William Blake’s Life & Work

The first  in a series of publications called Zoamorphosis Essential Introductions is now available. This will provide a set of concise, clearly presented guides that draw on the latest research in Blake studies to outline different approaches to Blake’s poetry and art.

William Blake’s Life & Works is a clear and elegant introduction to one of the most remarkable poets and artists ever to have lived and worked in the British Isles. This concise book, first in the Zoamorphosis Essential Introductions series, provides an account of Blake’s biography and his major works that draws upon some of the most recent scholarship on Blake, presenting that material in an accessible fashion.

This is available as an eBook in HTML and PDF formats, with an ePub version for mobile readers due soon. To download a copy go to the Publications page.

Blake’s Margins

Blake’s Margins: An Interpretative Study of the Annotations. Hazard Adams.
Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland and Company Inc., 2009. pp. 204. £32.50. ISBN: 978 0 7864 4536 3.

As Adams points out in his introduction to Blake’s Margins, although Blake’s annotations to writers such as Bacon, Lavater and Watson are often alluded to by critics, very few substantial studies of those annotations have been published. Eleven volumes bearing Blake’s comments have survived, along with sheets of notes to Wordsworth’s The Excursion and a transcript of the annotations to Spurzheim’s Observations on the Deranged Manifestations of the Mind, and Blake almost certainly recorded various observations in other books, now lost to us. Of subsequent critical commentary, R. J. Shroyer and G. Ingli James provide introductions to their facsimiles (including Blake’s annotations) of Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man and Watson’s An Apology for the Bible, with essays on the subject by Morton Paley, Thomas McFarland and H. J. Jackson, as well as one book, Jason Allen Snart’s The Torn Book: UnReading William Blake’s Marginalia. As Adams observes, his own approach – dealing directly with Blake’s words with a special emphasis on providing a descriptive context for each text that Blake annotates – is very different to the postmodernist and deconstructionist line taken by Snart.

As such, Blake’s Margins is much clearer than The Torn Book, its plainness of style being very much evident in the first chapter that turns to Henry Fuseli’s translation of John Caspar Lavater’s Aphorisms, a book that Blake returned to with considerable pleasure (drawing a heart around his and Lavater’s names) despite – or even because of – the differences that emerged between them. On first reading, Blake scholars may feel a certain sense of disappointment here (as I certainly did): there is little that is specifically new or innovative in how Adam’s interprets the aphorisms, in contrast to example to Jeanne Moskal’s influential reading in her 1989 essay on “The Problem of Forgiveness in Blake’s Annotations to Lavater” or, more recently, Sybille Erle’s 2006 piece, “Leaving Their Mark: Lavater, Fuseli and Blake’s Imprint on Aphorisms on Man”. Nonetheless, the virtues of Adams’s writing soon becomes clear: while this book will not especially provoke critical waves, nor will it be subject to scholarly fashions and, as a book, provides a careful and extremely well considered contextual account that will be of lasting benefit to all readers of Blake (indeed, in his introduction Adams emphasises that he writes “less for scholars well acquainted with Blake’s writings and art” and more for students and the general reader, p.3).

The chapter on Lavater sits with a number of others dealing with Blake’s responses to various psychological and philosophical topics, such as those on Sir Francis Bacon, J. C. Spurzheim, and George Berkeley. Blake’s benevolent feelings towards Lavater are clear when turning to Bacon. As Adams points out (following other commentators before him), Blake’s damning verdict of Bacon is expressed less by his words and more by a marginal illustration of a devil’s arse dropping excrement on the words “A King” (p.84). Despising Bacon’s politics, Blake has little more to admire in Bacon’s economics (considered by Blake to be no more than usury), religion (he accuses Bacon of atheism), philosophy (with a critique of the limits of inductive reason), nor his aesthetics. Blake is a little more sympathetic when annotating George Berkeley’s Siris, although the fact that he does not mark at all the first two thirds of the book which discuss the beneficial properties of tar-water do not provide us with knowledge of whether Blake agreed or disagreed with Berkeley’s foolish opinions. Adams is clear and precise, however, when detailing Blake’s contentions with aspects of Berkeley’s Platonism, as well as the fact that Blake may also have misunderstood parts of Berkeley’s philosophy. With regard to Spurzheim, Blake made only two annotations but, as Adams points out, these are significant both because of the aspersions of insanity that were made against Blake during his lifetime and the influence of Spurzheim’s phrenology on his series of Visionary Heads (p.139).

If philosophy and psychology dominate a considerable part of Blake’s marginal annotations, it is unsurprising to see that the other types of text that detained his reading were those dealing with religion and the arts. Blake’s antipathy to Sir Joshua Reynolds is notorious, and Adams notes that the annotations to the Discourses “range from angry accusations and denunciations to the occasional agreement.” (p. 109) In general, Blake considered Reynolds a hireling and hates the President of the Royal Academy’s self-satisfaction, complacency and hypocrisy, but these notes are also a source for Blake’s opinions on significant matters such as the role of imitation in education, genius in the arts and attention to “minute discrimination”. It is uncertain whether Blake read all of Reynold’s Discourses, but throughout it is clear that both artists held fundamentally different opinions as to the purpose of imagination. The annotations to Henry Boyd’s translation of Dante’s Inferno, by contrast, are less angry, though still motivated by disagreement with regard to what he saw as Boyd’s deism and the role of morality in religion. More interesting for later readers are the comments on William Wordsworth’s Poems, published in 1815 and lent to Blake by Henry Crabb Robinson. Robinson’s diaries and notes record a more favourable opinion on the part of Blake, but in the annotations he criticises Wordsworth’s notions of vision, imagination and nature. Nonetheless, if Adams is right and certain poems and passages marked with a cross indicate Blake’s hand, there may have been many passages dealing with innocence and experience, as well as those in the ballad form, that appealed to him considerably.

The final subject that attracted Blake’s pen was religion. A substantial chapter is devoted to Bishop Richard Watson’s An Apology for the Bible, published in 1796 and annotated by Blake in 1798. As an answer to Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (some of the content of which Adams summarises here), Watson sought to refute the attacks on the priesthood that appeared in the second part of Paine’s work (Adams writes that there is no evidence that the Bishop had even read the first part) and offer a defence of more orthodox opinion. Blake’s interest, suggests Adams, flagged after the first three letters; significantly, although Blake was by no means inclined towards Paine’s deism, that is not attacked here almost certainly because he was more concerned with expressing political sympathy with Paine as well as irritation with “Watson’s barely concealed snobbishness” (p.79). At the end of the artist’s life, comments in Robert John Thornton’s The Lord’s Prayer, Newly Translated (1827) provide an entertaining, pithy and radical blast against the often eccentric doctor, who Blake knew through John Linnell, and who had commissioned Blake for a series of woodcuts to Virgil’s Eclogues.

Blake’s Margins ends with a brief account of Blake’s reading and citations from a number of other sources, as varied as Joseph Addison’s Cato and William Gilpin’s work on the picturesque, concluding that he was “an avid critic and commentator” (p.197). Adams’s book is a clear introduction to several works which, obscure now, provide considerable insight into Blake’s ideas and philosophies on a range of subjects. Snart’s book is considerably more sophisticated in its approach to Blake and reading, but this interpretative study of the marginalia provides many insights into how those peripheral squibs and praises informed a great deal of the artist’s thought.

The affectionate sceptic: Angela Carter and Blake

When I was a girl, I thought that everything Blake said was holy, but now I am older and have seen more of life, I treat his aphorisms with the affectionate scepticism appropriate to the exhortations of a man who cliamed to have seen a fairy’s funeral. (The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, p.x)

February 16 is the anniversary of Angela Carter’s death. Born on May 7, 1940, she died of lung cancer in 1992, having established a reputation as one of the most imaginative and resourceful writers of her generation.

As an author who appears to have taken to heart the aphorism that “Opposition is True Friendship”, her relationship with Blake was a contrarian one. Lorna Sage, in Flesh and the Mirror (1994), observed that along with the Marquis de Sade, Blake was a favourite source of ideas – but, as with the divine Marquis, the diabolic engraver was a font of opposition as well as inspiration.

Carter’s most directly Blakean novel was The Passion of New Eve, 1977, set in a post-apocalyptic New York where an Englishman, Evelyn, lives a dissolute life until captured and taken to a location called Beulah, “the place where contrarieties exist together”. There he is transformed by the mysterious Mother into a woman, Eve, before being captured by a misogynistic figure, Zero the Poet (an ironic take on Blake’s the Prophet, Los).

The novel is full of Blakean allusions, particularly to Rahab and the Covering Cherub as well as Beulah itself, which, in Blake’s Milton, is a place inferior to the more masculine Eden. Carter, unsurprisingly, rejects this patriarchal vision, yet while she was often a fierce critic of Blake (for example in her essay, “Little Lamb, Get Lost”), she also drew a great deal from the artist responsible for The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, taking great pleasure in his devilish proverbs and oppositional spirit.

Studies on Blake’s reception

As this is the main focus of my own research, the following is an introduction to the main publications that have appeared dealing with the reception of Blake’s work. The top-10 format is simply to make this manageable, and most of the following are books although Mike Goode’s Blakespotting is a superb article. Published in chronological order, they demonstrate that this is a relatively new field in Blake studies (with a few honourable precursors). Anyone interested is also recommended to refer to Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly which frequently includes articles on Blake’s influence.

1. Dorfman, D. Blake in the Nineteenth Century (Yale UP: 1969). Still the best guide to Blake’s reception in the immediate period after his death. While the theory of reception has moved on considerably since publication of this book, it is a comprehensive study of literary and artistic influences.

2. Bertholf, R. and Levitt, A. Blake and the Moderns (SUNY: 1982). A collection of essays including ones by Hazard Adams on Blake and Yeats and Robert Gleckner on Joyce, this concentrates on the literature and has largely been superseded by Larrissy (see below) but still worth reading.

3. Dent, S. and Whittaker, J. Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife from 1827 (Palgrave: 2002) A polemic and wide-ranging survey organised thematically rather than chronologically. This is the first to try and extend studies of reception beyond literature and the fine arts and, because of this, is inevitably full of gaps.

4. Tambling, J. Blake’s Night Thoughts (Palgrave: 2005) Although not devoted to reception of Blake alone (dealing more generally with Blake as a poet and artist of the night), there is some very useful material here on his influence on figures such as Blanchot and Mann.

5. Larrissy, E. William Blake and Modern Literature (Palgrave: 2006) The best survey of Blake’s influence on literature since the very end of the nineteenth until the late twentieth centuries. Focuses on high rather than popular formats, but more coherent because of this.

6. Clark, S., and Suzuki, M. The Reception of Blake in the Orient (Continuum: 2006) Blake’s printmaking ironically brought him wider acceptance at an early stage in Japan, at least as an artist, than in western Europe and America, and this collection of essays deals with Blake’s relation to orientalism as well as how he was used by figures such as Yanagi Soetsu.

7. Goode, Mike, Blakespotting (PMLA, 121.3: 2006). An excellent and witty survey of the uses of Blake in popular culture, beginning with Donald Trump’s use of the Proverbs of Heaven and Hell.

8. Clark, S., and Whittaker, J. Blake, Modernity and Popular Culture (Palgrave: 2007). With two essays on Blake’s contemporary circles, most essays in this collection deal with reception during the Victorian period through to the beginning of the twenty-first century.

9. Ault, D. and Whitson, R. William Blake and Visual Culture (ImageTexT, 3.2: 2007) ImageTexT is devoted to interdisciplinary comics studies, and there is some material here on Blake’s influence on graphic novels as well as other visual forms.

10. Trodd, C. Visions of Blake: William Blake in the Art World, 1830-1930 (Liverpool UP: 2010) Forthcoming. Will offer the most comprehensive view yet of Blake’s artistic influence in the century after his death.

New titles on Blake for 2010

New books on Blake due out in the first half of 2010.

A new reprint of the two volume edition of Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake will appear as part of the Cambridge Library Collection in April, and another reissue is Bill Gillham’s Blake’s Contrary States: The ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ as Dramatic Poems, first published in 1966 but now available in paperback from February. In Contrary States, Gillham argues that the apparent contradictions of Songs of Innocence and of Experience are due to the fallacy of reading them as Blake’s opinions, rather than projections of dramatic states.

One possible oddity released in January of this year is the somewhat bizarrely titled And did Those Feet in Ancient Time: Poetry, William Blake, Hymn, Apocrypha, Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, Glastonbury, Book of Revelation, Second … Heaven, Industrial Revolution, Old Testament,  by Frederic Miller et al which offers yet another reading of the Glastonbury myth of Christ’s visit to Britain in the light of Blake’s famous lyric from Milton.

More substantial scholarship will be found in Collin Trodd’s Visions of Blake: William Blake in the Art World 1830-1930, which was due for publication in 2009 but has been delayed till later this year. Similarly,  John H. Jones will explore the significance of Blake’s concept of ‘self-annihilation’ as it pertains to language and communication in Blake on Language, Power, and Self-Annihilationto be published by Palgrave in May, and although publication details are not yetforthcoming, Faber and Faber is due to release a selection of Blake’s poems in June with an introduction by the poet and critic James Fenton, who has occasionally written on Blake as in his 2007 essay on Blake and slavery.

Blake and Conflict

Blake and Conflict. Sarah Haggarty and Jon Mee.
Palgrave, 2008. pp. 256. £50. ISBN: 9 7802 3057 3871.

Blake and Conflict is a collection of essays from a 2006 conference of the same name. Jon Mee and Sarah Haggarty propose a way for dealing with Blake’s contrary visions in a time of conflict as a series of conversations (with particular reference to Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of the inoperative community), although they recognise that this runs the danger of denying or even sanctioning violence in Blake’s work, drawing on William Keach’s critique of a masculinist will-to-power that is found in his art and poetry. Conflict in Blake’s art and writings is dealt with here in terms of interweaving dialogues between religion, politics and the visual arts, beginning with Saree Makdisi’s “Blake and the Ontology of Empire”, which builds on the Orientalist critique found in his previous work (including William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s), examining how Blake “refuses Orientalism” because he rejects “the logic of individualism predicated on an opposition to otherness” (12) which had become ingrained in a western discourse that bound together Orientalism, imperialism and western subjectivity founded on moral virtue as the basis for the self-regulating self. Blake’s God, by contrast, is an open one, and his task (evident, for example, in his reading of Paine’s Age of Reason) is to recover an “unperverted Bible” of love and forgiveness.

Makdisi’s thoughtful essay goes very well with Angus Whitehead’s contribution, “‘A wise tale of the Mahometans’: Blake and Islam, 1819-26”, which takes a fascinating look at the Islamic community which was becoming increasingly visible in early nineteenth-century London. Study of Blake’s relationships to Islam have started, finally, to become more noticeable among scholarly articles, providing a minor counterpoint to Blake’s obvious engagement with Christianity of various types and Judaism. Blake’s direct references to Islam are, to say the least, fleeting, and Whitehead draws attention to differing interpretations of Blake’s Orientalism (such as Makdisi’s outlined briefly above, or Larrissy’s more critical interpretation of Blake in thrall to Orientalist attitudes). Whitehead draws on three late references to Islam by Blake, in a conversation with Crabb Robinson, the visionary head of “Mahomet”, and his depiction of the prophet in Dante’s Inferno, presents positive representations of Islam. A similarly meticulous approach to the historical record is provided in David Worrall’s “Blake, the Female Prophet and the American Agent: The Evidence of the 1789 Swedenborg Conference Attendance List”, which builds on previous research conducted by Worrall into the 1789 conference to identify some of the radical (and sometimes shadowy) figures encountered by Blake, such as Dorothy Gott, author of The Midnight Cry, and Colborn Barrell.

Susan Matthews’s “Impurity of Diction: The ‘Harlot’s Curse’ and Dirty Words”, focuses on the role of prostitution as an essential corollary to the formation of polite society and the figure of the virtuous woman. Blake, argues Matthews, uses diction transformatively to celebrate female sexuality (her comments on our assumptions to locate sexuality in “corporeality” rather than “spirituality”, and thus fail to appreciate the complexity of Blake’s opinions, are particularly pertinent here) rather than transmit dominant ideas of his day. It is Blake’s dialogic, indeed often ambivalent, relations with Christianity that  are covered in the following two essays: David Fallon’s “‘She Cuts His Heart Out at his Side’: Christianity and Political Virtue” considers attitudes to civic virtue which, in humanist thinking, tended to be held in opposition to traditional Christian virtues, but not in the line of “Commonwealthmen” writers such as Milton, Harrington and (later) Richard Price with which Blake was aligned by Gilchrist and others. Fallon sees Blake as demonstrating “evident affiliations” with civic humanism, but making “distinctive alterations to produce the type of citizenship he valorized” (97).

Haggarty, in “From Donation to Demand? Almsgiving and the ‘Annotations to Thornton’”, places Blake’s annotations to Thornton’s Lord’s Prayer Newly Translated in the ongoing separation of virtuous gift-giving from economics during the long-eighteenth century, remarking that Blake’s own ideas are often contradictory and even incoherent without a more profound understanding of the gift. One contributor to the debate around economics and charity was William Godwin, who also features in Jon Mee’s “‘A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action’: Mutuality, Converse and Mental Fight”, which considers the role of conversation in the liberal public sphere as an alternative to commonly perceived French despotism at the time. Mee identifies two cultures of conversation: one polite and consensual, the other “capacious enough to include contention and dispute” (129). Considering the importance of the latter to Dissenting traditions, Mee starts from Blake’s satire on conversation in An Island in the Moon through his illuminated books, seeing in this “aspect of the everday world” a “utopian possibility for the future” (139). Sibylle Erle’s “Shadows in the Cave: Refocusing Vision in Blake’s Creation Myth” reinterprets the metaphor of the cave to refer fairly specifically to Blake’s account of sight and the eye, particularly in relation to empirical philosophers such as Locke and Newton.

This discussion of the science of optics is a serendipitous link to the final three essays of the collection, which deal with various aspects of Blake’s visual arts. Mark Crosby’s “A Minute Skirmish: Blake, Hayley and the Art of Miniature Painting” concentrates on that minute particular of Blake’s artistic career, the miniature paintings he conducted in Felpham, as a site of conflict with his patron William Hayley, Blake’s technique often being at odds with Hayley’s instruction and presaging the disputes that were to come later. Luisa Calè, in “Blake and the Literary Galleries”, contrasts the rivalries of the illustrated book market with those of the literary galleries, such as the ones established by Fuseli and Boydell, the latter dealt with most notably, of course, in Morris Eaves’ Counter-Arts Conspiracy. Blake’s work for Young’s Night Thoughts especially, Calè argues, demonstrates how he was “experimenting with different book formats in an attempt to access the literary-gallery market” (204), from which he had only ever received minor commissions.

Finally, Morton Paley’s “Blake’s Poems on Art and Artists” looks at his various texts from 1798-1811, such as the annotations to the works of Joshua Reynolds and the Descriptive Catalogue, but also his verse on contemporaries, that deal with art and artists. Although the prose writings have received considerable scholarly attention, Paley argues that the occasional poetry should not be dismissed as doggerel but examined both as satire and “as expressions of Blake’s views about art, artists and the art market” (210). The range of essays from established and new scholars is impressive and generally well integrated, making this an extremely significant and useful collection.

Ten Blakean novels

Rather than simply novels where Blake’s influence informs such things as style (Joyce’s Ulysses is a good example) this is a list of novels (in no particular order) where Blake also informs content in some way.

  1. Angela Carter, Passion of the New Eve (1977): an English professor Evelyn is taken to Beulah where Mother changes him to Eve to prove that without contrarieties is no true progression.
  2. Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988): The Marriage of Heaven and Hell provides one of the sources for the struggle between Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha.
  3. J. G. Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company (1979): a sociopath, Blake, crash lands a stolen plane in the suburbs of Shepperton in this retelling of the epic poem, Milton.
  4. Michael Dibdin, Dark Spectre (1995): a series of motiveless murders are being conducted by a cult devoted to the poetry of Blake.
  5. Alan Moore, From Hell (1999): the graphic novel collected into one edition uses Blake as a spiritual counterpoint to the demonic murders of Jack the Ripper
  6. Joyce Cary, The Horse’s Mouth (1944): constant references to Blake in this very funny novel about a creative artist addicted to drunken self-destruction.
  7. Iain Sinclair, Downriver (1991): should really be the poems, but Blake is pretty much a constant in all of Sinclair’s work, including this collection of psychogeographic explorations into Thatcherite London.
  8. Thomas Harris, Red Dragon (1981): in the first of the Hannibal Lecter series, a serial killer Dolarhyde wishes to transform himself into Blake’s red dragon.
  9. Tracy Chevalier, Burning Bright (2007): a biographical novel of Blake’s life told from the perspective of a young boy, Jem Kellaway.
  10. Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000): rewriting Milton is perhaps the strongest element of this series, but Blake serves as Virgil to Pullman’s Dante.