William Blake, The Artist

As a nine year old, William Blake claimed he saw a “tree filled with angels”, moreover, he never outgrew or denounced these visions. His favourite artists were those unappreciated in their time, such as Michelangelo. So it is rather obvious that William Blake was not one likely to conform to the norm. William Blake was a true artistic rebel, commenting on contemporary society and placing himself deliberately outside of the literary scene. In the eighteenth century, most authors had very little control of their works as they were printed and sold. William Blake, however, decided to create his own illustrations and print his own works, as a result he kept full control.

BlakeGoed

The process of creation followed by production was very important to Blake, bearing in mind that he created a concept, for which there had to be a balance between writing and illustrations. The entire work had to be his, as he envisioned a concept and not a mere book. His name on the frontispiece functioned as a signature, similar to a painter signing his work. He was printer and author, thus explicitly stating he was sole creator of this work. William Blake produced his books as a form of art, very luxurious pieces, they were not intended for the book market.

The fact that his books were not meant for the book market, is also made clear by how they were printed. The most economical method of printing at that time was typesetting, for which woodcuts were used. Ink was poured on top of the woodcuts, on the raised letters, then it was pressed on the paper. This form was mostly used by printers at that time. However, there was a different manner, which was more laborious. Copperplates were engraved with a design, poured over with ink and after the ink had been wiped off, it was pressed on paper. The indentations left their mark on the paper. Copperplate-printing enabled the printer to add a lot more detail.

blake_acidWilliam Blake even invented a new form of copperplate printing. He sought to improve the intaglio manner, in which the design was scratched onto a waxed surface before being engraved deeper or a needle was used to map it out into an acid-resistant coating before pouring acid onto the plate. Therefore, he came up with relief etching, whereby the design is painted onto the copperplate with acid-resistant varnish, leaving the unpainted surface to be eaten away and the rest in relief to be printed. Moreover, this had to be done in mirror image. So, it is clear that this was a very laborious process, which could not be done for mass production. Each page had to be etched separately into a copperplate, that lasted only for about 1000 copies. Therefore, Blake focused on producing  individual copies for individual and rich patrons.

Blake made the work even more laborious and time consuming by making extensive use of colours which had to be printed consecutively and separately. True to his nature of a media transcending artist mixing artist categories like painter, printer and poet (cf. supra), themes found within his poetic word sculpting in his poems also shine trough in each individually conceptualised and realised edition where the coloration is used as a supplementary tool to further the themes addressed by and in his works. Corroborating this is a comparison of differences between several editions of The songs of Innocence where coloration differences can be seen to signify the real world interplay between the major themes addressed within the work.

Where the French Revolution was first hailed by British poets, this quickly shifted after the rise of Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobins in France, where the so called Reign of Terror was responsible for the mass killings of thousands. A reflection of this can be seen in editions realised around that time where first, in line with the positive way the revolution was seen, bright colours overflowed the title page. But when times changed and the French Revolution totally became synonymous with the Age of the Guillotine and all ideals seemed to be unrealised, dark colours start taking over the title page.

BlakeGBlakeL

As a true multidisciplinary Blake takes to heart a role frequently envisioned by poets and other artists alike; not solely portraying and representing but by their works alerting people to the world around them.

Importance of Blake’s illustrations for specific poems

The Clod and the Pebble

“The Clod and the Pebble”, a poem from Songs of Experience, is not part of an obvious pair of poems. Moreover, it seems to incorporate both innocence and experience, and demonstrates Blake’s typical contrasting values in one poem.

At first the poem seems to balance both points of view, as the clod and the pebble get an equal amount of lines to express their opinion. The word “but” in line 6 is the turning point from the Clod’s argument to that of the Pebble. The clod expresses an argument of innocence, while the pebble utters a more experienced view. The fact that Blake selects the latter to end the debate with may show his tendency to lean towards favoring that argument, but he may just as well be respecting the chronology (first innocence, then experience – within the different versions of these books, poems sometimes were moved around). However, as both concluding lines of the arguments seem rather balanced, he is as well forcing the reader to make up his own mind.

At the same time, Blake was not just giving textual clues, but visual clues as well. Since Blake was responsible for the engravings illuminating his poems, he could easily “guide” the reader to one opinion or another trough, for instance, meticulous selection of the colours used.

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As for the imagery illustrating this poem, it is the environment in which the clod and the pebble find themselves which is depicted here, the clod nor the pebble can be found. The fact that neither of them are shown could imply that they are merely representing abstract ideas.

Blake shows us quite a peaceful scenery, the cattle drinking, and the frogs playing in the brook. Even though the pebble utters quite pessimistic thoughts, there is no explicit visual show of a thread whatsoever.

In other versions, the colours change, this is shown most explicitely in a 1795 version:

songsie.n.p4-32.100

Only by changing towards more dark colours, the poem gets a much more gloomy feel to it, leaving the reader with the idea that, even though the stanzas are balanced, the pebble’s judgement is the one favoured by the author (in contrast to the 1794 version shown above, with its more lively and light colours, which seems to emphasize the clod’s opinion of love.)

Later versions, such as a 1825 version:

songsie.y.p32.100

Once again show a more peaceful and balanced imagery. Blake constantly played around with the colours of his images, switching from light to dark and back, and as such adding more possible interpretations every time he finished another edition.

The Chimney Sweeper

In The Chimney Sweeper, Blake talks about little children –they were the only ones small enough- that had to sweep out chimneys. This sort of child labor was actually very common in 18th and 19th century England. The Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Innocence (1789) has a first person narration, the viewpoint is that of a little child sweeper. The ‘weep! weep! weep! weep!’ of the third line evokes a very strong sympathetic feeling with the narrator. “But just because the misery is so concretely realized, the affirmation of visionary joy is more triumphant than in any other poem of the series.” (E.D. Hirsch: 1964)

Blake

Blake is definitely a man of contrasts (already indicated in the subtitle: “Shewing the two contrary states of the human soul”) and his mastership in making them ‘work’ becomes apparent in this poem. The poem derives its Songs of Innocence copy B, 1789, 1794 (British Museum): genius and strength from the contrast between the woeful, horrible job in real life and the joyful bliss in the dream. It is the latter part that Blake focused on when he made the illustration that accompanies The Chimney Sweeper. Underneath the actual words one can see the ‘Angel’ figure (line 13) that is pulling a boy (probably ‘Tom Dacre’: line 5) from the earth (or ‘coffin’: line 14) and thus setting him free to go ‘down a green plain, leaping, laughing’. It is this dreamlike setting that fills the young boy with warmth when he has to get up in the morning. Although the child sweeper has a pitiful existence (his mother is dead and he has a horrible job), the poem is eventually one of hope; this feeling is definitely enhanced by the illustration.

The Chimney Sweeper from The Songs of Experience (1794) seems less hopeful. Here the narrator asks the sweep to tell him his story. So, again, most of the poem is told from the child’s point of view. Unlike in the previous poem, the mother here is still alive. Still, the child is all alone in the snow, because its parents “are up to the church to pray” (line 4). This scene of loneliness is brilliantly evoked by Blake’s illustration: one can see “A little black thing among the snow” (line 1) and apart from the snow and the houses, there’s no one else, the streets are completely deserted. The child, then, is all alone “to sing the notes of woe” (line 8).

songsie.b.p45-37.300This poem is, in our opinion, directed against the rigid hierarchy of the Anglican church: “God & his priest & King”(line 11) “make up a heaven of our misery”. The authoritative figures tell the less fortunate they have to grateful for the life God has given them, moreover, they ‘soothe’ the poor by explaining that they will achieve heaven if they work hard enough. The sweeper is, in fact, happy, but not because of the comforting lies the churchmen tells it: “what makes the sweep happy in his misery is not that sinister delusion, Heaven, but the strength of life that is in him.” (E.D. Hirsch: 1964). This is explained in the second stanza.

Again, the illustration of the dirty, gritty sweeper full of soot with is mouth open, seemingly crying “weep, weep” (line 2) is an enhancement of the ideas formulated in the poem itself.

Hence, it is clear that “[t]o read a Blake poem without the pictures is to miss something important: Blake places words and images in a relationship that is sometimes mutually enlightening and sometimes turbulent, and that relationship is an aspect of the poem’s argument.” (Norton Anthology)

Bibliography:

Eaves, M. & Essick, R.N. & Viscomi, J. (2012) Works in the William Blake Archive. Viewed on 29/11/2012, http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/indexworks.htm?java=yes

Greenblatt, S. (2006) The Norton Anthology: English Literature Volume D. London: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.

Hagstrum, J.H. (1964). William Blake Poet and Painter. London: William Clowes and Sons.

Hirsch, E.D. (1964). Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. Clinton: The Colonial Press

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The Representation of Nature in 18th century British Arts

Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey captured the attention of multiple artists in the eighteenth century. It is a ruined church which can be found on the bank of the river Wye in Monmouthshire. Wordsworth rendered Tintern Abbey famously in his poem, but the picturesque qualities of the Wye Valley also lead to paintings by Gilpin and Turner. Some centuries later, the abbey still manages to attract artists: the American poet Allen Ginsberg wrote his poem Wales Visitation at Tintern Abbey, after dropping some acid. The Wye Valley, and the pure, unspoiled nature in general, caused a great influence on artists. In different arts, going from poetry till the art of painting, nature is one of the most important themes in the eighteenth century. First of all, the role nature will be discussed, and more precisely that of the Wye Valley, in the writings of the Wordsworths. Following that, we will find out how nature is represented in some famous eighteenth century paintings, focusing on the painter John Constable.

 “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798”

William Wordsworth

 In his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798” Wordsworth returns after five years with his sister, Dorothy, from a trip remembering his previous excursions to this area that meant so much to him. He reflects back on the emotional feelings he experienced during that first time and how he enjoyed the landscape. However, during this last visit, he realizes he has matured and cannot go back to that moment in the past. That is why he makes a mirror image of his younger sister Dorothy, as he teaches her how to look at nature the way he used to look at it. In doing so, he provides himself with those past joyous feelings as he fondly remembers them now, while thanking his sister for bringing him to his former place of residence and student years once more.

 Tintern Abbey is one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems. The poem can be seen as a record of the different stages in his poetic career. In the poem, the speaker sees Tintern Abbey and the surrounding valley from a hill. The reader is confronted with a sense of overview. The conception of nature and the composition of the landscape in it, can be compared with that of Constable, a contemporary painter, who will be discussed a bit further. In the poem, Wordsworth connects the human world with the divine world through the world of Nature. He finds the unity of the universe in the Wye valley. In this stage of Wordsworth’s life, he conceptualises nature as some sort of religion, and ‘the universal human malady in mind and heart could be cured only by Nature’s “holy plan”’. This higher power attributed to nature is clearly visible in the following lines (l. 107-110):

Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

 In the poem, there are only traces of people, but not people itself. That lack of figures is part of the motive of representing the landscape as wild, untouched and desolate. The traces (hedge-rows, farms, smoke) are visible in the next few lines (l. 11-19):

These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!

 Wordsworth also mentions the Hermit. The Hermit can be regarded as a symbol for solitude and the integration of the human presence in the landscape (l. 22-23):

Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.

Wordsworth’s influences

Wordsworth writings clearly reflect his love for nature and his relation with her. Most often his writings notify the beauty of nature as opposed to the horror of nature, in a few of his writings. The poet seems to have a particular affection towards nature and therefore presumable uses many adjectives to vividly describe all his perceptions of nature.

It is pleasurable to read Wordsworth’s poetry as the poet acquaints the reader with the beauty of nature. Wordsworth considered nature to be more than a collection of trees, bushes, hills, streams […] to him nature has personality, almost similar to humans with a power to poetically inspire those who love her. He considers nature as a friend, teacher and guide and claims that he could feel the presence of spirituality in nature like no other poet could.

 P.B. Shelley, in his poem To Wordsworth, calls Wordsworth ‘Poet of Nature,’ as William Hazlitt calls him poet of the mountains, and both these appellations are very appropriate for Wordsworth, because Wordsworth both got his poetic inspiration and materials for his poems from nature. Right from the poems which he wrote in his early years, we find that his poems are suffused with the beauty and descriptions of nature, as if nature followed him like a shadow. (Sarker, 2003: 300)

However, as William spent most of his life living with his sister, Dorothy, it might be reasonable to acknowledge she might have had a considerable influence on his life and writings. Her love and passion for nature is similarly reflected in her writings and as Coleridge puts a strain on her as “her eye watchful in minutest observation of nature”. Both Wordsworth family members seem to find peace and understanding in nature as Dorothy mentions “It was a sight that I could call to mind at any time it was so distinct.” referring to nature in which she could be herself. As William Wordsworth took nature to be his truest friend, so did Dorothy too.

 Nature in Constable’s paintings

 As Wordsworth describes and admires nature in all its glory and aspects in his poem, so has it also been done in the art of painting. John Constable (1776-1837) was one of the first English painters who started painting in the countryside, always trying to capture the landscape of his native region in that one moment. He was not very successful in his own country, but in France he had some following. One of his most known paintings The Hay Wain has had quite an influence on French artists. It has inspired painters such as Eugène Delacroix. Together with William Turner (1775-1851), Constable is acknowledged for his innovation in painting landscapes.

Branch Hill Pond – 1825

Constable is particularly known for his depiction of clouds that symbolize the sublime in his paintings. Wordsworth connects to the divine world through his verbal descriptions of nature, while Constable does this by painting the clouds and pastoral nature that surrounds him. Such as in Branch Hill Pond he presents an everyday image of the Hampstead Heath in which the landscape looks rustic and picturesque. The human entities such as the farm and the cart with the labourers are nestled into the landscape. There is a symbiotic relationship present between nature and humanity. Later on he focused more and more on the ever-changing weather, shown in his extensive collection of cloud studies and landscapes.In Chain Pier for example, Constable makes the weather more dynamic and expressive. It is as if it is possible to feel the wind and rain coming out of the painting. Often there are humans present in Constable’s paintings, or at least traces of human existence, yet nature and landscape are always the biggest entity in the paintings. The humans presence adds to the landscape but never overpowers/controls it.

The Chain Pier – 1827

Dedham Vale – 1828

Conclusion

Wordsworth’s poetry reflects the thematic characteristics of the Romantic period perfectly. Following Rousseau’s conviction that in nature ‘the essential passions of the heart’ could be found in their purest form, his poems show the same interest in nature and escaping to it. However, his poetry is more than just describing nature. He places himself in the landscapes he describes and talks about his own observations and emotions. His poetry is both spontaneous and controlled, comparable with nature itself. Wordsworth believed that the naturalistic state of a person is tranquility and should not be overwhelmed by society. Therefore, nature could be an escape for him.

Sources

“An Analysis of Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey”. Freehelpstoenglishliterature. Web. 15 November 2012. <http://freehelpstoenglishliterature.blogspot.be/2008/12/analysis-of-wordsworths-tintern-abbey.html&gt;
Barker, Elizabeth E. “John Constable”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 15 November 2012. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jcns/hd_jcns.htm>
Clucas, Thomas. “Ars Gratia Artis”. Exposition. Oxford University, 2010. Web. 15 November 2012. < http://expositionmagazine.com/?p=411&gt;
Constable, John. Branch Hill Pond. 1825. Artstore Slide Gallery. Web. 15 November 2012.
Constable, John. Dedham Vale. 1828. Artstore Slide Gallery. Web. 15 November 2012.
Constable John. The Chain Pier. 1827. Artstore Slide Gallery. Web. 15 November 2012.
Greenblatt, S., et al. The Northon Anthology English Literature: Volume D. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2005. Print.
Heughebaert, H., et al. Artistieke Opvoeding. Wommelgem: Uitgeverij Den Gulden Engel, 1988. Print.
Sarker, Sunil Kumar. A companion to Wordsworth. Delhi: Nice Printing Press. 300-302. 2003. Print.
Teifidancer. “Allen Ginsberg’s – Wales Visitation”. Teifidancerblog. Web. 15 November 2012. <http://teifidancer-teifidancer.blogspot.be/2010/01/allen-ginsbergs-wales-visitation.html&gt;
“Tintern Abbey”. Photograph. The Tintern Village Website. Web. 15 November 2012. <http://www.tintern.org.uk/abbey2.htm&gt;

Eighteenth-Century Media Landscapes

So since this is the first post on this blog, it should attempt to lay out some of the ideas that motivate this whole venture, right? Well, here goes:

It was this amazing eighteenth-century design for a fan that first caught my attention:

(© The Trustees of the British Museum)

It is always special when something as brittle and delicate as a fan has survived for that long, but I was really struck by the design on this particular fan for the variety of media it displays: printed texts, engravings, and sheet music; hand-written scrolls and musical scores; letters and wall paper; a pencil; a painted miniature portrait; and even another fan design! This “medley” made me wonder how people in eighteenth-century Britain dealt with the media that surrounded them and suffused their world, not just with printed books or even with writing more generally, but with the whole breadth of media forms that were available to them. That is what this blog (and the seminar to which it is attached) will be all about, so the idea is that little by little, individual posts will explore different facets of the wonderfully varied world of eighteenth-century media.

For the rest of this post, though, I will focus on the world of print in which eighteenth-century Britons found themselves. There were, of course, books of all kinds: expensive, large-format volumes that only the wealthier sectors of society would purchase; books also aimed at and priced for the middling ranks; and books intended for a broad audience that often could not afford to spend much on such items.

But the vast majority of printed material was actually in forms other than books: handbills and proclamations; trade cards and funeral tickets; portrait prints and satires; and broadsheets, single pages containing ballads, songs, poems, or other public announcements that were so cheap they could reach the vast majority of people, either because they could themselves afford it or because someone in their vicinity could and then would make it available for reading in groups.

Maybe it is no wonder, then, that many of the eighteenth-century “print medleys” you find refer more frequently to those more ephemeral, non-book forms of print than to books. Just take a look at the trade card of the engraver George Bickham the Elder:

(© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Similar to the fan design, the card displays what looks like a pile of engravings, all to advertise the range of engravings Bickham can produce (everything from portraits to playing cards and woodcuts on ballads to elaborately engraved text) and the high quality of his productions, not least because now the various kinds of engravings are all combined within one single engraving that Bickham has also produced. Print here refers to itself and to the ways in which it is produced (in this card, above all through the process of engraving). This tendency of print to refer to itself, and the deep immersion of eighteenth-century Britons in print culture that that implies, also appears in a medley satirizing the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, a stock market crash in 1720:

(© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The main target here is a contemporary event with extensive, in many cases devastating economic and political consequences. But in order to make its point, the print medley presumes that those who will consume it will already be familiar, not only with the outlines and events of the market crash itself, but also with many of the satires on stock jobbers, politicians, and stock holders that are reproduced within it. Finally, it also includes a sort of advertisement in the form of the print seller’s address at whose shop this very medley can be purchased; it is product placement on the product itself!

It is with another fan design, though, that I want to end this little excursion:

(© The Trustees of the British Museum)

As with the first design, this fan displays a print medley as its main design feature, this time an apparently carelessly arranged heap of prints engraved after paintings (some hand-colored, some left in gray-shade); and as with the first design, too, we need to remind ourselves that this heap of prints is actually not really a heap of print objects but an image of a heap of print objects (in this case, the fan design is itself actually a print, whereas the first fan was drawn by hand with pen and ink). So again, print here refers to itself and to the visual worlds it makes possible. But here’s where this particular fan becomes really fascinating to me: what looks like a background of delicate lace onto which the heap of prints has been overlaid is also part of the printed fan design! This fan not only re-presents print objects within another print object, it actually re-mediates a completely different medium – a textile, lace – by combining two other media – print (which in itself is a complex medium because it requires not only paper and ink but also a copperplate to be engraved and the tools to engrave it) and paint – to achieve an almost tactile, textural effect. It is this complex playfulness with a broad range of media that for me characterizes the eighteenth century, and the aim of this blog will be to showcase the broad variety of ways in which eighteenth-century media users engaged with and created their media environments as well as to ask what we might learn from them for our own, highly and complexly mediated times.