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
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

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

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game