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

Friday, October 31, 2014


British Museum
Plate 8, Copy D
Blake first printed the eighteen plates of Europe in 1794. In the previous year King Louis XIV and Queen Marie Antoinette of France had been executed. It is estimated that about forty thousand people lost their lives to the Guillotine during the 'reign of terror' in 1793 and 1794. Among the causes of the French Revolution were food shortages among the poor, and disparities between the peasants and the privileged classes. Food shortages in Great Britain were a recurring problem as well, leading to periodic bread riots.
Michael T Davis writes about the severe conditions which existed when Blake was writing Europe. The year after Blake published Europe bread riots broke out because the country was in a state of near-famine.
This passage is from Michael T. Davis's article Bread riots, Britain, 1795:  
"The bread riots of 1795 were a series of extensive disorders in Britain over the scarcity and high price of provisions, especially wheat and bread. Traditionally, food riots tended to be localized and transient in nature, but the bread riots of 1795 and into 1796 were more prolonged and outbreaks occurred in most regions of Britain. Palmer (1988 : 141) counts some 74 disturbances in the period 1795–6, which the most significant set of disturbances since the 1760s and 1770s. During the course of the eighteenth century, the diet of most Britons changed toward a greater dependency on wheat-based foodstuffs rather than products derived from oats or barley. In 1795, wheat yields were extremely low as an unfortunate alignment of bad weather and war brought Britain to the brink of famine. The previous year witnessed a poor harvest due to a hot, dry summer and the winter of 1794–5 was extremely cold, affecting crop production and preventing farmers from undertaking field work. The spring of 1795 was equally unfavorable to agricultural production, with bad weather further reducing market supply. At the same time, the war against revolutionary France disrupted European trade and the market balance derived from importing grain when necessary was impeded. As supply was shortened, prices began to rise quickly and sharply. Britain entered crisis mode."

The threat of famine in the wake of uprisings, drought, blight, war, and government policies, represented a cause of fear in France, Britain and throughout a Europe in turmoil. But the uneven impact of food shortages, falling most heavily on the poor, was among Blake's concerns. Blake pictures two women in Europe, Plate 8, to call attention to the fact that the privileged class escapes the hardships which the poor suffer. The wealthy woman is oblivious to the bereavement of the woman who has lost her child.

There are inscriptions above and below the image on Plate 8. The word 'Famine' serves as a title. A pencil inscription states, "Preparing to dress the Child." At the bottom is a quote from John Dryden's The Indian Emperour which has been located under the subject of Famine in Edward Bysshe, The Art of English Poetry:
"Famine so fierce that whats denied mans use
Even deadly Plants and herbs of pois'nous juice
Will Hunger Eat— and to prolong our breath
We greedily devour our certain Death.
Four Zoas, Night II, Page 34, (E 324)
"Thus Enion wails from the dark deep, the golden heavens tremble 

I am made to sow the thistle for wheat; the nettle for a nourishing dainty
I have planted a false oath in the earth, it has brought forth a poison tree
I have chosen the serpent for a councellor & the dog 
For a schoolmaster to my children
I have blotted out from light & living the dove & nightingale    
And I have caused the earth worm to beg from door to door
I have taught the thief a secret path into the house of the just
I have taught pale artifice to spread his nets upon the morning
My heavens are brass my earth is iron my moon a clod of clay
My sun a pestilence burning at noon & a vapour of death in night 

What is the price of Experience do men buy it for a song
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath his house his wife his children
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy
And in the witherd field where the farmer plows for bread in vain

It is an easy thing to triumph in the summers sun
And in the vintage & to sing on the waggon loaded with corn
It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer

PAGE 36 
To listen to the hungry ravens cry in wintry season
When the red blood is filld with wine & with the marrow of lambs

It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements
To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughter house moan
To see a god on every wind & a blessing on every blast           
To hear sounds of love in the thunder storm that destroys our enemies house
To rejoice in the blight that covers his field, & the sickness that cuts off his children
While our olive & vine sing & laugh round our door & our children bring fruits & flowers

Then the groan & the dolor are quite forgotten & the slave grinding at the mill
And the captive in chains & the poor in the prison, & the soldier in the field
When the shatterd bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead

It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity
Thus could I sing & thus rejoice, but it is not so with me!"

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