The Downfall of Oscar Wilde: An Animated Video Tells How Wilde Quickly Went from Celebrity Playwright to Prisoner

Oscar Wilde left a body of literature that continues to entertain generation after generation of readers, but for many of his fans his life leads to his work, not the other way around. Its latest retelling, Oscar Wilde: A Life by Matthew Sturgis, came out in the United States just this past week. “Universally heralded as a genius” when his play The Importance of Being Earnest premiered in London in 1895, he was just a few months later “bankrupt and about to be imprisoned. His reputation was in tatters and his life was ruined beyond repair.” This is how Alain de Botton tells it in “The Downfall of Oscar Wilde,” the animated School of Life video above.

Wilde was imprisoned, as even those who’ve never read a word he wrote know, for his homosexuality. This de Botton described as “the swift fall of a great man due to a small but fateful slip,” a result of the social and legal conditions that obtained in the time and place in which Wilde lived. Having fallen for “a beguiling young man named Lord Alfred Douglas,” known as “Bosie,” Wilde found himself on the receiving end of threats from Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury. Their conflict eventually provoked the Marquess to publicize Wilde and Bosie’s relationship all throughout London, and since “homosexuality was illegal and deeply frowned upon in Victorian society, this was a dangerous accusation.”

Though Wilde fought a valiant and characteristically eloquent court battle, he was eventually convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years of imprisonment and hard labor. “For someone of Wilde’s luxurious background,” says de Botton, “it was an impossible hardship.” This time inspired his essay De Profundis, and later his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, but according to most accounts of his life, he never really recovered from it before succumbing to meningitis in 1900. He had plans, writes The New Yorker‘s Clare Bucknell, “for a new social comedy, a new Symbolist drama, a new libretto.” But as his lover Bosie put it, Wilde’s life of post-release continental exile was “too narrow and too limited to stir him to creation.”

The United Kingdom has since pardoned Wilde (and others, like computer scientist Alan Turing) for the crimes committed in their lifetimes that would not be considered crimes today. More than a century has passed since Wilde’s death, and “our society has become generous towards Wilde’s specific behavior,” says de Botton. “Many of us would, across the ages, want to comfort and befriend Oscar Wilde. It’s a touching hope, but one that would be best employed in extending understanding to all those less talented and less witty figures who are right now facing grave difficulties.” Wilde might have come to a bleak end, but the life he lived and the reactions it provoked still have much to teach us about our attitudes today.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

When J.R.R. Tolkien Worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and “Learned More … Than Any Other Equal Period of My Life” (1919-1920)

When J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings appeared in the mid-1950s, its first critical readers held some diverging views on the books’ quality. On the one hand, there was praise for the revival of fantasy for grown-ups, and comparisons to great epics of the past. On the other hand, Tolkien’s prose was excoriated for its wordiness, length, and seemingly inexhaustible obsession with obscurities. Both perspectives seemed to miss something important. Yes, Tolkien drew liberally from epics of the past such as the Norse Sagas and created a world as fully-realized as any in ancient mythology, building in decades what took centuries to develop.

It’s also true that Tolkien wrote in a thoroughly unusual way — unfamiliar as he was with the conventions of contemporary literary prose. But his style did not only derive from his work as a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature. For all of the discussion of Tolkien’s encyclopedic technique, no one seemed to note at the time that the author had, in fact, invented for himself (with apologies to James Joyce) a new genre and way of writing, a kind of etymological fantasy, a kind of writing he learned while working on the Oxford English Dictionary, that august catalogue of the English language which first appeared in full in 1928 — in ten volumes after fifty years of work.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) remains an indispensable reference for scholars of language and literature, but it is not itself a typical academic text. It is a compendium, a miscellany, a descriptive map and timeline tracking how English evolves; it is the ultimate reference work, a work of philology, a discipline that had fallen out of fashion by the time of The Lord of the Rings. The first edition of the OED, begun in 1878 (five years into the proposed timeline, the editors had only reached the word “ant”), contained around 400,000 words. Between the years 1919 and 1920, Tolkien was responsible for the words between waggle and warlock. He would later say he “learned more in those two years than in any other equal period of my life.”

The OED establishes linguistic histories by citing a word’s appearances in literature and popular press over time, tracing derivations from other languages, and tracing the evolution, and extinction, of words and meanings. After his return from World War I, the future novelist found himself working under founding co-editor Henry Bradley, laboring away on words like walnut, walrus, and wampum, which “seem to have been assigned to Tolkien because of their particularly difficult etymologies,” notes the OED blog. These entries would later be singled out by Bradley as “containing ‘etymological facts or suggestion not given in other dictionaries.'”

The experience as an OED lexicographer prepared Tolkien for his lifelong career as a philologist. It also informed his literary technique, argue Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner, the authors of Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary and former OED editors, all. The authors show how Tolkien drew the language of his books directly from his etymological research. For example, “for decades it was assumed that he was being characteristically modest” when he declined to claim credit for the invention of the word “hobbit.” As it turned out, “an obscure list of mythical beings, published in 1895” came to light in 1977, including the word “‘hobbits’, along with such other irresistible creatures as ‘boggleboes’ and gallytrots,” writes Kelly Grovier at The Guardian.

Tolkien’s relationship to etymology in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and every other lengthy piece of writing Middle Earth-related goes far beyond digging up obscure words or coining new ones. He learned to think like a lexicographer. As the authors write, “in describing his own creative processes, Tolkien often comments on how the contemplation of an individual word can be the starting point for an adventure in imagination — and contemplating individual words is precisely what lexicographers do.” Tolkien’s boundless curiosity about the roots of language led him to “invent everything,” writes Tolkien critic John Garth, “from star mariners to calendars, flowers, cities, foodstuffs, writing systems and birthday customs, to mention just a few of the eclectic features of Middle-earth.”

Decades after Tolkien’s first association with the OED, he would become involved again with the publication in 1969 when the editor of the dictionary’s Supplement, his former student Robert Burchfield, asked for comments on the entry for “Hobbit.” Tolkien offered his own definition for just one of the many Tolkienian words that would eventually make into the OED (along with mathom, orc, mithril, and balrog). Burchfield published Tolkien’s definition almost exactly as written:

In the tales of J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973): one of an imaginary people, a small variety of the human race, that gave themselves this name (meaning ‘hole-dweller’) but were called by others halflings, since they were half the height of normal men.

Learn more about Tolkien’s work on the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first edition in this article by Peter Gilliver and pick up a copy of Ring of Words here.

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Discover J.R.R. Tolkien’s Little-Known and Hand-Illustrated Children’s Book, Mr. Bliss

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Witness Maya Angelou & James Baldwin’s Close Friendship in a TV Interview from 1975

In the mid-50s, Maya Angelou accepted a role as a chorus member in an international touring production of the opera, Porgy and Bess:

I wanted to travel, to try to speak other languages, to see the cities I had read about all my life, but most important, I wanted to be with a large, friendly group of Black people who sang so gloriously and lived with such passion.

On a stopover in Paris, she met James Baldwin, who she remembered as “small and hot (with) the movements of a dancer.”

The two shared a love of poetry and the arts, a deep curiosity about life, and a passionate commitment to Black rights and culture. They forged a connection that would last the rest of their lives.

In 1968, when Angelou despaired over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin did what he could to lift her spirits, including escorting her to a dinner party where she captivated the other guests with her anecdotal storytelling, paving a path to her celebrated first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

The book wouldn’t have been written, however, without some discreet behind-the-scenes meddling by Baldwin.

Angelou considered herself a poet and a playwright, and resisted repeated attempts by fellow dinner party guest, Random House editor Robert Loomis, to secure her autobiography.

As Angelou later discovered, Baldwin counseled Loomis that a different strategy would produce the desired result. His dear friend might not conceive of herself as a memoirist, but would almost assuredly respond to reverse psychology, for instance, a statement that no autobiography could compete as literature.

As Angelou recalled:

I said, ‘Well, hmmm, maybe I’ll try it.’ The truth is that (Loomis) had talked to James Baldwin, my brother friend, and Jimmy told him that ‘if you want Maya Angelou to do something, tell her she can’t do it.’

“This testimony from a Black sister marks the beginning of a new era in the minds and hearts and lives of all Black men and women,” Baldwin enthused upon its publication.

They became siblings of affinity. Witness their easy rapport on the 1975 episode of Assignment America, above.

Every episode centered on someone who had made an important contribution to the ideas and issues of America, and Angelou, who alternated hosting duties with psycho-historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, columnist George Will, and oral historian Studs Terkel, landed an extremely worthy subject in Baldwin.

Their friendship made good on the promise of her hopes for that European tour of Porgy and Bess.

Their candid discussion covers a lot of overlapping ground: love, death, race, aging, sexual identity, success, writing, and the closeness of Baldwin’s family — whom Angelou adored.

Those of us in the generations who came after, who became acquainted with Angelou, the commanding, supremely dignified elder stateswoman, commanding more authority and respect than any official Poet Laureate, may be surprised to see her MO as interviewer, giggling and teasing, functioning as the chorus in a room where code switching is most definitely not a thing:

Baldwin: I think…the only way to live is knowing you’re going to die. If you’re afraid to die, you’ll never be able to live. 

Angelou: Hey, hey!

Baldwin: You know. 

Angelou: Hey, hey.

Baldwin: And nobody knows anything about that. 

Angelou: Yes, yes, yes.

She poses great questions, and listens without interrupting to her friend’s thoughtfully composed answers, for instance, his description of his family’s response to his decision to base himself in France, far from their Harlem home:

Sweetheart, you have to understand, um, you have to understand what happens to my mother’s telephone when I’m in town. People will call up and say what they will do to me. It doesn’t make me shut up. You, you also gotta remember that I’ve been writing, after all, between assassinations. If you were my mother or my brother, you would think, who’s next?

There’s a lot of food for thought in that reply. The familiar connection between interviewer and subject, both towering figures of American literature, brings a truly rare dimension, as when Angelou shares how Baldwin’s older brothers would reserve a part of the proceeds from selling coal in the winter and ice in the summer to send to Baldwin:

In France! I mean to think of a Black American family in Harlem, who had no pretensions to great literature… and to have the oldest boy leave home and go to Paris, France, and then for them to save up enough pennies and nickels and dimes to send a check of $150 to him, in Paris, France!

Baldwin: That’s what people, that’s what people don’t really know about us. 

Angelou: One of the things I think, I mean I believe that we are America. It is true. 

Baldwin: You believe it? 

Angelou: Well. 

Baldwin: I know it. 

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Albert Camus on the Responsibility of the Artist: To “Create Dangerously” (1957)

Literary statements about the nature and purpose of art constitute a genre unto themselves, the ars poetica, an antique form going back at least as far as Roman poet Horace. The 19th century poles of the debate are sometimes represented by the dueling notions of Percy Shelley — who claimed that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” — and Oscar Wilde, who famously proclaimed, “all art is quite useless.” These two statements conveniently describe a conflict between art that involves itself in the struggles of the world, and art that is involved only with itself.

In the mid-twentieth century, Albert Camus put the question somewhat differently in a 1957 speech entitled “Create Dangerously.”

Of what could art speak, indeed? If it adapts itself to what the majority of our society wants, art will be a meaningless recreation. If it blindly rejects that society, if the artist makes up his mind to take refuge in his dream, art will express nothing but a negation.

And yet, grandiose ideas about the artist’s role seemed absurd in the mid-twentieth century, when the question becomes whether artists should exist at all. “Such amazing optimism seems dead today,” writes Camus. “In most cases the artist is ashamed of himself and his privileges, if he has any. He must first of all answer the question he has put to himself: is art a deceptive luxury?”

Women artists have also had to consider the question, of course. Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova quotes Audre Lorde’s call for artists to “uphold their responsibility toward ‘the transformation of silence into language and action.” Ursula Le Guin believed that art expanded the imagination, and thus the possibilities for human freedom. Both of these writers were politically engaged artists, and so it’s little wonder that we find similar sentiments in Camus’ speech from decades earlier.

To make art, Camus writes, is to make choices. Artists are already involved, as Shelley declared, in shaping the world around them, whether they acknowledge it or not:

Reality cannot be reproduced without exercising a selection… The only thing needed, then, is to find a principle of choice that will give shape to the world. And such a principle is found, not in the reality we know, but in the reality that will be — in short, the future. In order to reproduce properly what is, one must depict also what will be.

The most eloquent, enduring expressions of future thinking are that which we call art. Even art that seeks to depict the fleetingness of nature freezes itself for posterity.

Art, in a sense, is a revolt against everything fleeting and unfinished in the world. Consequently, its only aim is to give another form to a reality that it is nevertheless forced to preserve as the source of its emotion. In this regard, we are all realistic and no one is. Art is neither complete rejection nor complete acceptance of what is. It is simultaneously rejection and acceptance, and this is why it must be a perpetually renewed wrenching apart. 

To understand art as purposelessly divorced from the world is to misunderstand it, Camus argues. This is the misunderstanding of “a fashionable society in which all troubles [are] money troubles and all worries [are] sentimental worries” — the self-satisfied bourgeois society “about which Oscar Wilde, thinking of himself before he knew prison, said that the greatest of all vices was superficiality.”

Art for art’s sake is the doctrine of a “society of merchants… the artificial art of a factitious and self-absorbed society,” Camus declared. “The logical result of such a theory is the art of little cliques.” Or, to a degree Camus could not have imagined, we have the entertainment industrial complex of art for commerce’s sake, which in the 21st century can make it nearly impossible for art to thrive. (As actor Stellan Skarsgård recently said in public comments, the problem with the film industry is “that we have for decades believed that the market should rule everything.”)

Therefore, the question before Camus, and no less before artists today, is how to “create dangerously” in a society “that forgives nothing.” The question of whether or not art serves a purpose is a false one, he suggests, since “every publication is a deliberate act,” and therefore purposeful. The real question, for Camus the philosopher, “is simply to know — given the strict controls of countless ideologies (so many cults, such solitude!) — how the enigmatic freedom of creation remains possible.” If only arriving at such knowledge were so simple. Camus’ lecture has recently been translated by Sandra Smith and published in the short volume, Create Dangerously: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist. You can read a section of the lecture at Lithub.

Camus’ speech was presented on December 14, 1957 at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, shortly after he won the Nobel Prize.

via Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Rare, Early Version of the King Arthur Legend Found & Translated

The stories of King Arthur and his court took shape over a period of a few hundred years; like most ancient legends, they evolved through many iterations — not a little like the stories in modern-day comic books. “The medieval Arthurian legends were a bit like the Marvel Universe,” explains Laura Campbell, a medieval language scholar at Durham University. “They constituted a coherent fictional world that had certain rules and a set of well-known characters who appeared and interacted with each other in multiple different stories.”

The first account of Arthur comes from a text in Latin called the Historia Brittonum, a compilation of sources assembled sometime in 829 or 830. Here, Arthur is mentioned as a historical figure, “variously described,” notes the British Library, “as a war lord (dux bellorum), as a Christian soldier who carries either an image of the virgin or Christ’s cross, and as a legendary figure associated with miraculous events.”

Merlin the magician — the figure we most associate with miraculous events in the Arthurian legends — doesn’t show up for another two hundred years or so, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. “After Geoffrey,” writes Kathryn Walton at, “Merlin becomes a fixture of the Arthurian legend and appears in all kinds of different versions of the story across the Middle Ages.” One Merlin story that appears in many versions involves a figure called Nimue, Viviane, and other names in French, English, and Welsh. (She is sometimes identified with the Lady of the Lake).

The Merlin and Vivien stories have “survived throughout the ages in a way that not many other stories have,” the University of Rochester’s Robyn Pollack writes, “because writers have found remarkable ways to transform the characters and the narrative over the centuries.” Now, scholars at the University of Bristol have announced, two years after its discovery, the authentication of a fragment containing yet another version of the story.

Found glued into the binding of a late 15th century book at the Bristol public library (one of the world’s oldest libraries), the seven fragments in Old French, dated between 1250 and 1275, contain the “most chaste version” of the Merlin and Viviane legend, says Leah Tether, co-author of the new English translation and commentary, The Bristol Merlin: Revealing the Secrets of a Medieval Fragment. “The most significant difference to be found in this particular set of fragments is where Viviane, the enchantress, casts a spell.”

In other versions, her magic inscribes three names on her groin, a spell that keeps Merlin away from the same area. In the re-discovered fragment, which shows evidence of two scribal hands, Viviane engraves the three names on a ring, thereby preventing Merlin from speaking to her. “With medieval texts there was no such thing as copyright,” says Campbell, one of the project’s translators and authors. “So, if you were a scribe copying a manuscript, there was nothing to stop you from just changing things a bit.”

Part of a collection of Arthurian stories known as the Vulgate Cycle, the fragment provides further evidence of the Merlin character’s evolution, and considerable softening, over time. At his first introduction, Merlin was the literal son of Satan, a kind of antichrist sent to earth to wreak havoc. Over the centuries, he became much less sinister, transforming into the wise advisor of the ideal English king, Arthur, a character who did a fair bit of transforming himself as his legend grew and changed.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When the Nobel Prize Committee Rejected The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien “Has Not Measured Up to Storytelling of the Highest Quality” (1961)

When J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books appeared in the mid-1950s, they were met with very mixed reviews, an unsurprising reception given that nothing like them had been written for adult readers since Edmund Spenser’s epic 16th century English poem The Faerie Queene, perhaps. At least, this was the contention of reviewer Richard Hughes, who went on to write that “for width of imagination,” The Lord of the Rings “almost beggars parallel.”

Scottish writer Naomi Mitchison did find a comparison: to Sir Thomas Malory, author of the 15th century Le Morte d’Arthur — hardly misplaced, given Tolkien’s day job as an Oxford don of English literature, but not the sort of thing that passed for contemporary writing in the 1950s, notwithstanding the serious appreciation of writers like W.H. Auden for Tolkien’s trilogy. “No previous writer,” the poet remarked in a New York Times review, “has, to my knowledge, created an imaginary world and a feigned history in such detail.”

Auden did find fault with Tolkien’s poetry, a fact upon which critic Edmund Wilson seized in his scathing 1956 Lord of the Rings review. “Mr. Auden is apparently quite insensitive — through lack of interest in the other department,” wrote Wilson, “to the fact that Tolkien’s prose is just as bad. Prose and verse are on the same level of professorial amateurishness.” Five years later, the Nobel prize jury would make the same judgement when they excluded Tolkien’s books from consideration. Tolkien’s prose, wrote jury member Anders Österling, “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality.”

The note was discovered recently by Swedish journalist Andreas Ekström, who delved into the Nobel archive for 1961 and found that “the jury passed over names including Lawrence Durrell, Robert Frost, Graham Green, E.M. Forster, and Tolkien to come up with their eventual winner, Yugoslavian writer Ivo Andrić,” as Alison Flood reports at The Guardian. (The Nobel archives are sealed until 50 years after the year the award is given.) Ekström has been reading through the archives “for the past five years or so,” he says, “and this was the first time I have seen Tolkien’s name among the suggested candidates.” His name appeared on the list chiefly through the machinations of his closest friend and chief supporter, C.S. Lewis.

Lewis, “also of Oxford,” Wilson sneered, “is able to top them all” in praise of Tolkien’s books. From the first appearance of his Middle Earth fantasy in The Hobbit, Lewis promised to “do all in my power to secure for Tolkien’s great book the recognition it deserves,” as he wrote in a 1953 letter to British publisher Stanley Unwin. In what might be considered an unethical promotion of his friend’s work today, Lewis responded tirelessly to critics of the trilogy, going so far, after the publication of The Two Towers, to pen an essay on the subject titled “The Dethronement of Power.” Here, Lewis explains the prolix quality of Tolkien’s prose — that which critics called “tedious” — as a narrative necessity: “I do not think he could have done it any other way.”

Tolkien’s biggest fan also urged readers to spend more time with the books and promised that the rewards would be great. In defense of the second work of the trilogy, he concluded, “the book is too original and too opulent for any final judgment on a first reading. But we know at once that it has done things to us. We are not quite the same men. And though we must ration ourselves in our rereadings, I have little doubt that the book will soon take its place among the indispensables.” And so has all of Tolkien’s work, becoming the literary standard by which high fantasy is measured, with or without a Nobel prize.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome: The Real Perceptual Disorder That May Have Shaped Lewis Carroll’s Creative World

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland isn’t just a beloved children’s story: it’s also a neuropsychological  syndrome. Or rather the words “Alice in Wonderland,” as Lewis Carroll’s book is commonly known, have also become attached to a condition that, though not harmful in itself, causes distortions in the sufferer’s perception of reality. Other names include dysmetropsia or Todd’s syndrome, the latter of which pays tribute to the consultant psychiatrist John Todd, who defined the disorder in 1955. He described his patients as seeing some objects as much larger than they really were and other objects as much smaller, resulting in challenges not entirely unlike those faced by Alice when put by Carroll through her growing-and-shrinking paces.

Todd also suggested that Carroll had written from experience, drawing inspiration from the hallucinations he experienced when afflicted with what he called “bilious headache.”  The transformations Alice feels herself undergoing after she drinks from the “DRINK ME” bottle and eats the “EAT ME” cake are now known, in the neuropsychological literature, as macropsia and micropsia.

“I was in the kitchen talking to my wife,” writes novelist Craig Russell of one of his own bouts of the latter. “I was hugely animated and full of energy, having just put three days’ worth of writing on the page in one morning and was bursting with ideas for new books. Then, quite calmly, I explained to my wife that half her face had disappeared. As I looked around me, bits of the world were missing too.”

Though “many have speculated that Lewis Carroll took some kind of mind-altering drug and based the Alice books on his hallucinatory experiences,” writes Russell, “the truth is that he too suffered from the condition, but in a more severe and protracted way,” combined with ocular migraine. Russell also notes that the sci-fi visionary Philip K. Dick, though “never diagnosed as suffering from migrainous aura or temporal lobe epilepsy,” left behind a body of work that has has given rise to “a growing belief that the experiences he described were attributable to the latter, particularly.” Suitably, classic Alice in Wonderland syndrome “tends to be much more common in childhood” and disappear in maturity. One sufferer documented in the scientific literature is just six years old, younger even than Carroll’s eternal little girl — presumably, an eternal seer of reality in her own way.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

William Blake’s 102 Illustrations of The Divine Comedy Collected in a Beautiful Book from Taschen

In his book on the Tarot, Alejandro Jodorowsky describes the Hermit card as representing mid-life, a “positive crisis,” a middle point in time; “between life and death, in a continual crisis, I hold up my lit lamp — my consciousness,” says the Hermit, while confronting the unknown. The figure recalls the image of Dante in the opening lines of the Divine Comedy. In Mandelbaum’s translation at Columbia’s Digital Dante, we see evident similarities:

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:

so bitter—death is hardly more severe!

This is not to say the literary Dante and occult Hermeticism are historically related; only they emerged from the same matrix, a medieval Catholic Europe steeped in mysterious symbols. The Hermit is a portent, messenger, and guide, an aspect represented by the poet Virgil, whom William Blake — in 102 watercolor illustrations made between 1824 and 1827 — dressed in blue to represent spirit, while Dante wears his usual red — the color, in Blake’s system, of experience.

Blake did not read the Divine Comedy as a medieval Catholic believer but as a visionary 18th and 19th century English artist and poet who invented his own religion. He “taught himself Italian in order to be able to read the original” and had a “ complex relationship” with the text, writes Dante scholar Silvia De Santis.

His interpretation drew from a “widespread ‘selective use’” of the poet,” dating from 16th century English Protestant readings which saw Dante’s satirical skewering of corrupt individuals as indictments of the institutions they represent — the church and state for which Blake had no love.

Approaching the project at the end of his life, not the middle, Blake drew primarily on themes that Dante scholar Robin Kilpatrick describes as a “searching analysis of all of the political and economic factors that had destroyed Florence …. Hell is a diagnosis of what, in so many ways, can prove to be divisive in human nature. Sin, for Dante, is not transgression of an ordinary kind … against some law… it’s a transgression against love.”

Blake died before he could finish the series, commissioned by his friend John Linnell in 1824. He had intended to engrave all 102 illustrations, conceived, he wrote, “during a fortnight’s illness in bed.” You can see all of his stunning watercolors online here and find them lovingly reproduced in a new book published by Taschen with essays by Blake and Dante experts, helping contextualize two poets who found a common language across a span of 500 years. The book, originally priced at $150, now sells for $40.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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