Voices in the Wilderness: Satire and Sacrifice in Blake and Byron

Article excerpt

The snake spoke truth: it was the tree of knowledge;

It was the tree of life: - knowledge is good,

And life is good; and how can both be evil?

Byron, Cain (I, i, 36-38)

To LORD BYRON in the Wilderness

What doest thou here Elijah? Can a Poet doubt the Visions of Jehovah? Nature has no Outline: but Imagination has. Nature has no Tune: but Imagination has! Nature has no Supernatural & dissolves: Imagination is Eternity.

Blake, The Ghost of Abel (1)1

Within a year of the publication of Byron's Cain, Blake had composed and printed his final illuminated book, a short two-plate response to Cain, entitled The Ghost of Abel: A Revelation in the Visions of Jehovah Seen by William Blake. Although recent discoveries have led to a reassessment of the longstanding claim that The Ghost was Blake's last piece of illuminated printing,2 it nevertheless retains a unique claim to fame in Blake's corpus in view of its dedication to Lord Byron. This is the only one of Blake's illuminated works specifically to present itself as the continuation of another living poet's work and it offers the first clue to an affinity between Blake's work and Byron's. Though historically there has been significant debate over whether The Ghost, which begins immediately after the action in Cain ends, opposes or aligns itself with Byron's drama, current research suggests that Blake may be largely in agreement with Byron.3 However, while considerable attention has been directed at the opening address, and in particular the allusion to I Kings 19, little work has been undertaken with regard to the rather perplexing chorus that ends Blake's text.4 Similarly, while earlier studies have discussed Byron in relation to Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,5 a specific focus on the role of satire within the work of both poets offers insight into further points of connection. While an investigation of Blake's and Byron's use of satire enhances our understanding of the ways in which they both situate themselves within a community of letters, viewing their work within the larger tradition of Menippean satire can inform our discussion of the concept of community itself, along with the related notions of strife, atonement, death and identity.

Unlike Byron, whose penchant for publicly and privately commenting on the works of his contemporaries is well known, Blake has a reputation for preferring to set himself, as T. S. Eliot would also later prefer, 'among the dead'.6 Thus, while Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton are all seminal influences on Blake's work, it has been variously claimed that Byron is the only living poet to appear in his writing or - as is slightly more accurate - that he is the only one to appear in his published works. The fact of the matter is, however, as S. Foster Damon noted many years ago, that Byron is 'the only contemporary poet whom Blake named in his publications' (emphasis added).7 William Hayley, Friedrich Klopstock and William Cowper all appear in unpublished poems in Blake's notebook, with Hayley also appearing - but not under his own name - in Milton and Jerusalem. Blake also entered into a one-sided exchange with William Wordsworth in his annotations to The Excursion and Poems: Including Lyrical Ballads.

Moreover, while The Ghost does not appear to have been widely circulated, Blake was far from unknown amongst contemporary poets. On 24 July 1811 he met Robert Southey, to whom he showed an incomplete copy of Jerusalem, and it is possible that he also conversed with Coleridge, who in any case was familiar with Songs of Innocence and Experience.8 Wordsworth, meanwhile, appears to have been reasonably impressed with Songs of Innocence and may, in conversation with Crabb Robinson, have been the first to link Blake and Byron, albeit in a manner rather unflattering to the latter: Robinson described reading Wordsworth 'some of Blake's poems' and recalled that Wordsworth 'was pleased with some of them & considered B[lake] as having the elements of poetry a thousand times more than either Byron or Scott'. …