William Blake, the Jonah of London

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Through the streets and alleyways of Nineveh the prophet Jonah trudged. At every marketplace and city gate he joyously roared his tidings of evil, “forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned!” Two and a half millennia after the great fish vomited Jonah back onto dry land, William Blake faithfully follows that path of bilge and seaweed, bile and gall, into the fraternity of prophets and oracles. Just as Jonah was reluctant to prophesy to the Ninevites for fear that his enemies would hear and repent, Blake has a vested interest in perpetuating the blindness of his readers. In fact, even as he works his metaphysics to impose his “phantasy” as the prophet who proclaims the liberation of the world, he shows a full awareness that true success can only lead to his demise as a poet. Thus, standing upon his apple-crate in the marketplace, he chokes back his voice a little and mumbles in ciphers, desperately praying that he would not be understood.

Amidst angry fires and hungry clouds the poet arises in prophet’s robes, and with a roar to shake the worlds to their very foundations proclaims the revival of “Eternal Hell”! Like Christ upon the commencement of his ministry, he boldly steps forth and seizes the words of Isaiah to legitimize his mission. He points to Isaiah’s vision of Edom becoming “blazing pitch (Isaiah XXXIV, v9)” and cries, “now is the dominion of Edom (plate 3)”; now is the fulfillment of the prophecy, “then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped,” and Blake, the prophet of Hell, shall be the one to fulfill it (Isaiah XXXV, v5).

By positioning his first proclamation in parallel with Isaiah 34 and 35, Blake invites, or rather, forces dialogue between Isaiah and himself, and claims for himself Isaiah’s prophetic authority. Later, he dines with both Isaiah and Ezekiel in a symbolic gesture of equality and solidarity and discusses with them as one prophet to another the challenges that one faces in such a line of work (plate 12). Blake again establishes the bond between prophets and the fires of Hell by telling of an angel who, having been converted by a devil, embraces the fire and, consumed by it, arises as the prophet Elijah (plate 24). Thus allegiance to Hell, Bake claims, makes one a prophet.


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