Monday, August 15, 2016


This is reposted from March 2015.

Blake's attitude toward Greek and Roman literature and culture was ambivalent. Kathleen Raine tells us in Blake and Antiquity:

"The first evidence of Blake's reading of Porphyry appears in the Book of Thel, written in 1787, thirty -two years before he painted the Arlington Tempera... But once Blake had set his soul to study in a learned school, with Thomas Taylor and the Platonic philosophers, he quickly became master of a coherent symbolic system which he handled with ever-increasing scope and freedom. 

Not only did neo-Platonism give him a vocabulary and grammar of symbolic terms; it placed him in the mainstream of European poetic and pictorial symbolism. From his reading of Porphyry and Plotinus he came to recognize in the works of poets already known to him the same symbols, endlessly recreated and re-clothed in beautiful forms. Thus he was able to extend his field of allusion and to introduce themes and images taken from many sources, without destroying the unity of his symbolic structure." (Page 17)
Illustrations to Pilgrim's Progress
Christian and Hopeful Escape Giant Despair

In 1809, describing his large painting of the Ancient Britons which was included his Exhibition at his brother's shop, Blake indicates that his three principle figures are recreations of characters portrayed by the ancients. Although the painting to which Blake referred is lost, we can see how Blake portrayed Apollo, Hercules and the Dancing Fawn by looking at images from antiquity. He referred back to portrayals of Greek gods with which he was familiar and later he projected forward when illustrating authors whom he admired.

Blake sees the characters who people myths as archetypal. His aim is to represent the same archetypal truth which the masters of antiquity displayed. When he places images from the pictorial vocabulary of Greece in his illustrations to Milton's Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity, illustrations to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress or to Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, he connects his reader/viewer to a more complete context. However Blake's attitudes to the values demonstrated by the Greek gods and heroes changed over time: his Dancing Fawn (as Puck) doesn't resemble the Ugly Man he described in his Catalogue; his Hercules (as the Giant Despair) is not the Strong Man of his earlier description.

Descriptive Catalogue, (E 544)
 "His opinions, who does not see spiritual agency, is
not worth any man's reading; he who rejects a fact because it is
improbable, must reject all History and retain doubts only.
  It has been said to the Artist, take the Apollo for the
model of your beautiful Man and the Hercules for your strong Man,
and the Dancing Fawn for your Ugly Man.  Now he comes to his
trial.  He knows that what he does is not inferior to the
grandest Antiques.  Superior they cannot be, for human power
cannot go beyond either what he does, or what they have done, it
is the gift of God, it is inspiration and vision.  He had
resolved to emulate those precious remains of antiquity,
he has done so and the result you behold; his ideas of strength
and beauty have not been greatly different.  Poetry as it exists
now on earth, in the various remains of ancient authors, Music as
it exists in old tunes or melodies, Painting and Sculpture as it
exists in the remains of Antiquity and in the works of more
modern genius, is Inspiration, and cannot be surpassed; it is
perfect and eternal.  Milton, Shakspeare, Michael Angelo, Rafael,
the finest specimens of Ancient Sculpture and Painting, and
Architecture, Gothic, Grecian, Hindoo and Egyptian, are the
extent of the human mind.  The human mind cannot go beyond the
gift of God, the Holy Ghost.  To suppose that Art can go beyond
the finest specimens of Art that are now in the world, is not
knowing what Art is; it is being blind to the gifts of the
  It will be necessary for the Painter to say
something concerning his ideas of Beauty, Strength and Ugliness.
  The Beauty that is annexed and appended to folly, is a
lamentable accident and error of the mortal and perishing life;
it does but seldom happen; but with this unnatural mixture the
sublime Artist can have nothing to do; it is fit for the
burlesque.  The Beauty proper for sublime art, is lineaments, or
forms and features that are capable of being the receptacles of
intellect; accordingly the Painter has given in his beautiful
man, his own idea of intellectual Beauty.  The face and limbs
that deviates or alters least, from infancy to old age, is the
face and limbs of greatest Beauty and perfection.
  The Ugly likewise, when accompanied and annexed to
imbecility and disease, is a subject for burlesque and not for
historical grandeur; the Artist has imagined his Ugly man; one 
approaching to the
beast in features and form, his forehead small, without frontals; 
his jaws large; his nose high on the ridge, and narrow; his chest 
and the stamina of his make, comparatively little, and his joints 
and his extremities large; his eyes with scarce any whites, 
narrow and cunning, and every thing tending toward what is truly 
Ugly; the incapability of intellect.
  The Artist has considered his strong Man as a receptacle of
Wisdom, a sublime energizer; his features and limbs do not
spindle out into length, without strength, nor are they too large
and unwieldy for his brain and bosom.  Strength consists in
accumulation of power to the principal seat, and from thence a
regular gradation and subordination; strength is compactness, not
extent nor bulk.
  The strong Man acts from conscious superiority, and marches
on in fearless dependance on the divine decrees, raging with the
inspirations of a prophetic mind.  The Beautiful Man acts
from duty, and anxious solicitude for the fates of those for whom
he combats.  The Ugly Man acts from love of carnage, and delight
in the savage barbarities of war, rushing with sportive 
precipitation into the very teeth of the affrighted enemy.
  The Roman Soldiers rolled together in a heap before them:
"Like the rolling thing before the whirlwind;" each shew a
different character, and a different expression of fear, or
revenge, or envy, or blank horror, or amazement, or devout wonder
and unresisting awe.
  The dead and the dying, Britons naked, mingled with armed
Romans, strew the field beneath.  Among these, the last of the
Bards who were capable of attending warlike deeds, is seen
falling, outstretched among the dead and the dying; singing to
his harp in the pains of death."

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