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WILLIAM BLAKE (1757–1827) lived through sixty-nine years of wars and revolutions, political, industrial, and intellectual. But the first big fact about his life is that he grew up in a time of peace and never lost the feeling that England was a green and pleasant land, potentially the mart of peaceful nations; that London's towers were a fit dwelling place for the Lamb of God. Without regular occupation until the age of ten when he entered drawing school, "sweet [he] roamed from field to field"; saw angels in a sunlit tree at Dulwich and among haymakers at dawn; bathed in the ponds near Willan's farm and in the Thames; haunted the printshops and the few accessible art collections; read the poets and prophets from Isaiah to Milton; recorded his joy in songs of laughter; and stored up impressions for the later building of Jerusalem. Blake's vision of paradise is no lost traveler's dream but the sunny side of eighteenth-century London life as experienced by a boy given to roaming the adjacent fields and living in an indulgent family in a Broad Street on a square named Golden.
All the biographers rightly emphasize Blake's happy boyhood; yet in their discussion of his youthful "visions" they tend to isolate themselves from Blake by treating him as quaint or mystic. They generally fail to take into account the graphic artist's professional interest in "seeing through the eye" or to recognize that the community of London artists which was Blake's only college was a milieu that encouraged visionaries—not those who had "ineffable" but those who had vivid and distinct revelations. Hogarth, scarcely a mystic, saw visions; and many other artists, including Cosway, who taught at Pars's Drawing School and was intimate with Blake for many years, boasted of ghostly visitors who sat for their portraits. Blake came to insist, however, that his paintings were drawn from intellectual visions, not corporeal hallucinations. But a greater failing of the biographers, the archetype of whom is the Carlylean Alexander Gilchrist, is that they have no eye at all for the wider framework around the national peace which England enjoyed between Blake's fifth and seventeenth years. Yet the story of Blake's early intellectual growth is in part the story of his learning to see the larger web of commerce and war within which "peace" was often mere hallucination.
Britannia with trident in hand was the emblematic image (soon to go out of fashion in the iconology of political engraving) of the peace attained in 1762 after The Great War for the Empire, as scholars now call it. British naval power had driven France out of America and the richer plunder depots of India, and had hastened the Spanish Empire toward its ruin. It was a peace, as the slightly older poet Chatterton sardonically observed in 1770, "modelled in gingerbread, and ready to fall in pieces at the slightest touch." And the statue's base was the triangle of commerce in slaves, sugar, rum. But surely Blake's attention as a boy was not focused on the foundations of his paradise.
A sudden altering and sharpening of focus did come, however, with the second big fact in Blake's life, the American Revolution and the American War, which made the golden sunlight on the Thames a cheat and shook to ruin Jerusalem's arches over Primrose Hill and Marybone (J.27). Blake reached maturity during the American War; as soon as the war was over he printed poems and exhibited paintings full of the war's "dark horrors," and ten years later he drew upon one of these paintings for the frontispiece and title page of his epic prophecy America, in which he told the story not so much of the American Revolution as of its impact on London in those war years. Yet this mountainous fact which Blake said "passed before" his face and signified "a mighty & awful change" (to Flaxman, September 1800) has been utterly ignored or misunderstood.
The difficulty comes at least as much from a failure to enter imaginatively into Blake's times as it does from a failure to enter Blake's imagination. Thus an assumption as to "the sterility" of Blake's environment can lead even an acute observer of Blake to abandon a valuable hypothesis about the irony in his early dramatization of England's commercial warriors. As for Gilchrist, once he has established Blake as an engraver for the antiquaries he ignores the larger world in which they all lived and accepts as comprehensive the statement that after his twentieth year Blake's energies were "wholly directed to the attainment of excellence in his profession." When Gilchrist says, "These were not favourable days for designing, or even quiet engraving," he is merely referring to one June week which he treats in anecdotal isolation; yet the week in question epitomizes, as we shall see, the intimate and enduring relationship of the prophetic journeyman engraver to the citizens of London who sympathized with America in the days of "Wilkes and Liberty."
We tend to think of English opposition to the American War as a matter of a few bold speeches by Chatham, Burke, Fox, and Wilkes, without considering that these politicians, though out-numbered in a Parliament dominated by "King's friends," were voicing the sentiment of a majority who looked upon the King's attempt to suppress the American trade as a display of arbitrary power. In English trading centers the war was never popular. Even during the middle years, when many merchants were enjoying large war contracts, the London Common Council persistently voted against recruiting volunteers to fight for the King. All the London members in the House of Commons between 1774 and 1784 consistently opposed the war policy and said they were speaking for their constituents. The modern historian discovers with some surprise that most of the satiric prints which served as the graphic editorials of the day were pro-American, representing America as the land of liberty and virtue, England as that of corruption and slavery, and King George as a cruel and obstinate tyrant. We should not be surprised to find that Blake shared the common view nor to find in some of his earliest work the germs of his later republicanism.
Hardly a sterile environment for such ideas was the London whose printshops featured such "comic history painting" as The State Blacksmiths forging fetters for the Americans (1776), Poor Old England endeavouring [with a scourge] to reclaim her Wicked American Children (1777), and The Horse America, throwing his Master (1779). Critics, however, with rare exception have assumed that the poetry, and most of the history painting, produced by Blake during the American Revolution express chiefly a simple romantic nationalism and a youthful enthusiasm for kingly war, although some passages are recognized as strongly anti-war. This topsy-turvy interpretation is due in part to Blake's somewhat indirect way of expressing his sympathy with the American "Patriots," but also in large part to neglect of the historical context. Failure to recognize the element of London radicalism in his early work has sent readers of Blake off to a bad start and has also distorted the general picture of eighteenth-century British culture, through omission of Blake's important contribution to the democratic side.
The history of Blake's famous picture Glad Day, more properly called The Dance of Albion or Albion rose (Plate I), will furnish a startling example of how Blake's "sublime allegory" can be missed and misread. In 1780 in the fifth year of the war, when Blake was twenty-two and free both from his apprenticeship which had ended the year before and from "Matrimony's golden cage" which he would enter two years later, he drew a bold picture transforming a textbook diagram of the proportions of the human figure into a terrific social utterance. Along came his Victorian biographer eighty years later; decided to call it "Glad Day," though one would think the facial expression in this picture rather sober than glad; and saw no connection with those June days which he elsewhere remarked as unfit for quiet engraving. Blake himself, however, had recorded the connection between this drawing and the American Revolution and the Gordon Riots of 1780.
In America Blake describes the spirit of rebellion as crossing the Atlantic to Great Britain and inspiring, particularly in London and Bristol, open demonstrations against the war, which temporarily deranged the guardians of the status quo and hastened the coming of peace. Amid "fires of hell" and "burning winds driven by flames" of Revolution,
The millions sent up a howl of anguish and threw off their hammerd mail, And cast their swords & spears to earth, & stood a naked multitude.
Historians have come to realize that an important ingredient of the June riots was wrath against "the unfortunate management of the War against the American Rebellion." For several days the multitudes were in control of the streets of London, and there were uprisings in Bristol and other towns. Wearing the blue cockade of Wilkes and Liberty, crowds sacked and burned "Papist" chapels and the houses of ministers, magistrates, bishops, lawyers; they burst open jails and released the prisoners. As for the "howl of anguish," the Annual Register describing the flames ascending from the prisons, from the hated ha'penny toll-houses on Black-friars Bridge, from alcohol blazing in a demolished distillery, mentions "the tremendous roar of the authors of these horrible scenes," continuing all the night (the fifth day).
The mixture of motives in the rioters' minds remains obscure. "Government and the Rioters," observed a contemporary, "seemed to have felt an equal disposition, by drawing a veil over the extent of the calamity, to bury it in profound darkness"; and they succeeded. "No Popery!" was the cry, and it seemed somewhat out of date. But there was a link to government efforts to win Catholic support and Catholic troops for the armies in America. It was Lord Gordon's view that recent Catholic relief bills had been devised "for the diabolical purpose of arming the Papists against the Protestant Colonies in America." There was also an urge among "lower classes" to imitate the Reform agitation of "respectable gentlemen" who had been meeting and speaking all spring.
"'The Rights of the People'—'The Majesty of the People,' were then the fashionable expressions, and several gentlemen went so far as to say, that Ireland had only obtained her independence by the force of 60,000 bayonets, and that if Parliament did not comply with their Petitions, it would be necessary to take the same means to enforce them. Such was the temper of these Meetings...."
And it was at this time that the Society for Constitutional Information was formed, of which we shall hear more later.
Alarmed conservatives—the blue-stocking Mrs. Montagu for one —thought the riot was intended to force capitulation to "the conditions of peace with America on the terms offered by the Congress, the French and Spaniards." Horace Walpole pondered the rumor that "Some Americans, perhaps, taught by the lessons we have given them of burning towns," had "joined in the opportunity," but he was more impressed by the force of "a thousand discontents."
Gilchrist, who states that "Blake long remembered" his having been in "the front rank" of the crowd that burned and opened the gates of the great fortress and prison of Newgate on June 6th, is careful to qualify Blake's participation as "involuntary," just as later he is careful (and patently incorrect) to absolve Blake of sympathy with the French Revolution after 1792. Jacob Bronowski's observation is probably nearer the truth, that "Blake did not grow afraid of the crowd, then or later." We may let "involuntary" stand, for any physical participation, but it seems clear that Blake shared the sentiments of Gilchrist's "triumphant black-guardism" insofar as "the mob" believed that freeing their fellows from Newgate was a step toward freeing Albion from an oppressive war.
Thomas Wright makes the pregnant observation that "these terrific scenes—the flaming houses and chapels and the occurrences at the jail—affected [Blake] extraordinarily, and gave him ideas for many a startling print in Europe, America and the other Prophetic Books." But for Wright too the "striking" 1780 drawing is only "Glad Day" or "Jocund Day." Blake did not, indeed, find any quiet time to engrave that picture for many years. When he did he identified it with the inscription "WB inv[enit] [i.e. made the original drawing] 1780." The picture has attained wide popularity, but its topical significance has never been observed. On a mountain top, arms in a gesture of tremendous energy and confidence, stands the "naked multitude" portrayed as a single giant in keeping with Blake's theory that "Multitudes of Men in Harmony" appear "as One Man." The hair is twisted into flame-like points.
Gilchrist saw a personification of sunrise, Wright the exhilaration of youth aglow—making nothing of the lines Blake engraved under the picture some time in 1800 or later:
Albion rose from where he labourd at the Mill with Slaves Giving himself for the Nations he danc'd the dance of Eternal Death.
The symbolism of this inscription derives from Blake's paraphrase of the Declaration of Independence in America, though it is a later symbolism than that of America, for Albion is here more than a place name: he is "Albion the ancient Man" of The Four Zoas, that is, the eternal Englishman or, more broadly, the people. Blake is saying that in 1780 the people of England rose up in a demonstration of independence, dancing the dance of insurrection (apocalyptic self-sacrifice) to save the Nations (Blake's term in America for the Colonies). Albion's facial expression must be read as that of one offering himself a living sacrifice.
Albion's dance comes from, and serves as a characteristic Blakean reversal of, the following passage in Burke's 1796 Letter to a Noble Lord. Recollecting "the portentous crisis from 1780 to 1782" precipitated by the Gordon riots, Burke shudders at the thought of how close England came to revolution at a time when "wild and savage insurrection quitted the woods and prowled about our streets in the name of Reform." Had the horrid "comet of the Rights of Man ... crossed upon us in that internal state of England," or had the changes called for by the Reformers "taken place, not France, but England would have had the honor of leading up the death-dance of democratic revolution." We begin to see the kind of London Blake's ideas developed in.
Blake's testimony in 1800 as to his intellectual life preceding the American War is brief but suggestive. "Now my lot in the Heavens is this, Milton lov'd me in childhood & shew'd me his face. Ezra came with Isaiah the Prophet, but Shakespeare in riper years gave me his hand; Paracelsus & Behmen appear'd to me, terrors appear'd in the Heavens above And in Hell beneath, & a mighty & awful change threatened the Earth. The American War began. All its dark horrors ...," and so on. The change was mighty and perhaps sudden but not unexpected. In the Heavens it was presaged by Paracelsus & Boehme. One gathers that Blake's reading in these murky seers corresponded to a growing awareness of social conflict "in Hell beneath" (for his language in this letter is adapted to the views of a "dear friend" who wished to purge him of his Jacobinism). The large place assigned by Boehme to evil in the cosmos as necessary to the manifestation of God's goodness; the emphasis of Paracelsus on reversal and change, on the interaction of the opposites forming the alchemical unity of generation: Blake would not incorporate these things into his own world-view until much later, but even now they must have lent a larger and at times fearful significance to his formal studies of "the exact rules of proportion" and the "Most Exact grounds and Rules of Symmetry."
Excerpted from BLAKE by DAVID V. ERDMAN. Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted July 10, 2013