The Fascination of William Blake’s works, and His 102 Illustrations of The Divine Comedy

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This week had run “again” such as like “Non Idea at all”! Although I have some new subjects to work on, but they are so deep that I need some certain strength to jump into the abyss!

Early today,, I came across one of the older posts about William Blake, and though I knew him back then, his works have caught my eyes totally.

The archetype of the Creator is a familiar image in Blake’s work. Here, the demiurgic figure Urizen prays before the world he has forged. The Song of Los is the third in a series of illuminated books painted by Blake and his wife, collectively known as the Continental Prophecies.
http://By William Blake – Library of Congress, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1731480

He was, without a doubt, an unconventional man. Maybe therefore I like him!

William Blake was a poet and a painter who was born in Soho in London in 1757. He is an important figure of the Romantic age. … As well as painting Blake also made books of his poems which he illustrated. One of his most famous works is a book called Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Wikipedia
Songs of Innocence and of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul title page

For Blake, law and love are opposed, and he castigates the “frozen marriage-bed”. In Visions, Blake writes:

Till she who burns with youth, and knows no fixed lot, is bound
In spells of law to one she loathes? and must she drag the chain
Of life in weary lust? (5.21-3, E49)

He began working with radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson’s house was a meeting place for some leading English intellectual dissidents of the time: theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, philosopher Richard Price, artist John Henry Fuseli, early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and English revolutionary Thomas Paine. Wikipedia

In his masterworks, he experimented with relief etching, a method he used to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets and poems. Something that wasn’t so easy those days, anyway.

Blake abhorred slavery, and believed in racial and sexual equality. Several of his poems and paintings (I forego the corresponding painting) express a notion of universal humanity: “As all men are alike (tho’ infinitely various)”. In one poem, narrated by a black child, white and black bodies alike are described as shaded groves or clouds, which exist only until one learns “to bear the beams of love”:

When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:
Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear,
To lean in joy upon our fathers knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me. (23-8, E9)

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel 1910
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02686
http://By William Blake – Tate Britain Image, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2367164

Now, back to cause of this post: an interesting offer for a collection: Divine Comedy, of Blake’s Masterworks.

William Blake’s 102 Illustrations of The Divine Comedy Collected in a Beautiful Book from Taschen

via https://www.openculture.com/2021/09/william-blakes-102-illustrations-of-the-divine-comedy-collected-in-a-beautiful-book-from-taschen.html

In his book on the Tarot, Alejandro Jodorowsky describes the Hermit card as representing mid-life, a “positive crisis,” a middle point in time; “between life and death, in a continual crisis, I hold up my lit lamp — my consciousness,” says the Hermit, while confronting the unknown. The figure recalls the image of Dante in the opening lines of the Divine Comedy. In Mandelbaum’s translation at Columbia’s Digital Dante, we see evident similarities:

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:

so bitter—death is hardly more severe!

This is not to say the literary Dante and occult Hermeticism are historically related; only they emerged from the same matrix, a medieval Catholic Europe steeped in mysterious symbols. The Hermit is a portent, messenger, and guide, an aspect represented by the poet Virgil, whom William Blake — in 102 watercolor illustrations made between 1824 and 1827 — dressed in blue to represent spirit, while Dante wears his usual red — the color, in Blake’s system, of experience.

Blake did not read the Divine Comedy as a medieval Catholic believer but as a visionary 18th and 19th century English artist and poet who invented his own religion. He “taught himself Italian in order to be able to read the original” and had a “ complex relationship” with the text, writes Dante scholar Silvia De Santis.

His interpretation drew from a “widespread ‘selective use’” of the poet,” dating from 16th century English Protestant readings which saw Dante’s satirical skewering of corrupt individuals as indictments of the institutions they represent — the church and state for which Blake had no love.

Approaching the project at the end of his life, not the middle, Blake drew primarily on themes that Dante scholar Robin Kilpatrick describes as a “searching analysis of all of the political and economic factors that had destroyed Florence …. Hell is a diagnosis of what, in so many ways, can prove to be divisive in human nature. Sin, for Dante, is not transgression of an ordinary kind … against some law… it’s a transgression against love.”

Blake died before he could finish the series, commissioned by his friend John Linnell in 1824. He had intended to engrave all 102 illustrations, conceived, he wrote, “during a fortnight’s illness in bed.” You can see all of his stunning watercolors online here and find them lovingly reproduced in a new book published by Taschen with essays by Blake and Dante experts, helping contextualize two poets who found a common language across a span of 500 years. The book, originally priced at $150, now sells for $40.

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

9 thoughts on “The Fascination of William Blake’s works, and His 102 Illustrations of The Divine Comedy

  1. Oh, I have the feeling that I could spend years and years reading Blake and admiring his incredible artistic talent and marriage of words and images. Each of his sentences are a revelation to me! My favourite poem is “The Garden of Love” and its allusions to the Garden of Eden …

    “I went to the Garden of Love,
    And saw what I never had seen:
    A Chapel was built in the midst,
    Where I used to play on the green …”

    Thank you so much Aladin for sharing this post and shining a light on William Blake and his magickal poetry and his incredible artwarks, especially Hecate and the black magic of Her underworld. Love and light, Deborah.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. elainemansfield

    I feel many connections with this post. Thank you, Aladin. I loved seeing a large Blake exhibit in The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City which has one of the largest Blake collections in the world. It was 10-15 years ago when travel was easier, so maybe those days will return. I’ve used his image of Hecate (The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy) in many blogs. It’s the best image of Hecate I know. Marion Woodman’s husband was a Blake scholar and she loved Blake. She often spoke of his painting and poetry with reverence.

    Liked by 1 person

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