Zodiacal Physiognomy: William Blake’s friendship with astrologer John Varley

The Zoas and the Zodiac

 

Blake and Varley

Blake and Varley: Portrait of Blake by Thomas Phillips (1807), and portrait of Varley by John Linnell (1820)

Blake’s friendship with the artist and astrologer John Varley (1778–1842) is one of the most unusual and intriguing of all Blake’s unusual and intriguing friendships. They first met in 1818, when they were living as near-neighbours in London, and it is Varley we have to thank for the remarkable series of drawings of ‘Visionary Heads’ that Blake made, in the company of Varley, over a number of late-night (or rather early morning) meetings – or ‘seances’ as some people called them – that they had, usually at Varley’s house, 10 Great Titchfield Street, off Oxford Street, which was near to Blake’s in South Molton Street. These drawings included the famous image of ‘The Ghost of The Flea’; it is a rather remarkable fact that this Ghost arose out of their discussions about astrology and the possible influence of the position of the planets on both our psychology and physiognomy. The Ghost (or Spiritual Form) of the Flea, apparently, denoted ‘Gemini’. 

Blake’s drawings (including that of the Flea) were used by Varley for his 1828 book A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy – the only time that Blake collaborated with someone else on the production of a book. And what an fascinating book it is: ‘Zodiacal Physiognomy’ is surely one of the most intriguing titles for a book ever.  But what exactly was zodiacal physiognomy?

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Blake as Shaman: The Neuroscience of Hallucinations and Milton’s Lark, by David Worrall

The Mind in the Cave and the Cave in the Mind

‘A nude male, almost certainly Milton or a compound of Blake and Milton, strides away from us and into his book, perhaps leading us forward into its depths. Milton may be entering his ‘Own Vortex’. His right arm and hand also cut his name in two, an action suggesting that the route to apocalypse is blocked by a ‘selfhood’ that must be self-annihilated’ – Essick & Viscomi

This essay argues that Blake’s illuminated poem, Milton a Poem in 2 Books (1804-1811), exhibits characteristics of the hallucinations also encountered in the archaeology of rock paintings made during shamanic trances in the prehistoric period. The essay will particularly focus on the trance-like episode referred to at the end of Milton and will link it to similar shamanic trances known to have occurred to southern African /Xam (San) bushmen in their practices of rock painting.

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