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Alexander S. Gourlay, ed., Prophetic Character: Essays on William Blake in Honor of John E. Grant

Sunday, March 20, 2005 - 04:10
Alexander S. Gourlay, ed., Prophetic Character: Essays on William Blake in Honor of John E. Grant. Locust Hill
Literary Studies, no. 33.  West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 2002.  xviii + 396pp.  Illus.  $60.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-93395-196-5).

Reviewed by
James T. Harris
University of South Carolina

A book dedicated to the distinguished legacy of John E. Grant in Blake studies should rigorously challenge traditional and established ways of understanding Blake.  It should also provide readers with innovative approaches to his oeuvre.  Furthermore, it should raise questions that may remain unanswered for now and yet point to fruitful paths for other students and scholars of Blake. Prophetic Character: Essays on William Blake in Honor of John E. Grant exceeds these expectations.  Several contributors--Catherine L. McClenahan, Morton D. Paley, and Richard J. Squibbs--present groundbreaking essays on topics that have received little or no critical attention, while others, Michael Ferber, Alexander S. Gourlay, and G. A. Rosso, offer chapters that demand reconsiderations of Blake and his art.  This collection contains thirteen unique and provocative essays that engage the reader at every turn.

Stephen C. Behrendt's contribution, "The Evolution of Blake's Pestilence," is excellent for the manner in which it contextualizes the Pestilence series in light of certain generic traits of history painting.  Behrendt's essay also detects and examines an "interesting counter-current" in Blake's twenty-five year revision of the series.  It is this counter-current, argues Behrendt, that illustrates Blake's efforts to "invoke and transform familiar conventions of facial and gestural rhetoric" in order to create a "powerfully visionary art, an art founded upon a dynamic imaginative interaction among artist, viewer, and picture" (5).  Professor Behrendt also points to several Blake texts, in order to contextualize the evolution of the Pestilence series in light of his other artistic productions.  The only addition that could make an instructive and informative essay even stronger would be the inclusion of all six versions of the Pestilence series, since only the final (c.1805) version appears in this chapter, as this would allow the reader to follow Behrendt through his detailed examination of Blake's revisions.

J. M. Q. Davies's "Variations on the Fall in Blake's Designs for Night Thoughts" focuses on the "great repository of motifs" present in the series that appear "in modulated form in the later Milton illustrations" (29).  While he acknowledges that there was much in Young that would give Blake offense, Davies claims that Young offered Blake fertile ground--"his praise of friendship, his enthusiasm for the Miltonic sublime, his apocalyptic sense of an ending" (27)--for considering the visionary possibilities of Young's poem.  Most interesting in Davies essay is his discussion of three possible iconographical influences for Blake's NT97, NT296, and NT297.  Davies aptly illustrates how Blake's depiction of the Fall can be understood as reactions to previous renderings, namely Marcantonio's Adam and Eve, Michelangelo's Fall and Expulsion, and Goltzius's engraving, Christ's Miracles

Michael Ferber reviews and revives the clod/pebble debate in Blake studies, with his chapter "In Defense of Clods."  Ferber's primary complaint is not whether or not particular scholars side with the pebble or the clod, but that "nearly all find fault with each and feel superior to both" (51), and consequently this leads to misreadings and confusions of Blake's agenda.  Ferber calls for a return in Blake studies to "the notion of 'the simple Blake'" (55).  Indeed, Ferber sees Blake critics detrimentally projecting their own psychologies, anxieties, and fears onto much simpler figures, such as the clod, the pebble, and Thel.  What happens to Blake, Ferber claims, is analogous to what happens to the teaching of Jesus: "Blake is elevated to the canon but his radical message is subjected to ever more sophisticated and worldly interpretations" (56-57).  Ferber's sometimes acerbic but always engaging and provocative essay concludes with an excursus on the too common practice in Blake studies of founding arguments on the faulty etymological premise that "Thel" necessarily derives from the Greek for "wish."

Taking its title from a quotation by this collection's honoree, Everett C. Frost's contribution, "The Education of the Prophetic Character: Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a Primer in Visionary Autography," makes beneficial use of H. Porter Abbott's term "autography" in order to investigate the narrative complexities of Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  Frost claims that the poem is "an autographic Bildungsroman of the prophet as a young man," of the sort that is "not the narrative of how he came to hold his present convictions but how, having already formed them, he informed and tested them" (72).  Professor Frost's comprehensive analysis of the poem's structure and organization, bolstered by a useful chart of its plot, builds on John E. Grant's reading of The Marriage and offers its own unique and refreshing perspective on Blake's "autographical" work: "It is more interested in the act of writing in the present as a means of producing the self as an identity constituted as pure text than it is in being thought a reliable reporter of events in past time" (71).

Alexander S. Gourlay's essay, "'Idolatry or Politics': Blake's Chaucer, the Gods of Priam, and the Powers of 1809," takes as its start the long held belief that Blake's statements in the Descriptive Catalogue are "largely metaphorical" (99).   Problematic about this idea, Gourlay explains, is that it denies Blake's statements "literal applicability to the picture in question" (99).  Gourlay goes on to argue that in Blake's tempera painting of Chaucer's pilgrims he updates many of the central concerns of Chaucer's epic.  Gourlay illustrates skillfully Blake's strategy in his engraving after the painting, a strategy intended to portray "an audacious satirical commentary on the persistence of pagan theology in the form of modern political celebrity" (99).  Gourlay evidences this persistence with his discussion of physical similarities between political celebrities of 1809 and Chaucer's pilgrims, as Blake depicts them in his engraving.  George III as the Monk, Pitt and Fox as Pardoner and Summoner, respectively, and the likeness of Blake himself as the Plowman are exemplary of Gourlay's insightful explanation of Blake's employment of allegory in order to provide political commentary.

Catherine L. McClenahan takes up an often-neglected character, Erin, in Blake's masterpiece of illuminated printing, Jerusalem.  "Blake's Erin, The United Irish, and 'Sexual Machines'" addresses the function of Erin in Blake's epic as she "works to revolutionize an 'Albion' dying in (and of) his current oppressive, warlike and punitive constitution as a nation and world empire" (150).  McClenahan takes into account the contemporary political upheaval in and around Ireland and asserts that Blake focuses on Ireland as a vehicle for considering the fate of liberty in Great Britain.  Of particular interest in  McClenahan's chapter is her comparison of the relationship between England and Ireland, especially during and after the Act of Union in 1800, as one based on traditional gender relations, with Ireland in the submissive and dominated position.  McClenahan's essay also provides useful analyses of Blake's views on nationalism and revolution. 

As the second of three essays that deal with Night Thoughts, Jon Mee's "'As portentous as the written wall': Blake's Illustrations to Night Thoughts" understands Blake's illustrations of Young in light of the variety of ways that "Young's text circulated in the print culture of the time" (172).  Mee goes on to argue that Blake "seems to court the charge of enthusiasm by refusing to take pains to distinguish between the passions of the spirit from those of the body" (176).  This is perhaps the reason, Mee adds, that Blake's publisher Richard Edwards put an end to publishing Blake's illustrations.  Those familiar with Mee's important prior work on Blake, radical enthusiasm, and the London print culture of the 1790's will not be surprised to find an insightful discussion of Blake's work alongside an extremely learned account of the British political culture of the 1790's.

Jennifer Davis Michael's "Blake's Feet: Towards a Poetics of Incarnation" surveys comprehensively Blake's symbolic references to feet in early works like Poetical Sketches and later texts such as Jerusalem.  Indeed, Michael suggests convincingly that understanding these various symbolic uses of "feet" is central to an appreciation of Blake's entire artistic project: "fusing spiritual, sexual, and poetic acts into one member" (206).  Michael's carefully detailed reading and well-argued essay present an innovative approach to both verbal and visual references to feet throughout the long span of Blake's career.

Peter Otto's essay, "From the Religious to the Psychological Sublime: The Fate of Young's Night Thoughts in Blake's The Four Zoas," investigates the close relationship between Blake's illustrations to Young and his own work in progress from the same period, The Four Zoas.  Otto begins by noting that some of Blake's pages from The Four Zoas survive on proofs of the engravings for Young and subsequently argues that Blake's illustrations to Young often seem to illustrate narrated events in The Four Zoas.  The sublime is Otto's primary focus, however, and he offers a compelling discussion of Blake's response to the religious sublime in Young, which Blake first critiques in his watercolors and then transfigures into a psychological sublime in his epic.  "Where Young's religious sublime offers eternal rest," Otto concludes, "Blake's sublime demands endless activity" (260). 

"William Blake and Dr. Thornton's 'Tory Translation' of the Lord's Prayer" by Morton D. Paley presents the first in-depth scholarly study of the last annotations that Blake is known to have written.  Paley operates from the assumption that Blake in all likelihood wrote the marginalia for an intended audience, as was a common practice of the time, and finds in the annotations thematic similarities and interplay with Blake's own works from the same period.  With scrupulous attention to detail, Paley makes sense of Blake's sometimes difficult annotations and then articulates Blake's critique of Thornton.  Blake objects "not to its lack of accuracy or its verbosity," according to Paley, but instead "to the world view he sees" in Thornton's translation (270).  Anyone embarking on a study of Blake's latter years would do well to start with Paley's essay.

G. A. Rosso's "The Religion of Empire: Blake's Rahab in Its Biblical Contexts" confronts head-on the commonly held view that Blake's epic poetry moves away from the political symbolism found in his prophecies from the 1790's.  Rosso carefully argues to the contrary that even though scholars of the Bible recognize two Rahabs, both of them represent in separate ways the complicity of church and state, religion and empire.  Blake brings these different versions of Rahab together, Rosso convincingly explains, and the unique result demonstrates that Blake is "able to perceive meaning and connection where others not as interested in apocalypse and empire see only disparate strands" (292).

In "A Numerological Analysis of Jerusalem," Sheila A. Spector considers the structure of Blake's late epic in light of Hebraic materials such as the Kabbalah.  It is the "kabbalistic prototypes," Spector explains, that "provided the basis for the intricate numerological pattern underlying the physical structure" (332) of Jerusalem.  Though at times perhaps it requires too much attention to Hebraic materials, Spector's analysis provides a compelling consideration of structure in Blake's poem.  She also  demonstrates persuasively the variety of ways in which Blake might have been familiar with kabbalistic numerology in contemporary sources, in addition to drawing parallels between Blake's work and numerological patterns in other epics with which Blake was certainly familiar, such as The Divine Comedy and The Faerie Queene.

The final chapter in the book, Richard J. Squibbs's "Preventing the Star-Led Wizards: Blake's Europe and Popular Astrology," provides a strong finish to an impressive collection.  Squibbs reviews some of the popular almanacs that circulated in the 1790's, in an effort to understand Blake's prophecy in terms of the politically charged astrological discourses found therein.  Squibbs argues that "Europe associates star-gazing with a counterrevolutionary ideology that denies the French Revolution what Blake sees as its true role as the agent of apocalypse" (351-52).  Consequently, Blake urges his audience to reject astrology as a way of understanding the events in France and turns to the program of Revelation as the means of best comprehending the vital millennial importance of the Revolution.  

All in all, Prophetic Character: Essays on William Blake in Honor of John E. Grant provides a welcome and refreshing contribution to Blake studies.  Because it offers a variety of innovative readings and arguments, I enthusiastically recommend this book to veteran readers of Blake and newcomers alike.  The former will find themselves re-examining their positions, while the latter will discover an intriguing and instructive introduction to William Blake.  These scholars present a fit tribute to the brilliant and inspiring legacy of John E. Grant.