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Steve Clark and David Worrall, eds., Blake, Nation and Empire

Monday, January 19, 2009 - 17:49
Steve Clark and David Worrall, eds., Blake, Nation and Empire. New York: Palgrave, 2006. 256pp. Illus: 8 halftones. ISBN-13: 978-0-3339-9314-9 (Hdbk.), $69.96.

Reviewed by
Julia M. Wright
Dalhousie University

This important collection of twelve essays, arising from a 2000 Blake conference at Tate Britain, offers an array of historical frames through which to recontextualize Blake—from sensibility to eighteenth-century ideas of sexuality, and from the Sierra Leone project to the diverse religious cultures of Blake's England and debates about art, economy, historiography, and proselytization. "Nation" and "Empire" are capacious categories here, allowed to float freely, as they did in Romantic-era discourse (though there are moments when distinctions between patriotism and modern nationalism, cultural nationalism and ideas of the nation-state, or settler colonies and invaded colonies would have contributed to a clearer picture of "Blake, Nation and Empire"). The aim of this volume is to continue the cultural materialist project of Clark and Worrall's earlier collections and, hence, to focus on the "minute particulars" of Blake's time and place—a project richly pursued here. This collection is not divided into parts, but I have organized my discussion below to highlight some continuities, and complementarities, among these diverse chapters beyond their shared historicist orientation.

The first essay, by Saree Makdisi, offers a suggestive exploration of a negative, namely that "Blake was basically the only major poet of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who categorically refused to dabble in recognizably Oriental themes or motifs" (24). (An expanded version of this essay is included in Makdisi's important William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s, as he notes [36].) Such assertions might seem to invite quibbles: what about Robert Burns? Does the occasional Orientalist flourish by Anna Letitia Barbauld put her much closer to Blake than to Robert Southey and Thomas De Quincey? But that would miss the larger importance of this essay as an innovative examination of both the determined (and contrary) inclusiveness through which Blake, in his early work, "emphasize[s] the common nature of all human cultures" (29) and, more broadly, the centrality of Orientalism to many of the Romantic poets we have collectively designated "major"—begging the question of whether the fault is not in our poets but in ourselves or, at least, our canon. While Makdisi focuses on Blake's early texts and "infinite heterogeneity" (36), Andrew Lincoln argues for a shift in Blake's thought in the years around 1800 from a "kind of universal myth . . . towards a narrative that identifies itself explicitly with British and Biblical tradition" (153), while yet "reach[ing] across doctrinal differences" (163). This change, Lincoln suggests, not only arises from Blake's personal renewal of faith, but also from a more broadly perceived imperative "to restore Britain to Christianity" (153) in the wake of the counter-revolutionary rhetoric of the period. Here, that complex counter-revolutionary milieu is concisely sketched with a specific focus on religious debate and Watson's Apology in order to locate Blake's Milton and Jerusalem "in the religious fears and aspirations of early nineteenth-century Britain" (159). Steve Clark further extends this discussion of Blake and difference and does so on deftly nuanced terms attentive to philosophical and theological disputes, as well as historical contexts. While Lincoln argues for Milton's efforts "to re-integrate the divided legacy of British Christendom" (163), Clark locates Blake's Jerusalem in the heated debate over Catholic Emancipation and the transformation of "a virulent anti-Catholic iconography . . . into imperial gothic" (168). Clark argues compellingly for Blake's poem "as anti-papal propaganda" that, despite moments "more sympathetic" to Catholic traditions, "is of an abrasive brand of Protestant nationalism formed in opposition to France and Catholicism projecting an imagined community of empire" (171).

The cluster of essays I group above—those by Makdisi, Lincoln, and Clark—covers the full sweep of Blake's career and invites further consideration of Blake's changing stance on cultural and religious differences. Jason Whittaker's essay is usefully considered in this context as well. Focusing on Blake's "critical dialogue with Milton" (197), especially Milton's History of Britain, Whittaker traces the ways in which Blake works through his nationalist politics via Milton as "the obvious candidate for the role of Albion's prophet" (186). Suggestively, Whittaker contends that Blake recuperates for their "explanatory" value the national origin myths dismissed by Milton while still being "hostile to Milton's militant Protestantism" (193-194). This essay is arguably at the nexus of the volume's myriad tracings of Blake's engagement with questions of national identity in relation to religion and sexuality, and, like Lincoln, Whittaker locates Milton within a transformative period in the development of Blake's views on those questions.

The topic of sexuality is more central to essays by David Worrall, Susan Matthews, and Christopher Z. Hobson. Both Matthews's and Worrall's essays explore the centrality of sex to the common nationalist narrative of the nation's founding, whether the settler colony of Sierra Leone (Worrall) or the founding of Rome (Matthews)—an issue also relevant to Whittaker (see 195-197). In his essay, Worrall offers a detailed account of the Sierra Leone project in relation to English Swedenborgians. The Book of Thel, suggests Worrall, can be read as "specifically interested in presenting a problematization of the gender issues implicit in founding a colony on the principle of Swedenborgian conjugal love" (55). Matthews's essay offers a provocative perspective on the problem of rape in Blake's early texts and the instability of the term in eighteenth-century discourse. Together, these essays serve to stress both the complexity of Blake's challenge to normative notions of sexuality and the difficulty of pinning down what those notions might be in a time when they were being publicly debated in a range of contexts (medical, legal, imperial, theological, and so forth). Christopher Hobson's contribution serves explicitly to "build . . . on earlier work" in his 2000 book Blake and Homosexuality in order to return to the question of Blake's shifting position on homosexuality in relation to what Hobson terms a "cooperative commonwealth" (137). Much of the material here is addressed more extensively in Hobson's valuable book, including the Vere-Street Trials and Milton (138-142), with an emphasis on "Moral Law" and changes between copies of Milton, and Jerusalem's "synthesis of his ideas about economic and political justice, religious and sexual freedom, gender, and the means of change and renewal" (142), virtually the first sentence of Hobson's chapter on Jerusalem in Blake and Homosexuality. While readers might be well-advised to read Hobson's book instead, the essay does offer new material, and its inclusion is essential to the volume's presentation of a wide array of approaches to sexual activity in relation to the thorny problem of Blake's attitudes towards gender.

The third and fifth essays are also complementary, both drawing on contemporary discourses of economy related to sensibility: Jon Mee explores Brunonian medicine's ideas of circulation, stimulation, excess, and so forth, to recontextualize the depiction of the body in The Book of Urizen, while James Chandler addresses the economy of sentiment in relation to commercial values to suggest that "Blake's emphasis on the madeness of sentiment" is part of a "reframing [of] the national project in terms of building, rather than exchanging" (114-115). Chandler's essay provides a useful lead-in to Morris Eaves's contribution, which details the ways in which Blake's private printing was also a public intervention in the print marketplace, particularly in three "public" statements across his career (132). "Blake's shop," suggests Eaves, "is not the merchant-middleman's but the producer's own, and the vision is of commercial independence freed from elaborate encumbrances" (125-126), "follow[ing] Boydell and the gallery merchants in gambling on a strategy of consolidation, 'both Letter-press and Engraving'" (126). Blake's simultaneous simplification of the track from producer to consumer and complication of the modes of production, Eaves contends, undergirds the difficulty of Blake for modern readers—a "modern multicapable artist looking for a multitasking audience" (131).

The final essays in the volume, by Robert N. Essick and Joseph Viscomi, take a later perspective to consider Blake's reception after his own time. Essick's essay offers an instructive account of historicism in Blake studies from Erdman forward. Essick argues instead for a broader cultural reading, "an ideological approach . . . that may begin with historical reference but must move in two directions—outward toward events and other texts and inward toward poetic forms" (206). Essick's chapter, thus, contributes to one of the recurring, if not defining, problems of literary studies in recent decades, namely the bridging of historicism and formalism (or, in more Blakean language, the "minute particulars" of material history and the "giant forms" of cultural tradition), from Hayden White in the 1970s through to New Historicism and its current reframing in Cultural Studies and Historical Formalism. Essick then brings his integrative approach to bear on Blake's oblique references to Ireland in Jerusalem, specifically in the context of the long history of fraught attempts to define Ireland in relation to England as either province or nation, rendering Blake's Erin a conceptual conundrum rather than a simple allegorical figure for an historical Ireland. Viscomi's invaluable essay puts Blake not into the familiar nineteenth-century literary history of his recovery and canonization but into a nineteenth-century art history—the remembering, recovery and republication of his visual work by his Victorian successors, particularly among the wider Pre-Raphaelite circle and in the central example of the illustrations selected for Gilchrist's Life of Blake.

This volume, thus, traces a wide range of key historical and theoretical contexts for Blake's works. This diverse array of papers not only lays out some of the details of Blake's milieu, but also contributes to a nuanced picture of the 1790s and early 1800s on terms that will be valuable to Romanticists outside of Blake studies.