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Blake and Modern Literature (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 1, Fall 2007
pp. 176-178 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0028

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There is arguably no figure of the British Romantic period who has exerted as much continuous influence on the literary output of the last one hundred or so years as William Blake. Although virtually neglected in his own lifetime, his impact on other authors began to grow after he was rediscovered in the late nineteenth century. Blake's popularity was at an early peak during Joyce's formative years, thanks in large part to the work of fellow Irishmen Edwin J. Ellis and W. B. Yeats.1 Based on a statement made by Stanislaus Joyce in My Brother's Keeper—that "[Joyce's] gods were Blake and Dante"2—and on a lecture about Blake that Joyce gave while in Trieste, critical opinion has never disputed Blake's influence on Joyce. The extent of it, however, is certainly debatable and has attracted scholarly attention in the past, notably from Northrop Frye, Anita Gandolfo, Robert F. Gleckner, and Murray McArthur.3

In Blake and Modern Literature, Edward Larrissy enters this scholarly discourse by way of a slim twelve-and-a-half-page chapter titled, appropriately enough, "Blake and Joyce." Roughly the first half of this chapter deals with the extant fragment of Joyce's 1912 lecture on Blake, mostly covering ground that Gleckner and others have already sufficiently examined. Larrissy compares Joyce's lecture on Blake with the companion piece on Daniel Defoe in order to gauge Joyce's aesthetic place between Blake's "idealism" and Defoe's "realism." He concludes with the following:

Thus it can be seen that, in his lectures on Defoe and Blake, Joyce is not setting up an opposition in which Defoe is the positive and Blake the negative. Rather, he is striving for a compromise which corresponds to his conception of classical art—a conception to which Defoe does not entirely belong, even though he undoubtedly approximates it. This compromise is a reconciliation of the best Anglo-Saxon and Celtic qualities, combining the descriptive cogency of the one and the intellectually coherent "going beyond" of the other.


Larrissy argues that Blake was Joyce's primary model for such a "classical art" that marries realism and idealism, but he does little to support or develop this claim any further. Instead, he again emphasizes the importance of Yeats's role in Blake's reception in the early twentieth century (particularly the supposedly "Celtic" temperament of Blake's art), and he points out that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was especially important to impressionable modernist writers like the young Joyce because of its proto-symbolist aesthetic.

Throughout the chapter's remaining two or three pages, Larrissy attempts to cover what he sees as the Blakean influence on A Portrait's style, through such sweeping, unsubstantiated generalizations as "[t]he pattern of descent and ascent in A Portrait followed by a flight upwards into something which remains beyond the final page of the book is reminiscent of Songs [of Innocence and Experience]" (65). He also examines Blake's importance to Ulysses, primarily by revisiting Stephen's allusions to Blake's mythical figure "Los" in "Proteus" and his later encounter with Private Carr in "Circe" when he quotes Blake's poem "Auguries of Innocence." Ultimately, Larrissy sums up his chapter on Blake and Joyce by concluding that "Joyce's indebtedness operates on more levels than that of most of Blake's disciples: symbolist suggestiveness; an interest in the constructedness of myth; a parallel interest in the deep roots of myth; and a sympathy with Blake's perceived oppositional stance" (69). All of these are excellent points, but a little more elaboration, and especially substantiation, would have certainly been welcome.

At the end of his first paragraph, Larrissy clearly states his thesis: "This book will attempt to offer an account of Blake's afterlife which shows that he was central in the retrospective construction of a Romanticism that was acceptable to the twentieth century, that he assisted in the gestation of innovative writing in the modern period, and that this kind of centrality is continuing into the twenty-first century" (1). He does indeed produce a picture of Blake's lasting influence, and the legacy of Romanticism through various...

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