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with intellectual spears & long winged arrows of thought

The Allegorical Female Figure: She Cometh With Clouds

Christopher Heppner’s article on an obscure drawing, in Blake, 20 (summer 1986), is given an over-confident title: “Blake’s ‘The New Jerusalem Descending’: A Drawing (Butlin #92) Identified.” After reading it, I find myself unpersuaded about almost every submission of importance that he makes, even the new reading “GOG” for what was formerly read as “525.” I am, however, prepared to go along with the identification of the male figure at the lower left of the design as Gog, because there is nothing inherently implausible about it. Whether Blake wrote the inscription seems still doubtful; the proposed analogy, capital letters in The Making of Magna Charta, is suggestive but unpersuasive, both because of their relative thinness of line and because there the lettering is deliberately archaic. What I cannot accept is Heppner’s strange methodology. He explains the obvious (Gog in Ezekiel is to be related to Gog in Revelation and might have contemporary political implications for an artist in the late eighteenth century) by the obscure (eighteenth-century biblical commentary), ignores obvious difficulties, blinds us with irrelevant light (Dürer’s and Duvet’s treatments of the New Jerusalem), and fails to present or consider adequately the necessary evidence.

What is first required in an exercise of this kind is a clear description of the design. Heppner’s description is perfunctory and cannot be checked thoroughly against the reproduction, which is itself obscure and has even been trimmed. This unfortunate fact is crucial, because one simply has to be able to see all the lettering on the book in the bottom left corner of the page before one may propose a new reading. What one can see does not tally very happily with what Heppner claims to have seen after a “close look at the original drawing.” Until I can take such a close look myself, or see reliable photographs, I am not about to propose a new reading. Unfortunately, the reproduction in Butlin (plate 102 of The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, Yale UP, 1981) is far too small to be of help; all one can say about this photograph and the one which accompanies the article is that they make one wonder why so early a date is given for the drawing. However, apart from this inscription, one would like to know exactly what objects are in the lower part of the design, and whether there is an inscription, perhaps a monogram, just below the corner of the woman’s hem, at right.

A thesis should be tested against objections. Heppner grants that the New Jerusalem does not descend in Revelation 20, when Gog is described, but can claim only that this narrative “leads directly to the Last Judgment and the descent in chapter 21 of ‘the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.’ ” This is to jump a wide stretch of narrative. Scripturally, there is no authority for having Jerusalem descending into a confused rabble and so Heppner argues that “Blake is not illustrating Revelation and Ezekiel directly, but is rather illustrating—or creating—a prophetic text of his own, based on, but not limited by, the language of those earlier prophets.” This proposition may not be as daft as it sounds, but one needs a much stronger reason for advancing it than any of those adduced by Heppner; it has an air of desperation. Is Blake really, to quote Heppner again, “creating a new but implicit text, founded on the prophets but constituting a new virtual text of his own invention?” The question is begged but not answered.

“New Jerusalem” seems too narrow an identification: Blake may be alluding to her, but his real subject may well be Truth or Wisdom; the spiked crown suits such a figure better than it might Jerusalem as a bride. The design seems very close in spirit to “The Voice of the Ancient Bard.” I am surprised that Heppner did not relate it to two Resurrection designs in the Night Thoughts series, 1 (31E, The 1797 Night IV Title Page) and 264; supposing that we can find better information about this drawing, it should be possible to read it (not necessarily as a resurrection subject, of course) in a thoroughly Blakean manner; it has some affinities, also, with the account of the descent of Jesus in the Clouds of Ololon at the end of Milton. This is an interesting question, because one is bound to wonder whether the woman is “coming in the clouds” (in which case, why is she a woman?) or simply dispelling them (in which case, why is she to be seen as “descending,” rather than, say, “manifesting herself”?).

In note 7, Heppner’s remarks on the Matthew Henry commentary may be misleading to Blake readers. He implies that the “completed commentary” was not available until 1811. My own complete edition is dated 1721. What happened, as Darlow and Moule explain, is that “Before his death he had reached the end of Acts, and the New Testament was afterwards finished by a number of Nonconformist divines. . . . The edition of 1811 contains additional matter from Henry’s manuscripts.” Darlow and Moule, incidentally, is usually the place to go for this kind of information, not DNB. See Historical Catalogue of Printed Editions of the English begin page 102 | back to top Bible 1525-1961, revised and expanded from the edition of T. H. Darlow and H. F. Moule by A. S. Herbert, London and New York, 1968, p. 241. The preface to volume 6 gives credit to Henry for much of the substance of that volume (Epistles and Revelation). But why drag in Henry, when all one needs is a Bible with marginal references or a Cruden or “what every Sunday school girl knows”?

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