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.