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

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Pilgrim's Progress
John Bunyan
"{292} Well, on Saturday, about midnight, they began to pray, and continued in prayer till almost break of day.
Now a little before it was day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out in passionate speech: What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking Dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty. I have a Key in my bosom called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any Lock in Doubting Castle. Then said Hopeful, That's good news; good Brother pluck it out of thy bosom and try.
A key in Christian's bosom, called Promise, opens any lock in Doubting Castle"

Pilgrim's Progress
Plate 24
Christian and Hopeful in Doubting Castle
Not everything works out as one might hope. Pilgrim lost his friend Faithful and found himself in Doubting Castle. Although he had been given another companion, Hopeful, he felt trapped and abandoned. Blake's illustration shows Christian and Hopeful deep in a dark, dungeon which is controlled by the Giant Despair who holds the keys to locks which prevent their escape.

Blake was not unacquainted with despair as a result of his efforts being thwarted when his work was lampooned by critics or rejected by commercial outlets. Bunyan, who had spent years imprisoned for refusing to discontinue his preaching and meeting outside of orthodox venues, knew the same feelings of rejection and isolation. Both men overcame their despair by finding avenues to redirect their pursuits in response to the leadership of the Spirit.

Northrop Frey in Fearful Symmetry reminds us that Blake's turning to illustrating the Bible, Milton, Bunyan and Dante was in response to  the lack of encouragement he received for his Illuminated Poetry:

"We have seen how important in Blake's theory of art is his conception of the recreation of the archetype, the process which unites a sequence of visions, first into a tradition, then into a Scripture. The next step for Blake is obviously, therefore, to illustrate other poets' visions so that their readers may more easily understand their archetypal significance. Blake had always done this to some extent, but not so systematically as he began to do it now. Here he found a formula for uniting the work of the creator with that of the teacher, of combining mythopoeic art with instruction in how to read it, not as spectacular as the one he had planned, but possibly no less rewarding." (Page 415)

We see in Blake's illustration that the Giant Despair is taunting Christian and Hopeful by holding his set of keys out of their reach. But Bunyan's Pilgrim eventually realizes than he can escape without Despair's keys. Christian, like Bunyan and Blake in the midst of trouble, brings into consciousness a profound truth: the keys to continuing the journey are within. This is an example of what Frye means by archetypal significance which Blake can teach through illustrating another poet's work.

Despair may seem a giant to those who doubt their ability to continue in the face of the world's crushing attacks. Blake's picture is a reminder that the keys we need are available, and they are not the ones in the hand of Despair. 

Letters, To Cumberland, (E 784)  
  "As to Myself about whom you are so kindly Interested.  I
live by Miracle.  I am Painting small Pictures from the Bible.
For as to Engraving in which art I cannot reproach myself with
any neglect yet I am laid by in a corner as if I did not Exist &
Since my Youngs Night Thoughts have been publishd Even Johnson &
Fuseli have discarded my Graver.  But as I know that He who Works
& has his health cannot starve.  I laugh at Fortune & Go on &
on.  I think I foresee better Things than I have ever seen.  My
Work pleases my employer & I have an order for Fifty small
Pictures at One Guinea each which is Something better than mere
copying after another artist.  But above all I feel myself happy
& contented let what will come having passed now near twenty
years in ups & downs I am used to them & perhaps a little
practise in them may turn out to benefit.  It is now Exactly
Twenty years since I was upon the ocean of business & Tho I laugh
at Fortune I am perswaded that She Alone is the Governor of
Worldly Riches. & when it is Fit She will call on me till then I
wait with Patience in hopes that She is busied among my Friends.
     With Mine & My Wifes best compliments to Mr Cumberland
I remain
Yours sincerely

Letters, To Cumberland, (E 786)
 "I begin to
Emerge from a Deep pit of Melancholy, Melancholy without any real
reason for it, a Disease which God keep you from & all good men." 


No comments:

Post a Comment