William Blake’s The Gates of Paradise (1787-93)

“In the visionary imagination of William Blake there is no birth and no death, no beginning and no end, only the perpetual pilgrimage within time towards eternity”, writes Peter Ackroyd in his biography of William Blake. What holds true for this prophetic poet’s collected works also appears in miniature within The Gates of Paradise. Babies lay dormant, cocooned and buried, while an elderly man enters the dark behind death’s door. But there is no clear order. The old man may well discover that his threshold leads back into the earth, from which he will emerge as a child again.

Blake drew The Gates of Paradise during a visionary period, an intensification of the eidetic images that he had seen throughout his life. He experienced specters of the dead rising up before him — kings, friends, and angels — and found it difficult to complete the commercial illustrations that he had been hired to engrave. Instead, Blake turned inward. Beginning in 1787, he drew a series of sixty-four images over six years, and eventually etched seventeen of these onto copper plates. Originally released with a subtitle of For Children (the version featured in this post), Blake later redesigned the series as For the Sexes. In one sketch of a title page never realized, the poet shifts into a darker register, renaming the series For Children: The Gates of Hell. Similar poles — between heaven and hell, childhood and maturity — would form the bounds of his well-known diptych, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (1789).

Unlike Blake’s most famous engravings, which interlace text and image, the visual dimension dominates across The Gates of Paradise. Here we can see Blake’s interest in “emblem literature” — sixteenth and seventeenth century books that link an allegorical symbol to an epigram or motto, such as Francis Quarles’ Emblems (1635), George Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes (1635), and Devises et Emblemes Anciennes & Modernes (1699). The reputation of this format has suffered from its bludgeoning moral quality, which one scholar describes as a genre that never escapes mediocrity and doubles down on the banal. But Blake makes a sometimes tiresome tradition strange once again.

While they touch upon Christian themes, The Gates of Paradise are shocking for their scenes of vibrant ecology, human figures mixed and remixed with the earth. In an image coupled with the phrase “I found him beneath a Tree”, a female figure yanks smiling children up from the ground, like unrooting carrots, recalling folklore related to the mandrake: how its screams signal a hellish fate for whomever harvests the root. Paired with the caption “What is Man!”, a caterpillar gazes on a leaf-bound larva with the face of a child, summoning Blake’s proverb in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priests lays his curse on the fairest joys”. Elsewhere: angels emerge from avian eggs; a pining figure follows his desire up a ladder, away from the world. Even the elements themselves are embodied. “Earth” is a squat man entombed alive and “Air” becomes a body lacking enclosure, a preoccupation across Blake’s The First Book of Urizen (1794).

Most disturbing is a figure similar to God the Father, whom Blake was wont to call Nobodaddy. Here the anthropomorphized deity resembles Saturn, maiming his angels by clipping their wings (“Aged Ignorance”) and staring almost directly into our gaze alongside the question, “Does thy God O Priest take such vengeance as this?” If “the mystic sought union with God”, writes Helen C. White, “Blake sought a restoration of the soul to the life of vision.” Profoundly religious, Blake nevertheless eschewed the fetters of church and dogma, chartering a unique course toward his paradisiacal gates. As Matthew Hargraves recounts, Blake, near death, explained how “his physical body might be ‘feeble & tottering, but not in Spirit & Life, not in the Real Man The Imagination which Liveth for Ever.’”

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