By Nelson Hilton
I suggest that William Blake was an initial reader of William Wordsworth’s first published book of poetry, An Evening Walk (1793 – published jointly with his Descriptive Sketches), as evidenced by apparent reference to that work’s most memorable passage in the graphic designs for one of the Songs of Experience, a text which (if this allusion holds) may be read as Blake’s severe judgement on his younger contemporary.
1793 seems to have been the high point of Blake’s involvement with the radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson had commissioned Blake to illustrate the second edition of his protégé Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life, and Blake’s engravings are dated September 1791, the same year that saw Johnson publish – or at least set in proof one copy of – Blake’s The French Revolution. Blake’s VISIONS of the Daughters of Albion, dated 1793 and evidently published after April of that year and before his October prospectus which includes it, appears to make reference to Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published by Johnson in December 1792 (dated 1793), and to Johnson’s long-time friend, the artist Henry Fuseli (see Hilton). Most tellingly, Blake’s emblem book, For Children: The Gates of Paradise, the plates of which are dated 17 May 1793, has on its title page “Published by W Blake No. 13 / Hercules Buildings Lambeth / and / J. Johnson St. Pauls Church Yard.”
Blake thus seems to have been well positioned to have information about Johnson’s new author, William Wordsworth, and his two volumes which Johnson published on 29 January 1793, one of which was, in its full title, An Evening Walk. An Epistle in Verse. Addressed to a Young Lady, from the Lakes of the North of England (EW). The loco-description of its 446 lines are summarized by its “Argument”: “General Sketch of the Lakes – Author’s Regret of his Young passed amongst them – Short Description of Noon – Cascade Scene – Noon-tide Retreat – Precipice and Sloping Lights – Face of Nature as the Sun declines – Mountain Farm, and the Cock – Slate Quarry – Sunset – Superstition of the Country, connected with that Moment – Swans – Female Beggar – Twilight Objects – Twilight Sounds – Western Lights – Spirits – Night – Moonlight – Hope – Night Sounds – Conclusion.” (emphasis added)
Perhaps the most striking turn in the poem is the description of the “Female Beggar,” where the descriptive couplets swerve unexpectedly at line 241 from the swans of Winandermere into sixty lines which tell the story of a widowed “wretch” who “Hath dragg’d her babes along this weary way” (244). “I see her now,” reports the speaker, who also “hear[s]” the griefs of the two sons and comments of the elder son’s hope that his dead father sees the same star:
– Ah me! All light is mute amid the gloom
The interlunar cavern of the tomb. (267-68)
The allusion to Milton’s description of the moon, in Samson Agonistes, “Hid in her vacant interlunar cave” (l. 89), must have alerted Blake to a poetic contender.
To amuse her children, the poor woman has taught them to play with glow-worms, “while on the ground / Small circle of green radiance gleam around” (277-78). The expression “green radiance” was used by Coleridge two years later, in his “Lines Written at Shurton Bars, near Bridgewater, September 1795,” to which he added the note in 1796, “The expression ‘green radiance’ is borrowed from Mr. Wordsworth, a Poet whose versification is occasionally harsh and his diction frequently obscure; but whom I deem unrivalled among the writers of the present day in manly sentiment, novel imagery, and vivid colouring” (EW, p. 64, n.). But winter comes, and “No more” can the mother’s breath thaw her children’s “fingers cold, /Their frozen arms her neck no more can fold” (281-82). She “wilders o’er the lightless heath” (285), but even in the midst of a maternal embrace Death intervenes to the narrator’s comment: “Press the sad kiss, fond mother!” (295). “Soon,” he concludes, “shall the Light’ning hold before thy head / His torch, and shew them slumbering in their bed,” that is to say, “Thy breast their death-bed, coffin’d in thine arms” (300). So ends the interlude, and we transition with breath-taking abruptness to “Sweet are the sounds that mingle from afar / Heard by the calm lakes” (301-2). The pathetic story of the beggar woman was noted in contemporary reviews (in Woof, ed.), as The Critical Review for July 1793 (8, 347-8) remarked that “The beggar, whose babes are starved to death with cold, is affecting …” (unsigned), and the European Magazine, September 1793 (24, 192-3), writes that “His description of the fate of the Beggar and her Children is very pathetically delineated …” (unsigned). “Peregrinator” in Gentleman’s Magazine, March 1794 (64, 252-3) resists temptation to transcribe “the tale of the beggar.”
Blake’s address “TO THE PUBLIC” indicates that Songs of Innocence and Of Experience was available, with other of his works, as of the “October 10, 1793” date of that prospectus. The most recent judgment, based on interpretation of manuscript drafts in Blake’s Notebook, is that “many of the poems were not only revised but also written through the winter of 1792 and into the spring and early summer of 1793” (Phillips, 47). The text for the Songs of Experience “HOLY THURSDAY” – without the title – appears in the Notebook, and another page of the Notebook offers a rough sketch for the design of a distressed woman and prone child that occupies almost the top third of “HOLY THURSDAY.” That sketch and its commentary begins to take us into the curious disparity between the designs and the text of “HOLY THURSDAY.”
Michael Phillips, for instance, argues that:
The catalyst for the bitter irony of Blake’s railing satire [in ‘HOLY THURSDAY’] may have been the discovery of a child found dead recorded in the Lambeth parish accounts for 25 February 1793:
26. Paid Advertisement of a Child unknown found dead – 4 –
And two days later:
28. Paid 3 Advertisements after the Inquest offering a Reward – } – 13 636
The ledger makes clear that on four occasions advertisements were placed where they would be seen by the residents of Lambeth, on three of these occasions, as noted in the entry for 28 February, offering a reward for the child found dead and abandoned. The scene of discovery, as well as the probable circumstances that brought it about, of a mother forced to abandon her children, is depicted on Blake’s plate. The woman shocked to see a dead child at her feet is taken from the drawing at the centre top [of the Notebook, p. 74].
Yet one of the most striking aspects of the design as finally used in the Songs of Experience “HOLY THURSDAY” is that the setting seems as far from Lambeth or any other chartered streets as one could imagine. Commentators all recognize the “body of water” or “strip of water” and the variously characterized backdrop mountains which in sum suggest nothing so much as the “Lakes of the North of England.”
The design in the middle of the right margin offers the strongest suggestion that Blake is invoking Wordsworth’s tale of the “beggar woman” and her children. David Erdman describes the scene as “a weeping woman and two children, a boy hiding his eyes, a girl clinging to her” (p. 75), while Andrew Lincoln, writing of copy W, sees “a boy in blue stands, head in hands, near a woman in pink who kneels in an attitude of despair. Above this group the sky darkens” (p, 177). The editors of the Blake Archive describe the “scene of misery” as “A gowned(?) female, presumably the mother, is seated with at least one leg drawn up as she holds in her lap a child who clings to her neck. A second child stands facing them at the left, his head down in his visible hand” (copy C). I see this design as the central or core illustration and the enveloping scene of the “lake district” at the top and that below of a fallen, cruciform child as follow-up panels showing the fates of the two children.
The question of why Blake would choose to make such an allusion to Wordsworth’s Evening Walk is bound up with our interpretation of the text of “HOLY THURSDAY.” I agree with those commentators who see the poem, like many in the Songs, as a kind of dramatic monologue whose pre-eminent subject is the nature of the speaker. So, for D.G. Gillham, the poem
is full of moral anxieties and accusations discussed on a religious and social level: ‘Is this a holy thing to see …?’ and can this be a ‘rich and fruitful land …?’ In spite of this preoccupation, the involvement of the speaker is with his own revulsions and criticisms and not with the charity children, with real poverty, or with responsible pity. His seizing the occasion, as he would seize any similar occasion to preach a sermon, shows that he substitutes skill in moral questions for a sense of what, morally, might be required of him. …. The speaker … uses his generalization to evade a knowledge of his duty, not to define it, and he breaks into a rambling condemnation. (Pp. 196-97)
Heather Glen notes that “Blake’s speaker offers no detailed discussion of the reasons for protest” and that the poem’s “short staccato lines with their uncertain pattern of stress convey neither a sense of actuality nor of the possibility of transforming it” (p. 171). “Blake,” she writes, “exposes the inherent fatalism of that ‘experience’ whose ‘method’ is judgment and disillusion. And he exposes it not through the voice of an apologist for the status quo, but through the voice of that demystificatory protest … whose ironic refusal of polite definitions was in some ways like his own” (p. 173). And Harriet Kramer Linkin finds that, “Caught up in his own rhetoric,” the speaker of “HOLY THURSDAY” “only expresses a generalized anger that removes the potential for action” (6).
I surmise that Blake, coming upon Wordsworth’s “very pathetically delineated” story in the winter of 1793, immediately recognized the voice of a liberal sentimentalist such as he had created for Songs of Experience in “HOLY THURSDAY” and so drew upon Wordsworth’s image to “illustrate” the bad faith his poem dramatizes.
Erdman, David ed. The Illuminated Blake: William Blake’s Complete Illuminated Works with a Plate-by-Plate Commentary. 1974. rep. Mineola: Dover, 1992.
Gillam, D. G. Blake’s Contrary States: The Songs of Innocence and of Experience as Dramatic Poems. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966.
Glen, Heather. Vision and Disenchantment: Blake’s Songs and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.
Hilton, Nelson. “An Original Story.” Unnam’d Forms: Blake and Textuality. Ed. Nelson Hilton and Thomas A. Vogler. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.
Lincoln, Andrew, ed. William Blake: Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake’s Illuminated Books. Vol. 2. London and Princeton: The William Blake Trust and Princeton UP, 1991.
Linkin, Harriet Kramer. “The Language of Speakers in Songs of Innocence and Of Experience.” Romanticism Past and Present. 10.2 (1986): 5-24.
Phillips, Michael. William Blake: The Creation of the Songs: From Manuscript to Illuminated Printing. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.
Woof, Robert, ed. William Wordsworth: The Critical Heritage Vol. 1, 1793-1820. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.
Wordsworth, William. “An Evening Walk.” The Cornell Wordsworth. Ed. James Averill. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1984.