Recently, I have found myself involved in one of those rather odd email exchanges that occasionally occur around Blake. I had offered services to an aspiring author wishing to write about Blake and, after realising that the vision of Blake that they did see could turn out to be my vision’s greatest enemy, I recommended they have a look at some of my work.
A particular point of contention appeared to be an essay of mine that had recently been published as part of the collection Queer Blake, with several requests for me to explain what I had written and why. Not entirely to my surprise, the exchange between us deteriorated somewhat until I received the following message from the author’s agent:
P.S. As you might have guessed, or known intuitively, our camp disagrees with your interpretation of Blake, which with the queer BS seems more like a false Blake or even anti-Blake/Christ!
You give Blake a bad name with your queer garbage… look over our last e mail… and if you are gong to claim to be some kind of Blake authority start by citing his most important poem THE EVERLASTING GOSPEL and his wonderful relationship with God/Jesus… and drop the fag BS!
Do not really think there is any point in further communications unless you WANT A DEBATE!
I did indeed re-read The Everlasting Gospel, looking out in particular for the injunctions against fags: Blake does have quite a lot to say about sexuality in that unfinished work, especially in the section beginning “Was Jesus chaste? or did He / Give any lessons of chastity?” (E521 – you can read The Everlasting Gospel at http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/erdman.html). There is, however, not one mention of Christ’s opinion – positive or negative – on the subject of homosexuality, although there is a great deal on Mary’s adultery and, for me, the most important lines on Blake’s attitude towards sex generally:
That they may call a shame & Sin
Loves Temple that God dwelleth in
And hide in secret hidden Shrine
The Naked Human form divine
And render that a Lawless thing
On which the Soul Expands its wing
But this O Lord this was my Sin
When first I let these Devils in
In dark pretence to Chastity
Blaspheming Love blaspheming thee
Thence Rose Secret Adulteries
And thence did Covet also rise
My Sin thou hast forgiven me
Canst thou forgive my Blasphemy (E522)
Queer Blake was, among other things, a follow-up to Christopher Z. Hobson’s 2000 book, Blake and Homosexuality, in which he argued that Blake’s Milton a Poem, for example, was partly inspired by the Vere Street scandal of 1810 when two men were hanged and six others pilloried for sodomy after being arrested in a molly house. This was one of the events, Hobson suggests, that fuelled Blake’s disgust towards Moral Law which can be read repeatedly in his later works, and which the editors of Queer Blake endorse enthusiastically. Indeed, I am slightly taken to task by them for being “perplexingly diffident” in my own discussions of queer themes in Blake (guilty as charged). My own hesitation is not at all that I would agree with my correspondent in assuming Blake’s special relationship with Jesus makes him hate queers (and the illustration at the top of this post, from Milton, either indicates that Blake really was a bad artist who did not pay attention to the rather unfortunate positions of his figures or that he had a rather naughty sense of sublime humour). Rather, my hesitation on issues of Blake’s sexuality – as indeed, with regard to his religion or politics – is the ease with which anyone with an interest in Blake tends to read into him what they wish to find. In contrast to Byron, where the contexts of his own homosexuality are clear and increasingly self-evident, and immediately aid the careful reader in terms of understanding Byron’s work, the evidence for Blake’s opinions is frequently more circumstantial (although, it must be said, prolific, whether the sometimes strange illustrations to Milton or the lesbian relations between Jerusalem and Vala in Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion).
The tendency for us to read black, white, pink or green when engaging with Blake’s works is one that occurs repeatedly in terms of the reception of Blake and is one reason for my caution (sometimes excessive) when ascribing meanings to his art and poetry. Other work that I have been doing in recent months has begun to look at the ways in which Blake is sometimes used by figures involved in extreme politics to the left and right, where a polarisation of Blake as anarchist or Blake as nationalist/racist provides plenty of examples of selective reading. Actually, I have a great deal of sympathy with anarchist readings of Blake, which personally I suspect are much closer to his ideals than the somewhat woolly liberal positions of readers such as myself, or the more doctrinaire Marxist attitudes still encountered – though increasingly less so in academia – online. I just wish the scholarship of Blake’s anarchist readers was more thorough.
More disturbing is the prevalence of far-right readings of Blake by English nationalists, which have proliferated over the past decade. My first assumption was that such interlocutors had not read Blake, and it is certainly the case that plenty of this material goes no further than an invocation of the Blake-Parry hymn “Jerusalem”. However, in a few cases it is unfortunately clear that commentators have read Blake, and find in his later works in particular a vision of Albion that, they believe, supports their case for the supremacy of a so-called indigenous race in the British Isles (that will be the Welsh, then).
There is, for me, an important point in these various appropriations of Blake, particularly when an attempt to understand his works moves beyond reading him in the immediate contexts in which he lived and worked. That final point is an important one, because Blake – like many writers and artists – is a vital figure insofar as he can be seen to communicate with an audience in the twenty-first century. There are, for example, plenty of readers who take pride in “English Blake” without indulging in extreme racism, just as there are those who find inspiration in his critiques of political power without requiring the abolition of the state. As an example of how such appropriations can take a bizarre turn, however, I would like to take a detour through one of my favourite misreadings of Blake (and one that has happily been made innocuous by more than a century of quarantine).
In 1893, W. B. Yeats and Edwin John Ellis argued in their edition of Blake’s work – an important, if often erroneous, contribution to early Blake scholarship – that Blake was descended from Irish stock via one John O’Neill from Rathmines, Dublin. Yeats discreetly dropped the assertion in his later writings about Blake, although the idea found some currency at the turn of the twentieth century, being repeated, for example, in John Sampson’s otherwise impressive scholarly edition of Blake’s poetical works published in 1905. Kathleen Raine, in an essay on “Yeats’s Debt to Blake”, published in her 1990 book Yeats the Initiate, observes how strong was Yeats’s desire to make the kinship between him and Blake even closer, and one can almost imagine the false syllogism that took place: “All the best poets are Irish. Blake is one of the best poets. Blake must have been Irish.”
A similar syllogism, it seems to me, must take place for those readers of Blake who believe that he has no truck with homosexuals:
Blake was a Christian.
All Christians hate homosexuals.
Blake hated homosexuals.
For a brief time during my career, I am ashamed to say, I devoted some effort to attempting to disprove the first assertion – patently nonsensical and more to do with my own rejection of the Catholicism in which I was raised. There is no doubt that Blake was a Christian – it is one of the clearest messages that comes out of his writings. The question as to what sort of Christian he was, however, is a much more difficult one to answer. Even without attempting the (in my opinion pointless) task of determining a particular domination that would be closest to his beliefs, the second of the above assumptions can easily be traduced: one could, after all, assert the equally foolish assumption that “All Christians love homosexuals (because they love everyone)”.
When trying to ascertain a position as to what Blake thought regarding a particular topic, there are obvious starting points. A return to the texts is self-evidently important, but with a writer as frequently obscure as Blake (although, it should also be noted, one who could also display incredible clarity in his writing) determining what he meant can be a fraught task, which is why there is quite an industry in Blake studies. That many of the most startling phrases in his poetry are often dramatised and placed in the mouths of different characters should make us wary of ascribing them to Blake himself, just as we would be wary of arguing that every line of Hamlet or King Lear demonstrates Shakespeare’s unsullied opinion. For a long time it has also been clear that many of Blake’s later readers did not have access to the poet’s words in the fashion which he intended, that is as illuminated books, but I am cautious of a tendency to assume that value can only be ascribed to Blake’s words when they are read in the original contexts he intended. After all, this becomes more than a matter of bibliography, for the requirement to attain as “true” a reading as possible must also engage with the difficult task of understanding the complex historical situation in which Blake lived. No scholar should ever shirk from this task, but I am also loathe to neglect the subsequent insights into what Blake can mean for later generations and communities when he is taken out of those contexts and read in a new and sometimes radically different light.
The exchange of emails with which I began this post was, for me, a dramatic reminder of entirely different interpretive communities which I rarely engage with. The mild scepticism which I included in my essay for Queer Blake had less to do with Blake and homosexuality per se than with what I perceive as the difficulty of reading contemporary attitudes towards sexuality back into Blake’s works, fulfilling a hermeneutic circle in which we find the whole of Blake’s texts justify an attitude that we discover in a part. That said, my scepticism is actually towards an unproblematic celebration of heterosexuality in Blake, there being (for me) difficult passages that indicate more troubled attitudes on Blake’s part to sex between men and women – I’ve still yet to read any clear denunciation of homosexuality anywhere in Blake’s poetry and prose, or to witness it in his art. Of course, to other readers, that may be no more than my tendency to read black where they read white.
Where my antagonist hit closer to home – and knew it – was in denouncing any reading on my part as the product of a specialised, academic institutional process – precisely the kind of organisational interpretation that Blake appeared to despise, for example in his annotations to the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds: “I am not trying to be adversarial, but you seem to read black where we read white as our Blake speaks in parables to the blind etc. and I am not trying to be mean, but as pointed out in last e mail by asking you if you ever read annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds a work that witnesses Blake’s antipathy for the English Royal Academy (gag) and the highly educated. Sorry to say with your PHD, you are automatically in Blake’s enemy camp as he detested the highly educated citing that Christ was a carpenter and many of the disciples fishermen and that the highly educated are the world’s greatest villains!” It is not a false mea culpa to say that I have often wondered about this and also in a return email offered the line from Milton, “For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War.” I’ve never supported “Corporeal War”, but I’m only kidding myself if I do not recognise that I am – in some ways – a hireling. I remember as an undergraduate being struck by the force of Bertrand Russell’s comment on those university professors who were happy to adopt the dismissive attitude of Socrates towards Sophists being paid for philosophy while drawing down a salary themselves.
As such, this interchange has given me an opportunity to pause once again and reflect on what – if any – authority I have for my interpretations of Blake, the question of interpretative authority being one of considerable importance to me. As a matter of course I have rejected the notion that specialist training is an essential pre-requisite to understanding Blake: sometimes it may help, at other times it may actually hinder. For me, an especially important observation was made by J. Hillis Miller’s remarks in an essay “Reading Unreadability: de Man” in which he discussed de Man’s ideas around the “ethicity” of reading. The stars of the text – the words on the page, the historical circumstances of the author’s life – are real, but they are always mobile, often variable, sometimes seen dimly, sometimes clearly – Cepheid-variables rather than the eternal sol invictus (to draw on another metaphor from the ill-tempered exchange between Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser). What is more, the reader always perceives imaginatively for there is no such thing as “mere physical perception”: every bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight closed by our senses five. If complete objectivity is a myth, however, this does not open the way to the solipsism of the reader. The stars, to repeat, are real, and it is incumbent on the critic to observe them, always aware that he or she does so imaginatively: an “ethicity” of reading is one that recognises both the imperative to observe and that to be imaginative. As Miller comments on de Man, such ethicity does not assume the foundational beginnings of language, nor the triumphal return of language to a reality that validates it; rather, it obeys another imperative, the demand that language be read but that we take responsibility for our own judgements without the false security of an ultimate authority. In my mental fight, I assert that Blake more often than not believed in a free sexual commonwealth, and will frequently cite evidence of that fact – while also, I hope, not ignoring those passages that trouble me and appear to contradict his general opposition to the Moral Law – but it is also an unceasing combat, sometimes with Blake himself, but also with those other communities of readers who read black where I read white.