begin page 64 | back to top

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.

Print Edition

  • Publisher
  • Department of English, University of California
  • Berkeley, CA, USA
    • Editor
    • Morton D. Paley
    • Contributors
    • G.E. Bentley, Jr.
    • David V. Erdman
    • W.H. Stevenson

    Digital Edition

    • Editors:
    • Morris Eaves, University of Rochester
    • Robert Essick, University of California, Riverside
    • Joseph Viscomi, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    • Project Manager
    • Joe Fletcher
    • Technical Editor
    • Michael Fox
    • Previous Project Manager and Technical Editor
    • William Shaw
    • Project Director
    • Adam McCune
    • Project Coordinator, UNC:
    • Natasha Smith, Carolina Digital Library and Archives
    • Project Coordinator, University of Rochester:
    • Sarah Jones
    • Scanning:
    • UNC Digital Production Center
    • XML Encoding:
    • Apex CoVantage
    • Additional Transcription:
    • Adam McCune
    • Jennifer Park
    • Emendations:
    • Rachael Isom
    • Mary Learner
    • Adam McCune
    • Ashley Reed
    • Jennifer Park
    • Scott Robinson
    • XSLT Development:
    • Adam McCune
    • Joseph Ryan
    • William Shaw
    • PHP and Solr Development:
    • Michael Fox
    • Adam McCune
    • Project Assistants:
    • Lauren Cameron,
    • Rachael Isom,
    • Mary Learner,
    • Jennifer Park,
    • Ashley Reed,
    • Adair Rispoli,
    • Scott Robinson
    • Sponsors
    • Funders
    • Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly
    • William Blake Archive
    • Carolina Digital Library and Archives
    • Use Restrictions
    • Copyright © 2015 Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, all rights reserved. Items in this digital edition may be shared in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Redistribution or republication on other terms, in any medium, requires express written consent from the editors and advance notification of the publisher. Permission to reproduce the graphic images in this digital edition rests with the owning institutions.