Menu Close

WILLIAM BLAKE AND HIS ILLUSTRATIONS TO THE DIVINE COMEDY

Page with ornament
The Database of Ornament

                                                III. THE ILLUSTRATIONS OF DANTE

    THE late Mr. John Addington Symonds wrote ; in a preface to
certain Dante illustrations by Stradanus, a sixteenth century
artist of no great excellence, published in phototype by Mr.
Unwin in 1892 ; that the illustrations of Gustave Doré, “in
spite of glaring artistic defects, must, I think, be reckoned first
among numerous attempts to translate Dante’s conceptions
into terms of plastic art.” One can only account for this praise of a noisy and
demagogic art, an art heavy as with the rank breath of the mob, by supposing
that a temperament, strong enough to explore with unfailing alertness the
countless schools and influences of the Renaissance in Italy is of necessity a
little lacking in delicacy of judgment and in the finer substances of emotion.
It is more difficult to account for so admirable a scholar not only preferring
these illustrations to the work of what he called “the graceful and affected
Botticelli” although “Doré was fitted for his task, not by dramatic vigour, by
feeling for pure beauty, or by anything sternly in sympathy with the supreme
poet’s soul, but by a very effective sense of luminosity and gloom,” but preferring
them because “he created a fanciful world, which makes the movement of
Dante’s dramatis personæ: conceivable, introducing the ordinary intelligence into
those vast regions thronged with destinies of souls and creeds and empires.”
When the ordinary student finds this ordinary intelligence in an illustrator, he
thinks, because it is his own intelligence, that it is an accurate interpretation
of the text, while the work of extraordinary intelligences is merely an expres-
sion of their own ideas and feelings. Doré and Stradanus, he will tell you, have
given us something of the world of Dante, but Blake and Botticelli have builded
worlds of their own and called them Dante’s : as if Dante’s world were more
than a mass of symbols of colour and form and sound which put on humanity,
when they arouse some mind to an intense and romantic life that is not

32                              THE SAVOY

theirs ; as if it was not one’s own sorrows and angers and regrets and terrors
and hopes that awaken to condemnation or repentance while Dante treads his
eternal pilgrimage ; as if any poet or painter or musician could be other than
an enchanter calling with a persuasive or compelling ritual, creatures, noble or
ignoble, divine or dæmonic, covered with scales or in shining raiment, that he
never imagined, out of the bottomless deeps of imaginations he never foresaw;
as if the noblest achievement of art was not when the artist enfolds himself in
darkness, while he casts over his readers a light as of a wild and terrible dawn.

    Let us therefore put away the designs to “The Divine Comedy,” in which
there is “an ordinary intelligence,” and consider only the designs in which
the magical ritual has called up extraordinary shapes, the magical light
glimmered upon a world, different from the Dantesque world of our own
intelligence in its ordinary and daily moods, upon a difficult and distinguished
world. Most of the series of designs to Dante, and there are a good number,
need not busy anyone for a moment. Genelli has done a copious series,
which is very able in the “formal” “generalized” way which Blake hated, and
which is spiritually ridiculous. Penelli has transformed the Inferno into a vulgar
Walpurgis night, and a certain Schuler, whom I do not find in the biographical
dictionaries, but who was apparently a German, has prefaced certain flaccid
designs with some excellent charts ; while Stradanus has made a series for
“The Inferno” which has so many of the more material and unessential
powers of art, and is so extremely undistinguished in conception, that one
supposes him to have touched in the sixteenth century the same public Doré
has touched in the nineteenth.

    Though with many doubts, I am tempted to value Flaxman’s designs
to the “Inferno,” the “Purgatorio,” and the “Paradiso,” only a little above the
best of these ; because he does not seem to have ever been really moved by
Dante, and so to have sunk into a formal manner, which is a reflection of the
vital manner of his Homer and Hesiod. His designs to “The Divine Comedy”
will be laid, one imagines, with some ceremony in that immortal waste paper
basket in which Time carries with many sighs the failures of great men. I am
perhaps wrong, however, because Flaxman even at his best has not yet touched
me very deeply, and I hardly ever hope to escape this limitation of my ruling
stars. That Signorelli does not seem greatly more interesting, except here and
there, as in the drawing of the Angel, full of innocence and energy, coming
from the boat which has carried so many souls to the foot of the mountain of
purgation, can only be because one knows him through poor reproductions from
frescoes half mouldered away with damp. A little known series, drawn by Adolph

This halftone reproduction of Botticelli’s illustration of a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy is in landscape orientation. The image shows a scene with many small groups of people doing different activities such as walking, reading, and dancing. Beatrice’s car, a presentation chariot pulled by a griffin, is in the centre of the composition. On the left, about halfway up from the bottom edge, is a vertical line of people standing and walking in a line towards the background while holding books up above them in their right hands. The people are wearing robes that wrap around their bodies. They all have their heads turned up to look at the books they hold above. They have their backs to the viewer, and there are about seven of them in total. To the right of that line of people, and slightly foregrounded, is a circle of people standing close together. The people are also wearing loose, robe-like garments. They have their hands resting on each other’s shoulders and arms. They appear to be either dancing or fighting, and definitely in motion. Above and to the right of that group is another small group of about four people who are leaned diagonally forward into each other. The people appear to have their hands raised up and linked together, forming a dance circle. They are wearing loose garments. Straight down the page from this group, standing in the foreground, are two figures with their backs to the viewer. The figure on the left has their right arm tucked around the person on the right’s back. Their left arm is raised up above their head. The figure has on a dress that bunches up in three tiers. They both have light and long hair flowing down their backs. The figure to the right has on a plain dress with an A-line shape, and has their head turned to the left to face the other figure. Slightly to the right and up the page is the griffin. The griffin is facing left, in profile, with its mouth open and a long barbed tongue sticking out. The griffin’s eyes are dark black and has its ears pointed forwards. The griffin has furry feathers lining its face and upper torso. The griffin’s front feet are made of talons, and the back feet are paws. The griffin’s mid and lower torso are like a horse’s, with the tail of a lion hanging down the back. The griffin also has huge wings spanning out from the sides of its chest and backwards and upwards. There are two long pieces of wood that attach one on either side of the griffin’s chest above the wings and extend back towards the right side of the page where they connect with the chariot. The chariot is turned to face towards the bottom left. The car or chariot has a large lounge bed with ornamented wood panels on the sides. The chariot has a small griffin walking beside it on its right side, hidden from the viewer by the chariot apart from its bird’s or eagle’s head (representing John). There is a large wheel visible on the left side of the chariot. Another supernatural creature pushes the chariot by applying its chest to the back left corner of the vehicle. This creature appears to be an ox with large wings sprouting from the sides of its chest (representing the apostle Luke). Sitting inside the chariot is Beatrice, a robed female figure leaning against the right of the lounge seat and looking out towards the figures walking with books. She has long and light coloured hair, with a small crown atop their head. Behind the chariot is another group of people. These people are also in a small circle and holding hands above their heads. These figures are followed in the procession by another supernatural creature. This creature is a lion with wings (representing the apostle Mark). The lion is following in the direction of the chariot. There is another group of book holders in the top right corner of the page. This group is facing towards the bottom left corner of the page and wearing long robes. The figures are holding the books with their fronts facing outwards and in both hands at the height of their chests. There are five book-holders, with two book-less figures standing in front of them. In the foreground of the chariot, and in the bottom right corner on the page, is a circle of people dancing and holding raised hands, but this time there are people trailing beside them. The trail of people beside appear to sink into a pathway on the ground, shown only by their raised arms and face, with the rest of their bodies sunk below ground level. Two figures are standing on the pathway, a woman and a man walking behind. The woman has her left hand stuck out and to the left, with her right hand pulling up the right side of her skirt to step around the figures that are sinking around her feet and reaching out to her. The man walks behind wearing a robe and a bonnet with a long beard. The path starts in the centre of the bottom edge of the page and extends diagonally up and to the right. At the halfway height of the right edge of the page the path goes out of the frame and then turns back in up and to the left ending in the distant background in the top right corner of the page. There are a series of horizontal lines across the top edge of the page In the bottom right corner, watching the procession, are two robed figures; one of these likely represents the poet Dante. The image is outlined in a single-edged border.

    BLAKE’S ILLUSTRATIONS TO THE DIVINE COMEDY     35

Stürler, an artist of German extraction, who was settled in Florence in the first
half of this century, are very poor in drawing, very pathetic and powerful in
invention, and full of most interesting pre-Raphaelitic detail. Certain groups
of figures, who, having set love above reason, listen in the last abandonment of
despair to the judgment of Minos, or walk with a poignant melancholy to the
foot of his throne through a land where owls and strange beasts move hither
and thither with the sterile content of the evil that neither loves nor hates ;
and a Cerberus full of patient cruelty ; are admirable and moving in the
extreme. All Stürler’s designs have, however, the languor of a mind that
does its work by a succession of delicate critical perceptions rather than the
decision and energy of true creation, and are more a curious contribution to
artistic methods than an imaginative force.

    The only series that compete with Blake’s are those of Botticelli and
Giulio Clovio, and these contrast rather than compete ; for Blake did not live to
carry his “Paradiso” beyond the first faint pencillings, the first thin washes
of colour, while Botticelli only, as I think, became supremely imaginative in
his “Paradiso,” and Clovio never attempted the “Inferno” and “Purgatorio”
at all. The imaginations of Botticelli and Clovio were overshadowed by the
cloister, and it was only when they passed beyond the world or into some noble
peace which is not the world’s peace, that they won a perfect freedom. Blake
had not such mastery over figure and drapery as had Botticelli ; but he could
sympathize with the persons, and delight in the scenery of “The Inferno” and
“The Purgatorio” as Botticelli could not, and could fill them with a mysterious
and spiritual significance born perhaps of a mystical pantheism. The flames of
Botticelli give one no emotion, and his car of Beatrice is no symbolic chariot of
the church led by the gryphon, half eagle, half lion, of Christ’s dual nature, but is
a fragment of some mediæval pageant pictured with a merely technical inspira-
tion. Clovio, working in the manner of the illuminators of missals, has created
a marvellous vision, a paradise of serene air reflected in a little mirror, a heaven
of sociability and humility and prettiness, the heaven of children and of monks ;
but one cannot imagine him deeply moved, as the modern world is moved, by
the symbolism of bird and beast, of tree and mountain, of flame and darkness.
It was a profound understanding of all creatures and things; a profound sym-
pathy with passionate and lost souls; made possible in their extreme intensity
by his revolt against corporeal law, and corporeal reason ; which made Blake
the one perfectly fit illustrator for the Inferno and the Purgatorio : in the
serene and rapturous emptiness of Dante’s Paradise he would find no
symbols but a few abstract emblems ; and he had no love for the abstract ;

36                              THE SAVOY

and with the drapery and the gestures of Beatrice and Virgil, he would have
prospered less than did Clovio and Botticelli.

    The drawing of the car of Beatrice, following the seven candlesticks in slow
procession along the borders of Lethe, is from a tracing made many years
ago by the late John Linnell and his son, John Linnell also, from a drawing
which is too faint for reproduction. The Botticelli is reproduced with the
permission of Messrs. Lawrence and Bullen from their admirable edition of his
designs to “The Divine Comedy.”

                                                                                        W. B. YEATS.

MLA citation:

Yeats, William Butler. “William Blake and His Illustrations to the Divine Comedy: III. The Illustrations of Dante.” The Savoy vol. 5, September 1896, pp. 31-36. 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/savoyv5-yeats-blake/