Job’s Gethsemane: William Blake and the Problem of Suffering, by Penelope Minney

Tradition and Imagination in William Blake’s Illustrations for the Book of Job

Suffering into Wisdom: If Oedipus was the key figure for the 20th Century then Job is the archetypal figure for the 21st century, embodying the awakening into the social and the imaginative nature of self, through the collapse of ego and the experience of trauma and suffering



“Previous studies have concentrated on the engraved set, and no one has explored the implications of the earlier dating now agreed for the watercolour series.”

Blake created two versions of his Illustrations of the Book of Job, and it is now agreed that about twenty years separates his first watercolour series and the final engraved set of plates. The first (‘Butts’) series of water-colours was the product of the tumultuous and creative years 1805-10, following a time when Blake experienced a strong sense of vision and Christian regeneration; whereas the engraved set was produced 1821-1826, at the end of his life.

This article explores Blake’s treatment of the Job theme, in which the ‘friends-turned-accusers’ seem to have been a central pre-occupation. Blake’s illustrations contain important elements which are not found in the Old Testament text, and I consider Blake’s imaginative use of this material, exploring in particular the importance to Blake of St.Teresa, Fenelon, Mme. Guyon, Hervey and other people of ‘prayer’.

Blake’s Job was unique in the corpus of his work. Previous studies have followed Wicksteed in concentrating on the engraved set, and no one has explored the implications of the earlier dating now agreed for the watercolour series. The thesis is essentially concerned with Blake’s Christocentric theme, and Job’s inner journey of prayer, in these illustrations.

Blake and Job

When I first came on William Blake’s water-colour series illustrating the Book of Job I was moved by them in a way that is difficult to put into words. I knew something of the way Blake’s Job was usually interpreted, as showing one man’s passage from self-righteousness to wisdom and humility.

“showing how Job, already at the outset a man of prayer, is deepened by suffering, so that he comes at last to vision”

But these twenty-one water-colours do not point a simple contrast between Law and Gospel, a simple progress from self-righteousness and death to humility and new life: their effect is to transcend time and space altogether, showing how Job, already at the outset a man of prayer, is deepened by suffering, so that he comes at last not just to vision but to union with God in Christ.

At the same time there is a passage from isolation, through death (or something very near it), to restoration and leadership. Blake’s Job in this set made for Thomas Butts is shown as a man open to God and able to grow, in a way no other artist I know has succeeded in depicting, a man sometimes of strength, sometimes of weakness and vulnerability, but never self-righteous and dead.

“Blake’s use of the Bible”

In Blake studies during the last twenty-five years there has been an important shift in emphasis, and there is a new respect for Blake as a student of the Bible. Blake’s use of the Bible has been explored by Michael Tolley, in ‘William Blake’s Use of the Bible’; his use of the Bible in his early prophetic books by Leslie Tannenbaum; Biblical Tradition in Blake’s Early Prophecies; and his knowledge of Hebrew has been explored in its eighteenth century context by Sheila Spector. These studies suggest that we should expect the images of Blake’s Job to be theologically focused, the outcome of a deep study of the Bible.

There has also been a shift towards studying Blake’s artistic output in its historical context. The findings of the art historians, in particular the pioneering book by Bo Lindberg, are important for revealing sources for Blake’s apparent idiosyncrasies in his Job in the mainstream tradition of Christian art. The art-historical approach has brought about three important advances in the study of Blake’s Job. There is now a realistic emphasis on Blake as artisan, as a skilled craftsman doing a dirty and monotonous and not well remunerated job, and of course expected to work within a well-established tradition. This tradition within which Blake was expected to work, this language of Christian art with its ‘pathos formulae’, has been explored in relation to Blake’s Job in detail by Bo Lindberg, and the non-biblical elements (formerly taken to be all Blake’s invention, and to reveal some peculiarly Blakean system, if only we can unravel the elaborate hidden clues) have been shown by Lindberg to be almost all Christo-centric, and part of the mainstream European tradition of interpreting the Book of Job.

“There is now a realistic emphasis on Blake as artisan

Secondly, more attention has been given to Blake’s techniques, and it is from this that it has been possible to establish with a considerable degree of certainty the idea first suggested by Lindberg, that a period of fifteen to twenty years separates the Butts series of water-colour Illustrations to the Book of Job from the engraved series made for John Linnell in the 1820s. This would contradict Alexander Gilchrist’s assumption that they were created at about the same time as the engraved set, and that they belong to the time when Blake was creating his illustrations to Blair’s Grave, and his great prophetic books, Vala or The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem. This means that the original water-colour set, created somewhere between 1805 and 1810, is of prime importance, and needs to be studied for itself, and also considered in the light of Blake’s artistic and literary output of the period.

Thirdly, Robert Essick in his contribution to the 1987 facsimile edition describes the discovery of new proof-stage pulls of the first and last plates which hint at the need for a reappraisal of Blake’s inscription under the first plate, ‘The Letter Killeth/ The Spirit giveth Life.’


The Story of Story: How Blake’s Job is about the nature of Narrative and the stories we tell ourselves

“Blake has a preference for rushing wind, billowing cloud, shafts of light”

Blake is always a very narrative artist, that is, he has a preference for rushing wind, billowing cloud, shafts of light, and his figures are either engaged in strenuous effort, or on the point of setting off somewhere difficult; and when they are not – for example when they are asleep, or dead – there is always a distraught mourning figure. Clearly the idea of a pictorial epic narrative fascinated him. His treatment of the Book of Job has its own epic unity, rather than simply highlighting dramatic points in the narrative. It also contains a number of non-Biblical elements, and it is this narrative element in his graphic work which makes it such a quarry for theological interpretation.

This article will bring a biblical and theological viewpoint to bear on the findings of the art historians. It will concentrate primarily on the Butts set of water-colours, which were created between 1805 and 1810, and study the series in the context of Blake’s work at that very productive period. It will argue that the usual view that Blake’s Job in the first two illustrations is legalistic and obsessed with ritual is by no means essential to the meaning of the whole, and is in fact hard to reconcile with the natural visual impact of the first two illustrations in the Butts series. Blake’s Job is by no means a simple visual narrative depicting one man’s passage out of the Error of self-righteousness into Enlightenment. The progress is of a different kind: Job by his inner journey of suffering and prayer is united with God, and thus transformed and liberated.

I start with Blake’s inner life, his changing outlook, in order to provide a context for a survey of his treatment of the Job theme. His central preoccupations seem to have been Job’s sufferings at the hands of his accusers, the issue of forgiveness, and the transcending of man’s mortality. Thus his five variants of Job and his Comforters with increasing dramatic impact show Job in isolation, the object of mockery and accusation. He keeps returning to the Job theme: the size-colour painting ‘Satan smiting Job’ was one of a set of three on Suffering, and there is also a set of three Job drawings among his sketches for The Gates of Paradise.

“His central preoccupations seem to have been Job’s sufferings at the hands of his accusers”. Pic: Blake’s cottage in Felpham, where in 1803 he was accused of sedition and put on trial the following year.

There followed the period when Blake by his illustrations was ‘christianising’ Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, and then made revisions to Vala or The Four Zoas which intensified an already existing Christian motif. Then came the set of water-colours on the Book of Job for Thomas Butts. It is accepted now by all leading Blake scholars that these were certainly painted before 1810, perhaps as early as 1805. Milton and Jerusalem were also being created at this time, and Jerusalem especially contains a large number of parallels with Blake’s Job, and, like Vala or The Four Zoas, it is threaded through with Blake’s strong sense of a religious calling, and of Christ’s redemptive act.

The aim of this section is to give the factual background, linking Blake’s treatment of the Job theme, and in particular the Butts set of water-colours, to his life and other writings. It is clear from this that Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job, far from being the work of his old age, belongs essentially to the turbulent and highly creative period after he left Felpham when he was working on all three of his major later prophetic books, a period when he was empowered by a strong sense of Christian regeneration and vision.

Going inside: front pages to his major works Jerusalem and Milton. “The turbulent and highly creative period after he left Felpham when he was working on his major later prophetic books, a period when he was empowered by a strong sense of Christian regeneration and vision”


The Bible as a process of Self-reinterpretation

“Gregory the Great’s famous Morals on the Book of Job

There are elements in Blake’s treatment that are not to be found in the Old Testament text. Re-tellings and elaborations of Job’s story were part of its history.  Even in inter-testamental times the Book of Job was being rewritten, re-interpreted, and this interpretative process continued in successive ages. Even before Gregory the Great’s famous Morals on the Book of Job there was a tradition of seeing the patriarch both as alter Christus and as a Christian, and this was strongly reflected in medieval illustrations to the Book of Job.

The semi-mystical, apocryphal Testament of Job, well known in the East, was particularly influential on the artistic tradition, and in it too Job is seen as a Christ-like figure. There are clear signs of its influence in the six thirteenth-century al seccos depicting Job’s story. These were dramatically discovered in 1800 in the chapel of St. Stephen’s, Westminster, and Blake would have known them.

Wall-painting from the east end of the north wall of St Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster Palace; tempera and oil on stone, gilded gesso; approximately seventeen fragments bearing scenes and inscriptions from the Book of Job.

It is argued that almost all the non-biblical elements in Blake’s Job belong to the great European tradition of Christian religious art, and are not peculiarly Blakean. The presence of Druid cromlechs in the background of several of the illustrations is also based on a tradition. The recent discovery that Blake owned a copy of Joseph Halleft’s three-volume A Free and Impartial Study of the Holy Scriptures illuminates Blake’s attitude to Scripture: Hallett’s commentary is radical, yet firmly committed to the importance of revelation and the centrality of Christ.

I shall focus on the Butts set, looking at Blake’s use of sun, moon and stars, of book and scroll, of cromlech, church and cross, and his use of ‘pathos formulae’, in particular the gesture of outstretched arms, and the theological meanings of this. Little has been written about his understanding and practice of the life of prayer as intercourse with God, and of what it means to be broken and remade by God.

One of the few clues as to the importance of the life of the spirit, of ‘prayer’ in a wide sense, is his list in Jerusalem of five names, all of them people of prayer, and of active holiness in the world: Teresa, Fenelon, Mme. Guyon, Whitefield, and Hervey (Jerusalem 72:51-2); in Milton he names Whitefield again, with Wesley. Of the five named in Jerusalem, the earliest, St. Teresa of Avila, is the most important and interesting, and I have therefore treated her to more space. Her influence on Fenelon and Mme. Guyon is obvious, but she was also an important and lasting influence on John Wesley and the others. Samuel Palmer testifies to Blake’s intense interest in her writings.

It is argued here that Blake presents Job as a man of prayer throughout the series. There are qualities of gentleness and lyrical beauty in the colouring of the first two illustrations, of attentiveness and humility in Job as we first meet him with his family gathered round him, which do not fit the usual interpretation, based only on the engraved set, that Job at the outset was unlikeable and self-righteous, obsessed with his performance of the correct rituals. Through his sufferings he becomes a Wounded Healer. David Bindman made the suggestion that one of Blake’s preoccupations in the Job series was the theme of how pre-Christian man (and this includes all who have not had the Gospel preached to them) can achieve redemption through Vision. Vision implies a depth of prayer, however, and whereas there are now extensive studies of Blake’s use of the Bible, his treatment of Prayer is still uncharted territory.

“There are qualities of gentleness and lyrical beauty in the colouring of the first two illustrations, of attentiveness and humility in Job as we first meet him with his family gathered round him, which do not fit the usual interpretation, based only on the engraved set, that Job at the outset was unlikeable and self-righteous, obsessed with his performance of the correct rituals.”

It is argued that Blake’s intention in the first two plates of the series has been misunderstood, through excessive emphasis on certain of the biblical quotations accompanying the first two plates, which also has repercussions on the interpretation of the rest of the series. The variant proofs for the first and last plates discovered by Robert Essick link this set of engravings with what Blake wrote in his Laocoon about the intimate connection between prayer and art.

“Prayer is the Study of Art Praise is the Practise of Art”: from Blake’s Laocoön (text is at top, left)

For Blake himself the medium is the message: his art is his prayer. Wicksteed’s perception that Blake depicted a progression from Error to Enlightenment was to some extent right, for Job was deepened and strengthened by his suffering. But whereas Wicksteed and others considered Blake’s Job was guilty of the sin of pride, the author of the biblical Book of Job made it clear that Job’s sufferings were arbitrary. I strongly contest the view that Blake’s Job at the outset was intended to be self-righteous, and argue that it is important not to take a purely individualistic view of Blake’s Job. Secondly, from the outset, Job is a man of prayer. At the beginning of the series he and his family are a tiny ‘faithful remnant’ in an oppressive moralistic and materialistic culture. Through his sufferings and his prayer he becomes a mediator for his fellow-men, and a symbol for others of the creativity afforded by Resurrection life. Blake’s Job is unique in the corpus of his work.


Blake’s Job in the setting of Blake’s Life

Blake’s outer life

“In 1790 the Blakes moved from Poland Street to Lambeth, where they lived till 1800”. Pic: photograph of Blake’s house (13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, London), taken in 1913.

After Blake’s father’s death in 1784 he may have inherited some money, for during the next twenty years he was relatively prosperous. In 1790 the Blakes moved from Poland Street to Lambeth, where they lived till 1800, when they were persuaded by Blake’s patron William Hayley to move to the village of Felpham in Sussex. Thus began a period of patronage and dependence. On their return to London in 1803 Blake determined on independence, even if it meant obscurity. The years between 1806 and 1818 were lean and difficult, but in these years Blake extensively revised his narrative epic Vala or The Four Zoas, produced the water-colour Illustrations to the Book of Job, and illuminated and engraved both Milton and Jerusalem.

About 1818 Blake was discovered by some young painters, grouped round Samuel Palmer, and calling themselves ‘The Ancients’, and by John Linnell, himself an artist, who generously supported the work of Blake’s final years, and commissioned the engraved version of Blake’s Illustrations. Blake died in 1827 at the age of sixty-nine in his lodgings in Fountain Court, the Strand.

Very little of Blake’s life was known by the public of Blake’s own day. They knew of him as an engraver, an artisan, and only grudgingly was he admitted to the category of minor artist. At best he was known as an eccentric, at worst dismissed, as he was for example by Robert Hunt, as ‘an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.’ The accounts of Blake drawing the ‘visionary heads’ suggest that he thought of what he saw as not his own creation, but present in the room. But Gilchrist was at pains to put across the view that he knew perfectly well what was visible to others and what was not.

“About 1818 Blake was discovered by some young painters, grouped round Samuel Palmer, and calling themselves ‘The Ancients’.” The Ancients were a group of young painters, led by Samuel Palmer, who fell under the spell of the visionary artist William Blake at the end of the nineteenth century in London. “To see one must look beyond mere landscapes”, Blake told the young seekers, “look long and hard, and continually observe, as with a child’s eyes, so that you go further, transgress, to a place unfamiliar.”


Blake’s Inner Life

An analysis of Blake’s inner journey shows that his first moment of illumination, a moment that inspired all his subsequent life, was some time before 1789, when he brought out Songs of Innocence. It was accompanied by a time of disillusionment and heavy despair, illuminated by the burst of inspiration and creativity that produced The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but moving thereafter into a time of even greater unhappiness and darkness. This time of unhappiness came to an end abruptly in 1804.

Within this period there are important polarities in Blake’s perception of the inner world. William Blake was, according to Evelyn Underhill, the last of the great Christian mystics, a man who ‘shines like a solitary star in the uncongenial atmosphere of the Georgian age.’ An early attempt at an analysis of Blake’s spiritual life in this dark and prolific period, is made by S. Foster Damon, in William Blake, his Philosophy and Symbols. Damon too neatly divides Blake’s inner life into temporal periods. If, however, we see Damon’s paired stages as co-existent polarities, his analysis has some usefulness. Damon divides Blake’s inner life into five stages, following the outline of Evelyn Underhill: (1) the awakening to a sense of a divine reality; (2) the consequent purgation of the Self, when it realises its own imperfections (a state which St. John of the Cross calls ‘the Active Night of the Senses’); (3) an enhanced return of the sense of the divine order, after the Self has achieved its detachment from the world; (4) the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, or the crucifixion of the Self in the absence of the divine; and (5) the complete union with Truth, the attainment of that which the third state had perceived as a possibility. This account provoked an emphatic retort from Helen White, The Mysticism of William Blake, and the debate has gone on ever since.


a) Poland Street and Lambeth – ‘dark but very profitable years’

“Blake’s ‘London’, in Songs of Experience (1794), the design for which shows a crippled old man being led by a child through gloomy tenement streets, gives a sense of his disillusionment”

The years when the Blakes were living first in Poland Street, then in Lambeth, were extraordinarily fertile; during them Blake produced twelve books of poetry in Illuminated Printing. There was the first burst of inspired vision which produced Songs of Innocence, but following it there is a ‘sense of betrayal, of being trapped beneath a weight of earth, and their images are of death and imprisonment.’ Blake’s ‘London’, in Songs of Experience (1794), the design for which shows a crippled old man being led by a child through gloomy tenement streets, gives a sense of his disillusionment:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.


In every cry of every Man,

In every Infant’s cry of fear,

In every voice: in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

The most agonising aspect is the grip of these ‘mind-forg’d manacles’, which Blake has illustrated in the title-page of Urizen (1794). Here the Creator sits huddled in despair, hands and ankles bound in fetters, eyes closed to the world around him. In this poem the faculty of man’s Reason is in chains, his light-giving divinity bound down to earth, and he shuts his eyes and does not see that he is his own prisoner.

“Blake’s The Good and Evil Angels (1795), where the Evil Angel has sightless eyes, and a fetter round his foot, even though he is in full flight.”

Some of the same symbolism of despair appears in Blake’s The Good and Evil Angels (1795), where the Evil Angel has sightless eyes, and a fetter round his foot, even though he is in full flight. A parallel can be drawn with the tortured, despairing expressions of the two figures in Elohim Creating Adam (1795), where the wings of the Creator are of heavy bronze, and his expression of abstracted pain is echoed by the tensed-up, prone body of Adam with its tortured face, entwined in the worm of mortality, the outspread arms of Elohim, with down-drooping hands, are also echoed by the outspread arms of the Evil Angel in the picture mentioned above. Adam seems to be lying on seaweed, on the bed of the sea: the bottom of the sea is used by Blake as a symbol for temporal existence. The green-brown seaweed background adds to the impression that Blake’s mindscape at this time was dark and tormented.

Elohim Creating Adam (1795), where the wings of the Creator are of heavy bronze, and his expression of abstracted pain is echoed by the tensed-up, prone body of Adam with its tortured face, entwined in the worm of mortality, the outspread arms of Elohim, with down-drooping hands, are also echoed by the outspread arms of the Evil Angel in the picture mentioned above. Adam seems to be lying on seaweed, on the bed of the sea: the bottom of the sea is used by Blake as a symbol for temporal existence. The green-brown seaweed background adds to the impression that Blake’s mindscape at this time was dark and tormented.”

I am not trying to argue that Blake passed through a time of innocent and radiant happiness into a period of dark despair, and that Songs of Innocence represents this first period, and Songs of Experience the later period; for I would agree with Morton D. Paley, who argues that by the time Blake published his Songs of Innocence in 1789 he had already arrived at his doctrine of contraries, and both the title and some of the poems in it imply a sequel about Experience. He writes that it is mistaken to suppose that each set represents Blake’s actual view at the time of publication: clearly the ‘innocence’ is in the speakers and their attitudes, not necessarily in the subjects themselves. On the contrary, the ecstatic visions of the Old Testament prophets are always accompanied by a sense of a grief at all that is wrong in their world: after mystical joy follows reaction, a sense that the world is evil and full of pain. The two states are inseparably linked.

Damon notes that Blake’s Poetical Sketches (1777), finished when he was twenty, show practically no sense of the transcendent. The one poem which might be expected to do so, ‘The Couch of Death’, seems like a literary exercise. Nor does there seem to be much transcendence in the satirical, unfinished An Island in the Moon (c. 1784-1785), with the important exception of some of the songs which Blake put into the mouths of his absurd characters. But the Songs of Innocence (1789), and The Book of Thel, which Blake published in the same year, are inspired by a radically different mood. What Blake called ‘Innocence’ – the sense of God within and the sense that God is in everything – became for him one of the permanent ‘states’ through which souls pass.

“What brought about the complete change between Poetical Sketches and Songs of Innocence? Between these two works came the death of Blake’s beloved brother Robert”

What brought about the complete change between Poetical Sketches and Songs of Innocence? Between these two works came the death of Blake’s beloved brother Robert, whom he was teaching to draw and paint. Blake nursed him in his illness, and for the last three days was awake continually beside him. And then he died, and Blake ‘beheld the released spirit ascend heavenward through the matter-of fact ceiling, ‘clapping its hands for joy’ – a truly Blake-like detail.’ Damon quotes words which Blake wrote under Plate 13 in The Gates of Paradise, the central plate in the series, ‘Fear and Hope are – vision.’ Blake abandoned the satirical prose piece, An Island in the Moon, and put together the poems of Songs of Innocence.

The impression made by this moment of illumination never left him. Yet this sense of transcendence was accompanied by a period of disillusionment with the world, a state of prophetic dis-ease. Blake matched his “Little Lamb who made thee?’ song by his ‘Tyger Tyger, burning bright’ poem, his ‘Infant Joy’ with ‘Infant Sorrow’, and called the collection Songs of Experience.

Somewhere in these dark years came a renewed burst of inspiration and illumination, which found creative expression in Blake’s highly original The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – we do not know when because we cannot date The Marriage more precisely than somewhere between 1790 and 1793. Blake by now was rejecting Swedenborg, whose ‘New Church’ was becoming more and more ritualised and institutionalised, abandoning its emphasis on energetic works of charity for an emphasis on individual morality. Instead he embraced Paracelsus and Jacob Boehme, rebels and mystics whose works he could have obtained from the same bookshops that stocked Swedenborg. These shops were stacked with pamphlets and epitomes explaining and describing Boehme’s works, as well as with the works themselves, and Blake’s acquaintance Cosway even owned an original Boehme manuscript. But Blake continued to use frequent Biblical imagery.


b) Felpham (September 1800 to October 1803)

“In Felpham, Blake’s sense of spiritual and material contentment was followed by a more terrible period of darkness, intensified by their isolation”

When the Blakes first moved to the sea-side village of Felpham, Blake had moments of vision. He described one such in his letter to Butts of 2nd October 1800. But Blake’s sense of spiritual and material contentment was followed by a more terrible period of darkness, intensified by their isolation, and Blake’s sense of frustration at the attempts of the well-meaning but obtuse Hayley to dominate his artistic output, unhappiness which in a letter dated 22nd November 1802 he confided to Butts :

… But You will justly enquire Why I have not written All this time to you? I answer I have been very Unhappy and could not think of troubling you about it or any of my real Friends (I have written many letters to you which I burned and did not send) & why I have not before now finished the Miniature which I promised to Mrs. Butts? I answer I have not till now in any degree pleased myself…

This mood of unhappiness was even worse than the sense of darkness and near despair which had been inseparable from his early visions.


c) Blake’s sense of renewal, after leaving Felpham

Back in “the spiritual Four-fold London”, Blake experienced a sense of huge renewal, resulting in his two masterpieces: Milton a Poem and Jerusalem. Pic: 17, South Molton Street, London, where the Blakes moved after Felpham and where they stayed for the next seventeen years.

After twenty years of bondage, as he himself described it, Blake suddenly broke free. We have an ecstatic letter from Blake to Hayley of 23rd October 1804:

Now! O Glory! and O Delight! I have entirely reduced that spectrous fiend to his station, whose annoyance has been the ruin of my labours for the last passed twenty years of my life … Nebuchadnezzar had seven times passed over him, I have had twenty…I was a slave bound in a mill among beasts and devils., [but now] my feet and my wife’s feet are free from fetters … Suddenly … I was again enlightened with the light I enjoyed in my youth and which has for exactly twenty years been closed from me as by a door and window-shutters … Dear Sir, excuse my enthusiasm or rather madness, for I am really drunk with intellectual vision whenever I take a pencil or graver into my hand, even as I used to be in my youth, but as I have not been for twenty dark but very profitable years.

The ‘twenty years’, three times repeated, is a literary approximation, unless Blake wants us to suppose that even Songs of Innocence is the work of a period of darkness. After 1804 Blake’s designs and poems are works of joy and of hope, and the figures in his designs look outwards and upwards. Now God is seen in everything, and everything leads to vision, as Blake writes at the end of his long description of his painting A Vision of the Last Judgement (1809):

I assert for My Self that I do not behold the Outward Creation . . .it is as the Dirt upon my feet No part of Me. What it will be Questiond When the Sun rises do you not See a round Disk of fire something like a Guinea? O no no, I see an Innumerable company o f the Heavenly host crying “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty!’… I look thro… [my eye] and not with it.

Many of Blake’s designs of this period, to which also belongs the Butts water-colour Job series, are illustrations of men’s visions. One of the most haunting is the pencil and water-colour, The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne (c. 1803-5). The winged heads of a line of angels before the throne are evocative of the angels in Plate XIV of Blake’s Illustrations (though there they are full- length). This is an illustration of Revelation 4:2-11, and Blake used the same passage in the Ninth Night of The Four Zoas (123:33-8, E 393), which he was working on at about this time; what is most striking is the softness and lightness of the colouring, and the mild face of the throned figure of the Deity, radiant in light, with forked light springing from his outstretched hands.

The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne (above). The winged heads of a line of angels before the throne are evocative of the angels in Plate XIV of Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job (beneath)”

Another vision is Jacob’s Ladder (c.1805), showing a stairway between Heaven and Earth, with angels already ascending and descending: the connection of man to heaven is complete in imagination, for two of the angels coming down are carrying gifts, a basket of bread and a pitcher of wine, a second pair descending carry a scroll and a closed book, and one of the angels ascending leads a little child. Another visionary illumination belonging to this time of renewal is Blake’s dedication-design for Blair’s Grave, in itself a gloomy, earth-bound poem. Blake’s design brings an atmosphere of hope: he shows Christ floating upwards, with two keys to release mankind from the captivity of Sin and Death.

If we can interpret the gifts of bread and wine carried down the stairway to man by the angels in Jacob’s Dream as symbolising Christ’s self-giving, then in each of these visions Christ is the key. Blake’s theme is now reconciliation and forgiveness, for Christ has ended slavery to the law. But though in the design for Blair’s Grave Christ bears the keys, they are also in our own hands. As Blake wrote later, in For the Sexes: the Gates of Paradise (sometime between 1806 and 1818):

Mutual forgiveness of each Vice

Such are the Gates of Paradise

The opening lines of Jerusalem

In William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols, Damon writes of the vividness of Blake’s moments of ecstasy. Milton is focused on one such moment. Blake’s Job shows Job saved from despair by just such a moment of vision, and Blake dwells on the intensity of these experiences in the opening lines of Jerusalem:

This theme calls me in sleep night after night, & ev’ry morn

Awakes me at sunrise, then I see the Saviour over me

Spreading his beams of love, & dictating the words of this mild song…

I am not a God afar off, I am a brother and a friend;

Within your bosoms I reside, and you reside in me:

Lo! We are one; forgiving all Evil; not seeking Recompense!

In Jerusalem as in his Job, Blake sees rebirth in very practical, earthly terms, in that it must find its expression in love for one’s neighbour, in forgiving and accepting forgiveness.


d) Blake’s later years and death

‘William Blake’s work-room and death-room, 3, Fountain Court, Strand’ by Frederic Shields. Shields, along with D. G. Rossetti, was a great student and admirer of Blake. For the second edition of Gilchrist’s “Life of Blake” he sought out the humble tenement in Fountain Court, Strand, where Blake lived, worked, and died, and made this beautiful and characteristic drawing of it.

Blake’s magnificent engraved Illustrations were created in the last years of his life. He achieved an extraordinary degree of serenity in these later years. One story illustrates Blake’s attitude of acceptance and rejoicing in his later years, though his outward circumstances were increasingly characterised by poverty, and there was little in the way of glory to compensate for it. At a fashionable party a little girl was presented to him, because of her unusual beauty. He looked at her a long time without saying anything, and then, stroking her hair, said, “May God make this world to you, my child, as beautiful as it has been to me. ”

Crabb Robinson writes of his dignity and grace in the ill-furnished little rooms in Fountains Court, overlooking the Thames:

There was a natural gentility about and an insensibility to the seeming poverty which quite removed the impression. Besides, his linen was clean, his hand white, and his air quite unembarrassed when he begged me to sit down, as if he were in a palace.

Many writers have declared that we carry within us the Godhead, but few have lived as if they actually believed it, as Blake lived. And Blake died as he had lived.

“He said He was going to that Country He had all His life wished to see”

Allan Cunningham described the day of his death,

On the day of his death, August 12th, 1827, he composed and uttered songs to his Maker so sweetly to the ear of his Catherine, that when she stood to hear him, he, looking upon her most affectionately, said, ‘My beloved, they are not mine – no – they are not mine.

George Richmond wrote to Samuel Palmer of his death:

Lest you should not have heard of the death of Mr. Blake I have written this to inform you – He died on Sunday Night at six Oclock in a most glorious manner  He said He was going to that Country He had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ – Just before he died His Countenance became fair – His eyes brighten’d and he burst out in Singing of the things he Saw in Heaven[.] In truth He Died like a Saint as a person who was standing by Him Observed.

Clearly the death of Blake had made a strong impression on the eighteen-year old Richmond. In many ways Blake’s personality is as interesting as his works.


Christian vision in Night Thoughts and in the reworking of The Four Zoas

Life mask of William Blake by James Deville

In trying to assign an approximate date to the earlier stages of Blake’s re-awakening we have the problem that there is no solid evidence in the form of correspondence till he and his wife moved to Felpham, in 1800. But on the back of the title-page of Bishop Watson’s attack on Thomas Paine, published 1797, Blake wrote, ‘To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life/ The Beast and the Whore rule without controls/ … the perversions of Christ’s life & acts are attacked by Paine and also the perversions of the Bible; Who dare defend [them] either the Acts of Christ or the Bible Unperverted?’

I have suggested there seem to have been times, earlier, when he experienced a polarity of feelings, with both a sense of re-awakening and a sense of profound despair. This is shown particularly in his illustrations for Young’s Night Thoughts, on which he worked between 1795 and 1797, and in the Christian revisions to Vala or The Four Zoas. David Grant, a member of the team of scholars working on a definitive commentary, would place his reawakening between 1795-7, or just after that time, so strong is the presence of the figure of Christ in the Night Thoughts illustrations. His treatment of Young’s poem certainly does not make sense as the work of someone who is not a Christian.

Frontispiece to the second volume of Blake’s illustrations to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts. As Naomi Billingsley notes, “This is an extraordinary image, which seems to depict Christ in the very moment of transformation, a subject that may be unprecedented and is certainly bold. He is emerging from darkness in a dramatic burst of light, dispelling the black clouds that recede at the edge of the picture. Only his torso is visible, and where the rest of the body should be are two figures sprawled on the ground – the soldiers who watched Christ’s tomb and ‘became as dead men’ (Matthew 28:4) when he rose. It is as if Christ is emerging from their bodies, so that they become his ‘Members’ (Laocoön), transforming their death-like state to life in the Divine Body. This is Christ as the embodiment of visionary energy inviting the viewer into his embrace and into union and regeneration with him. This is resurrection as apocalypse” – The Visionary Art of William Blake, by Naomi Billingsley

Blake’s illustrations were commissioned by the leading bookseller Richard Edwards, who was an admirer of Blake’s work. Of the 547 water-colours, only 43 were engraved and published; the project failed, due to the financial crisis in that year. Blake used the proof sheets from these engravings, however, for his poem Vala or The Four Zoas, and it is indicative of the emphasis he intended, that he incorporated all five of the engravings for the Night Thoughts that show Jesus in action, some of them more than once.

“Sugnet concludes that the role of Christ in the latest version of the poem is much larger than has been recognised hitherto”

Blake has a poetic, mythological approach, and yet still remains deeply Christian. For in Vala or The Four Zoas he is writing myth, and is not trying to write discursive theology: the poem is something told from the viewpoint of imperfect understanding, a dream dreamt by fallen man. ‘To Blake poetry (or religion, or myth – the terms are interchangeable for him) is clothing for a truth which cannot be grasped in strictly rational terms.’ Sugnet concludes that the role of Christ in the latest version of the poem is much larger than has been recognised hitherto, and that in the revisions to The Four Zoas we can trace Blake’s transition from the social prophet of the early 1790s, inveighing against worldly empire, to ‘the Blake of Jerusalem, shaking the dust of the world off his feet.’


Blake and Job

Biblical illustrating was one of the staples by which Blake earned money, but the Book of Job seems to have held a fascination for Blake throughout his working life. He came back to the ‘Job’ theme again and again. Lindberg provides a detailed catalogue of all the individual illustrations done by Blake on the Job theme, or thought to be on the Job theme, with a discussion of their likely dates. Butlin also has a systematic account of all the variants. Almost all Blake’s Job illustrations fall within three clear periods: c. 1793 (which is during the period Blake labelled as ‘dark but very profitable years’, when he was working on the Lambeth prophecies, and on The Marriage of Heaven and Hell); 1800-1810 (which is the time when he felt a strong sense of renewal); and 1821-1827, in the evening of his life, when he enjoyed the friendship of John Linnell, and the admiration of Samuel Palmer and ‘The Ancients’, but suffered from repeated illness, which often kept him from engraving-work.

The subject of the design has often been described as ‘Job and his family’

Job and his family (c. 1788). The earliest Job illustration is probably a water-colour presented in 1977 to the Cincinnati Art Museum by John Warrington, known as Job and his family. Lindberg puts the painting c. 1788 for stylistic reasons, the work being classed as early because of the absence of mannerisms or anatomical peculiarities, the lack of character and expression, and the classicised drawing of the noses and chins. He also points out that Job’s wife is veiled, unlike all Blake’s other drawings of her. Butlin would put it even earlier, c. 1780. This scene was used by Blake for the lower part of no. 2 of his Illustrations, with some compositional changes. The painting has the same sort of radiant iridescence and serenity as the designs for Songs of Innocence. Both Job and the youth standing on Job’s right hold books lightly in their hand, and are listening to the angels. There is nothing heavy and judgmental about the patriarch.

Job in distress (c. 1793). In the second group of illustrations of the Job theme, executed in and around 1793, are seven different illustrations showing Job isolated, accused by his friends. In the earliest, a sketch in the notebook in which Blake was writing the poems for Songs of Experience, the five figures sitting on the ground, the pointing hands, Job’s lifted head and open palms, are all there. Job’s wife, however, sits next to one of Job’s friends, while the other two sit the other side of him, suggesting that she too is accusing him, whereas in Butts set no. 10 the three friends sit together, their outstretched arms are even more threatening, and Job’s wife seems to be more protective. Here there is a clear change in outlook: the greater loyalty of Job’s wife in the Job series than in the first sketch suggests Blake decided that he wanted to stress Job’s innocence. Lindberg notes that Blake followed traditions established by James Barry’s engraving Job Reproved by His Friends, but Blake’s depiction of Job’s wife has nothing in common with Barry’s engraving of with the toothless old hag cursing God. Blake’s ‘wife of Job’ is young and beautiful, as in his 1788 water-colour, and as in Diirer’s Jabach-altar. Blake made two other illustrations using this sketch.

‘Job, his Wife and his Friends’ (c. 1785)

‘The Complaint of Job’ (c. 1786)

Blake used these for his large engraving Job, published in August 1793, and advertised for sale in October of that year. There is only one known copy of the first state of the engraved Job, and the date and part of the inscription are missing from it. The second state, of which three copies are known (British Museum, Fitzwilliam Museum, and Keynes Collection) which bears the same date but is clearly later, shows changes so radical as to suggest a gap of several years between first and second state. The earlier Job was stoic, monumental, now Blake has subtly changed the lighting so that his hands are no longer palms upward in injured innocence, but outstretched in grief, and tears glisten on his harrowed cheeks. Forked lightning rends the sky behind him, and there is a troubled ominous half light, the light immediately before a fierce storm. The engraving is inscribed ‘What is Man, that thou shouldest Try him Every Moment?’ Blake’s pre-occupation with this particular scene in the story of Job is also interesting, perhaps suggesting that he saw Job’s distress as his own.

“Blake’s large engraving Job, published in August 1793″

David Bindman points out the similarities in composition between this and Blake’s engraving Ezekiel, where Ezekiel, in spite of the disapproval of the mourners around him, accepts God’s bidding and stoically refuses to mourn the death of his wife, because he had been forbidden by God to do so. Bindman suggests that Blake paired Job with Ezekiel because he saw them both as men of Divine knowledge, set apart and misunderstood by their fellows. This runs counter to the accepted view that Blake’s Job was deeply in error, because of self-righteousness, and leads one to conclude that Blake’s Job throughout was a man close to God. This Job series is important to interpreting Blake’s Illustrations.

“Blake’s engraving Ezekiel” (1794)


‘Job’ themes in For Children: The Gates of Paradise (1793). In the same notebook as the sketch for Job and his Friends are the sketches for Job’s emblem-book For Children: The Gates of Paradise. The sketch described above was probably originally intended for the emblem book. In his sketch here for the frontispiece Blake quotes the same verses from the Book of Job as on the Job engraving, ‘What is Man that thou shouldest Magnify him & that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him / Job’.

“In this little line-engraving, a huddled hooded figure sits staring in contemplation, and round the figure’s feet is coiled an earthworm, rearing up its head. The inscription is ‘I have said to the Worm thou art my mother and my sister’ (Job 17:14).”

The final plate of the emblem series also quotes from the Book of Job. In this little line-engraving, a huddled hooded figure sits staring in contemplation, and round the figure’s feet is coiled an earthworm, rearing up its head. The inscription is ‘I have said to the Worm thou art my mother and my sister’ (Job 17:14). If Blake had merely shown the devouring worm, the meaning would have been despair, but he has shown the huddled figure wrapt in thought, and the fact that Man is conscious of his condition and has had a vision of Resurrection is all-important. These illustrations are designed to show what Job thought about death, not to illustrate any event from the Book of Job. This little book of etchings is bleak and uncompromising in its approach to earthly life. It belongs to the same period as the terrible figures of a self-blinded Urizen in fetters.

From the seventeen illustrations discussed by Lindberg, I have found that, in terms of their mood, a general survey shows that their putative dates fit well with the outline given above of the different stages in Blake’s inner journey. Paintings of c. 1803-5 show a serenity and radiance quite absent from work of the previous decade. And the group of Job studies c. 1793, with the possibly later second state of the Job engraving, suggest that Blake saw Job’s sufferings at the hands of his Comforters as central to the meaning of the story.


Blake’s water-colour Illustrations to the Book of Job for Thomas Butts

Gilchrist’s Life of Blake (1863)

Blake made a set of twenty-one exquisitely drawn water-colours to illustrate the Book of Job for Thomas Butts. Gilchrist writes that Blake borrowed them from Butts and showed them to John Linnell, who ordered a set of replicas in water-colour, and eventually commissioned a series of engravings, in an agreement dated 25th March 1823. These Butts drawings were formerly dated between 1818-1820. Lindberg, however, gives strong reasons for dating them to the first decade of the nineteenth century. Firstly, the Blake-Butts accounts end by 1810, and there is no record of any commissions in the next fifteen years. Gilchrist tells us that the two men had probably quarrelled – certainly they seldom met. Lindberg points out that the style of the Butts set is that of the smooth, thin washes of 1805-10. The Butts accounts for 1810 show a payment of £21 to Blake, which could possibly be the payment for the 21 water-colours, since Butts used to pay Blake about £1 a drawing. Lindberg surmises that drawings 17 and 20, which are tinted in a different style and are on different paper, betray additional work by Butts and his son, whom Blake began teaching to draw and engrave in 1806.

Most scholars agree with Lindberg, for many reasons, and are reluctant to accept Gilchrist’s assumption that the Butts set were only made shortly before the Linnell set. The arguments are technical, and are well set out in Butlin’s monumental The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, and in David Bindman’s article in his edition of the Illustrations for the Blake Trust (1987). Butlin assigns most of them to the period 1805- 6, following Blake’s trial for sedition in Chichester. Bindman adds that the Biblical water-colour, By the Waters of Babylon, which can be firmly dated to 1806, has resemblances to the first plate made for Thomas Butts: in both, the visual focus is on a great oak tree with musical instruments hanging in it, while below it sits a group of figures. In further support of this date c. 1805 Butlin points to the fact that two of the drawings, nos. 5 and 11, are signed WB inven, i.e. ‘invented’ or ‘discovered’ by WB, not ‘painted’. This was an inscription which Blake ceased to use after 1806, replacing it by his signature, W. Blake; and this is one of several reasons why scholars now tend to date the Butts set to before 1806.

Above: By the Waters of Babylon (1806); below: the first in the Butts series of illustrations for the Book of Job. “In both, the visual focus is on a great oak tree with musical instruments hanging in it, while below it sits a group of figures”.

Bindman links this Job set with the set of 32 water-colours of the life of Christ for Thomas Butts that were completed by 1805. The Job series is smaller, and in his view carries the story through to the New Testament, for Job is finally redeemed by Christ.  The question of date is important, because if this early dating is right, the Butts set belongs to that period of a sense of renewal and Christian vision after the Blakes’ return from Felpham to London. Blake’s whole visual conception for the series was worked out in the Butts set.


The Job tradition available to Blake, in words and art Introduction

‘To learn the Language of Art Copy for Ever. Is my rule.’

Painting of ‘Job with his friends’ by Gerard Seghers (1591-1651)

Blake writes of ‘the Language of Art’ as if it is self-evident that a good artist needs to learn it. Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job are full of unexpected elements. But Lindberg argues that they are not based on some peculiarly Blakean perspective, and that almost all that is unbiblical can be traced back to the tradition of Christian religious art. This in its turn he traces back to the interpretations of the early Fathers, or to the alternative Job story which grew up some time in the first century BC or AD, known as The Testament of Job, which in Eastern Christendom was for a time revered on a par with Scripture.

Blake has a large number of motifs and properties which are not in the biblical Book of Job. There is a Gothic church and the Lord’s Prayer inscribed on the disk of the setting sun, the dream of Satan masquerading as God, the Greek gods Helios and Selene, the vision shown to Job of the last judgement, the writing down of his story by his daughters, and the rejoicing in the final plate, in which Job is depicted praising God by singing and making music with all his family.

“There is no event in the Book of Job as source for the drawing which depicts Job’s evil dream, Job perceiving that the Power he wrestles with has a cloven hoof”

There is no event in the Book of Job as source for the drawing which depicts Job’s evil dream, Job perceiving that the Power he wrestles with has a cloven hoof. Blake’s versions differ from the scriptural version in other important respects. The role of Job’s wife is more prominent in Blake’s version than in the Biblical story, and this indicates a whole shift in emphasis. The role of Elihu, the younger friend who arrives later on the scene, is also more positive. And the Bible has no mention of the casting down of Satan and his angels, so dramatically depicted in plate 16. Moreover Blake embellishes the engraved version with quotations, many of which are not from the Book of Job but from the New Testament.

“And the Bible has no mention of the casting down of Satan and his angels, so dramatically depicted in plate 16”

Northrop Frye writes that one of the most striking features of the Bible is its capacity to rewrite itself. God is a God of the future, for ever unfolding, forever disclosing Himself in new ways. Frye argues that God’s reply to Moses, when asked what is his name, is translated in the Authorised Version, as ‘I am that I am’, but more properly it should be translated ‘I will be that I will be’. Frye shows how the Bible rewrites itself within its own corpus of writing: from Genesis to Esther we are concerned with objective things – law, history, and ritual, but Job initiates a section concerned with poetry, prophecy, and wisdom. This process of rewriting does not stop when the books of the Bible are organised into a canon. The important thing is that there are constantly new prophets, new ‘Bibles’: the Bible must not be regarded simply as literature, for the Bible is a mirror of God Himself. Its reason for existing is that through it man should grow more like God, and this imitatio dei is at its core.

So the Bible continues to be rewritten, as it was when Milton wrote his epics of the Fall and of Redemption. Blake too is constantly rewriting the Bible, but not so much by imitating, repeating, and honouring, as by denying, contradicting, and making new. The basis of Blake’s quarrel with Bishop Watson – and ultimately with Paine also – is on the issue of canonicity. For the Bishop the Bible is a closed system: it is complete, and there to be obeyed, the canon or standard against which a man must measure his conduct, whereas for Blake ‘I am that I am’ entails a continual process of re-creation. Many of the quotations used as part of the marginal embellishments for the final version of Illustrations to the Book of Job are from the New Testament, and by means of them Blake has found a way of expressing the kernel of his own Christian faith. In his Illustrations to the Book of Job Blake is employing a new medium for detailed re-telling, and in a sense is making a new departure, but the urge to “re-write” has been there all along.

“Blake is constantly rewriting the Bible, but not so much by imitating, repeating, and honouring, as by denying, contradicting, and making new”. Pic: Blake’s interpretation of the Bible’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar. Perhaps the most striking and unexpected aspect of the Bible narrative is that it’s actually all about re-writing – showing us how to hack into one’s own cultural codes and amend and re-interpret them: from Abraham and Isaac to Job, from Jesus to Revelation, and the great tradition of Jewish hermeneutics, contrary to what later left-brain fundamentalists suppose, the Bible is an extraordinarily imaginative and radical text: “The Great Code”, as Blake observed.


Job’s story: the inherent conflict between actual experience and our abstract moral systems  

When life is shit: Job On The Dunghill, by Gonzalo Carrasco (1881). Job’s ‘Why Me?’ attitude is as resonant now as it was 3,000 years ago. As the Bible, and Blake, suggest, it’s based on an erroneous image of life as a moral, rather than an imaginative, enterprise. The same Bible that inculcates facile recommendations about how hard work and obedience will be rewarded, shows us in fact that they are not. Life is generated not by the super-ego but the id: its purpose is not reward but self-realisation.

The Book of Job begins with a brief narrative introduction, in which almost all the incidents in the story take place. At the end of the forty-two chapters there is a brief epilogue in the same prose style. Between the two halves of this folk-story, however, is a long poetical dialogue which is philosophy rather than narrative. Job rails against his comforters’ shallow solutions to the problem of suffering and against the injustice of God’s world with passionate conviction, and he is answered by God himself. There is magnificent poetry in the dialogues between Job and his three accusers – friends they can hardly be called – in the newcomer Elihu’s angry rebukes, and in the intercourse between Job and his Creator. Job rails against the flourishing of injustice, against the power of evil in the world, against the way God seems to be deaf and blind to the sufferings of his faithful servants, while each of his mourners in turn affirms the conventional Jewish view that suffering is always the result of sin. Finally God appears to Job in a whirlwind, and speaks with him. God does not convict Job of sin, in failing to keep his Laws, but only of folly, in wanting to understand his ways.

For many centuries the outspokenness of this central section of the Book of Job was an embarrassment to both Jewish and Christian commentators, as Nahum Glatzer has shown. He shows how commentators found the central, poetic section of the book too unorthodox, too radical and threatening. These commentators were able to find a way out of their embarrassment by concentrating on the folk-story motif at the beginning, and interpreting the body of the book in the light of it, or by interpreting the text typologically, as foreshadowing the passion of Christ. Blake made his uniquely original pictorial epic by using to the full this tradition of exegesis, which he received mainly through the heritage of religious art, and reshaping it for his own purposes.


Connections between the Old Testament Patriarchs and the Druids

In Blake’s day Job was believed to have been a historic figure, who lived in the time of the Patriarchs, and the Book of Job was considered to be the oldest book of the Bible, written in Egypt before Moses gave the Israelites the Law at Mount Sinai. Matthew Henry in his introduction to the Book of Job conjectures that Job was descended from Abraham’s brother Nahor. He repeats Origen’s suggestion that Moses may have written the prose beginning and end, in order to throw light on the main body of the book.

This tradition that Job was a historic figure is reflected in art: in the High Gothic cathedral at Amiens Job figures, next to Moses, as last in a procession of the patriarchs (tympanum in the south transept). But it is the supposed links between Druids and Avebury and Stonehenge, and between the age of the Patriarchs and the age of the Druids which provided food for Blake’s poetic and artistic imagination.

“The backgrounds of nos. 5 and 6 show clear druid cromlechs, while in those of 7 and 10 there are ruins of a Stonehenge type”. In other words, Job’s early psychology works in an essentially moralistic and judgmental (fearful) landscape, based on ideas of power.

The backgrounds of nos. 5 and 6 show clear druid cromlechs, while in those of 7 and 10 there are ruins of a Stonehenge type. In the second half of the series there is no obvious presence of them, though in the background of Plate 17 on Job’s left is something that could possibly be identified as an oak-grove, and Lindberg claims that cromlechs can also be identified in the background of nos. 13 and 18 in the Butts set. In none of these three cases is the identification obvious, and it is safer to state only that there is a clear presence of cromlechs in the drawings and plates of the first half of the series.

Among these eighteenth-century antiquarians Blake mentions Jacob Bryant by name, and the evidence is strong that he had read William Stukeley and Edward Davies. Stukeley as a young doctor first visited Stonehenge in 1719. He had already seen and made notes from a copy of the manuscript of Aubrey’s Monumenta, which suggested a link between the Druids, as described in classical authors, and the megalithic roofless temples of Avebury and Stonehenge. Others thought that these temples were either of magical origin, Roman, or perhaps Danish.

Stonehenge, in Aubrey’s Monumenta

Stukeley’s impressively careful field-work has preserved records of Avebury and Stonehenge that are invaluable to archaeologists, and established Aubrey’s theory. Stukeley’s practical skills, however, were linked with wild theories about the religion of the Druids being the religion of the Old Testament Patriarchs, and the oak-groves where they worshipped being the ‘oaks of Mamre’ which figure in the story of Abraham, and moreover, that the religion of the Patriarchs was an early version of Christianity.

Above: William Stukeley’s serpentine map of Stonehenge. Below: Blake’s use of the “dragon like” form of the Druid construction in the final plate of Jerusalem.

His ‘List of Contents’ summarises his views. Here in his outline of Chapter 2 he writes that ‘the first religion was no other than Christianity, the Mosaic dispensation, as a veil, intervening; and that all mankind from the creation had a knowledge of the plurality of persons in the Deity’, while the theme of his Chapter 5 was that the Druids were a Phoenician colony who had preserved unspoilt the religion of Abraham:

“Stukeley believed that the British Druids originated as a Phoenician colony”. Pic: ‘A British Druid’ from Stukeley’s book.

The patriarchal history, particularly of Abraham, is largely pursu’d, and the deduction of the Phoenician colony into the island of Britain, after his time; whence the origin of the Druids, of their religion and their writing … they had the notion and expectation of the Messiah, and of the time of year when he was to be born, his office and death.

Stukeley believed that Stonehenge and the cromlechs were all part of Druid culture, and we find the same belief in Blake’s writings. Cromlechs and Druids figure strongly in the climax to Jerusalem, they are present also in Milton, and Blake has a good deal to say about them in the entry in his Descriptive Catalogue describing his painting The Ancient Britons.

Blake is reflecting widely current Anglo-Israelite theories that originated in the seventeenth century when he writes in the account of his painting, The Ancient Britons ‘Adam was a Druid, and Noah’. In the preface to the second chapter of Jerusalem he expands on this: ‘Was Britain the Primitive Seat of the Patriarchal Religion? … It is True, and cannot be controverted. Ye are united O ye Inhabitants of the Earth in One Religion … Your Ancestors derived their origin from Abraham, Heber, Shem, and Noah, who were Druids’.

“‘Was Britain the Primitive Seat of the Patriarchal Religion?”

Controversy raged over a theory that the language of Eden was the parent of all other languages, and Sheila Spector estimates that by the end of the eighteenth century theories could be found for and against Hebrew being the language of Eden, and for and against the common origin of English and Hebrew. Deists like Voltaire regarded the language of the Bible as reflecting the debased character of the barbarians who spoke and wrote it. The mythologist Jacob Bryant, on the other hand, believed that all languages derived from a single parent-language:

There was once but one language among the sons of men. Upon the dispersal of mankind this was branched out into dialects; and those again were subdivided: all which varied every age; not only in respect to one another; but each language differed from itself more and more continually.

The traditionalist view, held by Bryant, was that Adam was taught Hebrew by God, and therefore Hebrew was the language of Eden, and the Old Testament an authentic text delivered by God. Blake agreed: ‘All had originally one language.’

“Stukeley believed that Stonehenge and the cromlechs were all part of Druid culture, and we find the same belief in Blake’s writings”. Pic: detail from Blake’s Milton a poem

This subject has received much less attention than the antiquarians themselves, and the work of Peter Fisher is particularly valuable in exploring this field. A remark in Milton’s Areopagitica illustrates how widely the belief was held in Britain that the Druids were in fact the original source of the culture of the Mediterranean world:

Writers of good antiquity and ablest judgement have bin perswaded that e’en the school of Pythagoras, and the Persian wisdom took beginning from the old Philosophy of this Island.

Edward Davies cited Diogenes Laertius as authority for his belief that Druid culture had a strong influence on the culture of the Mediterranean basin. Fisher has an interesting footnote on the other classical authors he might have cited also, among them Pliny the Elder.

‘The Bard’, by William Blake

Fisher also explores a little-known source of traditional information about early history for eighteenth-century antiquarians, the large body of folklore containing the remains of Welsh Bardism. There is a puzzling reference in Blake’s introduction to his Descriptive Catalogue of 1809 to ‘Welch Triades’. Fisher argues that when Blake wrote in Descriptive Catalogue V: ‘Mr. B has in his hand poems of the highest antiquity’, and referred in his introduction to the exhibition to ‘Welch Triades’ he was referring to a group of poems included in the poetic collection published by Edward Williams in 1794, in the appendix of which was a collection of ‘triads’, a traditional form of verse arranged in groups of three lines, which Williams claimed to have transcribed and translated from the collection made by Llewelyn Sion, a bard of Glamorgan, in 1560. Triads were supposed to be the most common form of verse used by the Druids for handing down the body of Druidic religious lore, which they refused to commit to writing. Blake himself wrote a pair of ‘triads’, two groups of three-line verses, for the first page of his advertisement of the 1809 exhibition. Fisher took this as an indication that Blake would not have been put off by the fact that Williams’ collection of triads were of motley origin historically. Morton D. Paley quotes interesting parallels from Owen Pugh’s translations of Welsh heroic elegies.


Blake’s attitude to cromlechs and Druids

“the unexpected prevalence of Druid ruins in the background to so many of the drawings”

In view of the unexpected prevalence of Druid ruins in the background to so many of the drawings in the first half of the series, it is important to try to assess what Blake intended them to signify. Stukeley and Davies emphasised all that was thought to be good about the Druids, and we find this romanticised attitude echoed in Blake’s description of his painting The Ancient Britons.

Davies wished to prove that the Druids were primitive Christians, and to do so he passed lightly over their teaching about re-incarnation, and various polytheistic beliefs. Blake himself was more ambivalent. S. Foster Damon discusses romantic beliefs about the Druids current in Blake’s day. But Damon argues that to Blake Druidism symbolised Deism, a religion of Natural Law, a cruel and moralistic set of beliefs which included human sacrifices, but ‘the whole Druid Law [Jesus] removes away’ (Jerusalem 69:39).

Peter Fisher’s analysis of Blake’s ambivalent attitudes to the Druids throws light on Blake’s own particular vision of human history, and is central to our understanding of Blake’s work around the time he was creating the Butts set of Job water-colours. He writes that for Blake history was the field of recurrent attempts to wake up human conscience, both individual and social. Each attempt was a new vision, finally reduced by the dead weight of self-interest and misunderstanding to some system of accepted beliefs, with its conventional morality and its sacrificial rites. Bardic tradition provided a prime example of this cycle for Blake, hence his ambivalent attitude towards the Druids.

“for Blake history was the field of recurrent attempts to wake up human conscience, both individual and social”. Note the cromlech in the background again (from Blake’s poem Jerusalem).

On the one hand, he saw them as representing the original unspoiled patriarchal religion, their temples unroofed in order not to pen in the living Deity; on the other, he saw a degeneration into living by rule, refusing to accept paradox, refusing to respect the individual conscience.

‘The Bard, from Gray’, by Blake (c. 1809). “In A Descriptive Catalogue Blake places Gray’s bard, last of the Druids, beside a description of the last ‘Battle of King Arthur’ (Albion), and the rout of his forces (the disintegration of his faculties, the ‘zoas’).”

In A Descriptive Catalogue IV and V Blake places Gray’s bard, last of the Druids, beside a description of the last “Battle of King Arthur” (Albion), and the rout of his forces (the disintegration of his faculties, the ‘zoas’). Blake is here associating divine vision and prophetic inspiration with the Druid culture. Nevertheless, in his view the Druid culture lost its vision and became repressive. The victimisation of man, in Blake’s opinion, followed the pattern of degeneration from internal discipline to external pressure, and finally, to the Deists’ demand for submission to the presumed indivisible Natural and Moral Order. As in Swedenborg, Blake found in Druidism a deep-rooted tendency to eliminate one contrary in favour of the other, and to regard this process as the moral triumph of good over evil.

In discussing this inability of mankind to sustain living with paradox, Fisher writes of man’s tendency to submission to the ‘cloven fiction’ of two exhaustive alternatives to every problem. The phrase evokes Blake’s depiction of Job’s nightmare in the eleventh drawing of the Job series, where a clearly cloven-footed Deity is hovering threateningly over Job on his bed, and pointing with one hand to the fires of Hell, with the other to the Tables of the Law. It is usually thought that Job in his nightmare realises that the God he has been worshipping, the God of the Moral Law, is a figment of his own narrow mind, and Satanic. But this insight of Fisher’s suggests that Job realises that the religion of the culture within which he lives, which is now threatening him, is Satanic. This interpretation has several advantages. First, it harmonises with the opening paragraphs of The Testament of Job, in which Job, perceiving that all men were worshipping Satan as their Creator, angered Satan by destroying his idol.

Second, in the Butts version of no. 11 the head of the serpent is beautifully tinted, with red-gold scales, as if Blake wanted to emphasise the danger of ‘loving the beauty of the serpent,’ a striking phrase from the Testament.

The discussion in Peter Fisher’s essay is too detailed to give here, but his findings are of great importance to understanding the Job series, because of the contrast between living according to the Moral Law, and living according to one’s inner conscience. Those who hated what was commonly called moral virtue were those whose morality was within them, a matter of conscience.

‘Conscience in those who have it is unequivocal.’ It is for those without conscience that rules of moral law were created: the left-brain codified systems of control and behaviour that took off in Sumer and Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago.

‘Conscience in those who have it is unequivocal. It is the voice of God’ Blake wrote in his annotations to Bishop Watson’s An Apology for the Bible. Watson’s book was published in 1797, and Blake wrote on the back of the title-page of his copy, ‘To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life / The Beast and the Whore rule without controls’.

Fisher’s analysis of Blake’s picture of the degeneration of Druidism is relevant to an understanding of Blake’s Job. In the 1790s Blake made five studies of Job’s distress, oppressed by the censures of his friends. He seemed to be obsessed with Job’s isolation from the rest of humanity. There is the same theme in his companion engraving Ezekiel. Ezekiel was forbidden by God to mourn for his wife, and he therefore refuses to surrender to his grief (Ezekiel 24:19). His isolation is emphasised by his figure forming a strong vertical, among the huddled figures of the mourners, and in contrast to his wife’s dead body, laid out flat.

“Blake’s preoccupation with conveying Job’s sense of his own innocence”

A comparison of the first and second states of his great Job engraving shows Blake’s preoccupation with conveying Job’s sense of his own innocence. For Job was a man whose conscience was clear, oppressed by conventional friends who insisted that he must have committed some evil, otherwise he would not be suffering as he was.

If Peter Fisher is right in his analysis of Blake’s ambivalent attitude to the Druid civilisation, then these ruined cromlechs represent a decadent religious culture. Job’s uncertain friends are its representatives, Job’s sufferings are apparently abitrary, not a punishment for his abominable self-righteousness, and we are returning to a more biblical interpretation of the meaning of the opening section of Blake’s Job.


The Butts set: The sources for Blake’s imagery

Thomas Butts Senior, by William Blake (c. 1809)

Blake was certainly fortunate in having a patron as generous and as self-effacing as Thomas Butts, a clerk in the War Office, who filled his house in Fitzroy Square with Blake’s work. Not only did he commission a large number of paintings and drawings, often buying as much as a drawing a week, but he also engaged Blake for a salary of £26 a year to teach drawing to his son. Mona Wilson, in The Life of William Blake, gives a detailed account of the friendship between the Butts family and the Blakes. The friendship lasted till the end of Blake’s life, for a visit by Thomas Butts is mentioned by Blake in 1827. And Blake’s letters to him from Felpham are some of the most valuable as biographical material. As Blake struggled to re-establish himself as an artist in London, and put behind him the resentment he had felt at Hayley’s will to dominate and direct him into supposedly more lucrative work, Thomas Butts’ discriminating encouragement and lack of interference must have been very important to him. After Felpham the correspondence peters out, because they met face to face, but the patronage continued.

This section explores some of the visual imagery in Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job in the set commissioned by Butts.


Book and Scroll – Law and gospel?

‘In the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.’ (Psalm 40: 7-8).

Books and scrolls are prominent in Blake’s Job illustrations, and it is important to examine carefully the role they play to see whether there is a contrast between books as bad, a sign of legalism and self-righteousness, and scrolls as good, the vehicle for the thoughts of angels.

Blake approved of book-learning, for he wrote in the forceful prose introduction to the fourth section of Jerusalem. ‘Expel from among you those who pretend to despise the labours of Art & Science! … To labour in knowledge is to build up Jerusalem, and to despise knowledge is to despise Jerusalem & her builders’. In the climax at the end of Jerusalem even Bacon Newton and Locke are redeemed, and are found numbered with Milton, Chaucer and Shakespeare (J 97:9).

In drawing no. 1 Job and his wife have heavy books open on their laps. The scene in this Butts drawing is reminiscent of a much earlier design, the title-page of Songs of Innocence, where a woman sits under a tree with an open book, and two children stand beside her reading from it. Binyon in 1906 commented on ‘the feeling of unity and peace that is created by gathering the composition together in the centre of the space’.

“The title-page of Songs of Innocence, where a woman sits under a tree with an open book”. What do books denote? Turning your back on lived reality in favour of abstract authorial and authoritarian text, or sheer enjoyment of narrative and learning?

Almost all later commentators, however, assume that these are the books of the Law, and provide a detailed set of rules that must be kept, basing this judgement on the words inscribed on the altar below, in the engraved version. Lindberg’s guiding principle is that explanations should be sought within the work itself, respecting its integrity as a work of art.

The intention here, therefore, is to approach the interpretation of the Butts set with an open mind, using other earlier or contemporaneous designs by Blake, and the tradition of illustrating the Book of Job available to Blake. There is no indication here in the Butts set that we are to understand Job as in error. There is nothing of Urizenic dominance in this gentle old patriarch, surrounded by his children. These books on the laps of Job and his wife could be Bibles, being used for reading psalms or passages from Scripture as part of evening worship.


The Journey of Job

What strikes the viewer in this first drawing is the symmetry and formality of the composition, creating a sense of harmony and deep peace, and the importance of radiant light, a light which sees to emanate from all the figures in the group, for if Blake had struck to strict naturalism, the figures would have been in silhouette against the setting sun.

David Bindman, describing the biblical paintings for Butts, writes that the shift towards an ‘Early Christian’ style led Blake to rely more on compositional symmetry and the representation of light, a remark applicable also to the Job water-colours. By ‘Early Christian’ Bindman presumably means works such as the mosaics in the cathedral church of St. Appolinare in Classe in Ravenna, with which nos. 1 and 21 of the Butts set have clear compositional affinities, in gathering the composition in the centre of the space, and thereby creating a sense of harmony and serenity. Blake in this first drawing is making out of Job a Christian icon, and in doing so is identifying himself with a tradition going right back to the early Fathers.

In Drawing no. 2 the scene is divided into three, and the most important section, for this discussion, is the lowest. In the upper third we see God the Father, a radiant blaze of white light emanating from Him, with a heavy book on his lap. Spirits bring both scrolls and books and lay them at the foot of the throne. The central part of the design is dominated by the leaping fiery figure of Satan. About both these figures there will be more in the final section of this chapter. At the bottom of the design we see Job with his reclining family, studying the Scriptures.

Commentators point out the link between the heavy books held by Job and his wife, and by the Deity who is Job’s mirror-image in heaven, and say that at the outset Job’s God is a God of rules and of vengeance. Wicksteed writes: ‘The angels are reading the life-books of Job and his family, and carrying up the records to judgement. The accuser too rushes forward to bring his charge.’

Damon draws a contrast between books (signifying deadly rules) and scrolls (signifying spiritual life): The Almighty has no scroll: he does not consider such trifles. On earth angels minister to Job with scrolls of song, although Job himself holds upright the book of Law on his left knee.’ Wicksteed also states, ‘Job himself is conceived at first as deeply in error, which is the meaning attached to his being put into the power of Satan.’

‘An Allegory of the Bible’ (c. 1780–5) ). What this striking but subtle image illustrates is the process of the revelation of knowledge – different ways we have of ‘knowing’, and their merits and pitfalls – some is direct by perception (top of image), some is through reading books (more self-encased and left-brain), and some is just hearsay and passing things on without actually directly seeing them (bottom of image).

If these commentators are right, then Blake has radically altered the message of the biblical text, which is concerned with the arbitrariness of suffering. In the first place, however, they are wrong in thinking that throughout the Illustrations books are bad, scrolls good. Secondly, we have a striking parallel for this family scene, in the drawing dated by some to 1788, by others even earlier, known variously as Job and his family, and Enoch walked with God (see above). Job is talking to a group of angels and showing them a book. One of the angels holds an open scroll. His wife reclines behind him, also engrossed in the conversation, and a grown-up daughter reclining behind her mother rests her arm affectionately on the shoulders of a young boy and girl; all three of them are intently listening to the angels. On Job’s right stands a boy of twelve or fourteen, a closed book held lightly in his hand, as he also listens to the angels. The whole impression is of an affectionate family group who have easy intercourse with the angelic visitors, an impression enhanced by the presence of the children, two of whom hold books lightly and lovingly, in their hands, while two others hold scrolls.

It seems as if Blake is here working within the tradition that goes back to Gregory the Great, which depicts Job as a type of Christ. In drawing no. 2 Blake has moved the angels so that they are on Job’s right instead of on his left, has reduced them to two, and has given them wings, but the mood of the family group has not been changed. The Butts set was composed in or around 1805, at a time when Blake felt a strong sense of Christian renewal: there is deep love and devotion seen in the faces of the members of Job’s family at prayer in the first drawing, and in the second Blake depicts an atmosphere like Milton’s Garden of Eden in Paradise Lost, with angels and men in easy conversation.

Bindman later wrote ‘A central theme of the Job series is the ability of pre-Christian man – a state shared by all who have not found Christ in any age – to achieve Christian redemption through vision.’ He maintains that the role of Christ as true God in the Job series reflects Blake’s faithful attention to the biblical text, with its assertion of confidence in a redeemer. Books are the stimulus to that vision, and hence the presence of books in both the first and the second half of the series. Job’s vision was all-important to his regeneration. Job at the outset is a good old man, he and his family a type of ‘faithful remnant’, radiating light in a world growing dark. By a terrible journey through suffering, he passes through death into new life in Christ.


No contrast between books and scrolls. Blake’s contrast is not between Old Testament Law and New Testament total freedom, but between Law alone, and Law and Gospel. This point is very important for interpreting Job’s state of mind at the outset of the series.

For Blake, it was not what you read but how you read it that mattered. A totalitarian, judgmental and disembodied mindset will inevitably make books instruments of control and dissociation.

Blake himself loved his Bible, according to his contemporaries, and there is need for more caution than Wicksteed employed, in seeking to understand his attitude to it. Frederick Tatham writes that among Blake’s books bequeathed to him by Blake’s widow Catherine, the Bible was the most thumbed. But Blake also told Crabb Robinson that he understood the Bible in a ‘Spiritual Sense.’ Crabb Robinson records a conversation on 19th February 1826 with Blake, in which Blake declared that the Bible is the word of God and all truth is to be found in it; but then, so it seemed to Crabb Robinson, wholly nullified all he had said by declaring that he understood the Bible in a Spiritual Sense … As to the natural sense he said, “Voltaire was commissioned by God to expose that.” This conversation took place near the end of Blake’s life. If it is legitimate to use it to interpret this early drawing of a family group with books and scrolls, in easy converse with angels, then it shows a good man reading the scriptures and being helped by the angelic visitors to understand Scripture in its spiritual sense. The two youths who hold scrolls have already understood it so.

“In no. 5 God has closed the book and holds it in one hand, a scroll in the other.”

Books and scrolls also appear in several other drawings in the series. In no. 5 God has closed the book and holds it in one hand, a scroll in the other. God in this Butts drawing is so full of pity and sorrow He has laid aside his book and scroll. Blake told Crabb Robinson he did not believe in the Omnipotence of God, ‘The language of the Bible is only poetical or allegorical on that subject.’ Blake told him there is sorrow in Heaven, for where there is joy, there also must be sorrow. In no. 16, showing the casting down of Satan, God again has an open book on his lap. And in the Butts set both books and scrolls figure prominently in no. 20, which shows Job with his daughters. Job’s arms are outspread and his hair disturbed with inspiration as he tells his daughters of his experience. One daughter holds a scroll and listens, one holds a small book in which she is writing, another seems to hold a large book in which she is drawing, and an even larger book, closed, leans against the leg of the couch on which they are sitting.

“In no. 20, which shows Job with his daughters. Job’s arms are outspread and his hair disturbed with inspiration as he tells his daughters of his experience”

It would be hard to maintain that there is a contrast in any of these later drawings in the series between book and scroll, with the book representing repressive Law, and the scroll Inspiration. When Blake wants to show repressive Law, as in no. 11, he shows two stone tables, shaped like tombstones, with the Decalogue clearly inscribed on them. I do not find a significant emphasis on repressive Law in the first two drawings in the series. Nevertheless Law and Gospel, and death and immortality, are bound up with each other in the Book of Job, and in all Blake’s illustrations of the Job theme; for without a conviction of immortality Job cannot begin to live this present life to the full.

‘Blake’s hatred of ‘mystery’. Wicksteed’s contention that Blake’s Job as shown at the outset of the series is deeply in error is important to his central argument, which is that Blake hated mystery, and therefore set out to ‘unriddle the universe’ to impose his own solution to the mystery of evil. To back his contention he quotes from ‘The Human Abstract’:

Soon spreads the dismal shade

Of Mystery over his head;

And the Catterpiller and Fly

Feed on the Mystery. (Songs of Experience)

and from A Vision of the Last Judgement: ‘Beneath these is the seat of the harlot, named Mystery in the Revelations’. But from the words that follow it is clear that this harlot represents ‘Vegetable Life & Death with its Lusts’. The kind of ‘mystery’ he had in mind is perhaps shown by these words from Jerusalem:

Go tell them this, & overthrow their cup

Their bread, their altar-table, their incense, & their oath,

Their marriage & their baptism, their burial & consecration.

This reflects Blake anger against sacraments, which give a special place to the priest. Blake is too Protestant for this, every man is king and priest in his own house. ‘Jesus supposes every Thing to be Evident to the Child & to the Poor & Unlearned Such is the Gospel. I do not agree with Wicksteed’s view that Blake hated mystery, and that Blake’s solution to the mystery of suffering was the subtlety of error, i.e. the best man in terms of outward acts may actually be as complete a victim of Satan as the worst, because in his thoughts he errs, and ‘thought is act’.

Contrast between study and direct experience. ‘Job is ignorant of all that gives life – eternal life’ writes Bo Lindberg. In a section central to his study of Blake’s Illustrations, he writes of Blake’s own experiences of death, in particular the death of his beloved brother Robert, who died in 1787 at the age of nineteen. Blake nursed him for a fortnight, sitting up with him continuously, and when he died, Blake saw ‘his released spirit ascend heavenward through the matter-of-fact ceiling, clapping its hands for joy’. Lindberg writes:

Thus Blake knew from experience that there is not only survival but also liberation after death. Many people believe that those are wrong who hold that death means a total extinction of the personality. But Blake knew that the atheist opinion of death, which he met with in the Paine set of radicals, was positively false. He had watched the resurrection of Robert’s spiritual body, and he was too empirically minded to doubt what he had seen with his own eyes. In Blake’s opinion you had to be dogmatically unrealistic to doubt that man is immortal.

In the year of his mother’s death, 1792, Blake engraved the plates of Job and Ezekiel, and the emblem book The Gates of Paradise, which contains quotations from the Book of Job. Lindberg shows how death and immortality is an important theme in Blake’s work in and around 1793. The cocoon with the sleeping baby on the frontispiece of The Gates of Paradise is a symbol of transition from the caterpillar, through cocoon, to butterfly. In the tomb, which he entered willingly, he finds that the worm is his mother and his sister. Man is a worm, but this worm is a worm that will be transformed into another and more glorious being: he is a larva, and will become a winged creature: on one copy of For Children, after quoting ‘What is Man?’ from Job 7:17, Blake wrote “we are worms, born to form the angelic butterfly”, quoting from Dante Purgatory, canto X.

Blake’s Job at the beginning of the series would not have understood these words of Dante. In June 1793 Blake wrote in his note-book, ‘I say I shant live five years And if I live one it will be a Wonder’. Twelve years later, at the time he was working on the illustrations to Blair’s Grave and the set of Butts water-colours, Blake had much contact with unexpected death, with his engraving of a portrait of Hayley’s dying son (1800), and with his designs for Malkin’s memoirs of his dead child (1806). Yet the Butts water-colours still glow with gentle colour, even though some of the colours are faded and insipid, conveying a sense of peace and freedom such as one does not often find in the prophetic books of the Lambeth period.

Bo Lindberg considers that, at the beginning of the series, Job is not self-righteous and arrogant, but nevertheless he is serving God by keeping only to the letter of the Law. He believes that God is righteous, and since this is the only world there is, and there is no hope of recompense in any world but this, God must reward the good and punish the unrighteous in this present life. ‘Job’s sin is that he does not believe that man has any part in the spiritual world. . .this lack of belief in the spirit is the beginning of atheism.’ In this I would disagree with Lindberg.

A spirituality so boring even the sheep are asleep. “Job is serving God by keeping only to the letter of the Law. He believes that God is righteous, and since this is the only world there is, and there is no hope of recompense in any world but this, God must reward the good and punish the unrighteous in this present life.” It’s actually not spiritual at all, but simply being kept hostage to one’s own Superego: Job’s “faith” is deeply egocentric. He thinks by dissociating his libidinal energies (his “shadow” aspects, which will return to haunt him in his dream) and by passively obeying his own left brain internalised fear-systems, “God” will reward him. His suffering is not a punishment but a way for him to escape this trap.

In Lindberg’s interpretation Job has a preference for ceremony and outward service when he prays, using the form of the Lord’s prayer from the book, rather than praying from the heart; he is zealous for moral perfection, consulting the angels on the moral code contained in the book he has open on his knee; and he confidently expects that in the present life virtue will be rewarded and vice will be punished. It will be argued, however, that in the first drawing of the series Job is shown as the captive of the society in which he dwells, just as the children of Israel in exile in Babylon were captives, and hung their instruments unused in the trees, ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ Job through his great obstinacy came to learn the error of that society – not his own personal error only, as in Lindberg’s account.

Job as wounded healer. In no. 18 Blake shows us Job with his arms outspread in blessing over his wife and his three friends, in front of an altar on which burns a sacrifice. This illustrates God’s command to the comforters that they must offer bullocks in sacrifice and ask Job to pray for them. The next two drawings have no biblical counterpart. In no. 19 Blake shows us a bearded man and two well-dressed women, presumably Job’s friends’ wives or family, bringing precious gifts to Job and his wife. Commentators have suggested that it may have been included as a gesture of gratitude to Thomas Butts and his family. It is also important that Job in all the four final drawings is shown in the role of leader, and is shown healing his people by his readiness to accept their generosity, and to share with his daughters his harrowing experiences, as much as by praying for them, or leading them in hymns of praise.


Sun, moon, and stars

In the Butts set, sun, moon and stars do more than simply provide a source of light. In no. 1, the sun is on the horizon on the left, and on the right a single star and a thin sliver of moon occupy a darkening sky. In the following pictures the scene will become progressively darker, and it is therefore assumed that the sun is setting, and rises again in the final picture in the series.

“the sun on the horizon again in no. 6”

Corroboration for this assumption is found in the fact that the illuminated designs for Jerusalem also depict a sunset at the beginning, and a sunrise at the end. Though strictly the connotation of the sun in relation to the moon in drawing no. 1 would suggest sunrise not sunset, Blake does not aim for naturalistic representation (compare the stars in drawing no. 12, which are no known constellation). Blake disrupts the natural sequence by showing the sun on the horizon again in no. 6, and only just below the horizon in no. 7. Whether or not the sun is setting in the first Butts picture, there is certainly a contrast between the right hand horizon, where a tall rocky crag, perhaps representing Mt. Sinai, is almost lost in the gathering darkness, and the left-hand side, where the cathedral is bathed in light from the sun behind it. The contrast would have seemed even stronger when the painting was first made, before the yellows faded. And the general movement of the series is a descent into darkness, with its nadir at drawing 11, Job’s nightmare, and a gradual ascent again into regions of light.

In the first drawing it is evening. Kathleen Raine notes that there are signs that Job is in a state of spiritual sleep: the dog which should be on guard is resting his chin comfortably on the woolly back of one of the sheep, and the two rams are also sleeping. In Blake’s vision of mankind, man’s Fall meant a fall into torpor and oblivion, not into sin: throughout his prophetic writings, Blake called mankind not to repentance but to awakening.

What is outside is also what is inside in Blake’s work: our landscapes are always psychological.

This is a useful insight, especially for interpreting the Butts set, since the idea is central to the poems Blake was working on at around this time. It seems to Kathleen Raine, however, that ‘the apathy of Job and his family’ suggest that Job is self-righteous and unawakened, in spite of the virtuous life he leads; and for Blake self-righteousness was the supreme sin, because it set the human ego above God, the ’empirical’ self before the spiritual. It would follow that Job at the beginning of the series is most unlovely and unloved, guilty of hidden sin. But it is clear in Butts no. 1, though not so clear in Plate I of the engraved set, that it is only the sheep and the dogs, not Job and his family, who are sunk in torpor. Job the pastor dwells among an unenlightened people, and is soon to become a victim of their narrowness.

In no. 14, Blake’s great picture depicting the Creation, ‘when the stars of the morning sang together’, he has shown a pagan sun-god, and moon-goddess. The sun and moon are shown in their physical aspects as a disk of fire and a sceptre of light, and in their spiritual aspects, as the two winged deities Helios and Selene. Helios drives the horses of the sun, as regularly shown on Greek vases. The dragons driven by the Moon- goddess occur also in Blake’s illustration to Milton’s Il Penseroso, for there Cynthia is said to drive a dragon yoke. Blake took it from Milton; Milton seems to have taken it from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Book VII Medea prays to the moon and a chariot pulled by dragons comes down to carry her away, but these dragons belong to the sun. The horses and the dragons are commonplaces of classical mythology. Blake emphasises that the sun and moon are inferior to their Creator, by the way the parts which should be lit by the sun’s rays are still in shadow, whereas the pure white light issuing from the throne of God the Word illuminates the whole of the lower part of the three-fold design.

But why has Blake introduced classical mythology into this vision of Genesis? Why does he show earthly existence like Plato’s Cave? Jacob Bryant put forward a theory that the art of the Romans and Greeks was copied from much superior Hebrew originals. The plates for his New System of Ancient Mythology, or Plagiarism of the Heathen Detected were cut at James Basire’s in 1776, when Blake was an apprentice there, and he may have helped with some of them. Blake’s friend Flaxman believed Bryant’s theory, and in his day he was a respected scholar.

What then do the symbols of sun, moon, and stars in the final picture in the Butts set represent? In the first drawing in the series, the moon was in its last quarter and the star was setting. Here the moon is in its first quarter, and the sun is on the right – which would be the East, were we looking at a map. Most commentators infer the sun is just rising, ‘eternity’s sunrise’ of which Blake wrote in 1793 in his notebook:

He who binds to himself a joy Does the winged life destroy

But he who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Sun, moon and stars are used by Blake to provide a setting for Job’s spiritual journey into night, and rebirth to new life.


Blake’s use of cromlech, church, and cross

Blake consistently associated Gothic with fluid, embodied right hemispheric states, and Druidic and classical (Greek) architecture with rationalistic, sterile, and abstract mindsets

In his deployment of architectural features Blake follows tradition in using ruins to signify the end of a culture, but breaks with tradition in introducing a Gothic church and druid cromlechs into his Job. For there are clear cromlechs in the background of nos. 5, 6, and 7, and perhaps also the heavy stone masonry in nos. 4 and 8 are supposed to represent Druid architecture. Equally anachronistic, in nos. 1 and 4 there is a Gothic cathedral in the background. There are also hidden crosses in several of the drawings in the first half of the series, notably in drawing no. 7, in which Job’s gaze is averted from his comforters, and directed towards the outline of a cross, at the extreme right-hand edge of the picture. We would expect that Blake would depict Job as belonging to the age of the patriarchs, before Moses gave Israel the Law. In drawing no. 1 the huge flocks and the dwelling tents in the background on the right indicate a nomadic way of life; moreover the outdoor setting, with Job seated beneath an oak tree, is reminiscent of the day when God came to visit Abram, and found him sitting outside his tent beneath the oak at Mamre.


Druid features

Blake in introducing Druid cromlechs in the background of several of the Job drawings in the first half of the series was being startlingly original. The eighteenth century belief in links between the Patriarchs and the Druids has been discussed briefly in the earlier section. Davies in The Theology of William Blake warns against labelling Blake as a British Israelite because he shared these theories. Blake accepted the theories, but his main concern was to adapt them for symbolic purposes. British Israelites believed the use of military force was justified in order to achieve their aims, whereas Blake, after his first romantic enthusiasm for revolution had subsided, was a pacifist. Secondly, British Israelites interpreted the Bible literally, or at least claim to do so, and Blake did not.

The scale of the megalithic monuments in Britain has suggested to others since Stukeley that Britain was the centre from which the religion of Stonehenge was diffused, rather than the westernmost point it reached. Raine had some interesting observations on Blake’s view of the Druids, who in his day were thought to have been the creators of Stonehenge, though they are now known to be separated by many centuries.

She writes that Blake is not entirely consistent, but he seems to represent the original purity of the Druid religion by oak-trees and oak-groves, and the cruel, ritualistic phase into which the religion degenerated by megaliths (stone being symbolic of the lifeless hardening of all things under the domination of a materialist philosophy). The crumbling Druid temples in the background of drawings nos. 5 – 8 , perhaps also of 10 and 12, indicate a religious culture that is in decay. In the career of any great idea, after triumph and maturity, there is decadence and over-ripeness, and a gradual transformation, under new conditions, into another idea. ‘The Mental Traveller’ would corroborate and fill out this view.

On the whole this distinction by Raine is born out by the references to Druid practices in Jerusalem, though in places the oak groves also are condemned At the end of the first chapter a lament is heard in Beulah:

Why did you take Vengeance O ye Sons of the mighty Albion?

Planting these oaken groves, erecting these dragon temples?

Injury the Lord heals but V engeance cannot be healed

There is a reference to the cruel phase in the description of the sacrifice of Luvah in Jerusalem 65:9-10, ‘They staind him with poisonous blue, they inwove him with cruel roots’ , where the ‘poisonous blue’ is woad. In the same poem Blake describes the building of Stonehenge:

They build a stupendous Building upon the Plain of Salisbury; with chains

Of rocks round London Stone, of Reasonings: of unhewn

Demonstrations In labyrinthine arches. (Mighty Urizen the architect.) thro which

The heavens might revolve and Eternity be bound in their chain …

The Building is Natural Religion, and its altars Natural Morality,

A building of eternal death, whose proportions are eternal despair.

The Builder of Stonehenge: Mighty Urizen the architect

Druid megaliths symbolised for Blake a culture of tyranny, of revenge and despair. All this fascination with the remote past was too much for the poet Robert Southey, who replied to a query about Blake from Caroline Bowles in 1830 as to what he knew of Blake as follows:

Poor Owen [Pugh] found everything he wished to find in the Bardic system, and there he found Blake’s notions, and thus Blake and his wife were persuaded that his dreams were old patriarchal truths, long forgotten and now re-revealed.

Southey writes that he was so saddened by the visit to the Blakes that he never repeated it. But Blake made use of these ideas for symbolic purposes to good effect in his Job, deploying the heavy stone cromlechs in the background of the first half of the series to convey a sense of the ossified culture in which Job lived, and which, through the comments of his Comforters, was oppressing him with its Deist moral certainties. In the long months during which Blake waited for his trial in Chichester he himself must have experienced painfully the oppression of a culture of revenge and moralism; for so great was the fear of France, and of traitors at home, that if he were convicted he would certainly have been fined, and might have had to serve a prison sentence also. In Jerusalem Plate 94 the glow of dawn illuminates the Druid trilithons in the upper part of the design, as the epic sweeps towards final Redemption, but in Job the oppressive megaliths simply vanish as the light of vision grows strong, in the second half of the series.

“In Jerusalem Plate 94 the glow of dawn illuminates the Druid trilithons in the upper part of the design”


The Gothic Church

It has been customary to say that the cathedral or church in the background in drawings nos. 1 and 4 represents True Art. Wicksteed suggests that in Plate I the left side with its Gothic cathedral represents the ‘spiritual’ or artistic side, quoting from A Vision of the Last Judgement, ‘A Gothic Church is representative of true Art’. Kathleen Raine finds parallels in Jerusalem for this interpretation, adding that the fact that the sun is setting behind the church of the spirit indicates the onset of spiritual night.

Christ and the Woman of Samaria by George Richmond (1828)

Even with the negative element emphasised, this explanation of the presence of the Gothic cathedral creates difficulties of its own, particularly for Wicksteed, whose whole thesis is that Job at the beginning is spiritually dead, obsessed by legalism, and seriously in the wrong. Lindberg is surely right in saying the cathedral is one pointer to show that Job is universal, that Job lived as a Christian before the revelation of the Gospel. This is orthodox Christian doctrine, when Christ harrows Hell he takes out those for whom, in John Donne’s words, ‘merit of strict life may be imputed faith’. Certainly this seems to have been how the cathedral in Blake’s Illustrations was interpreted by Blake’s friends and admirers, for there is another such cathedral, equally anachronistic, in the middle distance in a tempera painting by George Richmond of 1828, Christ and the Woman of Samaria. The presence of this little Gothic cathedral in Richmond’s painting of the landscape of Samaria is apparently a gesture of homage to Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job; it certainly makes no sense as an ’emblem of True Art’ in Richmond’s painting, nor as a realistic building.

The opening words of the Lord’s prayer are inscribed round the face of the setting sun. So from when Blake first conceived and drew the Job illustrations, he had decided to include overtly Christian material within them. Blake’s Job uses the prayer taught by Christ, and Blake’s Job must in some sense belong to the Christian era. Job was one of the body of Old Testament figures who believed in Christ before his Incarnation. One may take as an example King David. It is always recognised that historically he belongs to the Old Testament period, yet in Psalm 110:1 David says, The Lord said unto my Lord’, and the second ‘Lord’ must refer to the second person of the Trinity. Job is conceived by Blake as Everyman, ‘a human type who could occur in any age, and whose experiences, therefore, have something to tell the children of all times.’


Hidden symbols of the cross

The ego’s view of itself. Blake called the picture ‘Satan in All His Glory’. Just as the Whore of Babylon does not signify immorality but rather the obsession with morality and issues of morality; so Satan for Blake represents not “evil” but “self-righteousness”. Self-righteouenss is Satan’s kingdom, which is why Blake says that “In Hell all is Self-Righteousness”.

Blake grasped the essential nature of Christian ethics, in a way few Christian theologians have done. Davies goes as far as to assert that all his prophetic works, most of his lyric poems, and the majority of his letters contain references to it. His message is the message of St. Paul, that Christ set us free from the Law, ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree’ (Gal. 3:13). We should not therefore seek to be more righteous than Christ, but should seek, like him, to forgive. Self-righteousness is above all to be avoided, in Blake’s view, who wrote in Jerusalem, ‘He who does Forgive Sin is Crucified as an Abettor of Criminals, and He who performs Works of Mercy in any shape whatever is punish’d, & , if possible, destroy’d, not through Envy, or Hatred, or Malice, but thro’ Self Righteousness, that thinks it does God service, which God is Satan’. Again, in Jerusalem Blake wrote “Natural Morality, or Self Righteousness, was the Religion of the Pharisees who murder’d Jesus’.

Surely therefore this proves right Wicksteed’s interpretation that the central theme of Blake’s Job is Job’s passage from a state of self-righteousness to a state of living faith? But no – for an important question needs first to be asked. Is Blake in the two passages just quoted condemning the secret self-righteousness of the individual who in the eyes of all appears full of virtue, or is he condemning the self-righteousness of the society that attacks one man for being different? In both the examples quoted above, Blake is concerned with the way society groups together to attack an individual This indeed happened to his Job, as is shown most dramatically not only in drawing no. 10, but in his earlier group of Job studies, showing the Comforters ranged close together against him, and pointing accusing fingers at him.

“Showing the Comforters ranged close together against him, and pointing accusing fingers at him”. Blake elsewhere calls “the Accuser” the “God of this World”. All of our systems – politics, morality, the criminal justice system, religion, literary criticism – are based on it.

Blake attacked the self-righteousness of the Pharisees as a group, and what it led to. The half hidden crosses in several of the drawings in the first half of the series are to show therefore the parallel between Job and Christ, and suggest that Job too was the victim o f a self-righteous society.


God and Satan

Blake is a narrative artist, and interpretation of his Illustrations lies in the relationships and contrasts between drawings, as well as in drawings taken individually. This is particularly true of Blake’s depiction of the Deity. In the biblical Book of Job what happens in Heaven is confined to the prose sections at the beginning and end, apart from the fact that the central poetic section has its climax in the moment when God comes to earth and speaks to Job out of the whirlwind. In Blake’s Job, by contrast, there are two plots. One is the story of what physically happens to Job, the other a story set in Heaven.

The story set in Heaven in Blake’s Illustrations can hardly be called the ‘sub-plot, in that Blake in drawing nos. 2, 5, 9, 14, 16, 18, and 20 seems to be showing us the greater reality, the reasons for what is happening in the main plot, concerning the physical life of Job. In nos. 11, 13, and 17 the ‘sub-plot’ takes over the whole plate: First Satan reveals himself, then God appears on earth, and Job and his wife are overwhelmed with love and awe.

“The story set in Heaven”

Visually this heavenly plot is not subordinate, for in these seven designs where Heaven is shown, it occupies the whole upper two-thirds of the page, and Job and those with him are depicted as in some kind of a cramped dark cave, evocative of the Cave allegory in Plato’s Republic.

“Job is depicted as in some kind of a cramped dark cave, evocative of the Cave allegory in Plato’s Republic

This is particularly noticeable in nos. 2 and 14. In no. 15, however, the balance between Creator and his created world is handled differently. Here Job and those with him are in Heaven, looking down upon the round world. Heaven occupies only the top third of the design, to leave a round space for the round world below. Dante Gabriel Rossetti describes the way they are ‘grouped so as to recall a medieval medallion or woodcarving.’ The world is shown as a view through a telescope, a cameo, by one standing in Heaven; so here too Heaven is made visually more prominent, and Job, momentarily in Heaven with his Creator, is distant from the monsters he is viewing.


Depictions of the Deity and Satan

How does Blake intend us to understand his representations of the Deity in the Butts set, where he has given us no margin-commentary to guide us? The biblical Book of Job begins with a brief description of Job’s goodness, and then moves to the Court of Heaven, and Satan presenting himself before the throne of God. Blake likewise begins with showing Job, and then moves to showing a view of Heaven which takes two-thirds of the page, showing at the top the Deity, and between the Deity and Job the flaming youthful figure of Satan.

“Satan presenting himself before the throne of God”

To depict this scene the artist has to deal with two separate problems: there is the theological problem of dualism, and the artistic problem springing from the inhibition about depicting God the Father. There are three alternative ways of interpreting Blake’s rendering of the scene.

“the face of the God shown in the upper section of the plates is a mirror-image of Job’s face”. The image is a spatial depiction of psychological layers.

The first is to say that the God whom Job worshipped at the outset was not the true and living God, but a figment of Job’s imagination, that Job at the outset was obsessed with the material world, and with rewards in the Here and Now, and the God whom he worshipped was really Satan, as is revealed in drawing no. 11. Wicksteed expounded very persuasively his central thesis that the face of the God shown in the upper section of the plates is a mirror-image of Job’s face, and that God is drawn thus because he is a creation of Job’s imagination.

Another alternative is to admit candidly the implied dualism, quoting the biblical precedents for the doctrine that Satan was present in Heaven till Christ himself saw him cast out. Although Milton in Paradise Lost depicted Satan as hurled out of Heaven before the creation of Adam and Eve, there is support in the New Testament, besides the Book of Job, for the continued presence of Satan in Heaven. If we translate literally the Greek words, Satan is called by Paul, ‘the spirit of evil in things heavenly’ (Ephes. 6:12). Blake, presumably because he felt that the King James rendering as ‘spiritual wickedness in high places’ did not accurately represent the meaning, used the original Greek version when he transcribed the whole of this verse from Ephesians onto the title-page of The Four Zoas. This alternative has some scriptural authority, therefore, but it deepens rather than solves the dilemma.

The third alternative is to delve deeper into the nature of God and Satan, and this I believe is what Blake is doing in his Job. In his designs, the Satan perceived in heaven is very different from Satan perceived on earth: his role in heaven is not as a figure of moral evil, but as the bearer of pain and suffering, ‘the servant of God and examiner of men’, as Binyon perceptively described his double nature.

Blake depicts Satan in heaven as a handsome youth, physically indistinguishable from the angels round the throne who shrink away from him, yet on earth he appears either as a dark spectre with spiky wings, as in no. 3, or as a dark grinning figure, with scales instead of genitals.

“Even from the depths of Hell his voice I hear, Within the unfathomed caverns of my Ear.”

In this second drawing in the Butts set, what is the relationship between the figure seated on the throne, the little group of mortals down below, and the leaping figure round whom smoke and flames are billowing? Blake’s description in the opening lyric of his preface to the first part of Jerusalem, ‘To the Public’ gives us a clue to his intention in the opening drawings of the Butts set:

Reader! [lover] of books! [lover] of heaven!

And of that God from whom [all books are given,]

Who in mysterious Sinais aweful cave

To Man the wondrous art of writing gave,

Again he speaks in thunder and in fire!

Thunder of Thought, & flames of fierce desire:

Even from the depths of Hell his voice I hear,

Within the unfathomed caverns of my Ear.

Therefore I print; nor vain my types shall be,

Heaven, Earth & Hell, henceforth shall live in harmony.

These lines speak of a Deity who is the source of all books, source of the Word itself, before all time, but who is a Deity terrifying to experience, for he speaks as thunder and as fire, and in Him are harmonised Heaven, Earth, and Hell. Satan, it appears, is a personification of the fiery aspect of God himself.

We have another clue to Blake’s presentation of the fiery leaping Satan in a note in his Descriptive Catalogue, claiming that he had finally liberated himself from the bad influences of Titian and Rubens, who had led him to destroy ‘the original conception, which was all fire and animation’. Here Blake makes it clear that ‘fire and animation’ are vital to the artist. And thirdly, we have a more systematised explication of the harmonising of Heaven, Earth and Hell in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

Thus one portion of being is the Prolific, the other, the Devouring: to the devourer it seems as if the producer were in his chains, but it is not so, he only takes portions of his existence and fancies that the whole. But the Prolific would cease to be the Prolific unless the Devourer as a sea received the excess of his delights … These two classes of men are always upon earth, & they should be enemies; whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.

Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two.

Note. Jesus Christ did not wish to unite but to separate them, as in the Parable of sheep and goats! and he says I came not to send Peace but a Sword .

The term “Marriage” in Blake’s title does not mean “unite”, but its opposite, the interplay of contraries. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell marks Blake’s rejection of Swedenborg. However, in the same sentence as that ridiculing Swedenborg he couples together Jacob Boehme and Paracelsus, and even classes Boehme as approximating to Dante and Shakespeare. And it seems to be Boehme’s Doctrine of Contraries on which Blake is drawing here, in writing of the eternal opposition between the Prolific’ and the ‘Devourer’.

No commentator before Lindberg seems to have noticed that in no. 2 the hair of the seated figure is tossed in the same way as the hair of the bard in Blake’s sketches for Gray’s poem, which Butlin dates to 1809. His hair is disturbed, in an odd star-like outline, as if it is beginning to be tossed about by the first gusts of a tempest that will sweep through Heaven. Blake is using tossed hair to symbolise inspiration, however, rather than to symbolise the Deity being disturbed by the wind of Satan’s coming.

“Blake is using tossed hair to symbolise inspiration”

In drawing no. 5 the Deity is still enthroned in a blaze of light (this is a good deal brighter in the Butts version than in the engraved version, twenty years later), but the scene on earth is overshadowed by the dark cloud that presages Satan’s coming. Blake shows a Deity racked by pity and compassion for Job. The Deity is a young man in his prime, though his beard reaches to his lap. Satan looks back at him in salutation, as he plunges earthwards pouring suffering onto Job from the vial in his right hand. Again there is the suggestion of a partnership, a pair of contraries, the Devourer who ‘takes a portion of his existence and thinks that he has all.’

And then in the following designs the place of Satan is taken by Job’s three friends, and so great is his grief, their arrival seems hardly a change for the better. Whereas Blake has shown Job and his wife as radiating a gentle light themselves, the three Comforters are solely lit up by the setting sun, and their upstretched arms in no. 7 are metamorphosed naturally enough into the upstretched arms of the fiends who try to tug him down to Hell in his nightmare, in drawing no. 11. Like the dark Comforters in no. 7, lit only by the light of the departing sun, the fiends are lit only by the fires of Hell.

Here in drawing no. 11, the nightmare in which Job clearly sees a ‘God’ with cloven foot, he shrinks away from him in terror, but turning, sees the fiends, binding chains held in readiness, about to drag him down into the abyss. The cloven footed one is not Job’s God but the God of his three self-righteous comforters, who in the preceding drawing threatened him, their arms outstretched in angry accusations. Moskal in Blake, Ethics, and Forgiveness suggests that the three fiends clawing at Job are his Comforters, their demonic state revealed by Blake.

“the three fiends clawing at Job are his Comforters, their demonic state revealed by Blake”

In Job’s vision, Heaven is darkened, and has become as terrifying to Job as the Abyss beneath. The hideous phantom points to two round-topped ‘tables of the Law’ which loom menacingly in the area which was formerly heaven, completely replacing the light of the sun, while black forked lightning rends the sky.

Satan does not reappear again until no. 16, when he is seen plummeting downwards to destruction or the abyss. Why has Blake shown Satan being cast out of Heaven, a scene that has no apparent origin in the Book of Job? Satan in The Four Zoas and in Jerusalem is Error, and the casting out of Error is a way of personifying Job’s situation. Satan only seems to be, but while he seems to be, he holds man in a powerful grip. In the final stanzas of Jerusalem Los says to his sons:

Will you suffer this Satan this Body of Doubt that Seems but Is Not

To occupy the very threshold of Eternal Life

It is possible that there is a play on words here, and Satan’s name is ‘Is Not’ as God’s name is ‘He Is’. Even though Satan is not, yet he is very powerful, for

What seems to Be: Is: To those to whom

It seems to Be, & is productive of the most dreadful

Consequences to those to whom it seems to Be


Thou art in Error Albion, the Land of Ulro.

One Error not remov’d will destroy a human Soul

The Land of Ulro is Voidness (Jerusalem 78:20), Dread Sleep (The Four Zoas viii: 113 line 16; Jerusalem 4:1-2), the place of’ unreal forms’ (The Four Zoas ii: 28 line 2). So to be in error is to be in a deathlike sleep, and though Error is a state of mind, a mere negation, it is very powerful.


The Meaning of the Outstretched Arms

Historical background. Lindberg describes how he set out to discover pictorial sources for Blake’s images, and very often found not one, but fifteen or sixteen. Indeed, he found that Blake had a strong preference for repeating what had been copied many times before, and he began to realise that he had not found the sources for a particular work, but a common language of art. Janet Warner, independently working along the same lines, published her findings first in 1970.

Warner uses Bulwer’s Chirologia, which illustrates a formal language of hand-gestures. Lindberg found that attitudes and gestures that embodied a special meaning in one work of art could be used by another artist to convey the same meaning. But meaning could also be modified by context: ‘artists can use pathos formulae as writers use words; and, like the meaning of a word, the meaning of a pathos formulae can be altered or modified by the context’. Christopher Heppner also has a detailed discussion of the use of pathos formulae, a term coined by Aby Warburg, who made a pioneering study of gestures from classical art that embodied Dionysiac and primeval passion. These pathos formulae form an important part of the language of art, from the Renaissance to at least the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Lindberg took as an example the outstretched arms motif, which in early Western Christian art was used to depict God the creator and sustainer of creation – a hovering figure, full face, with arms outstretched as if blessing or encompassing creation.

The figure is first recorded on the column of Marcus Aurelius, in Scene XVTI illustrating the Miracle of the Rain, which saved the Roman soldiers when they were dying of thirst, and destroyed the enemy soldiers: ‘The streams of rain take the shape of a gloomy face framed in long hair and spreading beard…With outspread wings and arms the figure sweeps forward over men and animals …’ The figure on the Marcus Aurelius column is a bold and original conception, a part of a new movement towards expressionism that was in many ways at variance with the epic-documentary style of the column of Trajan, to which it is sometimes likened. The rain-god, Notos, was represented on the Tower of the Winds at Athens as a beautiful winged youth, his emblem an upturned waterpot. There is no earlier representation of the deity known, with the power and expressiveness of the deity with outspread wings on the Marcus column. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the figure became immensely popular, particularly in Italy. Blake used it scores of times in his work, modifying it with great subtlety to suit different contexts.

Above: ‘Miracle of the Rain’ figure from column of Marcus Aurelius . Below: ‘The Ancient of Days’ figure in Kabbalah, the form in which Jehovah is generally displayed in their texts, signifying the Demiurgus.


Blake’s use of this tradition.  Lindberg considers that in Blake’s twenty-two Illustrations alone there are seventeen examples of the outstretched-arms pathos formulae, three seen from behind. Blake uses the outstretched arms in no. 13 with the additional meaning of blessing, and in no. 14 with the additional meaning of expressing contraries: the outstretched arms of the Creator express the contraries of the universe, the freedom of the world of angels, the imprisonment of the world below.

Albion Rose

Blake uses the outstretched arms for Satan, in no. 3 to express his all-encompassing power, in no. 11 to point simultaneously to the Tables of the Law in Heaven above and the Fires in Hell below. The fact that they are both being pointed to by the same figure suggests the fact that they are interdependent, for Heaven & Hell are born together.’  Lindberg also shows how the figure of Albion Rose (1780) with its outstretched arms can be used, in no. 6, to show Satan tormenting Job, simply by changing the expression on the face to one of malice, and changing the message of the outstretched arms by slightly altering the tilt of the hands. In no. 2 this all-encompassing power is coupled with intense malice, as is shown by the twisted evil leer, and the downward and sideways movement of Satan’s head. In no. 11 the malice is shown by the wildly tossed hair and the cloven hoof. But Blake also uses the outstretched arms for Job interceding for his friends (no. 18), and Job telling his daughters of his experiences, and of the contraries of God and Satan. In no. 20, ‘The divine gesture, applied to a mortal, unites him with the spiritual powers.’ In these plates we see Job wrapt in the prayer of unity, and his outstretched arms seem to be a gesture of devotion, a longing to be absorbed into the Creator.

Janet Warner in Blake and the Language of Art has made a less focused, more general study, showing how development in Blake’s use of gesture reflects a development in theological understanding: from the down drooping hands and grim face of the Creator Spirit in Plate 8 of America, and Blake’s engraving The Lazar House (where the figure seems to be Fate, measuring out the span of men’s lives remorselessly), to the ‘creative fingers’ (as in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam) of God’s right hand in the engraved version of Job Plate XIV, reflecting a development in theological understanding.

“the down drooping hands and grim face of the Creator Spirit in Plate 8 of America

In Blake’s use of the gesture there is important development between the Butts series of 1805 and the engraved version of 1826, for in the Butts set the hands droop more. Heppner writes of Blake’s ongoing desire to expand and strengthen his ability to create powerful and expressive bodies, and how this took him more and more towards Michelangelo. Blake saw Michelangelo as an extension of the work of classical artists, referring together to ‘Rapha[e]l, Mich. Angelo and the Ancient Sculptors.’ With the help of Bo Lindberg’s wide knowledge of the traditions of European Christian art, and of Janet Warner’s and Christopher Heppner’s detailed findings about the meaning of different gestures, we can look at Blake’s iconography of prayer, man’s response to this Creator God, and to Christ.



Blake was not aiming at naturalism, but at helping men to know God, at conveying an authentic reflection, however weak, of the glory of the age that is to come. Crabb Robinson in his “Reminiscences’ described a conversation about Wordsworth with Blake at the end of his life in which Blake’s delight in Wordsworth’s poetry was intense, in spite of ‘the reproaches he continually cast on W .for his imputed worship of nature – which in the mind of Blake constituted Atheism’. On another occasion he records that Blake ‘denied the reality of the natural world. Satan’s empire is the empire of nothing’.

The impression given by Crabb Robinson is that Blake harped constantly on the difference between the natural and the spiritual. Blake used naturalistic detail, but pure naturalism was not his aim, and in this he was following his master Michelangelo: there is a story told by Michelangelo’s pupil and biographer Condivi that the Pieta in St. Peter’s, made when Michelangelo was still in his early twenties, was criticised because there were no marks of suffering, and the Virgin was still young and beautiful, too young to be the mother of the dead Christ. Michelangelo replied that sin was what caused people to age, and therefore the Immaculate Virgin would not show her age as ordinary people would. Few other Western artists thought out implications of their subject so deeply as Michelangelo and Blake.


This is an edited version of Job’s Gethsemane: tradition and imagination in William Blake’s illustrations for the Book of Job, by Penelope Minney. To read the full article please click here.

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