Research Spotlight

Research Spotlight: Sharon Choe

  • Studying: PhD in English Literature (full-time)
  • Supervisor: Prof. Jon Mee
  • Thesis title: ‘Deformed, Dismembered, Disembodied: Re-inventing the Body Politic in William Blake’
  • Research Interests: William Blake, poetry, medical humanities, the body, disability theory, ‘Britishness’, eighteenth-century Northern antiquarianism, Old Norse reception, myth theory, 1790s.

Thesis Overview

My doctoral thesis addresses two specific parts of William Blake’s poetry: Blake’s use of bodies, specifically in light of the body politic, and his engagement with contemporary Northern antiquarianism. I re-examine Blake’s illuminated books from 1790-1820 in light of Old Norse culture and mythological motifs, arguing that Blake reworks them into the disabled and deformed bodies that are present throughout his poetry.

My research questions how Blake engages with the eighteenth-century Northern antiquarianism to create various aberrant bodies to participate in contemporary debates surrounding the idea of nationhood. My thesis addresses the traditional ableist metaphor of the body politic to argue that through his simultaneous interest in the body and the antique North, Blake challenges and re-invents this trope into a disabled model which subverts and promotes his own philosophies and politics during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

What are you currently working on?

Blake’s antiquarian interests are visible throughout his career. In the 1780s he worked as an apprentice to the antiquarian engraver James Basire. Despite ‘his love of the medieval past and his appreciation of the Gothic form’, scholars such as Jon Mee, Rosemary Sweet, and Heather O’Donoghue, often place Blake on the peripheries of eighteenth-century antiquarianism, and so there is no in-depth examination of how he specifically engages with a broad range of Norse mythological motifs as part of his syncretism.[1] After working as Basire’s apprentice Blake studied at the Royal Academy and made friends with artists such as Henry Fuseli, Thomas Stothard, and John Flaxman. In the 1790s, Blake’s main source of employment came from the famous bookseller and publisher Joseph Johnson who employed Blake to engrave and illustrate for writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Erasmus Darwin. Johnson’s clientele also included a variety of antiquarians, some of whom worked with Old Norse material.

Blake scholars agree that his knowledge of Old Norse and the ‘North’ mostly came from Gray’s odes (1787), James Macpherson’s Ossian poems (1760), and also Thomas Percy’s Northern Antiquities (1770).  I have recently been looking at other potential influences outside of these texts, and found a curious similarity between Henry Fuseli’s 1790 painting, Thor battering the Midgard Serpent, the title plate of Blake’s illuminated book Europe: A Prophecy (1794), and Blake’s illustration to Gray’s Norse ode ‘The Descent of Odin’ (1797-98).

Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent
Henry Fuseli RA (1790)
Oil on Canvas
133cm x 94.6mm

Europe, A Prophecy, Plate 2, Bentley Copy E
William Blake (1794)
Relief & white-line etching with colour 37cm x 25.9cm

The Descent of Odin’ from The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 77
William Blake (1797-8)
Watercolour, pen ink on woven paper
41.9cm x 32.4cm

It is important to remember that Blake was first and foremost an artist. His illuminated books are simultaneously beautiful pieces of artwork as well as textual artefacts, but one of the frustrating (or exciting) consequences to this hybridity, is that the designs don’t necessarily reflect the narrative, despite sharing the same page. The designs are also obscure and it can sometimes feel as though they are deliberately trying to confuse you.  

Europe follows on from a previous ‘prophetic’ poem titled America: A Prophecy (1793), and its narrative is loosely apocalyptic. Its frontispiece is a single serpent that coils around and between the title; a nod perhaps to the Garden of Eden. This striking motif can be found across the other two works mentioned above, but what I love about these three images, is how the curvature of the body in the Midgard Serpent, or Jörmungandr from Old Norse myth, in Fuseli is echoed within the twists of the serpent in Europe and also in the title page of ‘the Descend of Odin’. The lines are almost the same, the positioning of the heads are very similar. As a friend and colleague of Fuseli, we can see how Fuseli’s rendition of Jörmungandr could have influenced Blake’s illustration to Gray’s Norse ode, as the mythological material is the same, but what about the serpent in Europe?

In the eighteenth century, sources of Old Norse literature were scarce and the available translations, as well as adaptations of Eddic poetry, were not as accurate or as meaningful as the translators or readers might have liked them to be. In 1797, John Flaxman commissioned Blake to create watercolour illustrations of Gray’s odes as a gift for his wife Ann, two of which were ‘The Fatal Sisters’ based on Darraljoð and ‘The Descent of Odin’ based on Baldrs Draumar.[2] It recounts part of the Myth of Baldr, a son of Odin, who was murdered by his half-brother Hǫðr under the instructions of Loki, and his death initiates Ragnarök, the Nordic apocalypse. Baldrs Draumar predates this event and describes Odin’s descent to Help to find out about Baldr’s future. In both the original Norse poem and Gray there is no mention of Jörmungandr, but it is known that during Ragnarök Thor meets Jörmungandr for one final time and they slay each other in battle. Although the creature is not active within the Myth of Baldr, its part in Ragnarök could be one possible explanation as to why Blake chose him for the title page of ‘The Descent of Odin’.

The depiction of Jörmungandr in ‘The Descent of Odin’ is the most similar to the serpent found on Europe’s title plate, but if Fuseli’s Jörmungandr is the visual reference for Blake’s serpents, then could the ideological and mythological references from this Norse myth could be read in Blake’s poem? Europe describes the creation of a serpent temple:

Then was the serpent temple form’d, image infinite
Shut up in finite revolutions, and man became an Angel;
Heaven a mighty circle turning; God a tyrant crown’d.
                                                           (E63. PL9, l.21-3)

The revolutions of the snake’s coils become transcribed into the rounds of the serpent temple, a description that can be found in relation to ancient Druid temples in contemporary archaeological writings.[3] Not only does this link back to eighteenth-century scholarly antiquarianism, but it also symbolically connects the symbol of the snake from the Garden of Eden and the hakpen ‘snake’s head’ of Druidic temples to Jörmungandr.

Although Blake’s primary source of inspiration for his poetry would have been the Bible, his syncretism allows further questioning of how he compiled his mythopoetic motifs. The inspiration for the snake iconography in Europe could have multiple sources, but visually, there are clear parallels between Fuseli’s Norse-inspired painting of the Midgard Serpent, and this is also adopted by Blake in his illustration of Gray’s ‘Descent of Odin’. This is one of the ways where reading Old Norse motifs and myths in Blake can reveal more exciting and interesting parallels between him and his contemporaries.

[1] Rosemary Sweet, ‘Antiquaries and Antiquities in Eighteenth-century England’, Eighteenth-Century Studies 34, no.2 (2001):199.
[2] Blake Archive, ‘Illustrations to Gray’s Poems (Composed c.1797-98) (Accessed 11 Nov 2019)
[3] William Stukeley in his essay on Abury discusses the different forms of druidic temples, one being the Hakpen or ‘serpent’s head’ formation found at Avebury. See: Stukeley, Abury, a temple of the British druids, 34-9.

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