The Sports of Cruelty: Fairies, Folk-songs, Charms, and Other Country Matters in the Work of William Blake by John Adlard. London: Cecil and Amelia Woolf, 1972. £3.15
John Adlard has written several articles on folklore beliefs underlying some of Blake’s references, as, for instance, “Mr. Blake’s English Fairies” in The Bulletin of the Modern Language Society 2, LXV (Helsinki, 1964). He has now written at greater length about Blake’s attitude to folklore generally, and in particular to the fairies, by whom Blake appears, sometimes at least, to symbolize the cool provocativeness of a flirtatious woman, who titillates desire without fulfilling it. This interpretation, as John Adlard points out, is a development of Pope’s treatment of the sylphs in The Rape of the Lock. One passage, “A fairy leapt upon my knee” (p. 188 of the Keynes edition), is almost a quotation.
The fairy element is not the only feature of the book in which every folklore reference by Blake is minutely examined by a scholar who shows a wide and far-ranging knowledge of his subject. Blake’s journals, letters, and conversation are analyzed to provide a clue to cryptic passages. For instance the germ of that passage in America—about the begin page 23 | mysterious palace built in Atlantean hills by Ariston for his stolen bride—might well have sprung from Cumberland’s meeting with Thomas Johnes of Haford, who had built among the Welsh Hills a castle, almost a palace, for his wife Jane, where they founded an idyllic community to surround a house and gardens embellished with every beauty which his imagination could conceive. The ruin of the house is still left, and in a recent article in Country Life the place was described.
John Adlard further explores Blake’s references to dragons, folk customs and beliefs, folk songs, and dialect. The book should be of great use to Blake scholars, but the scattered and diffused matter on which it works has made it difficult to draw the whole subject into a unity, so that it reads rather like a series of excursions into literary detective work than a finished book. This, however, will not deter the specialist.