Blake, Day, and Napoleon: Apocalyptic Memoir in Blake’s Designs for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts

American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies
Strategies of Commemoration
William Blake, Thomas Day, and Napoleon : Apocalyptic Memoir in Blake’s Night Thoughts Designs (April 12-16, 2000)
Lecture by Karen Mulhallen


1. Introduction

Thank you, Anne Betty, and thank you all for arising early on a Saturday and giving me the opportunity to wrestle with some problems of continuity and representation in a group of 537 watercolours which are pivotal in the career of the English poet and visual artist, William Blake. What I want to talk about this morning is very much the preliminary stage to a theoretical consideration of narrative based on an analysis of sources and weightings within a sequence.

At a time when England was making an enormous effort to catch up with European book-making, and many new large scale project were employing England’s painters and engravers, Blake was commissioned, in the mid-1790s, by the bookseller Richard Ewards, to execute a series of designs illustrating the mid-century best-selling poem, Edward Young’s The Complaint, or Night Thoughts, on Life Death and Immortality (1742-46). The commission was two-fold, the first stage was the drawings, on sheets of J Whatman paper, watermarked 1794, into which Edwards had had mounted each page of Young’s poem. This series of drawings is a work in its own right and Edwards had them handsomely bound in red leather. But Edwards’s plan, which was only partly accomplished, was to select from the series the designs to be engraved for a luxurious elephant quarto edition of the poem. One part only was issued, with a few dozen designs, and the two volumes of watercolours were lost from view nearly a century. [Slides 1-6]

Night Thoughts is not one, but several poems, presented in nine Nights, held together by the psychological, and spiritual, journey of the poet, who contemplates by moonlight, and often in the graveyard, the implications of the deaths of several loved ones, including his wife, “Lucia”, and his daughter “Narcissa”. [Slides 7-8]

Alone, Young meditates on the meaning of life and also debates with his worldly alter-ego, Lorenzo. Finally, the poet finds consolation for mortality in the promise of the Christian life divine. The poem is in the long tradition of what has been termed “Christian apologetics”, but this is in no way to diminish the work, or to suggest that it is merely formulaic. Night Thoughts is fictional memoir as Christian psychomachia.

Lacking a narrative, Young’s text is highly imagistic and concrete, metaphor upon metaphor. He calls the night stars the “manuscript of heaven”; this world is the “dim dawn”, the “twilight of our day”. The poet finds himself caught in darkness, “the worms’ inferior and in rank beneath the dust”. Blake responded to Young’s building of ideas through images, his short narrative sections and impassioned dialogue, often creating single highly charged figures, or small narrative sequences overlapping, defining and punctuating the text. In Night IV, for example, Young questions the elements for their creator’s presence (Night IV, p.24; #133):

Where are thou? Shall I dive into the Deep?
Call to the Sun, or ask the roaring Winds,
For their Creator? Shall I question loud
The Thunder, if in that th’Almight dwells?
Or holds He furious Storms in Streighten’d Reins?
And bids fierce Whirlwinds wheel his rapid Carr.

Blake speaks to the energetic beauty of the passage with a dramatic watercolour showing a prophet-poet, arms serenely folded, contemplating the energy of the God of the Thunder and the Whirlwinds. [Slides 9-13]

Three traditions dominate Blake’s designs and create a kind of narrative displacement: the biblical iconography of the High Renaissance, which he knew from books of engravings, the emblem tradition, with its generalized iconography of figures like Wisdom, Vanity, Foolishness, Time, and Death, and so on, and its descendants in the political caricatures of Blake’s day, and finally Blake’s own private iconography developed for the works which he engraved on his own press, the Lambeth books, and related separate drawings, including Tiriel, The Book of Thel, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, America, and Europe. Each of these traditions is readily apparent. [Slides 14-22]

Blake complements each night’s dominant mood and characters; Night I, On Life Death and Immortality, juxtaposes the bearded figure of Death with psyche figures who fly free, and with those who can not escape the chains of metal and thorn of this life. The scythe bearing top-knotted figure of Time appears in Night II, On Time, Death and Friendship. Weights and balances and pairs of figures are prominent. Although biblical references occur throughout the text, biblical iconography increases toward the end of the series, particularly representations of the figure of Christ contrasting with demonic forms, as Young nears the end of his journey, and approaches a Christian resolution. [Slides 23-26]

Within the series, there are a few designs which strike the viewer as from another discourse altogether. About them is an air of realism, a sense that they participate in what Paul Ricoeur has called “living time”. Here are two faces which carry this charge of “lived time”. And such figures have a “retroactive impact” on our reading of the generalized depictions, so much so that one begins to wonder whether or not many of these, too, might have derived from life portraits. [Slides 27-28 – 29-30]

In Time and Narrative, Ricoeur examines the aporia resulting from the discordance between phenomenological and cosmological perspectives of time. It is the aporetic, the doubtful or problematic designs, resulting from certain mimetic discordances which I would like to examine.

2. The Landscape of Time and the Landscape of Eternity

A. Political Memoir, Spiritual Memoir

David Erdman has convincingly displayed Blake’s pictorial and prophetic engagement in, and transmutation of the radical politics of his own time, a period of increasing war and uncertain peace. It is against this epoch, which Erdman calls the “Pitt Terror”, that Blake’s Night Thoughts were drawn. Young’s own politics were conservative, and Blake always makes clear his disagreement with Young’s praise for Monarchy, Church and State. Passing allusions are drawn out and depicted satirically. [Slides 31-34]

The political figures of Blake’s day and the political issues of the moment were captured in widely available satirical prints. In some, features were caricatured, that is loaded or exaggerated, others were grotesques, actuality left behind. [Slides 35-36]

The politics of Blake’s Lambeth books recurs in specific images in the Night Thoughts. Here on page 16 of Night 3 is a redrawing of Europe plate 11 (copy D, BMPR). In Europe the figure is called Albion’s Angel, because he has acted the King’s part in America. The small cross and orb at the top of his crown make it a Papal tiara and Crown of England combined. Erdman identifies the Europe figure as George III. In the Night Thoughts, Young’s text speaks of Lucifer, but Blake’s figure shows which features are those of the King’s and he reappears twice more in Papal costume. [Slides 37-42]

The British Museum Catalogue of Political Satires occupies eleven large volumes, three of which are immediately relevant to the materials with which I am working. The struggle between Pitt and Fox, the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, the famine, the tax burden, the passions and crises of age find their forum in the caricatures some of which were also commissioned international propaganda. All of the prominent statesmen of Blake’s time were caricatured. As Edmund Burke commented on the French Revolution, “the Elements which compose Human society seem all dissolved and a world of Monsters [is] produced in the place of it”. (Correspondence, 1 October 1789).

By the time Blake was working on the Night Thoughts, Napoleon Bonaparte had come to power. And he was extensively caricatured. Several of Blake’s Night Thoughts drawings are teasingly reminiscent of Napoleon’s features. Although the earliest English caricature is 1797, there are Italian portrait engravings dating from 1794. Perhaps as an inheritance from the Puritan Revolution, Blake’s culture discussed politics in biblical terms. Just as the American revolution had been viewed as a secular Apocalypse, so was the French Revolution. The millenarian Richard Brothers (1757-1824), for example, prophesied against the war with France, addressing letters to the King, Pitt and other ministers. He beseeched George not to proceed with the War, and predicted the Apocalypse as a consequence if he did. The English scheme of satire against Napoleon compared him to the Dragon and the Beast of the Book of Revelation.

Simple arithmetic reveals that the number of political designs increases toward the end of Blake’s Night Thoughts series, and these designs are connected with blood, death, war, and imprisonment. Blake seems to be focusing his obsessions on the “Pitt Terror” and impending war with France, and contrasting these anxiety-ridden images with the serenity of eternity envisaged through biblical scenes, often washed with gold. The solution to the crisis is implicit in the development of this cosmological narrative. The crisis is epitomized here in the title-page to Night VIII. Reading clock-wise we find the Scarlet Whore of Revelation, seated on the seven-headed dragon, its power portrayed in the Law, a judge’s wig, the Military, a steel-helmeted soldier, the Merchant Banks, the golden-horned figure, the Church and Monarchy, the triple mitre and orb, and the ram’s-horned crowned King, and finally in two ecclesiastically-hatted figures. Comparing the upper figure to a portrait of Napoleon (from 1816, but based on an earlier design) reveals the telling profile, his chin, his nose. Blake’s design is a view of the beast in line with the most popular political satire of his day. [Slides 43-44; 45-48]

B. The Good Man

In the Night Thoughts designs, Blake blends a biblical future, with a Roman or Egyptian or Babylonian past, as depicted in a Caesar design or a Pharaoh or a Sultan, with a European present. What he seems to be performing is an act of memoir transcending time. It is a ceremonial strategy, which in effect declares honour or dishonour in the present. In classical rhetoric, the strategy is called epideictic. The examples we have glanced at carry a negative charge. But the inscription on a tombstone on page 6 of Night IX may lead us in the other direction. [Slides 49-50]

Who was Thomas Day? Possibly Day was no one Blake had ever met, although they shared a world of dissenting politics. After leaving his studies at Oxford, Day lived his short life (1748-1789) first in fashionable society at Lichfield, whose literary light was Anna Seward, “the swan of Lichfield”, as she was called by Blake’s later patron William Hayley, then on the Continent, and finally as a kind of hermit in the country south of London. In the year the Bastille fell, so did Day, dying, by falling on his head from his horse.

Day was 41 years old when he died, Blake was 41 when he finished these drawings. The life of the immensely wealthy Day, able to indulge in every eccentric whim, seems far removed from Blake’s. As an author, however, Day distinguished himself with a popular book, a fictionalized story on the ideal education for children, and four poems. The Dying Negro (1773), based on an actual event, is written in the voice of a black man who had killed himself on board a boat in the Thames. He addresses his intended wife, a white fellow servant, and speaks, in a diction not unlike that of Blake’s in poems Songs of Innocence and Experience, of the wild wastes of Africa and the “ruddy face” and “golden hair of his enslaver”. Unable to escape his master who would deport him to America, he takes his own life. Like Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Year’s Expedition to Surinam (which Blake illustrated), Day’s poem is thought to have contributed to the abolition of slavery. In The Devoted Legions (1776), Day celebrates the American Revolution, and parallels the Roman and the British Empires:

Where Tyranny erects her hundred thrones
And deaf to nature’s voice, and Pity’s groans,
Even mid the song, the dance, the lute’s soft breath,
Feeds her remorseless soul with deeds of death.

In Ode for the New Year 1776, he predicted Britain’s being nourished on the breast of America, the chains of slavery finally broke: “Britain terror of the world no more./Turns on herself, and drinks her children’s gore.” Finally in Desolation of America (1777), tyranny is powerfully personified as the Dragon of the Apocalypse.

Day was known as the “Good man” and his reputation seems to have grown after his death, for in December 1794 and January 1795, The European Magazine published a two-part account of him, embellished by a portrait. His exemplary life clearly moved Blake.

C. Portraiture and Self-Portraiture as Commemoration

In his own writings Blake had quoted Young for more than a decade starting with the manuscript “Island in the Moon” and continuing through his manuscript “Vala or The Four Zoas”. Despite his critiques of Young, his taking exception to Young’s politics, and to Young’s deism, there is not doubt that a feeling for the poet and his text animated the illustrator. It is unlikely that Blake would have taken on such an extensive commission had he not felt a sympathy for the text, and he worked at a tremendous rate finishing at least five drawings a week. Within the sequence, Blake drew his own self-portrait twice, in each case as the inspired artist prophet. And there are at least two portraits of Young as well, (one based on the well-known painting by Joseph Highmore) Blake’s showing the poet in an inspired or “redeemed” state. [Slides 51-56]

3. Conclusion

Blake’s Night Thoughts raises fascinating questions about the nature of commemoration, and memoir, since the drawings constitute in effect a visual diary in which the artist recreates, rewrites the politics of his own time, and the politics of the text. Drawn in the margins around a reconstituted book, the drawings are marginalia, rorschachs or free writing. Spatially and temporally they yoke two epochs and two sensibilities, constituting a refiguring of time. They are both a tribute to and a rewriting of Young. They are both private, scribbles and marginalia, and public, preliminary engravings, single becoming multiple. Strategies of memoir in Blake incorporate the poet as spectral self, in diabolic form ripping up his own text, the poet as spiritual self accepting energy from above, the poet as redeemed self, embracing his newly- arisen wife. [Slides 57-58]

In his Night Thoughts, Young made public his private sorrow. In Blake’s Night Thoughts, Blake made private his public outrage, his drawings private meditations on public events.

Thank you.