Picturing Language and the Language of Pictures in Blake’s Illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy
Note: This paper was originally presented at the 2013 ASECS national conference in Cleveland, OH. Portions of this paper are drawn from James Rovira's monograph, Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum 2010). If you enjoyed this paper, please encourage your library to order the book.
Several of Blake’s unfinished illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy have text written within and around them never intended for inclusion in the finished design. Many drawings have minimal textual notes. Drawing two is an example of this type of drawing: perhaps two lines of text remain barely visible above God’s shoulders, nearly obscured by the drawing. Others are like drawing 102, in which the text briefly reminds Blake about design elements that he intended to include later, usually consisting of single words denoting objects or other design elements. Most unfinished drawings have no text at all. And then, of course, in Blake’s more finished illustrations, these notes were obscured as he colored over them. However, there is a third class of drawings in which the text, as David Bindman describes it, are “angrily scribbled notes of complaint on some of the least finished drawings, telling juxtapositions of designs, and the highlighting of motifs against the grain of the text.”
Drawings seven and twenty two are particularly striking examples of visible notes that fit Bindman’s description, and they also dramatically illustrate how much Blake thought simultaneously in word and image. Design twenty-two asserts the forgiveness of sins as the highest principle: “Whatever Book is for Vengeance for Sin & whatever Book is Against the Forgiveness of Sins is not of the Father but of Satan the Accuser & Father of Hell” (E p. 690). The text of both drawings condemns Dante’s vision of Hell as originating in Satan, at least in terms of how Satan was conceived by Blake. The text on drawing seven is particularly complaining: “This is the most damnable Falshood of Satan & his Antichrist.” Blake’s Satan is a changing figure, reminiscent of the transformations in Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost to his Paradise Regained, but in this case Blake may have been thinking of the Satan of the Book of Job as described in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “But in the Book of Job Miltons Messiah is call'd Satan” (E, p. 34). Blake here draws a phenomenological equivalent between Satan in the Book of Job, who is the accuser of Job, and God in Paradise Lost, who in Book 3 sounds like the impatient accuser of humankind. Job's Satan is the phenomenological equivalent of the God of Paradise Lost because both accuse humankind.
Identifying the Biblical Satan with the God of Paradise Lost extends Blake’s critique to all manifestations of moral condemnation, inclusive of Dante’s Inferno as well as what Blake believed was the contemporary extension of Satan, the Anglican church. Blake’s written text on his drawings for the Inferno indicates a radical rejection of Dante’s poetic text which Blake was commissioned to reproduce visually, a written rejection that Blake intended to transform into a series of self-rejecting visual representations of Dante’s Inferno. This dialectic between text and image in Blake’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno demonstrates how awareness of this dialectic can guide our reading of Blake’s images for the Divine Comedy and solve interpretive problems associated with more finished works such as “To Tirzah."
We should keep in mind that the text ultimately obscured by Blake's finished image very likely remained phenomenologically present for him even when effaced by his watercolors, so that this text was ultimately realized in his design. We might even think of the finishing of the Dante drawings to be a transformation, in part, from text to design. This possibility is not out of bounds: in general, image was a form of speech for Blake and text a form of drawing. Blake’s writing process seems to have been eminently visual just by virtue of the nature of his production process. Joseph Viscomi suggests that “Writing backward a text already known,” as Blake would have had to do to engrave his copper plates, “is drawing words: words cease to be symbols or names and become forms, marks, lines, design” (1989, p. 71). Furthermore, Crabb Robinson recorded in his diary that Blake claimed, “When I am commanded by the Spirits then I write, And the moment I have written, I see the Words fly about the room in all directions[.] It is then published[.]—The Spirits can read and my MS: is of no further use[.]—I have been tempted to burn my MS, but my wife wont not let me” (Bentley, 1969, p. 647). While we cannot be sure when Blake spoke seriously to Robinson or when he exaggerated—and further complicating matters is that Robinson honestly confessed his own inability to follow Blake at times—this account may reveal something about Blake’s view of his writing because it does have some explanatory power.
If Blake’s physical transference of words to paper at times released a visualization of the words flying “about the room in all directions”—and if Blake called that release into visualization “publication”—then of course upon “publication,” his physical manuscript is of no further use. The next obvious question is, “How much of the text did Blake have to write before seeing the entire text before him visually?” Clearly Blake had to do some writing first, at least in some cases, if there were manuscripts available for his wife to burn once his texts were imaginatively "published." If he only had to write some of his text to see all of it eventually, this condition certainly explains how Blake could claim in the same conversation that he had written “more than Rousseau or Voltaire—Six or Seven Epic poems as long as Homer And 20 Tragedies as long as Macbeth” (Bentley, 1969, p. 547). It also may explain why Blake's Milton is said to be in twelve books when only two were engraved, and why The French Revolution is said to be in seven books when Blake seems to have written only one. These compositions may have been completed mentally even if the mental conception was never fully executed on paper.
An author fully visualizing his or her work at the outset is hardly as strange as Blake’s language makes it sound. Coleridge describes the inception of “Kubla Khan” in these words: “all the images rose up before me as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort” (p. 614). Coleridge made this claim even without sharing Blake’s predisposition toward visual art.
Blake’s highly visual mind identified conception and execution of a work in a manner similar to his identification of “execution” and “organization” of a visual image in his annotations to Reynolds’s Works (E, p. 637). Applying this principle to his art, drawing is execution, especially since in Blake’s mind, line is everything (E, p. 582)—and to Blake “drawing” was as visual-mental an activity as his “publishing.” Identifying conception with execution because they are both mental acts, rather than identifying the two in terms of the material execution of Blake’s art, maintains Blake’s phenomenological emphasis and his desire to rise above the bonds of mere physical matter, to “rise from Generation free,” an emphasis he maintained even in his composition process when he described his works as “published” once he saw in his mind’s eye their words flying about the room.
Text itself as a visual element is perhaps most strongly evident in Blake’s most pointed critique of generation in the Songs, the experience poem “To Tirzah.” Since Blake’s writing was as visual an experience for him as his art, readings of “To Tirzah” should encourage the impression that the text literally “draws” the reader into the scene. Two women stand left of center. Bent over, they hold a male corpse up in a sitting position. The corpse’s legs seem to disappear into the ground to the viewer’s right from the knees down, perhaps into one end of an open grave. A man with long hair and beard, dressed in yellow robes, stands in the right area of the drawing and faces left, leaning over the corpse tilting a pitcher as if to begin washing the body. Many commentators assume that this figure is an old man, perhaps a Urizenic figure, but in Copy W, the
man’s hair and beard have a light yellow tint matching the younger women’s hair rather than the standard Urizenic hoary frost, so the standing male figure may be a younger one compared to Urizen and more positive—all the more so since on the man’s robes are written the words, “It is Raised a Spiritual Body,” a quotation from chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians.
Following the line of the man’s back from right to left, the yellow of the man’s robe fills the sunset in the western sky (assuming that the reader is facing north), sunset reinforcing the poem’s death theme. The text’s yellow/ orange coloring creates the impression that the text is the voice of the setting sun, a voice superimposing itself upon the blues of encroaching darkness to the right or eastern side of the drawing. The text of “To Tirzah” may be very much like that written around Blake’s illustrations to Dante, which in “To Tirzah” Blake allowed to appear through his finished visual as if allowing readers to see the entire content of his vision at once, Blake’s corrosives burning away the surface of the natural setting to reveal a speaking voice beneath it. The corpse’s head tilts back, looking upward toward the text, so that the text may be the voice or, better, the embodiment of the corpse’s disembodied spirit, the voice of one who has passed through the entire cycle of generation—birth, growth, sexuality, parenting, old age, and death—and has been freed from it. As David M. Baulch suggests, the “verbal text above the figures is the raised spiritual body” (1997, p. 350).
The poem’s speaking voice speaks, seemingly, with the voice of Christ: “Then what have I to do with thee?” (E, p. 30). Significantly, Christ’s words to his mother during the wedding at Cana were quoted by “To Tirzah’s” speaker to rebuke his “Mother of my Mortal part” for giving him a physical body (E, p. 30). Christ, however, addressed his mother’s concerns by performing the miracle of turning water into wine. The disembodied spirit of “To Tirzah” understands its enclosure in a physical body as an act of cruelty on his mother’s part, whose tears of joy at childbirth are “false self-deceving tears” (E, p. 30), because from spirit’s point of view, enclosure in a mortal body is hardly a moment to rejoice. Division into sexes “sprung from” the “shame and pride” associated with sexual intercourse from spirit’s perspective (E, p. 30).
If we juxtapose the bitter, complaining tone registered above the figures with the poem’s location in experience, and understand the persona of “To Tirzah” to be the voice of the corpse’s disembodied spirit, we can read the poem as a dramatization of the principle that spirit and flesh stand at opposing poles, so that the growth of the one signals a diminishing of the other. This principle can also be found in Blake’s other works. “Where man is not nature is barren,” say the creative-artistic denizens of Blake’s hell (E, p. 38). It is not inconsistent with Blake’s presentation of the physical world as a Urizenic creation either, a point at which Blake is clearly drawing from Gnostic or esoteric sources which consistently understand the creation of the material world to be a ploy by a lesser deity to trap the primary deity.
Nor is it inconsistent with any Platonically-inflected versions of Christianity influenced by the Phaedo: “We are in fact convinced that if we are ever to have pure knowledge of anything, we must get rid of the body and contemplate things by themselves with the soul by itself [so that the philosopher trains] himself throughout his life to live in a state as close as possible to death” (Hamilton and Cairns, 1985, pp. 49, 50). But the poem’s location in experience calls all these associations into question. At the point of an absolute opposition between flesh and spirit, the poem turns critical, satirical, perhaps even self-satirical. Spirit’s complaint about enclosure in a body is mocked by the Biblical passage on the older man’s robes. “It is raised a spiritual body” reminds Blake’s readers that spirit is never divorced from some form of a body and that generation exists for the sake of regeneration, as Blake emphasizes in Milton: “Till Generation is swallowed up in Regeneration” (E, p. 143).
So the object of satire here is not the Biblical passage itself but rather disembodied spirit’s attitude toward flesh. Blake in “To Tirzah” articulates his commentary on the relationship between self and nature to one whose thinking is bound by the ratio, by his “organs of perception,” and by any conceptual scheme based solely upon sense organs (E, p. 2). As Daniel Stemple succinctly puts it, Blake declares “independence from all that is merely ‘natural’: natural philosophy, natural religion, natural history, and l’homme naturel” (1975, p. 74), and by extension, mechanical philosophy’s phenomenological reconstruction of the natural. When Blake speaks in his own voice, as he does on plate 3 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he asserts the importance of contraries. The voice of the Devil on plate 4, the creative artist’s appropriation of Blake’s dictum, identifies body and soul as interdependent contraries, affirming that “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that calld Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses” (E, p. 34). “To Tirzah,” therefore, signals an experience point of view and its limitations, spirit’s initial differentiation of itself from mind and body and its immediate sense of revulsion, but not Blake’s rejection of nature itself.
Barbara Lefcowitz argues that “the only valid generalization one can make about Blake’s overall attitude toward nature is that he almost never treats it outside a human context” (p. 121). I would argue that Blake never treats nature outside of a human context because his concern is not with nature but with competing phenomenologies of nature. Blake complains on design seven of his illustration of The Divine Comedy that “Every thing in Dantes Comedia shews That for Tyrannical Purposes he has made This World the Foundation of All & the Goddess Nature & not the Holy Ghost as poor Churchill said Nature thou art my Goddess” (E, p. 689). Blake complains of nature rather than visionary imagination being the “Foundation of All,” but not of the pernicious qualities of nature itself. The problem, we see, is of a misrelation between the individual and nature, not with nature itself.
What I would like to suggest in closing is that Blake’s text-image dialectic is reflective of several broader conceptions, such as the mind-body dialectic or the mind-nature dialectic. Image is the outward circumference of text as the body is the outward circumference of mind. Blake would no more separate text and image than his anthropology would separate reason from emotion, body from spirit, angels from devils, love from hate, or energy from restraint. The text-image contrary is yet another pair without which there is no progression, and in many ways it serves as the embodiment of all of the other contraries as they are embedded in his production processes.
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