Blake’s Tone

E.P. Thompson

  • 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’.

It is, of course, a rhetoric very much closer to the language of Blake than is the rhetoric of the Enlightenment. Inattention to this Londonish rhetoric has led some critics to see Blake as a more isolated figure than he was, and Jon Mee helpfully corrects this by stressing that Blake’s rhetoric ‘lies in the culture of vulgar enthusiasm’. But this culture was not only ‘vulgar’: after all, John Milton shared much of it. And when we find similar vocabularies we should be careful not to assume that one was influenced by or imitating the other, any more than we can assume that anyone using the word ‘discourse’ today must be a disciple of Foucault. For example, the American Universalist Elhanan Winchester was preaching in London in the 1790s. He was a millennialist whose vocabulary was saturated with allusions to the ‘New Jerusalem’. Among his prophecies were the personal coming of Christ; the resurrection of the saints; the conversion of the Jews; a final great war after which Satan was to be bound in the abyss for a thousand years; then the millennium; then Satan loosed again and again overthrown; then the New Jerusalem and a general restoration. This full bill was to take place independent of human agency, whereas Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ was to be built by strenuous intellectual, imaginative and artistic labours: ‘to Labour in Knowledge is to Build up Jerusalem.’ There is nothing essential in common between the two.

Several of the influences Mee suggests leave one uneasy in this way. His chapter on ‘Northern Antiquities’ is successful in bringing together methods of historical and literary criticism, and also in bringing within a single argument Ossian, Stukeley’s Stonehenge, the Druids, Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), radical antiquarians such as Douce and Ritson, and several forms of primitivism. The chapter on mythography does not succeed quite so well. It concerns a problem which has preoccupied Blake scholars for many years: given Blake’s vigorous mythogenic faculties, from which sources was he most likely to have derived his eclectic borrowings? No single source can be cited with confidence: as Frank Manuel showed years ago (The 18th Century confronts the Gods, 1959), comparative mythology had been advancing for more than one hundred years. Jacob Bryant’s A New System; or, An Analysis of Ancient Mythology (1775) was mentioned once by Blake, and he engraved one of its plates: but Northrop Frye doubted whether he ever read it, and its approaches and conclusions were contrary to his.

Comparative mythology was everywhere in the 1790s, and was even the theme of popular compilations such as William Hurd’s A New Universal History of the Religious Rites, Ceremonies and Customs of the Whole World (1788). Indeed it is possible that Blake felt it necessary to invent new mythologies partly because mythology had been so thoroughly deconstructed by the 1790s. But the obvious sources lack the robust radical tone of Blake’s exercises, and I must associate myself with Jon Mee in proposing Volney’s Ruins of Empire as a prime influence on him. Scholars have sometimes overlooked this book because it has been supposed that it was published in English in 1795, and hence too late to have influenced the Songs of Experience or The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. But The Ruins of Empire, published in Paris in 1791, was quickly noticed in England, a translation was already underway in January 1792, and was published later in the year by Joseph Johnson, an important figure who published radical Dissenting intellectuals and also employed Blake as an engraver.

The Ruins was an atheist exercise, and this Blake would have refused. But, as Mee notes, it was also a robust, polemical revolutionary work, with very wide mythological reference, which disclosed the Deity as ‘a chimerical and abstract being’ whose ‘attributes are abstractions of the knowledge of nature’. For Volney, it was in the interests of rulers and priests to create an ‘empire of mystery’ in order to repress and exploit the people. The book was a huge success with a popular book-reading public – the kind of public which was drawn into the London Corresponding Society and which inhabited that ‘Radical Underworld’ which Iain McCalman’s research so brilliantly revealed. Sections were extracted and produced as broadsheets and a tiny pocket edition was published. It is from Volney as much as from Paine that radicals adopted the notion of ‘priestcraft’.

I think that Volney may have had an even more direct influence on Blake than Jon Mee acknowledges. Passages in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell echo Volney’s book, and ‘The Human Abstract’ follows its argument. (Jon Mee scarcely notices the Songs and remarks at one point that the ‘Tree of Mystery ... makes its first appearance in The Book of Ahania.’ But surely the genesis and growth of this tree is the organising theme of ‘The Human Abstract’?) Mee shows that in this and other cases Blake would have been more attracted by the enthusiastic or ‘vulgar’ expression of ideas than by the more polite or academic expression of the Enlightened culture. He is also careful to note what Blake could accept from the deist or Painite discourse, and what he must refuse – that is, what he could not borrow without transforming it into his own.

The fourth major chapter of the book has some interesting comments on Biblical criticism, but is generally less successful. Mee becomes involved in a long, repetitive, circulatory discussion of The Song of Los, The Book of Urizen, The Book of Ahania and The Book of Los. One emerges from this discussion, as one emerges from these Lambeth Books, as much confused as enlightened, and with the impression that whatever Blake was saying could have been said more succinctly in prose. These are the only Blake texts to which Mee attends closely, and he does nothing to help them to work as poems. This is becoming a familiar area of silence in academic Blake criticism, where it is obligatory to assume that every line of Blake’s is a line of genius and where analytic exercises are given preference to response and valuation. As a historian trespassing in literary domains I may allow my Philistinism to go further. In my view there has never been an adequate reply to Leavis’s remarkable essay, ‘Justifying one’s valuation of Blake’, in which the critic dared to say that the student ‘should be told unequivocally that none of the elaborated prophetic works is a successful work of art’.

More and worse. No one should be permitted to write about Blake who does not exercise a sense of humour. Indeed, I am arranging for a private member’s bill to be introduced in the next session of Parliament which will penalise offenders with the confiscation of their word processors. There are so many critical texts around today which seem deaf to Blake’s tone. And this tone is so often modulated through different forms of humour and humour’s neighbours – polemic, irony, expostulation, mockery, hyperbole, provocation, abuse. Students might be trained to become sensitive to Blake’s tone by studying his annotations, to Reynolds, Bacon, Bishop Watson or Thornton, for example. These take us very close to the man: ‘The Prince of darkness is a Gentleman – not a Man: he is a Lord Chancellor,’ ‘Christ died an Unbeliever,’ It appears to me Now that Tom Paine is a better Christian than the Bishop,’ ‘A Last Judgment is Necessary because Fools flourish’. None of these is funny ha-ha, but while the brow may be furrowed with indignation there is a twist of humour at the corners of the mouth which is also part of the meaning. Blake knew the effectiveness of blasphemy, and in his later years he knew how to pull the solemn legs of investigators who came to his door. When Crabb Robinson, who was preoccupied with polite disputes about Socinianism and Unitarianism, asked Blake ‘in what light he viewed the great question concerning the Divinity of Jesus Christ, he said; “He is the only God.” But then he added – “And so am I and so are you.”’

Crabb Robinson was floored by that, and so in a way are we, although we rejoice at Blake’s triumph and have a swift sense of some revealed truth. But what we may actually be sensing is a creative contradiction. Belief in the unity of God (who became Christ) and also in the diffusion of the divine throughout all living things is authenticated in some parts of the antinomian tradition, and finds expression from time to time in the prophetic books, as in Vala:

Then those in Great Eternity met in the Council of God
As one Man, for contracting their exalted Senses
They behold Multitude, or Expanding they behold as one,
As One Man all the Universal family: – that One man
They call Jesus the Christ, – they in him – he in them
Live in Perfect harmony.

Underneath Blake’s provocative contradiction there is reference to a serious and considered intellectual position. But at the same time Blake is refusing to be drawn into the theological routines of his inquisitor and is being defiantly obscure. It is difficult not to sense that the corners of his mouth are twitching. And, as so often, humour is not at odds with straight expression: but instead contributes to his meaning.

I will not lay an indictment against Jon Mee with a view to relieving him of his word processor. He has a little sense of humour, but he is in general too solemn, and Blake, if he had met him, would have been tempted to pull his leg. This is a helpful book, but it has two serious weaknesses. First, the perspective is too foreshortened. By concentrating very closely on the intellectual contexts of the 1790s, Mee neglects to show the longevity of Blake’s traditions. Kathleen Raine’s The Great Tradition goes unmentioned, and while one may dispute her theme and many of her inferences (as I do) her work and that of related scholars cannot simply disappear without explanation. Jacob Boehme is another absentee from Mee’s book, although Behmenist influences were still around in the 1790s, and we know that Blake admired the plates in William Law’s edition. Boehme’s influence on Blake has been both acclaimed and contested. It is a difficult question, and one of the most careful discussions of it, relating the texts of the two authors to each other, remains unpublished. This is an Oxford B.Litt. thesis, ‘William Blake and the Alchemical Philosophers’ (1954), an apprentice work by the learned Blake scholar, Gerald Bentley, which is only available in a faint microfilm copy in the Bodleian. Professor Bentley should be encouraged to update and publish this.

Should a study whose design and merit is a strict concentration on the 1790s refer back to these older traditions? As a historian I consider that it should. Let one illustration serve, that of something which Blake calls ‘Reason’. Mee notes that ‘the Enlightenment cult of Reason is represented as the latest in a long series of mystificatory religions.’ That is true, but the rejection of Reason by enthusiastic sects is far older than the Enlightenment, and extends from the 17th century to Blake’s time through Philadelphians, Behmenists (like Law) and antinomian sects such as the Muggletonians and the followers of Richard Coppin. A sense of the antiquity of such doctrines helps one to understand them.

The other weakness of Jon Mee’s book is that it lacks structure. It is simply four interesting essays on contexts and ideas which may have brushed against Blake. And Blake himself is interpreted rather little. It seems to me that the author realised this when he reviewed his manuscript, and then wrote an introduction, ‘Blake the Bricoleur’, to supply the missing structure. The notion of bricolage is dignified by references to Lévi-Strauss, Derrida and Bakhtin and, in the form adopted by Mee, the bricoleur combines diverse elements from disparate sources, effecting ‘a complete reorganisation of the structures’ which have been inherited. Bricolage ‘recombines elements from across discourse boundaries such that the antecedent discourses are fundamentally altered in the resultant structures’.

I dissent from this. It appears to describe not any system or method but a haphazard eclecticism, with a somewhat accidental outcome. This is a giving-up of the problem, and it takes us away from Blake into the disparate elements all around him. But what is of interest is not only the disparate elements but, even more, the principles according to which these elements are selected and combined. And here it is only fair that I should declare an interest. For I have also been at work on Blake and the 1790s and my study is now in the press. I may therefore be over-critical of approaches which differ from mine. But I firmly reject the suggestion that Blake’s borrowings effected a complete reorganisation of the structures which he inherited. On the contrary, I see a firm consistency in a strong antinomian tradition, derived from a 17th-century vocabulary and discourse, which extends in Blake’s work from the 1780s (or earlier) to the year of his death. The signatures of this include the radical suspicion of Reason, the repudiation of adulterous relations between Church and State, the vocabulary of the ‘Everlasting Gospel’ and the ‘New Jerusalem’, the refusal of any worship entailing self-abasement and professed humility, and above all, the absolute rejection of ‘the Moral Law’. Here are stable organising principles which cannot be passed over as bricolage.

Jon Mee is aware of this element in Blake’s thought, although he does not examine it closely nor stress, as I would, its centrality. But he does skilfully show the convergence of the older antinomian inheritance with the revolutionary rationalism of Paine and Volney – for they also were against the Beast and the Whore. Indeed, in the early 1790s this convergence almost effected a conjunction. But Blake held back and eventually repudiated the rationalism of the Deists and their materialist psychology in which all was to be derived from enlightened sell-love. In discarding the prohibitive Moral Law of ‘Thou Shalt Not’ Blake could put trust only in an active affirmative, ‘Thou Shalt Love’, and for this only the image of Jesus Christ would do.

Mee also places Blake well and correctly. He does not give us a poet in frequent attendance at Joseph Johnson’s dinners, nor does he offer him as an artisan engraver. On occasion Blake could inhabit both milieux. What Mee insists on is that Blake’s ‘enthusiastic’ forms and tropes, both literary and artistic, would have turned off the intellectual radicals and the readers of the Analytical Review. He writes that ‘Blake’s vulgar enthusiasm functioned as the mark of an unrespectability’ which excluded him from any wide public audience, and which may explain why Johnson set up one book of The French Revolution in proof but never published it. This had less to do with differences over political attitudes than with ‘differences over the social politics of a style’. That is a wise judgment which goes some way to repair Mee’s evasions about bricolage and in ‘enthusiasm’ (and all that this entails in inheritance and vocabulary) gives this book an organising principle. Dangerous Enthusiasm will do much to take Blake out of the somewhat attenuated discourse of analytic academicism and to put him back in a credible place.