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Richardson and Blake

Alicia Ostriker’s brisk and “emancipated” view of Clarissa in the Summer, 1984, issue of Blake (pp. 52-53) is no doubt in part intended to make mine seem solemn, priggish, or otherwise old-fashioned. But it is in fact hers which is traditional or conventional, and I myself for many years clung to a version of it. This prejudice—for I now so regard what I once believed—I doubtless inherited from a learned and witty teacher at Yale, who used to wonder aloud whether anyone could possibly learn anything from that middle-class printer with a paunch. But when I came to read Richardson entire, from within, as it were, trying to understand why so many great critics and artists admired Clarissa, I came to see how unfair to Richardson and other great masters of sensibility the usual epithets about tearful, moralistic sentimentalism really were. No doubt the radically revised views of Richardson that have emanated from stream-of-consciousness novelists and from Marxist, Modernist, psychoanalytical, and, yes, even feminist criticism have also helped make Ostriker’s judgments seem to me a bit archaic, deeply felt though they surely are. In any case, anyone interested in the context, the details, and the nuances of my position on Clarissa is advised to read my chapter on Richardson in Sex and Sensibility.

What interests the readers of this journal is of course how Blake reacted to Richardson. I do not have the time here—nor did I when I wrote my longish chapter on Blake for my forthcoming book, The Romantic Body (Tennessee, 1986)—to do justice to Blake’s encounter with and absorption of a great predecessor. But I must record my view that Ostriker’s speculation (“ . . . the novel, and the feminization of culture it represents, would have deeply offended and irritated Blake”) is much too simple and could lead to serious misapprehension. We should of course not neglect what Blake himself said. In a letter to Hayley dated 16 July 1804 he wrote: “Richardson has won my heart I will again read Clarissa &c they must be admirable I was too hasty in my perusal of them to perceive all their beauty.” I take this to mean that Blake had once read all of Richardson—perhaps back in the 1780s when all the novels were popularly produced in The Novelist’s Magazine and when Blake engraved a scene from Grandison after Stothard—and that now, perhaps on the advice of Hayley, he intended to re-read them, having had time so far to look at them only long enough to know that he was once more attracted. We may want to make considerable deduction from Blake’s praise, remembering that he was begin page 237 | back to top not always above flattering Hayley’s tastes. We certainly do not want to be guided by a sympathetic judgment as un-nuanced in its way as Ostriker’s witty denigration.

I now refer to a few passages in Richardson’s greatest novel that seem to me to have in them possible seeds of Blakean response—an incomplete survey which I believe does suggest that Blake responded to a great predecessor, not indeed with the admiring revisionary ratios he applied to the greater Milton but with something like their combination of positive, negative, and mixed response. I have the strong sense that Blake honored Richardson in both his favorable and pejorative reactions. Blake, who was so deeply concerned in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience and in closely contemporaneous works with virgins on the edge of experience, seems to have absorbed the sentimental writers’ preoccupation with sexual initiation, and he could scarcely have failed to respond to Clarissa’s melodramatic and forced dash across the frontier of innocence, with all the psychological probing Richardson gives that traumatic experience. Young Lyca in “The Little Girl Lost and Found,” with her deep concern for her mother as she goes into the desert of erotic experience and independence, recalls Clarissa, who in her trials was most of all concerned with “the peace of my mother’s mind” (Everyman ed., I, 61). Clarissa’s firm belief that “prudence . . . ought of itself to be conformed to in everything” (I, 61) might well have provoked the angry Proverb of Hell in The Marriage, but that well-known coupling of a rich ugly old maid and incapacity may be even more indebted—this time directly and without inversion—to the lively Anna Howe’s own response to her cousin. She chides Clarissa for not owning up to her real feelings of attraction for Lovelace and is impatient with “your PRUDE-encies (mind how I spell the word) in a case, that with every other person defies all prudence—” (I, 188).

The Blake of Tiriel loathed fear and terror in father-daughter relations, and The Visions of the Daughters of Albion laments the presence of like emotions in heterosexual love. Richardson is equally strong, though not equally frank or overt, in expressing sexuality perverted by fright, when he portrays the loathsome suitor of Clarissa, Solmes, who wanted “fear and terror” in a bride and who, if he could not get love, would strive to perpetuate fear (see I, 284). And Clarissa’s Aunt Hervey argues on behalf of Solmes that “true love was best known by fear and reverence” (I, 372). Such ideas were as odious to Clarissa as they were to Blake: “O my dear,” she wrote to her cousin, “how I hate that man . . . ” (I, 63).

Lovelace must have made the same powerful impression on Blake that he has made on almost everyone who knows Clarissa well. Cut to the quick by Clarissa’s reference to his “unprecedented wickedness,” Richardson’s magnificent Satan writes to a rakish friend: “ . . . she has heard that the devil is black; and having a mind to make one of me, brays together, in the mortar of her wild fancy, twenty chimney-sweepers, in order to make one sootier than ordinary rise out of the dirty mass” (IV, 88). In The Marriage (plate 23) an Angel who has turned successively blue, yellow, white, and pink at a Devil’s blasphemies, chides him for insulting the conventional view of Jesus as the revelation of God. The Devil, now really agitated, bursts out: “bray a fool in a morter with wheat, yet shall not his folly be beaten out of him.” Both Richardson’s and Blake’s devils are quoting Proverbs 27:22; but the earlier passage with its black devil, chimney-sweeps, and dismay with conventional piety, to say nothing of the exact coincidence of language and quotation, does produce a notably Blakean ring.

It is not only the Urizenic Solmes and the Orcan Lovelace who adumbrate important moments in Blake. The poet, who came to maturity under impulses from sensibility, strains that never deserted him, is truly sensible (in the French sense) from his early representations of Jane Shore to his later portrayals of the suffering Jerusalem. There is no reason to believe he would have been amused at Clarissa’s sufferings. Even Lovelace is moved by the afflicted girl: “And down on her bosom, like a half-broken-stalked lily, top-heavy with the overcharging dews of the morning, sunk her head, with a sigh that went to my heart” (III, 193). Blake prefers a sturdier flower: “While the Lilly white, shall in Love delight, / Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright—” and indeed his ideal woman may in part be a revision of Richardson’s.

But Clarissa’s own flower- and leaf-imagery may have gone deep into Blake’s consciousness, as Mark Kinkhead-Weekes has so penetratingly seen (Samuel Richardson, 1973, p. 237 and n. 1). Clarissa in her agony addresses one of her torn fragments of paper to her destroyer:

Thou pernicious caterpiller, that preyest upon the fair leaf of virgin fame, and poisonest those leaves which thou canst not devour!
Thou fell blight, thou eastern blast, thou overspreading mildew, that destroyest the early promises of the shining year! . . .
Thou fretting moth, that corruptest the fairest garment!
Thou eating canker-worm, that preyest upon the opening bud, and turnest the damask rose into livid yellowness! [III, 207]
Blake would no doubt have felt with modern sensibility that all this baroque suffering leading to death was unnecessary. But Clarissa in her agony may have given him an unforgettable image which in word and design became one of his most haunting pages. “O Rose thou art sick.”

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