Blake’s Hebrew Calligraphy
Abraham Samuel Shiff (email@example.com) studies in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program, the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Another paper, Blake’s Priestly Blessing: God Blesses Job, is forthcoming in Blake. He has also published on Shakespeare.
The exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum of William Blake’s World:
“A New Heaven Is Begun” (Sept. 2009–Jan. 2010) provided
an opportunity to examine closely Blake’s Hebrew calligraphy.I
am indebted to Anna Lou Ashby, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of the Morgan Library
and Museum, for her encouragement and advice, and for being my authority for
facts and information pertaining to Blake. Three
works in the exhibition (see illus. 2.1, 3.1,
and 3.6)This paper examines the
three works for Blake’s use of Hebrew characters as calligraphy. Additional
works (from the Morgan and elsewhere) are described when helpful for the analysis.
The paper is not a survey of all of Blake’s use of Hebrew. For the literature examining his use of Hebrew (mystical or otherwise), see Spector, “Blake as an Eighteenth-Century Hebraist” and “Blake’s Graphic Use of Hebrew,” Cheskin, Paice, and their bibliographies. contain errors in forming Hebrew characters; some are deliberate to create clever visual illusions.
For clarity, several conventions are adopted for this article:
1. Images: Items from the Morgan are cited by accession number, and if exhibited also by exhibition number. The exhibited images are viewable on the museum’s web site <http://www.themorgan.org/collections/works/blake>.Click on “Begin exhibition.” The images are numbered from 1 through 92. They are in color and may be manipulated for magnification.
2. Hebrew alphabet: For the convenience of readers without any knowledge of Hebrew, a numeric code is used (see table 1).
For example, English is read from left to right.
The first four characters of the English alphabet are
A B C D.
In contrast, Hebrew is read from right to left.
The first four characters of the Hebrew alphabet are
א ב ג ד. The encoded Hebrew becomes
Some letters of the Hebrew alphabet change shape when located at the end of a word. The code “f” identifies a final character. For example, the four-letter English word “amen” is the three-letter Hebrew word “אמן” that encodes as
א מ ן
14f indicates that the last letter of the word is character
“נ” (14) written in its final form, which is
Table 1: Traditional Serif Hebrew Characters Converted to Code
|__||A double underscore indicates space before and after a word.|
|-||A hyphen separates the code numbers within a word.|
|…||An ellipsis indicates an incomplete word.|
|f||A lowercase “f” signifies a letter in its final form. There are five such letters.|
|?||A question mark indicates an incomplete or ambiguous letter.|
|R||An uppercase “R” flags a reversed letter.|
|Notes: Letters of Hebrew words are neither capitalized nor connected by ligatures. Diacritical symbols (“points”) are omitted. The English names for the Hebrew characters are as assigned by Microsoft Word, symbol chart, Times New Roman font, Unicode hexadecimal representation.|
1. Night Thoughts
Note the emanating radiance and pensive expression. Compare to the depiction of God in illus. 3.6.
Hebrew words are in a preparatory drawing for a plate never engraved (illus. 1.4).For reproduction of the complete set of watercolors, see the Folio Society edition; see also the British Museum web site <http://www.britishmuseum.org>.
Hebrew words written without the diacritical symbols that indicate vowels can be ambiguous and challenging to translate.I thank Ari Cohen for his insightful assistance with this translation. Fortunately, the context is known. On the left side of the block of text, between the first and second lines, Blake penciled an “X” (visible in illus. 1.4) identifying the words that he chose to illustrate:See Young, Night Thoughts (Folio Society), commentary vol., xviii.
TIME was! ETERNITY now reigns alone!The offended queen is the crowned woman. She points upwards towards eternity while holding a book with Hebrew words—a metaphor for GodFor Blake, God is eternal and awe inspiring. He associates Hebrew with God (see illus. 1.1, 3.1, 3.6, and 3.7).—and standing triumphantly on the face and throat of two vanquished figures—a metaphor for time.Blake often depicts death in Night Thoughts by two different figures. One has a shaven head, sometimes with just a topknot, as drawn here. The other is an aged man with flowing hair and beard. In this composition, he uses both to represent time that brings death to all living beings. Blake uses well-known representations for death and time: see Quarles, “Book 3. Emblemes,” 181, and “Hierogliph VI,” 23. Mindful of the context, we may now attempt a translation.
Awful Eternity! offended Queen!
At first glance, there are two words, one on each page of the open book. Actually,
this is a phrase of three words spread over the two pages.Blake
uses the same composition in placing a Hebrew slogan in a Job drawing (see the
analysis of illus. 3.1, below). We begin with the right
page, as Hebrew is read from right to left. Parse the letters into two words,
each of three letters. The rightmost word, “ריב” (__02-10-20__),
means “strife.” Next is “אחר” (__20-08-01__),
which translates to “after.”
The left page contains one word. Finding a meaningful translation consistent with the theme requires three manipulations to correct errors typical of a neophyte Hebraist. As written, “כאם” (__13f-01-11__) translates to “as a mother.” Clearly, this is contextually inappropriate.
(1) Replace the “א” (01) with “ע” (16), as both have the English sound of A.The two consonants, “א” (01) and “ע” (16), have the same pronunciation in the Ashkenazi and Sephardi dialects. Neophytes to Hebrew often use one for the other. (Interestingly, the dialect spoken by Jews from Yemen maintains a tradition of different pronunciations for the two consonants.)
(2) Replace the “ם” (13f), which has the English sound of M, with the near identically shaped “ס” (15), which has the English sound of S. The word becomes “כעס” (__15-16-11__), meaning “anger.”The Hebraist quoted by Margoliouth (see note above) stopped at this point. This is still not contextually acceptable. Another correction is possible.
(3) Replace the “ס” (15) with the same-sounding “ת” (22).In both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi dialects “ס” (15) has the S sound. Not so with “ת” (22) (see next note). In the Ashkenazi dialect spoken by Jews in Blake’s London who originated from Germanic and East European regions, the “ת” (22) is pronounced S as in “sav” (and not T as in “tav,” as indicated in table 1).In the Sephardi dialect, today prevalent in Israel, “ת” (22) is pronounced as T, as in “tav,” with or without the diacritical mark dagesh, especially when a word ends with this letter. (The dagesh symbol is a dot placed in the center of a letter: Microsoft Word, symbol chart, Times New Roman font, Unicode hexadecimal representation 05BC.) In the Ashkenazi dialect spoken in Germanic lands and central Europe—and today by those trained in this tradition, as was the author—the rule for pronouncing the diacritical mark is observed, thus “ת” as S, as in “sav,” and “תּ” as T, as in “tav.” For example, the word “Sabbath” is written “שבת” (__22-02-21__), pronounced by the Sephardi speaker as shah-baht and by the Ashkenazi as shah-bahs.
Table 1 conforms to the Microsoft Office Word symbol chart’s convention for assigning English names to Hebrew characters. The Times New Roman font, Unicode hexadecimal representation 05EA is assigned to “ת” and is labeled “Hebrew letter tav.” FB4A is assigned to “תּ” and is labeled “Hebrew letter tav with dagesh.” It is obvious that whoever assigned the English labels for the “sav” and “tav” used the Sephardi dialect.
For a linguist’s explanation, see Bar-Adon, chapter 6, “On Some Basic Differences between the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi Traditions of Pronunciation,” 27-30. To conceptualize this third and necessary correction, the Ashkenazi pronunciation is critical. Make this change, and the word becomes “כעת” (__22-16-11__), meaning “as time.”
Together, the Hebrew phrase may be translated:The impression given by the phrase is that it is a simplistic translation of the English “Time, as after the strife,” literally replacing each English word with a Hebrew equivalent, one by one, working from left to right as English is written and read, instead of creating a Hebrew translation from the sense of the English.
As time, after strife
Blake had another opportunity to include Hebrew characters in Night Thoughts (illus. 1.5). That image illustrates an incident described in Daniel chapter 5, where strange words appear on a wall to announce the impending doom of the startled and alarmed King Belshazzar. The complete slogan is MENE, MENE, TEKEL UPHARSIN (Daniel 5.25). In the engraving, however, Blake uses a few faintly drawn English characters to represent the slogan, instead of Hebrew letters.
One may infer that Blake was not in command of the Hebrew alphabet in 1797, because in Night Thoughts he uses Hebrew-like graffiti mixed with actual letters (although reversed) and Hebrew words with apparent errors. In 1803 he writes to his brother, declaring that he was then first learning Hebrew—“am now learning my Hebrew”—and demonstrating the first three letters of the alphabet: “אבג” (__03-02-01__) (illus. 1.6).
To support an argument advanced later, I here make note of the variety of errors in publishing the Hebrew characters that Blake wrote to his brother (see illus. 1.6); some of these errors have been brought to the attention of Blake scholars by Arnold Cheskin.See Cheskin 178, 180.
Table 2: Proofing Errors in Publishing Blake’s Hebrew “ABC” “אבג”
|Note: Red indicates error|
1. Geoffrey Keynes, A Bibliography of William Blake (New York: Grolier Club, 1921), “Appendix III: Letters Hitherto Uncollected, Letter 23,” 451. The leftmost letter is wrong.
2. Geoffrey Keynes, ed., The Writings of William Blake, 3 vols. (London: Nonesuch Press, 1925) 2: 242. Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University. Instead of the ABC that Blake wrote, the Nonesuch edition inexplicably uses the four-letter Hebrew word for “Job” (see illus. 3.5).
3. Mona Wilson, The Life of William Blake (London: Nonesuch Press, 1927) 142. Wilson apparently copied the 1925 Keynes (Nonesuch). Could this be an error by the same Nonesuch editor?
4. Mona Wilson, The Life of William Blake (London: Peter Davies, 1932) 144. The typesetting of the 1932 edition is an egregiously erroneous reproduction of the 1927 Wilson (Nonesuch).
5. Mona Wilson, The Life of William Blake (London: Hart-Davis, 1948) 149. The error of using Job’s name is perpetuated in this edition with an attempt to reproduce the 1927 Wilson (Nonesuch). However, the error is compounded because the leftmost letter is wrong for Job’s name.
6. Geoffrey Keynes, ed., The Letters of William Blake (London: Hart-Davis, 1956) 83. Hart-Davis corrects the leftmost-character error of the 1921 Keynes (Grolier) edition, but inexplicably adds a superscript symbol that is in the shape of a diamond, indicated by the red arrow. Blake has no character or symbol to the right of his rightmost letter. In Hebrew, the traditional full stop (period) may be a single diamond subscript, or two diamonds one above the other (as in a colon). Since Hebrew is read from right to left, the full stop would properly be placed to the left of the leftmost letter. Did the typesetter intend the letter “י” (10) and use a diamond instead?
7. Geoffrey Keynes, ed., The Complete Writings of William Blake: With All the Variant Readings (London: Nonesuch Press, 1957) 821. Poorly printed, as if done with battered type. The letter left of center could be either “ב” (02) or “כ” (11). The rightmost is not a superscript diamond—possibly just battered type “י” (10).
8. David V. Erdman, ed., The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, commentary by Harold Bloom (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965) 696. Erdman adds a fourth, superfluous character on the extreme right.
9. Geoffrey Keynes, ed., The Complete Writings of William Blake: With Variant Readings (London: Oxford University Press, 1966) 821. The three letters are printed with battered type, making the center ambiguous, either “ב” (02) or “כ” (11).
10. Geoffrey Keynes, ed., The Letters of William Blake, 2nd ed. (London: Hart-Davis, 1968) 65. The three letters are correct.
11. Mona Wilson, The Life of William Blake (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1969) 53. The same error as in the 1927 Wilson (Nonesuch).
12. Mona Wilson, The Life of William Blake (London: Oxford University Press, 1971) 169. This edition of Wilson has been modified to attempt what Blake actually wrote, except that the leftmost character is wrong.
13. G. E. Bentley, Jr., ed., William Blake’s Writings, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978) 2: 1570. The three letters are correct.
Further note is made that in 1: 666, where the Laocoön is described, Bentley’s representation of Blake’s Hebrew for “Jesus” is wrong. Blake engraved two letters in reverse, but the letters are correct (see illus. 3.7b). Bentley has it as “ישצ” (__18-21-10__). The typesetter mistakenly used “צ” (18) instead of the “ע” (16) that Blake engraved backwards, and the error was not recognized. See also illus. 3.2a3.
14. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant, eds., Blake’s Poetry and Designs: Authoritative Texts, Illuminations in Color and Monochrome, Related Prose, Criticism (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979) 465. The center letter is poorly printed, as if with battered type, and could be either “ב” (02) or “כ” (11).
15. Geoffrey Keynes, ed., The Letters of William Blake: With Related Documents, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980) 53. The center letter is incorrect.
16. David V. Erdman, ed., The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, commentary by Harold Bloom, newly rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) 727. A double error is introduced. The center letter is wrong, and it is printed with a diacritical symbol—the dot in the center of the letter, the dagesh—which Blake did not use.
17. David V. Erdman, ed., The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, commentary by Harold Bloom, newly rev. ed. (New York: Anchor Books, 1988) 727. The center letter is incorrect.
2. Christ Nailed to the Cross: The Third Hour
We next consider a drawing from the Passion cycle: Christ Nailed to the Cross: The Third Hour (illus. 2.1). Behind the head of Christ is a person with Hebrew on his costume in two places: over the forehead on the miter, and on the hem of the robe draped over the left forearm.
If we set aside consideration of any theological purpose that Blake had in mind in writing this slogan, it appears to represent the same theme as in Job’s Evil Dreams (illus. 3.1). There, Satan points to the slogan “Your God gave from heaven,” which is Blake’s way of depicting God’s authority and permission to test Job, with Satan as his agent. Blake may here be assigning to the high priest the role of a satanic-like agent of God in the crucifixion. Whatever the purpose, Blake uses the high priest’s vestments as a slogan board, just as he makes use of the tablets of the Ten Commandments in the Job drawing.
I now consider the second slogan. The high priest wears a robe with a string of characters on the hem draped over his left forearm (illus. 2.3). The monograph in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (see note above) describes and illustrates the priestly vestments, as specified in the Bible: there is no robe, nor are there embroidered characters. For Blake, the hem appears to be yet another convenient call-out or balloon space to place one more slogan, although this slogan is not obvious. The words at the start and end are incomplete, as if lost in the folds of the robe, and some characters are ambiguous. One word is distinct, however: “צור” (__20-06-18__), which translates to “rock.”
The William Blake Archive suggests that the slogan on the hem is an abstract representation of the phylactery worn on the left arm during certain Jewish prayer services.In e-mail correspondence dated 7 March 2010, the Blake Archive graciously provided an advance draft of an editorial note suggesting the phylactery theory: “The Hebrew letters are written vertically, bottom to top, on the priest’s cloak where it falls below his left arm, possibly as an unconventional substitute for the phylactery conventionally worn on the left arm.” The complete note is now published; see the William Blake Archive, Drawings and Paintings, Water Color Drawings, Illustrations to the Bible, object 33, editors’ note on line 02. The wearing of phylacteries is a biblical command (Deuteronomy 6.8) as a devotional reminder during prayer of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. The phylactery contains passages from the Bible: Deuteronomy 6.4-9 and 11.13-21, and Exodus 13.1-16.P. Birnbaum 5n-6n. No sentence there contains the word “צור” (__20-06-18__), which Blake depicts so clearly and centrally. Perhaps he quotes from the New Testament, or from some commentary, or one of his own works, translating the words into Hebrew.
3. Job Series
The crucial contextual guide to recognizing the letters that Blake wrote is the words of the Ten Commandments as given in Exodus 20.2-14. Although the commandments vary in wordiness in the biblical text, tradition represents each with two words. Tradition also places five two-word representations on each of the two tablets (see table 3).
Table 3: The Ten Commandments
|Exodus 20||Two words in Hebrew||Commandment|
|1.||2||[a]||I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out ….|
|2.||3-6||Thou shalt have no other gods before me ….|
|3.||7||Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy ….|
|4.||8-11||Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy ….|
|5.||12||Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days ….|
(1 of 4) [b]
|Thou shalt not murder.|
(2 of 4)
|Thou shalt not commit adultery.|
(3 of 4)
|Thou shalt not steal.|
(4 of 4)
|Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy ….|
|10.||14||Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house ….|
When Hebrew is written or spoken, the traditional euphemism is to substitute letters. For the tetragrammaton, the four-letter word “יקוק”, which is not a name of God (and codes as __19-06-19-10__), is written or pronounced. The euphemism adopted by this paper to avoid substituting Hebrew letters in writing any of God’s names simply is not to write a word. Each letter stands alone.
b. Exodus 20.13 contains four commandments, the sixth through the ninth. The sixth to eighth are sentences of two words, while the ninth is a sentence of five words.
Illus. 3.2 shows Blake’s tablets enlarged. If we bear in mind that Hebrew is written and read from right to left, the right tablet (to the viewer) should contain five two-word representations of the first through fifth commandments. Blake’s has only one word. The left tablet should begin with the sixth commandment. The sixth is actually the second line. Commandment seven and a portion of the eighth are the third and fourth lines, respectively.
My analysis of the calligraphy begins with the left tablet, setting aside the first line, which will be discussed last. Blake depicts on the second line the two-word convention for the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (illus. 3.2a):
Letter “א” (01) shows two overlaid angle strokes, one correct and the other an error. Examination by microscopeNikon SMZ-U Zoom 1:10. Thaw Conservation Center of the Morgan Library and Museum. shows that the erroneous diagonal was drawn first and then overlaid by the correct stroke (illus. 3.2a1-2). At the instant of drawing the letter, Blake demonstrates ambivalence. The obvious confusion with forming the first letter of the alphabet indicates that at the time of creating the Job series he was not a practiced writer of Hebrew.
Letter “צ” (18) is curious. At first glance, it appears to be the expected צ-shape. However, when the image is magnified, Blake’s ambiguity becomes obvious. It appears to be a distorted “ע” (16). The stick figures below (illus. 3.2a3) demonstrate how the letters differ in construction.
Letter “צ” (18) is drawn with a long diagonal descending from the upper left to the lower right to meet with the rightmost end of a horizontal base. A short diagonal from the upper right touches the long diagonal near midpoint. Letter “ע” (16) does not have a horizontal base. The long diagonal descends from the upper right and then angles acutely to the lower left. A shorter diagonal line begins upper left and descends at an angle towards the right until it meets the long diagonal coursing to the left. Compare the stick figures for letters “צ” (18) and “ע” (16) to Blake’s letter in the drawing under magnification.The magnification feature is one of the strengths of the Morgan’s online exhibition. It is not the pattern expected from an experienced hand.
The third line, of two words, is the seventh commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (illus. 3.2b). Blake wrote:
Letter “נ” (14) is distorted almost to the point of confusion. When properly drawn, the top horizontal segment is shorter than the bottom. With the two horizontal strokes identical, it may be confused with sans-serif letters “ב” (02) and “כ” (11); with the base angled down towards the left, there is room for confusion with “ג” (03). From the context, “נ” (14) is the intended letter. Here, and in examples to follow, Blake shows a propensity to slant what should be a horizontal baseline.
The eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” is line four (illus. 3.2c). There Blake wrote a fragment of a word with distorted letters, the end of the second word of the commandment.
The ninth and tenth commandments are not depicted.
Before we consider the first line of the left tablet, it is necessary to analyze the single word on the right tablet, which appears immediately beneath Satan’s outstretched, pointing hand (illus. 3.2d). Blake wrote four letters:
At first glance, the second letter appears to be “ם” (13f), obviously an error because “ם” is a final letter. From context, it cannot be the very similar “ס” (15). Blake intended “מ” (13).
The last letter, “ח” (08), shows a hesitatingly drawn line at its base when magnified, as if Blake was indecisive about the bottom, which, if closed, converts the apparent “ח” (08) to “ם” (13f).
The corrections yield
For the left tablet’s topmost line (illus. 3.2e), Blake wrote:
The corrected words now read
With artistic license, Blake actually wrote a three-word slogan across the two tablets. Beginning with the lone word on the right tablet, and continuing with the two words at the top of the left tablet, the slogan translates into the almost grammatically correct phrase “Your God gave [gives] from heaven.” Blake precisely depicts the plain text of the Bible—Satan declares his authorization to inflict tribulations on Job by pointing to the tablets of the Ten Commandments, which represent God.He graphically portrays the literal story told in the first two chapters of Job (the authorization is indicated in italics). Satan challenges God: “‘But put forth Thy hand now, and touch all that he hath, surely he will blaspheme Thee to Thy face.’ And the Lord said unto Satan: ‘Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thy hand’” (Job 1.11-12 [Soncino edition]). In the plain text we read of Satan, as God’s “hand,” killing every person belonging to Job, sparing only those who are more useful as tormentors if kept alive, and destroying his wealth (flocks and herds of animals). Job withstands the challenge. Satan returns to God for more authority: “And the Lord said unto Satan: ‘… he still holdeth fast his integrity, although thou didst move Me against him, to destroy him without cause.’ And Satan answered the Lord, and said: ‘… But put forth Thy hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, surely he will blaspheme Thee to Thy face.’ And the Lord said unto Satan: ‘Behold he is in thy hand; only spare his life.’ So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot even unto his crown” (2.3-7).
The plain text makes it clear that Satan does nothing of his own volition, without God’s permission and authority. First, God grants Satan permission to test Job, and sets a limit—you may not touch him physically. Thereafter, God extends that authority to permit physical torment, with a new limit—you may not kill him. Satan is the “hand” put forth as God’s authorized agent. Blake graphically portrays the story by showing Satan pointing towards the source of Job’s travail, God, metaphorically represented by the tablets of the Ten Commandments. He then adds imagery not in the Bible—Satan points to his assistants who inflict the tormenting nightmare.In Illustrations of the Book of Job, plate numbered 11 (illus 3.4), Blake describes in a title line what he engraved (emphasis in italics): “Satan himself is transformed into an Angel of Light & his Ministers into Ministers of Righteousness.” As a footnote, Blake quotes Job 7.14: “With Dreams upon my bed thou scarest me & affrightest me with Visions” (the Soncino edition has “Then Thou scarest me with dreams, And terrifiest me through visions”). In this lament, “thou” refers to God, not to Satan. Blake deliberately made the slogan appear to be a commandment—a visual illusion.
Later, when Blake prepared a set of the Job drawings for John Linnell, he did not attempt to duplicate this ambitious use of Hebrew (illus. 3.3).
In Illustrations of the Book of Job, only two plates have Hebrew, each with two words. The first is the title page (illus. 3.5), in which artistically embellished serif characters reflect the style of the English letters. Although this license causes a distortion to the base of one letter, no ambiguity results because the letter remains distinct and the context is unmistakable. The word on the right translates as “book” and that on the left as “Job,” for “Job’s Book,” or, as Blake properly has it, “The Book of Job.”
The title page offers a unique opportunity to appreciate Blake’s artistic embellishments of Hebrew letters by comparison with the English word immediately below (illus. 3.5.2).
Before we consider the riddle that is wrapped in this enigma of Blake’s calligraphy, observe carefully the letter “מ” (13). For whatever reason, Blake here uses a cursive form of the letter. Curiously, he is not consistent, because the letter “ל” (12) remains serif. Compare his letters for “king” (illus. 3.6.2) to the same word from a twentieth-century book whose type is set in cursive (illus. 3.6.2a).
3.6.2a (bottom). The Book of the Congregation of Israel “ספר כנסת ישראל” (Warsaw: Simon Rothenberg “שמעון רוטינבערג”, 1911) 9 (author’s library). This ubiquitous cursive typeface is often termed semi-cursive.
3.6.2b (top right). Author’s handwriting. The word “king” in Rabbinic style.
Specimens of “מ” (13) near contemporary with Blake are in illus. 3.6.2c-j. Examples c-h are handwritten.
specimens of cursive (near) contemporary with Blake.
3.6.2c. Written in pencil on the inside back cover of Gerald Fitz-Gerald, The Hebrew Alphabet: On a Scale of Equal Parts Showing the Serviles and Radicals at One View. A Hebrew Grammar, for the Use of the Students of the University of Dublin (Dublin: R. E. Mercier & Co., University Press, Trinity College, 1799). Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library (hereafter NYPL).
3.6.2d. Written in the margin of Gregory Sharpe, An Hebrew Lexicon: Containing All the Primitive and Many Deriv’d Words, Containing Their Various Significations in Hebrew and English, Free from the Masoretic Points … and the Five Letters on That Language (London: John Millan, 1745) 14. NYPL.
3.6.2e. From marginalia in Christian Simon Schröder, Seder ‘Olam Rabah ve-Z uta u-Megilat Ta’anit (Hamburg: Christian Simon Schröder, 1757), leaf 22a. Special Collections of the Mendel Gottesman Library of Hebraica/Judaica of the Yeshiva University (hereafter YU), New Rare 87-049.
3.6.2f. From a manuscript, Jacob Vivante, Sansan le-Yair (Florence, Italy, c. 18th-19th century), leaf 2a. YU, MS. 1290.
3.6.2g. From a manuscript, Compendium of Selected Prayers (Italy?, 1723), preface. YU, MS. 1294.
3.6.2h. From a work critically attacking the then newly emerging Hassidic movement, Solomon Gottlieb Stern, Kotenot Passim (1832), leaf 52. YU, MS. 1380.
Illus. 3.6.2i-j are from a book published in 1735.
Specimens of this style appear in title pages of books printed in 1787 and 1802, and it was in use as early as 1527. See Orr-Stav 16-17 and Rosenfeld 343 (pl. 560) and 431 (pl. 817).
There is yet one more comparison to make. Christian D. Ginsburg (1831–1914) was born in Poland a few years after Blake died and received a traditional Jewish religious education. After emigrating to England as a young man in 1846, he converted to Christianity, entered the circle of the London Christian Hebraists, and eventually became a noted biblical scholar.For a biographical sketch of Ginsburg, see Bloch 583n. Although the word in illus. 3.6.2k was written some five decades after Blake died, it may be compared with Blake’s style because Ginsburg studied Hebrew when a child, making him a virtual contemporary. The five-letter word translates as “in the wilderness.” It was selected because the letter “ב” (02) appears twice, with the right instance adjacent to the letter “מ” (13). Lastly, I place Blake’s and Ginsburg’s “king” side by side in illus. 3.6.2l.
The next step of the analysis compares the Job plate (illus. 3.6) with another famous work by Blake, the Laocoön (illus. 3.7), which has the same slogan, “The Angel of the Divine Presence.”
Finally, with all the above in mind, it is now possible to consider (a) the
riddle posed by Blake’s misspelling “angel” in the Job plate by
omitting letter “א” (01) when
he has it correct in the Laocoön; and (b) the enigma of the reversed
letter “א” (01) in a word that
is so prominently and centrally displayed in the Laocoön.
I begin by quoting Spector as representative of the scholarly discourse:
Blake’s work is full of such inconsistencies, not only within single drawings, but among individual drawings as well. For example, at the top of “The Laocoön” is the heading “The Angel of the Divine Presence,” followed by a corrupt Hebrew version in which the alef [letter “א” (01)] of the word “angel” is reversed …. In contrast, the identical phrase heads the … Job illustration, but here, Blake omits the alef entirely, leaving us with … the Hebrew word for “king”…. If we assume that Blake did not simply forget to include the alef, especially since he knew the word, then we must conclude that the corruption was deliberate, though the explanation for the alteration may defy our powers of analysis.Spector, “Blake as an Eighteenth-Century Hebraist” 202. Emphasis mine, except for the word “alef.” See also 225n40.The truth is sometimes to be found in the simplest theory (Occam’s razor). It may be, as G. E. Bentley, Jr., suggests, that Blake made errors when doing Hebrew.Bentley, William Blake’s Writings 1: 664n. How this could have occurred is suggested in a letter by John Linnell where we learn that the “borders [of the Job plates] were an afterthought, and designed as well as engraved upon the copper without a previous drawing” (emphasis mine).Bentley, The Stranger from Paradise 396. Because Blake worked on the Job borders extemporaneously, it is possible that he did the same when adding words to the Laocoön plate. Rosamund Paice so argues.Paice argues that the words were added late in Blake’s life: “The uneven spacing, and the mistakes, of the surrounding text suggest that it probably was scratched and/or engraved straight into the plate. … This suspicion is supported by the fact that the inscriptions (including the signature line) appear to have been cut with a graver, and not etched” (57). This may be the cause of the errors—surely, Blake was capable of human mistakes, no different from the many editors who attempt to reproduce his “ABC” “אבג” (see table 2). However, for those who cannot accept fallibility in Blake, I propose a more elaborate and speculative explanation.
Who is, and where is, the angel in the two engravings? The answer is obvious in the Job plate (illus. 3.6), where Satan is front and center.Blake places Satan centrally in every Job engraving in which he appears. What could be more evident? Now examine the Laocoön (illus. 3.7). How is Satan depicted? He is clearly off to the side, entangled and helpless in the coils of Lilith, and identified as one of the two children of God (illus. 3.7a). Here, he is a minor character in the composition, unlabeled.Lilith is labeled (illus. 3.7c), but Satan and Adam are not. Consider the four figures, as Blake perceives them: God is not an angel—God is the creator; Lilith is a demon, certainly no angel; Adam is a man, also not an angel; Satan is the angel. Now examine the placement of the slogan (illus. 3.7d). It is not over the head of whichever of the two “sons” represents Satan, but directly above God, as it is in the Job engraving (illus. 3.6). Blake placed the English above the Hebrew, and the Hebrew above God, in both. Why above God, when it clearly refers to an angel, which could only be Satan? The answer, I suggest, is to consider that the Hebrew refers not to Satan at all, but only to God.
We now consider the illusion in each engraving. The Job engravings
were published in 1826, and, by current judgment, the Laocoön is dated
afterwards.For the history of the Laocoön and
an analysis of the imagery, see Essick, Separate Plates xxvii, 98-101. However, for the most recent scholarship on its dating, see the William
Blake Archive, which assigns a print date after the Job: “The
central image of the statue may have been executed as early as c. 1815 …. The
inscribed texts surrounding the statue were almost certainly added at a much
later date, c. 1826-27.” “Print Date: c. 1826-27” (Illuminated Books, Laocoön,
introduction and copy information for copy B, accessed 8 March 2010). Bentley
dates it “1826?” (The Stranger from Paradise 463).
Job: A person whose primary language is English will instinctively read from top left to bottom right, and on encountering the phrase “The Angel of the Divine Presence” will probably assume that the words immediately below are a Hebrew translation. The Hebraist will form the same assumption, then immediately realize upon reading the Hebrew that it has a different interpretation:
In this plate (illus. 3.6), Blake depicts three lines from the biblical plain text. Job 1.6, quoted in small letters at the very bottom of the plate,As Blake engraves it: “There was a day when the Sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord & Satan came also among them to present himself before the Lord.” sets the stage. We see two parallel scenes: Heaven above, Earth below. In Heaven, a radiant God sits enthroned, an open book in his lap, attended by the “Sons of God,” all in contemplative study. On Earth, duplicating the heavenly tableau, a righteous Job with book in hand converses with angels, surrounded by his family, all in contemplative study.The heavenly scene is in Job 1.6. Blake includes the earthly scene because of Job 1.8. God calls Satan to account for his whereabouts; the latter replies that he was traveling the world (1.7: “And the Lord said unto Satan: ‘Whence comest thou?’ Then Satan answered the Lord, and said: ‘From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it’”).Soncino edition. Blake depicts this by showing a pensive God looking at Satan, who is in mid-stride. Next, in Job 1.8, God asks Satan: “Hast thou considered My servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a whole-hearted and an upright man, one that feareth God, and shunneth evil?”Soncino edition. Blake shows this by words and image: the words are in an arc at the top of the plate, and the image shows God pointing down towards Job.Thereafter, in Job 1.9-12, Satan issues the challenge that God should test Job, and God authorizes Satan to so do (see note above). He further emphasizes God by engraving phrases above and below that refer to God in one manner or another. The composition of this plate, therefore, has God at the top and Job, a mortal on Earth, necessarily at the bottom. Only midpoint remains for Satan. Blake does not place Satan there because of his prominence and importance, but because of compositional demands. Satan is subordinate to God, who is paramount, and the focus is on God’s role in the Job story. This is the context necessary to understand the Hebrew slogan.
Now we consider the three central title lines. All are about God. In an arc,
Blake engraved “Hast thou considered my Servant Job,” the question posed by God.
The second line identifies whom it is that God is addressing (see illus.
3.4, describing Satan as an “Angel”).
The third, in Hebrew, labels the image of God. Associating Hebrew with God is
not a new theme for Blake; three decades earlier, in Night Thoughts,
he shows God with a scroll of Hebrew letters (see illus. 1.1),
and the Hebrew slogan on the open book represents God, to whose heavenly realm the triumphant queen points (see illus. 1.4).
The perception of a wrong translation is just an illusion caused by considering only the second and third lines without the overall context. It matters not if Blake deliberately or inadvertently created the illusion. If deliberate, the English reference to an angel would be a red herring to mislead the Hebraist. If inadvertent, we may imagine Blake’s surprise when a Hebraist complained that he erred because the Hebrew for “angel” (מלאך) is misspelled. Whichever, it is an illusion of a translation. By the overall context, Blake intended “king” (מלך), and that is what we see.
Laocoön: The Hebrew words with the largest letters act as a headline or banner to attract the eye. The non-Hebraist, for whom the words convey no meaning, will probably assume that the Hebrew is the equivalent of the English engraved immediately above: “The Angel of the Divine Presence.” The Hebraist will immediately understand the two Hebrew words as a phrase to mean “The Lord’s Angel” (or “Jehovah’s Angel”), a translation perfectly consistent with the English.
Spector supposes that Blake could not have erred because he knew the Hebrew words for “angel” and “king” (“Blake as an Eighteenth-Century Hebraist” 202). If not by error, then he did it for a purpose. I offer two suggestions for the reversed letter in the Laocoön. Perhaps Blake intended the Hebrew to convey a double meaning: “angel,” as a translation of the English slogan above, and “king,” as a label for the image below. It could, however, be another red herring to reinforce the illusion of a translation. Ignore the offending reversed letter, and the word becomes “king.” The critical concept is to recognize that the Hebrew banner is immediately above God, not above Satan, just as we see in the Job.Linnell studied Greek and Hebrew; his biographer, Alfred Thomas Story, tells of his learning Hebrew (and Greek) after conversion to the Baptist communion in 1812 in order to study the Bible. His teacher was Thomas Palmer, his future father-in-law, described as having “a good knowledge of Hebrew.” Story is of the opinion that “[Linnell] does not appear to have carried his studies very far … at that time, and they were probably soon relinquished.” In 1843, he resumed serious study and gained a degree of competence (Story vol. 1, ch. 5; vol. 2, ch. 7). On the relationship between Blake and Linnell, Story says: “A similarity of thought between the two men soon led to a very close intimacy between them, and they remained fast friends until the death of the elder closed as kindly a chapter of friendship as is anywhere to be met with in the annals of art or literature” (vol. 1, ch. 12).
The modern revision of Story’s biography by Linnell’s great-grandson offers this comment about Linnell’s meeting Blake for the first time on 24 June 1818: “The two men seem to have taken to each other at once. Linnell was then twenty-six and Blake sixty-one. Their friendship lasted until Blake’s death, ten years later in 1827. Linnell was obviously fascinated by this man whose art and writings reflected so strongly a special image of God. He was surprised to discover that Blake too had learned Greek and Hebrew, and this immediately put their discussions about religion on a special footing” (D. Linnell 53).
The implication of all this is that at the time that Blake was engraving the Job and the Laocoön Hebrew slogans, Linnell had some command of Hebrew (the extent of which is unknown). One may suspect that they discussed the Hebrew as work on the plates progressed. If discussions did occur, and if Linnell understood the difference in the Hebrew spelling of “king” and “angel,” then what Blake engraved was for a purpose. In the absence of documentary evidence, however, the vetting of Blake’s Hebrew by Linnell remains just an enticing speculation.
Blake’s motive for introducing Hebrew wordplays into his art is argued in a forthcoming paper, Blake’s Priestly Blessing: God Blesses Job.
These few samples of Blake’s Hebrew calligraphy may not be statistically representative or relevant. Considered in and of themselves, the images from the period before 1803 indicate a lack of command over the written character. Although the Butts watercolors demonstrate Blake’s great artistic mastery, they do not demonstrate mastery of the Hebrew alphabet. The Hebrew words from the Job and Laocoön engravings are properly formed, but imply a confusion in the spelling of the words “angel” and “king,” if not part of a deliberate illusion. Blake may also be distorting Hebrew characters for an ulterior purpose in support of a personal theology. His graphic representations of Hebrew show only what the eye can see, and tell no tale of how they came into being. If these specimens are typical of Blake’s written Hebrew, however, then they may be a measure of his command of the language.
This paper could be written only because of the magnificent resources of the
Morgan Library and Museum, and its ever-cooperative staff. My deepest expression
of thanks is extended to Anna Lou Ashby, Andrew W. Mellon Curator, whose unflagging
encouragement and assistance cannot be overstated. The reading room staff is
unfailingly supportive as they serve the rarities in their care, and I wish to
acknowledge Inge Dupont, head of Reader Services, Maria Isabel Molestina Triviño,
Reader Services librarian, Sylvie Merian, Reader Services librarian, and Sandy
Koppelman, reading room attendant. Also, for micrographic imaging, I thank Frank
Trujillo, associate book conservator of the Thaw Conservation Center.
My appreciation is gratefully proffered to the staff of other libraries for their helpful support and courtesies extended, especially to Michael Terry, chief librarian of Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library, Jay Rovner, manuscript bibliographer of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Shulamith Z. Berger, curator of Special Collections of Yeshiva University, and Charlotte Priddle, librarian for printed books of Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University.
My gratitude is extended to Sarah Jones, managing editor of Blake, for bringing the manuscript to its polished state in both the web and the print-on-demand versions.
I also acknowledge the assistance of friends. I am fortunate to be able to draw upon the extensive knowledge of Professor Ari Cohen. Ben and Carin Dachs carefully proofread and offered helpful suggestions.
Lastly, any errors in this paper are solely the responsibility of the author.
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