Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Remembering William Blake (1757-1827)

Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell, c 1790-93. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Bridgman Art Library.

William Blake, who died on August 12 in 1827, was one of English literature’s most eccentric poets. Even the word “poet” doesn’t fit him very well, since he was also a painter, an engraver, and a printer, and many of his works were really multimedia productions, with words, images, and designs all working together to one aesthetic effect. Blake was also a radical in politics and religion, resisting hierarchy, authority, and inequality wherever he perceived it, in the State, the Church, or the Book of Genesis. Blake was a religious poet who strove to overturn traditional religion, a biblical writer who rewrote the Bible. The God of Genesis, for Blake, was an authoritarian tyrant, and Satan’s rebellion against him was not sinful but heroic. For Blake, who considered himself a Christian, Christianity was about forgiveness, not morality. And forgiveness did not depend upon God or the Church but was to be exercised by everyone. True divinity was within every individual.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a page of which is shown here, is an early work (c.1790-93) that shows how deeply Blake was indebted to both the ideas of the Bible and the language of the King James Bible translation. In this section, “Proverbs of Hell,” Blake imitates the style and diction of the Old Testament Proverbs, but resists biblical ideas of wisdom and morality; Blake’s “Hell” is really his view of Heaven, an inversion of the traditional Christian one. Thus, for Blake, “The nakedness of woman is the work of God,” and “Prison are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.” However radical his ideas, Blake’s parallelistic rhetoric is traditionally biblical. Also like the biblical Proverbs, Blake’s are sometimes gnomic or riddling, suggesting mysteries that need puzzling out: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.”

Blake’s use of what today we would call prose poetry, borrowed from the lines of Isaiah and Jeremiah in the King James Bible, influenced the similar styles (if different thinking) of later American poets Walt Whitman and Alan Ginsberg. In fact, Blake’s reputation as poet and artist is considerably higher in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than it was in his own day, perhaps partly because his rare, hand-printed and -colored works can now be widely reproduced.

Read more about the influence of the King James Bible on a variety of literary works in the Literary Influences timeline on the Manifold Greatness website.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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