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WILLIAM BLAKE AND HIS ILLUSTRATIONS TO THE DIVINE COMEDY

Page with ornament
The Database of Ornament

                        I. HIS OPINIONS UPON ART

    THE recoil from scientific naturalism has created in our
day the movement the French call symboliste, which, be-
ginning with the memorable “Axel,” by Villiers de l’lsle
Adam, has added to drama a new kind of romance, at
once ecstatic and picturesque, in the works of M. Maeter-
linck ; and beginning with certain pictures of the pre-
Raphaelites, and of Mr. Watts and Mr. Burne-Jones, has brought into art
a new and subtle inspiration. This movement, and in art more especially,
has proved so consonant with a change in the times, in the desires of
our hearts grown weary with material circumstance, that it has begun to
touch even the great public ; the ladies of fashion and men of the world
who move so slowly ; and has shown such copious signs of being a movement,
perhaps the movement of the opening century, that one of the best known of
French picture dealers will store none but the inventions of a passionate sym-
bolism. It has no sufficient philosophy and criticism, unless indeed it has them
hidden in the writings of M. Mallarmé, which I have not French enough to
understand, but if it cared it might find enough of both philosophy and
criticism in the writings of William Blake to protect it from its opponents,
and what is perhaps of greater importance, from its own mistakes, for he was
certainly the first great symboliste of modern times, and the first of any time to
preach the indissoluble marriage of all great art with symbol. There had
been allegorists and teachers of allegory in plenty, but the symbolic imagina-
tion, or as Blake preferred to call it, “Vision,” is not allegory, being “a
representation of what actually exists really and unchangeably” : a symbol is
indeed the only possible expression of some invisible essence, a transparent lamp
about a spiritual flame, while allegory is one of many possible representations
of an embodied thing, or familiar principle, and belongs to fancy and not to
imagination ; the one is a revelation, the other an amusement. It is happily

42                              THE SAVOY

no part of my purpose to expound in detail the relations he believed to
exist between symbol and mind ; for in doing so I should come upon not a
few doctrines which, though they have not been difficult to many simple-
persons, ascetics wrapped in skins, women who had cast away all common
knowledge, peasants dreaming by their sheep-folds upon the hills, are full of
obscurity to the man of modern culture ; but it is necessary to just touch
upon these relations, because in them was the fountain of much of the practice
and of all the precept of his artistic life.

    If a man would enter into “Noah’s rainbow,” he has written, and “make a
friend” of one of “the images of wonder” which dwell there, and which always
entreat him “to leave mortal things,” “then would he arise from the grave
and meet the Lord in the air ;” and by this rainbow ; this sign of a covenant
granted to him who is with Shem and Japhet, “painting, poetry and music,” “the
three powers in man of conversing with Paradise which the flood ‘of time and
space’ did not sweep away” ; Blake represented the shapes of beauty haunting
our moments of inspiration : shapes held by most for the frailest of ephemera,
but by him for a people older than the world, citizens of eternity, appearing
and reappearing in the minds of artists and of poets, creating all we touch
and see by casting distorted images of themselves upon “the vegetable glass
of nature” ; and because beings, none the less symbols ; blossoms, as it were,
growing from invisible immortal roots ; hands, as it were, pointing the way into
some divine labyrinth. If “the world of imagination” was “the world of
eternity” as this doctrine implied, it was of less importance to know men and
nature than to distinguish the beings and substances of imagination from those
of a more perishable kind, created by the fantasy, in uninspired moments, out
of memory and whim ; and this could best be done by purifying one’s mind, as
with a flame, in study of the works of the great masters, who were great because
they had been granted by divine favour a vision of the unfallen world, from
which others are kept apart by the flaming sword that turns every way ; and
by flying from the painters who studied “the vegetable glass” for its own sake,
and not to discover there the shadows of imperishable beings and substances,
and who entered into their own minds, not to make the unfallen world a test
of all they saw and heard and felt with the senses, but to cover the naked
spirit with “the rotten rags of memory” of older sensations. To distinguish
between these two schools, and to cleave always to the Florentine, and so
to escape the fascination of those who seemed to him to offer a spirit, weary
with the labours of inspiration, the sleep of nature, had been the struggle of the
first half of his life ; and it was only after his return to London from Felpham

This halftone reproduction of a water-colour drawing by William Blake                  illustrating Dante’s Inferno appears in portrait orientation. The image shows two                  central figures with their back to the viewer standing at the gate [“portico”] of                  hell and about to enter. On either side of the portal is a tall tree with leaves                  swirling around the trunk, extending the entire height of the image.. The                  mirroring trees have roots that creep towards each other toward the centre bottom                  of the image. The two lightly robed figures [the poets Dante and Virgil] stand in                  front of these roots, on a threshold that leads into a vision of hell. The figure                  on the left is standing with his left arm lifted straight up and palm turned up to                  the sky. He is in mid-step, with his right leg lagging slightly behind and lifted                  as if it were about to step forwards. His face is turned to look up at his left                  hand, and his light-coloured hair falls down his back. His right arm is extended                  down and slightly to his right, reaching towards the other figure. The other                  figure mirrors the first in having the outside arm, this time their right arm,                  extended up and out to the side. This figure has shorter hair, and has their face                  turned toward the other figure, giving the viewer a three-quarters profile. Both                  figures are wearing a transparent veil of material surrounding their legs and                  draping around their feet. Through the threshold of the gates of hell there is a                  path, a sea, and a series of five layers of hills and jagged triangular shapes.                  The hills are shaded in an ombre effect, going from dark at the top edge to light                  near the bottom. There appears three roughly sketched figures atop the second hill                  from the front. Across the surface of the portal appears various random streaks of                  shading. In the small section above the portal is the open sky. In the bottom                  right corner of the page appears the text: “HELL [caps] Canto 3” [citing Dante’s                  Inferno].

  BLAKE’S ILLUSTRATIONS TO THE DIVINE COMEDY         45

in 1804 that he finally escaped from “temptations and perturbations” which
sought “to destroy the imaginative power” at “the hands of Venetian and
Flemish Demons.” “The spirit of Titian,” and one must always remember
that he had only seen poor engravings, and what his disciple, Palmer, has
called “picture dealers’ Titians,” “was particularly active in raising doubts
concerning the possibility of executing without a model ; and when once he
had raised the doubt it became easy for him to snatch away the vision time
after time,” and Blake’s imagination “weakened” and “darkened” until a
“memory of nature and of the pictures of various schools possessed his mind,
instead of appropriate execution” flowing from the vision itself. But now
he wrote, “O glory ! and O delight ! I have entirely reduced that spectrous
fiend to his station”—he had overcome the merely reasoning and sensual
portion of the mind—”whose annoyance has been the ruin of my labours for
the last twenty years of my life …. I speak with perfect confidence and
certainty of the fact which has passed upon me. Nebuchadnezzar had seven
times passed over him, I have had twenty ; thank God I was not altogether a
beast as he was …. suddenly, on the day after visiting the Truchsessian
Gallery of pictures,” —this was a gallery containing pictures by Albert Dürer and
by the great Florentines, —”I was again enlightened with the light I enjoyed in
my youth, and which has for exactly twenty years been closed from me
as by a door and window shutters. . . . Excuse my enthusiasm, or rather
madness, for I am really drunk with intellectual vision whenever I take a
pencil or graver in my hand, as I used to be in my youth.”

    This letter may have been the expression of a moment’s enthusiasm, but
was more probably rooted in one of those intuitions of coming technical
power which every creator feels, and learns to rely upon ; for all his greatest
work was done, and the principles of his art were formulated after this date.
Except a word here and there, his writings hitherto had not dealt with the
principles of art except remotely and by implication ; but now he wrote
much upon them, and not in obscure symbolic verse, but in emphatic prose,
and explicit if not very poetical rhyme. In his “Descriptive Catalogue,”
in “The Address to the Public,” in the notes on Sir Joshua Reynolds, in “The
Book of Moonlight,” of which some not very dignified rhymes alone remain ;
in beautiful detached passages in “the MS. Book,” he explained spiritual
art, and praised the painters of Florence and their influence, and cursed all
that has come of Venice and Holland. The limitation of his view was from
the very intensity of his vision ; he was a too literal realist of imagination, as
others are of nature, and because he believed that the figures seen by the mind’s

46                              THE SAVOY

eye, when exalted by inspiration, were “eternal existences,” symbols of divine
essences, he hated every grace of style that might obscure their lineaments.
To wrap them about in reflected lights was to do this, and to dwell over
fondly upon any softness of hair or flesh was to dwell upon that which was
least permanent and least characteristic, for “The great and golden rule of
art, as of life, is this : that the more distinct, sharp, and wiry the boundary
line, the more perfect the work of art ; and the less keen and sharp, the
greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling.” Inspira-
tion was to see the permanent and characteristic in all forms, and if you had
it not, you must needs imitate with a languid mind the things you saw or
remembered, and so sink into the sleep of nature where all is soft and melting.
“Great inventors in all ages knew this. Protogenes and Apelles knew each
other by their line. Raphael and Michael Angelo and Albert Dürer are
known by this and this alone. How do we distinguish the owl from the
beast, the horse from the ox, but by the bounding outline? How do we
distinguish one face or countenance from another, but by the bounding line
and its infinite inflections and movements ? What is it that builds a house
and plants a garden but the definite and determinate? What is it that
distinguishes honesty from knavery but the hard and wiry line of rectitude
and certainty in the actions and intentions ? Leave out this line and you
leave out life itself ; and all is chaos again, and the line of the Almighty must
be drawn out upon it before man or beast can exist.” He even insisted that
“colouring does not depend on where the colours are put, but upon where the
lights and darks are put, and all depends upon the form or outline ;” meaning,
I suppose, that a colour gets its brilliance or its depth from being in light or
in shadow. He does not mean by outline the bounding line dividing a form
from its background, as one of his commentators has thought, but the line
that divides it from surrounding space, and unless you have an overmastering
sense of this you cannot draw true beauty at all, but only “the beauty that is
appended to folly,” a beauty of mere voluptuous softness, “a lamentable
accident of the mortal and perishing life,” for “the beauty proper for sublime
art is lineaments, or forms and features capable of being the receptacles of
intellect,” and “the face or limbs that alter least from youth to old age are
the face and limbs of the greatest beauty and perfection.” His praise of a
severe art had been beyond price had his age rested a moment to listen, in
the midst of its enthusiasm for Correggio and the later Renaissance, for
Bartolozzi and for Stothard ; and yet in his visionary realism, and in his
enthusiasm for what, after all, is perhaps the greatest art, and a necessary

This halftone reproduction of a steel-plate engraving by William Blake is in                  landscape orientation. The image shows a scene from Dante’s Inferno, in which the                  poet, Dante, sees the shades of the adulterous lovers, Paolo and Francesca, in the                  first circle of hell, where the damned writhe in endless torment. These three                  figures form the centre of the composition. Dante is positioned In the mid-ground                  to the right of centre on a piece of rocky land jutting out into a sea. He is                  wearing a long robe and has long hair; his hands are out to the side, palms down.                  He stands facing the viewer with his body slightly turned to the left of the page,                  and bent down at the waist. He is looking down at a body that lies horizontally at                  his feet. The body is lying prone with its arms at its sides and face to the sky.                  The land on which he stands is covered by some water from the crashing waves.                  Dante turns to the shades of Paolo and Francesca, in an enclosed flame beside and                  above him. Paolo, is on the left and Francesca on the right; they are holding each                  other in their arms. Francesca, the woman, is wearing a flowing dress and Paolo,                  the man, appears to be naked. To the right of the flame that encloses them, and                  above the figure of Dante, in the top right corner, is a bright sun-like circle                  with two figures inside of it. Within the circle is one faceless figure seated on                  the left and another seated to the right; they appear to be on a rock. Dark lines                  extend out to the left and right, and then extend down to the sealine and up to                  the top of the page, forming the sky. The foreground of the image is comprised of                  swirls of flame containing naked bodies of the damned above the sea [of                  brimstone].

  BLAKE’S ILLUSTRATIONS TO THE DIVINE COMEDY         49

part of every picture that is art at all, he forgot how he who wraps the vision
in lights and shadows, in irridescent or glowing colour ; having in the midst
of his labour many little visions of these secondary essences ; until form be
half lost in pattern, may compel the canvas or paper to become itself a
symbol of some not indefinite because unsearchable essence : for is not the
Bacchus and Ariadne of Titian a talisman as powerfully charged with intel-
lectual virtue as though it were a jewel-studded door of the city seen on
Patmos ?

    To cover the imperishable lineaments of beauty with shadows and reflected
lights was to fall into the power of his “Vala,” the indolent fascination of nature,
the woman divinity who is so often described in “the prophetic” books as
“sweet pestilence,” and whose children weave webs to take the souls of men ;
but there was yet a more lamentable chance, for nature has also a “masculine
portion,” or “spectre,” which kills instead of merely hiding and is continually at
war with inspiration. To “generalize” forms and shadows, to “smooth out”
spaces and lines in obedience to “laws of composition,” and of painting ;
founded, not upon imagination, which always thirsts for variety and delights in
freedom, but upon reasoning from sensation, which is always seeking to reduce
everything to a lifeless and slavish uniformity ; as the popular art of Blake’s
day had done, and as he understood Sir Joshua Reynolds to advise, was to fall
into “Entuthon Benithon,” or “the Lake of Udan Adan,” or some other of
those regions where the imagination and the flesh are alike dead, and which he
names by so many resonant fantastical names. “General knowledge is remote
knowledge,” he wrote; “it is in particulars that wisdom consists, and happiness
too. Both in art and life general masses are as much art as a paste-board man
is human. Everyman has eyes, nose, and mouth; this every idiot knows. But
he who enters into and discriminates most minutely the manners and intentions,
the characters in all their branches, is the alone wise or sensible man, and on
this discrimination all art is founded. . . . As poetry admits not a letter that
is insignificant, so painting admits not a grain of sand or a blade of grass
insignificant, much less an insignificant blot or blur.”

    Against another desire of his time, derivative also from what he has
called “corporeal reason,” the desire for a tepid “moderation,” for a lifeless
“sanity” in both art and life, he had protested years before with a paradoxical
violence : “The roadway of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” and we
must only “bring out weight and measure in a time of dearth.” This protest ;
carried, in the notes on Sir Joshua Reynolds, to the point of dwelling almost
with pleasure on the thought that “The Lives of the Painters say that

50                              THE SAVOY

Raphael died of dissipation,” because dissipation is better than emotional
penury ; seemed as important to his old age as to his youth. He taught it
to his disciples, and one finds it in its purely artistic shape in a diary written
by Samuel Palmer, in 1824: “excess is the essential vivifying spirit, vital
spark, embalming spice of the finest art. There are many mediums in the
means—none, oh, not a jot, not a shadow of a jot, in the end of great art. In
a picture whose merit is to be excessively brilliant, it can’t be too brilliant :
but individual tints may be too brilliant … we must not begin with medium
but think always on excess and only use medium to make excess more
abundantly excessive.”

    These three primary commands, to seek a determinate outline, to avoid
a generalized treatment, and to desire always abundance and exuberance,
were insisted upon with vehement anger, and their opponents called again
and again “demons,” and “villains,” “hired” by the wealthy and the idle ; but
in private, Palmer has told us, he could find “sources of delight throughout
the whole range of art,” and was ever ready to praise excellence in any school,
finding, doubtless, among friends no need for the emphasis of exaggeration.
There is a beautiful passage in “Jerusalem,” in which the merely mortal part
of the mind, “the spectre,” creates “pyramids of pride,” and “pillars in the
deepest hell to reach the heavenly arches,” and seeks to discover wisdom in
“the spaces between the stars,” not “in the stars,” where it is, but the immortal
part makes all his labours vain, and turns his pyramids to “grains of sand,”
his “pillars” to “dust on the fly’s wing,” and makes of “his starry heavens a
moth of gold and silver mocking his anxious grasp.” So when man’s desire to
rest from spiritual labour, and his thirst to fill his art with mere sensation, and
memory, seem upon the point of triumph, some miracle transforms them to a
new inspiration ; and here and there among the pictures born of sensation
and memory is the murmuring of a new ritual, the glimmering of new talis-
mans and symbols.

    It was during and after the writing of these opinions that Blake did the
various series of pictures which have brought him the bulk of his fame. He
had already completed the illustrations to Young’s “Night Thoughts,” in
which the great sprawling figures, a little wearisome even with the luminous
colours of the original water-colour, become nearly intolerable in plain black
and white ; and almost all the illustrations to “the prophetic books,” which
have an energy like that of the elements, but are rather rapid sketches
taken while some phantasmic procession swept over him, than elaborate
compositions, and in whose shadowy adventures one finds not merely, as did

This half-tone reproduction of a water-colour drawing by William Blake for                  Dante’s Inferno is in portrait orientation. The image shows six figures in a line                  in the top two-thirds of the picture plane and three figures lying on their backs                  below in the bottom third. The three figures at the bottom are lying very close                  together, with their knees bent and the backs of their heads facing the viewer.                  The figure on the left has their left arm bent up with their hand resting above                  their head. The face is not visible, with only hair showing at the top of the                  head. The central figure is lying with their arms covered underneath the bodies of                  the two figures on either side. They have a head scarf wrapping tightly around the                  sides of their face. The figure’s eyes are closed. The figure on the right is a                  man with his head twisted far to the right and his bearded face visible by the                  viewer. The man’s eyes are closed. His left arm is wrapped across his body, with                  his hand tucked into his armpit. He has long hair that flows in waves around his                  head. The series of six figures at the top of the composition are floating above                  the three figures on the bottom. The six floating figures are a mirror image of                  each other in poses, with each figure’s outer arm raised up with a clenched fist.                  The figure on the far left is a man who has his body facing the left side, but his                  upper body twisted to face to the right. He has bare feet and bare legs that are                  translucent, giving way to the background coming through. He has his right arm                  raised in a fist, and his left arm is reaching across his body. He has a long wavy                  beard and long hair on his head. Slightly to his right and backgrounded is the                  second figure. This figure is limitedly visible, showing only a raised right fist                  and a face with a crease between the eyebrows, and a mouth opened in an “O” shape.                  To the right of this figure and slightly backgrounded is the third figure. This                  figure has the right fist raised as well, and only the face visible. This figure                  is visible only in profile. The figure has large lips that are extended far out                  from the face. The figure also has a long and protruding nose. To the right of                  this figure, and equally backgrounded, is a figure also visible only in profile,                  but turned to face to the left and staring directly at the opposition. This figure                  has the left fist raised and clenched. The figure has downturned lips and a crease                  between the eyebrows. To the right and slightly foregrounded is another figure                  with the left fist raised. This figure has a wavy beard and matching hair, both                  long. The figure has slightly downturned lips and large pupils. The figure is                  looking off into the distant left of the page, with a crease between the eyebrows.                  To the right and foregrounded is the sixth figure. This figure has his whole body                  visible. The figure has his left fist raised and his legs are sticking out towards                  the centre of the composition. He has a long wavy beard and hair, which covers up                  his whole upper body. He has wide eyes and raised eyebrows. His mouth is in an “O”                  shape. In the background of all of the figures on the page is a series of                  horizontal wavy lines, in wave-like shapes in the bottom half. In the upper half                  the lines become less wavy and look like air waves in the sky. Between the lines                  is dark shading until the top fifth of the page where the background becomes much                  lighter. In the bottom right corner there is the text: “HELL Canto 7”.

  BLAKE’S ILLUSTRATIONS TO THE DIVINE COMEDY         53

Dr. Garth Wilkinson, “the hells of the ancient people, the Anakim, the
Nephalim, and the Rephaim ; . . . gigantic petrifactions from which the fires
of lust and intense selfish passion have long dissipated what was animal and
vital” ; not merely the shadows cast by the powers who had closed the light
from him as “with a door and window shutters,” but the shadows of those who
gave them battle. He did now, however, the many designs to Milton, of which
I have only seen those to “Paradise Regained” ; the reproductions of those
to “Comus” ; published, I think, by Mr. Quaritch ; and the three or four to
“Paradise Lost” ; engraved by Bell Scott ; a series of designs which one good
judge considers his greatest work ; the illustrations to Blair’s “Grave,” whose
gravity and passion struggle with the mechanical softness and trivial smooth-
ness of Schiavonetti’s engraving ; the illustrations to Thornton’s “Virgil,”
whose influence is, I think, perceptible in the work of the little group of land-
scape painters who gathered about him in his old age and delighted to call him
master. The member of the group, whom I have already so often quoted, has
alone praised worthily these illustrations to the first Eclogue : “There is in
all such a misty and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inmost
soul and gives complete and unreserved delight, unlike the gaudy daylight
of this world. They are like all this wonderful artist’s work, the drawing
aside of the fleshly curtain, and the glimpse which all the most holy, studious
saints and sages have enjoyed, of the rest which remains to the people of
God.” Now, too, he did the two great series, the crowning work of his life, “the
illustrations to the book of Job” and the designs to “The Divine Comedy.”
They were commissioned from him by his patron and disciple John Linnell,
who paid him a good price, the best he had yet received ; but the material
circumstance of their origin has been often described, and is of less importance
than the influence upon his method of engraving of certain engravings of
Marc Antonio, which were shown him by Mr. Linnell. Hitherto he had pro-
tested against the mechanical “dots and lozenges” and “blots and blurs” of
Woollett and Strange, but had himself used both “dot and lozenge,” “blot
and blur,” though always in subordination “to a firm and determinate outline” ;
but in Marc Antonio he found a style full of delicate lines, a style where all
was living and energetic, strong and subtle. And almost his last words, a
letter written upon his death-bed, attack the “dots and lozenges” with even
more than usually quaint symbolism, and praise expressive lines. “I know
that the majority of Englishmen are bound by the indefinite . . . . a line is a
line in its minutest particulars, straight or crooked. It is itself, not inter-
measurable by anything else . . . . but since the French Revolution” ; since

54                              THE SAVOY

the reign of reason began, that is ; “Englishmen are all intermeasurable with
one another, certainly a happy state of agreement in which I do not agree.”
The Dante series occupied the last years of his life ; even when too weak to
get out of bed he worked on, propped up with the great drawing book before
him. He sketched a hundred designs, but left all incomplete, some very
greatly so, and partly engraved seven plates, of which the Francesca and
Paolo is the most finished. It is given here instead of a photographic repro-
duction of the water-colour, although accessible in the engraved set, to show
the form the entire series would have taken had he lived. It is not, I think,
inferior to any but the finest in the Job, if indeed to them, and shows in its
perfection Blake’s mastery over elemental things, the swirl in which the lost
spirits are hurried, “a watery flame” he would have called it, the haunted
waters and the huddling shapes. The luminous globe, a symbol used again
in the Purgatory, is Francesca’s and Paolo’s dream of happiness, their “Heaven
in Hell’s despite.” The other three drawings have never been published before,
and appear here, as will those which will follow them, through the courtesy of
the Linnell family. The passing of Dante and Virgil through the portico of
Hell is the most unfinished and loses most in reproduction, for the flames,
rising from the half-seen circles, are in the original full of intense and various
colour ; while the angry spirits fighting on the waters of the Styx above the
sluggish bodies of the melancholy, loses the least, its daemonic energy being
in the contour of the bodies and faces. Both this and the Antaeus setting
down Virgil and Dante upon the verge of Cocytus, a wonderful piece of
colour in the original, resemble the illustrations to his “prophetic books” in
exuberant strength and lavish motion, and are in contrast with the illustrations
to the Purgatory, which are placid, marmoreal, tender, starry, rapturous.

    All in this great series are in some measure powerful and moving, and
not, as it is customary to say of the work of Blake, because a flaming
imagination pierces through a cloudy and indecisive technique, but because
they have the only excellence possible in any art, a mastery over artistic
expression. The technique of Blake was imperfect, incomplete, as is the
technique of wellnigh all artists who have striven to bring fires from remote
summits ; but where his imagination is perfect and complete, his technique
has a like perfection, a like completeness. He strove to embody more subtle
raptures, more elaborate intuitions than any before him ; his imagination and
technique are more broken and strained under a great burden than the
imagination and technique of any other master. “I am,” wrote Blake, “like
others, just equal in invention and execution.” And again, “No man can

The half-tone reproduction of a water-colour by William Blake is in portrait                  orientation and is an illustration of a scene in Dante’s Inferno. The image shows                  the classical Giant, Anteus in Hell, leaning backwards in an impossibly balanced                  posture on one toe, with one hand on a high rocky outcropping, reaching down to                  set a figure (Dante) down on a small ledge (the Verge of Cocytus) below, where                  another figure (Virgil) stands waiting. The naked giant fills the upper centre of                  the picture plane. In the foreground and the bottom left corner, the small rocky                  ledge appears just visible within the frame, extending out to almost the halfway                  point of the image width. Atop the small ledge stands a man facing to the right of                  the page and visible in profile, wearing a long robe, with his arms extended out                  in front, reaching toward the man being set down by the Giant (Dante). He appears                  resting in the gigantic hand of Antaeus. In the bottom right corner the tall rocky                  outcropping begins, extending to a third of the image width and nearly the                  entirety of its height. The outcropping has vertical lines drawn to show pieces of                  rock that are shifted out of line with the structure. Halfway up the height of the                  outcropping a stream of mist or cloud extends to the left of the page before                  looping up and back to the right side, leaving a semi-circle of cloud around the                  exterior of Giant. In the distance between the two rocky ledges lies a barren                  surface of land, with cracks delineating the flatness. The gigantic man takes up                  the rest of the space on the upper page. He has his left foot rested on the high                  rocky outcropping, with his right foot hanging off of the edge closest to the                  viewer. The rest of his body is leaned back horizontal to the ground. The man’s                  upper body is twisted to extend his right arm down to hold the figure below. His                  chest faces the viewer and his left arm clings to a piece of rock on the top edge                  of the high outcropping. His head is turned to face down below him, and he has a                  crease between his eyebrows. He has slightly downturned lips, and his nose is                  scrunched up. He has short wavy hair. He is extremely muscular a. The sky behind                  the scene is dark, almost black and the semi-circle cloud cuts through with its                  light colouring. In the bottom right corner is the text: “HELL [caps] Canto                  31”

  BLAKE’S ILLUSTRATIONS TO THE DIVINE COMEDY         57

improve an original invention ; nor can an original invention exist without
execution, organized, delineated, and articulated either by God or man. . . .
I have heard people say, ‘Give me the ideas ; it is no matter what words you
put them into ;’ and others say, ‘Give me the design ; it is no matter for the
execution.’ . . . Ideas cannot be given but in their minutely appropriate
words, nor can a design be made without its minutely appropriate execution.”
Living in a time when technique and imagination are continually perfect
and complete, because they no longer strive to bring fire from heaven, we
forget how imperfect and incomplete they were in even the greatest masters,
in Botticelli, in Orcagna, and in Giotto. The errors in the handiwork of
exalted spirits are as the more fantastical errors in their lives ; as Coleridge’s
opium cloud ; as Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s candidature for the throne of Greece ;
as Blake’s anger against causes and purposes he but half understood ; as the
flickering madness an Eastern scripture would allow in august dreamers ; for
he who half lives in eternity endures a rending of the structures of the mind,
a crucifixion of the intellectual body.

                                                                                                W. B. YEATS.

MLA citation:

Yeats, W.B. “William Blake and His Illustrations To the Divine Comedy.” The Savoy vol. 3, July 1896, pp. 41-57. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv3-yeats-blake/