Blake and the Bible

Blake and the Bible

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Blake and the Bible
    Book Description:

    The Bible was crucial for William Blake and for his poetic genius, whether as an object of criticism or as an inspiration. This book-the first substantial study of the topic in sixty years-locates Blake within the broad spectrum of Christian biblical interpretation and explores the ways in which Blake engaged with the Bible. Christopher Rowland argues that Blake's approach to the Bible was broadly consistent, even though he underwent something of a religious change in his later years. The author also shows how Blake saw himself as being in the prophetic tradition and also as somehow continuing the work of John of Patmos, author of the Book of Revelation.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16838-9
    Subjects: Art & Art History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of illustrations
    (pp. ix-ix)
  4. List of plates
    (pp. x-xi)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xii-xiii)
    Christopher Rowland
  6. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xiv-xv)
  7. Chronology of William Blake’s life with important works mentioned in this book
    (pp. xvi-xviii)
  8. Editorial note and abbreviations
    (pp. xix-xx)
  9. 1 The Old and New Testaments are ‘the Great Code of Art’
    (pp. 1-12)

    Blake was a brilliant biblical interpreter – eccentric, perhaps, but one of Britain’s most insightful exegetes. Engagement with his work reshapes the way in which one reads the Bible, views and experiences the world, and for that matter, God. He grasped the Bible’s underlying patterns and themes and reproduced them in different ways in images, poetry, prose and illuminated books. His purpose was not an aesthetic act, narrowly conceived. For him the text was a means to an end: to bring about the conversion of minds, hearts and lives to a life of ‘forgiveness of sins’ and the abjuration of...

  10. 2 ‘Thus did Job continually’: The biblical hermeneutics of Blake’s Job engravings: Part I
    (pp. 13-42)

    In the sequence of engravings on the Book of Job Blake’s artistic creativity is brought to bear on a biblical book in its entirety. It is a remarkable work of art, with centrally placed scenes framed by biblical commentary in the form of texts, in large part from the Book of Job but from other parts of the Bible as well. Blake combines the work of the biblical commentator, who uses texts from other parts of the Bible to illuminate the passage under consideration,¹ with the juxtaposition of image and words that is such a distinctive part of his art...

  11. 3 ‘But now my eye seeth thee’: The biblical hermeneutics of Blake’s Job engravings: Part II
    (pp. 43-72)

    This extraordinary image sees the natural and supernatural worlds coincide in a gruesome image of torment. Job lies on his bed and wards off a horrific figure. It has the head of an old man, with hair on end in the shape of a star, cloven hooves, and legs intertwined with a large snake. The appearance of the apparition is a complex mix of images (the cloven hooves and the transcendent, patriarchal divinity). ‘God’ seems both ‘a Satan and a Saviour’ (Lindberg 1973: 204). Both hands of the strange figure are outstretched, the right pointing to the tablets of stone,...

  12. 4 Exploring the contraries in divinity
    (pp. 73-85)

    In the ‘Job’ sequence we have seen the complex way in which God, Satan, Christ and the enthroned divinity as the Ancient of Days, or Angel of the Divine Presence, oscillate with each other in the drama that unfolds in Job’s story of redemption. Multiplicity in divinity is key to Blake’s mythology. Despite Blake’s protestations that he is opposed to ‘Bibles and sacred codes’ because they teach a dualistic understanding of humanity and divinity (MHH4; E34), he was, as Morton Paley notes, ‘a monist who found his mythology entrapping him in a dualistic position’ (Paley 1973a: 123; 1994: 10). This...

  13. 5 Blake and ‘The Bible of Hell’: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The First Book of Urizen and drawings for the Book of Enoch
    (pp. 86-119)

    In this chapter we shall consider three of Blake’s works, two early and one probably late. In them we find themes similar to those in theJobengravings: the challenge to the religion of the book, divine transcendence, divine punishment in judgement, and the overriding authority of the Bible. In the illuminated books,The Marriage of Heaven and HellandThe First Book of Urizen, Blake questions the received wisdom of Christian orthodoxy concerning the authoritative status of the Bible and demonstrates its negative effects. In the Enoch sketches he resorts to a book which makes only a fleetingly explicit...

  14. 6 ‘Would to God that all the Lords people were prophets’
    (pp. 120-156)

    In these famous stanzas from his Preface toMilton(extant in Copies A and B, E95–6) Blake summons people to be prophets, not expecting them thereby to predict the future but rather to engage in mental struggle to discern the inadequacies of the present and conceive the way to a more hopeful future. The poem is simple in its structure. The first two stanzas set out the problem by asking a series of questions which demand the answer ‘no’. This way of construing these lines thus rests heavily on the question marks at the end of lines 2 and...

  15. 7 William Blake and the radical interpretation of the Bible: Gerrard Winstanley, Abiezer Coppe, Ralph Cudworth, and Hans Denck
    (pp. 157-180)

    Radicalism has always been part of the rich fabric of Christianity. Throughout Christian history, there have been writings which have offered searching critiques of the political order, have promoted change, and, most important of all, advocated active engagement for change rather than merely writing about it. Whatever else one means by ‘radical’ (Bradstock and Rowland 2002; Rix 2007), there is an appeal to the roots, and a critique of a religion which places institutions and rituals above the needs of people (echoing Matthew 5:23–4). Other key characteristics of Christian radicalism would include the inspiration of the Spirit in discerning...

  16. 8 ‘From impulse not from rules’: Blake and Jesus
    (pp. 181-199)

    In his watercolour interpreting John 8:1–11 (1805; Boston Museum of Fine Art, B486), we see Blake capturing the moment in verses 7–8 when Jesus says ‘he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her’, and stoops to the ground for the second time. The woman’s hands are tied. She has her left breast bare and her hair is dishevelled. The accusers retreat (the feet of one of the accusers can be seen as he turns away), and Jesus is left alone with the woman. It is an intensely personal encounter. Indeed, it...

  17. 9 Antinomianism, atonement and life in the Divine Body: Blake and Paul
    (pp. 200-216)

    The impact of the Pauline corpus in the New Testament on Blake’s thought has been a recurring theme in this book. We have seen Blake’s deep-seated antipathy to a religion of law and moral virtues. He is part of a long tradition of ambivalence about assent to a written code and the preference for the indwelling Spirit as a source of theological insight. We saw in the first of theJobengravings that Blake quoted two verses from Paul’s letters (2 Cor 3:6 and 1 Cor 2:14) in a central place in his initial image. Blake’s antipathy to devotion to...

  18. 10 Interpreting the Bible through images
    (pp. 217-232)

    ‘[The Bible] had always provided the thread of meaning behind [Blake’s] visual imagery’, wrote David Bindman of Blake’s last artistic work (Bindman 1977: 220). From 1799 to 1805 Blake painted two series of biblical subjects for Thomas Butts, a great supporter and friend (Bindman 1977: 115–31), one set of tempera and one of watercolour. They are a remarkable collection of comments on the Bible through the medium of image rather than text.

    The following chapter falls into two parts, pictures illustrating biblical passages relating to the life and death of Jesus in the first, and then interpretations of passages...

  19. 11 Blake and biblical interpretation: Some Concluding Reflections
    (pp. 233-242)

    InThe Marriage of Heaven and HellBlake wrote ‘All Bibles or sacred Codes have been the causes of … errors’ (Plate 3, E34). For Blake, ‘every thing that lives is Holy’ (MHH Plate 27, E45). So, he challenges the way in which we divide human and divine, body and soul, the sacred and the secular into mutually exclusive opposites, rather than allowing ‘contraries’ to exist alongside each other in creative tension. This is a key issue for him: ‘without Contraries is no progression’ (MHH Plate 3, E34). Blake saw the Bible being used as a text to police people...

  20. Appendix I Extract from William Blake’s Notebook, ‘The Everlasting Gospel’
    (pp. 243-245)
  21. Appendix II The Design of The Last Judgment
    (pp. 246-248)
  22. Notes
    (pp. 249-259)
  23. Bibliography
    (pp. 260-272)
  24. Index of Blake’s texts and illuminated books
    (pp. 273-275)
  25. Index of references to Blake’s images
    (pp. 276-277)
  26. Index of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and other Jewish texts
    (pp. 278-281)
  27. Index of New Testament and other early Christian texts
    (pp. 282-285)
  28. Index of names and subjects
    (pp. 286-290)