‘Dear Sir, I am still far from recoverd & dare not get out in the cold air. Yet I lose nothing by it—Dante goes on the better, which is all I care about’ – William Blake
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’ – Matthew 5:17
‘No thing can become manifest to itself without opposition’ – Boehme
Among William Blake’s last works was a series of illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy. It was an ambitious project for a man of 67 to begin, and he didn’t live to complete it. Even in its unfinished state, however, the series is a rich and fascinating work of art that can add to our understanding of Blake’s philosophy and artistic goals, and be enjoyed for its strange beauty.
The seven engravings from the set approach the same high quality as the more famous prints depicting the Book of Job, which were finished about the time that the Dante series was commissioned. In addition, we have 102 unique pencil sketches and watercolours, in various stags of completion. Some are merely rough outlines, but a few are paintings of such beauty that they rival the best of Blake’s visual work. Many of them are rich in iconographic invention – enough to give us confidence that, true to form, Blake was not passively depicting Dante’s words, but was engaged in intellectual and artistic dialogue with his Italian peer.
My analysis will focus largely on aspects of Blake’s theology that are at odds with Dante’s, and that moved Blake to illustrate the Comedy as a way of correcting or completing its message. We will see that Dante, true to his age, conceives of God as existing in a separate realm, far above our fallen world. Blake does not accept the idea of a God that is apart from mankind. Indeed, for Blake it is the false perception of separateness from God that it is at the heart of so many of our woes.
I also discuss Blake’s views on the goals and possibilities of art, an aesthetic theory that derives in large part from his theological principle that God and man are not divided. Whereas Dante accepts the traditional Christian view that limited human reason is inadequate to understand God, and that human language lacks the power to describe Heaven, Blake sees such an admission as an unnecessary falling-short. The true prophet, for Blake, is a poet who makes God manifest, either in words or in pictures. Blake rejects Dante’s repeated claims that human art is inadequate to show God’s full majesty, and works to realise in fullness the message that the Italian poet found impossible to convey.
Blake’s Disagreements with Dante
“Every thing in Dantes Comedia shews That for Tyrannical Purposes he has made This World the Foundation of All & the Goddess Nature & not the Holy Ghost” – Blake
One criticism Blake made of Dante was penciled into a copy of the Inferno that most likely came to him from his patron, William Haley. Blake seems to have been an inveterate annotator of other writer’s books, and his notes in the margins of the Inferno express strong opinions in clear language. In an angry note on the subject of translators, he does acknowledge that Dante rendered too much to Caesar: “It appears to Me that men are hired to Run down Men of Genius under the Mask of Translators, but Dante gives too much to Caesar he is not a Republican Dante was an Emperors <a Caesars> Man”.
In addition to the marginal notes from the Inferno, we have two direct criticisms of Dante penciled onto the preparatory sketches for Blake’s illustrations. In the first, Blake declares that Dante was inspired by nature, and not by imagination or the Holy Spirit. The other note opposes the traditional Christian idea that God could condemn anyone to Hell for an eternity. Blake’s God is a God of forgiveness.
For additional statements Blake made on the subject of Dante, we rely on the testimony of Henry Crabb Robinson, a friend of Blake, who recorded some of the artist’s opinions in a diary. Robinson once asked him whether he thought Dante was morally pure when he wrote and Blake replied that he did not think that there was any purity in God’s eyes. A later observation is even more telling: Blake remarked, “Dante saw devils where I see none. I see only good.”
One of the most revealing diary entries on the subject of Dante records Blake’s opinion that Dante “was wrong in occupying his mind about political objects. Yet this did not appear to affect his estimation of Dante’s genius, or his opinion of the truth of Dante’s visions. Indeed, when he even declared Dante to be an Atheist, it was accompanied by expressions of the highest admiration.”
An “Atheist,” for Blake, is someone guilty of “worshipping the natural world.” Blake believed that the natural world we perceive is only a tiny fraction of the real universe, and the rules of logic and demonstration are mere abstractions derived from it. Therefore any poet hoping to explain God’s ways who employs logical argument rather than direct revelation is using the wrong method. The truth of religion is shown through embodying God – incarnation – and not through reason.
In the Divine Comedy Dante narrates the story of his journey out of the dark forest where he found himself in the middle of his life. With the Roman poet Virgil (signifying ‘Human Reason’) as guide he travels through Hell (Inferno) and Purgatory before finally reaching Paradise. The Inferno is described as a conical structure with successive circles, each reserved for particular categories of sinners. Purgatory is a mountain, on top of which is the Earthly Paradise where Dante finally meets his beloved Beatrice. Dante completed the Divine Comedy shortly before his death in 1321. It is one of the great texts of European culture and continues to inspire artists.
Blake’s watercolour illustrations were commissioned in 1824 by John Linnell, friend and patron of his last years. They were executed at a time when Dante’s masterpiece was being made more widely known through translation and critical re-evaluation. Henry Boyd’s first complete translation was published in 1785 and Blake owned a copy of it. He also taught himself Italian in order to be able to read the original.
In the late 18th century the sublime and terrible passages of the Inferno were illustrated and singled out for praise. However, by the 1820s a new appreciation of the beauties of Purgatory, and especially Paradise, had emerged. Blake’s originality as an illustrator of the Divine Comedy lies in his literary and visionary approach to the text. One of the ways he maintains a continuity of narrative throughout the series is by consistently showing Dante dressed in red (denoting experience) and Virgil in blue (denoting the spirit). Between 1824 and 1827, when he died, Blake completed 102 watercolours which survive in varying stages of completion. He intended to engrave the series – as Flaxman had done with his illustrations in the early 1800s – but managed to partially complete only seven plates.
Represented here are a selection of Blake’s visions – and revisions – of Dante’s journey through his subconscious ‘underworld’.
Illustrations from Hell
You are Now Leaving the State of Hell
Thank You for Forgiving