Escaping doubt and despair

Blake’s words about Manchester have been haunting me recently. With those wonderful days in the print room of the Yale Center for British Art seeming to be a distant memory and the conference I was organising that provided a temporary distraction over and done with, I am now faced with eight months to finish my thesis (‘less than one pregnancy’ as a friend of mine has pointed out). This time will largely be spent revising the chapters I’ve been writing over the past two years or so, and I’m also trying to make mental head space to think about the next project in order to apply for jobs. So my version of the January blues has been an identification with Manchester and Liverpool’s ‘tortures of doubt and despair.’

What I needed was something to reinvigorate me; to remind me that once upon a time I was excited to be starting my research project, and something to spark ideas to spur me on in the coming months. The conference held to coincide with the Ashmolean’s exhibition ‘William Blake: Apprentice and Master’ on Saturday was just the thing.

The day began with Martin Myrone of the Tate speaking about Blake and the Gothic. He richly illustrated that ‘Gothic’ is a complex, even messy term, which applies to Blake’s works from a number of angles, beginning and ending with reflections on the image from The First Book of Urizen which is the poster-boy for the exhibition (and on the Tate’s separate print of the plate).

Next up was a panel on satire, with David Worrall arguing that Blake’s satirical manuscript An Island in the Moon is an experiment in writing for the theatre, and Susan Matthews exploring the fascinating Copy D of Europe and its annotations, thought to be by George Cumberland (noting that we have had a stark reminder of the resonance of ‘satire’ and ‘Europe’ in recent weeks).

After lunch was a panel on some of Blake’s interactions with literary texts. Michael Phillips (curator of the exhibition) presenting Shakespearean aspects of Blake, and Luisa Cale (who organised the conference) on Blake’s engagement with the subject of the Lazar house from Paradise Lost. The highlight for me here was Bethan Stevens’ paper on Blake’s illustrations to Thornton’s Virgil which wonderfully illustrated the need to attend to the text Blake is illustrating here, which has been virtually overlooked in scholarship on these designs, which has focused primarily on the oddity of these woodcuts within Blake’s oeuvre and the influence of the designs on the so-called [see below] ‘Ancients’. So a trip to see the copy at the John Rylands Library is on the cards for me.

After everyone had had a quick caffeine boost, Andrew Lincoln discussed a passage from The Four Zoas in which Blake uses violent imagery of harvest in a vision of the Last Judgement; I’ve recently been thinking about several images by Blake which use related imagery, so the paper highlighted to me some interesting parallels and differences in this passage which I haven’t really given any thought to until now (albeit later than the images I’ve been looking at). We then heard from Nicholas Shrimpton, speaking about Francis Oliver Finch, a lesser-known member of the so-called ‘Ancients’; ‘so-called’ because, as Shrimpton demonstrated, this term was probably only given to the group retrospectively.

Finally, Saree Makdisi (in a glimpse of his forthcoming book Reading William Blake) spoke about ‘Blake, Time and Eternity’ arguing that Blake’s works seek to displace the reader-viewer’s perception of linear time through their constantly shifting, non-linear, overlapping, looping (non-)narratives and as such take the reader-viewer into the state of eternity. Not only was this a compelling reading of the problematic nature of Blake’s books, but, to extrapolate from Makdisi’s argument, also the kind of repetitions, parallels and disjunctures that had emerged in the various perspectives on Blake presented throughout the day. As in a particular Blake book, so with the universal Blake – the difficulty with reading the complex web of interconnections between his works should be viewed sub specie aeternitatis.

With that tall order — and numerous ‘minute particulars’ to chase up — I came away feeling altogether more positive about the prospect of the next eight months of Blake.

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