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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.

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