In Blake Records Supplement, G. E. Bentley, Jr. includes part of a 20 June 1802 letter to William Hayley from his friend Edward Garrard Marsh, an Oxford student who had met Blake at Felpham (21). In the letter, Marsh offers Hayley and Blake his translation from the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, wishes Blake success “on his elephant” (i.e., his engravings for Hayley’s Elephant ballad), and suggests that the elephant “from its rider might (I think) be called the Apollonian elephant.” As Bentley points out in a footnote, however, “There is no reference to elephants in Apollonius of Rhodes” (21). Nor does Robert N. Essick, in his article on Marsh’s letters, see anything “particularly ‘Apollonian’ about Blake’s design” (69).
The confusion here results from Marsh’s mental leap from one Apollonius to another. The “Apollonian elephant” refers to Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana, a highly embroidered tale of the travels and purported miracles of a Neopythagorean philosopher who lived during the first century A.D. In the second book of that work, Apollonius and his sidekick Damis travel to India, where they encounter a number of elephants. (This, by the way, is the same Apollonius who spoils Lamia’s fun in Keats’s poem.)
If Bentley is right (and I think he is) in suggesting that the “rider” is Blake, Marsh appears to be comparing Blake, however facetiously, to Apollonius of Tyana. What’s more, he clearly expects Hayley to see the resemblance without further explanation and to enjoy his little joke. Why Marsh thought the comparison apt is a tantalizing—and probably unanswerable—question. Perhaps Marsh was simply alluding to Blake’s lack of worldliness rather than to any specifically Pythagorean tendencies in his thought or work.
Bentley, G. E., Jr. Blake Records Supplement. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1988.
Essick, Robert N. “Blake, Hayley, and Edward Garrard Marsh: ‘An Insect of Parnassus.’” Explorations 1 (1987): 58-84.
Philostratus. The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Trans. F. C. Conybeare. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960.