MacDonald began his writing career in 1855 with a book of poems called Within and Without, a phrase which occurs twice in Blake's Jerusalem. The two authors use the image of the couch of death with powerful results. In MacDonald's fantasy, Lilith, the couch of death is developed as a transitional stage in the process of regeneration.
From MacDonald's Lilith, Chapter 7, The Cemetery:
"I soon perceived that we were walking along an aisle of couches, on almost every one of which, with its head to the passage, lay something asleep or dead, covered with a sheet white as snow. My soul grew silent with dread. Through aisle after aisle we went, among couches innumerable. I could see only a few of them at once, but they were on all sides, vanishing, as it seemed, in the infinite.--Was it here lay my choice of a bed? Must I go to sleep among the unwaking, with no one to rouse me? Was this the sexton's library? were these his books? Truly it was no half-way house, this chamber of the dead! 'One of the cellars I am placed to watch!' remarked Mr. Raven--in a low voice, as if fearing to disturb his silent guests. 'Much wine is set here to ripen!--But it is dark for a stranger!' he added.
'The moon is rising; she will soon be here,' said his wife, and her clear voice, low and sweet, sounded of ancient sorrow long bidden adieu.
Even as she spoke the moon looked in at an opening in the wall, and a thousand gleams of white responded to her shine. But not yet could I descry beginning or end of the couches. They stretched away and away, as if for all the disparted world to sleep upon. For along the far receding narrow ways, every couch stood by itself, and on each slept a lonely sleeper. I thought at first their sleep was death, but I soon saw it was something deeper still--a something I did not know."
Milton, Plate 35 , (E 135) "Loud roll the Weights & Spindles over the whole Earth let down On all sides round to the Four Quarters of the World, eastward on Europe to Euphrates & Hindu, to Nile & back in Clouds Of Death across the Atlantic to America North & South So spake Ololon in reminiscence astonishd, but they Could not behold Golgonooza without passing the Polypus A wondrous journey not passable by Immortal feet, & none But the Divine Saviour can pass it without annihilation. For Golgonooza cannot be seen till having passd the Polypus It is viewed on all sides round by a Four-fold Vision Or till you become Mortal & Vegetable in Sexuality Then you behold its mighty Spires & Domes of ivory & gold And Ololon examined all the Couches of the Dead. Even of Los & Enitharmon & all the Sons of Albion And his Four Zoas terrified & on the verge of Death In midst of these was Miltons Couch, & when they saw Eight Immortal Starry-Ones, guarding the Couch in flaming fires They thunderous utterd all a universal groan falling down Prostrate before the Starry Eight asking with tears forgiveness Confessing their crime with humiliation and sorrow. O how the Starry Eight rejoic'd to see Ololon descended! And now that a wide road was open to Eternity, By Ololons descent thro Beulah to Los & Enitharmon, For mighty were the multitudes of Ololon, vast the extent Of their great sway, reaching from Ulro to Eternity Surrounding the Mundane Shell outside in its Caverns And through Beulah. and all silent forbore to contend With Ololon for they saw the Lord in the Clouds of Ololon"MacDonald paid tribute to Blake by choosing to adorn his bookplate with an image Blake created for Robert Blair's The Grave. It is no coincidence that the image MacDonald used is that of an old man giving up his earthly life and entering the door of death to be resurrected in the glorious light of day as a new man.
Blake's dedication of his illustrations to The Grave, (E 480): "The Door of Death is made of Gold, That Mortal Eyes cannot behold; But, when the Mortal Eyes are clos'd, And cold and pale the Limbs repos'd, The Soul awakes; and, wond'ring, sees In her mild Hand the golden Keys: The Grave is Heaven's golden Gate, And rich and poor around it wait; O Shepherdess of England's Fold, Behold this Gate of Pearl and Gold!"
Here is an essay on MacDonald's Phantastes and Lilith by Colin Manlove.
Illustration for Blair's The Grave Death's Door
|George MacDonald's Bookplate|