William Blake – “A Letter to Dr John Trusler”

I was rather unkind about Blake’s private notes, but this letter proves that when he takes his head out of his nether regions and communicates with another human being, he can do it lucidly, even if I don’t agree with him. John Trusler was a clergyman and an eccentric in his own right, an inventor of many completely impractical things. Apparently at some point he was a client of Blake’s (I wish the NAEL editor explained it more thoroughly) and he took issue with his watercolour of the allegory of Malevolence, portraying a father taking leave of his wife and children, watched by two fiends who were going to murder his family.

Blake starts on a high horse, with “I really am sorry that you are falln our with the Spiritual World”. If Trusler (or me) find Blake’s works obscuer, well, “What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men”, and throws the authority of Moses and Plato back at him, because what is not too explicit, rouses the facility to act. He also defends his design for Malevolence: the envy of other people’s happiness is cause enough, unlike the thief’s want of money, because many people suffer poverty and do not resort to thieving.

And so, Blake says triumphantly, “I have therefore proved your Reasonings ill proportioned”, unlike my figures. If you find my figures unharmonious, it’s because you’ve seen too many caricatures (caricature in the 18th c. was immensely popular and influential – cf. Gillray, Cruikshank and others). “Fun I love, but too much Fun is of all things the most loathsom. Mirth is better than Fun, & Happiness is better than Mirth—I feel that a Man may be happy in This World. ” (This letter is written in 1799, so closer in time to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, when Blake still believed that Jerusalem could be built on this earth. Also, I’m perhaps perverted by living in the age of irony, but I can’t fathom Blake’s idea of happiness without fun.) The perception of the world, Blake argues, is highly subjective: for a miser a guinea may be a more beautiful view than the sun. And for him, the world “is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination”, this is the nature of all great painting and he throws now some quotes from Francis Bacon (book, chapter and verse, no less) to strengthen his point. But there are lots of people who can understand my work perfectly, especially children.

The rest of the letter is the kind of squabbles that any free-lancer knows, I’m afraid, too well. At this point in his career Blake is perhaps too mature to get the dreaded “do it for free and put it in your portfolio”. But he writes somewhat testily, no, I can’t do engravings of other people’s designs for less than 12 guineas, because it’s much more work to engrave others’ designs that mine own. It’s not that I am posing to be a greater artist than I am, because I am a trained engraver and I could happily do this line of work, but the fact is, I have loads of clients interested in my own engravings and paintings.

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William Blake – “A Vision of the Last Judgement” (excerpts)

I’ve had a lot of work during these last few days and TBH, even when I had like half an hour at the end of the day and looked at two pages of dense text with randomly capitalized words, my heart sank. Now I’ve made my way through it and I can say it: this is the text when Blake lost it. Admittedly, it’s not something he meant for publication, but another text scribbled in his notebook. But it’s still difficult to follow, often repetitive and really bonkers. For all the reasons listed above, it’s really difficult to discuss, but I’ll do my best.

The text is a commentary upon a huge painting, now apparently lost, Blake made of the Last Judgement. It’s a kind of extremely idealistic text in the Platonic sense, although Blake mentions Plato disparagingly because his Socrates argues that since poets write from inspiration, they really don’t know what they are doing. Rubbish, Blake says, the Eternal Vision they are connected to is really everything that exists, and it’s more real than plants, which wither and die, but the Eternal Vision is eternal. So is the Last Judgement – not some kind of fable or allegory, but “real” for Blake, because he represented as he saw it.

Then he digresses a bit to write about the ones who are admitted into Heaven: not those who curbed their passions, but those “have Cultivated their Understandings” and thus actually had more passion. As usual, Blake is very bitter about those who had no passion because they had no intellect and spent their lives trying to control the passions of others. He also distances himself from his younger revolutionary days, claiming that paradise, unlike what was believed by Enlightenment political thinkers, such as Voltaire and Paine, cannot be achieved on this earth, as long as we are encumbered by the mortal body.

Blake considers God cruel and Jesus very much unlike his Father. In a phrase which I’m sure would have shocked many of his contemporaries he says “First God Almighty comes with a Thump on the head. Then Jesus Christ comes with a balm to heal it.” Returning to his idealist philosophy, Blake claims that “the Outward Creation” is for him like dirt on his feet; when he sees the sun he really sees “an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying ‘Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.'” (But he’s just written he doesn’t like God. I don’t follow.) In a rather neat turn of phrase, he says that his physical eyesight does not convey images to him anymore than a window does: he looks through it, not at it.


William Blake – Some poems from the Notebook, “And did those feet”

Today I’m reading some of the poems Blake jotted down in his notebook, which fortunately was preserved, being at some point in possession of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and its contents finally got a proper scholarly edition in the 20th century. Since these were evidently just works in progress, Blake never bothered to come up with the titles for them, and they are identified only by their incipits, or first lines. “Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau” is, as this line suggests, an attack against the thinkers who laid the foundations for the French Revolution, which, as we could see, Blake supported very much, but he really hated what he perceived as the mechanistic and reductive philosophy of the Enlightenment. He sees Voltaire and Rousseau as throwing sand against the wind and the wind of spirituality blows it back right in their faces and blinds them, but also shines, because every grain of sand becomes a gem. The sand they throw is the symbol of the mechanistic universe, “the atoms of Democritus”, but it is also the sand of the shores of the Red Sea where the people of Israel have pitched their tents, which shows that the physical part of the universe is subordinate to the spiritual.

“Never pain to tell thy love” was interpreted by the doyen of early 20th c. Blake Studies Samuel Foster Dean as the story about woman’s sexual fear: the man declares his love, she rejects him and then death personified as the traveller comes to take her. So it would be basically “To His Coy Mistress”, just simpler. The poem is, however, more ambiguous: for instance, the line “trembling, coldly, in ghastly fears” could refer both to the speaker, baring his heart as well as to the woman. Maybe the poem’s appeal in the first line and the explanation that one shouldn’t do it because “the gentle wind does move/silently, invisibly” refers to the fact that the declaration of love, when it is too intense, is likely to spook the other person, while the other suitor, who acted in more insinuating ways, was more successful.

“I asked a thief” is an ironic little ditty about hypocrisy. The speaker asked a thief to steal a peach for him, and the thief rolled his eyes. He propositioned a lady and she reacted with anger. But then an angel came by, winked at the thief and smiled at the lady, then picked a peach from the tree and had sex with the lady “still as a maid”, which carries blasphemous allusions to the Virgin birth and the like. So those who are on the surface respectable can get away with much more, Blake seems to imply.

And finally “And did those feet..”, a.k.a. “Jerusalem”, which doesn’t come from the Notebook, but was a fragment of a preface to Blake’s poem Milton. As the Helpful Footnote observes somewhat testily, it’s quite ironic that it became a song popular among these establishment types Blake would have called “angels”. (As a proof, look below the comment line on the video. Or better not. Blake certainly didn’t mean his poem to be the expression of blinkered nationalism.) The poem is based on a legend that Joseph of Arimathea took his young cousin Jesus with him to Britain on a business trip. So Blake asks a series of amazed questions: was really Jesus present here? If he was, did he bring with himself like a particle of Jerusalem and can it be found in the age of Industrial Revolution “among those dark Satanic Mills?” But the word “mills” means for Blake not only “factories”, but also is the symbol of mechanistic worldview, as he used it in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The last two stanzas are the famous exhortation in which Blake imagines himself as a kind of spiritual warrior on his “Chariot of fire” and promises to continue his mental fight until, indeed, Jerusalem is built in England.


William Blake – “A Song of Liberty”

This is sort of connected with Marriage  – a text written around the same time, which Blake etched separately and sometimes added as an appendix at the end of Marriage. It’s strongly inspired by the current events in France, which had just sent its king to the guillotine and proclaimed itself a republic, which Blake was hoping would set off similar revolutions all over the world. This prose poem begins with the groan of the Eternal Female, apparently in labour. It’s followed by a series of exhortations to Spain and Rome to cast off papal tyranny. The newborn fiery spirit of revolution faces the old “starry king” (stars in Blake’s writings represent fixed rigid principles), who hurls him down from the sky. The poet asks the citizen of London to look up and “enlarge thy countenance”, the Jew to stop counting gold and hopes that “winged thought” is going to widen the forehead of the black African. I have a feeling Blake resorts here to old ethnic stereotypes – I’m not sure what “enlarge thy countenance” should mean, but does “widen the forehead” refer to making the African smarter? When the revolutionary spirit falls into the sea, it recedes, which in turn somehow causes the downfall of “the jealous king”. I’m not sure about Blake’s physics here and who is supposed to be up and who is supposed to be down. Anyway, the king with all his army falls down and now “promulgates his ten commandments” in the wilderness, looking gloomily to the east where the fiery spirit stamps the tablets with the Ten Commandments to dust. The Chorus condemns the priests and their ally, the tyrant, hoping that they will have power no more over either political or sexual mores of people: “pale religious letchery [sic]” won’t use the name of virginity to the one “that wishes but acts not! For everything that lives is Holy.” What struck me for the first time is that Blake’s obscurity and all these invented mythologies could possibly be not just him being crazy, but also hiding the political message of his writings on purpose to avoid prosecution.

William Blake – “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (the end)

Next comes a passage in which Blake deals with Swedenborg and his own anxiety of influence, by claiming that Swedenborg is largely repetitive, despite his claims of originality; he “has not written one new truth” but “has written all the old falsehoods”. (BTW, I’d like any historical linguist to explain to me why Blake uses Present Perfect tense when writing about the man who at that time had been long dead. Is it an 18th c. thing, or Blake’s idiosyncrasy?) Blake compares Swedenborg to a handler of a performing monkey, who, because he’s somewhat smarter than the monkey, in time grows conceited and starts to consider himself a very wise man.

And the text ends with one more “Memorable Fancy”. A Devil comes to an Angel and tells him that in order to worship God we have to honour his gifts in other men and love them proportionately to their worth, loving greatest men best. And those who envy or speak ill of great men “hate God, for there is no other God”. The Angel is so incensed he becomes quite blue, but then controls himself, and changes his colours slowly back through yellow, white and back to pink. He tells the Devil that God is One, visible in Jesus Christ, who told everyone to obey Ten Commandments, while all the other men are sinners. The Devil says “If Jesus Christ is the greatest man, you ought to love him in the greatest degree”. But then he proceeds to point out how Jesus himself broke the commandments: did not mind breaking the sabbath, let the woman caught in adultery free, stole the labour of others who supported him, was responsible for the death of those who were murdered because of him, and, since he did not attempt to defend himself before Pilate, effectively bore false witness. His point is, Jesus, the most virtuous of man, was led by his instinct, not by the law, and no virtue can exist without breaking the Ten Commandments.

The Angel, on hearing that, is consumed by the fire and is reborn Elijah. He becomes a Devil, and Blake says, he is now his “particular friend”. They often study the Bible together “in its infernal or diabolical sense, which the world will have it if they behave well”. And coming soon to every good bookshop the Bible of Hell, which Blake promises to produce whether the world wants it or not. The text ends with “One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression.” This is illustrated by the last image in the book of the mad king Nebuchadnezzar, crawling on all fours like an animal.

Nebuchadnezzar in MoHaH

I can’t put my life on hold and start researching Blake at this point, so I’m sure a lot of Marriage went over my head. But it certainly revised my view of Blake, who, as I think I’ve pointed out before, sounds sometimes oddly Sadeian or Nietzschean. I used to perceive him as a kind of 18th c. “social justice warrior”, just a bit more crazy and with a thing for making up mythologies, but he’s much more darker.

William Blake – “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (ctd.)

The next “memorable fancy” starts with an Angel, or one these conventionally religious men (possibly a member of Blake’s former Church of Swedenborgians) warning Blake that he’s going to hell (and calling him patronizingly “young man”). Blake says “show me my eternity and I’ll show you yours”. The man leads him through the stable, church, church vault and the mill; these mean, as the Helpful Footnote explains, the stable in which Jesus was born, the institutional religion which effectively buried him, and the mill of analytical philosophy, which, I guess, ruined his message. They grope their way through a cavern and they come out of it into a void, into which they don’t fall only because they are hanging on, Blake to the roots of the tree, the Angel to the fungus growing between them (so Blake has the true message of the Gospel, and the Angel holds on to the parasitical commentaries?) Blake suggests they should let go to check whether Providence operates in this void as well, but the Angel makes him wait. The whole image makes me think, rather incongruously, about Saint-Exupery’s illustrations to The Little Prince. What they see first is a lot of enormous black and white spiders, and then all encompassing fire, and various scary beasts and other special F/X, including the head of Leviathan, whose forehead is streaked green and purple “like those on a tyger’s forehead”. Yep, Blake definitely had not seen a real tiger. But when the Angel climbs back into the mill, all Blake can see is a pleasant moonlit river bank, and the harper singing “The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water & breeds reptiles of the mind.”

So Blake climbs back, and the Angel is surprised to see him, but Blake explains to him that all they have seen was just the Angel’s metaphysics. Now he’s going to show the Angel his eternal lot. They fly through space into the Sun, where Blake takes a moment to change himself into white robes and take a volume of Swedenborg’s writings in his hand. Then they fly past Saturn into the sphere of fixed stars. They find the stable and the church there again. They enter the church and when they open the Bible, it’s a deep pit into which they descend. They see seven brick houses and they enter one of them. It’s full of monkeys and “baboons” in chains; the stronger first copulate with the weaker and then they eat them, tearing methodically one limb after another, then they fondle and kiss “the helpless trunk” before they eat it, too. Some of them even eat the flesh of their own tails. This is a deliberately disgusting image and apparently is a satirical depiction of self-cannibalizing nature of small religious groups, such as Swedenborgians, but apparently also owes something to Blake’s interest in Kabbalah… but it’s too late and I’m too busy to research it. Anyway, the stench becomes too oppressive and they go back to the mill, Blake holding the skeleton of the body “which in the mill was Aristotle’s Analytics”. The Angel tells him that Blake fantasy imposed on him and Blake should be ashamed. Blake answers that we impose on one another and it is lost time to talk to him. But the passage ends with somewhat strangely uplifting Opposition is True Friendship.

William Blake – “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (ctd.)

Another “memorable fancy”, this one quite short, because the next one is very long. The first part is a metaphorical description of the process of printing: the narrator describes the printing-house in Hell, but it’s really Blake describing his own (and an in-joke here for those who knew that in the 18th c. the helpers in printing houses were known as “printer’s devils”, because they were always black with ink). Preparing the plate is the first chamber, in which a Dragon-Man clears away the rubbish from a cave’s mouth, while other dragons hollow the cave out. Drawing the design is described as the second chamber, with a viper folding around the cave (like the page’s edges?), while others adorn it with gold and precious stones. Etching the plate is the third chamber, with “an Eagle with …feathers of air; he caused the inside of the cave to be infinite”, and he’s surrounded by eagle-like men – that’s because Blake used a feather to move the acid a bit, as it was bubbling on the plate. The men building the castles are the drops of acid eating away the metal and forming the pictures and letters.

Then Blake spread the ink holding the plate over a brazier, because the heat made it the oil-based ink easier to spread – that is why he describes “Lions of flaming fire… melting the metals into living fluids”. The fifth chamber is about the process of printing itself: “Unnam’d forms … cast the metals into the expanse” of the blank sheet of paper. And finally in the sixth chamber they take “the forms of books & were arranged in libraries”, so the sheets are sold to the customers (in the 18th c. people bought books in the form of loose sheets and then had them professionally bound). I wouldn’t be able to decipher any of it without Joseph Viscomi’s wonderful article.

The second part of today’s reading is a story about another of Blake’s dichotomies: the Prolific vs. the Devourer. The Prolific are the creative energies, held in chains by the Devourers, who only consume. But “the Prolific would cease to be Prolific” without Devourers, so they both need each other, but they are also both enemies, and “whoever tries to reconcile them” (for instance religion) “seeks to destroy existence”. Blake quotes the parable about goats and sheep as well as the words of Matthew 10:34 “I came not to send Peace but a Sword” to prove that Jesus agreed with him, too. He also thinks that Messiah or Satan are our Energies.