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Witness Against the Beast

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by E P Thompson.

Thompson Witness Against the Beast

E.P. Thompson’s Witness Against the Beast is a wonderful piece of history and criticism. Its subtitle “William Blake and the Moral Law” might have more accurately been “William Blake Against the Moral Law,” since that is the position expressed in Blake’s works. Thompson points the fact out again and again, while noting the earlier critics who have managed to ignore it.

“Inheritance,” the first of the book’s two sections, paints a cultural backdrop for Blake in the world of English antinomian religion. The second “Human Images” treats Blake’s biography and works in relation to that tradition and to the Republican and Deist impulses of the late eighteenth century. Thompson focuses on the Songs of Innocence and Experience, with some attention to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and commissioned paintings. He is very sympathetic to Blake, and avers himself to be a “Muggletonian Marxist” (the first term referencing an antinomian sect which may have influenced Blake through his family). At the same time, he seems careful not to project his own ideas onto Blake — much more careful than most Blake critics of my reading — and not to rashly infer lines of influence or authorial intentions.

The fifteen black and white plates in the book are very well chosen. In the course of illustrating Thompson’s points, they also make up one of the best possible collections of Blake’s images on such a small scale.

Fearful Symmetry

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Northrop Frye.

Frye Fearful Symmetry

This book was Northrop Frye’s first, and probably his best. If he had never written another word, it would have been enough to make him a titan of English literary criticism. As a comprehensive study of William Blake’s writings and art, it is so far-reaching and so penetrating as to make the reader suspect that no one had ever succeeded in reading Blake before Frye did so. 

While Fearful Symmetry is trained on Blake, its consequences go far beyond him: “We cannot understand Blake without understanding how to read the Bible, Milton, Ovid and the Prose Edda at least as he read them, on the assumption that an archetypal vision, which all great art without exception shows forth to us, really does exist. If he is wrong, we have merely distorted the meaning of these other works of prophecy; if he is right, the ability we gain by deciphering him is transferable, and the value of studying him extends far beyond our personal interest in Blake himself” (418). Accordingly, in the final pages of Fearful Symmetry there is a clear adumbration of the project Frye was later to execute in his magisterial Anatomy of Criticism.

Frye’s own prose is routinely beautiful. For example: “Jerusalem is Blake’s contribution to the struggle between the prophet and the profiteer for the soul of England which is England’s Armageddon: it is a burning-glass focusing the rays of a fiery city on London in the hope of kindling an answering flame” (392). But the book is not a fast read by any stretch; each page demands considered thought. Frye has so fiercely developed a sense of critical sympathy for his subject that he often continues for pages as though possessed by Blake, expressing the earlier man’s views in the words of the later, “mentally fighting” the divide between the reader’s situation and the transcendent imagination that is the prize for Blake and his ideal audience. 

It is possible, despite Frye’s indisputable intimacy with Blake’s work, that there are inaccuracies involved with Frye’s attempted representation of Blake’s intentions and views. Even if that were the case, however, the fact remains that what Frye offers as “Blake” is a dynamic perspective removed from the conventional epistemes of Blake’s 18th century, Frye’s 20th, and our own 21st, and that it therefore has its own sovereign value. It exhibits genius, no matter whose.