The commission included three pictures: Evening and Winter illustrating lines from Cowper's poem The Task, and a landscape of the Olney bridge.
Lines for Blake's Winter from The Task by William Cowper:
"O Winter! ruler of the inverted year,
Thy scattered hair with sleet like ashes filled,
Thy breath congealed upon thy lips, thy cheeks
Fringed with a beard made white with other snows
Than those of age, thy forehead wrapt in clouds.
A leafless branch thy sceptre, and thy throne
A slïding car, indebted to no wheels,
But urged by storms along its slippery way;
I love thee, all unlovely as thou seemest,
And dreaded as thou art."
Blake's poem To Winter written in his youth and included in Poetical Sketches uses some of the same images to portray winter as does Cowper.
Poetical Sketches, To Winter, (E 410) "O Winter! bar thine adamantine doors: The north is thine; there hast thou built thy dark Deep-founded habitation. Shake not thy roofs, Nor bend thy pillars with thine iron car. He hears me not, but o'er the yawning deep Rides heavy; his storms are unchain'd; sheathed In ribbed steel, I dare not lift mine eyes; For he hath rear'd his sceptre o'er the world. Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings To his strong bones, strides o'er the groaning rocks: He withers all in silence, and his hand Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life. He takes his seat upon the cliffs, the mariner Cries in vain. Poor little wretch! that deal'st With storms; till heaven smiles, and the monster Is driv'n yelling to his caves beneath mount Hecla"In Songs of Innocence and of Experience Blake began to use winter as an image for the absence of the human dimension. Winter became the state in which the love and grace associated with innocence was withdrawn leaving a bleak and joyless existence.
Songs of Innocence & of Experience, Song 33, (E 19) "Holy Thursday Is that trembling cry a song? Can it be a song of joy? And so many children poor? It is a land of poverty! And their sun does never shine. And their fields are bleak & bare. And their ways are fill'd with thorns. It is eternal winter there." Songs of Innocence & of Experience, Song 38, (E 23) "NURSES Song When the voices of children, are heard on the green And whisprings are in the dale: The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind, My face turns green and pale. Then come home my children, the sun is gone down And the dews of night arise Your spring & your day, are wasted in play And your winter and night in disguise." Songs of Innocence & of Experience, Song 53, (E 31) "The School Boy O! father & mother, if buds are nip'd, And blossoms blown away, And if the tender plants are strip'd Of their joy in the springing day, By sorrow and cares dismay, How shall the summer arise in joy. Or the summer fruits appear, Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy Or bless the mellowing year, When the blasts of winter appear."Later winter became for Blake the condition in which change can begin. Conscious of the birth of Jesus in mid-winter, Blake used the season of greatest hardship and despair to bring forth the greatest promise of hope.
Europe, Plate 3, (E 61) "The deep of winter came; What time the secret child, Descended thro' the orient gates of the eternal day: War ceas'd, & all the troops like shadows fled to their abodes. Then Enitharmon saw her sons & daughters rise around. Like pearly clouds they meet together in the crystal house: And Los, possessor of the moon, joy'd in the peaceful night: Thus speaking while his num'rous sons shook their bright fiery wings" Four Zoas, Night V, Page 57, (E 339) "He stood trembling & Enitharmon clung around his knees Their senses unexpansive in one stedfast bulk remain The night blew cold & Enitharmon shriekd on the dismal wind Page 58 Her pale hands cling around her husband & over her weak head Shadows of Eternal death sit in the leaden air But the soft pipe the flute the viol organ harp & cymbal And the sweet sound of silver voices calm the weary couch Of Enitharmon but her groans drown the immortal harps Loud & more loud the living music floats upon the air Faint & more faint the daylight wanes. The wheels of turning darkness Began in solemn revolutions. Earth convulsd with rending pangs Rockd to & fro & cried sore at the groans of Enitharmon Still the faint harps & silver voices calm the weary couch But from the caves of deepest night ascending in clouds of mist The winter spread his wide black wings across from pole to pole Grim frost beneath & terrible snow linkd in a marriage chain Began a dismal dance. The winds around on pointed rocks Settled like bats innumerable ready to fly abroad The groans of Enitharmon shake the skies the labring Earth Till from her heart rending his way a terrible Child sprang forth In thunder smoke & sullen flames & howlings & fury & blood"