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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions