‘To Defend the Bible in This Year 1798 Would Cost a Man His Life’, by Morton D. Paley

‘The Harlot and the Giant’ from William Blake’s illustrations to Dante’s Purgatorio. It’s basically a depiction of modern Britain in a form that would get past the censors


Censorship, Surveillance and the Power of the State: The Whore and the Beast

1798: one of the spiritual low points of modern British history, and the year of Malthus’s Essay on Population. Shelley called Malthus “the apostle of the rich” and Engels later described Malthus’s vision as “the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair.” Malthus’s influence on modern eugenic and environmental thinking, as well as Darwinism, has been massive.

For many of us, 1798 was the year of the Lyrical Ballads. But it was also the year of Napoleon in Egypt, the uprising of the United Irishmen and its bloody aftermath, of Malthus’s first Essay on Population, and the year of “the most draconian, anti-radical crackdown of the entire Pittite ‘Terror’” (Ian McCalmon, New Jerusalems).

For William Blake, it was a seemingly unexceptional year, a year for which there are no known letters and no known published works other than some commerical engravings. But it was also the year in which he wrote on the verso of the title page of Bishop Richard Watson’s An Apology for the Bible: “To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life” and then “The Beast and the Whore rule without controls.” The Bishop’s Apology was an attack upon The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, and Blake’s notes were a vehement counter-attack upon Bishop Watson. Why should Blake want to defend Thomas Paine, with whom he had some important points of disagreement, so unequivocally?

Apology for an Apology

History has not been kind to Richard Watson, D.D., Bishop of Landaff, sometime Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. His Apology for the Bible was celebrated in its day. It had first appeared in 1796, and the 1797 edition that Blake owned was its eighth at the time. It had also been published widely in America. Every Harvard student was given a copy! In the Anecdotes of the Life of Richard Watson, published by his son in 1817, Watson included fan letters from a society for discountenancing vice in Dublin and from the Convention of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. He also asserted that an employer had printed off 3000 copies for distribution to his workers, and declared that many thousands more were sold in Scotland and in England at a small price “without any profit or wish of profit to myself.” (It was still going strong in 1817—a new edition is advertised in the end papers to the Anecdotes.)

Yet the only reason that Richard Watson is remembered today is he that he was attacked by two great poets, neither of whom even published his remarks. In 1793, William Wordsworth wrote but did not publish “A Letter to the Bishop of Landaff . . . By a Republican” in reply to Watson’s defense of the British constitution in an appendix to an earlier sermon. Wordsworth wrote: “It is feared that you have at last fallen, through one of the numerous trap-doors, into the tide of contempt to be swept down to the ocean of oblivion”; however, Wordsworth is decorum itself compared to Blake, who calls the Bishop “a State trickster” and refers to his “cloven foot”.

Perhaps there just is no justice for a man who in 1793 could publish sermons under the title The Wisdom and Goodness of God in Having Made Both Rich and Poor. (Incidentally, Blake’s note next to the title of this book—“God made Man happy & rich but the Subtil made the innocent Poor”—is in line with Paine’s own reply to Watson, Agrarian Justice. “It is wrong to say God made Rich and Poor,” Paine wrote, alluding to Watson’s title; “he only made Male and Female; and he gave them the earth for their inheritance.”

“God made Man happy & rich but the Subtil made the innocent Poor”. The arguments of the Bishop of Landaff and the Reverend Thomas Malthus, like every apologist for oppression after them, attempt to portray unnatural and unnecessary social conditions as inevitable and unavoidable. 200 years ago, both Blake and Shelley lashed out against this nonsense – nonsense that was not only intellectually incoherent and unfounded, but an obscene inversion of the apparent ‘religion’ both Malthus and Watson purported to follow: “To him that hath, more shall be given; and from him that hath not, the little that he hath shall be taken away”, Shelley drily noted in A Defence of Poetry (1821). “The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer; and the vessel of the State is driven between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism.” The Whore and the Beast are not an aberration of the system, an extreme version that might happen to it: they are it’s guiding structural principle. That’s what “Revelation” meant to them – revealing to people the nature of the Beast that’s consuming them. It’s also why both writers are “prophets” in the true sense of the word – people who can see into the present.

Paine says he wrote the pamphlet in 1795-96 and decided to publish it after seeing the pamphlet listed (as did Blake) in Watson’s Apology. In any event, my purpose here is not to do justice to Bishop Watson, which I must leave to some other realm. It is, rather, to consider Blake’s annotations to Watson’s book.

That Blake knew Thomas Paine is not in doubt, although the myth that Blake saved Paine’s life, transmitted from Frederick Tatham to Alexander Gilchrist for Gilchrist’s life of Blake, has long been exploded, although Blake probably met Paine at one or more of the publisher Joseph Johnson’s weekly gatherings. Paine of course was already famous for his Common Sense when he returned to England, and he became even more celebrated for The Rights of Man, published in 1791, said to have sold approximately 200,000 copies in a population of about six million. The publication of its second part in 1792 caused Paine to be charged with seditious libel. More must be said in a moment about these books, which caused Blake to write Paine into his America and to give him an especially prominent place among the “fierce Americans” who rise to defend their continent against Albions Angel.

Mark Rylance as William Blake in Jack Shepherd’s play ‘Encounters: In Lambeth’, a fictionalised account of the meeting between Blake and Thomas Paine


Paine vs. Albion’s Angel

Paine first appears in America as one of a carefully selected group of seven: “Washington, Franklin, Paine & Warren, Gates, Hancock, & Green”. The list is balanced between men known primarily as soldiers and as civilians, although some were of course both. In a second list of seven, there are two substitutions, but Paine remains; and in two other contexts the seven are distilled to three: “Washington / And Paine and Warren with their foreheads toward the east”. Washington’s presence is of course inevitable. Warren’s importance lies in his being a heroic martyr.

Paine first appears in America as one of a carefully selected group of seven: “Washington, Franklin, Paine & Warren, Gates, Hancock, & Green”

Paine’s special prominence lies of course in his being a writer, specifically, as far as America is concerned, the author of Common Sense, in which Paine wrote “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.” Some of his other statements there would have struck a particular resonance in Blake.

“Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise”. Paine appeals to scripture to prove that “the will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of the government of kings”. Like Blake, Paine uses biblical typology to convey some of his meanings. The rights of kings are made parallel in Common Sense to the doctrine of original sin, which of course Paine rejects:

For as in Adam all sinned, and as in the first electors all men obeyed; as in the one all mankind were subjected to Satan, and in the other to Sovereignty; as our innocence was lost in the first, and our authority in the last; and as both disable us from re-assuming some former state and privilege, it unanswerably follows that original sin and hereditary succession are parallels.

George III is “the hardened, sullen, Pharaoh of —,” and he sounds a lot like Blake’s Noboddaddy when Paine calls him “the wretch, that with the pretended title of FATHER OF HIS PEOPLE can unfeelingly hear of their slaughter, and composedly sleep with their blood on his soul”.

I love hanging & drawing & quartering [says Nobodaddy]
Every bit as well as war & slaughtering
. . . If they rebel they must go to hell
They shall have a Priest & a passing bell

In a population of a little over three million, Common Sense sold over 100,000 copies. Blake’s comment appears in the Annotations to Watson, in which Paine is daringly paralleled with Jesus: “Is it a greater miracle to feed five thousand men with five loaves than to overthrow all the armies of Europe with a small pamphlet”.

“the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise”


The Age of Deism

But wasn’t Paine a deist and wasn’t Blake opposed to everything that deism represented? The answer to the first question is certainly yes. “Adam, if there ever was such a man, was created a deist,” Paine asserts in The Age of Reason. But the answer to the second must give us pause. A glance at the Concordance shows that Blake did not even use the word “deist” or its cognates before writing the Annotations to Watson.

The first instance is, in fact, in those annotations, but it was revised out by Blake as follows: “The Deists say that Christianity put a stop to improvement & the Bishop has not shewn the contrary”. For “The Deists say” Blake substituted “Paine says.” So “Paine” is here interchangeable with “the Deists” but in both instances, Blake appears to be indicating either neutrality or outright agreement. This is a far cry from Blake’s later vehement denunciations of “Deism” as expressed in the last three lines of Night VIII of The Four Zoas:

The Ashes of Mystery began to animate they calld it Deism
And Natural Religion as of old so now anew began
Babylon again in Infancy Calld Natural Religion.

“Natural Religion” may, of course, be equated with deism and Blake had indeed entitled a tractate etched in 1788 THERE is NO Natural Religion.

However, there his attitude is benignly ironical and gently corrective: he attempts to show that Natural Religion is self-undermining and that the very perception of nature takes us into a realm of imagination—or as Blake puts it at this time, Poetic Genius—that is beyond nature. With one exception, the words “Natural Religion” do not appear again in Blake’s writings until the Vala passage just quoted (or in Milton, whichever was earlier). That exception is in the Annotations to Watson, where in a riposte to the Bishop Blake writes: “Natural Religion is the voice of God & not the result of reasoning on the powers of Satan”.

In the case of Paine, Blake at this time could well take the attitude expressed by the Unitarian minister Gilbert Wakefield, whose The Spirit of Christianity, Compared with the Spirit of the Times in Great Britain, with its denunciation of “the Moloch Priest” and “worshippers of Baal” in the Anglican Church, was a strong influence on Coleridge’s Religious Musings.

The Rev Gilbert Wakefield

Writing of the Master and fellows of Queens College, Wakefield said “I would give with rapture to a French Deist, as purity and perfection, compared with such apostates to the liberty and sanctity of the gospel.” The truth is that many of the attitudes that we think of as characteristic of Blake were not yet his in 1798.

In Blake’s account of the founders of religions in The Song of Los (1795), Jesus is treated no better than the rest: “(a man of sorrows) he recievd / A Gospel from wretched Theotormon”—Theotormon being, of course, the God-tormented and self-tormented man of Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Note that this negative reference is not merely to the Christian church but to Christianity itself. Of course there are also positive references—the Jesus of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell who “was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules”. But how far is this from Paine’s view of Jesus as “a virtuous reformer and revolutionist” in The Age of Reason?

Why Blake should with to defend Paine requires little explanation. There is a considerable overlap between Blakean discourse in the 1790s and Paine’s in Rights of Man. One aspect of this, on the subject of charters, was remarked by the late E. P. Thompson, in his excellent essay on Blake’s “London,” and on this subject I will only point further to the proximity in Blake’s poem of two key words that occur in one of Paine’s discussions of “chartered monopolies”.

Lecture by E P Thompson on William Blake’s poem ‘London’

“Every chartered town,” writes Paine, “is an aristocratical monopoly in itself, and the qualification of electors proceeds out of these chartered monopolies.” Shortly after this, Paine says: “Conquest and tyranny transplanted themselves with William the Conqueror from Normandy into England, and the country is yet disfigured with the marks.” Are these disfiguring “marks” not the “marks of weakness, marks of woe,” Blake discerned in every face he met in the “charterd streets” of “London”?

Both can use figures from Bunyan similarly, as when Paine writes that the “compounded image” of the downfall(s) of the Bastille and Despotism become “as figuratively united as Bunyan’s Doubting Castle and Giant Despair”. Blake and Paine share with other radicals of the 1790s the association of revolution with fire, but a sentence from part 2 of The Rights of Man comes particularly close to Blake’s statement that “France reciev’d the Demons light” from America. “From a small spark kindled in America,” wrote Paine, “a flame has arisen, not to be extinguished. Without consuming, like the ultima Ratio Regum, it winds its progress from nation to nation and conquers by a silent operation”.

“Every chartered town,” writes Paine, “is an aristocratical monopoly in itself, and the qualification of electors proceeds out of these chartered monopolies.” “Blake described these ‘chartered’ streets, and even the river Thames as being ‘chartered’.” Akala notes. “He was expressing the sense of ownership, the fact that the streets are owned by someone. Blake is seeing the London that he grew up in as a child being ripped apart by the extreme wealth and extreme poverty that exists within ‘London’. He is seeing and experiencing the ‘Mind-forged manacles’, industrialisation, child labour.”


The Whore and the Beast: Contemporary Politics

‘Want’ is what drives the Beast, and what it also generates

When we come to The Age of Reason, we find that this overlap continues. Paine refers to the establishment as “the adulterous connection of church and state”, bringing to mind passages in Blake like the one in Vala in which Rahab is “the deluded harlot of the kings of the earth”. When Paine characterizes the biblical account of the creation, it sounds much like much like a summary of the early chapters of The [First] Book of Urizen: “It is nobody that speaks. It is nobody that hears. It is addressed to nobody. It has neither first, second, not third person”.

Malthus’s surplus population – creating the basis of Christian ‘charity’

Paine can also apply biblical typology after his own fashion, casting himself as the doubting Thomas of scripture. Observing that this apostle did not believe in the resurrection, Paine remarks “So neither will I; and the reason is equally as good for me and for every other person as for Thomas”. It’s true that Blake makes even larger claims for Paine, seeing in him “the Holy Ghost who in Paine strives with Christendom as in Christ he strove with the Jews”. Paine denies that biblical prophets predicted the future, condemns “humility,” and attacks “Mystery.”

I don’t want to exaggerate the convergence: the differences, too are important. Paine’s universe is an “immense machine,” which is compared to a mill, to which Blake could well have replied in the words of THERE is NO Natural Religion: “The same dull round even of a univer[s]e would soon become a mill with complicated wheels”. Blake acknowledges a difference with Paine as well as with Watson when he writes “The Bishop never saw the Everlasting Gospel any more than Tom Paine”. What Blake concentrates on in these annotations, however, is the common ground he shares with Paine, not the differences between them.

“the adulterous connection of church and state”. They always wear nice clothes though.

Blake’s note on the back of Watson’s title page continues: “The Beast & the Whore rule without control” —a sentence lightly crossed out, probably by the timorous hand of Samuel Palmer, who later owned the book. As we see, Blake was at this point beginning to develop his symbolism of the conjunction of the state with its established church.

Blake could have said as did Coleridge, in a note to the edition of his Religious Musings in 1797: “I am convinced that the Babylon of the Apocalypse does not apply to Rome exclusively; but to the union of Religion with Power and Wealth, wherever it is found”. Blake’s most striking visual conceptualization of this to date was the astonishing title page for Night the Eighth of Young’s Night Thoughts, showing the scarlet woman with her cup of abominations mounted on a great red dragon whose seven grotesque heads embody the institutions of church and state.

“the astonishing title page for Night the Eighth of Young’s Night Thoughts, showing the scarlet woman with her cup of abominations mounted on a great red dragon whose seven grotesque heads embody the institutions of church and state”

Blake would later go on to elaborate this conception in pictures like The Whore of Babylon and the Dante illustrations of Philip the Fair embracing Beatrice, and he would introduce it near the end of Night the Eighth of The Four Zoas, where John of Patmos “saw the Harlot of the Kings of Earth & saw her Cup / Of fornication food of Orc & Satan pressd from the fruit of Mystery”.

But when Blake annotated Watson’s Apology, this symbolism was relatively fresh; as in so many other areas, we see it crystallizing in the later 1790s. At the same time, Blake was expressing in his art some of the positive religious feeling that we do not find in the Lambeth books. Once more we see this especially in the illustrations to Night Thoughts, with its images of Jesus crucified, Jesus resurrected, and Jesus the True Vine. These are far from the more spiritually charged images of Jesus Blake later produced—for example plate 76 of Jerusalem—but they do suggest the direction in which he was tending more than anything he wrote at the time.

Same Beast, Different Faces – ‘The Beast of Revelation’ by the Singh Twins (2013)

The argument between the Bishop and Paine is, as Blake perceives, deeply political, having to do with “the English Crusade against France,” but it is cast in a theological form. Blake had probably learned enough about what would come to be known as the Higher Criticism of the Bible, both from the writings of Alexander Geddes, as Jerome McGann has argued, and from the presence of Geddes in the Johnson circle, to see that the Regius Professor of Divinity’s historical arguments were hopelessly out of touch.

Paine attacks the evidence for the authorship of the Pentateuch by Moses and for the witnessing of miracles by Jesus in the Gospels as a means of denying the truth of the events that are recounted. Bishop Watson, as one would expect, defends the received accounts, but he says that even if Moses, Joshua, and Samuel did not write the books attributed to them, they could still be true, as they would have been assembled from “public records.” Blake at this point rejoins “Nothing can be more contemptible than to suppose Public RECORDS to be true”, anticipating Byron’s satire on the Gazettes in Don Juan.

“Nothing can be more contemptible than to suppose Public RECORDS to be true”

Blake refers to Deuteronomy 31:24, which begins “And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book.” If Moses didn’t write it, whoever did was a liar. This confutes the Bishop, but it actually isn’t very important to Blake, for he adds “it ceases to be history & becomes a Poem of probable impossibilities fabricated for pleasure as moderns say but I say by Inspiration”.

It sounds as if Blake were about to claim a different source for the authenticity of these books, especially when he writes shortly afterwards “If historical facts can be written by inspiration Miltons Paradise Lost is as true as Genesis. or Exodus”. We appear to be nearing the position of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which Isaiah and Ezekiel say they derive their prophecies from the Poetic Genius and Isaiah speaks of “all poets” as if they were members of one fraternity.

‘Moses and the Burning Bush’ by Blake (c. 1800-1803)

Yet Blake is not actually prepared to give this authority to the five books of Moses, because he objects to them on ethical grounds. “The Wickedness of the Israelites in murdering so many thousands under pretence of a command from God is altogether Abominable & Blasphemous”. So the divinity of the Bible depends as little on “inspiration” as it does on historical facts. Blake goes on to say that it consists “in the Sentiments & Examples which whether true or Parabolic are Equally useful as Examples given to us of the perverseness of some & its consequent evil & the honesty of others & its consequent good”. What it comes down to is a matter of conscience. When the Bishop rhetorically asks of conscience “Or is it merely our own judgment of the moral rectitude and turpitude of our actions?” Blake underlined “Or is it merely” and wrote: “Conscience in those that have it is unequivocal, it is the voice of God Our judgment of right and wrong is reason”.


The Rationality of Miracles and Prophecy

Detail from ‘Ezekiel’s Vision of the Whirlwind’ by Blake. Is it more miraculous to have seen this, or to have imagined it?

On the subject of miracles: the Bishop believed in them, Paine did not. Did Blake? Yes and no. Blake points out that the Gospels were written after the fact, and he asserts “Jesus could not do miracles where unbelief hinderd”. We seem to be back in the territory of The Marriage once again, and of Ezekiel’s statement that all poets believe that a firm persuasion that a thing is so makes it so, and that “in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains.” Indeed, after comparing the miracle of the loaves and fishes with the effects of Paine’s Common Sense, Blake writes:

. . . look over the events of your own life & if you do not find that you have done such miracles and lived by such you do not see as I do True I cannot do a miracle thro experiment & to domineer over & prove to others my superior power as neither could Christ But I can & do work such as both astonish & comfort me & mine. How can Paine the worker of miracles ever doubt Christs in the above sense of the word miracle.

But what is “the above sense”? In the comparison with Common Sense the miracle is a metaphor. In Blake’s reference to himself as a miracle worker, it is another kind of metaphor, much the same as he used in a letter to George Cumberland on 26 August 1799: “As to Myself about whom you are so kindly Interested. I live by Miracle”. That doesn’t tell us whether Blake thought Jesus fed a multitude with loaves and fishes. Of course I am not trying to subject Blake (or even Bishop Watson) to a theological cross-examination here. I just want to point out that when Blake asks how Paine can ever doubt Christ’s miracles he is practicing a beautiful form of equivocation, and that this indicates something further about Blake’s position in 1798.

In response to Bishop Watson’s comparison of Moses to “the judge of the land in [carrying out the law] condemning criminals to death,” Blake wrote: “All Penal Laws court Transgression & therefore are cruelty & Murder”. This is not a Paineite position; it is a Godwinian one, and it is at the same time profoundly antinomian in spirit.

In his excellent discussion of antinomianism and Blake, Dangerous Enthusiasm, John Mee has rightly stressed how important a component of Blake’s beliefs antinomianism was in the 1790s, and the Annotations to Watson certainly bear him out. Seeing all civil (and religious) institutions as evil is the negative pole of antinomianism; the positive pole is seeing the divine within.

We see a strong emphasis on this element in Blake’s writings of the earlier 1790s, like The Marriage and Visions of the Daughters of Albion: “Life delights in life,” “every thing that lives is holy.” In the Annotations we see very little of that positive pole. Thomas Paine is an “Inspired Man” who gives himself to his “Energetic Genius,” but nevertheless “the Best & the Whore rule without control[s].” There is a sense of desperation in this vision of things; as Sandler puts it, “the last years of the 1790s apparently constituted for Blake a crisis of faith and interpretation”.

“After moving to Felpham, Blake would have a series of visionary experiences that profoundly affected the content of his poetry and art”

After moving to Felpham, of course, Blake would have a series of visionary experiences that profoundly affected the content of his poetry and art. His later attitude is exemplified by the only written reference he would ever make to Paine after these Annotations, written in the Notebook essay known under the editorial title “A Vision of the Last Judgment”: “Many persons such as Paine & Voltaire, with some of the Ancient Greeks, say: ‘We will not converse concerning Good & Evil we will live in Paradise & Liberty You may do so in Spirit but not in the <Mortal> Body as you pretend till after the Last Judgment”. The ground Blake had shared with Thomas Paine had disappeared, or to be more precise, had become irrelevant to him.


Conclusion: Revolution Extinction

I wish to close with a suggestion as to why Blake so stressed “this year 1798.” It brings us back to Bishop Watson, who at the end of 1797 or very early in 1798, published an Address to the British People in which, in addition to defending war taxes, he asserted that political reformers and dissenters were loyal subjects and that they would resist a French invasion. This was an old theme of Watson’s. The book became another bestseller thanks to government sponsorship, although Watson claimed in the Anecdotes that he was not consulted on the government’s decision to print and give it away gratis. Fourteen editions appeared in London alone.

Not all reformers and dissenters were grateful to the Bishop for his defense of their loyalty, however. In January 1798 Watson wrote: “On this and on other occasions some violent men, whose views of political and ecclesiastical reform extended far beyond mine, were filled with resentment against me, reproaching me with having changed my principles, and deserted the cause. This accusation was wholly without foundation; for my principles were not republican principles, nor was my cause their cause.”

One of these dissenting dissenters was Gilbert Wakefield, whose own Reply to the Bishop of Landaff’s Address to the People of England also appeared in 1798. Joseph Johnson had previously published at least one of Wakefield’s pamphlets, Thoughts on Public Worship in 1792, but A Reply was published by J. Cuthell. In it Wakefield asserted of “our corrupt and guilty ministries”:

They have occasioned a destruction of the human species infinitely tremendous beyond the most merciless tyrants of ancient and modern times … Land and sea is covered with the carcasses of their slain:—they have engendered sham plots, false alarms, and visionary assassinations, for the purpose of deluding the unwary, and to establish their own power by a military despotism, in due time, over England, like that, which now tramples bleeding Ireland to the earth.

In contradiction to the Bishop’s view, Wakefield argued that the poor had nothing to lose by a French victory, and that if the French landed sixty or seventy thousand men in England, the kingdom would fall to them. He also projected a millennial vision of the sort more frequently encountered at the beginning of the decade than in 1798: “We, sons of peace, or see, or think we see, a gleam of glory through the mist, which now envelopes our horizon. Great revolutions are accomplishing: a general fermentation is working for the purpose of general refinement throughout the universe.”

Joseph Johnson, the great radical publisher – the Julian Assange of his day. Or, as the establishment put it, “a malicious seditious and ill disposed person who did wickedly and seditiously publish and cause to be published a certain scandalous malicious and seditious libel”. I.e., the truth.

Cuthell was arrested immediately after publication. Copies of the pamphlet were found in Johnson’s shop, and he was indicted on 11 January 1798. The charge was that “Joseph Johnson … being a malicious seditious and ill disposed person and being greatly disaffected to our said sovereign Lord the King … wickedly and seditiously did publish and cause to be published a certain scandalous malicious and seditious libel”.

Although Johnson would not be tried until July and his sentence was put off even further, the seriousness of his position must have been evident from the start. Johnson had ever been a risk-taker, but never an imprudent one. He had been the original publisher of part 1 of Paine’s Rights of Man but after only a few copies had been sold, he transferred the book to J. S. Jordan. (Jordan was not prosecuted for this but he too was arrested for selling Wakefield’s Reply.)

Johnson certainly realized his danger. He engaged as his lawyer the celebrated Thomas Erskine, the successful counsel for the defense in the State Trials of 1794; and it has been suggested by Paul Magnusson (The Politics of ‘Frost At Midnight) that he published Coleridge’s Fears in Solitude volume in April 1798 as his part of a joint effort to show that neither poet nor publisher was pro-French. Probably in the political atmosphere of 1798 nothing would have helped. He was eventually sentenced to six months’ in the King’s Bench Prison, although as it turned out he served his sentence under the milder regimen of the Marshalsea, where he was already incarcerated.

What the Beast does with those who call it the Beast.

Although he continued to be a publisher and bookseller after his release, his activities were much reduced. It would have required no prophetic powers on Blake’s part to sense that this (or worse) would be the outcome of Johnson’s arrest and prosecution. The practical implications cannot, of course, be ignored—Blake could not ignore them. The year 1798 is a case in point. In that year only eight engravings by William Blake, all executed (probably after Fuseli) in 1797, are known to have been published. All were in books published by Joseph Johnson: four engravings for Charles Allen’s New and Improved History of Englandand four more for Allen’s New and Improved Roman History.

At some point such practical considerations merge with Blake’s highest aspirations as artist and poet. Although Johnson and Blake were not close friends, Johnson had nevertheless played a considerable role in Blake’s life. As I’ve mentioned, it must be through Johnson that Blake met Paine, and it is likely that Blake at least occasionally attended Johnson’s Tuesday dinners, giving him entree to a group of writers and other intellectuals with whom Blake had at least some common interests. Johnson evidently encouraged Blake not only as an engraver but also as a poet and as an artist.

Proofs of Blake’s poem The French Revolution, printed for Johnson in 1791

The first book of Blake’s poem The French Revolution was printed for Johnson in 1791, although the existence of this work is limited to a single set of proofs. (The reason for its non-publication remains unexplained.) Blake’s The Gates of Paradise when originally offered in 1793 bore Johnson’s name as well as Blake’s as publisher. As Keri Davies has shown, Johnson exhibited books by Blake, which must surely mean illuminated books, at his place of business. And in the 1790s Johnson was, of course, Blake’s major employer.

Blake’s professional life as an engraver had become intertwined with Johnson as early as 1779. In 1783 Blake contributed at least nine plates after other artists (including Thomas Stothard) to Johnson’s publication of Joseph Ritson’s important Select Collection of English Songs. Blake’s work for Johnson in the 1790s includes some of his most important engravings. Blake engraved six plates after his own designs for Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life (1791), and Johnson was also the publisher of John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, to which Blake contributed approximately 16 engravings executed between 1791 and 1794.

Evidence of the Beast abroad: Johnson was also the publisher of Stedman’s book, to which Blake contributed approximately 16 engravings. ‘Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition’ was the Wikileaks ‘Collateral Murder’ War Logs of its day.

Johnson ran against fashionable opinion in preferring Blake’s engraving to that of the more fashionable Bartolozzi’s. Writing to Erasmus Darwin in connection with a projected engraving of the Portland Vase in 1791, Johnson said: “Blake is certainly capable of making an exact copy of the vase, I believe more so than Mr. B[artolozzi]”. This would have cheered Blake, who despised what he called the “soft” quality of his rival’s work. The Botanic Garden, in which Blake’s engravings of the Portland Vase appeared in 1791, also featured his powerful engraving after Fuseli’s Fertilization of Egypt, and Blake later added an engraving, after Fuseli’s Tornado, published in the third edition of 1795.

“Johnson was one of the very few publishers in London who had a true appreciation of Blake’s abilities as a designer and engraver of book illustrations.” (Pic: Blake’s powerful engraving, commissioner by Johnson).

Johnson also employed Blake on some purely commercial tasks, but it is clear that he was one of the very few publishers in London who had a true appreciation of Blake’s abilities as a designer and engraver of book illustrations. It’s possible to regret that Johnson did not make Blake a protégé as he had Mary Wollstonecraft or that (as far as we know) he did not value Blake’s painting as he did Henry Fuseli’s. It remains that no other employer played even a remotely similar role in Blake’s life.

In addition to his employment of Blake, Johnson had published some of the most important liberal and radical works of the 1790s. To take but one of many examples, Unitarian literature was one of Johnson’s specialties, and Johnson remained Joseph Priestley’s publisher to the end of Priestley’s life.

Rational dissent was no doubt too rational for Blake, but Blake need not have completely agreed with the Unitarians to see that theirs was one way of defending the Bible. (Johnson’s business would go on, but Priestley’s later letters are full of complaints about his publisher’s dilatoriness.) And in addition to the public effect of Johnson’s arrest, Blake may well have seen a more specific application to himself.

Richard Brothers, arrested in 1795 for writing “fantastical prophecies”. You can see why Blake might have been concerned.

I suggested a long time ago that the arrest of Richard Brothers in 1795 and his consequent confinement in an insane asylum had a cautionary effect on Blake. Brothers was charged with “unlawfully, maliciously, and wickedly writing, publishing, and printing various fantastical prophecies, with intent to cause dissension and other disturbances within the realm.” Blake must have realized how easily this law could have been applied to him, and the case of Brothers is likely to explain at least in part why Blake stopped issuing illuminated books for over a decade after 1795. (The information provided in John Barrell’s important essay “Imagining the King’s Death” could provide further material for this argument.)

Johnson was no prophet in the modern or any other sense of the word—he had ever tried to keep to the windy side of the law—but his arrest for selling a book demonstrated the dangers of opposition all the more. It could cost a man his life, or part of it. “I have been commanded from Hell not to print this,” wrote Blake in his copy of Watson’s book, “as it is what our Enemies wish.” The poem Vala, on which Blake was already working, was written out in a format that would have made it virtually impossible to publish. In 1798 Blake had printed no poetry or prose of his own for over three years (and with some very minor exceptions it would be at least a decade more until he did so).

Richard Brothers, dressed as a sans-culotte and with the face of a maniac, carries on his back a ‘Bundle of the Elect’ from which protrude the heads and legs of Fox, Sheridan, Stanhope and Lansdowne. In his left hand is an open book: ‘Revelation’, and a sword of flame, his right hand points up an ascending path to the ‘Gate of Jerusalem’ (right); this is a gallows from which hang three nooses; behind it are flames in which demons are flying. He tramples on a seven-headed monster (the Beast of ‘Revelation’): on one head, that of the Pope, he puts his foot, another prostrate human head wears a crown and so does the head of a beast breathing fire. In the midst of an increasingly global war, exorbitant taxes, and food shortages, Brother’s view of a world gone horribly awry gained traction among those members of the working class who were most affected by the shortages. Gillray dutifully presents Brothers without breeches (sans-culotte) and with his pockets stuffed with French Assignats (the Revolutionary currency) – suggesting that Brothers may be in the employ of France, hence guilty of treason. The Pitt government duly had him arrested for sedition and he spent most of the rest of his life in an asylum.

In 1798 Blake realized that one period of his life had ended. It had been a period of enormous activity during which Blake produced some of the works by which he is still best known. It had been a period of exciting personal associations. And it had been a period of shared revolutionary hope, hope typified by the author whom Blake defended in his Annotations. The optimism, expectation, and joy of that period are typified in part of a letter that Thomas Holcroft wrote to William Godwin upon getting news of the publication of The Rights of Man in the spring of 1791: “Hey for the New Jerusalem! The millennium! And peace and beatitude be unto the soul of Thomas Paine.”

This is an edited version of “To Defend the Bible in This Year 1798 Would Cost a Man His Life” by Morton D. Paley. This was a plenary lecture at the joint meeting of the British Association for the Study of Romanticism and the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism. To read the full article please click here.

Detail from Gillray’s political cartoon ‘New Morality’ published in the Anti-Jacobin Review (1798); most of the radical pamphlets issuing from the “cornucopia of ignorance” were published by Johnson: Darwin, Wakefield, Horne Tooke, Paine, Coleridge, Priestley, and others.

What terrified the authorities was not so much Paine’s arguments (his ideas were already familiar within deist and Unitarian circles) as the popular audience to which he appealed. As in all his writings Paine aimed for a readership of common people, writing in the plain style of ordinary speech and transforming the ideas of the few into the property of the many. The Age of Reason became an assault on the established order, and one that was accessible to the masses.

Pitt as Death on the pale Horse rides naked on the White Horse of Hanover, galloping over the prostrate bodies of pigs. Gillray’s title continues: “with The Destruction of the Faithful, as Revealed to R. Brothers, the Prophet”.

Blake’s revenge. Blake reclaims the radical Biblical symbolism to suggest that the real traitors of Britain are sitting on the thrones of power in the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace right now. As a later poet once sang, “God save the fascist regime”.

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