Hired to Depress: A Digital Scholarly Edition of William Blake's Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses

Commerce and poetry, 1804

Shortly after his return to London, Blake complained that ‘Every Engraver turns away work … Yet no one brings work to me’. He had little taste for the hurly-burly of the commercial arts in ‘a City of [character] Assassinations’ (letters to Hayley, 7 Oct 1803 and 28 May 1804, Blake, 736, 751). Blake had to rely on friends, principally Fuseli, Flaxman, and Hayley, for engraving commissions. He assisted Hayley in preparation for a biography of Romney and negotiated with the publisher Richard Phillips for an edition of Hayley's ballads with new engravings of Blake's illustrations. Blake invested in the 1805 Ballads, but probably lost money. For the Romney biography Blake began to engrave two plates, but only one appeared in the 1809 volume. Commissions for most of the Romney engravings, and for plates in a new edition of the Cowper biography, were given to Caroline Watson, whose softer style Hayley preferred. Blake must have been disappointed, but he told his patron that ‘the Idea of Seeing’ Watson's Engraving of Cowper was ‘a pleasing one’ (letter, 22 March 1805, Blake, 764). This and other insincerities prompted by financial dependence led Blake to scrawl in his notebook,

     I write the Rascal thanks till he & I
     With Thanks & Compliments are quite drawn dry.
     Another couplet addressed ‘To H—’ summarizes Blake's view of the           relationship:
     Thy Friendship oft has made my heart to ake
     Do be my Enemy for Friendships sake.
     (Blake, 506)

In October 1804 Catherine Blake received electrical treatment for her rheumatism that reduced ‘the swelling of her legs and knees’ (Blake, 756). Blake reported, in this same letter to Hayley, an equally dramatic restoration in his psychic condition. After visiting the Truchsessian Gallery, an exhibition of paintings dubiously attributed to artists such as Michelangelo and Rembrandt, Blake ‘was again enlightened with the light’ he had enjoyed in his youth. ‘I am really drunk with intellectual vision … as I have not been for twenty dark, but very profitable years’. Blake had ‘reduced … to his station’ the ‘Spectrous Fiend’—a personification of those distresses internal and external that had led him astray as an artist, ‘incessantly labouring and incessantly spoiling’ his work (ibid., 756–7). Blake remained ebullient in early December, telling Hayley that he had ‘fought thro a Hell of terrors & horrors … in a Divided Existence now no longer Divided’ (ibid., letter, 4 Dec 1804, 758). While it is difficult to discern any significant change in Blake's pictorial art datable to autumn 1804, his improved spirits may have affected his labours as a poet, an activity known to few, and appreciated by none, except for his wife.
When still in Felpham, Blake had begun to compose in his notebook (and probably in separate drafts now lost) a group of short poems integrating his mythic structures and imagery with a more personal, often anguished, voice. A few years later, Blake wrote out in a clear hand ten poems of a similar tenor in what is now known as the Pickering manuscript, including ‘The Mental Traveller’ and ‘Auguries of Innocence’. It may have been about this time that Blake began to rise ‘in the middle of the night’ and ‘write for two hours or more’, often with Catherine Blake at his side (Smith in Bentley, Records, 475; Gilchrist, 1.316). His renewed poetic instinct culminated in two epics in illuminated printing, Milton and Jerusalem, dated 1804 on their title-pages. Both evolved out of, and incorporated many passages from, The Four Zoas manuscript. As Blake reported to Butts, these interrelated poems were written ‘from immediate Dictation … without Premeditation’. The result was a ‘Sublime Allegory’ of which Blake was ‘the Secretary’ for ‘Authors … in Eternity’ (letters, 25 April and 6 July 1803, Blake, 729–30). All three poems turn from political revolution and toward mental reconfigurations leading to biblical apocalypse. All three question conventional suppositions about imagination and reality, time and space, self and other, to entertain alternative ways of thinking and being at the core of Blake's visionary literalism.

Milton, not printed until 1810–11, follows the titular hero in a journey of self-discovery and renewal that also reconstructs the bond between Blake and his great predecessor. In the poem's second ‘Book’, Milton unites with his feminine aspect, Ololon, in progress towards the apocalyptic overcoming of divisions between the sexes, between the living and the dead, and between mind and its projections into the external world. This plot is interwoven with allusions ranging from the Bible to Blake's own life, particularly the difficult relationship with Hayley. The lyric beginning ‘And did those feet in ancient time’, now well known as the hymn ‘Jerusalem’, appears in the ‘Preface’ to Milton.

The illuminated book entitled Jerusalem, the one hundred plates of which were not completed until 1820, takes for its subject all of history as a record of desire struggling for fulfilment. The cast of characters is vast, with Los (the artist's imagination at work in the material world), Jerusalem and Albion (the female and male portions of divided humanity who must be reunited), the nature goddess Vala, and Jesus playing major roles. The poem is divided into four chapters, each with a preface addressed to a different audience (the Public, the Jews, the Deists, the Christians), and concludes with a vision of consciousness, liberated and empowered, in a post-apocalyptic universe. Blake beautifully hand-coloured one complete copy of Jerusalem, but it remained unsold at his death.

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