Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Sneak Preview

I am doing a book about William Blake. Most of the book was written by dead people. I am prefacing their observations with my own observations, wherein I observe what I think they're observing and why I think they're observing the way they do and I explain how they knew Billy B., or (more commonly) how they came to know of him, and I venture generalisations about the fate of the Blake Question (visionary, madman, or darn-tootin' ironist?*) throughout the nineteenth century. It's meant to be (so say the publishers) a run of the dark satanic mill reference book, this book, but to me it's a biographies' biography, festooned and metatextualated to its back teeth.

Here are some things (they make good Christmas presents):

1. In 1824, Bernard Barton wrote to Charles Lamb to ask if he had written Blake’s 'The Chimney Sweeper', which Lamb had contributed to an anthology for chimney sweepers. Try to find a book like that in Borders these days. They just don't do anthologies for chimney sweepers the way they used to.

2. In Algernon Charles Swinburne's exposition of Blake's sexual libertarianism, he insists that there is "no prurience of porcine appetite for rotten apples ... [in this] sensual doctrine". If my surname were Swineburne, I'd watch where I put the word "porcine".

3. George Bernard Shaw calls Blake "an avowed Diabolonian". "Diabolonian" means "Satanist", but it's hard to take seriously a word that sounds so much like "abalone". I'm wondering if this was Shaw's point. (Probably not, for the record.)

* They don't tend to notice the irony in the nineteenth century. Their Blake's either stark bollocky (naked in the back garden with Mrs B.) mad or the clairvoyant's clairvoyant. Later on, when the Victorians start getting all art-for-art's-sake-ish, they coopt him as the patron saint of a cult of beauty, which seems to miss all sorts of points. But fair enough. It takes a lot of mental energy to wear velveteen knickerbockers.

19 comments:

TimT said...

At the risk of stating the obvious (but then, that's what I do all the time, anyway), Shaw was surely punning on 'Baloney' (Colloq: nonsense), or maybe even punning on 'Balliol College'.

Actually, who can be sure what Shaw was sure about? Shaw was sorely sure and surly surely about many things. As a matter of fact:

I saw B. Shaw by the sea shore! Did you see B. Shaw try the see-saw?

Good day to you, noble onions.

lucy tartan said...

re: your *, which I like a lot, do you think Victorian readers generally downplayed the ironic and satiric tendencies of eighteenth century people they liked?

Anonymous said...

You probably know this, but, given that Ruskin collected Blake, a glance at the index for the Cook and Wedderburn ed. of Ruskin's Complete Works might turn up some interesting comments, if you haven't thought of doing that already. Ruskin is usually absolutely fascinating on the Romantics. I know for a fact that William Morris (whom I think of in a similar breath as Blake) loved Blake, but have no direct references at the top of my head. Might be interesting though, given you've got Shaw there. You could also do something about how Blake possibly feeds into the tradition of Chartist/protest/working-class poetry. It would be a good counterpoint to the art for art's sake stuff.

I know I'm proselytising again, but, if this is a teaching text, the idea of undergraduates having a bit of Ruskin shoved down their throats would give me a special little thrill.

Maria said...

"Most of the book was written by dead people."

That's some talented dead people. I can't write most of a book and I'm alive.

Mr Mean said...

In answer to thing #1, for starters Borders management does not consider Blake one of the “World's (ninety-nine) Best Fabricators”, and then chimney sweepers are regarded as an less-than-influential minority group these days by politicians and junk-mail-pushers-with-fancy-titles alike.

alexis said...

Hi everyone, thanks for yr comments, which I'll deal with soon as there's a moment (especially yours, Maria, which put me right in my place). Meanwhile, Anon., I believe Ruskin might say something Blakey in _The Eagle's Nest_ (1872), but I haven't had a chance to track down a copy yet. Don't spose you've got it, or that it has an index, or that you could check for me whether it's anything material?

TimT said...

I have a book by Thackeray on most of the important Augustinian humourists and I can't remember him glossing over any of the biographies. All the important ones are in there - Addison, Pope, Gay, Dryden, Swift and Fielding. Given that, even in their own time, Swift and Fielding would have attracted criticism for obscene content, Thackery's biography seems to have a remarkable lack of prurience about it. Though I haven't read it closely, and I'm not sure if that's what Lucy T is driving at.

On Ruskin, I think this point should be said in his favour: he had an important beard that manifested itself at various angles. Something worthy of a footnote, mayhap?

TimT said...

I am also in favour of Ruskin and Ruskin Caravan Tea, obviously.

Mitzi G Burger said...

This noble onion is deliciously caramelised after reading the fate of a Blake Book crafted by the dexterous quill of our lady of the lexicon.

Lachlan said...

A friend of mine was in The Sydney University Players in the late 1940s, and they staged a play by Bernard Shaw, and announced that GBS the man was coming to the opening night. The papers ran with the story. My friend got a bearded homeless guy from Manly into a suit, and drove him to the show in a hire car, but I have to go back and ask him how the homeless guy managed with conversation. Perhaps they just had him repeat "Youth is wasted on the young", in varying tones. I do it when I am stuck for conversation too.

alexis said...

You've got all the connections, Lachlan. Next time I need a USyd alumnus-thespian, I'll know who to turn to.

In other news, I don't think Thackeray is a representative sample of the Victorian temperament. He had as good a sense of oirony as any Augustan novelwright. Despite sustaining a few cool blades of wit, it does seem fair to say that the Victorian appetite was for sentimentality and melodrama: lovely weak pillow slips of women, their savage brutes of husbands, and manly industrious protagonists who loved in troth the pillow slips from whom they were estranged by circumstance. Interesting what you say, LT, about readers deliberately (inadvertantly?) not reading the satirical aspects of writers they wanted to fit to the melodrama/romance convention. I guess you're thinking of nineteenth-century Austren reception. Maybe it's so in her case (I wouldn't know). Certainly, where Blake can be read into conformity with Victorian popular genres, in his Songs of Innocence, for instance, he is. Every commentator for a century is convinced that the poetic voice in those poems is like the breath of a child fluttering against an angel's wing (or some such maudlin gumph). They can't do the same thing with his Prophetic Books, which resist translation into popular modes at every turn. They're, for the most part, until Yeats, rejected as unworkable.

alexis said...

Mitzi G., are we talking caramelised onion tart here? Are we? 'Cause if we are, I'm there.

Miss Eagle said...

I don't know enough about Blake but wish that I did. Is it possible that he was just a man of deep spiritual insight? (I'm sorry that this is a serious question but, dear LH, you are clearly someone who knows more than I) I think too of the British artist, Stanley Spence: painter of spiritual paintings but also with an unorthodox sexual set-up. I don't have difficulty comprehending deep spirituality with expressed sensuality. I think I would only have difficulty if the sex bit was exploitative in any way. I think deep spirituality and great sensuality can come from the same well-spring of love and passion. Wotcha reckon?

Blessings and bliss

Miss Eagle said...

I don't know enough about Blake but wish that I did. Is it possible that he was just a man of deep spiritual insight? (I'm sorry that this is a serious question but, dear LH, you are clearly someone who knows more than I) I think too of the British artist, Stanley Spence: painter of spiritual paintings but also with an unorthodox sexual set-up. I don't have difficulty comprehending deep spirituality with expressed sensuality. I think I would only have difficulty if the sex bit was exploitative in any way. I think deep spirituality and great sensuality can come from the same well-spring of love and passion. Wotcha reckon?

Blessings and bliss

Mitzi G Burger said...

Miss Eagle, you're welcome to fly over to my eyrie anytime for further discussions on that wonderful wellspring from whence sensuality and spirituality both leap. Nothing half so holy, if you ask me, as an unorthodox sexual set-up.
Lexington, this very week I have worked out how to roll a fail-proof tart pastry and I've been trying it out for desserts, but I'm dead keen of caramelising spanish onion for a savoury version. Bon ap, as we say in Francophile Waterloo.

Ruskin Caravan Tea said...

It just so happens that I own a copy of The Eagle's Nest and it is indeed indexed. He quotes the "Doth the eagle know" passage from The Book of Thel. The Blake/Ruskin connection isn't one I've thought of investigating before, but I can't believe there isn't more. Haven't got access to Cook and Wedderburn right now, but I can have a look at it on Friday (gosh, that's tomorrow!) and photocopy anything relevant, if La Trobe is without a copy (shame!). There's a lovely story about a young Ruskin wanting to buy some Blake and being unable to because he'd just blown a lot of money on Turner and he was afraid of what his father might say (I can give you references in the letters for that). When you see Blakes in the "flesh" and Turner watercolours in the "flesh", I think you can understand why they might dovetail in R's mind, in a funny sort of way.

I absolutely love Thackeray, whom I consider to be one of the finest satirists of all time. I have that book too, although I know he's not representative. Still, I think I'd probably incline midway between you, as far as Victorian sentimentality/Augustan satire goes, possibly leaning more towards Tim's view. Ruskin's famous "pathetic fallacy" piece (Modern Painters), although Blake isn't mentioned, is very interesting on this score for the way he talks about Pope as opposed to the way he talks about Wordsworth (Pope is an instance of the really overwrought p.f, whereas WW deploys it adeptly and captures a certain emotional truth. Maybe it might be useful in your headnotes if you want to make an overarching argument about this).
Most of the stuff around this Romantic influence/reception in the Victorian period theme tends to go down the Wordsworth/Shelley line. Haven't come across nearly so much on Blake in this respect, which means you've got a good niche. Anne Janowitz's Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition is fantastic for the communitarian/chartist/socialist angle, which has been quite big in a lot of recent stuff. I can't remember if she talks about Blake at all and, of course, Google Books cuts out the index at that point.

Lachlan said...

Talk of "spanish onion" brings to mind the song by Phil "not guilty" Spector: "There is a rose in spanish Harlem". Or does it?

alexis said...

Blurk! Fell off the blog there for a few days. Sorry, chaps.

Dear Ruskinite, thank you so much for your considered comment and your offer to do my research for me! I won't take you up on the offer (esp. as Friday has been and gone, and what my library lacks, it's good at ordering in), but you've been super helpful. I'm pretty certain that Ruskin was involved in the 1860s Blake revival, but mostly by association. D.G. & Wm Rossetti and Swinburne and Alexander Gilchrist were the main players, so you could imagine how the associations would work.

alexis said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Miss E; they be always well worth the reading. Yes, certainly possible that Blake was a person of deep spiritual insight - and I think very interested, himself, in the relationship between spirit and sex. He produced a shocking illustration of a man's soul leaving his body, where the soul and the body were both portrayed as bodies, both engraved in equally firm lines. I think his depictions of the carnality of spiritual things generally caused a lot of disquiet.

As to what I think about sex and spirituality, ideas are too unformed (and the topic's too important) for me to say here. (Just deleted a long paragraph, which I realised badly represented what I think.)