William Blake and the Hunt Circle

Article excerpt

THE TENSIONS WITHIN ROMANTICISM ARE FULLY MANIFESTED IN THE ANIMOSITIES that existed between William Blake and the Hunt circle. The once marginal Leigh Hunt (and to a lesser degree his brothers John and Robert) has received due scholarly attention in recent years, (1) and we can now appreciate him for his own works, his commitment to reform, and his ability to cultivate connections among writers. Jon Mee has reminded us, however, that a significant part of Leigh Hunt's project was a fierce campaign again Methodism and religious enthusiasm. (2) Hunt's campaign was embodied in a series of essays for The Examiner, entitled An Attempt to Shew the Folly and Danger of Methodism, which appeared as a slightly revised pamphlet in 1809. The original publication of these essays overlapped with Robert Hunt's critical reviews of Blake's edition of The Grave on August 7, 1808, and of his exhibition of paintings on September 17, 1809. Blake, accordingly, became the most significant casualty of the Hunts' campaign against enthusiasm, and the campaign undoubtedly contributed to Blake's retreat into obscurity and poverty. But the clash also had an immensely fruitful influence on Blake's later works. Not only did it give birth to the villainous Hand, a major character of Blake's later mythology whose name plays on the indicator symbol used by the Hunts as a signature, it also shaped, as Mee notes, Blake's defense of Methodists and his conception of literary and religious enthusiasm in Milton and Jerusalem. (3)

Since Mee focuses chiefly on what the conflict between Blake and the Hunts says about enthusiasm, I want to revisit this contentious relationship in light of an unrecorded reference to Blake by Leigh Hunt in the short lived quarterly The Reflector (1810/11--12), which is not found in Bentley's Blake Records. Dating from late 1810 or early 1811, this reference comes more than a year after the review of Blake's exhibition, and it shows that the Hunts maintained their interest in Blake for a sustained period. For Blake, the new attack would have come as he was working on several important projects, most of which were already in dialogue with the Hunts. These projects included the engraving of his Chaucer painting, his Public Address to the Chalcographic Society (a group formed for the encouragement of engraving and which was promoted by the Hunts and Robert Cromek, the publisher of The Grave), several notebook poems on the Hunts and his other enemies, Milton, and Jerusalem. (4) The Reflector influenced many of these works, and in light of the new reference to Blake, I also want to underscore Blake's awareness of the topics discussed in The Examiner and the degree to which Blake's circle of friends and acquaintances overlapped with that of the Hunts. While the Hunts were not Blake's only enemies, by figuring Hand as the eldest son of Albion, Blake signaled his recognition of the leadership of the Hunt circle in a new generation of writers. Blake clearly had an enduring interest in the activities and controversies of the Hunt circle, and his concern with Lord Byron, to whom he dedicated The Ghost of Abel (1822), may be an extension of this attention. Ultimately, the intersection of Blake's and Hunt's circles will help us better understand the personal and professional context of Blake's public engagement and the intended audience of his later works.

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Blake and the Hunts had many avenues for information about each other. The Hunts were the nephews of Benjamin West, who, as President of the Royal Academy, subscribed to The Grave along with several other members of the Academy. The Hunts knew Cromek and worked with him on promoting several projects. The Hunts' friend, Henry Crabb Robinson, wrote an article on Blake in 1808 and attended his exhibition in 1810. Robinson's diary shows that Blake was a frequent subject of conversation; between 1811 and 1813, Robinson discussed him with William Rough, William Hazlitt, Robert Southey, Charles Lamb, William Wordsworth, Thomas Barnes, and Barron Field, all of whom knew Hunt. …