Dover Book

Text Box with description of Book

    Unlike Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, this one is much more difficult to grasp. As the title implies, it is spiritual, but with Blake's own interpretations of religion, ushering in the Age of Romanticism. Like The Book of Urizon, it seems to draw from Gnosticism and even Paganism, at least in my opinion. Of course, anyone who studies Paganism knows that a great deal of Christian beliefs came from that earlier religion. This is definitely one that requires time and patience to understand, even for scholars. But it is typical Blake, whose works inspire an open mind and new possibilities. All that, and each page is illuminated with his gorgeous and unique artwork. You may check out all his works that I have reviewed so far on his Index Page.
    And now for a bit about the physical aspects of this tiny book, yet another facsimile of Blake's rare works that Dover offers for a very small price. It was first published in 1794. According to the Note in the Dover reprint, it was begun in 1789 and finished in 1790. Because etched copper plates were used to print, then each copy was colored by hand, the completion of each copy was very time-consuming. Dover states that only nine copies are known to exist. The book contains 27 plates of poetry, prose, and illustrations, imitating biblical prophecy, according to Wikipedia, but "expressing Blake's own intensely personal Romantic and revolutionary beliefs," having been written "in the period of radical ferment and political conflict immediately after the French Revolution."
    One of Blake's ideas behind this complex work is that we need both Heaven and Hell, and that Satan is also the Messiah—that "contraries" are necessary in order to grow spiritually. Actually, that is quite Buddhist in nature, and some Pagan, too—that the "Supreme Being" encompasses all, that we all, including "god" contain both evil and good, which are only labels we have placed on certain thoughts and deeds. The discussion of that philosophy would require thick volumes.
    What I will do here is share some of the written words and illustrations from this works, as I have with the other little books, all of which are available from Dover, and also in free eBook form, images included, from the University of Adelaide in Australia, the source of many of my eBooks. Project Gutenberg also has them, but not with color images, so there is really no point to them. Blake's lush-colored illuminations and his written words must be melded together for the full appreciation of his gifts.
    One other point I want to make, which I found quite perplexing, was that there were so many little errors on the pages. Why would one be so meticulous and undertake such a time-consuming task without planning the layout of the page? There are a couple places where the word did not fit on the line, and so it was awkwardly divided to the next line, or squeezed below. I found that very strange. And even more strange, is that on Plates 8 and 9, in the very bottom right corner appears the word "The" as if beginning a new sentence, but there is nothing more, and it is not part of anything that continues on the next plate. Are there hidden meanings here? I found it quite mysterious! Of course, there are lots of misspellings, and Dover has rightfully kept them as they were originally, but with that, one must realize that standard spellings of words were not as much of an issue back then. (Dictionaries have been around since 2300 BCE, but the first "modern" dictionary of the English language is credited to Samuel Johnson in 1755, shortly before Blake was born.)
    Of all the pieces in this collection, I liked the "Proverbs of Hell" the most, and there are quite a few. Many of them contain profound thoughts, expressed in a twisted truth. Here is the text and illustration for Proverbs of Hell, Plate 9, the one with the "The" in the corner. Below it is the text. I especially like:
Expect poison from the standing water.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
The weak in courage is strong in cunning.
If others had not been foolish, we should be so.

Proverbs of Hell, Plate 9


The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion.
Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.
He who has suffer'd you to impose on him knows you.
As the plow follows words, so God rewards prayers.
The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
Expect poison from the standing water.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
Listen to the fools reproach! it is a kingly title!
The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth.
The weak in courage is strong in cunning.
The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow, nor the lion, the horse, how he shall take his prey.
The thankful reciever bears a plentiful harvest.
If others had not been foolish, we should be so.
The soul of sweet delight, can never be defil'd.
When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius, lift up thy head!
As the catterpiller chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.
To create a little flower is the labour of ages.
Damn, braces: Bless relaxes.
The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest.
Prayers plow not! Praises reap not!
Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!

    This next one is from Plate 11, and makes a great deal of sense to me!

Plate 11

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses,
calling them by the names and adorning them with the
properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations,
and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could percieve.
And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country,
placing it under its mental deity.
Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav'd
the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from
their objects; thus began Priesthood.
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And a length they pronounc'd that the Gods had order'd such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.

    For anyone who enjoys thought-provoking, esoteric works, I urge you to check out the works of Blake. They are timeless pieces that may be studied over a lifetime and, like all great works of art, will never be perceived or interpreted exactly the same way twice.

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