begin page 3 | back to top



That Henry Fuseli was profoundly influenced by Blake is generally acknowledged, but the suggestion that Fuseli exerted any significant influence upon Blake is usually resisted.1 1 For exceptions to this generalization, see Anthony Blunt—The Art of William Blake (Columbia, 1959)—who reminds us that Blake borrowed many themes from Fuseli (p. 39) and Raymond Lister—William Blake (London, 1968)—who recalls that Blake often professed that he was a student of Fuseli (p. 138). More importantly, David Erdman, in Blake: Prophet Against Empire (Princeton, 1954), maintains that Blake “appropriated many of his [Fuseli’s] ideas on the theory and history of art” (p. 41)—a premise repeated by Jean H. Hagstrum who, in William Blake, Poet and Painter: An Introduction to the Illuminated Verse (Chicago, 1964), while acknowledging that on large matters “their differences were profound,” recognizes that “Blake owed much” to Fuseli and “shared many of the same artistic ideas” (pp. 67-68, 64). But in every case the “minute particulars” of Blake’s debt to Fuseli go unacknowledged. Several pleces of evidence, which seem to have escaped Blake’s commentators, may suggest otherwise, however. Blake knew the paintings that composed the Fuseli Milton Gallery, and he knew them well, as his letters and some marginalia indicate. Of these paintings, the one depicting Satan, Sin, and Death at the Gates of Hell achieved considerable notoriety and may, in fact, have inspired Blake to choose that episode for two separate illustrations, both of which are now in the Huntington Art Gallery.2 2 The illustrations of Fuseli and Blake are reproduced in Blunt as Plates 10c and 11a respectively. Blake’s illustration surpasses Fuseli’s, as well as those by Stothard and Barry (see Plates 10a and 10b), in its fidelity to Milton’s text (i.e. the others depict Death as a monster, whereas Blake alone depicts him as a shadowy figure). It is noteworthy that Blake, in his second set of illustrations to Paradise Lost 1808), dropped all designs for the first two books of Paradise Lost and thus began his new series with the Son’s offering of himself as Redeemer. The differences between these two sets of illustrations are of immense significance, usually showing Blake bringing the illustrations into closer alignment with Milton’s text, and deserve a full-length study as a form of non-verbal criticism.

Moreover, both Blake and Fuseli were led to speculate on the nature of epic poetry, and their speculations are based largely upon Milton’s achievement in Paradise Lost. In “Lecture III,” delivered before the Royal Academy in May, 1801, Fuseli had insisted that the epic poet concern himself with impressing “one general idea . . . one irresistible idea upon the mind and fancy” (Knowles, 11, 157).3 3 All citations from Fuseli and Blakes are taken from the following editions: The Life and Writings of Henry Fuseli, ed. John Knowles (3 vols.; London, 1831) and The Complete Writings of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London, 1966). Two years later, Blake comments similarly in a letter to Thomas Butts (April 25, 1803), which mentions the immense number of verses he has written on “One Grand Theme, Similar to Homer’s Iliad and Milton’s Paradise Lost[e] (Keynes, p. 823). Distanced from one another by two years, these comments may, of course, suggest intellectual kinship rather than an actual debt. However, a final piece of evidence may indicate that Blake’s whole conception of epic poetry was colored by his knowledge of Fuseli’s views on the subject. In the Spring of 1803, Fuseli delivered a fourth lecture wherein he once again takes up the question of epic poetry, points to Milton’s allegory of Satan, Sin, and Death as an instance of the sublime that “amalgamates the mythic and superhuman,[e]4 4 The quality of sublimity, denied to this episode by Milton’s eighteenth-century critics from Addison to Johnson, is attributed to it, first by Burke, then by Fuseli and Blake (see Blunt, p. 15), and finally by Coleridge, Hunt, and De Quincey. See, esp., John Payne Collier, Seven Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton by the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge (London, 1856), pp. 64-66; Leigh Hunt’s Dramatic Criticism 1808-1831, ed. Lawrence Huston Houtchens and Carolyn Washburn Houtchens (New York, 1949), pp. 149-150; and A Diary of Thomas De Quincey (London, 1927), p. 169. and then defines epic poetry as “sublime allegory” (11, 196). Fuseli’s definition corresponds strikingly with Blake’s, which comes in a celebrated letter addressed to Thomas Butts and dated July 6, 1803. In this letter, Blake expresses the hope that he may speak “to future generations by a Sublime Allegory” and then defines sublime poetry as “Allegory address’d to the Intellectual powers, while it is altogether hidden from the Corporeal Understanding” (Keynes, p. 825).

It is in this same letter that Blake imagines himself to be none other than a “Secretary” of those “Authors” who dwell in “Eternity.” It would seem likely that, having found Fuseli an appropriate model for painters, Blake would find him an equally authoritative source for his thinking on poetry. Such is the impression he gives, in any case, when in Public Address he places Fuseli alongside Michael Angelo, Shakespeare, and Milton (Keynes, p. 595).

Print Edition

  • Publisher
  • Department of English, University of California
  • Berkeley, CA, USA
    • Editor
    • Morton D. Paley
    • Associate Editors
    • Donald D. Ault
    • Andrew Griffin

    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.