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.
Political Revelation and Working Class Prophecy
William Blake (1757–1827) was a British artist, engraver, poet, and writer on theological themes. His illuminated books were the product of his technological inventiveness, and are characterized by the juxtaposition of texts and images in which a dialectic between two different media is a means of stimulating the imagination of the viewer and reader.
“his technological inventiveness, characterized by the juxtaposition of texts and images”: Blake’s very method was dialectical, engraving the text in reverse and then using acid to burn away the surface image – he links this method to the process of revelation itself; “the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged; this I shall do by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid”
Influences on Blake are often hard to trace, though he explicitly cites and criticizes Milton and Swedenborg, as well as the contemporary artist Joshua Reynolds. Such influences, which might help explain Blake’s ideas, seem less important than the extraordinary inventiveness which one finds in his words and images and their production, which have analogies to earlier themes, but without offering the evidence that demonstrates direct dependence. Blake’s emphasis is on the importance of “inspiration” rather than “memory,” and as such he set great store on the creativity of the poetic genius and its reception by the engaged reader or viewer.