as long as I am able – that the said Blake then addressing himself to this Informant, said, tho’ you are one of the King’s Subjects I have told what I have said before greater people than you – and that this Informant was sent by his Captain on Esquire Hayley to hear what he had to say and to go and tell them – that his wife then told her said Husband to turn this Informant out of the Garden – that this Informant thereupon turned round to go peacefully out when the said Blake pushed this Informant out of the Garden into the Road, down which he followed this Informant & twice took this Informant by the Collar without this Informant’s making any resistance and at the same time said Blake damned the King & said the – Soldiers were all Slaves[.] (br 160–61) The two accounts varied almost completely, both in substance and in tone, and scholars such as G. E. Bentley have demonstrated in detail how Scolfield’s account was fabricated in many particulars. Nonetheless, it is surprising how the soldier alighted on 237

divine images the one figure in Felpham who had past involvement with radical groups that were increasingly unpopular with the threat of invasion in 1803. As John Linnell remarked many years later, ‘it is not impossible that something of that sort [Damn the King] might have been uttered by Blake in reply to the Soldiers using the Kings [sic] name with threats to try and intimidate Blake’ (br 612). The Blakes were, rightly, shocked and terrified by the event: towns and villages across the English coast were filled with paranoid suspicion that any day the French could invade, and Blake’s previous radical sympathies were dangerous. He and Catherine returned to London in September, taking up residence in Broad Street with James, William’s brother, and his wife Catherine Eliza­beth. The following month, however, the Michaelmas Quarter Session took place at Petworth House, and an indictment was delivered describing Blake as a ‘Wicked Seditious and evil disposed person’ who would ‘bring our said Lord the King into great hatred contempt and scandal with all his liege Subjects with force and arms afterwards’ (br 168, 169). As Bentley describes the situ­ ation at Petworth, a number of the figures in session there were among ‘the most substantial gentlemen in the county’, including Charles Lennox, Duke of Richmond, George O’Brien Wyndham, Earl of Egremont, and Lieutenant-General John Whyte: the Justices and jurors were keen to make examples of those defying the military, finding against the men who had rescued one of their fellows from the press gang.5 Blake denied the charges laid against him and the trial was set for the following Quarter Sessions at Chichester, which Blake attended in January 1804. He, Hayley and the Chichester printer Seagrave were held to bonds for his appearance the next year. Upon their return to London, this time the Blakes moved into a more permanent residence than the shop held by his brother. South Molton Street is a small street in Mayfair, and for the next eighteen years they would live at a small flat in number 17; it had 238

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none of the space of the cottage in Felpham, and instead of fields running to the sea they were in proximity to Tyburn where criminals were regularly hanged – events that would weigh heavily on Blake’s poetry over the coming years. Yet the closeness to the centre of London also provided access to artists and friends who could furnish opportunities for work. The Blakes would remain poor for the next decade, but what living they were able to come by did not depend on the auspices of an individual patron. Nonetheless, it was during this time that Hayley demonstrated his true friendship, disproving many of Blake’s earlier resentments. He hired a lawyer, Samuel Rose, who defended the artist as as ‘loyal a subject as any man in this court’ (br 180) and effectively set about assassinating the character of Scolfield who, in the intervening months, had been reduced to the rank of private because of drunkenness. Although Blake felt, perhaps rightly, that at least two of the magistrates – John Peechey and John Quantock – had set themselves against him, Blake’s neighbours had been welldisposed towards him. Gilchrist recorded a story told to him by Samuel Palmer: ‘Mrs Blake used afterward to tell how, in the middle of the trial, when the soldier invented something to support his case, her husband called out “False!” with characteristic vehemence, and in a tone which electrified the whole court and carried conviction with it’ (br 186). In the paranoid atmosphere of 1804, Peechey and Quantock were right to distrust this engraver who had denounced God, priest and king in his Lambeth Prophecies. Yet Blake’s sober character stood him in good stead against the soldier who had clearly perjured at least parts of his account of the events of August 1803. For all the calls to patriotism, the billeted troops in Felpham had not endeared themselves to the villagers. Blake was careful never to reveal the actual cause of the argument or the words that were uttered between himself and Scolfield, but in his letter to Thomas Butts in which he gave his version of events, he included a poem 239

divine images lamenting the events that destroyed any chance for happiness in Felpham: O why was I born with a different face Why was I not born like the rest of my race When I look each one starts! when I speak I offend Then I’m silent & passive & lose every Friend Then my verse I dishonour. My pictures despise My person degrade & my temper chastise And the pen is my terror. the pencil my shame All my Talents I bury, and Dead is my Fame I am either too low or too highly prizd When Elate I am Envy’d, When Meek I’m despisd (e733)

Little did he know it, but when he returned to London for the final time, Blake would find his verse and pictures dishonoured and despised more than at any other time in his career. Obscurity had saved him from severe punishment at Chichester, but it would condemn him to increasing poverty over the coming decade. As with his attempt to find fame and fortune with Night Thoughts, circumstances had conspired against him.

Milton a Poem In February 1802 the poet Edward Marsh wrote a letter to Hayley regarding a song performed by Blake in Felpham: The hymn which inspired our friend, whom I have some idea I mistitled in my last a poetical sculptor instead of a poetical engraver, was quite—But if I run on in this strain, I shall find the letter ended, before I have said one half of the things I wish to say . . . I long to hear Mr Blake’s devotional air, though (I fear) I should have been very aukward in the attempt to 240

Milton a Poem, title page, Copy C, c. 1804–11, relief and white-line etching, hand-coloured.

divine images give notes to his music. His ingenuity will however (I doubt not) discover some method of preserving his compositions upon paper, though he is not very well versed in bars and crotchets . . . (br 120) This ‘devotional air’ is perhaps the first version of the poem that would be written down in a preface to an epic poem that Blake began upon his permanent return to London. Entitled Milton a Poem, the epic deals with a visionary tale of John Milton descending from heaven to recover the female emanation that he has rejected, called Ololon in the poem, and to confront his own masculine spectre, Satan. The lines that Edward Marsh probably heard are now referred to by scholars as the stanzas from Milton, although they are better known to millions from the title given to them by Charles Hubert Parry when he set them to music during the First World War, ‘Jerusalem’. The context of this hymn is very much worth considering in full: The Stolen and Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid: of Plato & Cicero. which all Men ought to contemn: are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible. but when the New Age is at leisure to Pronounce; all will be set right: & those Grand Works of the more ancient & consciously & professedly Inspired Men, will hold their proper rank, & the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration. Shak­ speare & Milton were both curbd by the general malady & infection from the silly Greek & Latin slaves of the Sword. Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fash[i]on­­ able Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend 242

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to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman Models if we are but just & true to our own Imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live for ever; in Jesus our Lord. And did those feet in ancient time, Walk upon Englands mountains green: And was the holy Lamb of God, On Englands pleasant pastures seen! And did the Countenance Divine, Shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here, Among these dark Satanic Mills? Bring me my Bow of burning gold: Bring me my Arrows of desire: Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold! Bring me my Chariot of fire! I will not cease from Mental Fight, Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand: Till we have built Jerusalem, In Englands green & pleasant Land. Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets. Numbers xi. ch 29 v. (Milton plate 1, e95–6)

The opening paragraphs of the Preface to Milton, while striking and perhaps unusual to a reader who has never seen them before, are actually very clear when contrasted with the rest of the epic. 243

divine images In the opening lines, Blake establishes a position that sets him apart from the mainstream culture of his day: while his espousal of Judaeo-Christian faith would be shared by nearly all of his countrymen, other than the most ardent supporters of the Jacobins, his outright rejection of classical culture was extremely unusual at the time. By blaming the ‘silly Greek & Latin slaves of the sword’ for promoting traditions of hero worship, Blake is very much castigating them for the prominence of wars across Europe in his day. What is more obscure is that his reference to classical civilization as belonging to the ‘Daughters of Memory’ (the nine muses were daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, or ‘memory’) implies that the Greeks themselves had only recollected – or, indeed, misremembered – the more ancient and inspirational civilizations of the Orient. In the paragraph that follows, Blake directly attacks the society of his day, denouncing the politics of the era that elevated warfare and commercialism above the practice of art. It is against this corruption that he makes his direct appeal to the ‘Young Men of the New Age’, a class of painters, poets and sculptors who will change the hearts and minds of men and promote instead an age of peace. It is a deeply idealistic and extremely powerful demand, and the poem that follows has rightly become one of the most famous of all of Blake’s works. The stanzas, however, are considerably more obscure than the paragraphs that precede them. They appear to tell of the coming of Christ to Britain, or at least that is the interpretation that is usually given to them today. This assumption, like that surrounding the ‘dark Satanic mills’, is incorrect: just as the Industrial Revolution was something that Blake, like many of his contemporaries, was only vaguely aware of, so the assertion that Jesus came to Britain some time during his childhood or adolescence was very much a product of later nineteenth-century mysticism. Antiquarian writers before Blake such as Aylett Sammes and Jacob Bryant had suggested that 244

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Semitic peoples had come to the British Isles to trade, though none of them mentioned the appearance of Christ in these shores. William of Malmesbury in the twelfth century had written that Joseph of Arimathea brought twelve disciples to Britain and established a chapel there, a story that was popularized in the Grail legends and later associated with Glastonbury (although Blake appears not to have known that particular aspect of the story, as Glastonbury is not mentioned once in his writings). Blake certainly knew the myth of Joseph of Arimathea in Britain: it is the subject of his first solo engraving, while he was still apprenticed to Basire, and in 1794 he painted Joseph of Arimathea Preaching to the Britons. Blake’s immediate source for the story was almost certainly John Milton’s The History of Britain, which included the following brief allusion to the legend: Nor yet then first was the Christian Faith heer known, but eev’n from the later daies of Tiberius, as Gildas confidently affirms, taught and propagated, and that as som say by Simon Zelotes, as others by Joseph of Arimathea, Barnabas, Paul, Peter, and thir prime Disciples. But of these matters, variously written and believ’d, Ecclesiastic Historians can best determin: as the best of them do, with little credit giv’n to the particulars of such uncertain relations.6 It is most likely, then, that the feet that Blake refers to in the opening stanza are those of Joseph of Arimathea who, according to legend, established Christianity in the British Isles in the first years after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Giving credence to this myth, Blake ends his pacifist rejection of a military society with a call from the Book of Numbers: ‘Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets’ (11:29). Despite the powerful influence the stanzas from Milton were to have on later generations, particularly after they were set to 245

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Milton a Poem, Copy C, Plate 2, relief and whiteline etching, hand-coloured.

music in the twentieth century, Blake omitted the Preface from his later versions of the epic poem. It is most likely that as it became clear his original works were being read by fewer and fewer people, so the presence of an invocation to a new generation of readers was too painful a reminder of his obscure status. Certainly, this obscurity was not especially helped by the subject matter of the main part of the book, which a brief plot summary 246

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can only partly elucidate: after the Preface, the poem begins with Milton in heaven, where he is dissatisfied because he can see his emanation suffering where she is ‘scatter’d thro’ the deep’. Among the other inhabitants of Eden, Milton listens to a ‘Bards prophetic Song’ that tells the story of Los and his sons: Rintrah, Palamabron and Satan. The song begins with a reformulation of the story of the Zoas first begun in The Book of Urizen, Los and Enitharmon labouring to create a fixed form for Urizen to prevent him falling into complete chaos, the human body that restricts the unlimited potential of our senses but still allows them to operate. It then proceeds to the struggle between the sons of Los and Enitharmon, who represent three classes of men: the Elect, the Redeemed and the Reprobate. In the Bard’s song, Rintrah, Palamabron and Satan are each allocated their own tasks, to plough the earth and break it for agriculture (Rintrah), to prepare the ground for seeds with the harrow (Palamabron), and finally to take the crop and grind it into flour at the mill (Satan). This is the direct reference to the ‘dark Satanic mills’ in the stanza – Satan’s allotted role is to create the final form of souls, which while restrictive to the senses is also important in preventing many from falling into complete error. Satan, however, wishes for more and usurps the role of Rintrah, causing chaos among the horses that draw his plough and Los to break out in anger. This strange story, unintelligible to those who have no understanding of Blake’s personal mythology, serves as a complex satire on Milton’s theology, in particular its roots in Calvinism. During his time in Felpham and over the next decade while he worked on Milton a Poem, Blake’s critique of Christianity that had begun in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and continued through the Lambeth Prophecies became increasingly sophisticated. According to Calvinism, the Elect were those chosen by God to join him in heaven: according to the theory of predestination, God knew prior to a soul’s incarnation on earth whether it was destined to 247

divine images Milton a Poem, Copy C, Plate 9, relief and whiteline etching, hand-coloured.

heaven or hell, a logical application of the quandary of whether God could be all-knowing if humans could sin against his will. Reprobates, by contrast, were doomed to hell regardless of their actions, while the Redeemed could be saved if they chose to accept God (a fudge that mitigated the logical simplicity of God knowing who was saved and who was damned in the first place). In an act of theological audacity, Blake inverted the traditional 248

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version of this belief system, establishing the reprobates – sinners – as the truly saved because they realize that they need God’s grace, while the Elect are actually followers of Satan, morally rigid and unable to understand the need for the forgiveness of sin. At the end of the Bard’s song, Satan creates hell by refusing to open himself up to his brothers, to admit his mistakes: Thus Satan rag’d amidst the Assembly! and his bosom grew Opake against the Divine Vision: the paved terraces of His bosom inwards shone with fires, but the stones becoming opake! Hid him from sight, in an extreme blackness and darkness, And there a World of deeper Ulro was open’d, in the midst Of the Assembly. In Satans bosom a vast unfathomable Abyss. (9.30–35, e103)

In this dense, astonishing passage, Satan creates hell within his own body (Ulro in Blake’s cosmology) and closes himself within it, at which point Los and Enitharmon realize that Satan is Urizen. This is a culminating moment of Blake’s theology: Satan, first introduced as the ‘Mistaken Demon of Heaven’ in Visions of the Daughters of Albion, is here revealed to be the very same as Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost and the vision of a false demiurge famous today as Blake’s Ancient of Days. Blake himself appears to have undergone a process of revision since The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where he wrote that Milton ‘was a true poet and of the devil’s party’: certainly the Satan of Milton a Poem appears very different to the devils of his earlier work, but in truth outside that particular pamphlet he had always attributed demonic aspects to the traditional conception of God. Realizing that he has projected his very worst aspects as a figure of Moral Law onto Satan, that he is responsible for this evil 249

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Milton a Poem, Copy C, Plate 31, relief and whiteline etching, hand-coloured.

and also for the torment of his denied sexuality, Milton determines to leave heaven and descend to earth to reclaim these lost parts of himself. The book presents some of the most remarkable visions of Blake’s cosmology. In Plate 36 of the poem the universe is shown as a cosmic egg surrounded by four spheres of the Zoas that have given rise to it, with Milton’s track to earth shown as a curved line that draws upon illustrations to Newton’s Principia 250

England’s Pleasant Land Milton a Poem, Copy C, Plate 34, relief and whiteline etching, hand-coloured.

mathematica. Likewise, when he arrives on Earth at the end of the first book, Milton falls as a star into Blake’s foot, creating an astonishing image whereby Blake sees the entire ‘Vegetable world’ as a ‘bright sandal formd immortal of precious stones & gold’ (21.13, e115), which he binds to himself, a very immediate and physical metaphor of Blake combining with Milton and his prophetic alter 251

divine images ego, Los, to walk through the world as a visionary. As well as joining with Blake to revive English poetry, Milton must also reclaim his repressed female self, and there is a very tender scene in Book Two where Ololon descends before the Blakes’ cottage in Felpham, whereupon William asks her to tend to his wife who is sick inside. The climactic scene of Milton, however, comes at the very end when Milton must confront Satan, prior to the moment when the giant Albion, the primeval man, will begin to awaken. In the scene depicting Milton and Satan, Blake’s writing is at its most apocalyptic and rivals that of Paradise Lost or biblical books such as those of Ezekiel or Revelation: I also stood in Satans bosom & beheld its desolations! A ruind Man: a ruind building of God not made with hands; Its plains of burning sand, its mountains of marble terrible: Its pits & declivities flowing with molten ore & fountains Of pitch & nitre: its ruind palaces & cities & mighty works; Its furnaces of affliction in which his Angels & Emanations Labour with blackend visages among its stupendous ruins Arches & pyramids & porches colonades & domes: In which dwells Mystery Babylon, here is her secret place From hence she comes forth on the Churches in delight Here is her Cup filld with its poisons, in these horrid vales And here her scarlet Veil woven in pestilence & war: Here is Jerusalem bound in chains, in the Dens of Babylon (38.15–27)

In this incredible scene the hell of Paradise Lost is transformed into a psychological space – a ‘ruind Man’ – drawing attention to Blake’s incredibly deft psychological understanding of the realities 252

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Milton a Poem, Copy C, Plate 39, relief and whiteline etching, hand-coloured.

of religious experience, hell as a creation of the human imagination. To this sense of remarkable psychological subtlety, Blake now has Milton deliver a speech that demonstrates an incredible sense of moral perspicacity: In the Eastern porch of Satans Universe Milton stood & said Satan! my Spectre! I know my power thee to annihilate And be a greater in thy place, & be thy Tabernacle 253

divine images A covering for thee to do thy will, till one greater comes And smites me as I smote thee & becomes my covering. Such are the Laws of thy false Heavns! but Laws of Eternity Are not such: know thou: I come to Self Annihilation Such are the Laws of Eternity that each shall mutually Annihilate himself for others good, as I for thee Thy purpose & the purpose of thy Priests & of thy Churches Is to impress on men the fear of death; to teach Trembling & fear, terror, constriction; abject selfishness Mine is to teach Men to despise death & to go on In fearless majesty annihilating Self, laughing to scorn Thy Laws & terrors, shaking down thy Synagogues as webs I come to discover before Heavn & Hell the Self righteousness In all its Hypocritic turpitude, opening to every eye These wonders of Satans holiness shewing to the Earth The Idol Virtues of the Natural Heart, & Satans Seat Explore in all its Selfish Natural Virtue & put off In Self annihilation all that is not of God alone: To put off Self & all I have ever & ever Amen (38.28–49, e139)

This speech is the culmination of the attitude to ethics and religion that had been outlined in the Preface to Milton and in the Bard’s Song. Conventional morality, the morality of the Elite, is to condemn others and, in the act of destroying them, ‘be a greater in [their] place’, what throughout the late illuminated books Blake refers to as the Covering Cherub or a Tabernacle. In this, Blake understands that by enforcing a rigid sense of morality, the Moral Law of his later works, we become unable to recognize that 254

England’s Pleasant Land Milton a Poem, Copy C, Plate 46, relief and whiteline etching, hand-coloured.

we are all sinners and, as such, that mutual forgiveness of such sin – what Blake refers to here as Self Annihilation, that is, the destruction of the Self as separate to the other – is the path to paradise. Blake worked on Milton a Poem for over a decade, printing his first copies in 1811 and then issuing further sets with additions in 1818 and 1821. Originally intending it to be a poem in twelve 255

divine images books, as per its epic format, the act of creating such an incredible illuminated volume, which ran to fifty plates, was a monumental and time-consuming task. As such, Blake reduced the poem to two books, although these carry within them – once you overcome the strangeness of Blake’s personal mythology – a particular sense of cohesion: in Book One, Milton realizes his error and confronts the necessary task that he must undertake to reclaim his female emanation and the destructive masculine reason that he has rejected as other. This task is not actually completed in Book Two: the final vision of Milton a Poem is one of apocalypse, but of apocalypse deferred. Albion begins to rise as the epic poem concludes, but his final restoration will be the subject of another, even greater, work.



Creating Systems


year after Blake’s return to London, a new prospect emerged,  one that promised the fortunes which had so eluded him in Felpham. In September 1805 Blake was visited by Robert Hartley Cromek, an engraver who, in the early years of the nineteenth century, had decided to set out on a more entrepreneurial path and become a publisher. His first project was to issue a deluxe edition of a popular poem of the day, Robert Blair’s The Grave.

The Grave and The Canterbury Pilgrims As with Young’s original Night Thoughts, The Grave was one of those pieces from the ‘Graveyard School’ that remained widely read into the nineteenth century: as Essick and Paley write in their facsimile edition of the poem, such work must deal with themes of death the leveller and memento mori, as well as frequently envisioning the Last Judgement.1 Robert Blair was a Scottish minister and poet who published only three poems before his death in 1746 at the age of 46. Written in blank verse, Blair demonstrated some versatility in his poem that, perhaps as much for its shorter length as anything, is a more approachable work than Young’s. One of its most important themes is that ‘all is vanity’, as in the opening pages when he asks: 257

divine images Where are the mighty thunderbolts of war, The Roman Caesars and the Grecian chiefs, The boast of story? Where the hot-brain’d youth, Who the tiara at his pleasure tore From kings of all the then discover’d globe; And cried, forsooth, because his arm was hamper’d, And had not room enough to do its work? Alas, how slim – how dishonourably slim! – And cramm’d into a space we blush to name – Proud royalty! How alter’d in thy looks! How blank thy features, and how wan thy hue! Son of the morning! whither art thou gone? (The Grave 123–34)

It is easy to see how such lines would have appealed to the republican Blake with their invocation of Death as the true leveller, and by October Flaxman was writing to Hayley that Blake had been commissioned once more: Mr. Cromak [sic] has employed Blake to make a set of 40 drawings from Blair’s poem of the Grave 20 of which he proposes [to] have engraved by the Designer and to publish them with the hopes of rendering Service to the Artist, several members of the Royal Academy have been highly pleased with the specimens and mean to encourage the work. (br 207) This letter, as Bentley points out, is extremely significant, for it reveals that Cromek intended to employ Blake not merely as the artist but as the engraver, which would earn him a much larger commission. A prospectus was quickly produced by Cromek, announcing the plans for the publication ‘of a new and elegant edition of Blair’s Grave’ in November, notifying the public that 258

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there would now be fifteen prints, ‘from designs invented and to be engraved by William Blake’ (br 210). Almost immediately, however, he issued another prospectus, this time indicating that there would be ‘twelve very spirited engravings by Louis Schiavonetti, from designs invented by William Blake’ (br 214). Between September and November 1805, as well as working on his designs, Blake had begun to prepare an initial plate for the work, which would become known as ‘Death’s Door’. This white-line etching printed in relief was a highly innovative and extremely dramatic rendition, completely unlike anything else that was being produced at the time – and Cromek was clearly very nervous: his reputation rested on The Grave being a success and so he wished for a much more conventional style. As such, he commissioned Schiavonetti straight away, an engraver who had worked with Francesco Bartolozzi, another Italian who had found considerable success in London with a new style of engraving. Both Bartolozzi and Schiavonetti were experts in the stipple method of engraving, making tiny cuts in the plate that create a much wider range of tonal effects than traditional line engraving. This style of drawing was seen to more closely resemble crayon or pencil drawings and Bartolozzi helped to popularize it prior to his departure for Lisbon in 1802. This transfer of the greater part of the work – and earnings – to another engraver was seen by Blake as a betrayal. In November 1805 Blake could still refer to his ‘Friend Cromek’ in a letter to William Hayley, but before long he began to fill his Notebook with invective against the publisher, writing doggerel verse such as: ‘Poor Schiavonetti died of the Cromek, / A thing thats tied round the Examiners neck’ (e505), a reference to the fact that the Italian died not long after Cromek’s edition of The Grave was released. Blake was very right in one sense to feel so ill-used: after their relationship crumbled, Blake would not work on commercial engravings for another decade. 259

divine images The Grave by Robert Blair, title page, 1808, intaglio engraving on paper by Louis Schiavonetti after a design by William Blake.

Yet in another respect Cromek served Blake well in his choice of Schiavonetti. The relief print that Cromek saw in Blake’s studio was doubtless in a very early state that would have been much reworked, but by 1805 the style of line engraving that Blake had employed on Young’s Night Thoughts was beginning to look very old-fashioned. Schiavonetti, working in the stipple style popularized by his former master Bartolozzi, helped greatly to contribute to the popularity of The Grave, and the designs 260

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were submitted to Queen Charlotte to request permission that the volume be dedicated to her. When the book was published in 1808, it quickly became the most renowned of Blake’s work and was read throughout the first part of the nineteenth century. Many who had no idea whatsoever of his illuminated printing would nonetheless have had some sense of William Blake as the designer of the striking images to The Grave. And they were striking – although not always pleasantly so ‘Death’s Door’, for the tastes of Georgian readers. James Montgomery, a few lines in The Grave by Robert Blair, intaglio of whose Cromek used in an epigraph to the poem, sold his subengraving on paper. scription copy of The Grave because ‘several of the plates were hardly of such a nature as to render the book proper to lie on a parlour table.’2 The sheer physicality of the ‘celestial messenger’ in the opening design, a powerful muscular body with trumpet lowered from its lips to call the skeleton in the grave to renewed life, was one such disturbing image. For any reader of Blake’s prophetic works or large colour prints, the depiction of angels as potent naked bodies would have been immediately familiar – but such an audience was small in 1808. Likewise, although the feminine soul that reunites with the body in the last of Blake’s plates is clothed, the male form that rises whole from the grave to be embraced by her is not and their kiss seems much more than a polite, Platonic peck. Again, the sexual symbolism of Zoa and emanation would become much more familiar to readers able to comprehend all of 261

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Blake’s works, but early nineteenth-century readers found their conventional tastes shocked by such imagery. By the time The Grave was published, another incident had occurred that was to sour relations completely between the two men. Writing to Montgomery in 1807, Cromek could still express admiration for Blake’s talents, but henceforth each would become increasingly bitter towards the other. In 1808 Blake commenced upon a design for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a painting executed in tempera that showed each of the pilgrims upon horseback. Ever experimental, Blake created a design that was deliberately at odds with the naturalistic representational art of his day and instead hearkened back to the style of medieval art, deliberately flattening the overall image and accentuating the caricatures of each of the pilgrims. The Canterbury Pilgrims drew upon Lavater’s theories of physiognomy that Blake had been working on twenty years previously, but it also allowed him to develop a detailed account of each of the characters that he would write up in 1809 in his Descriptive Catalogue. According to Blake, each of the pilgrims serves as an archetype rather than natural representation of man, bearing some affinity to Blake’s own interest in depicting humanity via its Zoas rather than more ‘realistic’ personalities:

‘The Day of Judgement’, in The Grave by Robert Blair, intaglio engraving on paper.

The characters of Chaucer’s Pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations: as one age falls, another rises, different to mortal sight, but to immortals only the same; for we see the same characters repeated again and again, in animals, vegetables, minerals, and in men; nothing new occurs in identical existence; Accident ever varies, Substance can never suffer change nor decay. (e532) While working on designs for The Grave, Blake claimed to have shown Cromek designs for The Canterbury Pilgrims and believed himself to have been encouraged to reproduce the work as an 263

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engraving. As he was no longer the engraver for The Grave, he began to labour at the substantial copper plate that would allow him to make prints of his Chaucer design. Cromek, meanwhile, claimed to have come up with the design in 1806, shortly after his marriage in Wakefield, whereupon he commissioned an artist he had often worked with when he had been an engraver, Thomas Stothard, to paint the subject. Stothard was one of Blake’s oldest friends, but subsequent events would damage that friendship irrevocably. While Blake was working on producing engravings of the pilgrims, Stothard painted a rendition of the scene that, like Blake’s, depicted them upon an elongated canvas. At that point, all similarity ended: while Blake worked with tempera to try and revive a medievalist style, Stothard used the more popular 264

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Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims, 1810, intaglio engraving on paper.

medium of oil, creating natural figures and lively, contemporary renditions of the animals that they rode. While Blake’s image languished or, at best, was ridiculed, Stothard’s painting toured the country to great acclaim. Blake would write in his Notebook: For Fortunes favours you your riches bring But Fortune says she gave you no such thing Why should you be ungrateful to your friends Sneaking & Backbiting & Odds & Ends (e509)

Blake felt betrayed, a feeling that was echoed by Gilchrist. Later biographers, however, have been a little more circumspect. It is not at all impossible that Cromek took Blake’s idea, believing 265

divine images that he could improve upon it, but there is no evidence at all that he commissioned Blake to engrave the original painting. Whatever the relations between those two, Bentley is certainly right when he acquits Stothard from any underhand dealings: Mr. Cromek gave the commission for painting the subject of the Canterbury Pilgrims. There had been no previous conver­ sation on the subject, though it must long have occupied the thoughts of the projector, for, on the matter being first mentioned to Mr. Stothard, and before he gave answer to the proposal, he took from his folio a sketch of the subject, shewing that it had been long contemplated and only wanted the sanction of a commission to set him to work. (br 228) Stothard may very well have been contemplating his own designs independently of Blake (although not necessarily without further refinement on the part of Cromek). Nevertheless, as Bentley observes, Blake’s bitterness at what he saw as mistreatment on the part of Cromek and Stothard drove him ‘steadily deeper into obscurity and isolation’ (br 229).

The Exhibition of 1809 and A Descriptive Catalogue In May 1809 Blake took over the upstairs rooms of his brother’s hosiery shop in Broad Street to mount a one-man show of his work. The sixteen paintings on display were discussed at great length in A Descriptive Catalogue, which Blake wrote to accompany the exhibition and which remains a fertile ground for understanding much of his thinking about art. The aim of the show, according to an advertisement he created, was to represent ‘The grand Style of Art restored; in fresco’ (e528). Fresco was a term traditionally applied to the method of painting water-based pigments onto fresh (affresco) plaster; the paint would then set with the materials of 266

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the wall, making the painting more permanent. It had been popular during the Renaissance and the works of a number of Italian masters from Giotto’s depictions of the life of St Francis of Assisi to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel were created using this technique. Blake’s own use of the term was somewhat more eccentric, referring instead to water-based paintings: as Morton Paley observes, in the Catalogue Blake drew attention to his invention of the ‘portable fresco’, using tempera, gum and glue on plaster whiting, a technique that he had first begun to experiment with in the mid1790s. Using watercolours, Blake hoped to avoid what he saw as the muddiness of oil and also produce paintings that could be moved from one site to another, while at the same time projecting his ambition to produce ‘pictures on a scale that is suitable to the grandeur of a nation’.3 Martin Myrone draws attention to the role of the annual Royal Academy exhibition in the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth. This display, the most prestigious of the exhibitions that took place each year, ‘was intended as a showcase for the greatest talents of the contemporary British school’.4 The annual show was an opportunity for artists to make a name for themselves and the walls of the Royal Academy were crowded with a multitude of works that frequently created a barrage of images to overwhelm the spectator. By 1805 wealthy connoisseurs had established the British Institution to support their more elevated notions of art, and contemporaries such as Fuseli had created their own one-man exhibitions. Blake’s show, therefore, was not particularly unusual in itself, although none of his contemporaries went to such great lengths to explain their works in extensive catalogues. The sixteen paintings on show in the 1809 exhibition comprised a mixture of historical, literary and biblical subjects and were all intended to demonstrate ‘the grand style of art’. A Descriptive Catalogue begins with a direct assault on the tastes of the Academy 267

divine images of the day, declaiming: ‘the eye that can prefer the Colouring of Titian and Rubens to that of Michael Angelo and Rafael, ought to be modest and to doubt its own powers’ (e529). Ridiculing the assumption that Titian was superior to Michelangelo simply because his works may have been created later, Blake continued a line of attack that had been formed in the 1790s, as when he wrote in his annotations to The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds: Having spent the Vigour of my Youth & Genius under the Opression of Sr Joshua & his Gang of Cunning Hired Knaves Without Employment & as much as could possibly be Without Bread, The Reader must Expect to Read in all my Remarks on these Books Nothing but Indignation & Resentment (e636) Indignation and resentment were to be primary themes of Blake’s writing and letters for the following decade, but in 1809 he still hoped that he would be able to transform the tastes of the nation. At this point he was deliberately misreading Reynolds’s hierarchy of artists, although the earlier anno­­­­­tations were probably more pointed because of stories that James Barry lived on apples and bread while producing work comparable to Michelangelo, while Reynolds could charge a fortune for his commissions.5 In making these satirical points, however, it was unfortunate for Blake – and 268

The spiritual form of Nelson guiding Leviathan, c. 1805, tempera and gold on canvas.

Creating Systems The spiritual form of Pitt guiding Behemoth, c. 1805, tempera and gold on canvas.

for later generations – that many of the experiments in tempera suffered a much greater darkening and blotting than he saw in Reynolds and Gainsborough, so that those on canvas such as The Bard from Gray or Satan Calling up His Legions are incredibly dark. It is the pen and ink compositions, covered with delicate washes of watercolour, that are the most astonishing today, with pictures such as Christ in the Sepulchre Guarded by Angels still illuminated by their divine light. Although Blake sought an art of suitable grandeur to represent the nation, it is likely that the few visitors who attended the 269

divine images exhibition would have been extremely confused by what that national message actually was. The first two paintings, The spiritual form of Nelson guiding Leviathan and The spiritual form of Pitt guid­ ing Behemoth, would have been ambiguous to viewers precisely because Blake, probably still nervous after his trial in 1804, does not speak explicitly about the political meanings of the paintings. Instead, he observes that these pictures ‘are compositions of a mythological cast, similar to those Apotheoses of Persian, Hindoo, and Egyptian Antiquity, which are still preserved on rude monu­ ments, being copies from some stupendous originals now lost’ (e530). Instead of a glorification of Nelson, a national hero because of his death in victory at Trafalgar, or of Pitt, the leading light of conservative politics until his demise a year after Nelson, Blake depicts the idealized forms of these two men with the same ambivalence that he reserves for Newton: there is something potentially divine about them, but their desire for power reduces them to slave masters over humanity as they involve the nations of the earth in the coils of warlike monsters. Blake refers to the sources of his art as ‘the Cherubim’, the statues of antiquity from north Africa and Asia Minor that, according to Blake, were copied by the Greeks: The Artist having been taken in vision into the ancient republics, monarchies, and patriarchates of Asia, has seen those wonderful originals called in the Sacred Scriptures the Cherubim, which were sculptured and painted on walls of Temples, Towers, Cities, Palaces, and erected in the highly cultivated states of Egypt, Moab, Edom, Aram, among the Rivers of Paradise, being originals from which the Greeks and Hetrurians copied Hercules, Farnese, Venus of Medicis, Apollo Belvidere, and all the grand works of ancient art. They were executed in a very superior style to those justly admired copies, being with their accompaniments terrific and grand 270

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in the highest degree. The Artist has endeavoured to emulate the grandeur of those seen in his vision, and to apply it to modern Heroes, on a smaller scale. No man can believe that either Homer’s Mythology, or Ovid’s, were the production of Greece, or of Latium; neither will any one believe, that the Greek statues, as they are called, were the invention of Greek Artists; perhaps the Torso is the only original work remaining; all the rest are evidently copies, though fine ones, from greater works of the Asiatic Patriarchs. The Greek Muses are daughters of Mnemosyne, or Memory, and not of Inspiration or Imagination, therefore not authors of such sublime conceptions. Those wonderful originals seen in my visions, were some of them one hundred feet in height; some were painted as pictures, and some carved as basso relievos, and some as groupes of statues, all containing mythological and recondite meaning, where more is meant than meets the eye. (e531) Among the historical paintings on display, the most ambitious is that which has not survived into modern times. The Ancient Britons was a very large picture by Blake’s standards, and depicted three figures – the strongest, the most beautiful and the ugliest men – who, according to a Welsh triad, were meant to have been the only three men to have escaped from the last battle fought by King Arthur. Blake’s description of the painting in the Catalogue must have been among the most bizarre that any visitors to the exhibition would have read: The British Antiquities are now in the Artist’s hands; all his visionary contemplations, relating to his own country and its ancient glory, when it was as it again shall be, the source of learning and inspiration. Arthur was a name for the constellation Arcturus, or Bootes, the Keeper of the North Pole. And all the fables of Arthur and his round table; of the warlike 271

divine images naked Britons; of Merlin; of Arthur’s conquest of the whole world; of his death, or sleep, and promise to return again; of the Druid monuments, or temples; of the pavement of Watling street; of London stone; of the caverns in Cornwall, Wales, Derbyshire, and Scotland; of the Giants of Ireland and Britain; of the elemental beings, called by us by the general name of Fairies; and of these three who escaped, namely, Beauty, Strength, and Ugliness, Mr. B. has in his hands poems of the highest antiquity. Adam was a Druid, and Noah; also Abraham was called to succeed the Druidical age. (e542–3) The ‘poems of the highest antiquity’ almost certainly refers to Jerusalem, perhaps also to Milton. Considering Blake was etching these as the exhibition was in progress, to call them ancient poems seems strange; the comment makes more sense if we understand it to mean that, as he indicated in his description of the tempera paintings of Nelson and Pitt, he saw his art as reviving that of the ancients. The few visitors who saw the 1809 exhibition tended to be less forgiving than subsequent admirer’s of Blake’s art. Robert Hunt wrote the only review in a September edition of The Examiner, remarking: But, when the ebullitions of a distempered brain are mistaken for the sallies of genius by those whose works have exhibited the soundest thinking in art, the malady has indeed attained a pernicious height, and it becomes a duty to endeavour to arrest its progress. Such is the case with the productions and admirers of william blake, an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement, and, consequently, of whom no public notice would have been taken, if he was not forced on the notice and animadversion of the examiner. (br 283) 272

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Hunt’s attempt to arrest Blake’s progress may have had little effect, as Blake was already suffering from increasing obscurity; however, on top of the failed attempt to achieve a wider audience with the engravings to The Grave, the notion that Blake was an artist of bad taste – one, moreover, who was an ‘unfortunate lunatic’ – at the very least undermined his confidence. He would only exhibit once more in his lifetime and, over the years, retreated further and further from the public sphere. As Myrone observes: ‘Blake’s stated ambition was to make this exhibition a launch pad for vast public pictorial schemes, which would recover the original spiritual power of art.’6 Even Blake’s friends, however, were confused by both the images on display and his Descriptive Catalogue. The incident with Cromek had effectively ended Blake’s career as a commercial engraver, but at least it had brought some wider recognition: the disaster of the 1809 exhibition reduced even that to obscurity.

Illustrations to Milton The return to London from Felpham had brought with it some connections and, in The Grave, a commission that would have helped Blake find some degree of financial security had he been able to engrave as well as design the illustrations to Blair’s poem. Between 1809 and 1820, however, he and Catherine faced greater struggles as they sank deeper into poverty. While he felt that former friends were increasingly abandoning them, one couple remained true: Thomas and Elizabeth Butts. After the fiasco of the 1809 exhibition, Butts was virtually the only significant buyer of Blake’s works for a long period. Not only did he provide Blake with some financial support, however limited, but through his commissions he encouraged the artist to produce some of his finest and best-known images as illustrations to Milton. Illustrating the works of other authors was something of the stock-in-trade for a jobbing engraver, particularly as they would be 273

divine images called upon to provide prints for artists who based their paintings on popular authors. Blake himself served in this role with engravings for Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera and Shakespeare, and he printed his own designs for Mary Wollstonecraft, Edward Young and, of course, Robert Blair. He was also employed as an artist to provide illustrations for John Flaxman, painting 116 watercolour illustrations to Gray’s Poems, which were intended as a gift for Anne Flaxman. These include some of Blake’s most charming works, such as those to Gray’s ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat’, while also capturing moments of Blakean sublimity, as in his image of Apollo for ‘The Progress of Poesy’. After his return to London, Blake also continued to compose his illustrations to the Bible for Butts, including the astonishing series of watercolours inspired by the Book of Revelation incorporating his powerful depictions of evil in the form of the Great Red Dragon, images that would be made famous in the late twentieth century by Thomas Harris’s novels featuring the serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Illustration was a means for Blake to explore fertile dialogues with those works that inspired him and, in the first decades of the nineteenth century after his return from Felpham, no author inspired him more than John Milton. As Lucy Newlyn observes, one cannot grasp Blake’s visionary project without first understanding how much it ‘depended on the massively ambitious project of rewriting the Bible and Paradise Lost’.7 This task had begun with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but Blake’s own comprehension of Milton was transformed by his time with Hayley, whose work on a biography of the epic poet seemed to have deepened Blake’s critical appreciation of his forebear. Much of that task of rewriting Paradise Lost was, as we have seen, taken up in Milton a Poem, but throughout the 1800s and 1810s Blake engaged in a dialogue with many more of Milton’s works via his art. The first series we have is neither for Paradise Lost nor for Thomas Butts, but instead is a series of eight illustrations to 274

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Comus, commissioned by Reverend Joseph Thomas. Born in 1765 in Llanerfyl, Monmouthshire, after graduating from Cambridge Thomas had been ordained a minister in 1790. He married an heiress, Millicent Parkhurst, and served as a naval chaplain before residing at the estate of his wife’s family in Epsom. Something of a connoisseur, he would commission several works from Blake, including sets for Paradise Lost and ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’, with Blake producing multiple copies of his works for both Butts and Thomas during the early 1800s. In his illustrations to Comus, we see Blake following Milton’s text carefully but also allowing for his own interpretations. As the editors of the Blake Archive point out, for example, Milton’s poem ends with a joyous dance while the faces of the figures in Blake’s final painting are much more serious. Throughout the illustrations, Blake tells Milton’s fantastical story of how two brothers and their sister (simply referred to as ‘the Lady’) become separated in woods. The Lady encounters the debauched figure of Comus, a necromancer born to Circe, who has travelled across Europe to the woods of Shropshire. Comus traps her in an enchanted chair and attempts to seduce her among his retinue, people transformed into animal-headed figures by his magic. The brothers, meanwhile, having discovered a water nymph, Sabrina, return with her to drive off Comus and free their sister, who is released by the divine nymph because she has remained steadfast in her virtue. Blake repeated the Comus designs for Butts in 1815, and Pamela Dunbar observes that there are two distinct styles between the two sets, seeing the earlier set for Thomas as more delicate and supple. She argues that the first set concentrated on the personal drama of the Lady’s threatened virtue, while the later version for Butts draws upon a Neoplatonic theme, the Lady representing the soul as it descends into the body – signified by the forest – and threatened with the bondage of earthly passions.8 Before turning to the most influential series produced by Blake, it is worth considering briefly two other, shorter sets of 275

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‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’: The Annunciation to the Shepherds, 1809, pen and watercolour over pencil on paper.

compositions for ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ and for ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’. The first of these sets, as with Comus, was produced initially for Thomas and later for Butts in 1809 and 1815, respectively. Blake had long been interested in the poem, making reference to it in Europe a Prophecy, where he also provides a poetic treatment of the theme of how Christ’s birth would lead to the overthrow of pagan gods. Upon returning to the illustrations to Milton once back in London, he emphasized more rigorously his antipathy to classical civilization in contrast to his reinvigorated Christology. The series begins with the simple harmony of Christ being born in a manger in Bethlehem, the Holy Family at peace. After an image depicting the annunciation of Christ’s birth to the shepherds, the series continues with the Old Dragon (Satan) in hell as two pagan deities – Apollo and Moloch, representatives of classical and eastern paganism – flee their shrines. The image of Moloch is particularly striking for the inclusion of a young child leaping triumphant from the flames into which it had been cast as sacrifice. The series ends with the Holy Family once more around the manger as part of ‘The Night of Peace’, their tranquillity protected by angels. While ‘L’Allegro’ (mirth) and ‘Il Penseroso’ (melancholy) were relatively short poems by Milton, Blake’s treatment of them for Thomas Butts, sometime between 1816 and 1820, results in some of the finest designs that he ever produced. Consid­er­ing the dispiriting circumstances in which the Blakes had lived in the decade preceding those paintings, the illustrations to ‘L’Allegro’ in particular are among the most joyous that Blake ever painted, particularly the title page, ‘Mirth’, and his image of ‘The Sun at His Eastern Gate’. Blake may have been hostile to Apollo and Milton’s classicism, but as Dunbar rightly points out, the abundance of personified forms in his illustrations means that Blake can remain faithful to Milton’s highly metaphorical text but also provide us with ‘a revelation of the nature of his own Divine Vision’.9 277

divine images Marvellous as these images are, however, it is Blake’s illustrations to Paradise Lost that have been the most influential. Again, he produced two sets of these – one for Thomas and the other for Butts, although in this instance they were painted very close to each other (1807 and 1808, respectively); indeed, at the end of his life, Blake returned to the series to compose a third set for John Linnell, but died before it could be completed. There are only twelve illustrations in each set, but they set before the viewer some of the most iconic images of Milton’s poetry ever to be committed to paper or canvas. The opening image of ‘Satan Calling Up His Legions’ seems to offer us the properly heroic version of the Devil, returning us to the Blake of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, who announced that Milton was ‘a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it’ (e35). Yet Blake’s depiction of Satan is much closer to that in Milton a Poem than The Marriage. The illustration that immediately follows, one of the most famous to be produced by Blake, is a true image of horror: ‘Satan, Sin and Death’ shows Satan at the gates of Hell, muscular and heroic as he confronts the shadowy figure of Death, his son. Between the two of them, however, is Sin, drawn from some of the most disturbing lines to be encountered in Milton’s poem: The one seem’d Woman to the waste, and fair, But ended foul in many a scaly fould Voluminous and vast, a Serpent arm’d With mortal sting: about her middle round A cry of Hell Hounds never ceasing bark’d With wide Cerberian mouths full loud, and rung A hideous Peal: yet, when they list, would creep, If aught disturb’d thir noyse, into her woomb, And kennel there, yet there still bark’d and howl’d Within unseen. (ii.650–59)


Creating Systems Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’: Satan, Sin, and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell, 1808, pen and ink and watercolour on paper.

As with his illustrations of the Great Red Dragon, this is one of the most powerful depictions of evil in the history of Western art. The sexual vanity of Satan, who breeds his son, Death, with his daughter because she seems to reflect back his own beauty, is an act that condemns her to eternal, incestuous rape. The expression on her face is one of unrelenting despair and even Satan and Death appear to stare back in horror at each other, as though realizing for the first time the enormity of suffering that hell brings with it. The picture is a parody of his large colour print of the good and evil angels fighting over a child, no longer even pretending to strive for the good of the child but instead locked in stasis, their 279

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James Gillray, Sin, Death and the Devil, 1792, intaglio engraving, hand-coloured on paper.

postures upright and reflected back at each other: Death, with his beard and crown, may be a version of Urizen, and Satan, his hair curled in flames, may be Orc, but now Frye’s notion of the Orc cycle, the endless succession of rebellion into tyranny is complete. Energy and reason are frozen at the gates of hell. This diminution of the role of Satan continues immediately in the following illustration, ‘Christ Offers to Redeem Man’. In contrast to many of Blake’s previous images of a Urizenic creator, God in this picture appears genuinely sorrowful as Christ offers himself up in a posture that is a graceful precursor to the crucifixion. That event will be foretold by Michael in the eleventh illustration of the series, but it is also a posture that echoes one used by Blake regularly to show the resurrected Christ. That God is sorrowful, however, as Dunbar observes, does not deflect completely from his hypocrisy: as Blake repeats in Milton a Poem, it is Satan’s pretence of pity and love that leads to disaster, and certainly throughout the rest of the illustrations it is Christ, not 280

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God the father, who is the hero. In contrast to the heroic pose of the Messiah, Satan is recumbent, echoing his pose when he is watching Adam and Eve make love in jealousy, fully aware of the horror of his own vile copulations with Sin. At this point Satan is wrapped about with a serpent and, by the end of the series, his bodily form will have dissolved completely, replaced entirely by the snake into which he is now bound, the Old Dragon who suffers on the morning of Christ’s Nativity. The centrality of Christ to Blake’s vision is given not only in the familiar image of Jesus on the cross, as in the eleventh illustration, but in the remarkable depiction of ‘The Rout of the Rebel Angels’, the seventh image in the series. Taking his cue from Paradise Lost, it is Christ who leads the war in heaven. The image echoes two others of Blake’s: The Ancient of Days, with Urizen reaching out of the sun to circumscribe the heavens, and the appearance of Los out of a solar disc to stand before Blake in Milton a Poem. The relation between Christ in ‘The Rout of the Rebel Angels’ and The Ancient of Days is an ironic one: Christ is taking up the bow of burning gold invoked in the Preface to Milton, or indeed the bow that Albion takes up at the end of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, and is the figure of the sun-god, as Dunbar points out.10 Satan is not the example of energy, but rather the Urizenic figure of rational evil who has been cast out from his false seat at the centre of the universe. This leads us back to reinterpret the famous line, so often taken out of context, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that Milton was of the Devil’s party. Almost immediately preceding these, Blake writes: ‘This [that Messiah fell and made a heaven out of hell] is shewn in the Gospel, where he prays to the Father to send the comforter or Desire that Reason may have Ideas to build on, the Jehovah of the Bible being no other than he, who dwells in flaming fire’ (e35). Milton’s mistake was to assume that the vainglorious, martial Satan parodied in Paradise Lost could be a hero – even an antihero. In fact, like the 281

divine images Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’: The Temptation and Fall of Eve, 1808, pen and ink and watercolour on paper.

false Jehovah whose position he usurps, he is not an energetic contrary but merely a negation, the ‘bound or outward circumference of energy’. It is Christ who is the figure of energy and who, in rejecting the values of the god of this world, will be denounced as being of the Devil’s party. The centrality of Christ is clear in the final series of illustrations created by Blake, those to Paradise Regained, another set of watercolours produced for Butts between 1816 and 1820. As 282

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with Milton’s original poem, the images from this set tend to be less well known than the more dramatic scenes of Paradise Lost, but what is immediately evident from these illustrations is just how central Christ’s humanity is: in two-thirds of the images Jesus is the main figure, drawing attention to what Billingsley has pointed out is the crucial role of Christology to Blake’s sense of the divine.11 The rejection of more orthodox visions of the divine is perhaps best indicated by the three illustrations to the temptations of Christ, in which the Devil tries to lead Christ into worshipping him. To emphasize the point, Satan appears as a white-bearded, muscular man, naked but for a loincloth, as though Urizen had stepped down from the sun in The Ancient of Days: in these images, he is trying to tempt Jesus into worshipping him as the false god of this world, the very deity who is depicted – and worshipped – in art and churches across the world. By contrast, at the same time as he was working on the illustrations to Paradise Regained Blake was writing The Everlasting Gospel, in which appear the lines: ‘Thou art a Man [,] God is no more / Thy own humanity learn to adore’ (e520). To worship a god in heaven is to worship Satan, for ‘Satan is Urizen’. Blake’s illustrations to Milton are generally extremely faithful to the text – much more so, in many instances, than the leeway he took when illustrating the Bible. Yet, as with Milton a Poem, this should not be taken as simple agreement with the epic poet. Blake is, rather, engaged in a critical dialogue with his precursor: throughout the illustrations, particularly those to Paradise Lost, he de-emphasizes the role of God and consistently raises that of Jesus. This is the most telling of Blake’s differences with Milton, but a more subtle change occurs in his depiction of Satan. The constant degradation of Satan’s role in the illustrations to Milton’s poetry would suggest, on the face of it, that Blake is coming much closer to a conventional understanding of the role of the Devil, one very much in contrast to his earlier, revolutionary stance in 283

divine images The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. But in that text it is clear, when we place Blake’s most famous statements back in context, that his devilish messiah is always Christ. What is perhaps most astonishing about the later illustrations, revolutionary even, is that again and again Satan assumes a role that appears closest to Urizen, most evidently in the images to Paradise Regained, but also in those for Paradise Lost where the Devil takes on the form repeatedly of an old, bearded man. As Blake writes in Milton, Los and Enitharmon come to know that ‘Satan is Urizen’, a kind of dia­ bolus est deus inversus. The fight between good and evil angels, between energy and reason is not Satan versus Death, or Satan versus God – for both are inverted images of each other: it is, rather, the Son of Man versus the false image of a deity in heaven.

Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion Around the same time that he began work on Milton a Poem, Blake also started to plan an even more extensive piece that would be the summation of his work in illuminated printing. Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion would be the largest of his books in stereotype: although it did not match the proposed length of Night Thoughts, at one hundred engraved plates it was twice that of Milton and far more extensive than anything he had attempted during his time at Lambeth. To see the hand-coloured Copy E, with its plates heavily overpainted – in some places with gold – is not to look at a book as we would normally comprehend it, even one lavishly illustrated. It is, rather, to see an object that is a work of art on a par with the illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period, closer to works such as the Book of Kells, or the Book of Hours that belonged to Catherine of Cleves. The original plan for Jerusalem had been conceived either at the end of his stay in Felpham or, more likely, upon his and Catherine’s return to London. The title page is engraved ‘1804 284

Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion, Copy E, Plate 4, 1803–21, relief and white-line etching with hand colouring on paper.

divine images Printed by W. Blake Sth Molton St.’ (e144). It is highly unlikely that Blake completed it before 1818 when he wrote to Dawson Turner with a list of his prophetic works – a list that included Milton but not Jerusalem – and the printing of Jerusalem is usually dated now to 1821. Divided into four parts, the first section is entitled ‘To the Public’ and certainly begins as though it was written (and probably engraved) not long after leaving Felpham: After my three years slumber on the banks of the Ocean, I again display my Giant forms to the Public: My former Giants & Fairies having reciev’d the highest reward possible: the [love] and [friendship] of those with whom to be connected, is to be [blessed]: I cannot doubt that this more consolidated & extended Work, will be as kindly recieved. (e145) The reference to ‘three years slumber on the banks of the Ocean’ clearly means Felpham, while the comment that his ‘former Giants & Fairies’ had been met with love and friendship indicates that Blake intended to return to the matter of his Lambeth Prophecies as quickly as possible. Yet Jerusalem took more than fifteen years to etch and print, the work laborious and presumably requiring resources that, in a state of increasing indigence, were not always available to Blake. By the time it was printed, it was clear that Blake received few rewards from his readers, and this is reflected in this opening address. Words have been gouged from the plate, anything that would imply a direct relationship to the reader. By the time of his death, only six copies had been printed and Blake was increasingly aware – in a decade during which, for the most part, he received no commercial commissions and had failed to impress the public with his one-man show – that there was certainly no wide readership for his work. The original etching of ‘To the Public’ was an act of hope; the gouging out of individual words was an act of anger and despair. The printing and beautiful 286

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colouring of Copy E, which does not appear to have been sold and was instead inherited by Catherine on William’s death, was an act of private faith and love. Jerusalem is a difficult book to describe. The confusion that is often felt by modern readers was shared by those few who knew of its existence during Blake’s lifetime. Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, a pupil of Fuseli’s who would later be transported to Van Diemen’s Land for fraud and was suspected of having poisoned his sister-in-law to claim insurance, wrote in 1820: my learned friend Dr. Tobias Ruddicombe, m.d. [Waine­ wright’s affectionate pseudonym for Blake] is, at my earnest entreaty, casting a tremendous piece of ordnance, – an eightyeight pounder! which he proposeth to fire off in your next. It is an account of an ancient, newly discovered, illuminated manuscript, which has to name ‘Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion!!!’ It contains a good deal anent one ‘Los,’ who, it appears, is now, and hath been from the creation, the sole and fourfold dominator of the celebrated city of Golgonooza! The doctor assures me that the redemption of mankind hangs on the universal diffusion of the doctrines broached in this m.s. (br 370–71) Blake and Wainewright had become friends (Wainewright bought a number of Blake’s works) and his account, which appeared in the London Magazine under the name of Janus Weathercock, is humorous but also well-intentioned. Both he and Blake were probably aware at this time that the doctrines of the manuscript were more likely to be ignored than to lead to anyone’s salvation. Jerusalem may be difficult in many ways, but it does operate with a number of repeating motifs and figures. Most important among these are the giant Albion, Blake’s vision of Britain that he 287

divine images Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion, Copy E, Plate 6, relief and whiteline etching with hand colouring on paper.

had first begun to map out in The Four Zoas; Jerusalem, not a place in this text but a woman, the emanation of Albion as Enitharmon is the emanation of Los, and Vala, frequently referred to as Babylon, who represents for much of the work the antithesis of Jerusalem herself. The prophet Los, with his emanation – Enith­ armon – and his spectre, is the main figure of the book. The other Zoas are occasionally alluded to, but in this particular text it is the psychomachia between Albion and his emanation, whom he has 288

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abandoned as he turns his back on Christianity, as well as the struggle of Los, the prophetic alter ego of Blake, to return him to salvation, that dominate the text. Fred Dortort observes that Blake wrote Jerusalem to ‘shatter his readers’ preconceptions about literature and the perception of literature’ itself.12 As such, the inconsistencies within the text are not to be absorbed and explained away but rather considered as a partnership between author and reader to try and encourage a deeper level of understanding. In this way, it emulates the prophetic style of figures such as Ezekiel or John of Patmos in order to encourage the true fulfilment of imagination. Certainly the poem confounded readers until after the Second World War, and the best interpreters, such as Morton Paley in The Continuing City, avoid any simplistic and reductive reading. Yet its four clearly marked sections invite an attempt at ordered understanding: there is, after all, some kind of narrative flow across the whole, which begins with Albion turning his back on Christ and thus entering into a deathly fall before he returns to the divine at the end. Between these two events – fall and apocalypse – there is a series of ever-circling images, many hypnagogic and truly surreal, as Los with Enitharmon and his spectre, his separated feminine and masculine parts, attempt to create Golgonooza, the City of Art. Blake’s imagination is describing not the fallen world of history, but trying to capture in fallen language a sense of eternity. In many respects, it is a poem that could only hope for any sense of wider engagement after the phenomenon of Modern­ ism, for readers who have experienced James Joyce’s Ulysses or The Cantos of Ezra Pound. While largely abandoning the structure of The Four Zoas, Blake still maintains elements of the internal war, or psychomachia, that drove that narrative. In this instance, however, it is focused on Albion, Blake’s vision of one of the Eternals who is both everyman and the country of Britain. The clearest image of Albion as the island of Britain actually appears at the end of Milton, where 289

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Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion, Copy E, Plate 11, relief and white-line etching with hand colouring on paper.

Albion attempts to rise from his couch of death, a precursor to his activities in Jerusalem: Then Albion rose up in the Night of Beulah on his Couch Of dread repose seen by the visionary eye; his face is toward The east, toward Jerusalems Gates: groaning he sat above His rocks. London & Bath & Legions & Edinburgh 290

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Are the four pillars of his Throne; his left foot near London Covers the shades of Tyburn: his instep from Windsor To Primrose Hill stretching to Highgate & Holloway London is between his knees: its basements fourfold His right foot stretches to the sea on Dover cliffs, his heel On Canterburys ruins; his right hand covers lofty Wales His left Scotland; his bosom girt with gold involves York, Edinburgh, Durham & Carlisle & on the front Bath, Oxford, Cambridge Norwich; his right elbow Leans on the Rocks of Erins Land, Ireland ancient nation His head bends over London: he sees his embodied Spectre Trembling before him with exceeding great trembling & fear He views Jerusalem & Babylon, his tears flow down He movd his right foot to Cornwall, his left to the Rocks of Bognor He strove to rise to walk into the Deep. but strength failing Forbad & down with dreadful groans he sunk upon his Couch In moony Beulah. (39.32–52, e140–41)

In Jerusalem Blake involves this sense of the geography of Albion with a very strange sense of its history. In the second part of the book there is a prose section entitled ‘To the Jews’, which begins: Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion! Can it be? Is it a Truth that the Learned have explored? Was Britain the Primitive Seat of the Patriarchal Religion? If it is true: my title-page is also True, that Jerusalem was & is the Emanation of the Giant Albion. It is True, and cannot be controverted. Ye are united O ye Inhabitants of Earth in One Religion. The Religion of Jesus: the 291

divine images most Ancient, the Eternal: & the Everlasting Gospel – The Wicked will turn it to Wickedness, the Righteous to Righteousness. Amen! Huzza! Selah! ‘All things Begin & End in Albions Ancient Druid Rocky Shore.’ Your Ancestors derived their origin from Abraham, Heber, Shem, and Noah, who were Druids: as the Druid Temples (which are the Patriarchal Pillars & Oak Groves) over the whole Earth witness to this day. You have a tradition, that Man anciently containd in his mighty limbs all things in Heaven & Earth: this you recieved from the Druids. ‘But now the Starry Heavens are fled from the mighty limbs of Albion’ (e171)

This frankly bizarre passage, which seems to identify Druidism with Judaism, would have actually appeared slightly less strange to some of Blake’s contemporaries who would have been able to read works by antiquarians such as William Stukeley or Edward Davies. These writers did indeed attempt to prove that the patriarchal religion of the Druids and the Israelites were one and the same: thus, ‘All things Begin & End in Albions Ancient Druid Rocky Shore.’ As far back as his first experiments in stereotype printing, Blake had indicated that he considered national identities an exertion of the imagination, and Jerusalem is no exercise in ethnonationalism. As he writes at one point: What do I see? The Briton Saxon Roman Norman amalgamating In my Furnaces into One Nation the English: & taking refuge In the Loins of Albion. The Canaanite united with the fugitive Hebrew, whom she divided into Twelve, & sold into Egypt 292

Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion, Copy E, Plate 25, relief and whiteline etching with hand colouring on paper.

divine images Then scatterd the Egyptian & Hebrew to the four Winds! This sinful Nation Created in our Furnaces & Looms is Albion (92.1–6, e252)

This strange combination of English and Hebrew peoples, what would become known as British-Israelitism in the nineteenth century, comes from Blake’s visionary view of history: the eye that is capable of perceiving eternity will realize that all nations, like all religions, are one. Jerusalem is Blake’s grand attempt to demonstrate this transformation of perception through an immense act of illuminated printing, one which relies not solely on words but on the combined overwhelming of the senses through art. As such, the plates of Jerusalem are lavishly illustrated. Some motifs are strange and defy any simple logical explanation (such as the swan-headed woman on Plate 11); others, in particular some of the beautiful full-colour plates, seem to illustrate events within the text. On Plate 25, for example, there is an aston­­ishing depiction of a tattooed figure (following the style of the Picts or ancient Britons and their woad-coloured skin) who is being sacrificed in a druidic ritual by three female figures. This is Albion, being slain according to the very laws of war and punishment that he had decreed in his fall from Christianity, and his murderers are his own daughters who, like his sons, are ‘Names anciently rememberd, but now contemn’d as fictions!’ (e148). These sons and daughters have fully given 294

Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion, Copy E, Plate 32, relief and white-line etching with hand colouring on paper.

Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion, Copy E, Plate 54, relief and whiteline etching with hand colouring on paper.

Creating Systems Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion, Copy E, Plate 76, relief and white-line etching with hand colouring on paper.

themselves over to a paganism, which Blake also equates with deism, the belief in a Urizenic god of laws ‘out there’, and now engage in the sinful and warlike destruction of their enemies, rather than engaging in the forgiveness of sins, which is the true path to redemption. The vision of what Albion can be is given in the final plate of the book, in which Los, Enitharmon and his Spectre work to restore Albion to its original form, indicated by the symbol of Avebury and Stonehenge revived and combined into an ideal structure. Jerusalem is a work that defies easy explanations. What Blake is trying to achieve is perhaps best explained in the following words of his incarnation, the prophet Los: Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion, Copy E, Plate 100, relief and white-line etching with hand colouring on paper.

I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create (8.20–21, e153)

The book is the culmination of Blake’s art and mythology: Urizen, Luvah, Vala, Los, Enitharmon and Albion are the system that he 297

divine images Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion, Copy E, Plate 57, relief and white-line etching with hand colouring on paper.

created to lead him to enlightenment, and that enlightenment was a sure understanding that the wars of England, France and the continental powers, the subjugation of the arts to military and economic prowess, were not the fulfilment of Christianity but its antithesis. By the time he came to print the work, he despaired of finding a wider audience for his vision – which was not to indoctrinate the reader into a system of beliefs, which he 298

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considered priestcraft or deism, but rather to inculcate in them the virtues of imaginative vision by means of which they would in turn create their own systems. In every respect, that Jerusalem was not more widely known during Blake’s lifetime is one of the greatest tragedies of art in the nineteenth century. Yet Blake, almost penniless, continued to work so lovingly and so painstakingly on an object of art that would be bequeathed in its most beautiful copy to his wife. This is the golden thread that he refers to at the beginning of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, that the reading of his great epic will lead to a more profound understanding of both his art and his faith – to create not for the god of this world, but for the human form divine.



Final Visions


n the years following the failure of relations with Cromek and the exhibition of 1809, William and Catherine had lived in increasing isolation and poverty. Their dependence on each other was profound, but in the final decade of William’s life they would also be joined by an ever-wider circle of friends who would transform both the understanding of his work and the couple’s material circumstances. Crucial to this change was one man, John Linnell, who was the most significant in creating opportunities for William to continue working into his last years.

John Linnell, the Shoreham Ancients and the Visionary Heads

Illustrations of the Book of Job: When the Morning Stars Sang Together, 1821, pen and ink, watercolour on paper.

Born in Bloomsbury in 1792, Linnell’s father was an artisan who brought him into contact with a number of artists and encouraged him to explore his own creative talents. His early tuition brought him into contact with the painters Benjamin West and John Varley, who provided instruction, and in 1805 he was admitted as a student of the Royal Academy. By the time he was introduced to Blake in 1818, via George Cumberland Jr, the son of Blake’s old acquaintance, he was already starting to attract considerable attention for his landscape paintings. Indeed, so popular was Linnell’s work that 301

divine images in 1850 he purchased a substantial property in Redhill, Surrey. Like Blake, Linnell had been raised sympathetic to Dissenting beliefs, but unlike Blake he proved himself to be a worldly figure on the art scene. His success, however, was one that he used to Blake’s advantage, introducing the older artist to a wider range of potential patrons and customers and even commissioning Blake himself: the prices that Linnell paid for the illustrations to the Book of Job and to Dante, £150 for each set, were the largest that Blake ever received. His kindness helped William and Catherine to live in relative security, especially when compared to their indigence during the previous decade. Of Blake himself, Linnell later told Alexander Gilchrist: I soon encountered Blake’s peculiarities and [was] somewhat taken aback by the boldness of some of his assertions. I never saw anything the least like madness for I never opposed him spitefully as many did but being really anxious to fathom if possible the amount of truth which might be in his most startling assertions I generally met with a sufficiently rational explanation in the most really friendly & conciliatory tone.1 Among the most important of Blake’s late works, most notably the illustrations to Job and Dante, came about directly because of Linnell’s influence, while his introduction of the engraver to figures such as Dr Robert John Thornton provided him with other opportunities. Thornton was the family doctor of the Linnells, and John Linnell convinced him to allow Blake to provide a series of woodcuts to a new edition of The Pastorals of Virgil that Thornton was producing. The doctor was disturbed by the unconventional style of Blake’s art, but these became some of the most influential pieces that Blake ever made. At about the same time as he was working on the woodcuts, William and Catherine moved into their final residence, 3 Fountain 302

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Court, off the Strand. Their rooms, as described by Henry Crabb Robinson, the journalist and then lawyer who befriended Blake in his later years, were very poor and yet, despite this fact, William and Catherine appeared to live in their last home in considerable happiness. As well as his friendship with Linnell, Blake befriended a number of younger artists who referred to themselves as the Ancients. Meeting once a month in London, as well as less frequently in Shoreham, Kent, where Samuel Palmer had a home, they included Edward Calvert, George Richmond and Frederick Tatham, as well as Palmer. This group often referred to Blake’s home as ‘The House of the Interpreter’, a reference to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Impressed by Blake’s abilities and vision, they set out to create a more archaic form of art than that which was fashionable in the early nineteenth century. In this respect they would become an important influence on the later Pre-Raphaelites, although their pastoral vision often seemed closer to poets such as Wordsworth than Blake. Peter Ackroyd may be partially correct when he remarks: ‘It is not at all clear that they properly understood him.’2 Whether this was the case or not, they provided an important lifeline to Blake as an intellectual community that helped to sustain him in his final years. Samuel Palmer was probably the most talented of this group, as well as being one of the youngest. Although having little formal

The Man Sweeping the Interpreter’s Parlour, c. 1822, white line engraving on paper.


divine images Samuel Palmer, The Harvest Moon, c. 1831–2, oil on paper.

training, Palmer displayed talent as an artist and began to exhibit at the Royal Academy from the age of fourteen. He met Blake in 1824 through Linnell and, having purchased a run-down cottage in Shoreham, began work on a series of visionary landscape paintings now housed at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, known as the ‘Oxford sepias’. These early works were disliked by critics; later in life he became a much more conventional landscape painter, especially as marriage to Linnell’s daughter in 1837 brought him under the rather domineering influence of his fatherin-law, who was now determined to make as much money as he could through his protégé. A very different character was the painter John Varley, who was considerably older than the Shoreham Ancients. His style of painting, which included a series of extremely popular landscapes of North Wales made between 1799 and 1802, was very different to that of Blake. Varley also had a fascination with occult matters such as astrology, as well as being a serial debtor who approached 304

Final Visions Samuel Palmer, The Timber Wain, c. 1833–4, watercolour and gouache on paper.

his debts with a cheerful manner. ‘If it were not for my troubles,’ he is reported to have once said, ‘I should burst with joy!’3 He cast Blake’s horoscope as an attempt to explain his character, which, when published in his Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy along with a sketch of The Ghost of a Flea in 1828, became fairly popular with those who sought a physiological explanation for Blake’s visions. This was also the approach taken by James Deville, a phrenologist who, in 1823, made a plaster cast of Blake’s head so that he could demonstrate the ‘lobes of the imagination’, which he believed were very pronounced on the artist. Against Varley’s expectations, Blake was extremely sceptical about all matters pertaining to the occult. Upon the subject, Linnell later recorded Blake as telling Varley: your fortunate nativity I count the worst[;] you reckon that to be born in August & have the notice & patronage of Kings to the best of all where as the lives of the Apostles and Martyrs 305

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of whom it is said the world was not worthy wd. be counted by you as the worst & their nativities those of men born to be hanged. (br 368) While being thoroughly unconvinced by the virtues of astrology, Blake spent a considerable amount of time with Varley, and during 1819 he began to sketch out a series of visions that took place in Varley’s home, recording them in three books provided by the younger artist. Known as the visionary heads, these became one of the most popular stories about Blake following his death and appeared to confirm the various assumptions made by readers with regard to his sanity. There were dozens of these portraits, and Blake would see images of Socrates, Voltaire, ‘the man who built the pyramids’ and King David. Gilchrist notes that at times ‘Blake would have to wait for the Vision’s appearance; sometimes it would come at call,’ and that the visitors would interact 306

John Linnell, William Blake, 1827, intaglio engraving on paper. George Richmond, Catherine Blake, c. 1830, graphite and black ink on paper.

Final Visions

with Blake, sometimes frowning with displeasure, sometimes smiling at the artist’s work (Life i.300), Linnell himself was quite clear as to how Blake considered these apparitions:

Socrates, a Visionary Head, c. 1820, graphite on paper.

The twoattitudes [of Blake and Varley] are highly characteristic of the men[,] for Blake by the side of Varley appeard decidedly the most sane of the two . . . It was Varley who excited Blake to see or fancy the portraits of historical personages–asEdward&Wallace, David, Solomon, the man who builtthepyramids&c.&c.most of which I have. I painted in oil the heads of King Edward & Wm. Wallace for Varley from these drawings in black lead pencil by Blake, also the Ghost of a Flea. (br 368) While Varley expected literal apparitions, Blake was clearly exercising his imagination: seeing, though not with the eye. The Ghost of a Flea, however, was the most striking of all those images and, indeed, the one that Blake himself worked up into a tempera and gold painting on mahogany. Varley wrote upon the back of the original sketch after Blake’s death that the vision first appeared to Blake in Varley’s presence and returned until he could complete the portrait. In Zodiacal Physiognomy he gave a much fuller account of its composition: This spirit visited his imagination in such a figure as he never anticipated in an insect. As I was anxious to make the most 307

divine images correct investigation in my power, of the truth of these visions, on hearing of this spiritual apparition of a Flea, I asked if he could draw for me the resemblance of what he saw; he instantly said, ‘I see him now before me.’ I therefore gave him paper and a pencil, with which he drew the portrait, of which a fac-simile is given in this number. I felt convinced by his mode of proceeding, that he had a real image before him, for he left off, and began on another part of the paper, to make a separate drawing of the mouth of the Flea, which the spirit having opened, he was prevented from proceeding with the first sketch, till he had closed it. During the time occupied in completing the drawing, the Flea told him that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of such men, as were by nature blood-thirsty to excess, and were therefore providentially confined to the size and form of insects; otherwise, were he himself for instance the size of a horse, he would depopulate a great portion of the country. (br 492–3) In Blake’s later painting the Flea stands in a room surrounded by curtains yet simultaneously open to the night sky, staring at his bowl of blood as a star falls towards his feet. The latter part of the image calls to mind the dual images of William and Robert from Milton a Poem, and it is very tempting to see this as a visionary self-portrait of Blake, his spectre, as it were – a projection of his evil just as Satan in Paradise Lost is a projection of Milton’s. The Flea has been interpreted as the reincarnation of a serial killer (most notably in Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell), but from Blake’s conversation with Varley it is more likely that he originally conceived the Flea as a very different type of murderer, one of those generals, kings or popes who could depopulate large parts of a country with one signature. Even towards the end of his life, Blake did not lose the political radicalism that had motivated him as a young man. 308

The Ghost of a Flea, c. 1819–20, tempera and gold on mahogany.

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Thornton’s Virgil What would become a significant work by Blake began rather unpromisingly in 1821 when he was commissioned, via Linnell, to create a series of prints for a new edition of a school text, The Pastorals of Virgil. Published by Robert John Thornton, the text was an English translation by Ambrose Philips, then in its third edition. Blake first produced four small designs on a copper plate, although these were rejected by Thornton, probably because of their unconventional style and depiction of semi-nudity. He then produced a series of 21 drawings, from which he was asked to produce a series of wood engravings. This was a new medium for Blake, but the series of small illustrations that Blake produced were incredibly vivid and original. Not that Thornton was impressed. Linnell later recounted to the author Henry Cole: ‘When Blake had produced his cuts, which were, however, printed with an apology, a shout of derision was raised by the wood-engravers. “This will never do,” said they, “we will show what it ought to be” – that is, what the public taste would like’ (br 327). Three of the plates were engraved by another hand – a familiar story from Blake’s later life as a commercial engraver. Thornton did not understand Blake’s bold style, but he was convinced by a number of artists, not only Linnell but academicians such as Sir Thomas Lawrence, that these works were incredibly original and that ‘there must be more in them than [Thornton] and his publishers could discern’ (br 373). One of those who recommended Blake’s designs, James Ward, grew angry at suggestions that Blake was mad, asserting instead that he was ‘what the world calls a man of genius’, but that ‘his genius was of a peculiar character’ (br 373). Virgil’s Eclogues is a series of poems written by the Roman poet around 39–38 bc, on the estate that had been awarded to Virgil by the triumvir Octavian. Composed in the bucolic style 310

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The Pastorals of Virgil, frontispiece, 1821, woodcut on paper.

of the Hellenistic poet Theocritus, the original ten poems included a mixture of pastoral, political (in that they dealt with the effects of land expropriations on rural Italians) and erotic matters. Thornton, unsurprisingly, omitted many of the more adult themes, instead offering a version of an Arcadian ideal of the countryside from the first eclogue, which, on the surface at least, would appear to be a vision similar to Songs of Innocence. In many respects Blake’s illustrations do indeed return to the vitality and simplicity of his early illuminated books, with Colinet and Thenot being shown with their flocks and in countryside settings that invoke poems such as ‘The Shepherd’ and ‘The Ecchoing Green’. As Robert Essick observed, however, commentators gradually began to realize that the nature of these black-and-white engravings was often much darker and ironic than would appear suitable for a children’s book – unless, of course, the illustrator of that children’s book was also the author of Songs of Experience. An image such as ‘The Blighted Corn’ shows nature not as tender mother, but closer to Blake’s darker visions of the Natural Law – a bringer of death and famine. 311

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For the Shoreham Ancients who saw them, Blake’s woodcuts were a revelation, in many respects more so than any other work by the engraver. As Samuel Palmer wrote: I sat down with Mr. Blake’s Thornton’s Virgil woodcuts before me, thinking to give their merits my feeble testimony. I happened first to think of their sentiment. They are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisitest pitch of intense poetry. I thought of their light and shade, and looking upon them I found no word to describe it. Intense depth, solemnity, and vivid brilliancy only coldly and partially describe them. There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the innermost soul, and gives complete and unreserved delight, unlike the gaudy daylight of this world. They are like all that wonderful artist’s works the drawing aside of the fleshy curtain, and the glimpse which all the most holy, studious saints and sages have enjoyed, of that rest which remaineth to the people of God. (br 377)

The Pastorals of Virgil, page 16, woodcut on paper.

This ‘mystic and dreamy glimmer’ was precisely the quality that Palmer would seek to capture in his works of the 1820s and ’30s, such as his Moonlight, a Landscape with Sheep. While Palmer saw the visionary aspects of landscape, for Blake, however, the world of Colinet and Thenot was too pagan, so that they must rely on the material senses and not the human imagination that could free them from the dull round of the seasons: life, death and rebirth. In many respects, Blake found himself intellectually isolated in the early nineteenth century: the neoclassical traditions of composition to which he had aspired in his figures from the 1780s, and which he had described admiringly in a letter to Reverend Dr Trusler in 1799 as at one with his purpose ‘to renew the lost Art of the Greeks’ (e701), became increasingly detached from his 313

divine images moral sense of self after the return to London from Felpham. From the Preface of Milton a Poem onwards, he increasingly associated such art with the degrading desire for war that had wrecked Europe for 25 years. His invective was strongest in a small, late engraving, a single copper plate containing two short works: On Homers Poetry and On Virgil. Printed a year after he had completed the woodcuts for Thornton, Blake would write in On Homers Poetry, ‘The Classics, it is the Classics! & not Goths nor Monks, that Desolate Europe with Wars’, adding to this critique in On Virgil: ‘Rome & Greece swept Art into their maw & destroyd it a Warlike State never can produce Art. It will Rob & Plunder & accumulate into one place, & Translate & Copy & Buy & Sell & Criticise, but not Make’ (e270).

Heresies and The Everlasting Gospel Although the woodcuts for the Thornton Virgil demonstrated Blake’s ability to challenge aesthetic standards of his day, while his tract on Homer and Virgil indicated a dislike of classical values that had been developing since his return from Felpham, a number of later works indicated that the Bible and Christianity remained the locus of his religious radicalism. One such text should have been an uncontroversial contribution in the neoclassical style that informed much of Blake’s art, if not his ethics and politics. In 1815 Blake had been commissioned by Abraham Rees to engrave a representation of Laocoön and His Sons, the astonishing group of figures sculpted in the first century ad, currently housed in the Vatican Museums. The statue shows Laocoön, a priest of Poseidon in the city of Troy, and his two sons, as they are killed by serpents sent from the gods as punishment for the priest’s attempt to disturb the Trojan horse, as recounted by Virgil in the Aeneid. It is now widely assumed to be a copy of an earlier Hellenistic sculpture, and was to be included in Rees’s 314

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The Cyclopaedia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, the complete edition of which was issued in 1820. A stipple version of the group was included in the volume published in 1816, printed alongside Flaxman’s essay on sculpture, but the line engraving was not included. Blake took this plate in the final year of his life and seemed to have worked upon it in a kind of religious fury, transforming the page by inscribing a wall of graffiti around it. Although still often referred to as The Laocoön, scholars such as Morton Paley now call it ‫( יה‬Yah) and His two Sons Satan and Adam, after the title given beneath the group of figures. By covering the plate with a variety of proverbs and aphorisms, Blake attacks both the mores of classical civilization and the militaristic and commercial society of his day: ‘Where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on, but War only’ (e275). While fragmentary, there are several themes that run throughout the plate; Irene Taylor, for example, draws attention to how, by claiming that he is depicting the ‘Cherubim of Solomon’s Temple’, Blake is returning to his notion expressed in A Descriptive Catalogue that the Greeks copied more ancient styles of art.4 Likewise, he attacks this imitative classical culture as having subsumed art to the cause of war: that bondage has resulted in the degradation of art into something that is only valued according to its price and which is viewed as inferior to science. By contrast, Blake asserts that ‘Jesus & his Apostles & Disciples were all Artists’ and that ‘A Poet a Painter a Musician an Architect: the Man Or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian’ (e274). As Morton Paley observes, ‘Blake sees nothing to choose from between the Greek and Trojan or the British and French empires.’5 But by transferring the ‘Rhodian’ copy of the statue of Laocoön into one of God and his sons Adam and Satan, Blake is very far from orthodox Christianity. Rather, as in the Bard’s Song of Milton a Poem, he is pursuing an idiosyncratic vision of Christianity that also attacks the self-righteous, Calvinistic 315

divine images view of God as pantocrator, what Blake refers to again and again in the plate as Deism. Blake’s Christianity as outlined in ‫ יה‬and His two Sons Satan and Adam is unusual and esoteric, but just how far his heresy continued until his death was evident from some unfinished later works. In 1827 Blake appeared to have been inspired to return to his earlier project outlined decades earlier in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, his so-called ‘Bible of Hell’. It coincided with – and may have even been stimulated by – a new translation of the Lord’s Prayer issued by Robert Thornton (for whom Blake had made the Virgil woodcuts). Although Thornton’s book was a slender one, as Paley points out, it also contained a 14,000-word treatise that sought to posit the Bible as a book that cannot be understood by ‘unlearned’ men.6 This ‘Tory’ text, then, led Blake to denounce it as ‘a Most Malignant & Artful attack upon the Kingdom of Jesus By the Classical Learned thro the Instrumentality of Dr Thornton’ (e667). Blake’s own version of the Lord’s Prayer is hard to decipher, but a recent version transcribed for the Blake Archive offers this blasphemous rendition: Jesus our Father who art in thy Heavin calld by thy Name this Holy Ghost thy Kingdom on Earth is Not worthy Well done but his Satans Will who is the father God of the World Give us This Eternal day our own right [illegible] Bread [illegible] by away Money & Value of Price or Debt or Tax as thy [illegible] have all thy Comon [illegible] Comon among us Leave us not in [illegible] mon [illegible deleted] [illegible] but liberate us from the Natural Man [illegible] kingdom for thine is the kingdom & the Power & the Glory & not Caesars or Satans Amen


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It is difficult to read, but establishes three principal elements about Blake’s religious thought at the end of his life: he seemed firmly committed to some kind of communitarian view of society; he opposed what he called the ‘Natural Man’, or a materialistic view of the universe; and he remained convinced that the figure worshipped as God, depicted by him most often as Urizen, was not the true father spoken of by Christ, but the ‘God of the World’. This rejection of the ‘Natural Man’ continues in what would have been one of the most remarkable works by Blake, had he lived to complete it. The fragment of the Genesis manuscript comprises eleven pages of unfinished drawings that would have provided an astonishing illuminated first book of the Bible had he been able to etch and colour them. While Blake (loosely) follows the King James Bible, his introduction to the story of the Creation is remarkable, in that he describes it as ‘The Creation of the Natural Man’. Almost certainly he is influenced by his knowledge of the orig­ inal Hebrew, which in Genesis 1.1–2.4a describes God as ‘Elohim’, the plural of El. Throughout his own personal mythology, Blake had consistently presented Urizen as merely one of the Eternals, one of the gods, who had sought to impose a vision of ‘One King, One God, One Law’ (e72) and, in doing so, had caused the fall of man as part of the creation of a ‘natural’ imposed order. Even less complete were his sketches towards a version of the Book of Enoch, one of the Jewish apocryphal books that explained how angels, or ‘Watchers’, had come to earth to seduce the daughters of men, giving birth to giants, the Nephilim. The rough sketches that remain are reminiscent of those for The Four Zoas, indicating a fallen world of sexuality that matched the fallen Creation outlined in Genesis, and, with the illustrations to the Book of Job, indicate that Blake desired to continue the work he had begun in The Marriage of Heaven of Hell even as he drew ever closer to death. This heretical view – that the God of Christianity and Blake’s God of the World were one and the same – was approached with 317

divine images considerable subtlety in one of his final completed illuminated books, The Ghost of Abel. A brief drama merely two plates long, this work was etched by Blake in 1822 in response to Byron’s much longer work Cain, in which the figure of Cain becomes a Byronic hero, an outsider whose murder of his brother is a tragic mistake. Blake begins the work with an address to ‘lord byron in the wilderness’ (e270), calling him a prophet, and while respecting the exiled lord as a figure who sees more deeply into the truth of faith than the anodyne likes of Reverend Thorton, with his Tory prayer, also seeks to correct what Blake sees as his theological mistake. The Ghost of Abel is interesting because it is one of the few entirely positive depictions of God the father in Blake’s work. God as Jehovah appears to Adam and Eve as they mourn the dead Abel, and confronts them when Abel’s ghost – possessed by Satan – rises from the grave and demands justice: I will have Human Blood & not the blood of Bulls or Goats And no Atonement O Jehovah the Elohim live on Sacrifice Of Men: hence I am God of Men: Thou Human O Jehovah. (e272)

The Ghost of Abel is a condensed version of the intellectual attack on religion as retributive justice that Blake had written about in his great epics of the nineteenth century. In contrast to Satan’s demands of an eye for an eye, called again and again the ‘Natural Law’ and the ‘Moral Law’ by Blake in his poetry, Jehovah tells him that killing one human in revenge must in turn lead to the person taking revenge being sacrificed. Against this martial and bloodthirsty practice, Jehovah preaches the forgiveness of sins, and the drama ends with a chorus of angels singing:


Final Visions

The Elohim of the Heathen Swore Vengeance for Sin! Then Thou stoodst Forth O Elohim Jehovah! in the midst of the darkness of the Oath! All Clothed In Thy Covenant of the Forgiveness of Sins: Death O Holy! Is this Brotherhood The Elohim saw their Oath Eternal Fire; they rolled apart trembling over The Mercy Seat: each in his station fixt in the Firmament by Peace Brotherhood and Love. (e272)

The forgiveness of sins: this was the covenant that Blake saw as the exceptional gift of Christianity, a rejection of the natural law of paganism and instead the revelation of what he would call the ‘Everlasting Gospel’. In the poem of that name, a title given by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to a series of fragments that were composed by Blake in his notebook, Blake offers a vision of Christ that echoes once again the ideas and notions of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Was Jesus Humble or did he Give any Proofs of Humility Boast of high Things with Humble tone And give with Charity a Stone When but a Child he ran away And left his Parents in Dismay When they had wanderd three days long These were the words upon his tongue No Earthly Parents I confess I am doing my Fathers business (e519)

The Jesus of The Everlasting Gospel is extremely reminiscent of the figure described by a devil to a moralistic angel in The Marriage: 319

divine images bray a fool in a morter with wheat. yet shall not his folly be beaten out of him: if Jesus Christ is the greatest man, you ought to love him in the greatest degree; now hear how he has given his sanction to the law of ten commandments: did he not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbaths God? murder those who were murderd because of him? turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery? steal the labor of others to support him? bear false witness when he omitted making a defence before Pilate? covet when he pray’d for his disciples, and when he bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments: Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules. (e43) The Jesus of this later work is proud and resistant to the civil mores of his day, rejecting moral codes: as Blake wrote in his annotations to Thornton, ‘If Morality was Christianity Socrates was The Savior’ (e667). Instead, Christ is divine because he does not act from moral laws but rather from impulse – from energy. The Everlasting Gospel also contains one of the most openly heretical statements made by Blake: Thou art a Man God is no more Thy own humanity learn to adore (e520)

Such a bold statement seems at odds with Blake’s profoundly Christian beliefs, yet it was a message he pursued consistently throughout his life. From the very beginning in All Religions are One he claims that religion was the product of ‘Poetic Genius’, while in The Marriage he outlines how poets animated man’s religious sensibilities long before priestcraft reduced it to a system. At times, it seems almost as though Blake is a Christian atheist (‘God 320

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is no more’), but it may be better to describe him as a profoundly Christian theist, one who believes that God is entirely internal, created by us as evidence of the divinity of our imagination. The common misconception of a god out there was denounced by Blake as deism, and the implications of that external god were explored in the two greatest works made by Blake at the end of his life – the illustrations to Job and to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Job and Dante The final decade of Blake’s life, as we have seen, was a period of great inspiration, motivated by the security provided by Linnell and the various friendships he had made. Those friendships were, in many respects, odd ones: Blake was much more radical both politically and religiously than most of the young men who gathered around him, although Linnell appears to have viewed some of his more outrageous views with humour and sometimes approbation. Certainly, Linnell did all that he could to support the older artist, which in the last few years led to the creation of two of Blake’s greatest works: the Illustrations of the Book of Job and his engravings for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Blake had been fascinated by the Book of Job throughout his professional life, first creating wash drawings in the mid-1780s of Job in misery with his wife and friends, a theme that seems to have influenced the writing of Tiriel, and he illustrated a series of watercolours with pen and ink drawings for Thomas Butts in 1805–6. This set was repeated, with somewhat darker colours and two new pictures, for Linnell in 1821 and, in March 1823, Linnell drew up a contract for Blake to produce a series of twenty-one designs based on his drawings. Unlike his typical mixed method of preliminary etching followed by engraving, Blake decided to stick to a pure form of line engraving. After creating a series of drawings from the Butts-Linnell watercolours, these were then transferred 321

divine images directly to the copper plates and used as the guides to create his fine, intaglio lines. According to the Blake Archive, this may have been to evoke the art of master Renaissance engravers such as Albrecht Dürer: Samuel Palmer recounted to Gilchrist many years later that ‘no man more admired Albert Dürer’ than Blake (br 391). The Job engravings are widely, and rightly, considered his own masterpieces in this medium. Intaglio engraving was a long and painstaking process: Blake began work on the plates in 1823 and it took him two years to complete the twenty-one plates with an additional title page and cover label, the first proofs being pulled in March 1825. While the pictures drew considerable interest from a number of clients, it is also clear that during the remaining years of Blake’s lifetime they did not make Linnell much of a return on his investment, but they did allow him to engage the older artist’s burin and furnish him with some income during a period of great poverty for William and Catherine. The engravings are, quite simply, astonishing, and rank without question among the greatest of Blake’s works. As well as the technique, with detailed intaglio lines shaded with carefully controlled cross hatching – the way he had first been taught to engrave by Basire but which had increasingly been replaced by stippled techniques more suited to mezzotint and lithography – the power of these images comes also from their subject matter. The Book of Job is one of the strangest and most affecting in the Bible, and it is hardly surprising that it should have attracted the author of the Bible of Hell, dealing as it does with the appearance of Satan in heaven. At the beginning of the story that bears his name, Job is described as a man who ‘was perfect and upright, and one that feared God’ (1:1). Having prospered, a day comes when the sons of God present themselves to the Lord; among them is Satan, who tells him that Job is only worshipful because of all that God has given him. Goading God, Satan says: ‘But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face’ 322

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(1:11). Rather than rebuking Satan, God tells him that henceforth Job is in his power, whereupon Satan destroys all that Job owned. Upon hearing of his misfortunes, Job’s response is one of the most noble and stoic in the entirety of the Bible: ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ (1:24). Having given a lie to Satan’s accusation – and that fact is pertinent, bearing in mind the original meaning of the name in Hebrew as adversary or accuser – Job maintains his silence until seven days after being struck with a plague of boils, in which he launches into a powerful diatribe against God. It is after this that his friends turn up and try to convince him that he must have committed crimes, that a just God would not punish an innocent man, but Job maintains that he is a man more sinned against than sinning, and it is not until God appears that his challenge is taken up. Even then, God does not so much answer his moral assault as overwhelm him with divine power: Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn? Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee? Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever? Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens? (41:1–5)

Against this power, this overwhelming might – this energy – there is no opposition and Job simply submits to the one who ‘answered Job out of the whirlwind’ (38:1). For his integrity, for 323

divine images his faithfulness to himself, Job is eventually restored, and yet the moral questions and platitudes of his false friends are not given succour in this complex book. To believe that the Book of Job is a reflection on Blake’s own life is to ignore the inconvenient truth that the earliest versions of the drawings were produced at a time when Blake was still hopeful that his career would progress and his art find favour with a wider public. As such, the illustrations are a more abstract meditation on the nature of evil, power and faith in the universe, all depicted with an incredible energy of line that makes the series of twenty-one designs one of the most important contributions to British art ever made. According to Linnell, the elegant borders were a late addition to the copper plates, adding to the beauty and strangeness of the images. Blake largely keeps to the biblical story, but also makes a number of embellishments. It was S. Foster Damon who drew attention to the significance of the musical instruments in the opening and closing plates: at the beginning of the poem they are silent, hanging in the trees, as befits a man who fears God rather than loves him, but at the end of the series Job and his family have taken up the instruments and give praise to God joyfully.7 In the second and third illustrations, in which Satan appears before God in his court and then destroys the sons and daughters of Job, it is significant that Satan – the accuser – usurps and takes over the place of God, appearing in the same position in the plate. It is important to note that the scene of Satan before God is framed as a story that Job is telling his family: it is Job who has devised a religion in which God the judge sends his accuser to find out the sins of men. The superimposition of god and devil is made explicit in one of the most remarkable of the entire images from the series, number eleven, or Job’s evil dream. This has a very tangential connection to the text, a paraphrase of Job 7:14: ‘With dreams upon my bed thou scarest me & affrightest me with Visions.’ Blake recasts this as a vision that parallels his earlier Elohim 324

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Creating Adam, with it now being God who is wound about with the serpent; along with Elohim’s cloven feet, it is clear that Blake indicates that this form of the divine is satanic, God and the Devil being one. This plate is a crux of the series: at this moment, either Satan is deceiving Job or Job is allowing himself to be deceived. In any case, it is Job’s false perception of God that is critical at this point. By seeing Elohim as a god of vengeance and fear, Job is willing to consider that external misfortunes in the universe arise as punishments of his sins, precisely the accusation made by Job’s friends in the previous plate. At this point the doors of perception have been closed up, but henceforth we will be presented with some remarkable depictions of the divine, which will open up those doors once more. In the thirteenth plate, God answers Job directly from the whirlwind, an exhibition of power that is utterly overwhelming. It is followed by two very different demonstrations of divine energy: the second of these illustrates the appearance of Behemoth

Illustrations of the Book of Job: Job’s Evil Dream, 1823–6, intaglio engraving on paper.


divine images

Illustrations of the Book of Job: Satan Before the Throne of God, intaglio engraving on paper.

and Leviathan, a design that is both terrifying and strangely placid. While these are creatures that man cannot control, cannot draw up with a hook, yet they are also indicated as part of God’s creation, their terrifying monstrosity ‘portions of eternity too great for the eye of man’, as Blake had written in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (e36). The face of the Creator is remarkably benevolent in this image, calmly gesturing towards his creations, but he is even more peacefully sublime in the preceding plate, one of the most beautiful ever produced by Blake. Titled ‘When the 326

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Morning Stars Sang Together’, and taking its source from 38:6–7 – ‘Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?’ – this design shows God in the centre of his creation, arms outstretched rather like Urizen in America a Prophecy. Here, however, he is at the crux of a peaceful vision of judgement, Job, his wife and his friends staring up in wonder as the sun and the moon flank God on either side, while the sons of God appear as starry angels in the heavens. This literal transliteration of the text of Job does the impossible, transferring into visual imagery poetry that a lesser artist would find impossible to translate. Blake’s series then follows with two designs not found in the biblical original: ‘The Fall of Satan’ and ‘The Vision of Christ’. The first image, of Satan, was included from the very first series created for Butts, and is an addition that degrades Satan in a fashion similar to that in the illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost. ‘The Vision of Christ’, however, was a later addition made when Blake created his series of paintings for Linnell and places Jesus at the centre of his religion. This – which, of course, has no place in the original Book of Job – is the moment of transformation of Job’s perceptions: God is no longer a figure out there, a deistic figure to be feared as pantocrator, but as the Son of Man in the human imagination. When God appears to Job out of the whirlwind, no man can compare with such power, just as no man can draw up Leviathan from the deeps; and yet, of course, it is precisely man’s imagination that creates God speaking from the whirlwind, which summons up Leviathan. At the end of the series, Job playing musical instruments is an artist and, as such, has found the true meaning of faith. Blake’s final work was another commission by Linnell, this time a series of illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy, for which Blake was paid from the end of 1825 onwards at the rate of £1 per week. The 102 designs at the time of his death range from 327

divine images pencil sketches to highly finished pieces in watercolour over ink drawings. In the following year he began to engrave seven large plates based on the designs, and presumably would have created more. Blake had long been interested in Dante: at some point around 1800 he had annotated Henry Boyd’s Historical Notes on a translation of Inferno, making critical comments about both Dante’s politics (‘Dante was an Emperors Man’, e634) and Boyd’s approbation towards the Florentine poet’s classical sources. As Sebastian Schütze remarks, ‘Blake admired Dante as a poet Illustrations of the Book of Job: Behemoth and Leviathan, intaglio engraving on paper.

Illustrations of the Book of Job: Behemoth and Leviathan, intaglio engraving on paper.


divine images unreservedly, but he was at the same time keen to dissociate himself from certain political and theological notions embraced by his hero.’8 Interest in Dante had been stimulated in the final decades of the 1700s, and he had been taken up in particular by aficionados of the cult of the Gothic, with painters such as Fuseli dedicating paintings to scenes from his writings. Flaxman also found a new audience for the Italian poet through his drawings for the Divine Comedy, the first of which were published in Rome in 1794. Blake likewise had made a drawing of Ugolino and his sons in Prison in the early 1780s, referencing the story of Ugolino della Gherardesca, who was falsely imprisoned for treason in the thirteenth century when he became caught in the conflicts of the Ghibellines and the Guelphs. Blake was faithful to Dante’s text in terms of the scenes he depicted, but his interpretation was often at variance with that of the earlier poet, in particular when dealing with themes of guilt, punishment and sin. In one very important sense, Dante’s vision of hell stands at the very other end of the poetic cosmos to that of Blake: while the former’s is ultimately governed by a deity who permits the sadistic punishment of sin in order to enforce divine law, Blake’s (at least in the version outlined in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) is a place of the enjoyments of genius. Yet Blake was also sensitive to the intellectual trials that faced Dante, and one of the best examples of this is the illustration to ‘The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini’, also known as ‘The Whirlwind of Lovers’. In this image, which was also engraved by Blake, the moment is caught when Dante and Virgil meet Francesca and her lover, Paolo Malatesta. Francesca had been married to Paolo’s brother, Giovanni, by her father to cement a political alliance between the two families and end their previous conflict. While at her husband’s home, she fell in love with the younger brother and, when they were discovered by Giovanni, he killed them both with his bare hands. When they are encountered by Dante it is 330

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The Circle of the Lustful, 1827, intaglio engraving on paper.

in the second level of inferno, reserved for those guilty of lust who are trapped in an eternal whirlwind, which pauses briefly for the poet to learn their fate. After Francesca tells her story, Dante faints and it is this scene that is captured by Blake as the two lovers, still clasping each other, are swept back into the endless torment of hell. This pathos is accentuated by a second depiction of the lovers, embracing each other in the solar sphere above Virgil’s head: they are lost in the sensuous bliss of the moment, unaware of a vicious moral code that will condemn them to eternal damnation for following these energies. Yet even in hell the pair of them, as they are swept away, can only stare at each other with a compassion that itself condemns the hell this false vision of God and religion has created for them. Elsewhere, Blake seems to take especial care in his depictions of Inferno to draw attention to the false idols of paganism. It is 331

Final Visions The Circle of Traitors, 1827, intaglio engraving on paper. Ciampolo Tormented by the Devils, 1827, intaglio engraving on paper.

Minos who guards the entrance to the second circle of hell, while Cerberus stands at the third; the Goddess of Fortune governs misers and squanderers in the fourth, while the Minotaur is the custodian of the seventh circle. The message is particularly clear for Blake: as with his accusations against Milton and Shakespeare in the Preface to Milton a Poem, Blake believes that Dante has been infected with the false doctrines of paganism, emphasizing a cult of cruelty and punishment rather than the Christian message of the forgiveness of sins. More than seventy plates deal with the subject of Inferno, leaving only some thirty for Purgatorio and Paradiso (and, in this, Blake may have been reflecting the interests of a significant number of readers before and since). Towards the end of Purgatorio appear some of the most fascinating images in the entire series, particularly Plate 91, which depicts ‘Beatrice addressing Dante from the chariot’. In canto 30 of the second book, Beatrice appears in a chariot of whirling eyes, surrounded by mighty griffins who pull it, their blue wings also strewn with eyes. She is accompanied by the virtues of Hope, Love and Faith, and she speaks to Dante who

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car, 1824–7, pen and ink, watercolour on paper.


divine images is afraid of her – as well he might be. In her speech, she reminds him that he strayed from her and admonishes him to repent. After he does so, they at last can ascend the spiral stairway to heaven: while Blake clearly feels much affinity to the circles of light that describe Paradiso, it is also the case that many of the plates are sketchy and incomplete. Of course, the ultimate reason for this was his failing health, and yet one also senses that, as Blake drew towards the end of his own life, the ethereal promise of Dante’s paradise was one too lacking in the energies of divine vision that had always driven Blake’s art.



Death and Resurrection: The Legacy of William Blake


hen Blake died on 12 August 1827 he did not end his life in complete obscurity. As G. E. Bentley observes, in the first few years following his death ‘there was more printed praise of him than might have been expected,’ including an obituary in the Literary Gazette the day after his funeral, which noted him as the illustrator of The Grave and included the following remarkable assessment of his life: When it is stated, that the pure-minded Flaxman pointed out to an eminent literary man the obscurity of Blake as a melancholy proof of English apathy towards the grand, the philosophic, or the enthusiastically devotional painter; and that he, Blake, has been several times employed for that truly admirable judge of art Sir T. Lawrence, any further testimony to his extraordinary powers is unnecessary. Yet has Blake been allowed to exist in a penury which most artists, – beings necessarily of a sensitive temperament, – would deem intolerable. (br 465–6) Relatively extensive accounts of Blake’s life appeared in John Thomas Smith’s Nollekens and his Times (1823) and Allan Cunningham’s Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculp­tors 335

divine images and Architects (1830), indicating a minor – but generally wellknown and, in some circumstances, even respected – artist on the fringes of the London art scene. Over the next few years John Linnell and Frederick Tatham in particular sought to provide for Catherine until her death in 1831, selling copies of Blake’s books and prints as one means to support her. As such, Blake’s work was still in circulation for a period of time, but once Catherine passed away the memory of him began to fade more completely.

Gilchrist and the Pre-Raphaelites Although the memory of Blake declined rapidly throughout the 1830s and ’40s, the slender thread that ultimately proved to be the salvation of his reputation came from a biographer and a group of artists who, by the middle of the century, rose to fame at the same time that the revolutions of 1848 were sweeping Europe. Those important figures involved in the recuperation of Blake in the Victorian period were Alexander Gilchrist, Dante Gabriel and William Michael Rossetti, and Algernon Swinburne. Years before Gilchrist produced his remarkable Life of William Blake, ‘Pictor ignotus’, Rossetti had first learned about Blake in Cunningham’s Lives, and purchased Blake’s Notebook from Samuel Palmer in 1847 for ten shillings. This began a lifelong obsession with Blake for the Rossettis, one in which they recast the painter-poet as a precursor of their own struggles against the artistic establishment and one who, for Dante in particular, epitomized the tension between art and poetry. The fact that Blake was almost completely unknown by the 1840s also meant that the brothers had greater freedom to shape his reception for an early audience. Their enthusiasm was considerable: as Elizabeth Helsinger points out, William compiled a bibliography of Blake’s designs, while Dante wrote on his art and provided the descriptions accompanying Gilchrist’s Life. Indeed, when Alexander Gilchrist suddenly died 336

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before he had completely finished his biography, the Rossetti brothers helped his widow, Anne, complete the text.1 While the Rossettis were part of a rediscovery of Blake that was taking place in the 1840s, for the wider public at large one figure more than any other was responsible for the rehabilitation of the Romantic poet and artist. As Bentley points out, it was Gilchrist who ‘revived interest in Blake with his Life’ (br 287). Born in 1828, the year after Blake’s death, Gilchrist had trained as a barrister before turning to art criticism, publishing his Life of William Etty in 1855, a work of the Victorian artist that was very well received at the time. In 1856 he and Anne, whom he had married in 1851, moved into a residence in Chelsea next door to Jane and Thomas Carlyle, the famous author who had approved of the Life of Etty and so sealed Gilchrist’s reputation as a biographer. Gilchrist had already begun to develop his interest in Blake, having encountered a copy of the illustrations to Job, which led him to write to Samuel Palmer in 1855. Palmer replied with an effusive letter in which the painter, now aged sixty, told him: Blake, once known, could never be forgotten . . . He was energy itself, and shed around him a kindling influence; an atmosphere of life, full of the ideal. To walk with him in the country was to perceive the soul of beauty through the forms of matter . . . He was a man without a mask; his aim single, his path straightforward, and his wants few; so he was free, noble, and happy. (Life i.344) Having begun work, Gilchrist contacted Rossetti, who wrote to William Allingham in 1860 that: ‘A man (one Gilchrist, who lives next door to Carlyle, and is as near him in other respects as he can manage) wrote to me the other day, saying he was writing a life of Blake, and wanted to see my manuscript by that genius.’2 It was Gilchrist who tracked down the remaining members of the 337

divine images Ancients who had gathered around Blake, recording their stories and by 1861, spurred on by Rossetti, he agreed to add a companion volume of Blake’s works to his biography. Understandably daunted by the task, Anne wrote to her husband’s publisher, Macmillan, that: ‘Many things were to have been inserted – anecdotes etc. collected during the last year, which he used to say “would be the best things in the book”. Whether I shall be able to rightly use the rough notes of these and insert them in the fittest places I cannot yet tell.’3 When the Life of William Blake, ‘Pictor ignotus’ appeared in two volumes in 1863, it was soon clear that the biography was to be a triumph, admired by the Pre-Raphaelites and leading aesthetic figures such as Robert Browning. The book was an important contribution to dismissing the posthumous legend that Blake was mad, instead depicting him as a prophet and visionary, a complete artist deserving the respect of a wider Victorian audience. Although Gilchrist was not alive to see its success, his work was championed in particular by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. For Rossetti, Blake was ‘a poet-artist of a particularly visualising imagination such as he felt himself to be’.4 Although Rossetti felt a strong connection to his namesake, Dante, whose Vita Nuova he was translating in the 1840s, it was Blake who was closer to much of the Pre-Raphaelite’s own work, providing a model for the paintings he produced as part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the group of painters, poets and critics that he, along with John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, founded in 1848. The objections of the Pre-Raphaelites to the style of Joshua Reynolds almost certainly found emphasis in Blake’s Notebook, which contained plenty of references to the Romantic’s artistic nemesis. The inspiration of Blake’s work was most notable on Rossetti’s paintings, particularly those visionary subjects such as Dante Drawing an Angel on the First Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death. Rossetti’s appreciation was enhanced by his friendship with John Ruskin in the 1850s, who had himself come to know Blake’s work via 338

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George Richmond: that awareness of the late artist led Ruskin to express an admiration for Rossetti’s work that helped to establish the younger man on the national art scene, providing him with praise and encouragement. Not that everyone was enamoured of the Gilchrist-Rossetti depiction of Blake as a divine craftsman. Algernon Charles Swin­ burne, a friend of the Rossettis, had become involved in Gilchrist’s Life, but after its appearance became so aggrieved with the final result that he began work on his own version of Blake’s life and art. This was published in 1868 as William Blake: A Critical Essay; originally intended as a commentary on the prophetic books that would serve as a supplement to Gilchrist’s work, it was greatly extended after 1863 to become an important reflection on Swin­ burne’s own aesthetic theory, beginning with the astonishing declaration that Blake was ‘born and baptized into the church of rebels’.5 Divided into three parts dealing with Blake’s life and designs, the lyrical poems and the prophetic works, William Blake: A Critical Essay established Blake as very much one who was knowingly of the Devil’s party: In a time of critical reason and definite division, he was possessed by a fervour and fury of belief; among sane men who had disproved most things and proved the rest, here was an evident madman who believed a thing, one may say, only insomuch as it was incapable of proof. He lived and worked out of all rule, and yet by law. He had a devil, and its name was Faith. No materialist has such belief in bread and meat as Blake had in the substance underlying appearance which he christened god or spectre, devil or angel as the fit took him: or rather as he saw it one or the other side. His faith was absolute and like a pure fanatic’s: there was no speculation in him.6


divine images With the exception of his illuminated books, much of the work on Blake’s reception has tended to concentrate on his poetry rather than his art. Yet it was as a fine artist that Blake was often best known during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Colin Trodd has referred to the early reception of the artist as ‘Blakeland’, a shifting horizon of attitudes towards Blake that changed with the landscape of popular taste. Thus, for example, in the immediate aftermath of the Pre-Raphaelite revival of Blake he was seen as a primal artist ripe for recuperation whereas, by the time of the First World War, in the visual arts at least he was starting to be viewed as somewhat old-fashioned because many of his pictures had been over-exposed to the public. This was the time that his poetic reception was beginning to take off, precisely because so many of his difficult prophetic books were only now being rediscovered. For Trodd, Blake’s followers in the mid-Victorian period, such as the Pre-Raphaelites and G. F. Watts, held him up as an antidote to the entire world of academic art and rationality: ‘Blake, more than any other artist in the putative British School, was regenerated by Victorian discourses on art as a set of problems requiring critical solutions.’7 Not that Blake was held up uncritically as some kind of Romantic ideal: various critics such as Oswald Crawfurd, H. G. Hewlett and Alan Cunningham formed part of a critical resistance that saw Blake as not so much the prodigal creator, more a powerfully destructive chaos that threatened any notion of communal standards of taste. The complexity of this ‘shadow public’ for Blake is indicated by the fact that aficionados of Blake’s work such as Henry Crabb-Robinson and Edward Bulwer-Lytton were both fascinated and repulsed by the excesses of the Blakean body, while his most ardent supporters, such as the Rossettis, were more than happy to rewrite his work to fit with their notions of good taste. By the 1920s Blakeland in the visual arts had been overindulged and the reaction set in for a generation: Laurence Binyon noted in an essay from 1927 340

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that Blake had become more widely known as a poet than an artist, although the slow path towards recuperation began with the establishment of a collection of Blake’s work at the Tate in the 1940s. It was, after all, as a painter for whom ‘the Eye altering alters all’ (e485) that Blake had been first known.

Blake and Modernism With regard to Blake’s acceptance as a poet, one person was more important than any other in the early twentieth century. The first collection of poetry by William Butler Yeats, Crossways, published in 1889, opened with a quotation by Blake: ‘The stars are threshed, and the souls are threshed from their husks’ (later transcribed by Erdman as ‘And all Nations were threshed out & the stars threshd from their husks’ in The Four Zoas, e402). That Yeats included a quote, however interpreted, from Blake’s epic poem Vala; or The Four Zoas, was incredibly significant. In the decades since he had been rediscovered, Blake’s most ambitious, but unfinished, work had been largely neglected by his Victorian followers. In 1893, however, Yeats, along with Edwin John Ellis, embarked on an ambitious project to publish the first complete edition of the Romantic’s poetry. The Works of William Blake: Poetic, Symbolic and Critical was in many ways a poor text by which to apprehend Blake, in that in their attempt to create a system the two editors frequently rewrote their precursor in order to make him fit with their own ideas. Nonetheless, the publisher Bernard Quaritch intended to offer a handsomely illustrated facsimile of Blake’s works, the like of which had never been seen before, bringing together engraved copies of the Romantic’s plates in a more comprehensive form than previously, and for the first time a version of The Four Zoas was made available to the reading public. As Arianna Antonelli points out, Yeats considered The Four Zoas the key to understanding Blake’s work: without it, his 341

divine images mythical characters and situations in the later prophetic books simply did not make sense. Connecting the complex system of the Zoas and their emanations to Jacob Boehme and Swedenborg, as well as his own occult practices as a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, editing the Works greatly influenced Yeats’s own system, ‘partly determining its subsequent development up to its codification in the volume of A Vision’.8 For much of the nineteenth century the idea that Blake was in any way a systematic thinker would have been considered absurd. Yet for all the distortions that Yeats and Ellis imposed on Blake, their ideas would gradually become the orthodoxy, helped greatly by vastly improved critical editions of Blake’s works, such as those produced by John Sampson in 1905 and, most important of all in the early twentieth century, the complete edition by Geoffrey Keynes published by the Nonesuch Press in 1925. The edition by Yeats, which stimulated Keynes to complete his own work, which was the first comprehensive and truly critical collection, produced nearly a century after the poet’s death, in many respects occurred at the best moment for Blake’s burgeoning reputation. Even sympathetic Victorians, such as Swin­­burne, had been sceptical about his poetic abilities in the later prophetic books, but texts such as The Four Zoas began to be more widely read at the very moment when the literary scene itself had been transformed by High Modernism. Writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot – as well as Yeats himself – were changing utterly the expectations of what it meant to write literature in the early decades of the twentieth century. Many of these figures were directly influenced by Blake. Joyce, for example, knew of the Yeats-Ellis edition at least as early as 1902, when he quoted from the version of Milton a Poem that they had published and, in 1912, taught on both Daniel Defoe and William Blake while at Trieste. The Romantic is also quoted in his great novel Ulysses, clearly being an important influence 342

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on Joyce’s complex style. The poet T. S. Eliot was in many ways less impressed by Blake’s convoluted system, but at the same time respectful of the Romantic’s abilities as a poet. In his essay on Blake in The Sacred Wood, Eliot dismisses the notion that Blake is merely ‘a wild pet for the supercultivated’ but also criticizes the fact that Blake invented his own system – one that only made sense to the poet himself. Eliot appears to have ‘regarded Blake as constituting an esoteric tradition all of his own’,9 a fact that disturbed him yet also stimulated his own poetic endeavours in works such as The Waste Land and East Coker. Throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, then, Blake’s influence – in poetry if not the visual arts necessarily (although he was often appealed to by the Surrealists) – continued to spread. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and the mythology of Orc and Urizen shaped W. H. Auden’s early poetry such as The Orators, while in 1933 the young Dylan Thomas told Pamela Hansford Johnson, ‘I am in the path of Blake, but so far behind him that only the wings on his heels are in sight.’10 The most significant contribution made by Blake’s poetry to the modern era was not through the medium of Modernist writings, important as those were, but by the setting of his words from the Preface to Mllton a Poem to music in a hymn that would later become known as ‘Jerusalem’. As we saw in Chapter Seven, Blake first composed the stanzas beginning ‘And did those feet’ sometime before 1804, when he began work in earnest on his prophetic book Milton a Poem. By the time of his death, the lyrics that were later to become among his most famous lines were more or less forgotten – not least because Blake himself removed the Preface containing them from later editions of the poem, perhaps ashamed or angry that his appeal to a new audience, the ‘Young Men of the New Age’, had failed to materialize until his final meetings with the Shoreham Ancients. The poem was included in Gilchrist’s Life and Swinburne also alluded to it, but no one really attempted to interpret what 343

divine images the words meant until Yeats, who rather bizarrely saw the lines as symbolic of sexual energy rather than reflecting upon national identity. As the poem was slowly circulated throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, it started to take on some of the connotations for which it would later become famous. In H. C. Beeching’s A Paradise of English Poetry, for example, published in 1893, it was included in the section on ‘Patriotism’. The lines were also set to music for the first time in 1908 by Henry Walford Davies, a composer most famous today for his setting of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, and who would later become Master of the King’s Music and an early music adviser to the bbc. More significantly, in his collection from 1915, The Spirit of Man, Robert Bridges, then Poet Laureate, added Blake’s poem as an example of poetry that celebrated the spirit of England and Englishness during the darkest hours of the First World War. It was Bridges who, along with Walford Davies, decided that their friend Charles Hubert Parry would be an excellent choice to set Blake’s words to music, to create a rousing song to inspire the troops fighting on the continent and civilians at home. Parry had been serving since the end of 1914 on a Committee for Music in War-time, and the immediate cause of his writing what would later become known as ‘Jerusalem’ was to provide a musical setting for a meeting of the organization Fight for Right. This group was formed by Francis Younghusband, a former army officer and explorer who believed that the war against Germany was not merely a political and economic one, but also a spiritual conflict. Younghusband himself was a highly unusual individual: while the archetypal Victorian and Edwardian adventurer – he had led the British expedition to Tibet in 1904 – he was also friends with Gandhi and later with Bertrand Russell. Following his return to Britain he experienced a spiritual crisis that saw him experiment with atheism and theosophy. At the outbreak of the war, the Bishop of Winchester had suggested that the words to 344

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the national anthem be changed to make them more inspiring, and Bridges himself disliked intensely the tune of ‘God Save the King’. Originally the Poet Laureate had hoped that George Butter­ worth would compose something, but Butterworth was serving at the front and would be killed in August 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. It was somewhat ironic that Parry, who had displayed something of a bias against Toryism and, with his wife, was a great believer in women’s suffrage, a composer who was inspired most by German music, should be called upon to write a patriotic English hymn. Yet Parry was also a great patriot and saw it as his duty to contribute what he could to the war effort. He delivered a manuscript to Walford Davies on 11 March 1916 with the words: ‘Here’s a tune for you, old chap. Do what you like with it.’11 Many years later, Walford Davies recalled his experience of receiving that manuscript: Sir Hubert Parry gave me the manuscript of this setting of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ one memorable morning in 1916 . . . We looked at it long together in his room at the Royal College of Music, and I recall vividly his unwonted happiness over it. One momentary act of his should perhaps be told here. He ceased to speak, and put his finger on the note D in the second stanza where the words ‘O clouds unfold’ break the rhythm. I do not think any word passed about it, yet he made it perfectly clear that this was the one note and one moment of his song which he treasured . . . I copyrighted it in the composer’s name and published it in 1916. We needed it for the men at that time . . . I know Dr Bridges specifically wanted every one of us to sing it, and this is happily coming true.12 The hymn was first sung on 28 March 1916 at the Queen’s Hall by a choir of three hundred volunteers. It was immediately issued as a single sheet to be sung at rallies, although Parry was deeply 345

divine images unhappy with the jingoism of Fight for Right and withdrew his permission for its use by them in 1917. Instead, through his friendship with the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, he offered it to her cause and it was performed at the Albert Hall as part of a Suffrage Demonstration meeting. Parry himself suggested the following year that ‘Jerusalem’, as it was now known, should become the ‘Women Voter’s hymn’ and passed copyright to the movement before his death in 1918. After Parry’s death ‘Jerusalem’ became a highly contested hymn of the English establishment. While part of imperial celebrations such as the British Empire Exhibition of 1923, it was also invoked by the Labour Party during the 1951 election as a clarion call to continue the work of building the New Jerusalem in Britain. By the 1960s it was very much identified with the Establishment – an Establishment that, following the loss of empire and the humiliation of Suez in 1956, looked increasingly embarrassing. Even that did not mark the end of the hymn’s afterlife, however: from the early 1980s onwards, when it was invoked in the film Chariots of Fire, based on the lives of the 1924 Olympics athletes Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, it was used as either a symbol of resurgent nationalism or as a left-wing critique of that very notion of nationalism. Billy Bragg, for example, recorded it in 1990 as a protest song against the Poll Tax. By the end of the century it had become, if anything, more popular, propelled along by its adoption by cricket teams, the Euro 2000 England football team, and then as the official anthem of the England team in the Commonwealth Games in 2010. In the twenty-first century, perhaps no other song encapsulates what it means to be English than one written by a poet who was tried for sedition by the authorities and set to music by a composer whose sympathies with German culture led to him withdrawing it from use as a jingoistic hymn.


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Blake and America One part of the world where Blake’s influence on later generations of writers and artists was to be felt most profoundly was America. We have already seen how Blake was fascinated by the events that had led to independence in America, and he was taken up by various figures on the continent at a very early stage. As Linda Freedman has pointed out, aside from a small group of friends who kept his memory alive in his home country after 1827, Blake was actually better known in America than he was in early Victor­ ian England. Blake’s writings, for example, appealed much more directly to the Transcendentalism of Emerson, who first encountered Blake’s writings through James John Garth Wilkinson, a Swedenborgian who produced an edition of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1839. Although Emerson was to draw back from Swedenborgianism, its revival in nineteenth-century America helped establish Blake’s reputation there two decades before the publication of Gilchrist’s Life. Freedman notes that another point of entry into the United States was via the Abolitionist movement, particularly Lydia Maria Child, who published a number of Blake’s poems during her tenure as editor of the National Anti-slavery Standard in the 1840s in her search ‘for ways to recapture a sense of spiritual liberty’.13 One of the most important connections between Blake and early American literature, although a contentious one, was the relationship between the English Romantic and Walt Whitman. Freedman and various other critics have observed that there is little to no evidence that Whitman had read any of Blake’s works before composing Leaves of Grass in 1855, nor did Whitman appreciate the suggestion. In his biography of Whitman, Horace Traubel recorded that the American poet remarked that ‘Blake began and ended in Blake,’14 a somewhat caustic remark from the end of his life considering how much a number of writers and 347

divine images reviewers had linked the two. We should perhaps not make too much of Traubel’s observation, upon visiting Walt Whitman in the 1880s, that the poet used a volume of Blake for a footstool. More significantly, writing privately in 1868 on the publication of Algernon Swinburne’s William Blake: A Critical Essay, Whitman noted that while both he and Blake were mystics and ‘extatics’, the differences between them were vast – that the author of the Song of Myself ‘never once lost control, or even equilibrium’.15 Regarding Blake’s influence on Whitman, as Ryan Davidson observes, most of the supposed ‘points of contact’ between the two were not available to Whitman when he began writing Leaves of Grass. Instead, contemporaries such as Swinburne, William Rossetti and Anne Gilchrist saw clear resemblances between Blake and Whitman, and Davidson suggests that we consider that the two shared an affinity of feelings and interests rather than being adversaries.16 While it is certainly the case Whitman may not have known about Blake while writing his poetry, he clearly became aware of him after contemporaries began to make compar­isons, in part because the transatlantic book trade made Gilchrist’s Life a collectable item in America as well as England. Indeed, such was the affinity between the two that Whitman, who at first only grudgingly came to appreciate Blake, eventually commissioned his tomb to be built in the shape of the Romantic’s engraving of ‘Death’s Door’. To readers in England, in particular, it seemed that Blake and Whitman must have had ideas in common – as Whitman remarked somewhat sardonically to Traubel, ‘A number of the fellows in England are off after Blake.’ Other Americans in London, such as Moncure Conway and John Swinton, linked the two artists, as did Anne Gilchrist, who engaged in a platonic affair with the American poet (even if she wished for more). As Freedman observes, although the two were linked by many, for Whitman himself the legacy of the earlier artist was always a troubled one.17 348

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In the early twentieth century Blake’s influence on a number of American writers, such as Waldo Frank, Hart Crane and Marianne Moore, continued to gain ground. The most important – indeed, the most explosive – connection would originate in the immediate post-war period with the rise of the Beats, in particular through the poetry and advocacy of Allen Ginsberg. It was in Ginsberg that Blake’s particular combination of prophecy, spirit­ ual seeking and demand for political and social justice were taken up most explicitly, although Ginsberg could also differ greatly in some of his attitudes to hedonism and religion. Ginsberg saw Blake as a prophetic guru and the literal source of inspiration for his poetry, as he recounted in an experience from 1948. Having masturbated in his room, his eyes fell on the poem ‘Ah! Sun-flower’, which he also experienced as a series of ‘auditory hallucinations’, feeling that the voice of Blake was reading his poems aloud in his room.18 Blake was an explicit influence on poems such as Howl, famously performed at the Six Gallery Reading in 1955, a seminal moment in the emergence of the Beats as a movement that would transform American literature. As Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote in a telegram shortly after the performance, deliberately invoking Emerson’s response to reading Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, ‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?’19 While Blake is name-checked throughout Howl and also provides a primary influence on the rhythm and imagery of that poem, with its invocations of Moloch ‘whose mind is pure machinery!’ and ‘starry dynamos’ connecting to ‘angelheaded hipsters’, an even more direct indication of Blake’s importance came in the poem ‘Sunflower Sutra’. Sitting with Jack Kerouac in a disused rail yard in San Francisco, the two of them see a sunflower growing through the dereliction, causing Ginsberg to exclaim: –I rushed up enchanted–it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake–my visions–Harlem and Hells of the Eastern rivers, 349

divine images bridges clanking Joes Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck and the razor-sharp artifacts passing into the past–20 The sunflower, grey and dusty against the sky, is an emblem of the visionary experience exemplified for Ginsberg in Blake’s work, although as Freedman observes, following his trip to Japan in the 1960s the Beat poet felt increasingly trapped by the version of himself that he had constructed after his experiences in Harlem in 1948. In particular, the later Ginsberg sought to escape the cycle of hedonistic drug culture that had come to dominate his thinking (and where he was, perhaps, furthest from the original ideals of Blake). His reading of ‘I saw a Monk of Charlemagne’ outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was, according to Freedman, an important turning point in his understanding of Blake as ‘a disillusioned radical, who struggled with the same conflicts as people in modern America’.21 The ending of that poem indicates the failure of Enlightenment as enforced rationalism, which for Ginsberg made Urizen as relevant as the threat of the neutron bomb: Titus! Constantine! Charlemaine! O Voltaire! Rousseau! Gibbon! Vain Your Grecian Mocks & Roman Sword Against this image of his Lord! For a Tear is an Intellectual thing; And a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King And the bitter groan of a Martyrs woe Is an Arrow from the Almighties Bow! (e202)


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What Ginsberg took most from Blake was this sense of the long history of Western civilization as a celebration of martial might and heroism, making his verse and art as important to the counterculture of the 1960s as it had been steeped in revolutionary culture of the 1790s. Ginsberg was the most significant of the Beat writers to express an interest in Blake, but far from the only one to do so. In an article for Esquire magazine in 1958, Kerouac described the meaning of Beat as follows: The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way, in the late Forties, of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way – a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word ‘beat’ spoken on street corners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America.22 Many of the Beats and fellow travellers shared an interest in Blake’s works, particularly poets. Robert Duncan, for example, came from a family with a long interest in theosophy and Sweden­ borgianism. His complex politics (tending towards an anarchistic approach that opposed the war in Vietnam but was sceptical of the authoritarianism inherent in collective action) led him to consider Blake’s work in a variety of ways, spiritual as well as political. He wrote extensively about Blake, invoking him directly in poems such as ‘Variations on Two Dicta by William Blake’ and more indirectly in ‘My Mother Would Be a Falconress’, which takes as its inspiration Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Duncan said of the Romantic that, ‘To take Blake or Dante as gospels of Poetry, as I do, is to testify to and to enter into the reality of a divine 351

divine images history within what men call history.’23 Freedman observes that Duncan treated Blake as a difficult and ethical writer, invoking him as a complex spiritual force as two other writers – Michael McClure and Gary Snyder – drew upon him as a prophet of ecological and countercultural views. The work of McClure in particular could be naive and uncritical, as in Meat Science Essays, which posits a form of Blakean energy in ranting, anti-intellectual poetry. Snyder, by contrast, was more concerned with a reflection on man’s relation with the environment that drew upon Buddhist teaching and the anarchism of American libertarian traditions and Chinese Taoism. Snyder, who originally read with Ginsberg in San Francisco, gradually distanced himself from the Beats, but in essays such as his introduction to Pharmako-poeia, by Dale Pendell, argued that all poets were ‘of the devil’s party’, willing to risk their imaginations to explore the true potential of poetry. Yet the appropriation of Blake was not without its problems: Stephen Eisenman draws attention to what Luke Walker has called Ginsberg’s ‘Americanization of Blake’, and to the fact that there are nationalist tensions inherent in the engagement of the Beats with the Romantic poet as they claim him as one of their own.24 Although the counterculture has come to be seen as the dominant exchange between American writers and Blake, other currents exist. In science fiction, for example, Blake’s fantastical writings have been a great source of inspiration, such as in the work of Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, particularly the latter’s invocation of ‘The Tyger’ in Fahrenheit 451. Blake has also been an important source for popular music and film, as well as the Hannibal Lecter novels of Thomas Harris. There are also direct challenges to the countercultural appropriation of Blake. Saul Bellow offered a critique of what he saw as ‘the sham Roman­ ticism of the counterculture’ in Herzog, which includes serious intellectual discussion of Blake’s role in shaping the modern world.25 In Humboldt’s Gift the Romantic is invoked as the 352

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antithesis of the counterculture, refusing the ecstatic tradition of Blake as inspired prophet that had been espoused by Ginsberg and, instead, invoking a gloomy, complex reflection on post-war American society: There are a few things I have to get off my chest about Humboldt. Why should Humboldt have bothered himself so much? A poet is what he is in himself. Gertrude Stein used to distinguish between ‘a person who is an “entity”’ and one who has an ‘identity’. A significant man is an entity. Identity is what they give you socially. Your little dog recognizes you and therefore you have an identity. An entity by contrast, an impersonal power, can be a frightening thing. It’s as T. S. Eliot said of William Blake. A man like Tennyson was merged into his environment or encrusted with parasitic opinion, but Blake was naked and saw man naked, and from the center of his own crystal. There was nothing of the ‘superior person’ about him, and this made him terrifying. That is an entity. An identity is easier on itself. An identity pours a drink, lights a cigarette, seeks its human pleasure, and shuns rigorous conditions. The temptation to lie down is very great. Humboldt was a weaken­ ing entity. Poets have to dream, and dreaming in America is no cinch. God ‘giveth songs in the night’, the Book of Job says.26

Blake in Post-war Culture As Blake was adopted by fine artists and literary writers, so following the end of the Second World War he also came to be a significant part of the booming popular and mass-market culture that grew up as part of post-war consumerism. With regard to his adoption by the counterculture, Blake was often portrayed as the prophet of (self) liberation, the poet who preached that everyone must create a system lest they be enslaved by another man’s. As 353

divine images well as the works of the Beats, Blake was taken up enthusiastically by the pop music scene of the 1960s: Bob Dylan was turned on to Blake by Allen Ginsberg and, according to Steve Clark and James Keery, knew Blake ‘better than some of his critics’.27 ‘Every Grain of Sand’ is usually assumed to take its title from the opening lines of ‘Auguries of Innocence’, but as they point out it in fact comes from Jerusalem, where Blake writes: the Gate of Los . . . cannot be found By Satans Watch-fiends tho’ they search numbering every grain Of sand on Earth every night, they never find this Gate. (34.59–35.2, e181)

Jerusalem also provides the inspiration for Dylan’s song ‘Golden Loom’, drawing its name from ‘the golden Looms of Cathedron’, and his understanding of Blake appears to have been subtly drawn upon as a source of visionary opposition to war and power throughout his musical career, rather than being overtly namechecked again and again. One songwriter who had no problem namechecking Blake was Jim Morrison: The Doors famously took their name from the line in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite’ (e39). The appropriation was not necessarily a direct one: Morrison, drawing upon Aldous Huxley’s account of his experiences with mescaline, which used the proverb from Blake to provide its title, The Doors of Perception, had paraphrased Blake’s words, saying, ‘There are things known and unknown, and in between there are doors.’28 The link to Blake was, however, made explicit on the track ‘End of the Night’ on their eponymous debut album, where Morrison interweaves lines of Blake from ‘Auguries of Innocence’ among his own lyrics:


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Realms of bliss, realms of light Some are born to sweet delight Some are born to sweet delight Some are born to the endless night End of the night, end of the night

While Dylan and Morrison tower over the countercultural pop music scene of the 1960s (and, in Dylan’s case, long afterwards), others such as The Fugs also produced wonderful tributes to the earlier Romantic, as when they set his early ‘How Sweet I Roamed from Field to Field’ to music in 1965. The appropriation of Blake to the counterculture did not appear from nowhere in the 1960s. In the preceding decades, for example, the art historian, literary critic and anarchist Herbert Read frequently referred to Blake as a political as well as artistic outsider. Like Huxley, he was an important connection between the influences of High Modernism and the later forms of pop art and culture: as co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Read did a great deal to promote new forms of art, as he explained in his 1963 biography The Contrary Experience. Likewise, in 1944 Joyce Cary had published one of the most profoundly Blakean novels ever to be written, The Horse’s Mouth, in which the artist Gulley Jimson constantly refers back to Blake as his means of resisting authoritarianism and (by implication) the forces of fascism. Edward Larrissy sees Cary as ‘a plausible point of entry into the postmodern’ as the book deals with the chaos of experience that undermines the possibility of art producing an ideal vision of the world.29 Read and Cary seemed to be operating very much in isolation during the period of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, but it was only a few years after The Horse’s Mouth that Ginsberg experienced the auditory hallucination that began his own lifelong journey as a poet. 355

divine images It was the adoption of Blake as prophet of the counterculture that seemed to do most to revive his reputation in his homeland, particularly with the International Poetry Incarnation in 1965, when Ginsberg joined Michael Horovitz and Adrian Mitchell at the Royal Albert Hall, a poetry event attended by some 7,000 people. The spirit of Blake was invoked as a presiding angel, most notably by Horovitz, whose collection Children of Albion: Poetry of the ‘Underground’ in Britain was published in 1969 with the cover image of Blake’s Albion Rose. James Keery suggests that Horovitz’s view of Blake presented ‘a sentimental image’ of the artist, and that it was other poets from the time – most notably Iain Sinclair – who better reflected the more sinister aspects of Blake’s later prophecies.30 Works such as Lud Heat (1975) and Suicide Bridge (1979) invoke Blake’s motifs of the Sons and Daughters of Albion as running amok in London, contributing to its mythical psychogeography as he explores the occult associations of the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor. While taking on a darker tone, however, Sinclair’s work was generally a continuation of the countercultural idealization of Blake. Adrian Mitchell, for example, produced the extremely influential play Tyger: A Celebration Based on the Life and Works of William Blake in 1971, and Theodore Roszak invoked the earlier artist as a visionary light in Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society (1972). By the end of the decade, however, punk marked a backlash against the hippie movement, and when Blake was invoked in England in the final years of the 1970s he tended to be called upon much more critically, as in Derek Jarman’s parody of the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ in his 1977 film Jubilee, or Angela Carter’s 1978 article for New Statesman titled ‘Little Lamb Get Lost’. Both Jarman and Carter had much more positive things to say about Blake, but their approach was not to blithely invoke the earlier poet as simple visionary or prophet. As Christopher Ranger points out, Carter 356

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in particular was engaged in a dialogue with Blake as a ‘friendly enemy’, offering contrary readings of Blake in stories such as ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ and, more extensively, in her 1977 novel The Passion of New Eve.31 In this story, which deliberately parodies and recreates Blake’s Milton a Poem, Blake’s alter ego, the Prophet Los, comes in for most criticism, recreated as a Charles Mansonesque cult leader, Zero the Poet: yet if Carter is laying into Blake as, in the end, one more patriarchal poet, her method of doing so is redolent of the technique of opposition that Blake had first deployed in The Marriage: ‘Without Contraries is no progression’ (e34). This notion, also expressed pithily by Blake as ‘Opposition is true Friendship’ (e42), was key to one of the most important novels of the late 1980s, a book which also indicated a postcolonial appreciation of Blake beyond traditional Anglo-American audiences. Although Salman Rushdie had been educated at King’s College, Cambridge, and was living and working in England when he published his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, in 1988, his work owed as much to India – the subject of his second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981) – and the life of Muhammed, called Mahound, or ‘the Messenger’ in the novel. It was the scenes with Mahound in particular, dealing with the so-called satanic verses in which the Prophet proclaimed in favour of polytheism (later renounced as an error inspired by the Devil), which caused uproar in the Islamic world, leading to a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran, which called for the death of Rushdie and his publishers. That the author should have been deliberately invoking the voice of the Devil is made explicit through the novel’s references to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The two protagonists, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, are recast as angel and devil when their hijacked plane explodes over the English Channel, and, as Edward Larrissy points out, their wandering of the chartered streets of the capital of the uk also invokes Blake’s poem ‘London’.32 Throughout the novel, Rushdie 357

divine images plays with Blakean notions of contraries and draws upon The Marriage repeatedly, as when Gibreel comes face to face with God (who could, it seems, also be the Devil): For Blake’s Isaiah, God had simply been an immanence, an incorporeal indignation; but Gibreel’s vision of the Supreme Being was not an abstract in the least. He saw, sitting on the bed, a man of about the same age as himself, of medium height, fairly heavily built, with salt-and-pepper beard cropped close to the line of the jaw. What struck him most was that the apparition was balding, seemed to suffer dandruff and wore glasses. This was not the Almighty he had expected.33 The figure on the bed introduces himself as ‘Ooparvala’, or the ‘Fellow upstairs’, to which Gibreel replies: ‘How do I know you’re not the other One . . . Neechayvala, the Guy from Underneath?’ Both god and devil in The Satanic Verses are buffoons, parodies of the divine image. While this might appear to be the opposite of Blake’s own vision of the divine image, there is some sense that the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell would have approved. Rushdie was immensely influential in terms of demonstrating that Blake went much further than Anglo-American literature, something that was also evident in the work of Ben Okri: somewhat tangentially in his novel The Famished Road (1991), which explored a visionary world of magical realism not dissimilar to that of Rushdie and, indeed, Carter, and more directly in his 1999 collection of poetry, Mental Fight. As well as a greater diversity of writers being influenced by Blake from the early 1990s onwards, the Romantic was also increasingly invoked as a source in the visual arts. Antony Gormley, for example, drew upon Blake’s life mask as a source for a wide range of sculptures he produced between Field (1991) and Iron Man (1993), and Event Horizon (2007), works 358

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that sought to express the human form divine as compressed energy. Likewise, a number of the so-called ybas (Young British Artists) of the 1990s drew direct inspiration from Blake. The most overt at the time was Chris Ofili, whose canvases such as Satan and 7 Bitches Tossing their Pussies Before the Divine Dung (both from 1995) took their inspiration from Satan in His Original Glory and The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne. More recently, Tracey Emin drew comparisons between her early works, such as the installation My Bed (1998), and Blake’s drawings at an exhibition that was held at Tate Liverpool in 2017. Between two large exhibitions of Blake’s work at Tate Britain in 2001 and that of 2019, during which his original exhibition of 1809 was recreated, the Romantic artist had embedded himself even further in the cultural life of Britain. In a 2002 poll of the 100 Greatest Britons, conducted by the bbc, he was the only Romantic poet to make the list and the only visual artist to be included. The unveiling of Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture of Newton, designed after Blake’s famous print of that name, in 1995 had indicated that his was a vision that had, nearly two hundred years after his death, become integral to notions of English identity – even more so when Parry’s setting of ‘Jerusalem’ was taken up at sporting events involving the national cricket team or the Commonwealth Games. A high point for ‘Jerusalem’ was the inclusion of the hymn as part of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012: the man who was almost forgotten in the decades after his death had now become one of the most emblematic of all Englishmen – a fact that, as a fervent supporter of many of the ideals of the French Revolution, he would have perhaps considered ironically. Blake’s influence on popular culture was another important factor in his increasing recognition. While many people would have sung the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ without realizing its origins, the same could not be said of his appearance in one of the most 359

divine images successful franchises of the 1990s and early 2000s. Thomas Harris wrote the first Hannibal Lecter novel, Red Dragon, in 1981, but it was in the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs that Blake as a motif of the intellectual serial killer really gained worldwide notice. While some of the references in Silence were fairly oblique, the role played by Blake in the earlier novel (made into a film, Manhunter, in 1986 and remade as Red Dragon in 2002) could not be missed: it is Blake’s series of the Great Red Dragon paintings, made for Thomas Butts between 1805 and 1810, that provide the visual inspiration for the transformation of Francis Dolarhyde into a monstrous murderer. In a very different setting, another important invocation of Blake appears in the trilogy written by Philip Pullman, and one of the few competitors to J. K. Rowling in terms of popularity. His Dark Materials, published as Northern Lights (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), was essentially a retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost and an attack on established religion, but one that very much took its inspiration from Blake. In Daemon Voices, a collection of essays published by Pullman in 2017, the author spoke about how he had discovered Blake’s poetry in the 1960s: That was fifty years ago. My opinions about many things have come and gone, changed and changed about, since then; I have believed in God, and then disbelieved; I have thought that certain writers and poets were incomparably great, and gradually found them less and less interesting, and finally commonplace . . . But those first impulses of certainty about William Blake have never forsaken me, though I may have been untrue to them from time to time. Indeed, they have been joined by others, and I expect to go on reading Blake, and learning more, for as long as I live.34 In the twenty-first century Blake appears to have become even more popular, rather than less. While he had been something 360

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of a cult figure during the counterculture, today he is invoked by an ever-wider circle of creators. In terms of musical influence, Blake has long been one of the poets whose work has been most widely set to music, with recent examples including settings of ‘A Poison Tree’ by the space-folk duo Astralingua (Safe Passage, 2019), Colvin Shaw’s version of ‘Cradle Song’ (Starlighter, 2018), Jóhann Jóhannsson’s beautiful rendition of ‘Holy Thursday’ (Englabörn and Variations, 2018) and classical pianist Harriet Stubbs’s arrangement of ‘Phrygian Gates’ by John Adams, featuring Marianne Faithfull reciting extracts from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Heaven and Hell: Doors of Perception, 2018). Blake is often an inspiration for new works as well as settings of his poetry, with recent classical composers who have created compositions drawing on his art and poetry including Graham Treacher’s Divine Madness: The Visions of Albion (2016) and Daniel Kidane’s Songs of Illumination (2018). The most far-reaching use of Blake for musical inspiration, however, came in the form of two albums by u2: Songs of Innocence (2014) and Songs of Experience (2017) did not directly use any of Blake’s poetry, but drew upon a number of parallels between their respective practice to demonstrate a deep affinity for the Romantic’s work. One indication of the esteem in which Blake is held nearly two centuries after his death is that, along with Turner and Constable, he is one of the pre-eminent examples of British Romantic artists held in the collection at Tate Britain. As Martin Myrone observes, the acquisition of the W. Graham Robertson collection in the 1940s allowed for more varied representations of the artist in the Blake room and a fuller understanding, as Herbert Read had pointed out, of the Romantic’s role as a precursor to Modern art.35 Nor has Blake’s reputation waned in the time since the Tate first acquired the Robertson collection: the exhibition that opened in 2019 was hailed as the largest to bring together the artist’s work in twenty years, one which would both show his work as 361

divine images he intended it to be seen (with a recreation of his failed one-man show of 1809) as well as demonstrate the importance of Catherine, his lifelong companion, to the practice of his art. When he died in 1827, Blake existed in a state of penury that most artists would have found intolerable, but nearly two centuries on he is held up as one of the greatest creators of his day, one of the very few whose work is widely appreciated beyond a small circle of aficionados of eighteenth-century and Romantic art. Blake may have died in obscurity, but he has since been resurrected as one of the greatest poets and artists ever to have lived in the British Isles.



Introduction: This World Is a World of Imagination and Vision 1 G. E. Bentley, Jr, Blake Records, 2nd edn (New Haven, ct, and London, 2004), p. 655. Henceforth referred to as br followed by page number. 2 Anthony Blunt, ‘Blake’s “Ancient of Days”: The Symbolism of the Compasses’, Journal of the Warburg Institute, ii/1 (1938), pp. 53–63. 3 Morris Eaves, The Counter-arts Conspiracy: Art and Industry in the Age of Blake (Ithaca, ny, and London, 1992), p. 27. 4 W.J.T. Mitchell, Blake’s Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry (Princeton, nj, 1978), p. 4. 5 Naomi Billingsley, The Visionary Art of William Blake: Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination (London and New York, 2018), pp. 127, 131. 6 Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell: New Century Edition, trans. George F. Dole (West Chester, pa, 2000), p. 75. 7 Isaac Watts, Divine Songs, Attempted in the Easy Language for Children (London, 1715), song 6. 8 Keri Davies, ‘William Blake’s Mother: A New Identification’, Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, xxxiii/2 (1999), p. 49. 9 Keri Davies and Marsha Keith Schuchard, ‘Recovering the Lost Moravian History of William Blake’s Family’, Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, xxxviii/1 (2004), pp. 36–43. 10 Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, revd edn (London, 1883), vol. i, p. 93. Henceforth referred to as Life followed by volume and page number.


divine images 1  Early Life and Work 1 E. P. Thompson, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge, 1993), pp. 17–18. 2 See Marsha Keith Schuchard, Why Mrs Blake Cried: William Blake and the Erotic Imagination (London, 2006), and Keri Davies, ‘Recovering the Lost Moravian History of William Blake’s Family’, Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, xxxviii/1 (2004), pp. 36–43. 3 Colin Podmore, The Moravian Church in England, 1728–1760 (Oxford, 1998), p. 7. 4 Davies, ‘Recovering the Lost Moravian History of William Blake‘s Family’, p. 38. 5 G. E. Bentley, Jr, The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake (New Haven, ct, 2001), p. 33. 6 Stanley Gardner, The Tyger, The Lamb and The Terrible Desart (Madison, nj, 1998), p. 7. 7 Joseph Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book (Princeton, nj, 1994), p. 42. 8 Michael Snodin and Maurice Howard, Ornament: A Social History since 1450 (New Haven, ct, and London, 1996), p. 42. 9 Mei-Ying Sung, William Blake and the Art of Engraving (London, 2009), p. 7. 10 See Jenijoy La Belle, ‘Michelangelo’s Sistine Frescoes and Blake’s 1795 Color-printed Drawings: A Study in Structural Relationships’, Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, xiv/2 (1980), pp. 66–83. 11 Holger Hoock, The King’s Artists: The Royal Academy of Arts (Oxford, 2005), pp. 54–5. 12 My particular thanks to Elizabeth Potter for her advice on the Royal Academy and Joshua Reynolds in this section. 13 Gardner, The Tyger, The Lamb and The Terrible Desart, p. 26. 14 Bentley, The Stranger from Paradise, pp. 63–4. 15 Ibid., p. 46. 16 William Doxey, ‘William Blake and the Lunar Society’, Notes and Queries, n.s., xviii (1971), p. 343. 17 Gardner, The Tyger, The Lamb and The Terrible Desart, p. 54. 18 Michael Phillips, The Creation of the Songs (London, 2000), p. 15. 19 John Jones, ‘Blake’s Relief Etching Method’, Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, ix/4 (1976), pp. 94–114. 20 Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book, p. 64. 21 Sibylle Erle, Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy (Abingdon, 2010), pp. 4–5. 22 Ibid., pp. 25–6. 366

References 23 James Macpherson, The Poems of Ossian, to which are prefixed a preliminary discourse and dissertation on the aera and poems of Ossian, single volume edn (Leipzig, 1834), p. 113.

2  Visions of Innocence 1 John Feather, The Provincial Book Trade in Eighteenth-century England, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2008), p. 2. 2 Joseph Byrne, ‘Blake, Joseph Johnson, and The Gates of Paradise’, The Wordsworth Circle, xliv/2 (2013), pp. 131–6. 3 Andrew O’Malley, The Making of the Modern Child: Children’s Literature and Childhood in the Eighteenth Century (London, 2012), p. 27. 4 Ibid., pp. 128–9. 5 Michael Phillips, William Blake: The Creation of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience from Manuscript to Illuminated Printing (London, 2000), pp. 10–30. 6 Joseph Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book (Princeton, nj, 1994), pp. 248–9. 7 Ibid., pp. 274–5. 8 Ibid., p. 374. 9 Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men (New York, 1981), cited in Keri Davies, ‘Rebekah Bliss: Collector of Blake and Oriental Books’, in Blake in the Orient (London, 2006), pp. 40, 46. 10 Hannah More, The Works of Hannah More (New York, 1835), p. 323; Andrew Lincoln, ed., Songs of Innocence and of Experience (London, 1991), p. 14. 11 Nelson Hilton, ‘Blake’s Early Works’, in The Cambridge Companion to William Blake, ed. Morris Eaves (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 191–209. 12 Stephen Power, Decomposing Blake’s Songs of Innocence (Gainseville, fl, 1992), p. 6. 13 Kevin Hutchings, Imagining Nature: Blake’s Environmental Poetics (Montreal, 2003), pp. 4–5. 14 Stanley Gardner, The Tyger, The Lamb and The Terrible Desart (Madison, nj, 1998), p. 43. 15 Nicholas Marsh, William Blake: The Poems (Basingstoke, 2001), pp. 15–16. 16 Gardner, The Tyger, The Lamb and The Terrible Desart, p. 226. 17 David Fairer, ‘Experience Reading Innocence: Contextualizing Blake’s Holy Thursday’, Eighteenth-century Studies, xxxv/4 (2002), p. 535; Lincoln, ed., Songs of Innocence and of Experience, p. 161. 18 Cited by Lincoln, ed., Songs of Innocence and of Experience, p. 159. 367

divine images 19 S. Foster Damon, A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake, rev. Morris Eaves (Hanover, nh, 1988), p. 282. 20 Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley (London, 2016), p. 114. 21 Mary Wollstonecraft, Original Stories from Real LIfe, 2nd edn (London, 1791), p. xix. 22 Ibid., p. 7. 23 Ibid., p. 85. 24 Dennis M. Welch, ‘Blake’s Response to Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories’, Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, xiii/1 (1979), p. 8. 25 Joseph Salemi, ‘Emblematic Tradition in Blake’s The Gates of Paradise’, Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, xv/3 (1982), p. 108.

3  A New Heaven Is Begun 1 Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby: or, The New Generation (Paris, 1844), p. 176. 2 William Wordsworth, ‘French Revolution, as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement’, The Friend, 11 (26 October 1809), repr. in Poems (London, 1815), vol. ii, pp. 44–5. 3 Edmund Burke, The Works of Edmund Burke (Boston, ma, 1839), vol. iii, p. 280. 4 David Duner, The Natural Philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg (New York, 2012), p. 375. 5 Cited in George Trobridge, A Life of Emanuel Swedenborg, 5th edn (London, 1992), p. 236. 6 George Trobridge, Swedenborg, Life and Teaching, 4th edn (London, 1944), p. 244. 7 Anonymous, ‘Maternity of Swedenborgianism’, New Churchman, i/1 (1841), pp. 52–5. 8 Trobridge, Swedenborg, Life and Teaching, pp. 250–52. 9 Cited in G. E. Bentley, Jr, The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake (New Haven, ct, 2001), p. 50. 10 Robert Rix, William Blake and the Cultures of Radical Christianity (London, 2016), p. 47. 11 Joseph Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book (Princeton, nj, 1994), p. 259. 12 Morris Eaves, Robert Essick and Joseph Viscomi, eds, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, in Blake’s Illuminated Books, vol. iii: The Early Illuminated Books (Princeton, nj, 1993), pp. 116–17. 13 S. Foster Damon, A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake, rev. Morris Eaves (Hanover, nh, 1988), p. 88; Michael Ferber, The Poetry of William Blake (London, 1990), 368


14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

p. 90; Martin Nurmi, Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell: A Critical Study (New York, 1972), p. 51. John Howard, ‘An Audience for The Marriage of Heaven and Hell ’, Blake Studies, 3 (Fall 1970), p. 61. David Erdman, Blake: Prophet Against Empire, 2nd edn (New York, 1969), p. 192. Lucy Newlyn, Paradise Lost and the Romantic Reader (Oxford, 1992), p. 260. Cited in Bentley, The Stranger from Paradise, p. 431. Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Blake: A Critical Essay (London, 1868), p. 204. Peter McPhee, Liberty or Death: The French Revolution (New Haven, ct, 2016), p. 102. Cited in Yuval Levin, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (New York, 2014), p. 35. Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, Common Sense, and Other Political Writings (Oxford, 2009), pp. 87–8. John Bugg, ed., The Joseph Johnson Letterbook (Oxford, 2016), p. lii. William Richey, ‘The French Revolution: Blake’s Epic Dialogue with Edmund Burke’, elh, lix/4 (1992), pp. 817–37.

4  Lambeth and Experience 1 Stanley Gardner, The Tyger, The Lamb and The Terrible Desart (Madison, nj, 1998), p. 127. 2 Ibid., p. 128. 3 Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley (London, 2016), p. 174. 4 Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (London, 1792), p. 10. 5 Elizabeth Bernath, ‘“Seeking Flowers to Comfort Her”: Queer Botany in Blake’s Visions, Darwin’s Loves and Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Women’, in Blake, Gender and Culture, ed. Helen P. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly (London, 2012), p. 118. 6 Gordon, Romantic Outlaws, p. 175. 7 R. M. Janes, ‘On the Reception of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, Journal of the History of Ideas, xxxix/2 (1978), pp. 293–302. 8 James A. W. Heffernan, ‘Blake’s Oothoon: The Dilemmas of Marginality’, Studies in Romanticism, xxx/1 (1991), p. 3. 9 Helen Bruder, William Blake and the Daughters of Albion (Houndmills, 1997), p. 78. 369

divine images 10 David V. Erdman, Blake: Prophet Against Empire, 2nd edn (New York, 1969), p. 22. 11 Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (London, 2002), p. 347. 12 Julia M. Wright, Blake, Nationalism and the Politics of Alienation (Athens, oh, 2004), p. xiii. 13 Ibid., p. 92. 14 Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, 2nd edn (Toronto, 1969), p. 211. 15 Ibid., Fearful Symmetry, p. 4. 16 Nicholas Marsh, William Blake: The Poems (Basingstoke, 2001), p. 81. 17 Ronald Paulson, Representations of Revolution, 1789–1820 (New Haven, ct, 1983). 18 Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People?: England 1783–1846 (Oxford, 2008); Edward Royle, Modern Britain: A Social History 1750–2011, revd edn (London, 2012). 19 E. P. Thompson, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge, 1993), p. 174. 20 Martin K. Nurmi, ‘Fact and Symbol in “The Chimney Sweeper” of Blake’s Songs of Experience’, Bulletin of the New York Public Library, lxviii/4 (1964), pp. 249–56. 21 Jon Mee, ‘The “insidious poison of secret influence”: A New Historical Context for Blake’s “The Sick Rose”’, Eighteenth-century Life, xx/1 (1998), pp. 111–22. 22 Michael Srigley, ‘The Sickness of Blake’s Rose’, Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, xxvi/1 (1992), pp. 4–8; Elizabeth Langland, ‘Blake’s Feminist Revision of Literary Tradition in “The Sick Rose”’, in Critical Paths: Blake and the Argument of Method, ed. Dan Miller, Mark Bracher and Donald Ault (Durham, nc, 1987), pp. 225–43.

5  A New System of Mythology 1 William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1824–9), in The Poems of William Wordsworth: Collected Reading Texts from the Cornell Wordsworth, ed. Jared Curtis (Ithaca, ny, 2009), vol. iii, p. 303. 2 Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, revd edn (London, 2007), pp. 326–7. 3 Robert M. Maniquis, ‘Transfiguring God: Religion, Revolution, Romanticism’, in A Concise Companion to the Romantic Age, ed. Jon Klancher (London, 2009), p. 22. 370

References 4 E. P. Thompson, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge, 1993), p. 19. 5 Nicholas O. Warner, ‘Blake’s Moon-ark Symbolism’, Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, xiv/2 (1980), pp. 44–59. 6 Paul Mann, ‘The Book of Urizen and the Horizon of the Book’, in Unnam’d Forms: Blake and Textuality, ed. Nelson Hilton and Thomas A. Vogler (Berkeley, ca, 1986), pp. 49–68; Jason Allen Snart, The Torn Book: UnReading William Blake’s Marginalia (Selinsgrove, pa, 2006). 7 Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, 2nd edn (Toronto, 1969), p. 255. 8 W.J.T. Mitchell, Blake’s Composite Art (Princeton, nj, 1968), p. 110. 9 Sarah Eron, ‘“Bound . . . by their narrowing perceptions”: Sympathetic Bondage and Perverse Pity in Blake’s The Book of Urizen’, Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, xxxvi/3 (2012–13), pp. 25–49. 10 Martin Butlin, ‘The Physicality of William Blake: The Large Colour Prints of 1795’, Huntington Library Quarterly, lii/1 (1989), p. 2. 11 Joseph Viscomi, ‘Blake’s “Annus Mirabilis”: The Productions of 1795’, Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, xxxxi/2 (2007), pp. 52–82. 12 Joyce Townsend, William Blake: The Painter at Work (London, 2003). 13 Isaac Newton, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, vol. ii, 3rd edn repr. (London, 1729), pp. 388–9. 14 Richard Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge, 1983), p. 828. 15 Leo Damrosch, Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake (New Haven, ct, 2015), p. 125.

6  Night Thoughts and The Four Zoas 1 Tristanne Connolly, Blake and the Body (Basingstoke, 2002), p. 118. 2 Morris Eaves, The Counter-arts Conspiracy: Art and Industry in the Age of Blake (Ithaca, ny, 1993), p. 42. 3 Luisa Calè, Fuseli’s Milton Gallery: Turning Readers into Spectators (Oxford, 2007), p. 46. 4 G. E. Bentley, Jr, The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake (New Haven, ct, 2001), p. 163. 5 Ibid., p. 164. 371

divine images 6 John E. Grant, Edward J. Rose, Michael J. Tolley and David V. Erdman, William Blake’s Designs for Edward Young’s ‘Night Thoughts’ (Oxford, 1980), p. 4. 7 Louise Guerber, ‘Water-colors by William Blake’, Metro-politan Museum of Art Bulletin, xxiii/4 (April 1928), pp. 103–7. 8 Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, ‘Thomas Parnell’s “Night-piece on Death” and Edward Young’s “Night Thoughts”, anq: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews, xx/4 (2007), p. 6. 9 Michael Farrell, ‘Night Thoughts’, in Blake and the Methodists (Basingstoke, 2014), p. 112. 10 W. B. Yeats, ‘William Blake and His Illustrations to The Divine Comedy’, in The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, vol. iv: Early Essays (London, 2007), p. 90. 11 Naomi Billingsley, The Visionary Art of William Blake: Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination (London, 2018), p. 34. 12 Thora Brylowe, ‘Paper and the Poor: Romantic Media Ecologies and the Bank Restriction Act of 1797’, Literature Compass, xvi/2 (2019), p. 6. 13 G. E. Bentley, Jr, William Blake in the Desolate Market (Toronto, 2014), p. 49. 14 Adam Zamoyski, Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth (London, 2018), pp. 22, 281. 15 Gilbert Wakefield, A Reply to Some Parts of the Bishop Llandaff’s Address to the People of Great Britain (London, 1798), pp. 22–3. 16 Ian McCalman, Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries and Pornographers in London, 1795–1840 (Oxford, 1993), p. 11. 17 Justin Van Kleeck, ‘Editioning William Blake’s vala/The Four Zoas’, in Editing and Reading Blake, ed. Wayne C. Ripley and Justin Van Kleeck, September 2010, https://romantic-circles. org, accessed 9 February 2020. 18 Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, 2nd edn (Toronto, 1969), p. 305. 19 W. B. Yeats and Edwin John Ellis, The Works of William Blake, Poetic, Symbolic, and Critical (London, 1893), vol. i, p. viii. 20 George Anthony Rosso, Blake’s Prophetic Workshop: A Study of The Four Zoas (Lewisburg, pa, 1994). 21 Bentley, The Stranger from Paradise, p. 185. 22 Billingsley, The Visionary Art of William Blake, p. 65. 23 Ibid., p. 87. 372


7  England’s Pleasant Land 1 Janet Warner, ‘Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”’, Colby Quarterly, xii/3 (1976), pp. 126–38. 2 Ibid., p. 127. 3 David Perkins, ‘Animal Rights and “Auguries of Innocence”’, Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, xxx/1 (1999), pp. 4–11 (p. 8). 4 Mark Crosby, ‘Blake’s Sussex Experience’, in William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion, ed. Andrew Loukes (London, 2018), pp. 23–5. 5 G. E. Bentley, Jr, The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake (New Haven, ct, 2001), p. 258. 6 John Milton, The History of Britain, that part especially now call’d England (London, 1670), pp. 79–80.

8  Creating Systems 1 Robert N. Essick and Morton D. Paley, Robert Blair’s ‘The Grave’, illustrated by William Blake: A Study with a Facsimile (London, 1982), p. 6. 2 Ibid., p. 25. 3 Morton Paley, ‘William Blake’s “Portable Fresco”’, European Romantic Review, xxiv/3 (2013), pp. 271–7. 4 Martin Myrone, Seen in my Visions: A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures (London, 2009), p. 13. 5 My thanks to Elizabeth Potter for the observations on Reynolds in this section. 6 Myrone, Seen in my Visions, p. 31. 7 Lucy Newlyn, Paradise Lost and the Romantic Reader (Oxford, 1992), p. 2. 8 Pamela Dunbar, William Blake‘s Illustrations to the Poetry of Milton (Oxford, 1980), pp. 12–13. 9 Ibid., p. 120. 10 Ibid., p. 64. 11 Naomi Billingsley, The Visionary Art of William Blake: Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination (London, 2018), p. 153. 12 Fred Dortort, The Dialectic of Vision: A Contrary Reading of William Blake’s Jerusalem (Barrytown, ny, 1998), p. 26.

9  Final Visions 1 G. E. Bentley, Jr, The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake (New Haven, ct, 2001), p. 367. 373

divine images 2 Peter Ackroyd, Blake (London, 1992), p. 339. 3 Bentley, The Stranger from Paradise, p. 369. 4 Irene Taylor, ‘Blake’s Laocoön’, Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, x/3 (1976–7), p. 75. 5 Morton Paley, The Traveller in the Evening: The Last Works of William Blake (Oxford, 2008), p. 100. 6 Ibid., p. 281. 7 S. Foster Damon, William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job (New York, 1966), p. 12. 8 Sebastian Schütze, ‘Two Masters of “visibile parlare”: Dante and Blake’, in Schütze and Maria Antoinetta Terzoli, William Blake: The Drawings for Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ (Cologne, 2014), p. 41.

10  Death and Resurrection: The Legacy of William Blake

1 Elizabeth Helsinger, ‘Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetes’, in William Blake in Context, ed. Sarah Hegarty (Cambridge, 2019), p. 211. 2 Geoffrey Keynes, Blake Studies: Essays on His Life and Work, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1971), p. 17. 3 Marion Walker Alcaro, Walt Whitman’s Mrs. G: A Biography of Anne Gilchrist (Madison, nj, 1991), p. 98. 4 Helsinger, ‘Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetes’, p. 212. 5 Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Blake: A Critical Essay (London, 1868), p. 8. 6 Ibid., p. 4. 7 Colin Trodd, Visions of Blake: William Blake in the Art World, 1830–1930 (Liverpool, 2012), p. 20. 8 Arianna Antonielli, ‘William Butler Yeats’s “The Symbolic System” of William Blake’, Estudios Irlandeses, 3 (2008), pp. 10–11. 9 Edward Larrissy, Blake and Modern Literature (Basingstoke, 2006), p. 32. 10 Cited ibid., p. 51. 11 Charles L. Graves, Hubert Parry, His Life and Works, 2 vols (London, 1926), vol. ii, p. 174. 12 Cited in Jeremy Dibble, C. Hubert H. Parry: His Life and Music (Oxford, 1992), pp. 483–4. 13 Linda Freedman, William Blake and the Myth of America: From the Abolitionists to the Counterculture (Oxford, 2018), p. 26. 14 Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (New York, 1915), vol. ii, p. 99. 15 Walt Whitman, Faint Clews and Indirections: Manuscripts of


References Walt Whitman and His Family (Durham, nc, 1949), p. 53. 16 Ryan Davidson, ‘Affinities of Influence: Exploring the Relationship between Walt Whitman and William Blake’, PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2014. 17 Freedman, William Blake and the Myth of America, p. 61. 18 Cited ibid., p. 89. 19 Barry Miles, Allen Ginsberg: A Biography, 2nd edn (London, 2012), p. 194. 20 Allen Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems (London, 2009), p. 19. 21 Freedman, William Blake and the Myth of America, p. 116. 22 Jack Kerouac, ‘The Philosophy of the Beat Generation’, Esquire (1 March 1958). 23 Cited in Freedman, William Blake and the Myth of America, p. 121. 24 Stephen E. Eisenman, ed., William Blake and Age of Aquarius (Princeton, nj, 2017), p. 234. 25 Freedman, William Blake and the Myth of America, p. 215. 26 Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift (New York, 1976), p. 390. 27 Steve Clark and James Keery, ‘“Only the wings on his heels”: Blake and Dylan’, in Blake 2.0: William Blake in Twentiethcentury Art, Music and Culture, ed. Steve Clark, Tristanne Connolly and Jason Whittaker (Basingstoke, 2012), p. 224. 28 Cited in Tristanne Connolly, ‘“He Took a Face from the Ancient Gallery”: Blake and Jim Morrison’, in Blake 2.0, ed. Clark, Connolly and Whittaker, p. 230. 29 Larrissy, Blake and Modern Literature, p. 85. 30 James Keery, ‘Children of Albion: Blake and Contemporary English Poetry’, in Blake, Modernity and Popular Culture, ed. Steve Clark and Jason Whittaker (Basingstoke, 2007), p. 100. 31 Christopher Ranger, ‘Friendly Enemies: A Dialogical Encounter between William Blake and Angela Carter’, in Blake, Modernity and Popular Culture, ed. Clark and Whittaker, pp. 140–41. 32 Larrissy, Blake and Modern Literature, p. 154. 33 Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (London, 1988), p. 318. 34 Philip Pullman, Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling, ed. Simon Mason (Oxford, 2017), pp. 342–3. 35 Martin Myrone, ‘Blake in Exhibition and on Display, 1904–2014’, in William Blake: The Man from the Future?, ed. Colin Trodd and Jason Whittaker, special issue of Visual Culture in Britain, xix/3 (2009), pp. 368–9.


Select Bibliography

The most comprehensive collection of Blake’s works is available on The William Blake Archive (www.blakearchive.org), which includes multiple facsimiles of all the illuminated books, the majority of his paintings and commercial prints, and many other works as well as an electronic edition of David Erdman’s The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. In addition, Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly (http://bq.blakearchive.org) is the journal of record dedicated to recent scholarship and discoveries about William Blake. Ackroyd, Peter, Blake (London, 1995) Beer, John, Blake’s Humanism (Manchester, 1968) — —, Blake’s Visionary Universe (Manchester, 1969) Behrendt, Stephen C., Reading William Blake (London, 1992) Bentley, Jr, G. E., The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake (New Haven, ct, 2001) — —, Blake Records, 2nd edn (New Haven, ct, 2004) — —, ed., William Blake: The Critical Heritage (London, 1975) Bindman, David, Blake as an Artist (Oxford, 1977) — —, assisted by Deirdre Toomey, The Complete Graphic Works of William Blake (London, 1978) — —, ed., Blake’s Illuminated Books, 6 vols (Princeton, nj, and London, 1991–5) Bloom, Harold, Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument (Garden City, ny, 1963) Blunt, Anthony, The Art of William Blake (New York, 1959) Bronowski, Jacob, William Blake: A Man Without a Mask (London, 1943) Bruder, Helen, and Tristanne Connolly, eds, Sexy Blake (Basingstoke, 2014) 377

divine images Bundock, Chris, and Elizabeth Effinger, eds, William Blake’s Gothic Imagination: Bodies of Horror (Manchester, 2018) Butlin, Martin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, 2 vols (New Haven, ct, 1981) Clark, Steve, and David Worrall, eds, Historicizing Blake (Basingstoke, 1994) — —, Tristanne Connolly and Jason Whittaker, eds, Blake 2.0: William Blake in Twentieth-century Art, Music and Culture (Basingstoke, 2012) Damon, S. Foster, A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake, rev. Morris Eaves (Hanover, nh, 1988) Damrosch, Jr, Leopold, Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth (Princeton, nj, 1980) — —, Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake (New Haven, ct, 2016) De Luca, Vincent Arthur, Words of Eternity: Blake and the Poetics of the Sublime (Princeton, nj, 1991) Dent, Shirley, and Jason Whittaker, Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife from 1827 (Basingstoke, 2002) Dorfman, Deborah, Blake in the Nineteenth Century: His Reputation as a Poet from Gilchrist to Yeats (New Haven, ct, 1969) Eaves, Morris, William Blake’s Theory of Art (Princeton, nj, 1982) — —, The Counter-arts Conspiracy: Art and Industry in the Age of Blake (Ithaca, ny, 1993) Erdman, David V., and John E. Grant, eds, Blake’s Visionary Forms Dramatic (Princeton, nj, 1970) — —, The Illuminated Blake (Garden City, ny, 1974) — —, Blake: Prophet Against Empire: A Poet’s Interpretation of the History of His Own Times, 3rd edn (Princeton, nj, 1977) — —, ed., The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, revd edn (Berkeley, ca, 1988) Essick, Robert N., William Blake, Printmaker (Princeton, nj, 1980) — —, The Separate Plates of William Blake: A Catalogue (Princeton, nj, 1983) — —, William Blake and the Language of Adam (Oxford, 1989) — —, William Blake’s Commercial Book Illustrations: A Catalogue and Study of the Plates Engraved by Blake after Designs by Other Artists (Oxford, 1991) — —, and Donald Pearce, eds, Blake in His Time (Bloomington, in, 1978) Ferber, Michael, The Social Vision of William Blake (Princeton, nj, 1985) Freedman, Linda, William Blake and the Myth of America: From the Abolitionists to the Counterculture (Oxford, 2018) 378

Select Bibliography Freeman, Kathryn S., A Guide to the Cosmology of William Blake (London, 2017) Frye, Northrop, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (Princeton, nj, 1947) Fuller, David, Blake’s Heroic Argument (London, 1988) — —, William Blake: Selected Poetry and Prose, Longman Annotated Texts, revd edn (London, 2008) Gallant, Christine, Blake and the Assimilation of Chaos (Princeton, nj, 1978) Gardner, Stanley, The Tyger, The Lamb and The Terrible Desart (London, 1998) Gilchrist, Alexander, Life of William Blake, 2 vols (1863, revd 1880) (Cambridge, 2010) Hagstrum, Jean H., William Blake, Poet and Painter: An Introduction to the Illuminated Verse (Chicago, il, 1964) Heppner, Christopher, Reading Blake’s Designs (Cambridge, 1995) Hilton, Nelson, Literal Imagination: Blake’s Vision of Words (Berkeley, ca, 1983) — —, and Thomas A. Vogler, eds, Unnam’d Forms: Blake and Textuality (Berkeley, ca, 1986) Hirst, Desiree, Hidden Riches: Traditional Symbolism from the Renaissance to Blake (London, 1964) Hoock, Holger, The King’s Artists: The Royal Academy of Arts and the Politics of British Culture, 1760–1840 (Oxford, 2005) Johnson, Mary Lynn, and John E. Grant, eds, Blake’s Poetry and Designs, Norton Critical Edition, revd edn (New York, 2008) Jones, John H., Blake on Language, Power, and Self-annihilation (Basingstoke, 2010) Keynes, Geoffrey, Blake Studies [1949], 2nd edn (Oxford, 1971) — —, ed., Blake: Complete Writings with Variant Readings, revd edn (Oxford, 1979) Larrissy, Edward, William Blake. Rereading Literature (Oxford, 1985) — —, Blake and Modern Literature (Basingstoke, 2006) Lindsay, Jack, William Blake: His Life and Work (London, 1978) Mee, Jon, Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790s (Oxford, 1992) Mellor, Anne K., Blake’s Human Form Divine (Berkeley, ca, 1974) Mitchell, W.J.T., Blake’s Composite Art (Princeton, nj, 1978) Moskal, Jeanne, Blake, Ethics and Forgiveness (Tuscaloosa, al, and London, 1994) Myrone, Martin, The Blake Book (London, 2007) — —, William Blake (London, 2019) 379

divine images Nurmi, Martin K., William Blake (London, 1975) Ostriker, Alicia, Vision and Verse in William Blake (Madison, nj, 1965) — —, ed., William Blake: The Complete Poems (Harmondsworth, 1977) Otto, Peter, Constructive Vision and Visionary Deconstruction: Loss, Eternity and the Productions of Time in the Later Poetry of William Blake (Oxford, 1991) Paley, Morton D., Energy and the Imagination: A Study of the Development of Blake’s Thought (Oxford, 1970) — —, William Blake (Oxford, 1978) — —, The Traveller in the Evening: The Last Works of William Blake (Oxford, 2008) — —, and Michael Phillips, eds, William Blake: Essays in Honour of Sir Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford, 1973) Phillips, Michael, ed., Interpreting Blake (Cambridge, 1978) — —, William Blake: The Creation of the ‘Songs’ from Manuscript to Illuminated Printing (Princeton, nj, 2001) — —, William Blake: Apprentice and Master (Oxford, 2014) Raine, Kathleen, Blake and Tradition, 2 vols (Princeton, nj, 1968) — —, Golgonooza, City of Imagination: Last Studies in William Blake (Hudson, ny, 1991) Rothenberg, Molly Anne, Rethinking Blake’s Textuality (Columbia, mo, and London, 1993) Rowland, Christopher, Blake and the Bible (New Haven, ct, 2011) Thompson, E. P., Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge, 1993) Trodd, Colin, Visions of Blake: William Blake in the Art World, 1830–1930 (Liverpool, 2012) Viscomi, Joseph, Blake and the Idea of the Book (Princeton, nj, 1993) Warner, Janet, Blake and the Language of Art (Kingston, on, and Montreal, 1984) Wilson, Mona, The Life of William Blake, revd edn (London, 1971)



This book represents a longstanding fascination on my part in the life and work of William Blake and, as such, it has evolved from many conversations over many years with a variety of fellow travellers. Early figures who stimulated my intellectual interest in Blake include Mark Storey and David Worrall, my first guides, and to these must be added Shirley Dent, Steve Clark, Tristanne Connolly, Colin Trodd and Roger Whitson, who prompted the next stage of my understanding of Blake, both in his time and the subsequent reception of his work. Those who have more recently supported me or provided advice for this project include Morton Paley, Morris Eaves, Sibylle Erle, Martin Myrone, Sarah Jones, Annise Rogers, Cecilia Marchetto, Naomi Billingsley, Harriet Stubbs, Gareth Sturdy, Tim Heath and Elizabeth Potter, who have endured my musings or requests for enlightenment with good grace. I would also like to thank Joseph Viscomi who first suggested my name as a potential author for this book to Vivian Constantinopoulos at Reaktion Books. Most of all, however, as always, my deepest gratitude goes to my wife, Sam, who has shared my love for Blake for all these years.


Photo Acknowledgements

The author and publishers wish to express their thanks to the below sources of illustrative material and/or permission to reproduce it. © The Trustees of The British Museum, London: pp. 26, 36; © British Library Board: pp. 204 and 209 (Add ms 39764); Maksymovych Scientific Library: p. 32; New York Public Library: pp. 69, 241, 246, 248, 250, 251, 253, 255; v&a Museum: pp. 134, 219; Whitworth Art Gallery: p. 6; Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection: pp. 13, 22, 33, 50 left and right, 52, 53, 57, 58, 59, 63 left and right, 76, 77, 80, 81, 83, 88 left and right, 94 above and below, 96 left and right, 120, 128, 131, 133, 135, 136, 140, 143, 145, 149, 165, 168, 169, 170, 189, 192, 193, 195, 197, 198, 218, 220, 221, 226, 230, 260, 261, 262, 264–5, 280, 285, 288, 290, 293, 294, 295, 296, 297, 298, 300, 303, 304, 305, 306 left and right, 307, 311, 312, 325, 326, 328, 329, 332 above and below.



Page numbers in italics indicate illustrations 18th-century book trade 57–60 Abraham and Isaac 220, 220, 222 Ackroyd, Peter 303 Adam 171–2, 272 Aesop 89 Age of Reason, The 161–2 Ahania 163, 175, 213 Albion 168, 185–6, 208, 211, 226, 256, 287–94, 297 Albion Rose 35, 177, 185 Albion’s Angel 137–8, 144 All Religions are One 47–8, 61, 78, 106 Allingham, William 337 America a Prophecy 20, 42, 118, 123, 134, 135–41, 135, 136, 143, 166, 183, 184, 212, 222, 327 American War of Independence 37–8, 92, 115, 132, 137–41 Ancient Britons, The 271–2 Ancient of Days, The 6, 7, 9–12, 177, 281 Antonelli, Arianna 341–2 Arthur, King 271–2

Astralingua 361 Auden, W. H. 23, 343 Auguries of Innocence 15, 24, 126, 231–2, 354–5 Bacon, Sir Francis 68 Bank of England, the 197–9 Barbauld, Anna Laetitia 59, 64 Barry, James 268 Bartolozzi, Francesco 259–60 Basire, James 31–4, 55, 162, 322 Bastille, the 95, 152 Bayle, Pierre 111 Beckford, William 151 Beeching, H. C. 344 Beggar’s Opera, The, Act iii 59, 274 Bellow, Saul 352–3 Bentley, Jr, G. E. 29, 43, 100, 187, 191, 199, 237, 238, 265, 335, 337 Bernath, Elizabeth 126 Billingsley, Naomi 196, 218, 222, 234 Binyon, Laurence 340–41

Blair, Robert 192, 257–8, 274 Blake, Catherine 7, 38–9, 44, 61, 62, 67, 99, 122, 158, 199, 207, 216, 222, 223–4, 226, 229, 232, 237, 238, 273, 284, 287, 301, 302, 322, 336, 362 portrait of 306 possible miscarriage 187 Blake (née Wright), Catherine (mother) 27–8 Blake, James (brother) 228, 238 Blake, James (father) 27, 38–9 Blake, Robert 35–6, 46, 308 Blake, William and American culture 347–53 and antiquarianism 162–3 and contemporary poetic tastes 40, 42 and Dissent 18–19, 28–9, 302 385

divine images and Modernism 341–3 and Moravianism 19, 28–9 and music 24, 354–5, 361 and nature 68–9 and Swedenborgianism 100–103 and the Beats 349–52 and the Bible of Hell 158, 162, 164–76, 316, 322 and the counterculture 354–6 and the gothic 33–4, 330 and the trial for sedition 235–40 attitudes towards Christ 66–7, 70, 174–6, 196–7, 217–21, 282–4, 319–21 attitudes towards God 71, 183–5, 281–2, 317–20 attitudes towards politics 19–21, 95–6, 116–19, 122–3, 135–45, 151–3 attitudes towards religion 16–19, 47–51, 70–78, 104–5, 109–12, 148–52, 161–2 attitudes towards sexuality 63, 82, 127–32, 155–8 birthplace 27 death 7, 335 early arrest on suspicion of being a spy 38 education and apprenticeship 29–36 marriage to Catherine 38 painting techniques 13–14, 217–19, 266–73 386

Burns, Robert 24 personal mythology Butlin, Martin 177 83–4, 162–76, 186, Butterworth, George 345 207–15 Butts, Elizabeth 216, 222, poetic metre 67, 73, 273 82–4, 117, 151, 208 Butts, Thomas 62, 216–17, printmaking techniques 222, 232, 235, 239, 273, 14–15, 32–3, 46–8, 51, 274–5, 277, 278, 282, 177–9, 322 321, 356 solo exhibition 201, Byrne, Joseph 60 266–73 Byron, Lord 16, 22, 225 Bliss, Rebekah 62 Bloom, Harold 158 Calonne, Charles-Alexandre Blunt, Anthony 10 de 92–3 Boehme, Jacob 342 Calvert, Edward 303 Bonaparte, Napoleon 188, Calvinism 247–9 199–201, 235 Book of Ahania, The 162, 166, Canterbury Pilgrims, The 200, 263–6, 264–5 174–5, 176, 177 Carlyle, Thomas 337 Book of Job, The see Carter, Angela 356–7 illustrations to The Book Cary, Joyce 355 of Job Chapman, John 100 Book of Los, The 162, 175–6, Chatterton, Thomas 40, 177 43, 55 Book of Thel, The 16, 41, 55, Chaucer, Geoffrey 14, 57, 60, 78–84, 80–81, 83, 227, 263–5 184 Chichester 223–4, 229, Boyd, Henry 328 238–9 Boydell, John 190 Child, Lydia Mary 347 Bradbury, Ray 352 children’s literature 60–61, Bragg, Billy 346 63–5, 84–9 Bridges, Robert 344–5 ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ Britten, Benjamin 8 (Experience) 155 Bromion 127–32 ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ Browning, Robert 338 (Innocence) 71 Bruder, Helen 129, 130 Christ Appearing to the Bryant, Jacob 163, 244 Apostles after the Brylowe, Thora 198 Resurrection 218 Bugg, John 116 Clark, Steve 354 Bulwer-Lytton, Edward Cock, John 236 340 Coleridge, S. T. 15–16, Bunhill Fields 19, 28 17, 55, 62, 67, 118, Bunyan, John 303 161, 201 Burke, Edmund 95–7, 109, Collins, William 40, 43 115–17, 125, 161

Index Committee of Public Safety Directory, the 187, 199–200 Disraeli, Benjamin 93 142, 153, 159 ‘The Divine Image’ 18, 74–5, Comus 274–5 77 Connolly, Tristanne 158, 187 Domínguez, Óscar 178 Constable, John 15 Doors, The 354–5 Conway, Moncure 348 Dortort, Fred 289 Cowper, William 225, 227, Doxey, William 44 230 druids 162, 222, 272, 292 ‘A Cradle Song’ 72 Crabb-Robinson, Henry 151, Dunbar, Pamela 275, 277, 280 303, 340 Duncan, Robert 351–2 Crane, Hart 349 Dürer, Albrecht 322 Crawfurd, Oswald 340 Dylan, Bob 8, 354, 355 creation myth 169–72, 208–11 Eaves, Morris 14, 108 Cromek, Robert Hartley ‘The Ecchoing Green’ 20, 257–66, 301 311 Crosby, Mark 234 Edgecombe, Rodney 192, Cult of the Supreme Being, 194 the 160–61, 175 Cumberland, George 36, 62, Edwards, James 190 Edwards, Richard 188, 202, 301 190–91, 194, 199 Cumberland Jr, George 301 Eisenman, Stephen 352 Cunningham, Allan 7, 43, Eliot, T. S. 8, 23, 342, 343, 151, 335, 336, 340 353 Ellis, John Edwin 205, 341, Damon, S. Foster 84, 104, 342 205, 324 Elohim Creating Adam 183–4, Damrosch, Leo 10–11 184, 324–5 Dante Alighieri 327–8, emblem books 89 330, 352 Emerson, Ralph Waldo 347, David, Jacques-Louis 160 349 David, King 306 Emin, Tracey 359 Davidson, Ryan 348 Enion 213 Davies, Edward 292 Enitharmon 135, 138, 142–4, Davies, Keri 18, 28, 62 162, 163, 171–2, 175, 176, Death of Earl Goodwin, The 211, 213, 249, 284, 288, 34 289, 297 deism 11, 29, 50–51, 98, 160–61, 181, 210, 316, 321 Erdman, David V. 19, 108, 137, 205 Deville, James 305 Erle, Sibylle 51 Descriptive Catalogue, A 12–13, 57, 263, 266–73, Ernst, Max 178 Erskine, Thomas 202 315

Essick, Robert 108 Europe a Prophecy 10, 123, 134, 142–5, 143, 145, 162, 177, 179, 277 ‘Europe Supported by Africa and America’ 134 Eve 171–2, 218–20 Eve Tempted by the Serpent 218–19, 219 Everlasting Gospel, The 283, 319–21 Ezekiel 53, 106, 252 Faderman, Lillian 62 Fairer, David 73 Farrell, Michael 193 Fawcett, Millicent 346 Feather, John 58 Felpham 67, 113, 214, 223–6, 229–30, 232–9, 252, 257, 284, 286, 314 Ferber, Michael 104 Ferlinghetti, Lawrence 349 Flaxman, Anne 223–4 Flaxman, John 36, 39, 99, 225, 232, 257, 314, 330 First Book of Urizen, The 123, 158, 162, 164–73, 165, 168–70, 183, 184, 207, 212–13 First World War 242 Fish, Stanley 152 For Children: The Gates of Paradise 62, 87–9, 88 For the Sexes see For Children Fountain Court 7, 302–3 Four Zoas, The 16, 84, 138, 203–15, 204, 209, 216, 230, 288, 317, 341–2 Fox, Charles 96, 203 Frank, Waldo 349 Franklin, Benjamin 11, 137 Freedman, Linda 347–8, 350 387

divine images French Revolution 19–20, 36, 92–7, 108–9, 122, 124, 139–40, 142–5, 147, 152–3, 159–61, 183, 188, 199–201, 215 French Revolution, The 20, 42, 83, 95, 116–19, 123, 137 Frye, Northrop 49, 139, 147, 157, 173, 204–5, 207, 211, 280 Fugs, The 355 Fuseli, Henry 34, 36, 85, 191, 232, 267, 287, 330 and the Milton Gallery 190, 202 Fuzon 172, 174–5

God Judging Adam 177, 183 Godwin, William 17, 60, 85, 127 Golgonooza 289 Good and Evil Angels, The 183–4, 185 Gordon, Charlotte 125 Gordon Riots 36–7 Gormley, Anthony 358–9 Grave, The 13, 192, 196, 257–63, 260, 261, 262, 273, 335 Gray, Thomas 40, 43, 55, 192, 274

Hannibal Lecter 274, 352, 356 Hardy, Thomas 202–3 Harris, Thomas 274, 352, Gainsborough, Thomas 360 269 Hayley, Thomas Alphonso ‘The Garden of Love’ 224, 225 156–7 Hayley, William 200, 216, Gardner, Stanley 29, 36–7, 224–7, 229–30, 232–4, 45, 73, 122 238–9, 257, 259, 274 Garrick, David 224–5 Hays, Mary 127 Genesis, Book of 158, 164, Heffernan, James 129 167, 171–4, 220 Helsinger, Elizabeth 336 George iii 30, 137, 154 Hermetic Order of the Ghost of a Flea, The 14, 305, Golden Dawn 342 307–8, 309 Ghost of Abel, The 46, 318–19 Hervey, James 192 Gilchrist, Alexander 7, 8, 22, Hewlett, H. G. 340 29, 31, 35, 36, 39, 43, 64, Hilton, Boyd 153 67, 95, 122, 139, 177, 185, Hilton, Nelson 65 Hirsch, E. D. 152 200, 205, 239, 265, 302, Hogarth, William 14 306–7, 322, 336–8, 339, ‘Holy Thursday’ (Innocence) 343, 348 45, 72–4, 76, 75 Gilchrist, Anne 114, 337, 338, ‘Holy Thursday’ 348 (Experience) 74, 155 Gillray, James 14, 94, 96, Homer 271, 314 203 Ginsberg, Allen 349–51, 352, Hoock, Holger 34 Horovitz, Michael 356 354, 355–6 House of Death, The 183 Glorious Revolution 95, 115 388

‘How sweet I roam’d from field to field’ 42–3, 355 Howard, John 104 Hume, David 50, 111, 190 Humphry, Ozias 183 Hunt, Holman 338 Hunt, Robert 272–3 Hutchings, Kevin 68 Huxley, Aldous 354, 355 Ilive, Elizabeth, Countess of Egremont 227–8 illustrations to the Bible 216–22 to the Book of Enoch 317 to the Book of Job 15, 33, 183, 302, 321–7, 325, 326, 328–9, 328, 329, 337 to Dante 302, 321, 327–8, 330–34, 331, 332, 333 to Genesis 317 to Milton 273–84, 276, 279, 282 to Thornton’s Virgil 229, 302, 310–14, 311, 312 to the Vetusta Monumenta 33 ‘Infant Joy’ 63 ‘Introduction’ (Innocence) 65–7 Isaiah 53, 106 An Island in the Moon 44–5, 52, 61 Jacobins 152–3, 161, 187–8 James ii 95 James, R. M. 127 Jarman, Derek 356 Jefferson, Thomas 115 ‘Jerusalem’ 9, 34, 242–5, 343–6, 356, 359 Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion 11–12,

Index 15, 16, 21, 34, 78, 168, 203, 213, 215, 219, 284– 99, 285, 288, 290, 293–7, 354 Job 131 see also illustrations to the Book of Job Jóhannsson, Jóhann 361 Johnson, Joseph 17, 59–60, 84–5, 87, 116, 124, 127, 190, 201–2, 234 Johnson, Samuel 44 Jones, John 47 Joseph of Arimathea 245 Joseph of Arimathea among The Rocks of Albion 33–4, 55, 26 Joseph of Arimathea Preaching to the Britons 245 Joyce, James 8, 23, 289, 342–3 Kauffman, Angelica 34 Keats, John 15 Keery, James 354, 356 Kerouac, Jack 349, 351 Keynes, Geoffrey 342 Kidane, Daniel 361 ‘King Edward The Third’ 40–41 Klopstock, Friedrich 233–4 ‘The Lamb’ 70, 148–50 Lamb, Charles 151 Lambeth 16, 21, 87, 121–3, 284 Langland, Elizabeth 158 Laocoön 314–16 A Large Book of Designs 184–5 large colour prints, the 177–86 Larrissy, Edward 355

Lavater, Johann Caspar 51–2, 52, 263 Lawrence, Sir Thomas 310, 335 Leonardo da Vinci 35 Life of William Blake 8, 21, 23, 29, 36–7, 39, 114, 122, 177–8, 205, 336–8 Lincoln, Andrew 63–4, 73–4, 75, 78 Linebaugh, Peter 138 Linnell, John 114, 238, 278, 301–4, 307, 310, 321–2, 324, 336 ‘The Little Black Boy’ 71 ‘A Little Girl Lost’ 156 Little Tom the Sailor 229 Locke, John 17–18, 64, 67, 89, 106, 181, 193, 211 ‘London’ 9, 15, 120, 153–4, 357 London Corresponding Society 142, 153, 202–3 Lord’s Prayer, The 316–17 Los 118, 123, 138, 144, 163, 167–72, 175, 176, 206, 211, 213, 214, 249, 284, 288–9 Louis xvi 92–3, 152–3 Lyrical Ballads 43 Luvah 208–9, 212, 213, 297 Macklin, Thomas 190 McClure, Michael 352 McManus, N. C. 178 McPhee, Peter 115 Macpherson, James 53, 54, 55 Malkin, Benjamin Heath 151 Malthus, Thomas 59 Maniquis, Robert 161 Mann, Paul 164 Marlowe, Christopher 40 Marsh, Edward 240, 242 Marsh, Nicholas 70

Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The 17–18, 41, 46–7, 49, 50–51, 79, 90, 91–2, 101– 15, 102, 107, 119, 122, 123, 130, 139, 146, 158, 182, 211, 247, 274, 278, 284, 316, 317, 319–20, 326, 330, 343, 354, 357–8, 361 Matthew, Harriet 39, 44 Matthew, Revd Anthony Stephen 39, 43, 44 Mee, Jon 157 Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni) 12, 34, 35, 229, 268 Millais, John Everett 338 Milton a Poem 15, 16, 21, 34, 78, 101, 116, 122, 164, 215, 239–56, 241, 246, 248, 250–51, 253, 255, 274, 278, 280, 284, 286, 289, 308, 315, 342, 343, 357 Milton, John 11, 14, 34, 41, 68, 83, 92, 109, 112–14, 130, 137, 147, 152, 166, 174–6, 177, 191, 206–7, 210, 225, 227, 233, 245, 249–54, 256, 273–84, 327, 333 Mitchell, Adrian 356 Mitchell, W.J.T. 15, 164 Montgomery, James 261, 263 Moore, Alan 8, 308 Moore, Marianne 348 More, Hannah 63 Morrison, Jim 354–5 Moses 146, 173, 174, 176 Muir, Thomas 142, 153 Myrone, Martin 267, 273, 361 389

divine images Narrative, of a Five Years’ Expedition, Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam 132–4, 138, 133 National Assembly, the 94–5, 108–9, 115, 126, 152, 202 Nebuchadnezzar 9, 162, 177, 186 Necker, Jacques 92, 117 Nelson, Horatio 270, 272 New Jerusalem Church, the 100, 101 Newlyn, Lucy 113, 274 Newton 9, 11, 179–82, 180 359 Newton, Sir Isaac 9, 24, 67, 112, 144, 163, 179–82, 186, 193 and the Pantocrator 180–81, 210 Nietzsche, Friedrich 105 Night of Enitharmon’s Joy, The 144 Night Thoughts 183, 188–99, 189, 192–3, 195, 197–8, 203, 216, 239, 260, 284 Noah 146, 163 Nurmi, Martin 104 Ofili, Chris 359 Okri, Ben 358 Ololon 242, 252 O’Malley, Andrew 60–61 On Homer’s Poetry and On Virgil 314 On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity 276–7 Oothoon 63, 127–32, 196 Orc 10, 118, 123, 132, 135, 137–41, 143, 163, 166, 172, 174–5, 176, 183, 196, 211–12, 213, 280, 343 390

Original Stories from Real Life 84–7, 85 Ossian 53, 54–5 Ovid 271 Paine, Thomas 11, 96–7, 115–17, 125, 137, 153, 161–2, 201 Palamabron 247 Paley, Morton 267, 289, 315, 316 Paley, William 50 Palmer, Samuel 8, 23, 114, 200, 239, 303–5, 313, 322, 337 Paolozzi, Eduardo 9, 359 Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins 221 Paradise Lost 11, 14, 113, 147, 152, 175, 191, 206–7, 210, 249, 252, 274, 278–81, 283–4, 308, 327 Paradise Regained 282–4 Parker, James 39, 44 Parry, Sir Charles Hubert 242, 344–6 Pars, Henry 29 Paulson, Ronald 152 Perkins, David 232 Phillips, Michael 15, 61 Pickering Manuscript, the 230 Pilgrim’s Progress, The 303 Pitt, William 124, 142, 153, 202–3, 270, 272 Plato 110, 210 Plutarch 89 Poetical Sketches 20, 39–43, 67, 68, 73, 117, 118, 122, 130, 230 Pope, Alexander 40, 44, 68, 83 Pound, Ezra 289 Power, Stephen 66

Pre-Raphaelites, the 22, 23, 303, 338–40 Price, Richard 95 Priestley, Joseph 44, 45, 59, 142, 202 prostitution 121–2, 131 Pullman, Philip 360 Quaritch, Bernard 341 Raine, Kathleen 152 Ranger, Christopher 356–7 Raphael (Raffaelo Sanzia da Urbino) 12, 35, 268 Read, Herbert 355, 361 Rediker, Marcus 138 Rees, Abraham 314–15 Reynolds, Sir Joshua 35, 51, 268–9 Richardson, Samuel 59 Richey, William 118 Richmond, George 23, 303, 305, 338 Rights of Man 96, 115, 201 Rintrah 247 Rix, Robert 101 Robertson, W. Graham 361 Robespierre, Maximilien 142, 153, 159–61, 175, 187 Robinson, Mary 127 Rose, Samuel 239 Rossetti, Dante Gabriel 8, 10, 12, 22, 319, 336–9 Rossetti, William Michael 22, 336–7 Rosso, G. A. 207–8 Roszak, Theodore 356 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 61, 65, 126 Royal Academy 14, 34–5, 51, 267, 301 Royle, Edward 153 Rubens, Peter Paul 12, 268 Rushdie, Salman 357–8

Index Snyder, Gary 352 Socrates 306–7 Song of Los, The 84, 134, 146–7, 176 Salemi, Joseph 89 Songs of Experience 30, 61, 72, Sammes, Aylett 245 87, 123, 147–58, 311, 361 Sampson, John 342 Songs of Innocence 16, 45, 55, Satan 11, 112, 113, 173, 175, 60, 61–2, 63–78, 82, 84, 179, 182, 183, 247, 249, 86, 89, 123, 147, 148, 311, 252–4, 278–81, 283–4, 361 308, 322–5, 327 Songs of Innocence and of Satan in his Original Glory Experience 8, 15, 24, 43, 182 62, 123, 148–9, 164, 230 Schiavonetti, Louis 13, Sophocles 52 259–60 South Molton Street 238–9 ‘The School Boy’ 30–31, 65 Southey, Robert 117, 118, Schütze, Sebastian 328 161, 229 Scolfield, John 235–8, 239 Spenser, Edmund 68, 83 Scott, Sir Walter 16 spiritual form of Nelson Scurr, Ruth 159 guiding Leviathan, The Seagrave, Joseph 229, 238 268, 270 shadowy daughter of spiritual form of Pitt guiding Urthona 135 Behemoth, The 269, 270 Shakespeare, William 24, ‘Spring’ 67 40–42, 52, 83, 118, 130, Srigley, Michael 157–8 137, 147, 177, 274, 333 Stedman, John Gabriel Shakespeare Gallery 190 132–4, 138 Sharp, William 99 Stothard, Thomas 38, 264–6 Shaw, Calvin 361 Stubbs, Harriet 361 Shelley, Percy Bysshe 22 Stukeley, William 292 ‘The Shepherd’ 68–70, 311 Sung, Mei-Ying 32 Shoreham Ancients, the Surrealism 178, 343 8, 23, 303–5, 313, 337–8, Swedenborg, Emanuel 17, 343 91, 97–101, 205, 342 ‘The Sick Rose’ 157–8 Swift, Jonathan 44, 83 Sinclair, Iain 356 slavery and the international Swinburne, Algernon Charles 22–3, 54, 67, 91, slave trade 129–31, 114–15, 336, 339, 342, 133–4, 141, 347 343, 348 A Small Book of Designs 184 Swinton, John 348 Smart, Christopher 64 ‘The Smile’ 230–31 Smith, John Thomas 10, 335 Talleyrand Périgord, Charles-Maurice de 85, Smith, Patti 8 126 Snart, Jason 164 Ruskin, John 338 Ryland, William Wynne 31

Tatham, Frederick 7, 9–10, 38, 61, 177–9, 303, 336 Taylor, Irene 315 Taylor, Thomas 127 Tempest, Kae 8 Terror, the 96, 109, 139, 142, 147, 152–3, 161, 183, 186, 188, 203, 212 Tharmas 208, 213 Thel 79–84 Thelwall, John 142 Theocritus 68, 311 Theotormon 127–32, 146 There is No Natural Religion 47, 49–50, 50, 61 Thomas, Dylan 343 Thomas, Revd Joseph 275 Thomson, James 40 Thompson, E. P. 154, 162 Thornton, Dr Robert John 229, 302, 310–11, 313–14, 316, 320 Tilloch, Alexander 199 Tiriel 52–4, 55, 84 Tiriel Supporting the Dying Myratana and Cursing His Sons 53 Tooke, John Horne 142, 202 Townley, Charles 216 Townsend, Joyce 178 Traubel, Horace 347–8 Treacher, Graham 361 Trimmer, Sarah 64 Trobridge, George 99 Trodd, Colin 340 Trussler, Revd Dr John 213, 313 Tulk, Charles Augustus 62, 99 Tulk, John Augustus 99 Turner, J.M.W. 15, 218 Tussaud, Marie 226 ‘The Tyger’ 8–9, 15, 150–52 391

divine images u2 8, 361 Urizen 10, 29, 118, 123, 130, 139–40, 146–7, 161, 163, 166–76, 183, 196, 208, 210–12, 213, 214, 222, 249, 280, 281, 284, 297, 317, 327, 343 Urthona 207, 208–9, 213 Vala 213, 288, 297 Vala or The Four Zoas see The Four Zoas Varley, John 301, 304–8 Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens 121 Vico, Giambattista 50 Vindication of the Rights of Woman, A 85, 125–7 Viscomi, Joseph 15, 31, 47–8, 61–2, 101, 108, 178–9, 183 A Vision of the Last Judgement 228–9, 228 Visionary Heads, The 306–9 Visions of the Daughters of Albion 11, 123, 124–32, 134, 138, 166, 184, 249, 351, 361 Virgil 68, 302, 310–14, 316, 331 Volney, Constantin 111 Voltaire 111, 306 Vonnegut, Kurt 352 Wainewright, Thomas Griffiths 287 Wakefield, Gilbert 201–2 Walford Davies, Sir Henry 344–5 Walker, Luke 352 Walpole, Horace 40 Ward, James 310 Warner, Janet 231–2 Washington, George 115, 137 392

Watson, Richard 124, 161 Watts, Dr Isaac 18, 64, 75 Watts, G. F. 340 Wesley, Charles 75 West, Benjamin 34, 301 Whitman, Walt 347–8, 349 Wilkinson, James John Garth 347 William of Malmesbury 245 Wordsworth, William 15–16, 17, 22, 43, 65, 67, 93–4, 118, 151, 159, 161 Wollstonecraft, Mary 17, 60, 84–7, 125–7, 158, 274 Woolf, Virginia 342 Wright, Julia 139 Yeats, W. B. 8, 23, 195, 205, 341–2 Young, Edward 183, 188, 191–6, 203, 206, 257, 260 Younghusband, Francis 344–5 Zamoyski, Adam 200