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

Revolution and reaction, 1790-1795

Illuminated printing supplemented, without replacing, Blake's other graphic activities. In 1788 the great print-publishers John and Josiah Boydell hired Blake to execute his largest copy engraving, Beggar's Opera, after a painting by William Hogarth. He completed the plate in the summer of 1790 and it may have been the fee (unrecorded, but probably substantial) that permitted the Blakes to move to a fine terrace house at 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth. Their relative prosperity in this period is indicated by Tatham's story that Blake's house was robbed of goods valued at £100 (Bentley, Records, 522).

London's booksellers continued to use Blake's skills, commissioning him to engrave illustrations for modest volumes of poetry, mathematics, and medicine, and for influential works such as Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden (1791) and James Stuart and Nicholas Revett's The Antiquities of Athens (vol. 3, 1794). After a brief hiatus in the mid-1780s, perhaps caused by Blake's dilatoriness in completing assignments, Johnson was again his main employer. He appears to have appreciated Blake's abilities as an artist and poet, for he hired him to both design and engrave illustrations for Mary Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life (1791) and agreed to publish Blake's verse narrative, The French Revolution (1791), and a small emblem book, For Children: the Gates of Paradise (1793). Sales of the latter must have been meagre; the poem never progressed beyond proofs of ‘Book the First’. The French Revolution set a pattern repeated throughout most of Blake's life: ambitious projects begun with great hopes, only to be cut short by financial or personal failings.

Johnson's commercial importance to Blake's career was matched by his role in introducing Blake to some of England's leading liberal writers and artists, many of whom regularly gathered at the bookseller's. It was probably through Johnson that Blake met and befriended the Swiss-German artist Henry Fuseli, for whose translation of J. C. Lavater's Aphorisms on Man (1788) Blake engraved the frontispiece. Other plates based on Fuseli's compositions, similar to Blake's own, followed. Blake may have also met more radical figures in the Johnson coterie, including Joseph Priestley and Thomas Paine. Tatham asserts that Blake warned Paine of imminent arrest, just before he left England in 1792, but the story is questionable (Tatham in Bentley, Records, 530; expanded in Gilchrist, 1.95).

Blake and his wife attended an organizational meeting of the New Jerusalem church, which based its doctrines on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, on 13 April 1789. Blake was no thoughtless convert; his annotations to two of Swedenborg's works express growing misgivings. These turned to outright rejection in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), Blake's most heterodox illuminated book in both its form, a loose gathering of prose and poetry, and content. Through the ‘voice of the Devil’ and ‘Proverbs of hell’ (Blake, 34–5), he parodies Swedenborg, reverses the cosmology of Milton's Paradise Lost, pronounces that the sensual is an avenue to the spiritual, and attacks the biblical history and morality constructed by the ‘Angels’ of the established church. Energy is celebrated as eternal delight, at war with the restraints of reason. The book concludes with ‘A Song of Liberty’ calling for the revolutionary overthrow of tyrannies religious and secular.

Blake's radical political views continue in Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793). Like The Book of Thel, the poem and its designs centre on a female character. Her rape initiates an incantatory protest against exploitation and enslavement influenced by Wollstonecraft and by John Gabriel Stedman, for whose Narrative (1796) about a slave revolt in Surinam Blake began engraving illustrations in 1791. America a Prophecy, also dated 1793, was the first of Blake's ‘Continental Prophecies’ that continued through Europe (1794) and concluded, somewhat diminished, in The Song of Los (1795), divided into sections entitled ‘Africa’ and ‘Asia’. The designs in these books extend beyond direct illustration to establish their own iconographic drama. The texts intermingle figures real (Washington, Franklin) and fictive (Enitharmon, Rintrah), places local (Great George Street) and biblical (Mount Sinai). Blake alludes to contemporary events, but he typically seeks for their ancient origins and millennial conclusions. Three separate engravings of this period, Albion RoseThe Accusers of Theft Adultery Murder, and Lucifer and the Pope in Hell, also herald apocalyptic revolution.

The record of Blake's active engagement with politics is equally complex. Gilchrist claims that Blake was ‘a vehement republican’ who ‘donned the famous symbol of liberty and equality—the bonnet rouge—in open day’ (1.93–4). But, when Blake learned of ‘the Days of Terror’ in France in September 1792, he ‘assuredly never wore the red cap again’ (1.94). His cancellation of three plates in America, one containing direct reference to George III, suggests that Blake may have feared prosecution if his views were stated too directly. Perhaps such fears, coupled with a general sense of dread, led Blake to scribble in his notebook, ‘I say I shant live five years And if I live one it will be a Wonder June 1793’ (Blake, 694).
There is no record of Blake attending political gatherings of any sort; perhaps his anti-deistic convictions separated him from the secular revolutionaries of his day. His singular religious beliefs also seem to have set Blake on a lonely course. There are striking parallels between Blake's poetry and the writings of several radical protestant groups; but, except for the meeting with Swedenborgians in 1789, it may be true that Blake did not ‘attend any place of Divine worship’ for the last forty years of his life (Smith in Bentley, Records, 458).
By October 1793 Blake had built up a stock of illuminated books and other prints sufficient to issue an advertisement ‘To the Public’. This handbill includes Songs of Experience (1794), the contrary companion to Songs of Innocence. Blake first issued Experience, etched on the backs of the Innocence copperplates, as a separate volume, but soon combined the collections under a general title-page, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Its subtitle, ‘Shewing the two contrary states of the human soul’, indicates that child and adult are temporal expressions of eternal mental states. Experience enacts a fall into division, but the Bard, ‘Who Present, Past, & Future sees’ and ‘Whose ears have heard, / The Holy Word’, can reclaim a unified vision (Blake, 18). Yet these spiritual concerns did not carry Blake away from this world: several poems, including ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and ‘London’, are lyrics of social protest.

Blake's next project in illuminated poetry was potentially enormous—a version of Genesis, perhaps as the first book in the ‘Bible of hell’ announced in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Blake, 44). The First Book of Urizen (1794) ranges beyond a satanic retelling of the Bible to establish an even more primordial perspective and construct an ur-myth in which material creation—spatial, temporal, and biological—is one with the fall. Urizen and Los, representatives of both cosmic and psychic forces, are the chief actors in the agonistic drama. There is no ‘second’ book of Urizen; but the brief poems The Book of Los and The Book of Ahania, both etched in conventional intaglio in 1795, are fragments of Blake's grand intentions.

This page has paths:

This page references: