Julia M. Wright
This important collection of twelve essays, arising from a 2000 Blake conference at Tate Britain, offers an array of historical frames through which to recontextualize Blake—from sensibility to eighteenth-century ideas of sexuality, and from the Sierra Leone project to the diverse religious cultures of Blake’s England and debates about art, economy, historiography, and proselytization. “Nation” and “Empire” are capacious categories here, allowed to float freely, as they did in Romantic-era discourse (though there are moments when distinctions between patriotism and modern nationalism, cultural nationalism and ideas of the nation-state, or settler colonies and invaded colonies would have contributed to a clearer picture of “Blake, Nation and Empire”). The aim of this volume is to continue the cultural materialist project of Clark and Worrall’s earlier collections and, hence, to focus on the “minute particulars” of Blake’s time and place—a project richly pursued here. This collection is not divided into parts, but I have organized my discussion below to highlight some continuities, and complementarities, among these diverse chapters beyond their shared historicist orientation.
The first essay, by Saree Makdisi, offers a suggestive exploration of a negative, namely that “Blake was basically the only major poet of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who categorically refused to dabble in recognizably Oriental themes or motifs” (24). (An expanded version of this essay is included in Makdisi’s important William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s, as he notes .) Such assertions might seem to invite quibbles: what about Robert Burns? Does the occasional Orientalist flourish by Anna Letitia Barbauld put her much closer to Blake than to Robert Southey and Thomas De Quincey? But that would miss the larger importance of this essay as an innovative examination of both the determined (and contrary) inclusiveness through which Blake, in his early work, “emphasize[s] the common nature of all human cultures” (29) and, more broadly, the centrality of Orientalism to many of the Romantic poets we have collectively designated “major”—begging the question of whether the fault is not in our poets but in ourselves or, at least, our canon. While Makdisi focuses on Blake’s early texts and “infinite heterogeneity” (36), Andrew Lincoln argues for a shift in Blake’s thought in the years around 1800 from a “kind of universal myth . . . towards a narrative that identifies itself explicitly with British and Biblical tradition” (153), while yet “reach[ing] across doctrinal differences” (163). This change, Lincoln suggests, not only arises from Blake’s personal renewal of faith, but also from a more broadly perceived imperative “to restore Britain to Christianity” (153) in the wake of the counter-revolutionary rhetoric of the period. Here, that complex counter-revolutionary milieu is concisely sketched with a specific focus on religious debate and Watson’s Apology in order to locate Blake’s Milton and Jerusalem “in the religious fears and aspirations of early nineteenth-century Britain” (159). Steve Clark further extends this discussion of Blake and difference and does so on deftly nuanced terms attentive to philosophical and theological disputes, as well as historical contexts. While Lincoln argues for Milton‘s efforts “to re-integrate the divided legacy of British Christendom” (163), Clark locates Blake’s Jerusalem in the heated debate over Catholic Emancipation and the transformation of “a virulent anti-Catholic iconography . . . into imperial gothic” (168). Clark argues compellingly for Blake’s poem “as anti-papal propaganda” that, despite moments “more sympathetic” to Catholic traditions, “is of an abrasive brand of Protestant nationalism formed in opposition to France and Catholicism projecting an imagined community of empire” (171).
The cluster of essays I group above—those by Makdisi, Lincoln, and Clark—covers the full sweep of Blake’s career and invites further consideration of Blake’s changing stance on cultural and religious differences. Jason Whittaker’s essay is usefully considered in this context as well. Focusing on Blake’s “critical dialogue with Milton” (197), especially Milton’s History of Britain, Whittaker traces the ways in which Blake works through his nationalist politics via Milton as “the obvious candidate for the role of Albion’s prophet” (186). Suggestively, Whittaker contends that Blake recuperates for their “explanatory” value the national origin myths dismissed by Milton while still being “hostile to Milton’s militant Protestantism” (193-194). This essay is arguably at the nexus of the volume’s myriad tracings of Blake’s engagement with questions of national identity in relation to religion and sexuality, and, like Lincoln, Whittaker locates Milton within a transformative period in the development of Blake’s views on those questions.