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The Source of “Bring out number, weight & measure in a year of dearth”

Edward W. Tayler Louis Middleman asserts (Blake Newsletter, 4 [Spring 1971], 147) that Blake’s use of the Bible, though “copiously documented,” includes an unnoticed allusion to mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. But the infernal Proverb in question, “Bring out number, weight & measure in a year of dearth,” unquestionably relies on the apocryphal book of the Wisdom of Solomon 11.21: omnia in mensura et numero et pondere disposuisti (“thou hast disposed all in measure and number and weight”). This verse is quoted, varied from, and alluded to frequently in medieval and renaissance literature. Blake, doubtless, knew the original; but he could also have encountered it in any number of neo-platonic treatises, not to mention John Donne and Ben Jonson. In any case Blake would have had to go no farther than his edition of John Milton which would include the commendatory lines of Andrew Marvell:

Thy verse created like thy Theme sublime,
In Number, Weight, and Measure, needs not Rhime.
There is no need, then, to confuse Blake’s Proverb with Daniel’s “numbered, numbered, weighed, divided.”

Everett C. Frost Louis Middleman argues that the fourteenth Proverb of Hell (“Bring out number, weight & measure in a year of dearth”) “is built on a close translation of the Aramaic writing on the wall (Daniel 5.25-28), ‘mene, mene, tekel, upharsin,’ or ‘numbered, numbered, weighed, divided.’ ”

But first, Middleman’s translation of this perplexing phrase is hardly “close” (literal), though it is viable enough working backwards from a knowledge of Blake’s Proverb; and, while the apocalyptic concerns of The Marriage invite an astute reader to find a parallel in the Daniel passage (and in many other Biblical passages as well), they do not, of themselves, justify a derivation.

Second, a much less elliptical possibility lies closer to hand. Much more likely that Blake’s Devil is having corrosive fun with one of Milton’s angelic interpreters, Andrew Marvell, whose poem, “On Paradise Lost,” typically prefaces Milton’s poem and concludes with the lines:

Thy verse, created like thy Theme sublime,
In Number, weight, and measure needs not rime.
Blake’s Devil may be thought of as mocking Marvell for being cowed by Milton’s resonances into accepting Milton’s Deistical Trinity of Destiny, ratio of the five senses, and vacuum. He agrees with Marvell that “number, weight, and measure” is a fit description of Milton’s poem—though not of the verse only.

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