William Blake's Golden String: Jerusalem and the London Textile Industry

Article excerpt

RECENT WORK IN ROMANTIC STUDIES--INDEED, IN ENGLISH STUDIES more broadly--has called for a renewed attention to the material-culture contexts with which literary expression is always in dialogue. In the past decade, landmark studies in Romanticism have investigated everything from advertising and economics to the science of the mind and the gastronomic pleasures of the table. (1) Increasingly, Romanticism is studied as a movement that is fundamentally engaged with and shaped by the circulation and production of commodities and the culture that they generate, and we are a long distance from the old myth of dreamy poets living in a world of the disembodied imagination.

Some Romantic-era commodities have received substantial scholarly attention. We know a good deal of important information, for example, about sugar and slavery, tea and opium. (2) Print culture is now well integrated into the field of study, and the names of periodical reviews and their editors are, today, nearly as familiar as the names of the era's great cartoonists and satirists. (3) Among the widely circulated and significant commodities of the Romantic era, however, there is one that provided late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain with some of its most powerfully resonant cultural symbols: textile-based fashion. Throughout British culture, Phrygian caps and sans culottes were shorthand for 1790s radicalism, and the "buff and blue" colors of the Whig party--a visual allusion to the military uniforms of American revolutionaries--were a silent statement of transatlantic and national political allegiance. The revitalization of the tartan in the early nineteenth century operated as a cipher for renewed Scottish nationalism, and, to caricature an educated literary lady, one only had to refer to her imagined bluestockings. When the young Lord Byron made his maiden speech in Parliament in 1812, he had originally intended to speak on the subject of the Catholic emancipation, a topic that was unquestionably among the most urgent and divisive controversies of the Romantic half-century. Instead, he turned his attention at the last moment to a topic that was no less urgent for many of his contemporaries: the textile riots of the Nottingham weavers. (4) These impassioned artisans had been far more patient than their London counterparts, who had been rioting already for decades.

Cultural engagement, of course, was Byron's signature, and the assimilation of material-culture tropes in his poetic oeuvre would surprise few scholars of the Romantic period. Likewise, there is something quite natural about the idea that the affluent middle-class writers who dominated the literary movement that we now know as Romanticism should have reflected and deployed in their work the luxury commodities with which they were surrounded as active consumers of gentility. With an artisan-class writer such as William Blake, however, the world of fashion seems less immediately relevant--perhaps especially in that avowedly spiritual and "perfectly mad poem" Jerusalem (1804-20). (5)

Yet, nothing could be further from the case. Jerusalem is not just a poem that engages the material history of fashion and the textile industry in the early nineteenth century, but I would contend that it is perhaps essentially about that subject. Or, at least, it makes essential and direct narrative and visual use of Blake's considerable knowledge about cloth manufacture to shape its poetic narrative--a narrative that is far less "mad" when relocated in the context of Romantic-period material culture.

In making this case for the centrality of cloth production in Jerusalem, I argue here three broad points. First, I propose that our thinking about Romantic print culture as a paper-based communication network and about Blake as a printmaker within it needs to be expanded to include the textile industry. It is an argument that some may find contentious. For the past several decades, Blake studies, in particular, has been strongly focused on what we might call a "positive" and "minute" historicism--a detailed and intensive investigation into the implications of what has been understood to be Blake's very specific training in a narrow and specialized field. …

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