Another Post: Confrontation with Satan
Image from "William Blake's illustrations to the Divine Comedy"
William Blake had the misfortune of being placed on trial for sedition in 1803. Although Blake was acquitted in the matter, David Erdman believes that the ordeal caused Blake to become cautious in speaking out on the subject of politics. The episode began with Blake removing from his garden a private in the Royal Dragoons. Schofield brought charges of 'assault and Seditious words.' For five months it was uncertain if Blake would be found guilty and imprisoned or could resume his normal artistic pursuits without fear of harassment. Britain was at war and there was little tolerance for dissent against the empire. The stress took a toll on William and Catherine.
David V Erdman, in William Blake: Prophet Against Empire commented on the incident which led to the accusations and the effect it had on Blake and his poetry in his chapter 'Another England There'.
These are quotes from Erdman's Chapter 22:
"Inevitably the effect of the experience was to intensify Blake's self-censorship and the tension between man and prophet. He parades his name and address and declares his theme to be social and contemporary - 'I write in South Molton Street, what I both see and hear In regions of Humanity, in London's opening streets' (J 34). Yet he seeks to prevent 'Satan's Watch-fiends' from entering into the meaning of what he writes by concealing, as he says in riddles, the 'Gate' in his own head (J 35. He tempts the curious with reverse writing which must be read in a mirror."...
"The most immediate poetic record of Blake's suffering in time of trial, however, is the plaintive notebook ballad partly incorporated in the preface to the third chapter of Jerusalem and partly transcribed into another manuscript as The Grey Monk. This story of a tortured pacifist who will not recant is associated with Blake's trial by the fact that the Gothic courtroom of Chichester was known to have been the chancel of a Grey Friars convent church. The monk's martyrdom is that of an honest man who has written against war and empire and whose writings have been found out."
"To write against War has nevertheless been his duty as a soldier of Christ, and he is ready to endure the tortures of 'the wrack & grinding chain' for the sake of his 'Brother,' the poor man, 'starved between two walls' (that is to say, in the street) and the poor man's children, whose cry ever 'my Soul appalls.'"
Erdman tells us that in the original draft the 'lazy monk' was the 'seditious monk'.
Here is the passage in Jerusalem, (Plate 52, (E 201)) associated with Blake's 'run in with the law':
"I saw a Monk of Charlemaine
Arise before my sight
I talkd with the Grey Monk as we stood
In beams of infernal light
Gibbon arose with a lash of steel
And Voltaire with a wracking wheel
The Schools in clouds of learning rolld
Arose with War in iron & gold.
Thou lazy Monk they sound afar
In vain condemning glorious War
And in your Cell you shall ever dwell
Rise War & bind him in his Cell.
The blood. red ran from the Grey Monks side
His hands & feet were wounded wide
His body bent, his arms & knees
Like to the roots of ancient trees
When Satan first the black bow bent
And the Moral Law from the Gospel rent
He forgd the Law into a Sword
And spilld the blood of mercys Lord.
Titus! Constantine! Charlemaine!
O Voltaire! Rousseau! Gibbon! Vain
Your Grecian Mocks & Roman Sword
Against this image of his Lord!
For a Tear is an Intellectual thing;
And a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King
And the bitter groan of a Martyrs woe
Is an Arrow from the Almighties Bow!"
Here is a link to the longer poem, The Grey Monk, from the Pickering Manuscript, (E 489).