Blake’s Political Night Thoughts; Crowns of Spike, Crowns of Thorn, Not mere Wind and Splutter

Karen Mulhallen

MacMaster, 1989

I should like to begin my lecture this afternoon by quoting a quotation of a quotation which is itself an epigraph:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as
they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by
themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered,
given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the
dead generations weighs on them like a nightmare on the brain
of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutioniz-
ing themselves and things, in creating something that has never
yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis
they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their
service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes
in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-
honoured disguise and this borrowed language. Thus Luther
donned the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789 to
1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the Roman
empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to
parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793 to 1795.

This quotation from Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), appears in Ronald Paulson’s magisterial new study Representations of Revolution. To both Paulson’s work and to Marx’s concept of tradition weighing “like a nightmare on the brain of the living” later I should like to return.

Algernon Swinburne, who disliked Young’s Night Thoughts, also thought little of Blake’s politics. Writing on Blake’s poem on the revolution in France, he irascibly opined, “The one thing he did get published – his poem, or apology for a poem called “The French Revolution” … – is … worth little or even nothing: consisting mainly of mere wind and splutter”. Happily, Swinburne’s negative view of Blake’s political acumen is not our own, and if anything we have tended to take all of Blake’s productions as imbued with historical allegory, sometimes perhaps even at the expense of the poetical. In choosing to discuss the politics in Blake’s illustrations to a conventional Christian poem, I find myself, too, with an apparently limited view, preferring the historical at the expense of spiritual. I’d like to acknowledge the Christian aim of the poem Blake illustrated and pay a tribute to the poet Young at the same time by subtitling my lecture, “Crowns of Spike, Crowns of Thorn, Not Mere Wind and Splutter”.

Blake’s Night Thoughts is a series of 537 drawings comprising a page by page commentary on Edward Young’s poem Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality (1742-6). Blake’s designs were commissioned around 1795 by a young London bookseller, Richard Edwards. Both hoped to profit by the endeavour, Edwards by publishing an illustrated Night Thoughts with prints based on Blake’s watercolours, Blake by the fame he anticipated his work would bring. Neither was successful. The edition was never completed, and Blake’s designs, until their publication only three years ago, have been tucked away in the British Museum Print Room.

Young’s poem is not concerned with politics, but consists of meditations in nine nights on the Eternal life and the necessary preparation for that life. It is a kind of Christian georgics, with only a sketchy narrative in which the bereaved poet mourns the loss of three family members and exhorts a worldly friend, Lorenzo, to prepare himself for the life to come. Though there is no narrative, the poet does change his emotional state from grief to consolation, a consolation offered all Christians in Christ’s incarnation and in the Last Judgment.

The densely imagistic language of the poem, Young’s delight in the ramification of metaphor, provides his illustrator with a profusion of opportunities. Here’s Young speaking of visions which will haunt him until Death:

Night-visions may befriend, (as sung above)
Our waking Dreams are fatal: How I dreamt
Of things Impossible? (could Sleep do more?)
Of Joys perpetual in perpetual Change?
Of stable Pleasures on the tossing Wave?
Eternal Sun-shine in the Storms of life?
How richly were my noon-tide Trances hung
With gorgeous Tapestries of pictur’d joys?
Joy behind joy, in endless Perspective!

A passage incidentally which Blake altered and re-used as an inscription to his frontispiece for Bürger’s Leonora, 1796.

While acknowledging the “power, invention” and beauty of Blake’s designs, Swinburne in 1868 condemned Young’s text as “a thing dead and rotten”. However, in its own day the poem was an international best-seller. James Boswell regarded it as “a mass of the grandest and richest poetry that human genius has ever produced” (Life of Johnson, 1934, IV, 60), and Robespierre in his days of power carried a copy with him in his pocket (Birley, p.76).

To some contemporary ears Young’s verse may seem rather tedious Christian apologetics, yet it has passages of tremendous and inspiring passion. In Night IV, we find Young questioning the elements for the creator’s presence:

Where art 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’ Almighty dwells?
Or holds He furious Storms in streighten’d Reins?
And bids fierce Whirlwinds wheel his rapid Carr.

Blake responded to the beauty of the passage with a dramatic water-colour showing a prophet-poet, arms serenely folded, contemplating the energy of the God of the Whirlwind.

Chronologically, Blake’s Night Thoughts are pivotal works between the Lambeth prophecies and the later Milton and Jerusalem. The designs come, moreover, from a period where, apart from the manuscript Vala or The Four Zoas, we have little information of any kind about Blake.

I have stated that the poem is Christian in content with few topical references, and it was written 50 years before Blake’s tumultuous times. The designs, however, were executed against a background of London dissent. A background vividly drawn by David Erdman in his book Prophet Against Empire. Erdman has convincingly displayed, plate by plate, line by line, Blake’s debt to, engagement in, and transmutation of, the radical politics of this own time: the impact of the American Revolution on Blake’s early poetry, his exuberant response to the French revolution, his pictorial and poetic prophetic editorials against what Erdman calls the Pitt Terror, and his following of the Wars of 1793-1802 and 1803-1815. Like “his contemporaries Goya and Beethoven”, says Erdman, “Blake saw the age of the spinning jenny and the balloon and the citizen army not primarily as an age of rising industry but as one of increasingly prodigious war and uncertain peace” (DVE, xi).

Given the proximity to Lambeth and the great number of the Night Thoughts designs it would be surprising if the political engagement of those Lambeth books did not enter this vast commercial undertaking. All I would hope to do this afternoon is to open up some of the avenues for exploring politics in Blake’s Night Thoughts. But before doing so, I’ll need to demonstrate further their importance for Blake.

Unlike his highly conventional commercial book of illustration, the Night Thoughts shares its iconography with the Lambeth prophecies Milton, Jerusalem, and The Book of Job designs. This iconography includes groupings of figures, key solitary characters, such as pilgrims with staves, and motifs like thorns for a fallen world, serpents for a fall or imprisonment, flowers for joy and lambs for peaceableness. It is an iconography so similar that it is tempting to call figures not by their Night Thoughts designations – such as the poet or Death or Narcissa – but with names from Blake’s own mythology.

There is no doubt that a feeling for the poet and the text animated the illustrator. Within the designs, Blake drew his own self-portrait twice and at least two portraits as well of Young, based on the well-known painting by Joseph Highmore. And in his own writings he quoted Young for more than a decade – from Island in the Moon through The Four Zoas.

Politics enters the Night Thoughts in various and complex ways. In the earlier Nights especially the politics is perhaps deceptively simple. Blake draws out Young’s passing allusions to kings and other rulers, and portrays them satirically. Here is an example from the first Night (p. 17), where the figure of Oppression is connected with monarcy and the state, through her spiky crown and her chains, as well as with organized religion: notice the Cardinal’s cap and the crook. That spiky crown will appear again and again o figures variously called Sense (Night V, p.7), Lucre (Night V, p. 56), Fortune (Night VI, p. 28), the World, Vile Appetite and Earth (Night V, p. 30), but also – and this is an interesting exception – on the psalmist David (Night IX, p. 30). So that while the spiky crown is a warning and is generally negatively charged, it needs always to be weighed in context.

Although many designs show church and state together as oppressive shackles, images which satirize organized religion and rulers also appear individually. In Night VI, for example, a rare evocation of state by Young is depicted by Blake as a spiky-crowned castrated King. If Young approves of Britannia’s voice, Blake ironically ensures the range of that voice (p. 41), a grotesque image in sharp contrast to the Christ who appears as a frame on the preceding and following pages (pp. 40 and 42).

Although the spiky crown is an ominous emblem, not all crowns are negative, flowery crowns and laurel are used in both ways. And in Night IV, (p.12) Christ’s crown of thorns is his passion and triumph, even though four pages earlier Nimrod, the spiky-crowned mighty hunter, represents Death.
In addition to the obvious satire on rulers of any sort, Blake rarely lets pass an allusion by Young to war. Here’s one from page 20 of Night IV which Blake has depicted with a mobile and dehumanized brutality.

Haunting echoes of Blake’s Lambeth politics appear in the specific images deriving from the Lambeth books. Page 16 of Night III is a redrawing of Europe, plate 11 (copy D, BMPR). In Europe this 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 into a Papal tiara and Royal crown of England combined. I’m still uncertain about David Erdman’s identification (in The Illuminated Blake, p. 169), of this figure as George III, but I have no doubts in the Night Thoughts. Though the Night Thoughts text identifies him as Lucifer, his features are indisputably those of the King, and he reappears twice more in the designs in Papal costume.

It is rather surprising that in his writings Blake only refers once specifically to George III and then not until 1804 in a letter to William Hayley (28 May 1804; E750), when he calls the King “our poor George”, but, of course, he makes numerous other references to kings. And George III’s image abounded in both official portraits and satirical prints. With the King’s features, Blake was well acquainted.

I began my lecture by quoting Karl Marx on the inescapable weight of tradition. It is this nightmarish, tradition to which I’d like now to turn. The British Museum Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires occupies eleven large volumes – 3 of these eleven are immediately relevant to Blake’s work in the period I am discussing. Caricature was playing an increasing part in the life of the time, and its study provides a valuable historical document. The struggle between the younger Pitt and Charles James Fox, leader of the opposition, the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, the famine, the tax burden, the passions and crises of the age, all find their forum in the caricatures of the day, some of which were also commissioned international propaganda. An examination of a decade of these political satires in the Print Room reveals a world of wonders. In some cases the artist merely caricatures, that is exaggerates, loads or changes, one aspect of his subject; the equivalence is still there, the rules of mimesis observed. Others are grotesque, actuality left behind, a process which Ronald Paulson (p. 182) sees as indicative of the artist no longer comprehending a phenomena; hence searching for equivalents, he abandons the law against contradiction, introducing “contraries by joining”, for example, “a pretty girl and a fish’s tail”.

By the time Blake began to design the later Lambeth books and the Night Thoughts, the political print had become a yoking or metamorphosis of caricatured, even grotesque faces, to exaggerated or non-human bodies often in a symbolic scent in the Hogarthian mode. William Pitt appears in every unflattering form conceivable, as a caterpillar, a locust, as an inversion of Hercules, as a pink-fleshed fairy, and he continues to be pilloried right up until the end fo the decade even when patriotism and the fear of invasion will show him as St. George fighting the French dragon. All of the prominent statesmen of Blake’s time were caricatured, the opposition of course also appearing, to advantage and to disadvantage.

Students of political caricature usually assume it was created out of emblems from model books like Cesare Ripa’s Iconoloiga and Frances Quarles’s Emblems Divine and Moral. The emblematic image was defined by its verses, so that to a verbal concept it was added a visual image. What happens when the verses and mottoes are removed is that the visual image acquires a new mythology, one from the culture which has appropriated it. In this Rowlandson print is Charles James Fox, fighting off the Beast of Revelation (1784). The image obviously derives from biblical iconography. Yet, only the month before (3 February 1784) we find Fox, in another Rowlandson design, transformed to a serpent, a serpent, which the infant Pitt-Hercules (who in no way resembles the actual William Pitt) must master. Emblematic iconography is here subsumed into political struggle. (The other head by the way is that of Lord North). What is equally fascinating is that there are no longer any heroes – in this design Pitt, North and Fox being equally “charged”.

In August 1799, a good two years after the publication of the Night Thoughts engravings, and presumably also after the watercolour series was completed, Blake wrote two letters in which he condemned caricature and hence despaired of “Ever pleasing one Class of Men” (E703). To Dr. Trusler, who had criticized his drawing of Malevolence, Blake wrote (23 August 1799; E702):

I perceive that your Eye(s) is perverted by Caricature
Prints which ought not to abound so much as they do.
Fun I love but too much Fun is of all things the most
loathsome. Mirth is better than Fun & Happiness is
better than mirth – I feel a Man may be happy in This
World. And I know that This World Is a World of
Imagination and Vision I see Everything I paint In
This World, but Every body does not see alike.

And three days later, to George Cumberland, he stated his inability to “paint Dirty rags & old Shoes where I ought to place Naked Beauty or simple ornament …. I am sorry that a Man should be so enamourd of Rowlandsons caricatures as to call them copies from life & manners or fit Things for a Clergyman to write upon” (E704). While Blake rightly drew a distinction between Rowlandson’s work and his own, examining Blake’s designs of the period we find that very “borrowed language” and “time-honoured disguise” which Karl Marx stated men conjured in “periods of revolutionary crisis”, just when they think they are “creating something that has never existed”.

Looking through the 537 Night Thoughts designs, one is immediately struck by their similarities to the emblematic, hieroglyphic and political caricature prints of the 1790s. In the words of Edmund Burke writing on the French Revolution, “the Elements which compose Human Society seem all to be dissolved, and a world of Monsters to be produced in the place of it” (Correspondence, 6, 30 (1 October 1789); cited in Paulson, p. 171). The grotesques – serpent-, moth- and caterpillar- people – and caricatures range through all the nine Nights of the designs. Blake was quite right in asserting that “Dirty rags and old Shoes” were not the stuff of his art, but the grotesque and graphic satire certainly are, as you can see.

I am not arguing that all of Blake’s metamorphic images derive from the contemporary political prints. Not at all. Some of the Night Thoughts, especially those to do with Miltonic or Biblical scenes may come from the enormous body of Bible illustration. And figures like this man-serpent who represents falsity could have come as easily from one of Raphael’s grotesques for the Vatican Loggia as from that Rowlandson print of Fox and North as serpent-men. Nonetheless, the immediate context is those very “Caricature Prints which”, Blake said, “ought not to abound so much as they do”, and in which religious iconography is taken up into a political one.
By the time Blake was at work on his Night Thoughts, Napoleon Bonaparte had come to power. As A.M. Broadley points out (Napoleon in Caricature, I, x (1911), he “was certainly more extensively caricatured than any man who ever lived” (with Pitt, Fox, George III, and Wellington running closely behind). The earliest Napoleonic satirical print in the British Museum collection is 1797 (#8997), but the genesis of Napoleon caricature is (13 Vendémiare Year IV (i.e., 5 October 1795). Several designs in the Night Thoughts are teasingly reminiscent of depictions of Napoleon. The text on page 9 of Night V speaks of the war being waged in the individual’s soul and his pride at his own degradation. Blake depicts a laurel-crowned soldier, with a chin and eyes like Napoleon. In Night VII, the text mentions Caesar. Finally, in Night XIX, the pedestal figure, cloven-footed like the Pope-George III figure from Night VIII (though with a left rather than a right foot deformed), again resembles Napoleon. The text speaks expressly of imperial ambition. The likelihood of the design’s topicality is enhanced by the fact that it is an adaptation of Europe, plate 5 (copy D; BMPR), where the face resembles both the youthful William Pitt, and the King’s son, Frederick, Duke of York.
I have said that the political caricatures of Napoleon do not begin in England until 1797. However, his face was certainly well-known before then. The siege of Toulon, where the English were defeated, was, after all, the 30th of November 1793. Napoleon rose swiftly thereafter. The Italian campaign was 1795, and Broadley points out that most of the early portraits were Italian in origin (p. 87, fn). In July 1797, a portrait of Bonaparte was engraved by Louis Schiavonetti, after F. Cossia, and published in London. Broadley argues that the first portrait is late 1795 (as is the first caricature); however, I have found portrait engravings dating from 1794 (in BMPR).

Blake lived in a culture which – an inheritance from the English Civil war – discussed politics in moralistic and Biblical terms. Some viewed the American Revolution as a secular apocalypse, that is one which would overthrow poverty and cruelty (DVE, p. 50). Others saw it as the Apocalypse, as set out in the Book of Revelation. Similar views of the French Revolution prevailed in the 1790s. The millenarian Richard Brothers (1757 – 1824), for example, who prophesied in 1795 against the war with France, addressed 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 the did. Arrested in 1795, and incarcerated as a lunatic for 11 years, Brothers’ views were reiterated and expanded in several books by his lifelong friend and supporter John Finlayson. In The Last Trumpet and The Flying Angel, Finlayson identified the red dragon as George III himself, and the Beast whose number is 666 as the members of the House of Commons (pp. 22-24; 1849).

Not surprisingly this kind of odium theologicum is an important part in the English scheme of satire against Napoleon, who was compared to the Dragon and identified with the Beast of Revelation. Between 1797 and 1815 prophetic broadsides, leaflets and prints made the comparison more vivid. Broadley devotes an entire chapter of his study to these documents (II, Chapter 27), as well reproducing photographs of English pottery decorated with Napoleon caricatured as the Beast of Revelation. An 1809 brochure by Louis Mayer, with a satirical frontispiece of 1804, identifies Napoleon as the Apocalyptic Beast:

His brutal and ferocious Dispositions are represented by
the Body and Feet of a Tiger; his inordinate Desires, by
the Chest, Wings, and claws of a Dragon, holding out
Death and Slavery; his Head with two Horns symbolizes his
civil and ecclesiastical Authority; and is intended to
point out that though a Dragon and a Tiger have been the
most dreadful and destructive of all real and imaginary
creatures, yet even their horrid natures are surpassed by
the sanguinary and rapacious Dispositions of that
implacable Tyrant.

Simple arithmetic reveals that the number of monarch and ruler and warfare designs increases toward the end of Blake’s Night Thoughts, that they are increasingly associated with blood, death, war and imprisonment, and contrasted with the serenity of eternity. By increasing the number of satirical subjects and of Biblical archetypes, Blake began to leave behind his exquisite visualizations of general Christian truths in the early nights, and to focus on his own obsessions with the Pitt Terror and the Wars with France. He was seeking a solution – a solution characterized in the movement of designs in Night IX, but epitomized here on the title page of Night VIII.

Reading the design clockwise we find the Scarlet Whore seated on the seven-headed, ten-horned Dragon of Revelation: its power portrayed in the law (you can see the judge’s wig), the military (a steel-helmeted soldier), the merchant banks, in the scaly brutish bearded red and gold-horned image, the Church and Monarchy in the bleary-eyed figure with the triple mitre and orb, a ram’s-horned crowned King, and finally two ecclesiastically-hatted figures. It is the last figure which concerns me here.

Remember that in this period it is Napoleon who most frequently is embodied in the Dragon. A Rowlandson print of 1808 based on an earlier design shows the seven-headed Beast, in which the upper left head is that of Napoleon. Here we see features which seem distinctly his, that strong jaw, that prominent nose. It is a view of the Beast in line with the most popular satire of Blake’s time.

I have said that Young’s poem proffers the chiliastic promise of Christianity as Consolation for this world’s sorrows. Blake’s designs for Night VIII seem to reinforce this promise, by contrasting the world as it is with the world to come: under monarchy, man is a Sisyphus (1), the Pope is the Levianthan (3), children are oppressed (14), insect forms rule (15), the world is “all face” (17-18), Ambition castrates (22), rulers are themselves betrayed (26-27), monarchy rules by assassination (28). Contrasted to this fallen political world is the grace of the Bible (39), angelic forms (41) and the River of Life (48). Scorning this world leads to serenity (59-60).

Yet the suspicion that Blake may be thinking not of a biblical future, or even of a Roman or Egyptian or Babylonian past as depicted in a Caesar design or a pharaoh or Sultan image, could be confirmed by the inscription on the tombstone on page 6 of Night IX. Who was Thomas Day? I think, almost certainly, no one Blake had ever met, for Day lived his short life (1748-1789), after leaving his studies at Oxford, in the fashionable society of Lichfield as Blake’s patron Hayley was to call her – then on the Continent, and, finally, as a kind of hermit in the country south of London. Day died by falling on his head from his horse in the year the Bastille fell.

Day was 41 years old when he died, Blake 41 as he finished these Night Thoughts watercolours. Yet the life of the immensely wealthy Day, able to indulge every eccentric whim, seems far removed from Blake’s. As an author, however, Day first distinguished himself with four poems. The Dying Negro (1773), based on an actual event, is supposed to have been written by a black man who kills himself on board a boat in Thames. Addressed to his intended wife, a white fellow servant, the black man speaks 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 Steman’s Narrative of a Five Year’s Expedition, which Blake of course illustrated, Day’s poem contributed to the abolition of slavery. In The Devoted Legions (1776), Day celebrated the American Revolution and parallels the Roman empire and England:

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

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

Day’s speeches, pamphlets, tracts and letters attest to his radicalism, his opposition to high taxes, empire-building, private rapacity and public oppression, his impassioned and moving campaign against slavery, his deep patriotism, and his unfailing generosity. His reputation seems to have spread after his death, for in December 1794 and January 1795 The European Magazine published a two-part account of him “embellished” with a portrait. His life was an example which clearly moved Blake.

Early in this lecture I stated that Young’s Night Thoughts chart a shift in the poet’s attitude, form despair to consolation, and I indicated that Blake was inspired both by Young’s passionate verse, and his emotional change. This inspiration is mirrored in the way in which, on the whole, Blake complements each Night through visualizing its dominant moods. I have also stated that the later Nights’ designs are increasingly concerned with two subjects – politics and the Bible. Many critics have remarked on Blake’s movement from Lambeth to Jerusalem, as a movement from radical politics to a world of the imagination. Although Blake never does entirely leave behind his political concerns, I think the movement is apparent in the Night Thoughts imagery, one which is in part mimetic of Young’s own change.

Images of Christ proliferate in the final designs to the Night Thoughts, nearly a quarter of the last night’s designs showing His form and the large majority of the designs are based not on Young’s text so much as on the Book of Revelation, every chapter of which is illustrated. More than one-half the designs to Night IX depict Christ or the Apocalypse. The overall thrust suggests a reading of the Apocalypse as an event precipitated by the political corruption of the 1790s.

We know that Blake was increasingly turning toward a vision of the redeeming Messiah set out in the later stages of Vala, and in Jerusalem in the “likeness and similitude of Los” (E256). And the idea of the Millenium, important to nearly all of his works, is rendered most extensively in Night IX of The Four Zoas, an idea and a structure indebted to Young’s ninth Night of the Night Thoughts.

But William Blake is not Edward Young. Young’s poem ends ominously with the reign “supreme” of awful “Midnight”. Blake envisages a world where politics, redeemed by the Christ of the Apocalypse, is fulfilled historically by an heroic man – the Biblical Samson. And it is a fulfillment set out in the ninth Night of The Four Zoas:

The Sun has left his blackness & has found a fresher morning
And the mild moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night.
And Man walks forth from midst of the fires the evil is all consumed (E406)