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’.

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