“William Blake” [lect.]: extant MSS in Italian, trans. into English in The Critical Writings of James Joyce, ed. Ellsworth Mason & Richard Ellmann (1959; 1966 edn).

Note: This text is part of “Verismo ed idealismo nella letterature inglese” being lectures on Daniel Defoe and Blake given at the Università Popolare Triestina in early March 1912. The version given here is printed in Ellsworth Mason & Richard Ellmann, eds., Critical Writings of James Joyce, Viking Press 1959, 1966 Edn., pp.214-22. (Another by Ciaran Deane appears in Kevin Barry, ed., Occasional Writings, OUP 2001 [q.pp.; c. p.170.])

Both translations are taken from the Italian original on an incomplete holograph of 21 MS pages (numbered pp.11-30, together with two uncorrected sheets held in the Slocum Collection at Yale University Library, as described by Mason and Ellmann. The notes supplied here are also from their edition.

A 1-page remnant of Joyce’s second lecture (“Daniele De Foe”) is held in typescript at Cornell UL with Stanislaus Joyce’s handwritten title, while the entirety of the lecture on Blake is part of the gift which John Slocum made to Sylvia Beach, having bought it from Stanislaus in 1950.

See Introductory note to “William Blake” in Ellsworth Mason & Richard Ellmann, eds., Critical Writings of James Joyce, Viking Press 1959, 1966 Edn., pp.214-22; p.214.

[…] of an ethical and practical interpretation, are not moral aphorisms. Looking at St. Paul’s cathedral, Blake heard with the ear of the soul the cry of the little chimney sweep, who symbolizes oppressed innocence in his strange literary language. Looking at Buckingham Palace, he sees with the eye of the mind the sigh of the hapless soldier running down the palace wall in the form of a drop of blood. [1] While he was still young and vigorous, remaking himself with these visions, he had the power to etch their image in a hammered verse or a sheet of copper, and these verbal or mental etchings often comprise an entire sociological system. The prison, he writes, is built with stones of law; the brothel with bricks of religion. [2] But the continual strain of these voyages into the unknown and the abrupt return to natural life slowly but inexorably corrode his artistic power. The visions, multiplying, blind the sight; and toward the end of his mortal life, the unknown for which he yearned covered him with the shadows of vast wings, and the angels with whom he conversed as an immortal with immortals hid him in the silence of their garments.

If I have evoked from the shades with bitter words and violent verses the figure of a weak, second or third rank politician, I have given you the wrong idea of Blake’s personality. As a young man he belonged to the literary-revolutionary school that included Miss Wollstonecraft, and the famous, perhaps I should say the notorious, author of the Rights of Man, Thomas Paine. Even among the members of this circle, Blake was the only one with the courage to wear in the street the red cap, emblem of the new era. He soon took it off, though, never to wear it again, after the massacres in the Paris prisons that occurred in September 1792. His spiritual rebellion against the powers of this world was not made of the kind of gunpowder, soluble in water, to which we are more or less accustomed. In 1799, he was offered the position of drawing master to the royal family. Afraid that in the artificial atmosphere of the court his art might die of inanition, he refused it; but at the same time, in order not to offend the king, he gave up all the other lower-class students that formed his major source [215] of income. After his death, Princess Sophia sent his widow a private gift of a hundred pounds sterling. Mrs. Blake sent it back, thanking her politely, saying that she was able to get along on little, and that she didn’t want to accept the gift because, if it were used for another purpose, the money might help to restore the life and hopes of someone less fortunate than her.

There was evidently a distinct difference between that undisciplined and visionary heresiarch and those most orthodox church philosophers, Francesco Suarez, Europae atque orbis universi magister et oculus populi Christiani, [3] and Don Giovanni Mariana di Talavera [4] who had written for the stupefaction of posterity a logical and sinister defence of tyrannicide in the preceding century. The same idealism that possessed and sustained Blake when he hurled his lightning against human evil and misery prevented him from being cruel to the body even of a sinner, the frail curtain of flesh, as he calls it in the mystical book of Thel, that lies on the bed of our desire. [5] The episodes that show the primitive goodness of his heart are numerous in the story of his life. Although he had difficulty making a living and spent only half a guinea a week to maintain the little house where he lived, he gave forty pounds to a needy friend. Having seen a poor, phthisic art student pass his window each morning with a portfolio under his arm, he took pity on him and invited him into the house, where he fed him and tried to cheer his sad and dwindling life. His relations with his younger brother Robert recall the story of David and Jonathan. Blake loved him, supported him, and took care of him. During his long sickness, he spoke to him of the eternal world and comforted him. For many days before his death, he watched over his sickbed without interruption, and at the supreme moment he saw the beloved soul break loose from the lifeless body and rise toward heaven clapping its hands for joy. Then, serene and exhausted, he lay down in a deep sleep and slept for seventy-two hours in a row. [216]

I have already referred to Mrs. Blake two or three times, and perhaps I should say something about the poet’s married life. Blake fell in love when he was twenty years old. The girl, who was rather foolish it seems, was named Polly Woods. The influence of this youthful love shines through Blake’s first works, the Poetical Sketches and Songs of Innocence, but the incident ended suddenly and brusquely. She thought him crazy, or little better, and he thought her a flirt, or something worse. This girl’s face appears in certain drawings in the prophetic book of Vala, a soft and smiling face, symbol of the sweet cruelty of woman, and of the illusion of the senses. To recuperate from this defeat, Blake left London and went to live in the cottage of a gardener named Bouchier. [6] This gardener had a daughter, Catherine, about twenty-four, whose heart was filled with compassion at hearing of the young man’s misfortune in love. The affection born from this pity and its recognition finally united them. The lines from Othello:

She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them. [7]

come to mind when we read this chapter of Blake’s life.

Like many other men of great genius, Blake was not attracted to cultured and refined women. Either he preferred to drawing-room graces and an easy and broad culture (if you will allow me to borrow a commonplace from theatrical jargon) the simple woman, of hazy and sensual mentality, or, in his unlimited egoism, he wanted the soul of his beloved to be entirely a slow and painful creation of his own, [8] freeing and purifying daily under his very eyes, the demon (as he says) hidden in the cloud. Whichever is true, the fact is that Mrs. Blake was neither very pretty nor very intelligent. In fact, she was illiterate, and the poet took pains to teach her to read and write. He succeeded so well that within a [217] few years his wife was helping him in his engraving work, retouching his drawings, and was cultivating in herself the visionary faculty.

Elemental beings and spirits of dead great men often came to the poet’s room at night to speak with him about art and the imagination. Then Blake would leap out of bed, and, seizing his pencil, remain long hours in the cold London night drawing the limbs and lineaments of the visions, while his wife, curled up beside his easy chair, held his hand lovingly and kept quiet so as not to disturb the visionary ecstasy of the seer. When the vision had gone, about daybreak his wife would get back into bed, and Blake, radiant with joy and benevolence, would quickly begin to light the fire and get breakfast for the both of them. We are amazed that the symbolic beings Los and Urizen and Vala and Tiriel and Enitharmon and the shades of Milton and Homer came from their ideal world to a poor London room, and no other incense greeted their coming than the smell of East Indian tea and eggs fried in lard. Isn’t this perhaps the first time in the history of the world that the Eternal spoke through the mouth of the humble?

So the mortal life of William Blake unfolded. The bark of his married life that had weighed anchor under the auspices of pity and gratitude sailed among the usual rocks for almost half a century. There were no children. In the early years of their life together there were discords, misunderstandings easy to understand if we keep in mind the great difference in culture and temperament that separated the young couple. It is even true, as I said before, that Blake almost followed Abraham’s example of giving to Hagar what Sarah refused. [9] The vestal simplicity of his wife ill accorded with the temperament of Blake, for whom until the last days of his life exuberance was the only beauty. In a scene of tears and accusations that occurred between them, his wife fell in a faint, and injured herself in such a way that she was unable to have children.[10] It is a sad irony to think that this poet of childish innocence, the only writer who has written songs for children with the soul of a child, and who has illuminated the phenomenon of gestation with a light so tender and mystical in his [218] strange poem The Chrystal Cabinet, was destined never to see the sight of a real human child at his fireside. To him who had such great pity for everything that lives and suffers and rejoices in the illusions of the vegetable world, for the fly, the hare, the little chimney sweep, the robin, even for the flea, was denied any other fatherhood than the spiritual fatherhood, intensely natural though it is, that still lives in the lines of Proverbs: [11]

He who mocks the Infant’s Faith
Shall be mock’d in Age & Death.
He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall ne’er get out.
He who respects the Infant’s faith
Triumphs over Hell & Death.

Over Blake’s fearless and immortal spirit, the rotting grave and the king of terrors had no power. In his old age, surrounded at last by friends and disciples and admirers, he began, like Cato the Elder, to study a foreign language. That language was the same in which tonight I try, by your leave, in so far as I can, to recall his spirit from the twilight of the universal mind, [12] to detain it for a minute and question it. He began to study Italian in order to read the Divina Commedia in the original and to illustrate Dante’s vision with mystical drawings. Gaunt and weakened by the afflictions of illness, he would prop himself up on several pillows and spread a large drawing-book on his knees, forcing himself to trace the lines of his last vision on the white pages. It is the attitude in which he lives for us in Phillips’ drawing in the National Gallery in London. His brain did not weaken; his hand did not lose its old mastery. Death came to him in the form of a glacial cold, like the tremors of cholera, which possessed his limbs and put out the light of his intelligence in a moment, as the cold darkness that we call space covers and extinguishes the light of a star. He died singing in a strong, resounding voice that made the rafters ring. He was singing, as always, of the ideal world, of truth, the intellect and the divinity of the imagination. ‘My beloved, the songs that I sing, are not mine,’ he said to his wife, ‘no, no, I tell you they are not, mine.’

A full study of Blake’s personality should logically be divided into three phases - the pathological, the theosophical, and the artistic. The first, I believe, we can dismiss without many qualms. Saying that a great genius is mad, while at the same time recognizing his artistic worth, is like saying that he had rheumatism or suffered from diabetes. Madness, in fact, is a medical term that can claim no more notice from the objective critic than he grants the charge of heresy raised by the theologian, or the charge of immorality raised by the police. If we must accuse of madness every great genius who does not believe in the hurried materialism now in vogue with the happy fatuousness of a recent college graduate in the exact sciences, little remains for art and universal philosophy. Such a slaughter of the innocents would take in a large part of the peripatetic system, all of medieval metaphysics, a whole branch of the immense symmetrical edifice constructed by the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, Berkeley’s idealism, and (what a combination) the scepticism that ends with Hume. With regard to art, then, those very useful figures, the photographer and court stenographer, would get by all the more easily. The presentation of such an art and such a philosophy, flowering in the more or less distant future in the union of the two social forces felt more strongly in the market-place every day - women and the proletariat - will reconcile, if nothing else, every artist and philosopher to the shortness of life on earth.

To determine what position Blake must be assigned in the hierarchy of occidental mystics goes beyond the scope of this lecture. It seems to me that Blake is not a great mystic. The orient is the paternal home of mysticism, and now that linguistic studies have put us in the position to understand oriental thought (if that ideational energy that created the vast cycles of spiritual activity and passivity of which the Upanishads speak can be called thought) the mystical books of the occident shine, if at all, with a reflected light. Blake is probably less inspired by Indian mysticism than Paracelsus, Jacob Behem [13], or Swedenborg; at any rate, he [220] is less objectionable. In him, the visionary faculty is directly connected with the artistic faculty. One must be, in the first place, well-disposed to mysticism, and in the second place, endowed with the patience of a saint in order to get an idea of what Paracelsus and Behmen mean by their cosmic exposition of the involution and evolution of mercury, salt, sulphur, body, soul and spirit. Blake naturally belongs to another category, that of the artists, and in this category he occupies, in my opinion, a unique position, because he unites keenness of intellect with mystical feeling. This first quality is almost completely lacking in mystical art. St. John of the Cross, for example, one of the few idealist artists worthy to stand with Blake, never reveals either an innate sense of form or a coordinating force of the intellect in his book The Dark Night of the Soul, that cries and faints with such an ecstatic passion.

The explanation lies in the fact that Blake had two spiritual masters, very different from each other, yet alike in their formal precision - Michelangelo Buonarotti and Emanuel Swedenborg. The first of Blake’s mystical drawings that we have, Joseph of Arimathea among the Rock of Albion, has in one corner the words: Michelangelo pinxit . It is modelled after a sketch made by Michelangelo for his Last Judgment, and symbolizes the poetic imagination in the power of the sensual philosophy. Beneath the drawing Blake has written: ‘This is one of the Gothic Artists who built the cathedrals in what we call the Dark Ages, wandering about in sheepskins and goatskins, of whom the world was not worthy.’ Michelangelo’s influence is felt in all of Blake’s work, and especially in some passages of prose collected in the fragments, in which he always insists on the importance of the pure, clean line that evokes and creates the figure on the background of the uncreated void.

The influence of Swedenborg, who died in exile in London when Blake was beginning to write and draw, is seen in the glorified humanity with which all of Blake’s work is stamped. Swedenborg, who frequented all of the invisible worlds for several years, sees in the image of man heaven itself and Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel, who, according to him, are not three angels, but three angelic choirs. Eternity, which had appeared to the beloved disciple and to St. Augustine as a heavenly city, and to Alighieri as a heavenly rose, appeared to the Swedish mystic in the likeness of a heavenly man, animated in all his limbs by a fluid angelic life [221] that forever leaves and re-enters, systole and diastole of love and wisdom. From this vision he developed that immense system of what he called correspondences which runs through his masterpiece Arcana Coelestia, the new Gospel which, according to him, will be the apparition in the heavens of the Son of Man foretold by St. Matthew.

Armed with this two-edged sword, the art of Michelangelo and the revelations of Swedenborg, Blake killed the dragon of experience and natural wisdom, and, by minimizing space and time and denying the existence of memory and the senses, he tried to paint his works on the void of the divine bosom. To him, each moment shorter than a pulse-beat was equivalent in its duration to six thousand years, [14] because in such an infinitely short instant the work of the poet is conceived and born. To him, all space larger than a red globule of human blood was visionary, created by the hammer of Los, while in a space smaller than a globule of blood we approach eternity, of which our vegetable world is but a shadow. Not with the eye, then, but beyond the eye, the soul and the supreme love must look, because the eye, which was born in the night while the soul was sleeping in rays of light, will also die in the night. Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite, in his book De Divinis Nominibus, arrives at the throne of God by denying and overcoming every moral and metaphysical attribute, and falling into ecstasy and prostrating himself before the divine obscurity, before that unutterable immensity which precedes and encompasses the supreme knowledge in the eternal order. The mental process by which Blake arrives at the threshold of the infinite is a similar process. Flying from the infinitely small to the infinitely large, from a drop of blood to the universe of stars, his soul is consumed by the rapidity of flight, and finds itself renewed and winged and immortal on the edge of the dark ocean of God. And although he based his art on such idealist premises, convinced that eternity was in love with the products of time, the sons of God with the sons of […]

The notes given here are those in the Critical Writings (1959), with some small adaptations only where these refer to others in the same volume. BS

1. How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry / Every black’ning Church appalls; / And the hapless Soldier’s sigh / Runs in blood down Palace walls. (Blake, “London”).
2. From “Proverbs of Hell” in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”.
3. Francisco Suarez (1548-1617). ‘Jesus, too, seems to have treated his mother with scant courtesy in public but Suarez, a jesuit theologian and Spanish gentleman, has apologized for him.’ Portrait, p.513 (276).
4 Mariano de Talavera y Garcés (1771-1861), a Venezuelan priest and politician. See the Portrait, p. 517 (280): ‘Apply to the jesuit theologian Juan Mariana de Talavera who will explain to you in what circumstances you may lawfully kill your king and whether you had better hand him poison in a goblet or smear it for him upon his robe or saddlebow.’
5. ‘Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?’
6. Actually, Boucher. Joyce is following Edwin Ellis’s error in The Real Blake (London, 1907), which seems to be the major source of his knowledge of Blake’s life in this lecture.
7. Joyce’s translation: Ella m’amava per le mie sventure / Ed io l’amavo per la Sua pietá.
8. In Act II of Exiles Robert Hand says to Richard Rowan: ‘You love this woman. I remember all you told me long ago. She is yours, your work,’ and ‘You have made her all that she is.’ Joyce’s alliance to Nora Barnacle bears a vague resemblance to that which he attributes to Blake and Catherine Boucher.
9. ‘He claimed the right of Abraham to give to Hagar what Sarah refused’. Ellis, p.90.
10 Joyce takes this dubious information from Ellis, p.91.
11 Actually, from “Auguries of Innocence”. Joyce’s translation: Chiunque si beffia della fede del bambino / Sarà beffiato nella vecchiaja e nella morte, / Chiunque insegna al bambino il dubbio / Non escirà, mai dalla putridafossa, / Chiunque rispetta la fede del bambino / Trionferà sull’inferno e sulla morte.
12. The ‘anima mundi’ - spirit of the world [neo-platonic conception; cf. W. B. Yeats and theosophy]
13. The English name for Boehme. [presumably from Ellis]
14. Repeated from ‘James Clarence Mangan’, p. 81 above.

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