Blake seeks to provide the Golden String which can lead us through the labyrinth of our experience or his own poetry.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Blake's picture titled Queen Katharine's Dream is an illustration to lines from William Shakespeare's play Henry VII. Blake choose to illustrate lines from the play which echo his own feelings. As Katharine of Aragon the first wife of Henry lies on her deathbed she reports a dream which she had of the glorious world which awaited her.

Henry VIII , Scene IV
No? Saw you not, even now, a blessed troop
Invite me to a banquet; whose bright faces
Cast thousand beams upon me, like the sun?
They promised me eternal happiness;
And brought me garlands, Griffith, which I feel
I am not worthy yet to wear: I shall, assuredly.
I am most joyful, madam, such good dreams
Possess your fancy."

Blake painted illustrations for this scene at least three times. A earliest image of the scene resides in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and is dated between 1783 and 1790. Look for motifs from Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake's lithograph of Enoch, and Plate 33 (37) of Jerusalem in this painting. Shown here are the later images.

British Museum, London (dated 1809)..........
National Gallery, Washington (dated 1825)


Sunday, January 29, 2012


Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Virgin & Child in Egypt

The gospel of Luke records the song Mary sang when her cousin Elizabeth recognised that the Lords's promise of salvation was to be fulfilled through the child Mary was to bear.

Luke 1
[41] And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:
[42] And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
[43] And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
[44] For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.
[45] And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.
[46] And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
[47] And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
[48] For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
[49] For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
[50] And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
[51] He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
[52] He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
[53] He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
[54] He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
[55] As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

In Jerusalem Blake similarly has Mary burst into song but the occasion is the realisation that she is forgiven by God and by Joseph. Blake chooses to have Mary represent the sinner who calls upon God to forgive because it is his nature to forgive.

Jerusalem, Plate 61, (E 212)
"But Jehovahs Salvation
Is without Money & without Price, in the Continual Forgiveness of Sins
In the Perpetual Mutual Sacrifice in Great Eternity! for behold!
There is none that liveth & Sinneth not!"

To Blake to be forgiven was more worthy than to be pure. His Jesus was borne by a Mother who knew that she was not to be glorified. She was made pure through God's mercy. She knew that she could make no claim of virtue. Through mercy she became acquainted with the Divine Humanity, the God of Pity, compassion, and forgiveness.

Jerusalem, Plate 61, (E 212)
"And this is the Covenant
Of Jehovah: If you Forgive one-another, so shall Jehovah Forgive You:
That He Himself may Dwell among You. Fear not then to take
To thee Mary thy Wife, for she is with Child by the Holy Ghost

Then Mary burst forth into a Song! she flowed like a River of
Many Streams in the arms of Joseph & gave forth her tears of joy
Like many waters, and Emanating into gardens & palaces upon
Euphrates & to forests & floods & animals wild & tame from
Gihon to Hiddekel, & to corn fields & villages & inhabitants
Upon Pison & Arnon & Jordan. And I heard the voice among
The Reapers Saying, Am I Jerusalem the lost Adulteress? or am I
Babylon come up to Jerusalem? And another voice answerd Saying

Does the voice of my Lord call me again? am I pure thro his Mercy
And Pity. Am I become lovely as a Virgin in his sight who am
Indeed a Harlot drunken with the Sacrifice of Idols does he
Call her pure as he did in the days of her Infancy when She
Was cast out to the loathing of her person. The Chaldean took
Me from my Cradle. The Amalekite stole me away upon his Camels
Before I had ever beheld with love the Face of Jehovah; or known
That there was a God of Mercy: O Mercy O Divine Humanity!
O Forgiveness & Pity & Compassion! If I were Pure I should never
Have known Thee; If I were Unpolluted I should never have
Glorified thy Holiness, or rejoiced in thy great Salvation.

Mary leaned her side against Jerusalem, Jerusalem recieved
The Infant into her hands in the Visions of Jehovah. Times passed on
Jerusalem fainted over the Cross & Sepulcher She heard the voice
Wilt thou make Rome thy Patriarch Druid & the Kings of Europe his
Horsemen? Man in the Resurrection changes his Sexual Garments at will
Every Harlot was once a Virgin: every Criminal an Infant Love!"


Friday, January 27, 2012


British Museum
'The Christian Triumph'
Illustration to Young's 'Night Thoughts'
Frontispiece to Night the Fourth

Blake seems to have lived through the 7TH and 8TH chapters of Romans. His struggles with the demonic forces in the world as well as his self-condemnation and doubt showed him the wretchedness from which only Christ could release him. Emerging into the Light gave him the strength to continue conquering.

Romans 7
[23] But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
[24] O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
[25] I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.

Letters, 22, (E 719)

[To] Mr Butts, Gr Marlborough Street

"Felpham Novr. 22: 18O2
But You will justly enquire why I have not written All this
time to you? I answer I have been very Unhappy & could not think
of troubling you about it or any of my real Friends (I have
written many letters to you which I burnd & did not send)
And now let me finish with assuring you that Tho I have been
very unhappy I am so no longer I am again Emerged into the light
of Day I still & shall to Eternity Embrace Christianity and Adore
him who is the Express image of God but I have traveld thro
Perils & Darkness not unlike a Champion I have Conquerd and shall
still Go on Conquering Nothing can withstand the fury of my
Course among the Stars of God & in the Abysses of the Accuser My
Enthusiasm is still what it was only Enlarged and confirmd"

Romans 8
[34] Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.
[35] Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
[36] As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
[37] Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.
[38] For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
[39] Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Post on second part of Blake's letter to Butts (Nov 22, 1802): ON THE WALK TO LAVANT.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Illustrations to the Book of Job
Linnell Set
Picture 14

Blake's famous concept of Fourfold is something of a misnomer. The fourfoldness of Blake's system is repeated at multiple levels. For instance, the Zoas each contained aspects of the three other Zoas. The mathematical concept of fractals may give us a handle on the way Blake keeps dividing his entities into replicas at more minute scales. The information contained at each level of the fractal supplies the information for other levels. Just as the hologram contains all of the information for the entire image in each particular, each iteration of the fractal is a replication of the original. Blake's multiple divisions allow us to examine the repetition of manifestations of archetypical entities as they are visible in multiple situations.

In this passage from Jerusalem, Blake is clearly inviting us to dig deeper as we explore the gates through which transitions are accomplished. I've divided the passage into sections to emphasise the repetition of four within each of the four gates. I've italicised the number four of which there are 17 occurrences.

Jerusalem , Plate 12, (E 156)

"And the
Four Points are thus beheld in Great Eternity

West, the Circumference: South, the Zenith: North,
The Nadir: East, the Center, unapproachable for ever.
These are the
four Faces towards the Four Worlds of Humanity
In every Man. Ezekiel saw them by Chebars flood.
And the Eyes are the South, and the Nostrils are the East.
And the Tongue is the West, and the Ear is the North.

And the North Gate of Golgonooza toward Generation;
four sculpturd Bulls terrible before the Gate of iron.
And iron, the Bulls: and that which looks toward Ulro,
Clay bak'd & enamel'd, eternal glowing as
four furnaces:
Turning upon the Wheels of Albions sons with enormous power.
And that toward Beulah four, gold, silver, brass, & iron:

And that toward Eden,
four, form'd of gold, silver, brass, &

The South, a golden Gate, has
four Lions terrible, living!
That toward Generation,
four, of iron carv'd wondrous:
That toward Ulro,
four, clay bak'd, laborious workmanship
That toward Eden,
four; immortal gold, silver, brass & iron.

The Western Gate
fourfold, is closd: having four Cherubim
Its guards, living, the work of elemental hands, laborious task!
Like Men, hermaphroditic, each winged with eight wings
That towards Generation, iron; that toward Beulah, stone;
That toward Ulro, clay: that toward Eden, metals.
But all clos'd up till the last day, when the graves shall yield
their dead

The Eastern Gate, fourfold: terrible & deadly its ornaments:
Taking their forms from the Wheels of Albions sons; as cogs
Are formd in a wheel, to fit the cogs of the adverse wheel.

That toward Eden, eternal ice, frozen in seven folds
Of forms of death: and that toward Beulah, stone:
The seven diseases of the earth are carved terrible.

And that toward Ulro, forms of war: seven enormities:
And that toward Generation, seven generative forms.

And every part of the City is fourfold; & every inhabitant,
And every pot & vessel & garment & utensil of the houses,
And every house,
fourfold; but the third Gate in every one
Is closd as with a threefold curtain of ivory & fine linen &
And Luban stands in middle of the City. a moat of fire,
Surrounds Luban, Los's Palace & the golden Looms of Cathedron."

Blake's symbols do not readily yield their content. This is partly because the meaning they convey can be read as viewed from afar or from close-up. We focus our eyes on the object or on a plane to which we want to give attention. Blake has written in such a way that the focus of our attention will allow us to move about his worlds in their infinite variety.

Letters , 16, to Thomas Butts, (E 712)

"Each grain of Sand
 Every Stone on the Land
 Each rock & each hill
 Each fountain & rill
 Each herb & each tree
 Mountain hill Earth & Sea
 Cloud Meteor & Star
 Are Men Seen Afar"

Monday, January 23, 2012


Milton's Mysterious Dream,
Watercolor Illustration to Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso
Wikimedia Commons

Each person creates his own universe according to Blake and he takes it with him wherever he goes. His reasoning mind provides an abstraction of a microscopic or macroscopic world,
but man lives within the cavern of his skull.

Milton, PLATE 29 [31], (E 127)

"The Sky is an immortal tent built by the Sons of Los
And every Space that a Man views around his dwelling-place:
Standing on his own roof, or in his garden on a mount
Of twenty-five cubits in height, such space is his Universe;
And on its verge the Sun rises & sets. the Clouds bow
To meet the flat Earth & the Sea in such an orderd Space:
The Starry heavens reach no further but here bend and set
On all sides & the two Poles turn on their valves of gold:
And if he move his dwelling-place, his heavens also move.
Wher'eer he goes & all his neighbourhood bewail his loss:
Such are the Spaces called Earth & such its dimension:
As to that false appearance which appears to the reasoner,
As of a Globe rolling thro Voidness, it is a delusion of Ulro"

In the Eternal world there is no differentiation among aspects of existence because all belong to one reality and can enter into each other through the means of mind or body. In the limited existence where we dwell, the individuality experiences itself as mind and body, internal and external, oneself and other. The imagination contains the paradigm whose shadow is projected externally and perceived as exterior worlds.

Jerusalem , Plate 71, (E 225)
"For all are Men in Eternity. Rivers Mountains Cities Villages,
All are Human & when you enter into their Bosoms you walk
In Heavens & Earths; as in your own Bosom you bear your Heaven
And Earth, & all you behold, tho it appears Without it is Within
In your Imagination of which this World of Mortality is but a

The confusion between the subjective and objective infects the mind which cannot distinguish between what is internal mental processing and the projected world of mind created images.

Jerusalem , PLATE 32 [36], (E 179)
"As Los bended the Senses of Reuben Reuben is Merlin
Exploring the Three States of Ulro; Creation; Redemption. &

And many of the Eternal Ones laughed after their manner

Have you known the judgment that is arisen among the
Zoa's of Albion? where a Man dare hardly to embrace
His own Wife, for the terrors of Chastity that they call
By the name of Morality. their Daughters govern all
In hidden deceit! they are Vegetable only fit for burning
Art & Science cannot exist but by Naked Beauty displayd

Then those in Great Eternity who contemplate on Death
Said thus. What seems to Be: Is: To those to whom
It seems to Be, & is productive of the most dreadful
Consequences to those to whom it seems to Be: even of
Torments, Despair, Eternal Death; but the Divine Mercy
Steps beyond and Redeems Man in the Body of Jesus Amen
And Length Bredth Highth again Obey the Divine Vision Hallelujah"

The distortion of Eternal reality which results from the assumptions made in Ulro (the exclusively material world) is seen to amuse the Eternals. But they realize that the illusions which are thought to be real produce consequences which seem to the individual to be just as real as if they were accurate descriptions of Eternal realities. The undistorted perception is reached through receiving the integration of spirit and matter achieved and made available through Christ.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


There are resemblances between Blake's thought and the current theories of cognition. In Fritjof Capra's The Web of Life we read of the development of theories of cognition which go under the names such as 'dynamical systems theory', 'the theory of complexity', 'nonlinear dynamics', and 'network dynamics.' Capra has attempted to follow the change of paradigms from the mechanistic to the ecological worldview in understanding living systems.

When I read of nonlinear thinking, feedback loops, and bringing forth a world, I am reminded that Blake spoke of these things in his own language of symbolic poetry 200 years ago.

p 264
"In the emerging theory of living systems mind is not a thing, but a process. It is cognition, the process of knowing, it is identified with the process of life itself. This is the essence of the Santiago theory of cognition, proposed by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela.
In ancient times the rational human mind was seen as merely one aspect of the immaterial soul, or spirit. The basic distinction was not between body and mind, but between body and soul, or body and spirit. While the differentiation between soul and spirit was fluid and fluctuated over time, both originally unified in themselves two concepts - that of the force of life and the activity of consciousness.
In the languages of ancient times both of these ideas are expressed through the metaphor of the breath of life. Indeed, the etymological roots of 'soul' and 'spirit' mean 'breath' in many antique languages."

p 267
"Since cognition traditionally is defined as the process of knowing, we must be able to describe it in terms of an organism's interactions with its environment. Indeed, this is what ,he Santiago theory does. The specific phenomena underlying the process of cognition is structural coupling. As we have seen, an autopoietic system undergoes continual structural change while preserving its weblike pattern of organization. It couples to its environment structurally in other words, through recurrent interactions, each of which triggers structural changes in the system. The living system is autonomous, however. The environment only triggers the structural changes, it does not specify or direct them.
Now, the living system not only specifies these structural changes, it also specifies which perturbations from the environment trigger them. This is the key to the Santiago theory of cognition. The structural changes in the system constitute acts of cognition. By specifying which perturbations from the environment trigger its changes, the system 'brings forth a world', as Maturana and Varela put it. Cognition, then, is then not a recognition of an independently existing world, but a continual bring forth of a world through the process of living."

p 271
"Maturana and Varela do not maintain that there is a void out there, out of which we create matter. There is a material world, but it does not have any predetermined features. The authors of the Santiago theory do not assert that 'nothing exists'; they assert that 'no things exist' independent to the process of cognition."

Image from New York Public Library Digital Gallery
Milton, Plate 45

Songs of Experience , Song 40, (E 23)


"Little Fly
Thy summers play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush'd away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing:
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength & breath:
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die."

Jerusalem, Plate 27, (E 173)
" He witherd up the Human Form,
By laws of sacrifice for sin:
Till it became a Mortal Worm:
But O! translucent all within.

The Divine Vision still was seen
Still was the Human Form, Divine
Weeping in weak & mortal clay
O Jesus still the Form was thine.

And thine the Human Face & thine
The Human Hands & Feet & Breath
Entering thro' the Gates of Birth
And passing thro' the Gates of Death"

Milton, Plate 26 [28], (E 122)
"These are the Sons of Los, & these the Labourers of the Vintage
Thou seest the gorgeous clothed Flies that dance & sport in
Upon the sunny brooks & meadows: every one the dance
Knows in its intricate mazes of delight artful to weave:
Each one to sound his instruments of music in the dance,
To touch each other & recede; to cross & change & return
These are the Children of Los; thou seest the Trees on mountains
The wind blows heavy, loud they thunder thro' the darksom sky
Uttering prophecies & speaking instructive words to the sons
Of men: These are the Sons of Los! These the Visions of Eternity

But we see only as it were the hem of their garments
When with our vegetable eyes we view these wond'rous Visions"

Thursday, January 19, 2012


The mental world in which the imagination lives is the world to which Blake invites us. In one of his first illuminated works, There is no Natural Religion, he teaches that the sense organs do not provide the totality of perception. The mind processes the input which the senses receive. Art and science which depend on presenting descriptions on the material world as perceived by the senses, without seeking the element of the Eternal which is revealed through Imagination, is to Blake bad art and science. The exterior world receives its meaning from the mind that perceives it - not the reverse. Thought for Blake is ever active: engaging in intellectual conflict which creates 'Mental forms" which build the 'Universe stupendous.'

There is No Natural Religion , Series b, Plate 2, (E 2)
"I . Mans perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception. he
percieves more than sense (tho' ever so acute) can discover."

A Vision of the Last Judgment , (E 565)
"The Last Judgment is an Overwhelming of Bad Art & Science.
Mental Things are alone Real what is Calld Corporeal Nobody Knows
of its Dwelling Place is in Fallacy & its Existence an
Imposture Where is the Existence Out of Mind or Thought Where is
it but in the Mind of a Fool. Some People flatter themselves
that there will be No Last Judgment & that Bad Art will be
adopted & mixed with Good Art That Error or Experiment will make
a Part of Truth & they Boast that it is its Foundation these
People flatter themselves I will not Flatter them Error is
Created Truth is Eternal Error or Creation will be Burned Up &
then & not till then Truth or Eternity will appear It is Burnt up
the Moment Men cease to behold it I assert for My self that I do
not behold the Outward Creation & that to me it is hindrance &
not Action it is as the Dirt upon my feet No part of Me. What it
will be Questiond When the Sun rises do you not see a round
Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable
company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord
God Almighty I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any
more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight I look
thro it & not with it.

Milton , Plate 1, (E 95)
"Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads
against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the
Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for
ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I
call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fash[i]onable Fools
to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for
contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they
make of such works; believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a
Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying. We do not
want either Greek or Roman Models if we are but just & true to
our own Imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall
live for ever; in Jesus our Lord."

Milton , PLATE 30 [33], (E 129)
"Lo the Eternal Great Humanity
To whom be Glory & Dominion Evermore Amen
Walks among all his awful Family seen in every face
As the breath of the Almighty. such are the words of man to man
In the great Wars of Eternity, in fury of Poetic Inspiration,
To build the Universe stupendous: Mental forms Creating"

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Blake's engraving of Death's Door for Blair's Grave

Blake's watercolor of Death's Door from which the engraving was made.
Click on image to see the perfection of Blake's line and the delicate use of color.

Schiavonetti's engraving of Blake's image as published in Cromek's edition of Blair's Grave

Illustrations to the Grave eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library

W. J. T. Mitchell's chapter Blake's Composite Art in the anthology Blake's Visionary Forms Dramatic edited by Erdman and Grant, attempts to enlighten us on how the relationship of the two sides of Blake's genius, painting and poetry can best be understood. He sees the resolution of contraries including line (form) and color (light) in the images, to be the exercise which Blake continually repeats.

Page 75
"In spite of his theoretical preference for outline and form, Blake often obscures his outlines with opaque pigments and heavy drapery.
The resolution of this apparent contradiction between theory and practice lies in a fuller understanding of the theory. The subservience of light to form is, for Blake, a visual equivalent of an ideal condition:

Jerusalem, PLATE 54, (E 203)
In Great Eternity, every particular Form gives forth Emanates
Its own peculiar Light, & the Form is the Divine Vision
And the Light is his Garment

The relation of form to light is defined as that of the individual and his Emanation, or of consciousness and the external world which it projects. With the fall, however, consciousness becomes egotism (male will) and the external world becomes an independent Nature (female will). Form and light become, in this world, sexual principles working in opposition. The resolution of this opposition is attained by a procedure rather similar to the one we observed in the relation of text and design, a dialectic of contraries. When female nature, for instance, assumes an independent existence, it becomes 'An outside shadowy surface super-added to the real Surface; Which is unchangeable' (Jerusalem, Plate 83, E 241); that is color freed from outline and obscuring it is the visual equivalent of nature's obfuscating the imagination. The veil or garment is often used as a metaphor for this idea of this idea of color, and disposition of drapery in Blake's pictures can be seen to follow the same principles as his treatment of color... Blake clothes many of his figures to exhibit their immersion into the fallen world of time and space... In the 'Death's Door' illustration to Blair's Grave Blake similarly contrasts the entry into death (i.e., the fallen world) with the 'awakening to Eternal life' by setting the clothed figure who enters the grave against the naked figure atop the grave."

Jerusalem, Plate 83, (E 241)
[Voice of Los]
"That whatever is seen upon the Mundane Shell, the same
Be seen upon the Fluctuating Earth woven by the Sisters
And sometimes the Earth shall roll in the Abyss & sometimes
Stand in the Center & sometimes stretch flat in the Expanse,
According to the will of the lovely Daughters of Albion.
Sometimes it shall assimilate with mighty Golgonooza:
Touching its summits: & sometimes divided roll apart.
As a beautiful Veil so these Females shall fold & unfold
According to their will the outside surface of the Earth
An outside shadowy Surface superadded to the real Surface;
Which is unchangeable for ever & ever Amen
: so be it!
Separate Albions Sons gently from their Emanations,
Weaving bowers of delight on the current of infant Thames
Where the old Parent still retains his youth as I alas!
Retain my youth eight thousand and five hundred years.
The labourer of ages in the Valleys of Despair!"

Near the conclusion of his chapter Mitchell states:

"Significance is located in the dialectic between the permanence of outline and the mutability and momentary reality of color, just as in the poetry the continuity of consciousness is affirmed and realized in its ability persistently to give form to the changing manifestations of itself and the world it perceives." (Page 80)

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Laocoon as it appeared with restorations in Blake's day and his image with inscriptions

Blake's Laocoon was the continuation of his attempt to present his ideas on life, art, imagination and spirituality in a condensed and concentrated form. Believed to have been printed in 1826, existing in only two copies, it is a summation of the lessons he had learned through a long life of exercising his imagination in the continual practice of art.

In Volume 5 of the Blake Trust's series on Blake's Illuminated Books comments are made about Blake's Laocoon print. From The Illuminated Books of William Blake, Volume 5: Milton, A Poem, Edited by Robert N. Essick and Joseph Viscomi:

"The distinguishing feature of the engraving is of course the wall of aphorisms, epigrams, and mini-narratives on subjects ranging from Jesus to economics. They express Blake's personal struggle as a visionary artist in a commercial age, and thus the struggle of all inspired artist to make art in countries devoted to money, moral law, war, and imitations." Page 231

"In his other treatises on art, including On Homer Poetry, A Descriptive Catalogue and the Public Address, Blake locates the primary obstacles to the creation of true and inspired art in the perverted taste of his day. Copies and translations were preferred to original engravings, blots and blurs were preferred to line, and unity and morality were preferred to works predicated on the unity of the imagination expressed in the part as much as the whole. In his epics, Blake examines the struggle between imagination and the moral law, forgiveness and the accusation of sin, annihilation and the assertion of selfhood. In Laocoon, Blake consolidates many of his ideas about art and society, now more polarized than ever before, and continues to pursue the problems of taste and perception. Whereas 'Art' manifests 'Jesus', 'War' and 'Dominion' manifest 'Money' and false moral virtue. Cultures like his own and those of Greece and Rome, so thoroughly permeated by false ideas of 'Good' and 'Evil', see with the natural eye only and are incapable of recognizing that their vision is limited." Page 232

A few succinct quotes from the Plate:

Laocoon , (E 273)
"Art Degraded Imagination Denied War Governed the Nations"

"Adam is only The Natural Man & not the Soul or Imagination"

"Christianity is Art & not Money
Money is its Curse"

"For every Pleasure Money Is Useless"

"All is not Sin that Satan calls so all the Loves & Graces of Eternity."

There are many answers to the question of why Blake chose to display his wisdom about art alongside his portrayal of the Laocoon statue. Suggested answers:
His way of working was combining words with pictures.
The statue at multiple levels represents struggle between contraries.
The reader/viewer would be challenged to reconcile the messages conveyed by the words and picture.
Blake could speak to rational and emotional mental processes simultaneously by combining verbal and visual means.
The long history of the Laocoon myth and statue and those who had interacted with them would enhance the message he wished to convey about art.
Or, he wanted to provoke his reader into working out his own way of integrating the role of art into the development of his imagination.

Friday, January 13, 2012


British Museum
Section of Canterbury Pilgrims engraving used as a frontispiece for prospectus

In Blake: A Biography, Peter Ackroyd helps us to understand what Blake had learned through enduring the difficulties of earning a living through art in the milieu of early nineteenth century London. Ackroyd shows also what Blake wanted to teach his contemporaries about the trade-offs of adopting industrialised models. Quotes from Ackroyd:

"He understood how 'taste' was created and in his own oblique manner connected 'Advertizments in Newspapers' with 'Gentlemen Critics' and 'English Connoisseurs' as well as with 'Picture traders' and 'Picture dealers; here he is attacking what was essentially a middle-class genteel interest in art, propagated by the newspapers and art dealers, a fashionable taste known for its liberality and correctness but one quite unable to understand or appreciate the work of a visionary such as Blake." p 292

"He realised that, if the division between invention and execution is made, an 'Idea' or 'Design' can simply be produced on an assembly line. Art is then turned into a 'Good for Nothing Commodity' manufactured by 'Ignorant Journeymen' for a society of equally ignorant consumers." p 293

"His public address to English engravers was, in essence, not new. John Lanseer had attacked the commercialisation of engraving (and in particular Boydell) in a series of public lectures, while artists such as William Sharp and Benjamin West had criticised the beginnings of what we would now term 'mass' production. But none of them had taken their analysis as far, or as deep, as Blake. It is another example of his clairvoyant understanding of his age that he is able to draw the connection between art, industrial economics and what would become the 'consumer societies' of modern civilisation in an analysis that was not otherwise formulated until the present century. It is as if his own sense of helplessness and despair had broken him open, and he could speak clearly about the world that had come close to destroying him; it was not madness at all, but a peculiar kind of lucidity which springs from those who have nothing left to lose. But he realized well what this encroaching industrial society was about to forfeit - all imitative techniques and mechanical perceptions 'turn that which is Soul & Life into a Mill or Machine' (E 575)...All this time Blake continued his work on his engraving of Chaucer's pilgrims, redolent of a more spiritual state of England and executed by him in a style that imitated the great 'Gothic' masters of the sixteenth century." p 294

Descriptive Catalogue,PAGE 21, (E 536)
"The Plowman is simplicity itself, with wisdom and strength
for its stamina. Chaucer has divided the ancient character of
Hercules between his Miller and his Plowman. Benevolence is the
plowman's great characteristic, he is thin with excessive labour,
and not with old age, as some have supposed.

'He would thresh and thereto dike and delve
For Christe's sake, for every poore wight,
Withouten hire, if it lay in his might.'

Visions of these eternal principles or characters of human
life appear to poets, in all ages; the Grecian gods were the
ancient Cherubim of Phoenicia; but the Greeks, and since them the
Moderns, have neglected to subdue the gods of Priam. These Gods
are visions of the eternal attributes, or divine names, which,
when erected into gods, become destructive to humanity.
They ought to be the servants, and not the masters of man, or of
society. They ought to be made to sacrifice to Man, and not man
compelled to sacrifice to them; for when separated from man or
humanity, who is Jesus the Saviour, the vine of eternity, they
are thieves and rebels, they are destroyers.

More Resources for studying Blake's Canterbury Pilgrims

The painting itself belongs to the Glasgow Museum Pollock House. It was exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 2009 at which time they provided this press release. An illustrated biography of Blake by the Tate is available online. The section, Poverty & Paranoia, concerns the period when Blake worked on Canterbury Pilgrims.

Two copies of the print are in the British Museum. Learn more about Chaucer's Canterbury Tales at wikipedia.
The ideal way to view the print is at the Morgan Library website. You can zoom into the image for detail including identification of each character at the bottom of print.

An article titled Interpreting Blake's Canterbury Pilgrims by Warren Stevenson is available at

Hazard Adams has written a book named William Blake on his poetry and painting: a study of a descriptive catalogue.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Preliminary Drawing for Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims
British Museum

Blake produced his painting and his engraving of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims at a time when he was hard pressed by the changes taking place in the technical and economic facets of producing art. The prospects of profit motivated artists to compete for business, use short-cuts to mass produce, pander to popular taste, and use underhanded business practices.

Blake felt he had been cheated by the publisher/bookseller Cromek in the work he had done for the edition of Blair's The Grave which Cromek issued. He was deprived of the much need income from engraving his own designs for the book although he felt he had been promised the commission by Cromek. Subsequently Blake conceived of a large cabinet picture of the Canterbury Pilgrims which he would then engrave for sale to the public. Blake recalled mentioning the project to Cromek who then engaged Blake's friend Stothard to do the very same thing. With the backing of the publisher/bookseller Stothard's picture earned considerable money while Blake's did not.

Blake felt betrayed by Cromek and by Stothard who had been his friend since student days. Blake's anger is apparent in his Descriptive Catalogue, in the Chaucer Prospectuses, and in the Public Address which was never published or delivered. Tied in with Blake's resentment of Cormek and Stothard and his hostility toward them was his understanding of the changes in the role of art which were taking place because of the adoption of practices associated with the Industrial Revolution.

Public Address, (E 572)
"In this Plate Mr B has resumed the style with which he set
out in life of which Heath & Stothard were the awkward imitators
at that time it is the style of Alb Durers Histries & the old
Engravers which cannot be imitated by any one who does not
understand Drawing & which according to Heath & Stothard Flaxman
& even Romney. Spoils an Engraver for Each of these Men have
repeatedly asserted this Absurdity to me in condemnation [P 52]
of my Work & approbation of Heaths lame imitation Stothard being
such a fool as to suppose that his blundering blurs can be made
out & delineated by any Engraver who knows how to cut dots &
lozenges equally well with those little prints which I engraved
after him five & twenty Years ago & by which he got his
reputation as a Draughtsman"

Public Address, (E 574)
"In this manner the English Public have been imposed upon for
many Years under the impression that Engraving & Painting are
somewhat Else besides Drawing[.] Painting is Drawing on Canvas &
Engraving is Drawing on Copper & Nothing Else & he who pretends
to be either Painter or Engraver without being a Master of
Drawing is an Impostor. We may be Clever as Pugilists but as
Artists we are & have long been the Contempt of the Continent
Gravelot once said to My Master Basire
[you] English may be very clever in [your]
own opinions but [you] do not draw [the] draw

Resentment for Personal Injuries has had some share in this
Public Address But Love to My Art & Zeal for my Country a much

Public Address, (E 576)
"I have heard many People say Give me the Ideas. It is no
matter what Words you put them into & others say Give me the
Design it is no matter for the Execution. These People know
Nothing Of Art. Ideas cannot be Given
but in their minutely Appropriate Words nor Can a Design be made
without its minutely Appropriate Execution[.] The unorganized
Blots & Blurs of Rubens & Titian are not Art nor can their Method
ever express Ideas or Imaginations any more than Popes
Metaphysical jargon of Rhyming[.] Unappropriate Execution is the
Most nauseous affectation & foppery He who copies does
not Execute he only Imitates what is already Executed Execution
is only the result of Invention"

Blake turned inward following the episode involving the painting and engraving of Canterbury Pilgrims. The way which he had reacted to the failure and disappointment of his project was not congruent with his self image as one who knew that the Eternal world was reality, and that what happened in the natural world was transient states. It took Blake a long time to process the experience of rejection from those he depended upon and from the public to whom he appealed. The Public Address was a first step in which his anger exploded, but it was followed by the writing of Milton and Jerusalem in which he explored the dynamics of the presence of evil in the external and internal worlds.

Carl Jung experienced a similar psychological death when he broke with Freud. The experience was followed by a long period of introspection during which Jung explored the dark recesses of his unconscious and formulated his understanding of the dynamics of the psyche.

Monday, January 9, 2012


From Wikimedia Commons
"Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims. Copper engraving by William Blake, with additions in watercolour by the artist Third state, 1810–20. In the collection of the Morgan Library"Blake's painting of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims which measured three feet by one foot was followed by his engraving of the same design. During the year which Blake worked on this large, intricately detailed engraving he wrote two or three prospectuses which were printed commercially for prospective buyers. The copper plate for the Chaucer engraving and a copy of the print can now be found in the Yale University Art Gallery.

Chaucer Prospectus, Second, Composite Draft, (E 568)

An Original Engraving by [William Blake] from
his Fresco Painting of [Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims]
[Mr B having from early Youth cultivated the two Arts
Painting & Engraving & during a Period of Forty Years never
suspended his Labours on Copper for a single Day Submits with
Confidence to Public Patronage & requests the attention of the
Amateur in a Large Stroke Engraving] 3 feet 1 inch long
by one foot high
[Containing Thirty original high finishd whole Length,
Portraits on Horseback Of Chaucers Characters, where every
Character & every Expression, every Lineament of Head Hand &
Foot. every particular of Dress or Costume. where every Horse is
appropriate to his Rider & the Scene or Landscape with its
Villages Cottages Churches & the Inn in Southwark is minutely
labourd not by the hands of Journeymen but by the Original Artist
himself even to the Stuffs & Embroidery of the Garments. the hair
upon the Horses the Leaves upon the Trees. & the Stones & Gravel
upon the road; the Great Strength of Colouring & depth of work
peculiar to Mr B's Prints will be here found accompanied by a
Precision not to be seen but in the work of an Original

The arts like all of life in Blake's time were affected by the Industrial Revolution. Mechanisation led to new styles and tools for engraving which were less labor intensive. The use of mass production techniques removed the artist from more tedious aspects of the production. Believing as Blake did in Art as a product of the Imagination, he chose to distance himself from less than 'human' means of manufacture of art.

Michael Bedard comments on the the alternatives faced by the traditional artist as the machine age gained ground in his book William Blake: The Gates of Paradise:
Page 128
"Blake's lament was the lament of an artist and craftsman who see industry and machine methods destroying both art and craft in the interest of business and profit. His plea for the integrity of the individual artist who unites idea and execution in his work. 'Michelangelo's art depends on Michelangelo's execution altogether,' he wrote. Once the two are separated, design becomes a matter of a production line, and art is no more than a commodity."

Page 140
"In rejecting the ways of the world of commerce and the spread of machine methods into the world of art, Blake embraced the Illuminated Book with renewed passion. While industrial production prided itself on the the ability to make an endless stream of Identical copies, in Illuminated Printing each copy was unique. While industry prided itself on speed and efficiency, Blake's mode of production was deliberately slow and inefficient. While industrial production was grounded on the division of labor and the distinction between those who worked with their heads and those who worked with their hands, Blake's was an artisan's spirit. He took pride in the work of his hands and relentlessly pursued the unity of head and hands in the work of art."

Blake chose to make his engraving in the traditional way he had been taught as an apprentice with Basire. He studied Chaucer using the translation from middle English. He determined the style of clothing worn in the period. He painted types of horses which he felt were appropriate to each rider. Every detail of his engraving was determined by what he could learn about the 15th century which he was representing, and the information which Chaucer had included in his poem.

In creating his engraving for the Canterbury Tales Blake deliberately rejected the influences of the Industrial Age and embraced the ways of the artisan who brought all of his own skills to an artistry which was correct, honest and conveyed the author's intent.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


Wikipedia Commons
Canterbury Pilgrims 
When Blake painted his illustration for Chaucer's Canterbury Tales for his Exhibition of 1809 he included a detailed description of the painting in his Catalogue. He lists the pilgrims in the procession as Chaucer had described them. Notice too that he points out the time of day and the starting point of the pilgrimage. He remarks that he has attempted to portray features of the landscape as they would have appeared in Chaucer's time, some 400 years before Blake's own time. In spite of the lapse of time Blake feels that 'the characters themselves for ever remain unaltered' and delineate 'the classes of men.' 

Descriptive Catalogue, (E 532)
Sir Jeffery Chaucer and the nine and twenty Pilgrims on
their journey to Canterbury.

THE time chosen is early morning, before sunrise, when the jolly
company are just quitting the Tabarde Inn. The Knight and Squire
with the Squire's Yeoman lead the Procession, next follow the
youthful Abbess, her nun and three priests; her greyhounds attend

'Of small hounds had she that she fed
'With roast flesh, milk and wastel bread.'

Next follow the Friar and Monk; then the Tapiser, the Pardoner,
and the Somner and Manciple. After these "Our Host," who occupies
the center of the cavalcade; directs them to the Knight
as the person who would be likely to commence their task of each
telling a tale in their order. After the Host follow the
Shipman, the Haberdasher, the Dyer, the Franklin, the Physician,
the Plowman, the Lawyer, the poor Parson, the Merchant, the Wife
of Bath, the Miller, the Cook, the Oxford Scholar, Chaucer
himself, and the Reeve comes as Chaucer has described:

'And ever he rode hinderest of the rout.'

These last are issuing from the gateway of the Inn; the Cook and
the Wife of Bath are both taking their morning's draught of
comfort. Spectators stand at the gateway of the Inn, and are
composed of an old Man, a Woman and Children.
The Landscape is an eastward view of the country, from the
Tabarde Inn, in Southwark, as it may be supposed to have
appeared in Chaucer's time; interspersed with cottages and
villages; the first beams of the Sun are seen above the horizon;
some buildings and spires indicate the situation of the great
City; the Inn is a gothic building, which Thynne in his Glossary
says was the lodging of the Abbot of Hyde, by Winchester. On
the Inn is inscribed its title, and a proper advantage is taken
of this circumstance to describe the subject of the Picture.
The words written over the gateway of the Inn, are as follow:
"The Tabarde Inn, by Henry Baillie, the lodgynge-house for
Pilgrims, who journey to Saint Thomas's Shrine at Canterbury."
The characters of Chaucer's Pilgrims are the characters
which compose all ages and nations: as one age falls, another
rises, different to mortal sight, but to immortals only the same;
for we see the same characters repeated again and again, in
animals, vegetables, minerals, and in men; nothing new occurs in
identical existence; Accident ever varies, Substance can
never suffer change nor decay.
Of Chaucer's characters, as described in his Canterbury
Tales, some of the names or titles are altered by time, but the
characters themselves for ever remain unaltered, and
consequently they are the
physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which
Nature never steps. Names alter, things never alter. I have
known multitudes of those who would have been monks in the age of
monkery, who in this deistical age are deists. As Newton
numbered the stars, and as Linneus numbered the plants, so
Chaucer numbered the classes of men."

There were many reasons that Blake put a lot of time and energy into his painting of the Canterbury Pilgrims, some of which we will explore in later posts. First we see it only as a careful rendition of a Gothic text.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


From Jerusalem, Plate 64
Used on cover of The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake

The resources on the internet have made studying Blake easier. When Larry began reading Blake in the 1980's he was dependant on books for his sources. His 'bible' was Geoffrey Keynes' Blake: Complete Writings first published by the Oxford University Press in 1966 (a revision of his 1925 work). The authoritative text for the works of Blake is now David V Erdman's The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake published in 1965 and revised in 1988. We are not completely dependant on printed copy now because of access to electronic text. Erdman's text is available to download from the internet as a text file named eE. If you download the file to your computer you will have a searchable copy of all that Blake wrote.

Blake's text is also available through the Blake Digital Text Project of the University of Georgia. Access to individual books and writings is facilitated by the use of an index. Page and line numbers are provided in this format. Search of the complete text is available through the concordance.

In his acknowledgement of the generosity of David Erdman making available his edition of Blake's works, Nelson Hilton, the editor of the digital project, quotes the second paragraph from Blake's 1796 letter to George Cumberland.

Letters, (E 700)

"Lambeth 23 Decembr 1796 a Merry Christmas
Dear Cumberland
I have lately had some pricks of conscience on account of
not acknowledging your friendship to me [before]
immediately on the reciet of your. beautiful book. I have
likewise had by me all the summer 6 Plates which you desired me
to get made for you. they have laid on my shelf. without speaking
to tell me whose they were or that they were [there] at
all & it was some time (when I found them) before I could divine
whence they came or whither they were bound or whether they were
to lie there to eternity. I have now sent them to you to be
transmuted, thou real Alchymist!
Go on Go on. such works as yours Nature & Providence the
Eternal Parents demand from their children how few produce them
in such perfection how Nature smiles on them. how Providence
rewards them. How all your Brethren say, The sound of his harp
& his flute heard from his secret forest chears us to the labours
of life. & we plow & reap forgetting our labour
Let us see you sometimes as well as sometimes hear from you
& let us often See your Works
Compliments to Mr Cumberland & Family
Yours in head & heart

It is not Blake's writings or pictures that so many labor to present; it is the truth incorporated in his words and images which point to the perennial realities of eternity expressed in time.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Image from Blake's Watercolours for
the Poems of Thomas Gray
View in Blake Archive

One of the final poetic images of Jerusalem is that of the bow and the arrows. The activity of being sent into the Eternal dimension can be seen in the bow with its 'murmuring' string. 'Arrows of Love, Are the Children of this Bow: a Bow of Mercy & Loving-kindness' sent forth as a continuation of the activity of the bow which propels them.

Blake's Visionary Forms Dramatic edited by David V Erdman and John E Grant, includes an article by Edward J Rose. On Page 460 in a note Rose states:

"The 'Arrows of Intellect' that the fourfold bowstring 'breathes with ardour' are the armaments that he employs in the intellectual battles that are waged in the 'Mental Fight' of visionary art. Visionary arrows penetrate the opacity of man and 'Open the hidden Heart in Wars of mutual Benevolence, Wars of Love'".

On these three plates of Jerusalem, Blake develops his multifaceted image to propel his reader into a visionary experience of being a 'murmuring bow-string' and a 'flaming arrow'.

Jerusalem , Plate 95, (E 254)
"Her voice pierc'd Albions clay cold ear. he moved upon the Rock
The Breath Divine went forth upon the morning hills, Albion mov'd
Upon the Rock, he opend his eyelids in pain; in pain he mov'd
His stony members, he saw England. Ah! shall the Dead live again

The Breath Divine went forth over the morning hills Albion rose
In anger: the wrath of God breaking bright flaming on all sides around
His awful limbs: into the Heavens he walked clothed in flames
Loud thundring, with broad flashes of flaming lightning & pillars
Of fire, speaking the Words of Eternity in Human Forms, in direful
Revolutions of Action & Passion, thro the Four Elements on all sides
Surrounding his awful Members. Thou seest the Sun in heavy clouds
Struggling to rise above the Mountains. in his burning hand
He takes his Bow, then chooses out his arrows of flaming gold
Murmuring the Bowstring breathes with ardor! clouds roll around the
Horns of the wide Bow, loud sounding winds sport on the mountain brows
Compelling Urizen to his Furrow; & Tharmas to his Sheepfold;
And Luvah to his Loom: Urthona he beheld mighty labouring at
His Anvil, in the Great Spectre Los unwearied labouring & weeping
Awake! Awake Jerusalem! O lovely Emanation of Albion
Awake and overspread all Nations as in Ancient Time
For lo! the Night of Death is past and the Eternal Day
Appears upon our Hills: Awake Jerusalem, and come away

So spake the Vision of Albion & in him so spake in my hearing
The Universal Father. Then Albion stretchd his hand into Infinitude.
And took his Bow. Fourfold the Vision for bright beaming Urizen
Layd his hand on the South & took a breathing Bow of carved Gold
Luvah his hand stretch'd to the East & bore a Silver Bow bright shining
Tharmas Westward a Bow of Brass pure flaming richly wrought
Urthona Northward in thick storms a Bow of Iron terrible thundering.

And the Bow is a Male & Female & the Quiver of the Arrows of Love,
Are the Children of this Bow: a Bow of Mercy & Loving-kindness: laying
Open the hidden Heart in Wars of mutual Benevolence Wars of Love
And the Hand of Man grasps firm between the Male & Female Loves
And he Clothed himself in Bow & Arrows in awful state Fourfold
In the midst of his Twenty-eight Cities each with his Bow breathing
Then each an Arrow flaming from his Quiver fitted carefully
They drew fourfold the unreprovable String, bending thro the wide Heavens
The horned Bow Fourfold, loud sounding flew the flaming Arrow fourfold

Murmuring the Bow-string breathes with ardor. Clouds roll round the horns
Of the wide Bow, loud sounding Winds sport on the Mountains brows:
The Druid Spectre was Annihilate loud thundring rejoicing terrific vanishing"

Sunday, January 1, 2012


Marriage of Heaven & Hell

Plate 21
Library of Congress
Rosenwald Collection

Blake was hungry to assimilate ideas into his ever expanding system of thought as Peter Ackroyd tells us in Blake, A Biography:

"In his eclectic assumption of Taylor's Neoplatonism, in fact, we can observe the movement of Blake's mind; he picked up separate ideas, or fragments of knowledge, as he needed them. He was a synthesiser and a systematiser, like so many of his generation, but it was his own synthesis designed to establish his own system of belief. He was likely to adopt an idea he designed or read in a periodical or pamphlet with the same frequency that he borrowed notions from Swedenborg or Paracelsus. He was, above everything else, an artist and not an orthodox 'thinker': he was attracted to images or phrases as a means of interpretation, and never espoused a complete or coherently organised body of knowledge." (Page 90)

Blake's comments on Swedenborg in Marriage of Heaven & Hell point out the breadth of influences upon him and the critical evaluations he made of his sources.

Marriage of Heaven & Hell, Plate 21, (E 42)
"I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of
themselves as the only wise; this they do with a confident
insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning:
Thus Swedenborg boasts that what he writes is new; tho' it
is only the Contents or Index of already publish'd books
A man carried a monkey about for a shew, & because he was a
little wiser than the monkey, grew vain, and conciev'd himself as much
wiser than seven men. It is so with Swedenborg; he shews the
folly of churches & exposes hypocrites, till he imagines that all
are religious. & himself the single
One on earth that ever broke a net.
Now hear a plain fact: Swedenborg has not written one new
truth: Now hear another: he has written all the old falshoods.
And now hear the reason. He conversed with Angels who are
all religious, & conversed not with Devils who all hate religion,
for he was incapable thro' his conceited notions.
Thus Swedenborgs writings are a recapitulation of all
superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime, but no further.
Have now another plain fact: Any man of mechanical talents
may from the writings of Paracelsus or Jacob Behmen, produce ten
thousand volumes of equal value with Swedenborg's.
and from those of Dante or Shakespear, an infinite number.
But when he has done this, let him not say that he knows
better than his master, for he only holds a candle in sunshine."