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Wrong Train, Right Station

Sean Sheehan

William Blake: the Drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, by Maria Antonietta Terzoli and Sebastian Schütze, Taschen, 324 pp, £99.99, ISBN: 978-3836555128
William Blake’s Illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Study of the Engravings, Pencil Sketches and Watercolors, by Eric Pyle, McFarland, 277 pp, £51, ISBN: 978-0786494880
The Divine Comedy, translated by JG Nichols, Alma Classics, 600 pp, £15, ISBN: 978-1847492463
Reading Dante, by Giuseppe Mazzotta, Yale University Press, 288 pp, £17, ISBN: 978-1631490064
Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, by Prue Shaw, 352pp, £10, ISBN: 978-1631490064

On the face of things it seems unlikely that a free-thinking radical like William Blake – a libertarian socialist in today’s nomenclature – would be so attracted to the work of a medieval Catholic as to learn Italian so that he could read it in the original. One clue to this puzzle may be found in the starkly dramatic manner in which Dante’s metaphysical and psychological preoccupations, though presented in theological wrapping paper, emerge in poetic form. Take the inaugural moment of the Divine Comedy and the narrator’s plight: it is nightfall in a supernaturally charged forest, in what medievalists call the land of dissimilitude:

Halfway along our journey to life’s end
I found myself astray in a dark wood,
Since the right way was nowhere to be found.

Any reader with an iota of anxiety about where they are going with their life is drawn into the situation that Dante posits. Blake’s drawing for this canto shows the protagonist torn by conflicting emotions of despair and courage, fear and faith, arms aloft, caught between the rising sun and the three beasts that confront him. The viewer, mired in the human condition, recognises Blake’s depiction of being trapped between a desire to change life’s direction and the fear that drives us back into familiar ways of living. Then there is the pictorial luminosity of Dante’s verbal images which enthral readers as the Divine Comedy’s narrative proceeds. The description of Cerberus in Canto VI so captivated Blake’s imagination that he produced two drawings of it. Or take Canto XXV from Inferno, which includes Dante’s encounter with three Florentine thieves, one of whom is attacked by a serpent-like creature. This is no simple assault by a monster on a man, developing as it does into a mutual transformation.

A reptile with six feet comes springing out
In front of one of them, and fastens him.
It gripped his belly with its middle feet,
With its forefeet laid hold of both his arms
And then it sank its teeth in either cheek;
It stretched each hind foot out to either thigh
Then put its tail between the sinner’s legs,
Whence, passing by his loins, it rose on high.
Rooted ivy never became attached
So strongly to its tree as that foul monster
Was found adhering to the limbs it clutched.
They stuck together, just as if they were
Of molten wax; their colours ran and mingled
And neither looked like what it was before.

A compulsion to transfer Dante’s text into actual pictures is not peculiar to Blake for no text from this period has been so frequently illustrated and examples from illustrated manuscripts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries bewitch the reader’s eyes when turning pages of the two introductory essays to Taschen’s William Blake: the Drawings for the Divine Comedy. Then there is Michelangelo’s allusion to the poem in The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, John Flaxman’s illustrations and Doré’s engravings; to its credit, the book reproduces many lesser known examples of Dante’s gravitational pull on artists.

The anarchist Blake was never going to succumb to Catholic notions of sin and damnation and he couldn’t resist glossing some of his drawings with a critical exegesis. In one drawing, relating to Canto II of Inferno, the upper half of the composition shows a bearded old man and Blake scribbles above him the words “The Angry God of this World” ‑ suggesting Urizen, the postlapsarian god who governs the world by ensnaring humans within the confines of repressive law and its concomitant reason. In an unfinished watercolour for Canto VII of Inferno the goddess of fortune is drawn emerging from a well-like space; for Dante, the distribution of material prosperity was a divine matter that should not be questioned: wealth was moved “from race to race, and over families, / Beyond the influence of human wit”, hence the misers and spendthrifts in the fourth circle of hell condemned to roll heavy loads ahead of themselves as they circle eternally in opposite directions, flying into a rage and hurling insults when they pass one another. Blake will have no truck with God-ordained inequality and his annotation reads: “The hole of a Shit-house. The Goddess of Fortune is the devil’s servant, ready to kiss any one’s Arse.” Another of Blake’s drawings shows Minos, the judge of hell who assigns the lustful to the appropriate circle, but the couples depicted, who on the face of it are damned for their lust, look sexually healthy and hardly worthy of punishment.

The nature of Blake’s reading of Dante and how it affected his drawings is the subject of Eric Pyle’s study. He shows how the pictorial art of one poet is at odds with the verbal art of the other, focusing on Blake’s radical theology and how he regarded Urizen as responsible for the Fall. As with his disagreement with Milton, Blake subverted the conventional view of that event, seeing it not as the consequence of breaking a taboo but as a closing down of life’s possibilities in favour of a unitary law. This suppression of “All the myriads of Eternity / All the wisdom and joy of life” is motivated by fear at the prospect of mutability: “I have sought for a joy without pain / For a solid without fluctuation,” declares Urizen, and man’s perceptions are curtailed, reined in and ruined.

Blake was sixty-seven when he began work on the drawings; like Rembrandt and Turner, his most powerful works of art came late in life. The works were commissioned by his friend John Linnell with a view to them being engraved, though in the event only seven of them were. Blake died before completing the project but over a hundred illustrations, from pencil sketches to finished watercolours, were worked on. Some three-quarters of the drawings are based on Inferno, twenty on Purgatory and only ten on Paradise, and while this may be because he was working through the text systematically it is just as possible that his imagination was stirred less by the Paradise section of the Divine Comedy. Blake placed Dante alongside the prophets of the Old Testament, Homer and Shakespeare as an embodiment of poetic genius and he worked studiously on the drawings in the last years of life, often propped up in bed in his apartment at 3 Fountain Court off the Strand. He drew on sheets of quality paper provided by Linnell in a bound portfolio and, writing to him only a few weeks before he died in 1827, confessed how “I am too much attracted to Dante to think much of anything else.”

Until now, without seeing the originals, it has not been possible to fully appreciate the magnificence of Blake’s achievement ‑ his finest when it comes to water-colour paintings. And seeing all of the originals is a globe-trotting task given their dispersal around the world, making this production from Taschen – hardcover, clothbound, with fourteen fold-outs, 324 pages consisting of the 102 illustrations and two scholarly, richly illustrated essays – an invaluable resource and a lovely book to spend quality time with. This is a big book – 28.5 x 39.5 cm – especially when one considers that the paper Blake drew on was 53 by 37 centimetres. Taken individually and as a whole, the illustrations bear testimony to Blake’s eager response to the text and everyone will find their own favourites amongst them. One of mine is based on Canto XXIX of Purgatory, an account of earthly paradise, and Dante’s description of the procession with Beatrice, preceded by a train of people and the bearing aloft of a seven-branched candelabra which leaves behind gleaming trails of coloured light:

And saw the candle flames go moving on
Leaving the air they left behind them coloured
With brushstrokes, as a painter might have done.

Blake carefully transcribes many of the details to be found in this canto and the chromatically arresting result is fine testimony to his own aesthetic response to the text. The same can be said about his work on Canto XXX, depicting Beatrice wearing a white veil, a green mantle and bright red dress, addressing Dante from a chariot pulled by a griffin. Such examples, evidence of the process of reinterpretation by the “translator” of a verbal text into a visual one, can be appreciated in detail in Taschen’s production. The book allows the reader to see how Blake was fascinated by the Bosch-like torments of Hell, sometimes illustrating a single canto with up to five sheets.

Each one of the 102 plates in William Blake: the Drawings for Divine Comedy is accompanied by a textual commentary relating the drawing to details of the text and directing attention to the line numbers which refer most directly to the pictorial content. At some stage or other the reader will want to consult an edition of the Divine Comedy and a new translation by JG Nichols may well be the one to have by your side. It took Nichols ten years to finish his translation and, illustrated as it is by some of Doré’s wood engravings, it provides a highly readable version of Dante’s canonical work.

Two new books about Dante share the same title, Reading Dante, but with different approaches to their subject. Giuseppe Mazzotta’s book is very much a reader’s guide to the Divine Comedy, with each chapter devoted to sequential sets of cantos, commenting on the text and interpretations that have been offered by other critics. Prue Shaw adopts a thematic structure for her book, with chapter titles like Friendship, Power, Love and Time, and offers more historical information than Mazzotta. The byzantine politics of city states, the rivalry between Ghibellines and Guelphs, powerful families at odds with one another in thirteenth century northern Italy, imperial and papal influences and class conflict between guilds and landowning families make up the historical and social background to the poem but it is debateable what level of detailed knowledge is necessary to enjoy the Divine Comedy. The actual relationship between the poet and Guido Cavalcanti is informed by their political differences and both books devote time to this but it is not what strikes home when Dante meets his father, Cavalcante De’ Cavalcanti, in the circle of the heretics in Canto Xof Inferno. What matters is the poor man’s plight, condemned to live out eternity in a sarcophagus, a ghost who knows the future but not the present. Similarly, the reader can respond to the punishment meted out to Pope Nicholas III, infamous for his nepotism and simony, without going too deeply into papal politics. From holes in a rocky landscape, the naked legs of a man protrude and as flames lick over his feet they kick out in pain. As Prue Shaw observes, it is a startling vision of a corrupt papacy: not looking to heaven, as he ought, but downwards though the rock in a parody of the Pentecostal tongue of fire that played on the heads of the apostles. When allegory becomes little more than cryptography, however, commentaries on Dante become tiresome but, thank goodness, neither Shaw nor Mazzotta succumb to this affliction. For much of the poem allegorical and symbolical meanings speak for themselves: to put it too succinctly, the moral behind the tale of someone losing themselves in a dark wood, unable to find their way, is not light years away from what a character says in The Lunchbox: sometimes the wrong train can take you to the right destination.

1/4/2015

Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles’ Oedipus: A Reader’s Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012).

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