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2. Sterne and Blake

There are few obvious connections between Blake and Sterne, beyond the fact that Blake made an engraving for Sentimental Journey in The Novelist’s Magazine, Volume IX (1782) and, according to his letter of 4 May 1804, hoped to make others from Tristram Shandy for Hayley’s Romney (1809). Certainly their imaginations appear to be pointed in quite different directions; the irrepressibly impulsive Yorick is difficult to picture in the same creative world as the titanic Los calling all his sons to the strife of blood.

There is however, a passage from Sentimental Journey (1768) which seems to be echoed in Blake’s America (1793). In the chapter called “The Captive. Paris” Yorick relates how he heard a caged bird repeating pathetically “I can’t get out” and immediately begin page 65 | back to top begun to figure to myself the miseries of confinement. . . . — I took a single captive, and having first shut him up in his dungeon, I then look’d through the twilight of his grated door to take his picture.

I beheld his body half wasted away with long expectation and confinement, and felt what kind of sickness of the heart it was which arises from hope deferr’d. Upon looking nearer I saw him pale and feverish: in thirty years the western breeze had not once fann’d his blood — he had seen no sun, no moon in all that time — nor had the voice of friend or kinsman breathed through his lattice — his children—

—But here my heart began to bleed — and I was forced to go on with another part of the portrait . . . 1 1 Lawrence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, ed. G. D. Stout, Jr. (Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1967), 201-202; the italics here and below are mine.

The passage on America plate 6 is as different as possible in character, but the imagined situation of the languishing prisoner is remarkably similar to Sterne’s. Orc is predicting the apocalypse:

The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up.
The bones of death, the cov’ring clay, the sinews shrunk & dry’d
Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing! awakening!
Spring like redeemed captives when their bonds & bars are burst;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seem a smile in thirty weary years;
Rise and look out, his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open
And let his wife and children return . . .

Probably the association is only one of coincidence, but it is in some respects a striking coincidence of minds which one might otherwise say were as different as imaginable.

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