begin page 22 | back to top


Apollonian Elephant?

In Blake Records Supplement, G. E. Bentley, Jr. includes part of a 20 June 1802 letter to William Hayley from his friend Edward Garrard Marsh, an Oxford student who had met Blake at Felpham (21). In the letter, Marsh offers Hayley and Blake his translation from the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, wishes Blake success “on his elephant” (i.e., his engravings for Hayley’s Elephant ballad), and suggests that the elephant “from its rider might (I think) be called the Apollonian elephant.” As Bentley points out in a footnote, however, “There is no reference to elephants in Apollonius of Rhodes” (21). Nor does Robert N. Essick, in his article on Marsh’s letters, see anything “particularly ‘Apollonian’ about Blake’s design” (69).

The confusion here results from Marsh’s mental leap from one Apollonius to another. The “Apollonian elephant” refers to Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana, a highly embroidered tale of the travels and purported miracles of a Neopythagorean philosopher who lived during the first century A.D. In the second book of that work, Apollonius and his sidekick Damis travel to India, where they encounter a number of elephants. (This, by the way, is the same Apollonius who spoils Lamia’s fun in Keats’s poem.)

If Bentley is right (and I think he is) in suggesting that the “rider” is Blake, Marsh appears to be comparing Blake, however facetiously, to Apollonius of Tyana. What’s more, he clearly expects Hayley to see the resemblance without further explanation and to enjoy his little joke. Why Marsh thought the comparison apt is a tantalizing—and probably unanswerable—question. Perhaps Marsh was simply alluding to Blake’s lack of worldliness rather than to any specifically Pythagorean tendencies in his thought or work.

Works Cited

Bentley, G. E., Jr. Blake Records Supplement. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1988.

Essick, Robert N. “Blake, Hayley, and Edward Garrard Marsh: ‘An Insect of Parnassus.’” Explorations 1 (1987): 58-84.

Philostratus. The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Trans. F. C. Conybeare. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960.

Print Edition

  • Publisher
  • Department of English, University of Rochester
  • Rochester, NY, USA
    • Editors
    • Morris Eaves
    • Morton D. Paley
    • Managing Editor
    • Patricia Neill
    • Bibliographer
    • G.E. Bentley, Jr.
    • Review Editor
    • Nelson Hilton
    • Associate Editor for Great Britain
    • David Worrall
    • Contributors
    • G.E. Bentley
    • David Caplan
    • Michael Gamer
    • Paul Wayne Rodney
    • Nanora Sweet
    • Joseph Viscomi
    • Denise Vultee

    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.