CENTURY £18.99 £17.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

Why Mrs Blake Cried by Marsha Keith Schuchard

The lineaments of gratified desire

When William Blake died in 1827, his widow Catherine appointed Frederick Tatham his literary and artistic executor. No sooner had Tatham accepted the position than he was, in the words of William Michael Rossetti, brother of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "beset" by "Swedenborgians, Irvingites, or other extreme sectaries", and compelled to thrust "a gag into the piteous mouth of Blake's corpse". What these timid souls feared was that Blake's remains would disclose his intense, frequently obsessive and occasionally pornographic interest in sex. Tatham's job amounted to a full-scale expurgation of what Blake's less unbuttoned followers considered obscene. Blake had left many drawings and manuscripts containing his most explicit sexual, religious and political expressions - all three were linked for him - and Tatham felt obliged to destroy these. The loss was irreparable, but some of the cover-up - literally - was less extreme. Joined by Blake's friend John Linnell, on some works Tatham only erased the offending words or images. When this proved impracticable they resorted to a fig leaf. Blake's original nude self-portrait for his Milton exhibited an erect and oddly blackened penis. One of Blake's prudish descendants mitigated the shock caused by the poet's proud member by drawing knickers over it. Thankfully, modern technology has restored much of this censored material, and what emerges is a vivid recognition that for Blake, sex was at the centre of his spiritual and domestic life.

A similar whitewash sanitised Blake's relationship with his wife. Many biographers repeated the assessment of Blake's long-time friend John Thomas Smith, that the marriage was one of "uninterrupted harmony". A somewhat different picture is uncovered by scholar Marsha Keith Schuchard's exhaustive investigations. Since the ground-breaking Ellis and Yeats 1893 edition of Blake's work, it's been known that at least once, Blake proposed adding a concubine to the household. Catherine responded to this by bursting into tears. Schuchard's relentless inquiry suggests that this wasn't the only reason why Mrs Blake cried. According to Schuchard, throughout their long marriage, Blake made frequent, sometimes bizarre and occasionally frightening sexual demands on the unlettered Catherine, expecting her to fulfil her destiny as his erotic muse, and channelling his frustration into poetry when she declined. Schuchard portrays Catherine as something of a victim, but one can't help wondering if her prudery was an equal source of unhappiness to William.

Schuchard reveals a weird esoteric, erotic and apocalyptic counterculture, brewing in what we otherwise consider the "enlightened" 18th century. All of it centred around the insight that "perpetual virile potency" - something of a spiritual Viagra - is the key to visionary consciousness. The cast of characters is dizzying and the settings unlikely. Schuchard starts with the eccentric Count Zinzendorf, leader of the Moravians, who were involved in an "esoteric tradition of Christian Kabbalism, Hermetic alchemy, and Oriental mysticism". Described as both a "creative theologian" and a "sexual pervert", Zinzendorf preached an intense identification with a fully sexualised Christ, whose circumcised penis was a frequent object of meditation. Zinzendorf's Kabbalism was highly sexualised as well: erotic arousal was necessary for "visionary copulation" with the Shekinah, the divine feminine, so aspirants were advised to maintain erections during prayer. Less appealing was the command to visualise Christ's wounds, especially the "side hole" caused by the infamous Roman spear. Zinzendorf identified the spear with a penis and the "side hole" with a vagina. One hole led to another, and the androgynous "Christel", who followed Zinzendorf, preached a homosexual variant of the practice. One central figure to emerge from the Moravians was Emanuel Swedenborg, who advocated concubinage and codified much esoteric erotic spirituality in his book Conjugial Love, which depicts the joys of marriage in heaven, written when he was 80.

It's known that Blake was a reader of Swedenborg, and by his time the holy grail of "perpetual virile potency" was sought by a surprising number of seekers. There was, for instance, the Swede Augustus Nordenskjöld, who proposed a balloon trip to Africa, to start a free love commune. Dr James Graham advocated sex in his electrified "Celestial Bed". Emma Hart, one occupant of the bed, later became Lady Hamilton, Nelson's mistress. Philip James de Loutherbourg's visionary light shows titillated the pederast William Beckford during his three-day 21st birthday orgy. The Rabbi Jacob Falk taught sex magic to the notorious Cagliostro. The Polish Count Grabianka fused Freemasonry with animal magnetism. The Chevalier d'Eon was a transvestite spy. And the oversexed Richard Cosway, Blake's art teacher, maintained a flat on Moulton Street, which he used for magical rituals, usually involving sex.

There is, of course, Blake himself, who drew on a number of sources - including an unsuspected familiarity with Eastern Tantra techniques - in order to maintain his own "perpetual potency" well into his later years. It was through these late "Hindoo" meditations, involving greater focus on the feminine, that Catherine came to accept Blake's preoccupations, and even to share in his visions. Through these, the couple apparently reached an equilibrium. Schuchard's detailed book shows why Catherine cried; but it also shows how, in the end, the Blakes achieved some harmony after all.

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin