- Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790s by Jon Mee
Oxford, 251 pp, £30.00, August 1992, ISBN 0 19 812226 8
Just under forty years ago David Erdman provided for William Blake historical contexts in abundance in Blake: Prophet against Empire (1954). It was a remarkable work of literary detection, which still dominates the field. Some Blake readers have felt that his attribution of correspondence between text and contemporaneous events was over-literal (as well as hazardous), and Jon Mee is one of these. Mee’s contexts are less literal: they concern the characteristic rhetorics, preoccupations and discourses of the 1790s which relate to Blake’s concerns and which perhaps help us to understand them.
Thus he discusses radical millenarianism, the cult of ‘northern antiquities’, mythography and Biblical criticism, visiting familiar and out-of-the-way places. While he makes no startling discoveries, he makes interesting suggestions which will earn his book a place on the Blake shelf. Most of what he has to say about millenarianism will be familiar to those who know J.F.C. Harrison’s The Second Coming (a book which contains a second book condensed in its footnotes), Clarke Garrett’s Respectable Folly, or several studies by Morton Paley. Mee adds to their findings several pamphleteers and preachers of his own discovery, the most interesting of whom is Garnet Terry. Terry was first a follower of and then a competitor with William Huntington, S.S. The ‘S.S.’ stood for Sinner Saved, and Huntington was a large, self-appointed noise, evangelising throughout the 1790s from his chapel in Great Titchfield Street. There came from his pen a torrent of pamphlets, sermons, admonitions and expostulations of a loud and windy nature.
The wind blew from an antinomian quarter – that is, his vocabulary drew heavily upon this old Puritan heresy, moving through the familiar opposition between ceremonial formal law and established forms, on the one hand, and faith and free grace on the other. But that is about as far as Huntington takes us towards Blake. For Huntington was a High Tory, and he busied himself disciplining those members of his flock who were influenced by Tom Paine or by the prophet Richard Brothers (‘God’s nephew’). He published one tract entitled The Moral Law not Injured by the Everlasting Gospel. That might seem to take us closer to Blake but in fact it does not, since if Blake had written such a tract its title would have been inverted: ‘The Everlasting Gospel Injured by the Moral Law’.
Garnet Terry takes us back towards Blake. He was a supporter of Tom Paine and he was accused of being a ‘leveller’ and of ‘rebellion against Christ, Church, King, and State’. Even so, Terry serves mainly to remind us how widespread this enthusiastic Dissenting vocabulary was. Too often we approach the ‘mind of the age’ through the language of the rational or humanist Enlightenment: through Paley, Priestley, Price, Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin. But stick your foot, or your library ticket, into the sea of pamphlets and sermons of Dissent and of Methodist break-aways, and you are back in a tradition descending from 17th-century Anabaptists and Ranters, of Ezra and Isaiah, of John Bunyan, of the New Jerusalem, of watchwords from the walls of Zion, of ancient prophecies, of the Whore of Babylon and the Beast, of the Land of Beulah, of blood on the walls of palaces, lambs entangled in thorns, and of ‘the old vail of the law, under which the gospel is hid’.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 15 No. 4 · 25 February 1993
E.P. Thompson’s judiciously favourable review of Jon Mee’s Dangerous Enthusiasm (LRB, 28 January) is a bracing performance. Thompson found it necessary to remind readers of such tones as the seven forms of ‘humour and humour’s neighbours’ used by Blake – ‘polemic, irony, expostulation, mockery, hyperbole, provocation, abuse’. As Thompson says, these tones are too little acknowledged or emulated in academic writings such as Mee’s book. It was odd, though, that Thompson should have endorsed a pronouncement in the now twenty-year-old disquisition by F.R. Leavis, ‘Justifying one’s valuation of Blake’. This egregiously-titled essay declared ‘none of [Blake’s] elaborated prophetic works … a successful work of art’. Thompson indicated he has never heard anything that would persuade him otherwise.
Any attempt to vindicate Blake’s art in The Book of Urizen requires recognition of the differences between illuminated books and text-poems that lack a visual dimension; the ear, however acute, cannot by itself discern the tone of the Lambeth Book. Even at his best, Leavis would not have known where to begin such a discussion. Whether Thompson will be able to do better in his forthcoming Blake book we shall have to see. His review is reassuring insofar as it demolishes Mee’s claim that Blake was ‘a bricoleur’.
Some of Blake’s illuminated writings, however, can stand even when divested of their accompanying designs. Given his responsiveness to humour and its congeners, Thompson might be expected to exempt The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from the Leavisite strictures – though there was no dication that Leavis himself knew how to recognise tins ‘elaborated’ work as successful satire and, it must be added, there is no sign in Mee’s book that he is able to recognise satire when he sees it. Interested readers will find that Michael Ferber’s The Poetry of William Blake contains an honest Left-originating analysis of The Marriage that is not tone-deaf to the text and is also aware of the pictures. Ferber reads the brilliant book that Blake wrote.
I find it difficult to believe that Thompson himself has recently re-read ‘Leavis’s remarkable essay, “Justifying one’s valuation of Blake’ ”. Whether some of Blake’s prophecies are successful works of art might still be debated, but what justification can there now be for putting forward Leavis’s awful self-indulgent oration as an effective work of criticism? By representing himself, FRL the Great, as ‘one’ for pages on end, that author projected himself as a very model of donnish presumption, issuing value judgments he wouldn’t condescend to support. There was also pathos in the spectacle of the author of Revaluation being manifestly over-the-hill. For Leavis it was then too late to do more than argue with T.S. Eliot, read aloud a few good lyrics, and make pronouncements. Thank goodness Thompson remains sensitive to important elements of ‘Blake’s Tone’ and says things about it that haven’t yet entered the consciousness of younger academic critics.
Iowa City, Iowa
It is thirty years since Edward Thompson first published The Making of the English Working Class, and while the phrase he uses to criticise what Post-Modernism has tried to do to William Blake, ‘the somewhat attenuated discourse of analytic academicism’, is perhaps not quite on a level with ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’, we may give thanks that Thompson’s brain is razor sharp still and that, unlike some of his contemporaries, he has never been bought off by academic life or cheap fame in the press. Where, however, are the Edward Thompsons for the Nineties and beyond?
Vol. 15 No. 5 · 11 March 1993
I was present when Leavis delivered his lecture on Blake at a conference in York and I asked him if he would not allow that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was an artistic success (Letters, 25 February). He agreed, but continued to dismiss all the other prophetic books. This shocked me. In 1930 John Masefield had arranged a celebration of Blake in his Boar’s Hill Music Room. It included a performance of The Ghost of Abel and a dramatic recital of the last section of Jerusalem, in both of which I was lucky to take part. To everyone’s surprise the latter was a great success and the audience found it as comprehensible as the Bible to which it owes so much.
Vol. 15 No. 6 · 25 March 1993
In the light of recent comments on my failure to read the humour in Blake (LRB, 28 January and Letters, 25 February), your readers may be amused to find out that I am presently working on an anthology of popular satire and parody 1792-1822.
Academia: it’s a larf, innit.
Australian National University, Canberra