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“Under the Hill”: Tyndale or Bunyan?

In a recent note,11 Nelson Hilton, “Under the Hill,” Blake 22 (1988): 16-17. Nelson Hilton has suggested William Tyndale’s translation of the Pentateuch as a context for the last line of the epilogue of Blake’s For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise. That poem, addressed “To The Accuser who is The God of This World,” calls him, in its last line, “The lost Travellers Dream under the Hill.”22 David V. Erdman, ed., The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, rev. ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1982) 269; hereafter referred to as E followed by a page number. I have also used the reproductions in The Illuminated Blake, annotated by David V. Erdman (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1974). Tyndale’s translation uses the phrase “vnder the hyll” in Exodus 19:17, and the term “the hyll” elsewhere, in referring to Sinai, and Hilton argues that Blake knew and made use of that phrase. The argument is put rather challengingly—“does anyone imagine Blake limiting himself to ‘the Authorized Version’?” I wish to gently answer that challenge, and then continue by suggesting what I consider a more likely context for Blake’s phrase, and the design that illuminates the poem.

There is no evidence that Blake ever used other translations of the Bible,33 If he did, my bet would be on Robert Lowth’s Isaiah. A New Translation (1778, with many subsequent editions to 1835) rather than on Tyndale. Blake did play the game himself, on a small scale, in the Job inscriptions. and he does once, though a little playfully, make great claims for the Authorized Version: “astonishing indeed is the English Translation [of the Greek New Testament] it is almost word for word & if the Hebrew Bible is as well translated which I do not doubt it is we need not doubt of its having been translated as well as written by the Holy Ghost” (E 727). The Authorized Version is here simply “the English Translation,” as if there were no other. Like many of Blake’s statements, it might be a mistake to understand this one too literally. But it is also true that Tyndale’s Five Books of Moses Called The Pentateuch, first published in 1530 and reprinted in a second edition in 1534, was not reprinted thereafter until the edition of 1884 which Hilton cites. The Short Title Catalogue makes it clear that both early editions are now rare, and they cannot have been much more common in Blake’s time. Much of Tyndale’s version was absorbed into the so-called Matthew’s Bible, editions of which appeared in 1537, 1549, and 1551,44 T. H. Darlow and H. F. Moule, revised A. S. Herbert, Historical Catalogue of the English Bible 1525-1961 (New York: American Bible Society, 1968) Nos. 34, 74, 92. but these too were not common books. It is at least possible that Blake had seen a copy of Tyndale’s translation, but extremely improbable that he had one at hand to consult.

An altogether likelier conjecture is that Blake was thinking of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, a book that he described as “full” of “Vision” (E 554). In one letter he identifies himself with “Poor Pilgrim” (E 758), and of course he made a series of illustrations to the work, and the separate plate of The Man Sweeping the Interpreter’s Parlour. In a broader context, E. P. Thompson has written well of the centrality of Bunyan’s allegory to dissenting culture during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.55 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968) 28-58. It was clearly a work that had deep roots in Blake’s consciousness.

The Gates of Paradise is a kind of pilgrimage, whose title, with the emblem of “Death’s Door,” remind us that Christian’s whole progress is towards a Gate. The recurring motif of the pilgrim’s staff, present in the illumination begin page 201 | back to top of the epilogue to the Gates, strengthens the pilgrim association of the work as a whole.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Mt. Sinai is repeatedly called a hill, and Christian, when misled by Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, loses his way and finds himself, in effect, under that hill: 6 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, ed. J. B. Wharey, revised R. Sharrock (Oxford, Clarendon P, 1960) 20; hereafter referred to as PP followed by a page number.

when he was got now hard by the Hill, it seemed so high, and also that side of it that was next the way side, did hang so much over, that Christian was afraid to venture further, lest the Hill should fall on his head. . . .6
Here, I suggest, is a likelier context for Blake’s “The lost Travellers Dream under the Hill” than Tyndale’s rare translation.

In addition, The Pilgrim’s Progress gives us a context for Blake’s illumination of the epilogue. Later in his journey, Christian is met by Apollyon: “now the Monster was hidious to behold, he was cloathed with scales like a Fish . . . he had Wings like a Dragon, feet like a Bear, and out of his belly came Fire and Smoak, and his mouth was as the mouth of a Lion” (PP 56). At the end of a fierce battle, Christian emerges victor, and “Apollyon spread forth his Dragons wings, and sped him away, that Christian saw him no more” (PP 60). Stripped of some of the grotesque animal imagery, this is fairly close to the situation represented in the illumination of the epilogue, which shows a dragon-winged Satan flying away from the dreaming traveler. The appellation “The God of This World” is a repeated biblical phrase, but it also finds its echo in the conversation that opens Apollyon’s challenge to Christian:

Apol. Whence come you, and whither are you bound?
Chr. I come from the City of Destruction, which is the place of all evil, and am going to the City of Zion.
Apol. By this I perceive thou art one of my Subjects, for all that Countrey is mine; and I am the Prince and God of it. (PP 56)
Bunyan’s work thus functions as a directly relevant context for both the structure of the Gates as a whole and the epilogue—both poem and illumination—in particular.

Hilton refers to Tyndale’s translation of Exodus as “a probable source” for Blake’s reference to “The lost Travellers Dream under the Hill.” I would prefer to think that Blake has deliberately shaped his phrases, and his illumination, to conjure up the reader/viewer’s memories both of the Bible—“The God of This World”—and of Bunyan. In Blake’s imagination the two would seem to have been almost as intertextually entwined as the Bible and Paradise Lost, and doubtless For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise was designed to take its place in that constellation. Maybe Tyndale is also in there somewhere, but I am not convinced that we can separate out that weak possible echo from the stronger surrounding voices.

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