Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Our posts mentioning Bunyan. 

There were three great English dissenting poets:
John Milton (9 December 1608 - 8 November 1674)
John Bunyan (28 November 1628 - 31 August 1688)
William Blake (28 November 1757 - 12 August 1827)

The first two were influential on the third - William Blake - the subject of this blog. Milton's influence has frequently been mentioned here but we have said less about Bunyan's. Gerda S. Norvig's book Dark Figures in the Desired Country: Blake's Illustrations to the Pilgrim's Progress gives deserved attention to the primary way in which Blake interacted with Bunyan's writing.

Illustrations to Pilgrim's Progress
Plate 8 
Christian Fears the Fire from the Mountain
Blake was slow to acknowledge a debt to Bunyan. It was not until near the end of his life that he took the task of illustrating Pilgrim's Progress. Blake's Bunyan illustrations were made around 1824 after the completion of Illustrations to Book of Job. He had no prospect of having them published in a new edition of Pilgrim's Progress. They were done like most of his work in response to the promptings of his imagination to present his vision in a form which may someday be received.

Blake's early opinion of Bunyan as compared to Milton is expressed in this letter to Hayley:

Letter 52, (E 758)
To William Hayley Esqre Felpham
near Chichester, Sussex

Sth Molton St 4 Decr. 1804
"-- I was about to
have written to you to express my wish that two so unequal
labourers might not be yoked to the same Plow & to desire you if
you could to get Flaxman to do the whole because I thought it
would be (to say the best of myself) like putting John Milton
with John Bunyan"

In Blake's opinion, allegory, as was employed by Bunyan, was a lower form of communication than vision which Blake aimed to use himself as alluded to in this passage:

Vision of the Last Judgment, (E 554)

"The Hebrew Bible & the Gospel of
Jesus are not Allegory but Eternal Vision or Imagination of All
that Exists Fable [al] <&> Allegory]
[<& Visions of Imagination>] ought
to be known as Two Distinct Things & so calld for the Sake of
Eternal Life Plato has made Socrates say that Poets & Prophets do
not Know or Understand what they write or Utter this is a most
Pernicious Falshood. If they do not pray is an inferior Kind to
be calld Knowing Plato confutes himself>"

As Blake matured as an artist and as a Christian (which were one and the same thing to him), he found ways to probe the depths of meaning in Bunyan according to Norvig:

"But in the active days of the Lambeth period (1790 -1800, when Blake lived at 13 Hercules Building, Lambeth), absorbed in the dynamic relations and counterposes of his own prophetic art to the energies of Milton's religious Poetics, Blake evidently did not consider Bunyan compatriot or rival worthy of systematic attention.
By the time he had developed a style of serial illustration adequate to handle literary critiques that were, simultaneously, visions of individuation, he was ready to turn to the hermeneutic complexity of the Progress and give it the innovative treatment I will be examining in Chapter 3."
(Page 47)

The illustrations to Pilgrim's Progress have continued to be neglected compared to Blake's other work. Norvig's book, deep as it is, has created an opening for the illustrations to receive the attention they deserve.

"In part the relative neglect of the Bunyan designs is due to the fact that the watercolors themselves, currently among the holdings of the Frick collection in New York city, have been on general view only four times since their arrival in the United States during World War II, and before that in England only once."

Norvig's book is available online.The twenty-eight plates are included following page 128; you will find it hard to locate them elsewhere.

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