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Verbal Echoes of Cumberland’s Thoughts on Outline, Sculpture, and the System that Guided the Ancients (1796) in Jerusalem

Blake’s references to sculpture develop one of the most persistent metaphors in Jerusalem, and the relationship between the poem and sculptural forms has received considerable critical attention in recent years. Studies by Vincent De Luca, W.J.T. Mitchell, Morton Paley, Molly Rothenberg, Jason Whittaker, and Joseph Viscomi have each suggested that Blake’s investment in sculpture is reflected in the structural and thematic principles of the poem.11 Discussions of sculptural forms within Jerusalem typically focus on three predominant images—the bright sculptures of Los’ halls in Golgonooza, the “unhewn” Druidical temples at Stonehenge and Avebury, and Blake’s visual emphasis on the iconic arrangement of words. The most developed discussion of Blake’s sculptural aesthetic is offered by De Luca’s reading of the hieroglyph (literally “sacred statue”) and the biblical sublime, in the Words of Eternity: Blake and the Poetics of the Sublime (1991). Other approaches to this topic are offered in: Viscomi’s Blake and the Idea of the Book (1993); Mitchell’s Blake’s Composite Art (1978); Paley’s “Wonderful Originals: Blake and Ancient Sculpture” in Blake in His Time, Eds. Essick and Pearce (1978); Rothenberg’s Rethinking Blake’s Textuality (1993), and Whittaker’s William Blake and the Myths of Britain (1999). However, Blake’s verbal echoes of George Cumberland’s Thoughts on Outline, Sculpture, and the System that Guided the Ancients in Composing Their Groupes and Figures (1796) in Jerusalem begin page 25 | back to top have not been noted as a source for his interest in the medium, although the parallels between these two texts offer suggestive conceptual implications.

Blake’s familiarity with the Thoughts on Outline and his enthusiasm for the author’s imagery are evident from his letters to George Cumberland, who employed Blake as an engraver on the project from 1794 to 1796.22 All references are to George Cumberland’s Thoughts on Outline, Sculpture, and the System that Guided the Ancient Artists in Composing their Figures and Groupes: Accompanied with Free Remarks on the Practice of the Moderns, and Liberal Hints Cordially Intended for their Advantage: to which are Annexed Twenty-four Designs of Classical Subjects Invented on the Principles Recommended in the Essay by George Cumberland (London, 1796). References to Blake’s works refer to David V. Erdman’s The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (New York, 1988). During this period, Blake completed six plates for Cumberland’s book, and his letters emphasize his confidence in Cumberland’s artistic sensibilities.33 For further identification and discussion of the Thoughts on Outline plates, see G. E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Books (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977) 542-44; and Robert N. Essick, William Blake’s Commercial Engravings (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991) 67-70 and figs. 147-54. Blake writes in 1796, for example, that he sends his plates to Cumberland “to be transmuted, thou real Alchymist” (Erdman, 700). Again in 1799, upon receipt of the finished volume, he professes to “study [Cumberland’s] outlines as usual just as if they were antiques” (Erdman, 704). This particular interest in Cumberland’s outlines was to develop further when Blake came to write Jerusalem, and his engagement with the Thoughts on Outline stemmed, I propose, from Cumberland’s unusual definition of sculpture as an essentially linear form.

In the Thoughts on Outline, Cumberland develops a complex and quite original definition of sculpture, which identifies the bounding line as the defining and potentially transformative feature of this medium. As a linear form, sculpture is characterized by outline, surface, and circumference and is reducible to two dimensions without any change in its essential quality. In fact, Cumberland writes that:

The Sculptor’s art, by which is not meant merely finishing his compositions in marble, but forming, with correctness, figures in any material, is a truly rational and liberal employment....The statue is all outline; a creation, the bounds of whose surface require inconceivable knowledge, taste, and study, to circumscribe. (Cumberland, 8-9)
Here, Cumberland suggests that sculpture is independent of its traditional media and is a form characterized instead by its outline, boundary, and surface. The relationship among these elements is more clearly delineated later in his treatise, when Cumberland explains how these model outlines are produced—as projections cast from a limited number of antique originals. In his estimation “there are statues in the world which, if turned around on a pivot before a lamp, would produce, on a wall, some hundreds of fine outlines” (33). Thus, the bounding line of a sculptural form contains a multiplicity of outlines within it, and this is its rarest quality. Not only can sculpture transform itself, however, Cumberland also claims that its production is an act of artistic and intellectual alchemy. He writes:
form stamps a value on the meanest materials [and] when this nation shall have nursed a race of men, capable of creating finer forms than others, out of clay, stone, wood, and metals, we shall possess a better thing than the ideal stone of the philosopher. For that pretends only to the skill of compounding gold from mixed metals, but these men will transmute, by aid of the mind, and hand, the basest materials into solid bullion. (12)
Sculptural activity becomes both a national project and an act of alchemical restoration. And, while Blake echoes Cumberland’s concept of sculpture throughout Jerusalem, it is this last passage—which proposes the delineation of form as the imaginative renovation of base existence—that particularly interested the poet.

Blake’s subsequent interest in Cumberland’s aesthetic principles and in this passage from the Thoughts on Outline in particular is suggested by several of his own critical statements. In the Descriptive Catalogue, for example, Blake indicates his abiding interest in both outline and sculpture, claiming that his own works have been shaped by an investment in the “bounding line” of form and in the richness of “Antique Statues” (Erdman, 550; 536). However, Blake’s letters also indicate his particular interest in this alchemical passage in Cumberland’s treatise. This metaphor of transmutation appears only once in Cumberland’s text, and it is surely the source of Blake’s invocation of Cumberland as “thou real Alchymist!” in the letter of 23 December 1796. More importantly, Blake also seems to have had this passage in mind when composing the final plates of Jerusalem, and the poem’s apocalypse incorporates verbal echoes of Cumberland’s treatise on outline and sculpture.

In the dramatic final lines of Jerusalem, Blake alludes specifically to the alchemical passage from Thoughts on Outline, narrating an apocalypse that evokes Cumberland’s imaginative transmutation of “clay, stone, wood, and metals” (12). In the final visionary conversation, Blake describes “All Human Forms identified even Tree Metal Earth & Stone” (99:1), repeating precisely Cumberland’s sculptural elements. And, while this instance marks the only precise reference to the Thoughts on Outline, other passages in the final plates of the poem suggest that Blake may have had Cumberland’s treatise in mind, most notably the celebration of “the Outline the Circumference & Form” of the human lineaments in Beulah (98:22). In light of these references, begin page 26 | back to top it seems clear that Blake was thinking of Cumberland’s treatise as he composed Jerusalem.

The significance of Blake’s verbal echoes and allusions, unfortunately, lies beyond the scope of a short note such as this; however, several conceptual similarities between Cumberland’s essay and Blake’s poem suggest themselves immediately, and they perhaps merit further consideration. After all, the thematic parallels with the Thoughts on Outline extend beyond the final plates of Jerusalem. Not only does Cumberland’s description of statuary as a linear form offer a new way to read Blake’s process of relief etching and his aesthetic sensibilities in the visual images of Jerusalem, but there is also a sense in which the base narrative of the poem—Los’s journey with “red globe of fire in hand” around the “stonified” body of Albion—can be read as an enactment of Cumberland’s process of casting outlines. Above all, there is this central similarity: Blake proposes, like Cumberland, a series of “stupendous originals,” each described by and, in a sense, composed of the scattered images, outlines, and projections of its own form. While Cumberland’s aesthetic project is to collect these outlines in a single didactic text, Blake’s objective, though surely more complex and subtle, may ultimately be much the same.

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