Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

Spiritual Transfers: William Blake's Iconographic Treatment of John Bunyan's the Pilgrim's Progress

Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

Spiritual Transfers: William Blake's Iconographic Treatment of John Bunyan's the Pilgrim's Progress

Article excerpt

In his Literary Life of William Blake, John Beer writes: 'Although he made his living through visual art and practised it all his life Blake is remembered today first and foremost for his poems'.1 Those who do recall Blake as an artist often remember him better as an engraver and illuminator of his own poetic works than as an illustrator of the works of other writers. It is acknowledged that he illustrated works by Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Young and Gray, but perhaps the most often cited and studied of his illustrations are those of The Book of Job (c. 1805-25) and of Dante's Divine Comedy (c. 1824-27). Less well known is the fact that in 1824, as he was finishing his work on Job and before addressing Dante, Blake prepared a series of twentynine drawings illustrating John Bunyan's The Pilgrim 's Progress. That series of drawings, which is now in the Frick Collection in New York, was unfinished, and the way Blake intended to use it has never been established.2 The illustrations did not appear in any edition of The Pilgrim 's Progress during Blake's lifetime (although there were scores of these, with a wide variety of pictures by numerous artists and engravers). It was not until 1941, over a hundred years after their creation, that Blake's watercolours and sketches were exhibited at the Knoedler Galleries, New York, and simultaneously used to illustrate an edition of Bunyan's allegory published by the Limited Editions Club (LEC) in their twelfth series ( 1 940-4 1).3 In 1942, The Heritage Press reproduced twelve of the twenty-nine plates in a smaller version of the LEC publication.4

In his introduction to the 1942 Heritage Press edition, John T. Winterich wrote that Blake's pictures are 'things of Heaven, both in conception and in execution'.5 The spiritual dimension of any Blakean creation, verbal or pictorial, is a given. What needs to be established, however, in an assessment of Blake's treatment of another writer's text, is the nature and extent of the spirituality ofthat text. In 'The Author's Apology for his Book', Bunyan explains that, 'writing of the Way /And Race of Saints in this our Gospel-Day', he 'Fell suddenly into an Allegory / About their Journey, and the way to Glory'.6 The subject matter of the allegory that grew out of his original writing enterprise is thus the Pauline metaphor of the Christian life as a race toward salvation (1 Corinthians 9:24). The Christian metaphor which Bunyan turned into a fiction is one mat makes not only his pilgrims travel towards 'the Holy Land', but also his reader, on condition that (s)he understands and accepts the 'Directions'' provided in it. The whole point is to 'see a Truth within a Fable'1. In this, the reader should be no passive receptor but, on the contrary, an active interpreter. In his 'Conclusion' to the first part of the allegory, Bunyan invites his reader to 'Put by the Curtains, look within my Vail', 'Turn up my Metaphors', look beyond the 'out side' of his dream vision narrative and 'the substance of my matter see' }

What is at stake in Bunyan, as in Blake, is a spiritual vision, and a didactic one at that - in other words, a lesson in things of the spirit. In The Pilgrim 's Progress, spirituality relates to the form and content of the dream and to its interpretation. It is indeed through a willing and active process of decoding and elucidating the allegory of the Christian life on earth that the reader will extract the 'gold' enclosed in the fiction and benefit from the vision offered in and through it. Any reader getting both the text by Bunyan and the illustrations by Blake will be made to embark on a double journey through text and image, one that will take him or her even deeper into the matter of the original text.

'How This Book Came To Be':9 Combining Bunyan's Words with Blake's Images

A comparison of the Limited Editions Club and Heritage Press editions of The Pilgrim's Progress with their illustrations by Blake, and in particular a comparison of the paratextual elements available in each, proves extremely enlightening not only as to the origin of these publications but also as to the history of the drawings by Blake. …

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