Saturday, July 14, 2012


The Old Testament character who is brought to mind by the 'great Old Man of Crete' is Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. He is mentioned twice by Blake; once as the inscription on the picture of the man who has been driven to a animal existence by his insanity. The other mention is in a letter to Hayley in which Blake refers to the struggles he endured in overcoming his internal enemy, his 'beasts and devils.'
Letters, Number 51, (E 755)
[To William Hayley]
[23 October 1804] 
now! O Glory! and O Delight!  I have entirely reduced that
spectrous Fiend to his station, whose annoyance has been the ruin
of my labours for the last passed twenty years of my life.  He is
the enemy of conjugal love and is the Jupiter of the Greeks, an
iron-hearted tyrant, the ruiner of ancient Greece.  I speak with
perfect confidence and certainty of the fact which has passed
upon me.  Nebuchadnezzar had seven times passed over him; I have
had twenty; thank God I was not altogether a beast as he was; but
I was a slave bound in a mill among beasts and devils; these
beasts and these devils are now, together with myself, become
children of light and liberty, and my feet and my wife's feet are
free from fetters."  
In the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar's dream is recalled and interpreted by Daniel who had been taken captive to Babylon. The dream is of an image like the one Blake represented on Page 30 of the Dante series - The symbolic figure of the course of human history by Virgil. Milton Klonsky, on page 144 of Blake's Dante, states: "Dante's 'Old Man' is based on the image in Nebuchadnezzar's prophetic dream, as related in the second book of Daniel. His allegory of the successively degenerating periods of human history, from gold to silver to brass to iron, is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses."

Daniel, Chapter 2
[27] Daniel answered in the presence of the king, and said, The secret which the king hath demanded, cannot the wise men, the astrologers, the magicians, the soothsayers, shew unto the king;
[28] But there is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets, and maketh known to the king Nebuchadnezzar what shall be in the latter days. Thy dream, and the visions of thy head upon thy bed, are these;
[29] As for thee, O king, thy thoughts came into thy mind upon thy bed, what should come to pass hereafter: and he that revealeth secrets maketh known to thee what shall come to pass.
[30] But as for me, this secret is not revealed to me for any wisdom that I have more than any living, but for their sakes that shall make known the interpretation to the king, and that thou mightest know the thoughts of thy heart.
[31] Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible.
[32] This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,
33] His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.
[34] Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces.
[35] Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.
[36] This is the dream; and we will tell the interpretation thereof before the king.
[37] Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory.
[38] And wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heaven hath he given into thine hand, and hath made thee ruler over them all. Thou art this head of gold.
[39] And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth.
[40] And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise.
[41] And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potters' clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; but there shall be in it of the strength of the iron, forasmuch as thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay.
[42] And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken.
[43] And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay.
[44] And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.
[45] Forasmuch as thou sawest that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it brake in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold; the great God hath made known to the king what shall come to pass hereafter: and the dream is certain, and the interpretation thereof sure.
[46] Then the king Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face, and worshipped Daniel, and commanded that they should offer an oblation and sweet odours unto him.
[47] The king answered unto Daniel, and said, Of a truth it is, that your God is a God of gods, and a Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets, seeing thou couldest reveal this secret.

William Blake 
English 17571827 

Illustration to Dante's Divine Comedy 1824-27

Hell Canto 14: The Symbolic Figure of the Course of

Human History Described by Virgil 

pen, ink and watercolour over pencil and black chalk

52.7 x 37.3 cm

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Felton Bequest, 1920

In Daniel's interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's dream, the kingdom of Babylon would be followed by future kingdoms less fine than Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom. However following the fourth kingdom, God's kingdom would replace earthly kingdoms and would never end.

In Dante's scheme which Blake's image illustrates, there would be a continued descent into the lowest levels of hell with increasing pain and humiliation. Blake's sympathies would follow Nebuchadnezzar's dream, rather than Dante's projection. Blake believed that error could and would be annihilated without resort to vengeful punishment and destruction of individuals.  

Milton, Plate 38 [43], (E 139)
"Here is Jerusalem bound in chains, in the Dens of Babylon
In the Eastern porch of Satans Universe Milton stood & said
Satan! my Spectre! I know my power thee to annihilate
And be a greater in thy place, & be thy Tabernacle               
A covering for thee to do thy will, till one greater comes
And smites me as I smote thee & becomes my covering.
Such are the Laws of thy false Heavns! but Laws of Eternity
Are not such: know thou: I come to Self Annihilation
Such are the Laws of Eternity that each shall mutually     
Annihilate himself for others good, as I for thee"

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