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Blake’s “Donald the Hammerer”

In Blake Newsletter 15 (Winter 1971, pp. 75-77) Robert Essick describes the pencil-and-ink drawing known as “Donald the Hammerer” in the UCLA Library, and states that he has been unable to trace its subject, though he thinks that Blake might be illustrating a scene in a book.

I think that Donald himself is to be identified with a character mentioned very briefly in Scott’s The Abbot (1820), ch. xxxiv. Roland Graeme, explaining how he comes to have the skills of a metal worker, says,

My patron the Knight of Avenel used to compel the youth educated in his household to learn the use of axe and hammer, and working in wood and iron—he used to speak of old northern champions, who forged their own weapons, and of the Highland Captain, Donald nan Ord, or Donald of the Hammer, whom he himself knew, and who used to work at the anvil with a sledge-hammer in each hand. Some said he praised this art, because he was himself of churl’s blood. . . .
The appearance of two hammers in Blake’s design reinforces the identification with “Donald of the Hammer.”

What was not at first clear to me was whether Scott had here created a character for his own purposes or was adding a touch of veracity to his narrative by referring to an actual historical figure. Reference to Scottish records failed to solve the mystery. In the end, however, I consulted Dr. James Corson, Honorary Librarian of Abbotsford and an authority on Scott, to whom I am most grateful for looking into the matter and discovering that Donald the Hammerer was in fact a real person. I quote from his letter to me:

Donald nan Nord was Donald Stewart of the Invernahyle family, a younger branch of the Stewarts of Appin.

In 1817 Joseph Train presented to Scott a manuscript called “An authentic account of the Stewarts of Invernahyle.” The manuscript is still at Abbotsford. In 1818 Gale and Fenner, the London publishers, asked Scott to edit a new edition of Edward Burt’s “Letters from a gentleman in the north of Scotland.” This book was one of Scott’s great favourites and he used it extensively in The Lady of the Lake and in Waverley. He declined, however, to edit it and passed the task on to Robert Jamieson. This edition was called the 5th and was issued in 1818 and also in 1822 when it was still called the 5th. To this edition begin page 166 | back to top Scott contributed the story of Donald the Hammerer taken from the manuscript presented by Train. To Scott’s annoyance the publishers put on the title page: “The history of Donald the Hammerer, from an authentic account of the family of Invernahyle; a MS communicated by Walter Scott, Esq.”

If Blake was using Scott he would be more likely to use Burt (either 1818 or 1822) rather than The Abbot, where there is only a brief reference.

I have looked at the 1818 edition and agree with Dr. Corson that Blake must have come across Donald in Burt rather than in Scott’s novel. The actual phrase “Donald the Hammerer” was used only by Burt; in addition there is an incident in the account as communicated to him by Scott which corresponds to Blake’s design. Donald was the only surviving child of Alexander, the first Invernahyle (called “the Peaceful”), who had been basely murdered by Green Colin and his men. He has been rescued by his nurse, the blacksmith’s wife of Moidart, and brought up secretly as one of her own children. The account continues:

When young Donald had acquired some strength, he was called to assist his supposed father in carrying on his trade; and so uncommon was his strength, that when only eighteen years of age, he could wield a large fore-hammer in each hand, for the length of the longest day, without the least seeming difficulty or fatigue.

At last the blacksmith and his wife resolved to discover to Donald the secret they had so long kept, not only from him, but from the world. After relating the mournful tale of his parents’ death, the smith brought a sword of his own making, and put it into Donald’s hand, saying, “I trust the blood that runs in your veins, and the spirit of your fathers, will guide your actions; and that this sword will be the means of clearing the difficulties that lie in the way of your recovering your paternal estate.” Donald heard with surprise the story of his birth and early misfortune; but vowed never to put the sword into a scabbard until he had swept the murderers of his parents from the earth. (lxvi-lxvii)
The rest of the account is concerned with the consequences of his vow. Donald became a man of blood and plundered the Highlands from end to end. He ended by quarreling with his own son, Duncan, who had settled with his wife at the smithy where Donald had been brought up and was cultivating the land as a man of peace. The account concludes:
Once, as Donald was walking upon the green of Invernahyle, he looked across the river, and saw several men working upon the farm of Inverfalla. In the mean time Duncan came out, and took a spade from one of the men, seemingly to let him see how he should perform the work in which he was employed. This was too much for the old gentleman to bear. He launched the currach (a wicker boat covered with hides) with his own hand, and rowed it across to Inverfalla. As he approached, Duncan, being struck with the fury of his countenance, fled from the impending storm into the house; but the old man followed him with a naked sword in his hand. Upon entering a room that was somewhat dark, Donald, thinking his degenerate son had concealed himself under the bed-clothes, made a deadly stab at his supposed son; but, instead of killing him, the sword went through the heart of his old nurse, who was then near eighty years of age.

After this unfortunate accident Donald became very religious; he resigned all his lands to his sons, and went to live at Columkill, where he at last died at the age of eighty-seven.

Blake’s drawing is fairly clearly intended to illustrate the incident in which the smith and his wife come to the young Donald to tell him his secret, and in which the smith urges him to revenge. But certain elements in the drawing encourage one to approach it in terms of Blake’s own ideas and imagery, as expressed in other works. The gestures of the woman, who is holding up one hand outstretched and pointing downwards with the other, correspond very closely to those of the central woman in the Arlington Court Picture (apart from the fact that right and left are reversed). The male looks like one of Blake’s figures of energy: his left hand is held up like the woman’s right; his right hand is pointing outwards—in the direction (though not with the sweeping spread) of those of the male in the Arlington Court Picture.

In Blake’s Visionary Universe, I argued that the Arlington Court Picture represents Blake’s interpretation of the last chapter of Revelation, and in particular of the phrase “The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’ ”—the Spirit being the spirit of organized Energy and the Bride the Jerusalem who stands for Blake’s concept of vision. A related interpretation may be traced here, except that the blacksmith, the figure of energy, is shaded, and seems to be more ambiguous than the “Spirit” of the Arlington Court design. For a fuller interpretation, it is better to go to a story which would naturally be brought to mind by Donald’s career as a Scots man of blood—that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In my book I also suggested that Blake read Shakespeare’s play as a play about the ambiguity of energy, the weird sisters presenting to Macbeth a destiny which in his visionless state he accepts as one of ambition and destruction, but which could be interpreted at a nobler level as an invitation to assume the sovereignty of his own human nature. According to such a reading, the nobility of Macbeth’s own heart and blood-consciousness is constantly expressing itself through his imagery while his deeds are carrying him further into a sea of shed blood.

A similar interpretation may be applied to “Donald the Hammerer.” The lineaments of Blake’s Donald are those of a good character, but one who begin page 167 | back to top is still innocent and unformed. If he were fully to understand his own nature, the smith’s words, “I trust the blood that runs in your veins, and the spirit of your fathers, will guide your actions . . . ” would be interpreted as a call to peace, not to war, to imitate his father rather than to avenge him, but the smith also calls him to use the sword, and Donald’s hand is already resting on it. In a few years, therefore, he will be a complete “man of blood” in the ignoble sense, his energies fully devoted to destruction. Following the smith’s misdirection, indeed, he will end by murdering the smith’s own wife—the nurse whose mercy and care had originally preserved him from the effects of war and whose gestures in Blake’s design are still inviting him to a more visionary and merciful view of humanity.

Study of Burt’s book suggests, in other words, that Blake found in the story of “Donald the Hammerer” an echo of his interpretation of Macbeth (as also of his own smith-figure, Los) and a fitting emblem of the misapplications of energy in his own industrialized and war-obsessed civilization. Just as the Spirit and the Bride of the Arlington Court picture were seen calling humanity to a fuller exercise of energy and imagination than that offered by self-imprisonment in a world limited by generation and death, so the inner lineaments of the male and female of the design suggest a better sphere for the energetic man; those of the male indicating a world which would benefit from works other than those of weapons of war, those of the female indicating the larger world of imaginative vision which he might enjoy as an artist.

In his letter to me Dr. Corson also points out that Scott returned to Donald in his Tales of a Grandfather (ch. xxxix); but this, as he points out, was after Blake’s death. It follows, of course, from the date of Burt’s fifth edition that Blake’s design was executed in or after 1818; and it is by no means impossible that the line of thought which gave rise to it also played its part in the gestation of the Arlington Court picture, which is customarily dated about 1821.

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