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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

IX. Blake

§ 7. The later Lambeth books

A brief examination of the Lambeth books will show how the freight of ideas gradually broke down the frail semblance of form with which they started. The first, the recently rediscovered French Revolution (1791), is in almost regular fourteeners, and its style, though distorted and over-emphatic, is comparatively intelligible. Only the first of seven books appears to have been printed; it opens the series of what may be called visionary histories, and embodies Blake’s interpretation of events in Paris and Versailles between 5 May and 16 July, 1789, though it does not describe the actual attack upon the Bastille (14 July). Its literary interest is slight: what is, perhaps, the most striking passage describes the various towers and the prisoners in the famous fortress, when premonitions of its impending fate are in the air. Otherwise, the work is only of value for its indications of ideas developed later. For Blake, the stand made by the tiers état marks the first step towards universal emancipation from the thraldom of authority. Yet, his portrayal of Louis XVI has none of his later violence towards kings, for the French monarch is seen as one overborne by circumstances and the influence of his nobles. But, Blake’s lifelong feud against priestcraft utters itself in an attack upon clericalism in the person of the archbishop of Paris.

The French Revolution was printed by Johnson, and it may have been about this time that Blake became one of the circle—of which Paine, Godwin, Holcroft and Mary Wollstonecraft were also members—that used to meet at the publisher’s table. It is, therefore, natural to conclude that this society, to a considerable extent, was responsible for the extreme revolutionary spirit of the Lambeth books, and it is likely that those which deal with the rebellions in France and America may have owed something, in the way of suggestion or information, to Paine. The French Revolution was followed by A Song of Liberty and America (1793). The former, being, substantially a précis of the latter, is remarkable only because of its form, being cast into short numbered paragraphs like the verses in the Bible. But America, one of the most beautifully engraved of these books, marks a considerable advance in the use of symbolism. Here, the conflict between England and her colonies is interpreted as presaging the imminent annihilation of authority and the re-establishment of the Blakean ideal of a condition of complete licence. On the side of law stands Urizen, the aged source of all restrictive codes; his ministers are the king, councillors and priests of England. On the opposite side stands Orc, the fiery daemon of living passion and desire, the archrebel, “Antichrist, hater of Dignities, Lover of wild rebellion and transgressor of God’s Law,” and, therefore, the liberator of man from the power of law: he inspires the colonial leaders, Washington and the rest. But Blake handles history much more freely here than in The French Revolution, for the fact that he wrote after the successful issue of the revolt made it possible for him to claim it as a vindication of his own anarchic theory. Ever after, in his symbolism, the western quarter, either America or the sunken continent of Atlantis, stands for the visionary ideal of perfect liberty, from which fallen man, in Europe and Asia, is cut off by the floods of moral fallacies, the “Atlantic deep.” This concept appears in Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), which, in its vigorous enthusiasm and comparative buoyancy, most nearly resembles America. Like that work, too, it is easily intelligible, but deals with the physical and moral, rather than with the political, tyranny of legal codes. The myth tells how the virgin Oothoon, “the soft soul of America,” the spirit of delight, plucks the flower of instant and complete gratification of desire; further, she is ravished by a violent daemon, Bromion. On both these accounts, she is condemned and mourned over by the spirit of prudential morality, and the major part of the book is a vehement vindication of physical appetite. The whole argument, of course, is very unreal; yet the force of Blake’s conviction gives his statement of the case a certain vitality, and keeps it unfalteringly above the low places of thought.