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ICR 2016 Panel: These Dark Satanic Mills. Reviewed by Christopher Stampone

Wednesday, March 29, 2017 - 21:42

International Conference on Romanticism
Colorado Springs 2016
Panel: "These Dark Satanic Mills"

  • Moderator: Mark Lussier (Arizona State University)
  • Thora Brylowe (University of Colorado, Boulder), “Ode on a Not-So-Grecian Urn: Blake’s Portland Vase and the Work of Engraving”
  • Jennifer Davis Michael (Sewanee, University of the South), “Voices of the Ground: Silence and Articulation in Gray, Wordsworth, and Blake”
  • Jacob Henry Leveton (Northwestern University), “Going Dark: Blake’s Abstract Color Fields and the Pitt Surveillance State”

“’The True Method of Knowledge Is Experiment’: Dark Blake Panel Plums the Depths of Blake’s Works”
by Christopher Stampone (Southern Methodist University)

Many interesting and—as the “These Dark Satanic Mills” panel showed—potentially subversive intricacies in William Blake’s work are so dense that they might elude even the most careful scholar. Each member of the panel shed much-needed light on areas of Blake’s work that for too long have remained in the shadows: Thora Brylowe (@thorapittsburgh) illustrated the complicated history of the Portland Vase and Blake’s illustration of it for Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden; Jennifer Davis Michael discussed the function of silence in Romantic poetry by putting the works of Blake, Thomas Gray, and William Wordsworth in conversation with one another; and Jacob Leveton (@JacobHLeveton) teased out the incendiary implications of Blake’s work by comparing Blake’s statements about legibility to abstract relief etchings found in works such as The Book of Urizen. As a whole, the panel foregrounded Blake by focusing on the literal and metaphorical silences that shape his oeuvre—a move that paradoxically exhorts scholars to locate deep meanings in Blake’s minutia.

Brylowe offered a two-pronged argument for analyzing Blake’s illustration of the Portland Vase for Darwin: she contended that Blake never saw the vase but rather copied heavily from Francesco Bartolozzi’s rendering of it, and that the fig leaves that Blake added to phalluses in his otherwise copied illustration spoke to contemporary British publishers’ growing desire to make Greek and Roman antiquity “more palatable” to consumers. The Portland Vase first occupied the British cultural imaginary when Sir William Hamilton attained it in the 1780s, at which time it became a national treasure. Darwin originally wanted his publisher Joseph Johnson to secure an engraving from Hamilton himself, but Johnson eventually turned to Blake for a copy of the vase for Botanic Garden. Blake produced the image found in Darwin’s work despite having never seen the actual vase. Brylowe stated that Blake’s copied vase is surprising because it requires scholars to contemplate Blake’s position as an artist: “We expect Blake to be professional in all aspects of his life,” and we generally do not see him as an artist who would make a copy for Charles Darwin’s grandfather. Brylowe added that Blake’s illustration is even more surprising because it adds fig leaves to phalluses that do not appear in Bartolozzi’s rendition; she suggested that Johnson was responsible for Blake adding the fig leaves, noting that Johnson likely worried about “decency.” By introducing fig leaves in a “copy” of a piece of Roman antiquity, British artists and publishers “domesticated a continental other, [making the] imperial past consumable for readers.”

Rather than look to images to find unspoken meanings, Michael turned to the “space around the poem”—that is, what is “on the page and in the ear.” Michael paid special attention to silence at it appears and operates in Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Wordsworth’s The Excursion, and William Blake’s The Book of Thel. Gray’s poem received the most attention as Michael focused on “sound and [its] negation” in the poem. She noted, for instance, that the poem opens with a “solemn stillness” broken by a beetle and an owl. For Michael, the relative stillness suggests a “fellowship of solitude” often found in the works of Wordsworth. This fellowship reaches a paradox as people lying in individual graves “teach the living with silences.” Michael then located echoes to Gray’s poem in Wordsworth’s The Excursion; in Wordsworth’s case, the “companionship of books compensates for the loss of hearing.” The concept of silence and loss translates to Blake’s The Book of Thel. In it, Thel is silent three times and encounters “inanimate interlocutors.” Michael noted the seeming irony of Thel’s process of maturation because Thel experiences an “awakening until she gets to her own grave plot,” where silence will reign: “silence gathers all human beings to itself.”

Leveton concluded the panel by discussing Blake’s more abstract relief etchings in light of William Pitt’s creation of the modern surveillance state. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Pitt was prosecuting “two theatres”—France and the small radical societies in England. With government surveillance casting its panoptic gaze on all aspects of British life, artists had to be careful lest they roused the interest of Pitt’s paranoiac government. “To be visible,” observed Leveton, was to be subject to “authority.” Leveton noted Johnson’s decision to halt publication of Blake’s epic, The French Revolution, as evidence of citizens’ fear of retribution by the state for perceived pro-revolutionary sentiment. Refusing to be silenced by the state, Blake continued making subversive statements through his relief etchings. Leveton contended that the etchings found in The Book of Urizen are especially incendiary. In his statements on art, Blake often eschews abstraction and non-linearity in favor of linearity and verisimilitude—yet Urizen presents images of abstraction and indecipherability that challenge legibility and, thus, authority. Leveton focused specifically on the relief etching that illustrates the Ten Commandments—an image that literally renders language as colorful abstractions. Leveton argued that, with this relief etching, Blake “resists rationalized attempts at control”: “We expect comprehensible meaning,” but what Blake shares instead is “just gibberish.” Chaos, rather than order, arises from Blake’s depiction of the Ten Commandments. Blake carefully crafted an artistic language “outside Pitt’s surveillance state,” and abstractions affirmed “the power of the artist.”

Each panelist opened an exciting avenue in Blake scholarship worthy of further exploration. Are all of Blake’s relief etchings constructed with an eye to “decency”? Did Blake—under Johnson’s guidance—develop a sense of artistic decorum? Do instances in which “private” anatomy are visible in relief etchings work toward subversive ends, as described by Leveton? How do the silence that seem to speak in poems such as “We Are Seven” and “Surprised by Joy” accentuate—or complicate—matters of sublimity and aurality? Each presentation raised its own set of good questions. As a whole, the panel demonstrated the value of looking into the literal and metaphorical margins of Blake’s poems—and Romantic works more generally—to locate otherwise hidden meanings.