Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Among Blake's works is a little book of only 16 plates which he produced early in his career - in 1793. It is titled For Children: Gates of Paradise. In 1818 he re-engraved the same images, added a frontispiece, tailpiece, and explanatory couplets for each picture. The new book was titled For the Sexes: Gates of Paradise.

The children to whom the first book was addressed may be the innocents, those who had not travelled far along the journey. Gates of Paradise is not presented as an account of violent activities such as those portrayed in The Book of Urizen. Instead it's a roadmap to psychic development. Blake is trying to lead us through the process of psychological evolution, but he does not express himself in clear rational language in either the first or second version. The reader is asked to use his intuition to retrieve from his unconscious, archetypal content to associate with the images supplied. The second version addressed To the Sexes seems to recognise that it is those who are in the stage of 'generation' who will benefit from these insights.

In his book Symbol and Image in William Blake, George Wingfield Digby, presents a thorough psychological commentary plate by plate. On page 6, Digby says: "But the purpose of this form of communication is not to make explicit statements. It is to evoke and direct attention to psychological events and states of consciousness by means other than that of the intellectual concept, which is rooted in dualism."

So the first plate pictures a caterpillar on a leaf and a chrysalis with the face of a baby; the caption is 'What is man!'; and the associated couplet is 'The Sun's Light when he unfolds it / Depends on the Organ that beholds it.' So we are at the beginning; we want to find out what man is; we may go in one direction or another; to develop psychologically man must begin to see things differently; not just what one sees, but the way in which one sees things must be altered.

British Museum
Gates of Paradise

The frontispiece captures two stages in the life cycle of the insect. The infant is emerging from the dormant stage of the chrysalis; he is entering the world of outward activity in which his potential may be realised.  The larval stage is represented too; it is feeding on the leaf, assimilating the outer world for its growth. Implied is the butterfly stage of development which Blake uses to represent the achievement of the spiritual level of development.
This image from the British Museum was photographed showing the gage with the measurement of the image. Blake packed all these ideas into an image only 2 1/2 inches in height. There are five known copies of For Children: The Gates of Paradise, including the one in the British Museum and one in the Library of Congress. 

To view all of the pages of For Children: The Gates of Paradise go to the Library of Congress website, page down to Rosenwald 1813, For children: The gates of Paradise. La MBeth, W. Burke, 1793. [1], select PDF, and download it to your computer.  

This post was first published Nov 26, 2009.

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