‘The Harlot and the Giant’ from William Blake’s illustrations to Dante’s Purgatorio. It’s basically a depiction of modern Britain in a form that would get past the censors
Censorship, Surveillance and the Power of the State: The Whore and the Beast
1798: one of the spiritual low points of modern British history, and the year of Malthus’s Essay on Population. Shelley called Malthus “the apostle of the rich” and Engels later described Malthus’s vision as “the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair.” Malthus’s influence on modern eugenic and environmental thinking, as well as Darwinism, has been massive.
For many of us, 1798 was the year of the Lyrical Ballads. But it was also the year of Napoleon in Egypt, the uprising of the United Irishmen and its bloody aftermath, of Malthus’s first Essay on Population, and the year of “the most draconian, anti-radical crackdown of the entire Pittite ‘Terror’” (Ian McCalmon, New Jerusalems).
For William Blake, it was a seemingly unexceptional year, a year for which there are no known letters and no known published works other than some commerical engravings. But it was also the year in which he wrote on the verso of the title page of Bishop Richard Watson’s An Apology for the Bible: “To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life” and then “The Beast and the Whore rule without controls.” The Bishop’s Apology was an attack upon The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, and Blake’s notes were a vehement counter-attack upon Bishop Watson. Why should Blake want to defend Thomas Paine, with whom he had some important points of disagreement, so unequivocally?
All Religions are One
Religion, so Blake believed, was the basic problem of mankind. Early in his life he conceived the idea of a fundamental and universal religion that he developed throughout his life.
He was born in the third – Revolutionary – generation of the eighteenth century. The orthodox Anglican Church had become devoted to place-hunting and was spiritually dead. The Dissenters considered themselves members of this church, but keep apart. Deism had captured the intellectual world and established the “Age of Reason” by denying all miracles and revelations. Generally the public was hostile to all religious controversies, which had been responsible for some of the bloodiest pages in religion. “Enthusiasm” was a term of contempt.
Babylon, Nature-worship, and the Sleep of Albion
‘Awake! awake O sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand!’
As Kathleen Raine has noted, “the sleep of Albion is in a word the materialist mentality of the modern West.” However, this “materialist mentality”, for Blake, denotes not only the belief in the Newtonian universe of orthodox Science, which many are now questioning, but also the belief in “Nature” itself. For Blake, the “Creation” – the emergence of an apparently objective, natural, and material world – and Albion’s fall into “Sleep” were one and the same event.