more Blake – (The French Revolution)

AG: Now, on to The French Revolution.  Let’s see here.  Before we go any further, since here is a situation where Blake is trying to write history, he’s become completely human.. So here’s a picture of Blake in actual history, if you can pass it around – his life-mask from the British Museum [editorial note – actually, it’s in the Fitzilliam Museum]

“Head of William Blake” by James De Ville – Life-mask taken in plaster cast in September 1823, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England.

That’s what he actually looked like.  The man who wrote a giant poem published in 1789, or printed in 1789, (at) the time of the French Revolution, but then suppressed and (not) published until 1913.  Suppressed either by Blake himself or by the printer who got scared to print it further because he was printing Thomas Paine (at the same time – Paine’s”The Rights of Man, I think, or Common Sense“. Same printer, J. Johnson, St. Paul’s Church-yard, was also printing Tom Paine, and there was some sedition trials coming up for the printing of that and Blake had written seven books of The French Revolution, his epic, at the time of the French Revolution, following it from the newspapers day to day.  So this is a history of the French Revolution in big, symbolic, exaggerated, hyperbolic form, but he couldn’t print it in his time.  It is said, according to Foster Damon, that he did write all seven books, and only one survives – a set of page proofs from which this text is taken, which is in the United States, in the Huntington Library (at) San Marino, California.

“The remaining Books of this Poem are finished, and will be published in their Order,” he says.  Well, they were published in 1913.  This was…

The background, historically, I want to run through, because there is some historic background.  Well, let’s start it.  I’m just going to start it so you get the tone.

“The dead brood over Europe, the cloud and vision descends over chearful France;/ “O cloud well appointed!” – (The cloud is the old order – the clouds of the old order, the fogs.  The failure of vision of the old order). The cloud brooded over Iran (sic) , for months and months and months.  Same thing.  The fires, then, would be the fires of rebellion, energy.  The fire that delights in its own form, as it says later in this poem – “The fire delights in its own form,” as it finds its own form. So you can actually project this poem into the Iranian revolution of today, (1979 – sic) because there’s a very similar process that was going on and this book ends just about where the Iranian Revolution is right now.  The King has departed or is about to depart or is going to depart or is apparently departed, and now there will be counter-revolution, forces flowing back and forth, perhaps a giant chaotic violence from one faction or another, everything hanging in the balance, as it did in the French Revolution, where you had revolution, counter-revolution, Jacobinism — that is the popularism – anti-Jacobinist reactionary forces, conspiracies from Austria and elsewhere to work with compromisers within the revolution to abate the full fury of the revolution and not have it completely unroll with all its fire.  But here the stage is set.The dead brood over Europe, the cloud and vision descends over chearful France;/ O cloud well appointed! Sick, sick: the Prince on his couch! wreath’d in dim/And appalling mist; his strong outstretch’d, from his shoulder down the bone/ Runs aching cold into the scepter too heavy for mortal grasp –  no more/ To be swayed by visible hand, nor in cruelty bruise the mild flourishing mountains./   Sick the mountains, and all their vineyards weep, in the eyes of the kingly mourner”  (the mountains are the nobles and the powers – the mountainous powers of his day…. “and all their vineyards weep, in the eyes of the kingly mourner;/Pale as the morning cloud in his visage.”- Pale as the fog in the king’s visage (face).

Now the king speaks:”…Rise, Necker: the ancient dawn calls us/ To awake from slumbers of five thousand years. I awake, but my soul is in dreams;/ From my window I see the old mountains of France, like aged men, fading away.”

Well, that’s really heavy rhetoric for a political scene.  The scepter too heavy for mortal grasp  ( the authoritarian scepter too heavy for any single man to hold now).  It’s going to go to the populace.  “No more/To be swayed by visible hand” – it’ll go on to the invisible hand of the entire populace, the sceptre of power.

“(N)or in cruelty bruise the mild flourishing mountains.”  No more the cruelty of monarchy.  “Sick the mountains” – the nobles are sick. The entire aristocracy also is sick with the prince.  “(T)heir vineyards weep, in the eyes of the kingly mourner;/Pale as the morning cloud in his visage.”  (That’s) kind of interesting  – the cloud or fog of obscuration and old religious old order, old religious obscuration, because it was the clergy, (the) priests, (the) church, and (the) monarchy together that were upholding the old order.  So that’s why he says, “Rise … the ancient dawn calls us/To awake from slumbers of five thousand years.”  Since the Garden of Eden, or since the Fall of Man.  Slumbers of five thousand years are here since the Fall of Man, as described by the church, as described by the heavy black priests. So Blake is saying this series of revolutions, from the American to the French Revolution, is liberating mankind from the tyranny of Jehovah and his curse on the Garden of Eden, and the false religions and the false prophets of the religions and the bibles and the laws which have sustained tyranny and monarchy over the human mind (and) have kept the human mind in manacles bound, “mind-forged manacles” bound for five thousand years.  So Blake is seeing this as a totally apocalyptic uprising.

My reference here for the politics is Erdman’s book, Prophet Against Empire.  And Erdman says that Necker was a finance minister who was a symbol of popular will at that time.  He was more of a liberal among the functionaries and bureaucrats in Louis XVI’s empire.

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