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Glorious Luminary

James Ward

Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake, by Leo Damrosch, Yale University Press, £18.99, ISBN: 978-0300200676

William Blake sets out his vision of the universe in the volumes known as his prophetic books. Botched creation, cruelty and liberation are the obsessive themes of his cosmogony, focused through filters of sexuality and gender difference. Famously described by Northrop Frye as being “in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry” in English, these books still go largely unread. But they were not really designed to be read according to conventional practice of deriving meaning from lines and blocks of text. Instead, on every page, serpentine lines writhe, coil and contort across fields of spectacular colour to form bodies and letters which combine to remind us that to “illustrate” means to make words lustrous. Much as “watching” falsely imputes careful monitorship to our consumption of television, “reading” hardly seems an adequate name for what goes on when we look at these works. Even though comics and graphic novels have made the pleasure a familiar one, there is still no good word in English for the simultaneous comprehension of words and pictures, which underlines the exceptional originality of what Blake was doing back at the turn of the eighteenth century. Hand-inscribed, chemically etched and mechanically printed, Blake’s visual-verbal poems represent a heroic but thankless effort to divert the historic course of book technology and propel the illuminated manuscript into the age of print. They could in theory have sold by the thousand but the intensity of labour involved in their production, the obtuse incomprehension of contemporaries and the indifference of the public meant that few copies were produced, and fewer bought, in his lifetime.

Even after his acceptance as a major poet (which came as late as the 1950s), reading Blake in anthologies or paperback classics feels wrong because the images are either entirely omitted or confined to a few grainy reproductions, with the unified whole inaccessible until very recently to those lacking privileged access to scholarly archives or expensive facsimile editions. Only with digitisation has technology finally caught up with Blake’s vision, and at www.blakearchive.org you can gorge on pretty much all the books, find the whereabouts of every known copy, and compare different printings held in libraries and museums across the world – all for free. This is what the internet was supposed to have been for. Even though, as Leo Damrosch writes in this excellent overview of Blake’s work, some of the physical copies’ subtlety of colour is lost because “backlit images on a computer monitor glow like stained glass windows”, the complex marriage of electricity, liquid crystals, and light provides a fittingly intense and visionary experience.

Marriage, in the alchemical, biblical and esoteric traditions that Blake drew on, is overburdened with significance. In his poetry it is both an ideal and an abomination: he took the Hebrew name Beulah (“married land”) for a resting place on the way to the paradisial Eternity and made it a “pleasant lovely” place “where no dispute can come”. The poem “London” (from Songs of Experience, 1794), on the other hand, concludes with a resounding curse that “Blasts the newborn infant’s tear /And blights with plague the marriage hearse”. This is a context-specific critique of marriage and prostitution as co-institutionalised in eighteenth century urban centres, where husbands routinely infected their wives and children with syphilis.

As Damrosch notes, however, some critics have argued that the hearse casts a pall over all marriages everywhere, which for Blake represent “a kind of living death”. None of this can have made fun reading for Blake’s long-suffering wife, Catherine. He proposed to her as soon as they met, importuning her pity because he had just been rejected by another. Illiterate, she signed their marriage certificate with an “X”. Blake taught her to read and write and she took a skilled, indispensable, but unacknowledged part in hand-colouring and printing his works. In the four years she survived him after his death Catherine continued to receive visits and advice from Blake. A year into widowhood she is recorded as having said that she would not agree to anything concerning the sale of her husband’s works “until she had had an opportunity of consulting Mr Blake”. In life the couple sometimes bonded over leisure pursuits that wouldn’t look out of place in a 1970s BBC sitcom. A visiting friend once came upon them reading Paradise Lost naked in their Lambeth garden and was invited to join them. The story, possibly apocryphal but possibly true, casts the Blakes as the first suburban eccentrics.

While it incorporates several incidents from Blake’s life, Eternity’s Sunrise is not primarily a biographical study. It provides rather a tour, in roughly chronological sequence, of all of Blake’s works ranging from the familiar cadences of Songs of Innocence (1789) to Vala, or The Four Zoas (c 1797-1807) – ten years’ and nine books’ worth of “long resounding strong heroic verse / Marshalld in order for the day of intellectual battle”, which even its author was unable to finish. The incantatory splendour of the more esoteric works can be glimpsed through the protagonist’s consciousness in Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (1944). But for those wishing to navigate his imaginative worlds at first hand, Damrosch provides impressively wide-ranging commentary on Blake’s sources, influences, and working methods, as well as his afterlives in our culture. His steady insistence is that Blake wasn’t just an eccentric but a genius, a visionary who saw actual visions and who was repeatedly debilitated by paranoia and depression. His illness contributed to serious tensions in his personal life and these found their way into his work. Its depiction of fractious relationships intensified as his mythopoeic worlds expanded and London increasingly merged with Babylon. Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793) may have been partly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s suggestion to Blake’s friend Henry Fuseli that she form a ménage à trois with him and his wife; in some versions of the story Wollstonecraft is the invitee and the Blakes make up the threesome. Either way, it is telling that Damrosch finds an implicit reworking of Blakean myth in critiques of the nuclear family such as those of RD Laing, the radical psychiatrist of the sixties whose sad decline is preserved in a drunken appearance on The Late Late Show. While it’s intriguing to think how Gay Byrne might have coped in a Meaning of Life one-on-one with Blake, some scenes in his work might fit better with Jerry Springer or Jeremy Kyle. Sexual jealousy and generational conflict are central to an oeuvre which comes across as an ever-expanding anatomy of family dysfunction. This is political and theological well as personal.

In works that are as often humorous and satirical as portentous, Blake indicts orthodox Christianity’s absurd insistence on a universe thrown together in an off-week by a fitfully attentive patriarch (the “Nobodaddy”, Blake mockingly called him), who so lacked imagination that good old-fashioned family discipline should be its only moral foundation. In confronting such neurotic theodicies his work sometimes seems more concerned with obsessive repetition than closure. Although it is recorded that James Blake chastised his son for seeing angels in the treetops of Peckham Rye, we will never know exactly why Blake was unable to recite the parable of the prodigal son without bursting into tears, or why frightened children and sadistic dads populate his work in such numbers. It is interesting, given his concern with acts of creation and cycles of generation, that he and Catherine remained childless. It was also, as Damrosch drily remarks, probably just as well.

For many, Blake’s underlying message can be simplified into revolt against a social order embodied in parents, school, church and work. Along with an ability to feed appetites for DIY mythologies and homegrown mysticism also catered to by Tolkien and concept albums, this meant that Blake’s moment finally arrived in the 1960s. Written by a child of those times, Eternity’s Sunrise hails Blake as “Zen-like” and “a prophet of the counterculture” in its celebration of an ongoing pleasurable, personal encounter between author and subject. While previous works on Jonathan Swift and David Hume determinedly outlined patterns of clear and rational good sense in philosophies that have historically been seen as verging on nihilism, they did not display such obvious, delighted gratitude as Damrosch extends here to Blake and to the people who first taught him about Blake. There is also a willingness to admit that much about Blake’s work remains perplexing and irreducible to simple interpretation. “Trying to Understand the Long Poems” is a disarmingly honest section heading, while some chapters end not with conclusions but with strings of further questions. This characteristically open-ended and open-minded embrace of uncertainties is not widely echoed, however. Just as our modernity clings determinedly to the sixties legacy of rampant individualism while quietly junking the bits about peace and love, recent uptake of Blake’s legacy has been disturbingly selective and reductive.

It is a sad fact that something about Blake appeals to ego- and megalomaniacs bent on world domination, self-destruction or some weird combination of the two. Bono and David Cameron are fans, while Jim Morrison might still be plying the nostalgia circuit if he had looked to Felicia Hemans or Helen Maria Williams for inspiration instead of taking the name The Doors, via Aldous Huxley, from Blake. But the most unlikely neo-Blakean to emerge from this book is Donald Trump. We learn that in his personal library he displays, “transformed into a self-congratulatory slogan”, the most famous of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Never mind that palaces get a pretty bad press across Blake’s works (in “London”, the “hapless soldier’s sigh / Runs in blood down the palace walls”); in Trump we are witnessing not a reader of Blake’s works but the assumption of human form by a character from them. He has improbable hair, lives in a tower deep in a city that never sleeps and wants to build a wall the width of a continent so that he can become the most powerful man in the world. You couldn’t make it up, but William Blake could.

We can laugh and sneer all we want but there is something disturbing in the fact that Blake’s words are most prominent today through their conscription by populist nationalism and back-to-the-future empire building. The violence of 1916 was connected (obscurely, it must be said, and not widely beyond the mind of WB Yeats) with the assertion, again from the Proverbs of Hell, that “without Contraries is no progression […] Love and Hate, are necessary to Human Existence”. In that same year of slaughter a poem of Blake’s was set to music at the request of the poet laureate, Robert Bridges, who hoped to inspire the troops on the western front to victory. This setting went on to soundtrack, in happier times for him, a moment of fist-pumping triumphalism for David Cameron. He is quoted in this book saying of his experience at a 2011 royal wedding: “There is something special about singing Jerusalem in Westminster Abbey with the orchestra behind you. You think the roof is going to lift off and there is no better place and no better country to be in.” Now that the roof has lifted off for David in a way that he did not envisage, it’s worth reflecting that the piece commonly referred to as Jerusalem is in fact a short lyric from Blake’s epic Milton (1804-10). While the choral setting by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry is customarily given the title of the city named in the lyric’s second-last line, it does not actually come from the poem Blake titled Jerusalem (1804-20), a forbiddingly long epic of the fall of man and the end of time which he worked at for sixteen years, and which concludes with an act of voluntary self-immolation by a character who personifies Britain (here again, Blake made it up so you didn’t have to). It’s not in this work but rather in Blake’s poem about John Milton that you will find the question posed: “And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green?’ As they belted out those words, did any of the wedding singers realise they were hymning the most articulate advocate of republicanism, regicide and divorce in English history? Times have now changed but the song remains the same. On the morning after the UK voted to leave the EU, Nigel Farage was the first party leader to speak to the media on the well-trodden little patch of green outside the Palace of Westminster. Alongside the journalists and cameramen a crowd of jubilant supporters had assembled and they were singing the famous words about the chariot of fire and the bow of burning gold.

Blake’s place in popular memory would be better cemented by acknowledging what he liked to call “contrarieties”. Co-opting his work to any presentist agenda is fraught with problems ‑ Damrosch rightly points out that Blake can’t really be seen as a prophet of sixties free love, given that his vision of sex was partly a tragic one. He saw genital sexuality as an unfortunate and destructive compulsion that would in Eternity’s higher state be replaced by a whole-body union “from the head even to the foot”. By the same token, his most famous poem rewards more heart-searching and less chest-thumping than it may appear at first to license. Many see the city he wished to build as a workers’ republic; in Blake’s mythology Jerusalem is female, an emanation of what he called the Eternal Feminine, and after the First World War the song was appropriated and popularised by the movement for women’s suffrage. It exerts a nostalgic, retrograde appeal because its words appear to propose a redemptive vision of a once-great England whose “pleasant pastures” have given way to “dark Satanic mills”. But in the temporal logic of the question they coexist: “was Jerusalem builded here / Among these dark Satanic mills?” Such lines may well decry an incipient industrial modernity (which at the time of writing, 1804, was still pretty incipient). But treadmills and horse mills were a biblical technology. If the apocryphal sources for Blake’s poem are true, the workings of local industry would have been a familiar and comforting sight to Jesus the carpenter as the tin merchant Joseph of Arimathea led him on a journey across English hills and pastures. Blake depended on mills – coppermills and papermills – for the raw materials of his art, while to be called dark and satanic was not, given his lexicon, the worst thing that could happen. The title page of Milton showcases how, as his career progressed, Blake favoured ever darker washes of pigment, applied so solidly that his grounds became, in an observer’s words “as black as your hat”. Blake also rejected the orthodoxy that makes Satan objectively and unambiguously evil. His famous remark to the effect that the apparent villain of Paradise Lost is its actual hero rings true for anyone familiar with the poem and the abortive English republic that birthed it. For Milton, hell was a place for defeated revolutionaries to rest and take stock; Blake identified it in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-3) as the source of artistic inspiration and energy that that would drive social change.

The hellish tinge also has a very personal meaning for Blake. The final declaration “I will not cease from mental fight” refers generally to his ongoing struggle with mental illness and specifically its exacerbation to breaking point by an episode that took place shortly before he began the poem. Like the naked reading of Paradise Lost this came in the form of an encounter in a garden that would also be comical if not for its deeply distressing impact. Thanks to the patronage of William Hayley, the Blakes were in 1803 living outside London for the first time in the Sussex village of Felpham – a move which explains the upsurge of green and pleasant pastoral imagery in his work around this time. Also quartered in the village were soldiers hunkering down against French invasion and gearing up for a European war that would last twelve years. One of them drunkenly wandered into the Blakes’ garden and refused to leave when asked; a dispute ensued which climaxed in the squaddie accusing the artist, as the Sussex Advertiser reported, of saying “Damn the King, damn all his subjects, damn his soldiers.”

Under the government of the time, which as John Barrell says may be seen as “something like the British equivalent of the McCarthy era”, that was no laughing matter. Shaken by revolution and preparing for war, Pitt’s government had in 1795 introduced legislation (finally repealed in 1998) that made a capital offence of any “writing, printing, preaching, or other speaking”, that could be construed to “excite or stir up the people to hatred or contempt of the person of his Majesty, his heirs or successors, or the government and constitution”. Another act made it a crime even to think about causing harm to the king. In this climate, just because Blake was already paranoid didn’t mean they weren’t after him and others like him. Kenneth Johnston’s recent book Unusual Suspects (Oxford University Press, 2013) argues that these laws’ highly effective strangling not just of dissent but of any kind of public debate made a “lost generation” of the entire cohort of poets and thinkers who came to maturity around the time of the French Revolution.

Thanks to a good lawyer and convincing witness testimony Blake was acquitted, but the incident left its mark. After the trial he moved back to London and devoted himself to increasingly complex works conceived and created, as Damrosch notes, in a total “absence of any audience”, at which he laboured until his death in 1827 (not 1727 as stated in this otherwise beautifully produced and illustrated book). Their esotericism and resistance to interpretation is partly the defensive recourse of a traumatised man. Blake’s working environment was literally toxic as well as metaphorically poisonous. Continual inhalation of acid fumes and copper dust may well have contributed to the liver problems that killed him at the age of sixty-nine. However much he suffered for his iconoclastic and painstaking craft, some people who like and make art don’t rate Blake because his highly stylised representations of the human form tend towards the fantastic. When not sprouting the wings of birds, butterflies or bats, his men and women strike anatomically implausible poses and sport crazily rippling muscles – “not even six packs but nine packs” in the words of Jah Wobble. (His album The Inspiration of William Blake, along with Billy Bragg’s William Bloke and the latter’s understated setting of Jerusalem, make better Blake-inspired listening than U2’s Songs of Innocence or The Doors’ songs of indulgence.) Blake opposed mimetic naturalism on ethical as well as technical grounds. Not just his images but his thought are founded on a love of hard outlines and demarcated blocks of colour that fly in the face of classical notions of taste and accuracy. “Nature has no Outline: but Imagination has,” announces a strange little playlet called The Ghost of Abel (1822). Like quite a few of Blake’s aphorisms it has been co-opted by those who think they think outside the box: you will find it recycled in motivational memes against backdrops of soaring mountains and open roads, as well as heading up an article about “contrasting executive renditions of the commitment to innovation” in a recent issue of European Management Journal.

Blake rendered his commitment to innovation in defiance of the Flemish and Italian masters’ “soft and even tints without boundaries”. He insisted that “the hard and wiry line of rectitude” is in the end what “distinguishes honesty from knavery”. His medium was linear by nature, and he approached it with characteristic originality. Traditionally, engraving involved the incision of designs directly on to copper sheets, while etching was a two stage process which involved first carving them out of a layer of wax applied to the sheet. The wax protected the underlying metal when immersed in acid. Blake’s image of his antihero Urizen “hiding in surging / Sulphureous fluid his fantasies” is one of repressed sexuality, but also of this stage of the process. When the sheet is removed from the fluid, negative spaces emerge as relief, raised against the original surface of the plate, while the picture is made of sunken lines formed by the action of the acid. Ink settles in these grooves and a reversed image is transferred to paper by the action of a hand-operated press. Both processes require strength as well as dexterity and although they can produce effects of amazing subtlety it is difficult with sharpened metal tools to produce lines of freely sweeping contour or varying thickness. Blake solved this problem by painting his designs directly onto the plate with a brush dipped in acid-resistant varnish. Reflecting his belief that inspiration came from below, as well as the fact that fumes from the varnish must have intensified the already potent fug in his workshop, he called this technique “the infernal method”. In the mechanics of his art, as much as in its grand metaphysics, Blake was a true radical. He intuited that our world, like its inhabitants, is not an entity but a representation, a narrow slice from a much broader spectrum of possibility. Because they are founded on this insight, and the resulting conviction that reality should therefore be disassembled and rebuilt from scratch, reading his works can be a strenuous intellectual battle as well as an exhilarating one. This book provides sure and solid guidance for anyone looking to strike out or re-engage in that mental fight.

1/11/2016

James Ward lectures in eighteenth century literature at Ulster University. He has published widely on this subject and is completing a book entitled Memory and Enlightenment.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is James Ward’s review from 2014 of Leo Damrosch’s life of Swift, “This Life a Long Disease”. Here is an extract:

It’s probably not accidental that A Hypocrite Reversed [by David Nokes] is the least sympathetic of modern Swift biographies. Damrosch has more time for those writers on Swift who display infectious enthusiasm for their subject. As well as the previously mentioned Johnston and Le Brocquy, he praises Victoria Glendinning, whose 1998 Jonathan Swift is a readable and entertaining work not primarily aimed at academics. Like Glendinning, Damrosch enjoys putting glamour and mystery back into a life that in the hands of other biographers had come to resemble (in the words of Swift’s friend Alexander Pope) a “long disease”. Lives, whether long or short, in the eighteenth century abounded in pain and discomfort, and Damrosch refuses to see physical suffering as inevitably symbolic of psychic malaise. Even writing was hard work. Swift wrote by the dim, smoky and undoubtedly stinking light of a bulrush soaked in bacon fat because he could not afford candles for the cathedral deanery. It is humbling to think of the sheer number of words he produced in such conditions while also holding down a full-time job. Swift’s work was also affected by at least one serious debility, which has been diagnosed retrospectively as Ménière’s syndrome. Now recognised as a disorder of the inner ear, it causes deafness and vertigo, affecting sufferers’ balance so that they are prone to falls and exhausted by the sheer effort of trying to stand upright. It is sad to read that Swift thought his illness had been caused by eating fruit. Even though he loved to eat and cultivate fruit, achieving the considerable feat of growing nectarines outdoors in Dublin, he tried to avoid plums, peaches, and the like throughout adulthood, so he thought, for the good of his health.
Medical intervention made things worse. Swift’s friend the physician John Arbuthnot tried to help out by providing remedies which sound disgusting and which, like most eighteenth century medicine, had no beneficial effect and caused active harm – luckily for Swift this was confined to the pills’ stated purpose, the induction of vomiting. Damrosch’s unstinting and unsentimental discussion of such details comes in the form of mini-essays on relevant topics, which make good on the “world” promise of the title and add breadth to the chronological progression of individual chapters. He is a particularly good explicator of the politics of the time, which do not easily admit of concise summaries; his tone, though not intrusive, is worldly, with flashes of deadpan humour conveyed in the short punchy sentences he uses to round off a paragraph. These include the droll observation that “it rains a lot in Ireland” (possibly an autobiographical reflection on sodden overseas research trips) and the assertion he makes in discussing the allegorical significance of Gulliver’s preferred fire-fighting technique in Lilliput: “urine is still urine”. He also favours linguistic aperçus, reminding us that “conscious” could mean “conscience-stricken” and that a journal was originally the record of a single day. The combination of pleasure in detail with a measured and clear take on the big issues produces a reliable one-volume reference biography for scholars which is also entertaining enough to provide good reading for anyone with an interest in Swift or his times.
One of the claims Damrosch makes near the beginning of his book to explain the need for a new biography is that “Swift matters”. This is, I think, justifiable. “Burn everything that comes from England except their people and their coal” used to be his most famous (and most misquoted) soundbite but in recent years changed priorities and transformed relationships have pushed another of his statements to the fore, one in which Swift calls for a law to be passed that would make it mandatory to “hang up half a dozen bankers every year”. Swift matters not just because he said some things which, taken out of context, can be readily assimilated to modern populist sentiment. He perfected the art of crafting phrases snappy enough to become slogans but which, on closer inspection, yield disturbing and contradictory meanings. He also (naturally) had an epigrammatic statement for this reading process, likening satire to “a sort of glass” in which beholders are likely to discern everyone’s face but their own.

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