Thursday, July 12, 2012


Since Blake created 102 images for Dante's Divine Comedy, it is easy for some of them to receive little attention. When the set of pictures was dispersed after the heirs of John Linnell made them available for sale, 36 pictures came into the possession of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melborne. It is one of these pictures upon which we focus our attention. Thanks to the generosity of The National Gallery of Victoria for allowing publication of this image on this blog.

This image is labelled The Symbolic Figure of the Course of Human History Described by Virgil
. Damon (Blake Dictionary) states that it "represents the form of Empire shedding fruitless tears." Empires rise and fall. The golden head may represent Babylon, the silver arms and torso: Empire of Medes and Persians; the brass loins: Greece; the iron legs: Rome; and the feet of iron and clay: Europe.

The prominent symbols of empire include the radiant crown, the orb, and the sceptre or sword. The loins are covered with scales as are Satan's in various Blake images. Blake is specific in his assigning the four metals and the four directions to the four Eternal Zoas in this quote from near the end of Jerusalem:

Jerusalem, Plate 97, (E 256) 
"Fourfold the Vision for bright beaming Urizen 
Layd his hand on the South & took a breathing Bow of carved Gold 
Luvah his hand stretch'd to the East & bore a Silver Bow bright shining 
Tharmas Westward a Bow of Brass pure flaming richly wrought 
Urthona Northward in thick storms a Bow of Iron terrible thundering."
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
Virgil speaking to Dante:
"Amid the sea there lies a wasted land,”
he told me thereupon, “whose name is Crete,
under whose king the world of old was pure.
There is a mountain there, which, happy once
with waters and green leaves, was Ida called;
’t is now abandoned like a thing outworn.
Whilom as trusty cradle for her son
Rhea selected it, and when he wept,
to hide him better, caused a shouting there.
Within that mountain stands a great Old Man,
who holds his shoulders toward Damiata turned,
and who, as at his mirror, looks at Rome.
His head is formed of finest gold, his arms
and breast are of the purest silver, then,
as far as to his loins, he ’s made of brass;
all chosen iron is he down from there,
save that baked clay his right foot is, and straighter
he stands on that, than on the other foot.

Each of these parts, except the golden one,
is broken by a cleft, whence trickle tears,
which, when collected, perforate that cave.
From rock to rock they course into this vale;
then Acheron with Styx and Phlegethon
they form, and through this narrow duct descend
as far as where one goes no further down;
they form Cocytus there; and what that pool
is like, thou ’lt see; hence here it is not told."

Blake has the Spectre speak words which may be apropos for a figure representing the course of human history. The metals, the clay and the tears enter into the written imagery of Dante and Blake, and the visual image which links them both.

Jerusalem, Plate 10, (E 153)
"O that I could cease to be! Despair! I am Despair

Created to be the great example of horror & agony: also my
Prayer is vain I called for compassion: compassion mockd
Mercy & pity threw the grave stone over me & with lead
And iron, bound it over me for ever: Life lives on my
Consuming: & the Almighty hath made me his Contrary
To be all evil, all reversed & for ever dead: knowing
And seeing life, yet living not; how can I then behold
And not tremble; how can I be beheld & not abhorrd

So spoke the Spectre shuddring, & dark tears ran down his shadowy face
Which Los wiped off, but comfort none could give! or beam of hope
Yet ceasd he not from labouring at the roarings of his Forge
With iron & brass Building Golgonooza in great contendings
Till his Sons & Daughters came forth from the Furnaces
At the sublime Labours for Los. compelld the invisible Spectre   
To labours mighty, with vast strength, with his mighty chains,
In pulsations of time, & extensions of space, like Urns of Beulah
With great labour upon his anvils, & in his ladles the Ore
He lifted, pouring it into the clay ground prepar'd with art;
Striving with Systems to deliver Individuals from those Systems; 
That whenever any Spectre began to devour the Dead,
He might feel the pain as if a man gnawd his own tender nerves."

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