This is a guest post from Ruby Hutchings, a doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge. She focuses on William Blake and the surprising moments of comedy in his writings and paintings. Her research seeks to reshape our understanding of Blake, contending that he is not only a solemn prophet but a humourist too.
If you are interested in writing a guest post for ‘The Romantic Ridiculous’, please get in touch with Andrew McInnes with your pitch!
On 17th September 1809, The Examiner published a damning review of a little-attended exhibition. If political shenanigans didn’t convince the reader of ‘the alarming increase of the effect of insanity’ in England, its recent encroachment into ‘the hitherto sober region of Art’ would suffice.[i] The exhibition, held above an unassuming hosiery shop in Soho’s Broad Street, was packed with ‘furious and distorted beings of an extravagant imagination’ and ‘the ebullitions of a distempered brain’ (p. 605). But the new ‘pernicious height’ of insanity reached by the exhibition is not only cause for alarm, it is also cause for mockery (p. 605). In scornful tones, the review recalls the works’ ‘exterior charm of deformity’, laughs at the ‘farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity’ presented to the spectator, and – in a fantastic moment of bathos – remarks that the colouring of one painting ‘is exactly like hung beef’ (pp. 605-6).
The mockery did not stop there. The poor artist who ‘exposed him[self], if not to the derision, at least to the pity of the public’ was not let off the hook:
WILLIAM BLAKE, an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement, and, consequently, of whom no public notice would have been taken, if he was not forced on the notice and animadversion of the EXAMINER, in having been held up to public admiration by many esteemed amateurs and professors as a genius in some respect original and legitimate. (p.605)
The plaything of ill-informed patrons, the creator of malformed jumbles, a colourist with an eye for puce animal flesh, Blake emerges as an object of ridicule in all respects. He is scoffed at, belittled, disregarded. If the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘ridiculous’ as ‘absurd, preposterous, risible’, then Blake emerges as all three.[ii]
With such bruising reviews (perhaps even more bruising is that The Examiner’s review was, in fact, the exhibition’s only review), it is hardly surprising that Blake cultivated a ‘reputation’ for ‘downright crankiness’, as Marilyn Butler writes.[iii] Indeed, Blake himself railed against this mockery. In his Public Address, he condemns ‘a certain Sunday Paper’ who both ‘blasted’ his ‘Character’ and ‘trouble their heads very little about art’ (E572).
However, there is another side to this embittered and spiky Blake. In his annotations to Johann Caspar Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man (1788), Blake reveals a surprising part of his character. In response to Lavater’s observation that ‘abstention from laughter’ is a power ‘unknown to many vigorous minds’, Blake admits ‘I hate scarce smiles I love laughing’.[iv] The deadpan tone of the admission itself raises a chuckle. The always-earnest visionary, with whom traditional criticism, from Harold Bloom to Northrop Frye, has made us familiar, is also a joker. Here, Blake is not the object of laughter but a participant himself. Or, to phrase this another way, he is not the object of ridicule but embraces the ridiculous, the comic, and the zany. This essay puts forward a different conception of Blake, tracing the role of the ridiculous in his works. It argues that the surprising edge of playfulness which inheres in his poetry is not simply part of the ‘ebullitions of his distempered brain’, as The Examiner would have it, but integral to his overall prophetic schema.
Blake’s proclivity to laughter raises an interesting question. What would a laughing Blake sound like? It is hard to reconcile this self-professed ludic side of his character with our received portrait of him. On a literal level, his most famous portrait (executed by Thomas Phillips in 1807) was created under the most solemn of circumstances. Phillips recalled urging Blake to recount his conversations with the Archangel Gabriel in an attempt to elicit the rapt expression. But even here can we, like Hazlitt did to Wordsworth, trace ‘a conclusive inclination to laughter about the mouth’, even if it is ‘a good deal at variance with the solemn, stately expression of the rest of his face’?[v] A good place to start in searching for a ridiculous Blake is in his unpublished and unfinished An Island in the Moon (1784).
Written in satirical prose, the piece has been viewed as something of an outlier in Blake’s oeuvre. Indeed, songs about Doctor Johnson ‘kick[ing]’ Scipio Africanus’s ‘anus’ jar with our received notions of what is typically “Blakean”. But it is Scopprell’s response to the bawdy tune – a character that is said to be modelled on fellow engraver, John Thomas Smith – that most interests me:
Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Hooooo my poooooor siiides I I I should die. (E458)
This is Blake at his most zany. Onomatopoeia captures Scopprell’s stuttering and hiccupping, as he chokes and heaves his way through laughter. The body is on full display here, not as the ‘Human Form Divine’ but as a grotesque. Language transcends its mimetic properties (we already know that Scopprell is laughing) and enters the realm of the excessive. Blake revels in his ridiculousness.
An Island not only advances this sense of the ridiculous through hyperbole but through deadpan understatement too. Chapter 4 concludes with a striking moment of (anti)climax. In the bustle and confusion of the characters’ arguments,
Mr Inflammable Gass ran & shovd his head into the fire & set his fair all in a flame & ran about the room – No No he did not I was only making a fool of you. (E453)
Blake stages a double surprise. The shock of the self-immolation is superseded by the shock of its abortive narrative reprieve. In its lunacy, the scene is indeed ridiculous. But by breaking the fourth wall, Blake slides between different senses: from ridiculousness to ridicule. He exposes and mocks our credulity as we become ‘fools’ at the hand of his irony. We are the ‘unfortunate lunatics’ who believe everything this tongue-in-cheek author tells us.
A notoriously “difficult” writer, readers often feel inadequate in the face of Blake’s high visions, complex mythology, and biblical prophecies. In his Preface to Jerusalem (1804-1820), he distinguishes between ‘Sheep and ‘Goats’: those readers ‘with [him], wholly One in Jesus our Lord’ and those who ‘sleep’ the ‘Eternal Death’ (E145-146). Blake beckons readers who will ‘wake! expand!’ their imaginative and interpretative capacities. His verse is not for those who fail to engage creatively with the text and who prefer instead to, sheep-like, follow critical maxims. But this fashioning of an ideal readership is seemingly contradicted by an earlier letter to the Reverend Dr Trusler,
I am happy to find a Great Majority of Fellow Mortals who can Elucidate My Visions & Particularly they have been Elucidated by Children who have taken a greater delight in contemplating my Pictures than I even hoped. Neither Youth nor Childhood is Folly or Incapacity Some Children are Fools & so are some Old Men. But There is a vast Majority on the side of Imagination or Spiritual Sensation (E703).
Quite literally, the distinction between ‘Sheep’ and ‘Goats’ is not one between boys and men. Those best suited to understand his work are innocent but they are not foolish, like the gullible reader targeted in An Island. They merely possess a different type of wisdom.
This different wisdom runs athwart to conventional forms of knowledge. Indeed, Blake wrote countless invectives against Locke, Newton, and Voltaire. In Jerusalem, for instance, the death-like Spectre invokes the ‘teach[ings]’ of ‘Bacon & Newton & Locke’ and ‘Voltaire: Rousseau’ who preach ‘Doubt & Experiment’. Blake eschews logic, reason, and empiricism, those ‘frost[s] & Mildew’ which ‘rise over Albion’ (E203). Rather, he embraces insights based on ‘Imagination or Spiritual Sensation’. The articulations of his visions, the vehicles of divine truths which Blake claimed to have received since childhood, work against the discourse of evidence or proof. Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, writes that
On Peckham Rye (near Dulwich Hill) it is, as [Blake] will in after years relate, that while quite a child, of eight or ten perhaps, he has his ‘first vision’. Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.[vi]
If these traits of childish years be remembered, they will help to elucidate the visits from the spiritual world of later years, in which the grown man believed as unaffectedly as ever had the boy of ten.[vii]
Alongside the inevitable strangeness of this recollection, there is an endearing oddity. In Blake’s ‘unaffected’ vision, the recognisable and the local coexist with the otherworldly. This heavenly ‘bespangling’ of south-east London may sound ridiculous, but it is not un-serious.
Even in Jerusalem, his most impenetrable prophecy, Blake frames his perception of divine, infinite visions bathetically. They are equally part of the real world. He announces ‘I write in South Molton Street what I both see and hear / in regions of Humanity, in London’s opening streets’ (E180). This insistence on the presentism and locality of his visions sits in tension with the poem’s complex mythology and anti-mimesis. Receiving divine truths from a dingy inner-city street does sound ridiculous, but there are moments when Blake really does ‘see’ the metropolis. In his reclaiming of Jerusalem – the ancient city and London’s pre-fallen state – he recalls a time when
The fields from Islington to Marybone,
To Primrose Hill and Saint Johns Wood:
Were builded over with pillars of gold,
And there Jerusalems pillars stood
[…] Pancrass & Kentish-town repose
Among her golden pillars high (E171-72).
The spiritual is literally mapped onto the contemporary urban city. The bizarre interleaving of the biblical with north London suburbs indeed strikes us absurd and preposterous. But this is the point.
Another of his prophetic books, Milton (c.1804-1810), stages a similar bathetic movement. Here, we travel from Golgonooza – the supreme poetic city in Blake’s mythology – to ‘Blackheath east: to Hounslow west: / To Finchley north: to Norwood south’ (E99). Seamus Perry acknowledges these drops in both location and register, noting ‘the scarcely subterranean hilarity of the interplay between visionary afflatus and sturdy topography’.[viii] Whilst Blake’s impossible geography can be scoffed at, its impossibility is indeed ‘scarcely’ shied away from. The ‘hilarity’ of these switches between the mythological and the mundane is salient. They appear ridiculous to our logic and spatio-temporal laws because they reach for an expanded sense of vision. The locations’ incongruity undertakes the Blakean reconciling of contraries in which the heavenly city and nineteenth century streets become one and the same.
Sublimity then does not slip to ridiculousness but grows from it. In this light, Blake’s works are not the ‘ebullitions of a distempered brain’ but the sight of one who sees clearly through the ‘cleansed […] doors of perception’, as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) puts it (E39). If only The Examiner had expanded their sensibility, they too might have seen the extraordinary resonance of a dingy exhibition, tucked away in a terraced house in Soho.
[i] The Examiner, 90, (17th September 1809), p. 605. Accessed: https://go.gale.com/ps/navigateToIssue?volume=&loadFormat=page&issueNumber=90&userGroupName=cambuni&inPS=true&mCode=1ZTK&prodId=BNCN&issueDate=118090917. All further references to this review are denoted by page number alone and included in the text.
[ii] ‘Ridiculous, adj. sense 1a’, OED Online.
[iii] Butler, Marilyn, Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background, 1760-1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 51.
[iv] Blake, William, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Newly Revised Edition. Edited by David V. Erdman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008, pp. 584-85. All further references to Blake’s works are to this volume, with the letter ‘E’ signifying Erdman’s page numbers.
[v] Hazlitt, William, ‘My First Acquaintance with Poets’ in The Fight and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 2000, p. 262.
[vi] Gilchrist, Alexander, The Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotus. London: 1863, p. 7.
[vii] Gilchrist, p. 7.
[viii] Perry, Seamus, ‘Eliot, Blake, Unpleasantness’. The T. S. Eliot Studies Annual, volume 2, 2019, p. 61.