Blake and Byron; or, Art and Imagination After the Second Fall

Jerome McGann

Of the most prominent English Romantic writers, Wordsworth and Byron engaged Blake’s serious attention, but Byron alone provoked him to a major act of unequivocal imaginative sympathy. Both had views of Nature, in particular Romantic Nature, that differed sharply from Wordsworth’s view. But it was Byron’s investigation into a key nexus of Christian doctrineguilt, retribution, atonement, and forgivenessthat finally drew Blake into poetical dialogue with Byron’s post-1815 works. In The Ghost of Abel, Blake’s reading of Byron’s Cain, Byron was imagined as the wilderness prophet Elijah, orin Blake’s early 1790s figural formthe just man raging in the wilds where lions roam.

But more important than these shared intellectual and ethical concerns were the visionary means both men adopted. A great admirer of Byron’s work, Goethe famouslyor perhaps infamouslyremarked that “when he thinks he is a child.” Far from denigrating Byron’s work, Goethe’s comments were calling attention to what in his view made Byron one of the greatest poets of the age: the power of his specifically imaginative representations, and the fact that he explored the caverns of Romantic ideology in poetical rather than philosophical forms. Blake took the same view of how “mental fight” ought to be engagedthrough imaginative action and sympathy: “That he who will not defend Truth may be compelld to defend / A Lie: that he may be snared and caught and snared and taken” (Jerusalem, plate 9). For Blake, thinking through philosophy and “systematic reasoning” was to hold a candle in sunshine (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 22).

The consequence of this imaginative approach to thinking can be seen in all of Blake’s and Byron’s works, especially after 1804 in Blake’s case and 1815 in Byron’s when both began to show, in acutely personal terms, what it meant to be “perfected in the furnaces / Of affliction” (Jerusalem, plate 9). Briefly, imaginative action short-circuits the pretentions that fund the ideologies of enlightenment, whether sacred or profane. “The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life” (Manfred I.1.12). The Tree of Knowledge is the apparatus of crucifixion erected in “the wastes of Moral Law” (Jerusalem, plate 24).  The function of poetry for both Blake and Byron was to bring a revelation of that “Truth.”