Alexander S. Gourlay, ed., Prophetic
Character: Essays on William Blake in Honor of John E. Grant. Locust Hill
Literary Studies, no. 33. West Cornwall, CT: Locust
Hill Press, 2002. xviii + 396pp. Illus. $60.00 (Hdbk; ISBN:
Table of Contents
Chronological Checklist of Publications by John E. Grant
Stephen C. Behrendt, The Evolution of Blake's Pestilence
J. M. Q. Davies, Variations on the Fall in Blake's Designs for Young's Night
Michael Ferber, In Defense of Clods
Everett C. Frost, The Education of the Prophetic Character: Blake's The Marriage
of Heaven and Hell as a Primer in Visionary Autography
Alexander S. Gourlay, "Idolatry or Politics": Blake's Chaucer, the Gods
of Priam, and the Powers of 1809
Catherine L. McClenahan, Blake's Erin, The United Irish, and "Sexual
Jon Mee, "As portentous as the written wall": Blake's Illustrations to Night
Jennifer Davis Michael, Blake's Feet: Towards a Poetics of Incarnation
Peter Otto, From the Religious to the Psychological Sublime: The Fate of Young's Night
Thoughts in Blake's The Four Zoas
Morton D. Paley, William Blake and Dr. Thornton's "Tory Translation" of
the Lord's Prayer
G. A. Rosso, The Religion of Empire: Blake's Rahab in its Biblical Contexts
Sheila A. Spector, A Numerological Analysis of Jerusalem
Richard J. Squibbs, Preventing the Star-Led Wizards: Blake's Europe and Popular
Bibliographic Citation: Harris, James
T. "On Alexander S. Gourlay, ed., Prophetic Character: Essays on William
Blake in Honor of John E. Grant." [date of access]. Romantic
Circles Reviews 8.1 (2005): 15 pars. 28 Feb. 2005.
James T. Harris
University of South Carolina
- A book dedicated to the distinguished legacy of John E. Grant in Blake studies should
rigorously challenge traditional and established ways of understanding Blake. It
should also provide readers with innovative approaches to his oeuvre. Furthermore,
it should raise questions that may remain unanswered for now and yet point to fruitful
paths for other students and scholars of Blake. Prophetic Character: Essays on William
Blake in Honor of John E. Grant exceeds these expectations. Several
contributorsCatherine L. McClenahan, Morton D. Paley, and Richard J.
Squibbspresent groundbreaking essays on topics that have received little or no
critical attention, while others, Michael Ferber, Alexander S. Gourlay, and G. A. Rosso,
offer chapters that demand reconsiderations of Blake and his art. This collection
contains thirteen unique and provocative essays that engage the reader at every turn.
- Stephen C. Behrendt's contribution, "The Evolution of Blake's Pestilence,"
is excellent for the manner in which it contextualizes the Pestilence series in
light of certain generic traits of history painting. Behrendt's essay also detects
and examines an "interesting counter-current" in Blake's twenty-five year
revision of the series. It is this counter-current, argues Behrendt, that
illustrates Blake's efforts to "invoke and transform familiar conventions of facial
and gestural rhetoric" in order to create a "powerfully visionary art, an art
founded upon a dynamic imaginative interaction among artist, viewer, and picture"
(5). Professor Behrendt also points to several Blake texts, in order to
contextualize the evolution of the Pestilence series in light of his other artistic
productions. The only addition that could make an instructive and informative essay
even stronger would be the inclusion of all six versions of the Pestilence series,
since only the final (c.1805) version appears in this chapter, as this would allow the
reader to follow Behrendt through his detailed examination of Blake's revisions.
- J. M. Q. Davies's "Variations on the Fall in Blake's Designs for Night Thoughts"
focuses on the "great repository of motifs" present in the series that appear
"in modulated form in the later Milton illustrations" (29). While he
acknowledges that there was much in Young that would give Blake offense, Davies claims
that Young offered Blake fertile ground"his praise of friendship, his
enthusiasm for the Miltonic sublime, his apocalyptic sense of an ending"
(27)for considering the visionary possibilities of Young's poem. Most
interesting in Davies essay is his discussion of three possible iconographical influences
for Blake's NT97, NT296, and NT297. Davies aptly illustrates
how Blake's depiction of the Fall can be understood as reactions to previous renderings,
namely Marcantonio's Adam and Eve, Michelangelo's Fall and Expulsion,
and Goltzius's engraving, Christ's Miracles.
- Michael Ferber reviews and revives the clod/pebble debate in Blake studies, with his
chapter "In Defense of Clods." Ferber's primary complaint is not whether
or not particular scholars side with the pebble or the clod, but that "nearly all
find fault with each and feel superior to both" (51), and consequently this leads to
misreadings and confusions of Blake's agenda. Ferber calls for a return in Blake
studies to "the notion of 'the simple Blake'" (55). Indeed, Ferber sees
Blake critics detrimentally projecting their own psychologies, anxieties, and fears onto
much simpler figures, such as the clod, the pebble, and Thel. What happens to Blake,
Ferber claims, is analogous to what happens to the teaching of Jesus: "Blake is
elevated to the canon but his radical message is subjected to ever more sophisticated and
worldly interpretations" (5657). Ferber's sometimes acerbic but always
engaging and provocative essay concludes with an excursus on the too common practice in
Blake studies of founding arguments on the faulty etymological premise that
"Thel" necessarily derives from the Greek for "wish."
- Taking its title from a quotation by this collection's honoree, Everett C. Frost's
contribution, "The Education of the Prophetic Character: Blake's Marriage of
Heaven and Hell as a Primer in Visionary Autography," makes beneficial use of H.
Porter Abbott's term "autography" in order to investigate the narrative
complexities of Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Frost claims that the
poem is "an autographic Bildungsroman of the prophet as a young man," of the
sort that is "not the narrative of how he came to hold his present convictions but
how, having already formed them, he informed and tested them" (72). Professor
Frost's comprehensive analysis of the poem's structure and organization, bolstered by a
useful chart of its plot, builds on John E. Grant's reading of The Marriage and
offers its own unique and refreshing perspective on Blake's "autographical"
work: "It is more interested in the act of writing in the present as a means of
producing the self as an identity constituted as pure text than it is in being thought a
reliable reporter of events in past time" (71).
- Alexander S. Gourlay's essay, "'Idolatry or Politics': Blake's Chaucer, the Gods of
Priam, and the Powers of 1809," takes as its start the long held belief that Blake's
statements in the Descriptive Catalogue are "largely metaphorical" (99).
Problematic about this idea, Gourlay explains, is that it denies Blake's statements
"literal applicability to the picture in question" (99). Gourlay goes on
to argue that in Blake's tempera painting of Chaucer's pilgrims he updates many of the
central concerns of Chaucer's epic. Gourlay illustrates skillfully Blake's strategy
in his engraving after the painting, a strategy intended to portray "an audacious
satirical commentary on the persistence of pagan theology in the form of modern political
celebrity" (99). Gourlay evidences this persistence with his discussion of
physical similarities between political celebrities of 1809 and Chaucer's pilgrims, as
Blake depicts them in his engraving. George III as the Monk, Pitt and Fox as
Pardoner and Summoner, respectively, and the likeness of Blake himself as the Plowman are
exemplary of Gourlay's insightful explanation of Blake's employment of allegory in order
to provide political commentary.
- Catherine L. McClenahan takes up an often-neglected character, Erin, in Blake's
masterpiece of illuminated printing, Jerusalem. "Blake's Erin, The
United Irish, and 'Sexual Machines'" addresses the function of Erin in Blake's epic
as she "works to revolutionize an 'Albion' dying in (and of) his current oppressive,
warlike and punitive constitution as a nation and world empire" (150).
McClenahan takes into account the contemporary political upheaval in and around Ireland
and asserts that Blake focuses on Ireland as a vehicle for considering the fate of liberty
in Great Britain. Of particular interest in McClenahan's chapter is her
comparison of the relationship between England and Ireland, especially during and after
the Act of Union in 1800, as one based on traditional gender relations, with Ireland in
the submissive and dominated position. McClenahan's essay also provides useful
analyses of Blake's views on nationalism and revolution.
- As the second of three essays that deal with Night Thoughts, Jon Mee's
"'As portentous as the written wall': Blake's Illustrations to Night Thoughts"
understands Blake's illustrations of Young in light of the variety of ways that
"Young's text circulated in the print culture of the time" (172). Mee goes
on to argue that Blake "seems to court the charge of enthusiasm by refusing to take
pains to distinguish between the passions of the spirit from those of the body"
(176). This is perhaps the reason, Mee adds, that Blake's publisher Richard Edwards
put an end to publishing Blake's illustrations. Those familiar with Mee's important
prior work on Blake, radical enthusiasm, and the London print culture of the 1790's will
not be surprised to find an insightful discussion of Blake's work alongside an extremely
learned account of the British political culture of the 1790's.
- Jennifer Davis Michael's "Blake's Feet: Towards a Poetics of Incarnation"
surveys comprehensively Blake's symbolic references to feet in early works like Poetical
Sketches and later texts such as Jerusalem. Indeed, Michael suggests
convincingly that understanding these various symbolic uses of "feet" is central
to an appreciation of Blake's entire artistic project: "fusing spiritual, sexual, and
poetic acts into one member" (206). Michael's carefully detailed reading and
well-argued essay present an innovative approach to both verbal and visual references to
feet throughout the long span of Blake's career.
- Peter Otto's essay, "From the Religious to the Psychological Sublime: The Fate of
Young's Night Thoughts in Blake's The Four Zoas," investigates the
close relationship between Blake's illustrations to Young and his own work in progress
from the same period, The Four Zoas. Otto begins by noting that some of
Blake's pages from The Four Zoas survive on proofs of the engravings for Young
and subsequently argues that Blake's illustrations to Young often seem to illustrate
narrated events in The Four Zoas. The sublime is Otto's primary focus,
however, and he offers a compelling discussion of Blake's response to the religious
sublime in Young, which Blake first critiques in his watercolors and then transfigures
into a psychological sublime in his epic. "Where Young's religious sublime
offers eternal rest," Otto concludes, "Blake's sublime demands endless
- "William Blake and Dr. Thornton's 'Tory Translation' of the Lord's Prayer" by
Morton D. Paley presents the first in-depth scholarly study of the last annotations that
Blake is known to have written. Paley operates from the assumption that Blake in all
likelihood wrote the marginalia for an intended audience, as was a common practice of the
time, and finds in the annotations thematic similarities and interplay with Blake's own
works from the same period. With scrupulous attention to detail, Paley makes sense
of Blake's sometimes difficult annotations and then articulates Blake's critique of
Thornton. Blake objects "not to its lack of accuracy or its verbosity,"
according to Paley, but instead "to the world view he sees" in Thornton's
translation (270). Anyone embarking on a study of Blake's latter years would do well
to start with Paley's essay.
- G. A. Rosso's "The Religion of Empire: Blake's Rahab in Its Biblical Contexts"
confronts head-on the commonly held view that Blake's epic poetry moves away from the
political symbolism found in his prophecies from the 1790's. Rosso carefully argues
to the contrary that even though scholars of the Bible recognize two Rahabs, both of them
represent in separate ways the complicity of church and state, religion and empire.
Blake brings these different versions of Rahab together, Rosso convincingly explains, and
the unique result demonstrates that Blake is "able to perceive meaning and connection
where others not as interested in apocalypse and empire see only disparate strands"
- In "A Numerological Analysis of Jerusalem," Sheila A. Spector
considers the structure of Blake's late epic in light of Hebraic materials such as the
Kabbalah. It is the "kabbalistic prototypes," Spector explains, that
"provided the basis for the intricate numerological pattern underlying the physical
structure" (332) of Jerusalem. Though at times perhaps it requires too
much attention to Hebraic materials, Spector's analysis provides a compelling
consideration of structure in Blake's poem. She also demonstrates persuasively
the variety of ways in which Blake might have been familiar with kabbalistic numerology in
contemporary sources, in addition to drawing parallels between Blake's work and
numerological patterns in other epics with which Blake was certainly familiar, such as The
Divine Comedy and The Faerie Queene.
- The final chapter in the book, Richard J. Squibbs's "Preventing the Star-Led
Wizards: Blake's Europe and Popular Astrology," provides a strong finish to
an impressive collection. Squibbs reviews some of the popular almanacs that
circulated in the 1790's, in an effort to understand Blake's prophecy in terms of the
politically charged astrological discourses found therein. Squibbs argues that
"Europe associates star-gazing with a counterrevolutionary ideology that
denies the French Revolution what Blake sees as its true role as the agent of
apocalypse" (35152). Consequently, Blake urges his audience to reject
astrology as a way of understanding the events in France and turns to the program of
Revelation as the means of best comprehending the vital millennial importance of the
- All in all, Prophetic Character: Essays on William Blake in Honor of John E. Grant
provides a welcome and refreshing contribution to Blake studies. Because it offers a
variety of innovative readings and arguments, I enthusiastically recommend this book to
veteran readers of Blake and newcomers alike. The former will find themselves
re-examining their positions, while the latter will discover an intriguing and instructive
introduction to William Blake. These scholars present a fit tribute to the brilliant
and inspiring legacy of John E. Grant.
- Publisher's Information unavailable
Jeffrey N. Cox & Charles
Editor, Jeffrey Ritchie
published: March 2005.