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THE ECHOING GREENHORN: BLAKE AS HEBRAIST

As students of Blake know, “the most formative literary and spiritual influence” on him was the Bible.1 1 Jean Hagstrum, William Blake: Poet and Painter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 48. There is considerable uncertainty, however, about the extent of Blake’s familiarity with the original language of the Old Testament, Hebrew. Although at least eight of his illuminations contain Hebrew inscriptions, “we do not know how much Hebrew Blake had . . . .”2 2 Harold Bloom, “Commentary,” in The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David Erdman (New York: Doubleday, 1965), p. 838. In the thirteen years since Harold Bloom’s acknowledgment, that small island in the sea of Blake scholarship has not, apparently, been covered. I will attempt, then, on the basis of the inscriptions to assess Blake’s knowledge of and facility with Hebrew. Because the irregularities in the inscriptions are so telling, we can focus our attention exclusively on them. If they had been accurate and in a good hand, their evidence would be equivocal. We could not know, in that case, if Blake merely possessed a good eye for copying.

An obvious reason for the uncertainty about Blake’s grasp is that most critics themselves have no Hebrew. One such figure, Mr. A. G. B. Russell, concluded that the subject of Blake’s only lithograph, a bearded “ancient” holding a book inscribed with his name, was “Job in Prosperity.”3 3 Geoffrey Keynes, introductory monograph to Illustrations of the Book of Job, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1935), p. 8.

Only after the ascription had gained general acceptance did someone notice that the name in Hebrew characters identifies the subject of the lithograph not as Job, but as Enoch. “And he was no more because God took him” (Genesis 5:24), the Biblical description of Enoch’s signal death, is being scrutinized by two naked figures on the right side of the composition. A further irony lies in the very name that was missed—for “Enoch” (“Hanokh” in Hebrew) can mean “education.”

Unable to assess Blake’s grasp of Hebrew from internal evidence, Frederick Tatham, an early biographer, relied on circumstantial evidence from Blake’s book collection. Finding Hebrew books “well thumbed and dirtied by his graving hands,” Tatham concluded that Blake had “a most consummate knowledge” of the great Hebrew writers.4 4 G. E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Records (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 41. This highly questionable deduction can be put in its proper perspective with the help of G. E. Bentley, Jr.: “As a source of biographical facts [Tatham’s] Life is of dubious value.”5 5 Bentley, p. 507.

Unfamiliarity with the language seems to be responsible for another disturbing problem in Hebrew-related Blake scholarship. Blake’s lone reference to his Hebrew studies, found in an 1803 letter to his brother James, contains Hebrew characters. They have, however, been printed at least six different ways. In 1921, Geoffrey Keynes printed the series as אבכ‎ (ABK—’alef, bēth,6 6 This character would technically require a dot (dagesh) within it in order to be considered a beth. But in unvocalized Hebrew the dot is not used. I have read other such letters in the same fashion when clearly appropriate. kaf) i.e., “am now learning my Hebrew ABK.”7 7 Geoffrey Keynes, A Bibliography of William Blake (New York: Grollier Club of New York, 1921), p. 451. (Hebrew is written from right to left. For ease of comprehension, however, I have written the English equivalents which follow directly, and then the names of the Hebrew letters, from left to right. An alphabet table is printed with my essay for the reader’s reference.) This meaningless series was replaced by an equally meaningless one in 1927: אידב‎ (AYDB—’alef, yōd, daleth, bēth), four characters instead of three.8 8 William Blake, Pencil Drawings, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (Great Britain: Nonesuch Press, 1927), sketch 27. Finally, in 1968 Keynes proposed אבג‎ (ABC—’alef, bēth, gīmel)—a rendering which would put Blake at the beginning of his Hebrew language studies.9 9 William Blake, The Letters of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1968 [revised edition]), p. 65.

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Enoch (detail).   Private collection.
for we have Sold all that we have had time to print. Evans
					the Bookseller in Pallmall says they go off very well & why
					should we repent of having done them it is doing Nothing
					that is to be repented of & not doing such things as these
					Pray remember us both to Mr Hall when you see him
					I write in great haste & with a head full of botheration
					about various projected works & particularly. a work now
					Proposed to the Public at the End of Cowpers Life. which
					will very likely be of great consequence it is Cowpers
					Milton the same that Fuselis Milton Gallery was
					painted for, & if we succeed in our intentions the
					prints to this work will be very profitable to me &
					not only profitable but honourable at any rate The
					Project pleases Lord Cowpers family. & I am now
					labouring in my thoughts Designs for this & other
					works equally creditable These are works to be boasted
					of & therefore I cannot feel depressd tho I know that
					as far as Designing & Poetry are concernd I am Envied
					in many Quarters. but I will cram the dogs for I
					know that the Public are my friends & love my works &
					will embrace them whenever they see them My only Difficulty
					is to produce fast enough.
					I go on Merrily with my Greek & Latin. am very
					sorry that I did not begin to learn languages early in life
					as I find it very Easy. am now learning my Hebrew. א ב ג
					I read Greek as fluently as an Oxford scholar & the Testament
					is my chief master astonishing indeed is the English Translation
					it is almost word for word & if the Hebrew Bible is as well
					translated which I do not doubt it is we need not doubt of
					its having been translated as well as written by the Holy Ghost
					my wife joins me in Love to you both I am Sincerely yours
					W Blake
Blake’s letter to his brother James, 30 January, 1803.   Library of Congress, Rosenwald Collection.
[View this object in the William Blake Archive]
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18
					 תחו
					 יומ ו׃סה
					 שסע ה וא סש
					To Annihilate the Selfhood of Deceit &
					False Forgiveness
Milton, pl. 15 (detail).   Library of Congress, Rosenwald collection.
[View this object in the William Blake Archive]

Mona Wilson, generally regarded as the best twentieth-century biographer of Blake, remains consistent in printing the series as a four-letter group. However, her 1949 rendering, איונ‎ (AYON—‘alef, yōd, wāw, nūn), becomes איוב‎ (IYOV—‘alef, yōd, wāw, vēth) in the 1969 revision.10 10 Wilson actually seems to be returning here to a second reading offered by Keynes in 1927—and abandoned as early as 1956. This latter version, in striking contrast to Keynes’s latest version (ABC), makes Blake a good Hebraist since IYOV, the original name for Job, is one of the most difficult books in the Bible. Who, then, is correct?

By examining a photographic reproduction of the relevant portion of the letter containing Blake’s lone reference to his Hebrew studies, I have found that Keynes’s last variation, אבג‎ (ABC), is accurate. No explanation for Keynes’s forty-seven year delay or for other divergent readings is provided by the difficulty “of mak[ing] out what Blake [actually] wrote before he deleted the manuscript or erased the engraving . . . .”11 11 F. W. Bateson, review of The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David Erdman, New York Review of Books, 28 October 1965, p. 24. It is unmistakably legible, as the reproduction below shows. Elsewhere in Blake’s Hebrew inscriptions, however, there are relatively many obscurities and irregularities. Their special character, in contrast to that of the English ones, suggests that Blake never did master all of the Hebrew ABC’s.

Plate 18A of Milton, which contains “letters so erroneous that it seems impossible to identify or

לא יהי
                        לא תש
                        זכור
                        כבד
                        
                        לא ת
                        לא ת
                        לא ת
                        לא ת
                        לא ת
Tables of the Law.   From the Collection of the Jewish Museum, New York.
translate them,”12 12 S. Foster Damon, A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake (Providence, R. I.: Brown University Press, 1965), p. 215. serves as a good starting point. This evaluation by S. Foster Damon was actually make of a 1797 inscription in Night Thoughts. That it applies equally well to this one of 1804 throws into question Damon’s own implication that Blake improved significantly in the years after Night Thoughts. To facilitate an evaluation here, I have included alongside it a typical pair of tablets (a familiar motif in Jewish ceremonial art).13 13 Tablets of unknown origin and date from the collection of The Jewish Museum, New York. Although several letters scrawled on the tablets in Urizen’s hands are identifiable, they do not form, without interpolation, Commandments or abbreviations for Commandments that sometimes run to several sentences. If this plate existed in isolation, one could argue for the appropriateness of the illegibility in that Urizen and the tablets he holds are, to borrow a word from Blake’s caption, in the process of annihilation.

Another set of stone tablets of the Law, in “Job’s Evil Dream” from the Butts watercolors of Blake’s Job,14 14 Job, pl. 11. begins to make such a sympathetic view untenable. The last three letters from right to left in the line indicated by Job’s persecutor compose “gave,” incorrectly spelled as נתנ‎ (NTN—nūn, tāw, nūn). The nūn (circled in reproduction), like several other Hebrew letters, requires a different form at the end of a word. It is easily seen that Blake merely repeats the regular nūn (נ‎). This loose parallel in English may clarify begin page 181 | back to top the fundamental nature of the error: spelling “jeopardy” with an “i”—“jeopardi”—instead of a “y” because the verb form uses the “ize” suffix (“jeopardize”). Just as the “i” cannot end “jeopardy,” so a regular nūn cannot end נתן‎. This is not, apparently, the only such error.

One way of explaining this inscription is by positing Blake’s use of a transliteration. Since both regular letters and their final counterparts sound identical, the English (Roman) character would not distinguish them. I have not found evidence of printed transliterations of the Hebrew Bible extant in Blake’s time, but it is possible that his instructor transliterated the Ten Commandments for Blake.

This hypothesis might also explain another “letter interchange” committed in the Milton tablets. On the one in Urizen’s right hand, Blake substitutes a ס (S—samkh) for what should be a ת (S [according to the Ashkenazic pronunciation]—taw). These Commandments, however, are listed out of order (10,

אלהיך נתנ
						
						שםיה        לא תרצח
						
						לא תנאף
						
						תגנב
						
						inv
						WB
Job’s Evil Dreams (detail).   Pierpont Morgan Library.
[View this object in the William Blake Archive]
probably 9, 3), forcing us to posit more specifically a faulty transliteration or a faulty reading of a correct transliteration.

Another way of explaining some of Blake’s irregularities arises from the tablets in “Job’s Evil Dream.” There the sixth, seventh, and eighth Commandments, according to the Hebrew reckoning, are listed in correct sequence, although they appear in the seventh, eighth, and ninth positions. In the sixth position is the phrase א-להך נתנ‎ (“Your God has given”); (the dash is to be disregarded. Jewish law prohibits writing God’s name in this kind of context.) which we have discussed earlier from a formal standpoint. Although neither a Commandment nor an abbreviation for one, the phrase actually does originate in the sections of the Bible containing the Ten Commandments (Exodus, ch. 20 and Deuteronomy, ch. 5). In fact, these words are among the last in the fifth Commandment: “Honor your father and mother so that your days may be many upon the land which the Lord your God has given you.” One may be inclined to posit that Blake mistook the end of the fifth Commandment for the beginning of the sixth. This would not explain, though, how Blake managed to miscopy the final nūn (correctly written as ן, not נ), if he had a text in front of him.

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If Morality was Christianity Socrates was the Saviour
 יה & his two Sons Satan & Adam as they were copied from the Cherubim
		of Solomons Temple by three Rhodians & applied to Natural Fact. or History of Ilium
		              Art Degraded Imagination Denied War Governed the Nations
		Evil
		                  Good & Evil are
		Riches & Poverty a Tree of
		                                        Misery
		                  propagating
		                  Generation & Death
		The Gods of Priam are the Cherubim of Moses & Solomon: The Hosts
		                                                                                             of Heaven
		    Without Unceasing Practise nothing can be done Practise is Art
		     If you leave off you are Lost
		The Angel of the Divine Presence
		                                             מלאך       יהוה
		ΟΦΙουΧος
		                                              Hebrew Art is
		                                       called Sin by the Deist Science
		                            All that we See is Vision
		from Generated Organs gone as soon as come
		                     Permanent in The Imagination; Considerd
		                                 as Nothing by the
		                                       Natural Man
		What can be Created
		Can be Destroyed
		    Adam is only
		The Natural Man
		& not the Soul
		or Imagination
		Good
		                                       לילית
		Satans Wife The Goddess Nature is War & Misery & Heroism a Miser
		    Spiritual War
		Israel deliverd from Egypt
		    is Art deliverd from
		       Nature & Imitation
		         A Poet a Painter a Musician an Architect : the Man
		         Or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian
		You must leave Fathers & Mothers & Houses & Lands if they stand in the way of Art
		The Eternal Body of Man is The Imagination, that is God himself
		                                   The Divine Body }    ישע     Jesus   we are his
		                                                                                             Members
		                     It manifests itself in his Works of Art (In Eternity All is Vision)
		The True Christian Charity not dependent on Money (the lifes blood of Poor Families)
		         that is on Caesar or Empire or Natural Religion
		Money, which is The Great Satan or Reason
		              the Root of Good & Evil
		                  In The Accusation of Sin
		Prayer is the Study of Art                            
		Praise is the Practise of Art                            
		Fasting &c. all relate to Art
		The outward Ceremony is Antichrist
		       Where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on, but War only Read Matthew C X. 9 & 10v
		by pretences to the Two Impossibilities Chastity & Abstinence Gods of the Heathen
		He repented that he had made Adam
		            (of the Female, the Adamah)
		                                       & it grieved him at his heart
		Art can never exist without
		         Naked Beauty displayed
		The Gods of Greece & Egypt were Mathematical
		                                                        Diagrams
		                                                            See Plato’s
		                                                                   Works
		       Divine Union
		    Deriding
		And Denying Immediate
		Communion with God
		The Spoilers say
		Where are his Works
		That he did in the Wilderness
		           Lo what are these
		Whence came they
		These are not the Works
		Of Egypt nor Babylon
		Whose Gods are the Powers
		Of this World. Goddess, Nature.
		Who first spoil & then destroy
		Imaginative Art
		For their Glory is
		War and Dominion
		Empire against Art          See Virgils Eneid.
		                                               Lib. VI.v 848
		For every
		Pleasure
		Money
		Is Useless
		     There are States
		         in which. all
		     Visionary Men
		     are accounted
		           Mad Men
		         such are
		     Greece & Rome
		     Such is
		     Empire
		     or Tax
		See Luke Ch 2 v 1
		Jesus & his Apostles & Disciples were all Artists Their Works were destroyd by the Seven Angels of the Seven Churches in Asia    Antichrist      Science
		                            The unproductive Man is not a Christian much less the Destroyer
		The Old & New Testaments are
		    the Great Code of Art       Art is the
		                                                   Tree
		                                               of Life
		                                                   GOD
		                                               is Jesus
		                                               Science is the
		                                               Tree of Death
		The Whole Business of Man Is
		The Arts & All Things     Common
		                         No Secresy in Art
		What we call Antique Gems                 
		                are the Gems of Aarons Breast Plate
		                Christianity is Art
		                & not Money
		                Money is its Curse
		       Is not every Vice possible to Man
		                described in the Bible openly
		       All is not Sin that Satan calls so
		                  all the Loves & Graces of Eternity.
		Drawn & Engraved by William Blake.
Laocoön (detail).   Collection of Mrs. Charles T. Rosenbloom.
[View this object in the William Blake Archive]

However well they explain individual phenomena, neither of the hypotheses suggested so far—nor others like faulty memory, which give Blake the benefit of the doubt—explains everything. The unmethodical character of the irregularities leaves us with two possible explanations: willful subversion or ignorance. But the case for willful subversion—that Blake knew better but deliberately made errors to disparage the tradition he saw as “One [tyrannical] Law for the Lion and the Ox”; or that he chose to keep himself a greenhorn to Hebrew on principle—is simultaneously unsupportable and irrefutable. We do not know his mind. Nevertheless, we seem justified in one conclusion. Given their elementary nature, it makes most sense to see the begin page 183 | back to top irregularities as arising from ignorance. To see intention here is to argue that “jeopardi” spelled by an immigrant or elementary-school student is deliberate.

That mere carelessness is not Blake’s bane in the inscriptions can best be seen through his rendering of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, א‎ (‘alef). The letter requires a diagonal bar slanting up from right to left. In “The Laocoön” he slants the bar in the opposite direction, down from right to left. In the frontispiece to Job (1825), he slants it correctly. And in “Job’s Evil Dream” (also 1825), he does both. Since only an inch separates letters in the latter illumination, it is practically impossible to believe that he did not notice the discrepancy. In all probability, he thought that either form was acceptable—as in the Arabic numeral “four,” written “4” and “4.”

We can, at this point, formulate a judgment more specific than Harold Fisch’s when he says: Blake “knew little or no Hebrew.”15 15 Harold Fisch, “William Blake,” The Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1971), IV, 1071-72. We have seen that he was not entirely without Hebrew. Even a brief note like the following found among the many proverb-like sayings in “The Laocoön” suggests some familiarity: “He repented that he had made Adam (of the Female, the Adamah).” A complete foreigner to Hebrew would not know that the “ah” ( ָה‎) ending is feminine. We have seen, nonetheless, that the first of Fisch’s possibilities—that Blake knew little Hebrew—best fits the evidence.16 16 An assessment of Blake’s Hebrew does not require treatment of his every use of Hebrew. When taken as a whole, the instances not discussed in this paper (listed below) corroborate my findings. See “Figure Studies” in The Paintings of William Blake, ed. Darrell Figgis (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), p. 82; the title page and pl. 2 of Job, the last page of the third of the Night Thoughts, and pl. 35 of Milton, copy D.

One of the interesting unsolved problems connected with Blake’s Hebrew is his means of acquiring it. Unfortunately, even in an area like this, where no Hebrew writing is involved, the scholarship is problematic. Damon indicates the problem of Blake’s acquisition this way: “We do not know who Blake’s teachers were . . . [In] London . . . he continued his [Hebrew] studies, probably with some local rabbi . . . .”17 17 Damon, p. 215. G. E. Bentley, Jr. seems to have found the solution. Basing his claim on the January 1803 letter to James, Bentley identifies William Hayley as Blake’s tutor.18 18 Bentley, p. 526, n. 3. The letter, however, contains no reference to Hayley in this capacity. And a perusal of the Dictionary of National Biography and Hayley’s own Memoirs reveals no evidence that Hayley knew enough Hebrew to serve as tutor.19 19 William Hayley, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of William Hayley, Esq., ed. John Johnson (London: Henry Colburn & Co., 1823). Even with some energetic digging and good fortune, it is possible, to use Blake’s words, that “this mystery never shall cease.”20 20 William Blake, The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Nonesuch Press, 1927), p. 94.

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