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William Blake and the transformations of the Renaissance notion of melancholy

Anca Violeta Munteanu, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


In order to understand Blake's relation to the history of ideas, his reactions to, and transformation of intellectual traditions, this study offers a critical examination of the role played by traditions of melancholy, especially the Renaissance tradition in his verbal and visual work. Before looking at the different embodiments of this motif in Blake's early prophecies, the introductory chapter establishes the parameters/contexts that influenced and informed Blake's uses of melancholy and explains how Blake's productions transcend both Agrippa's and Durer's understanding of the concept and the sentimentalized and romanticized versions of it in English 18th and 19th century literature and art. The first chapter, focusing on The Book of Thel , discusses the connections between Blake's first prophetic text and Durer's Melencolia I in the context of the history of Durer's engraving. The Gates of Paradise is examined in light of mannerism, a cultural and intellectual movement for which both Blake and Fuseli shared a profound admiration. As suggested here, mannerism, the destabilizing aspect of Renaissance precarious equilibrium serves Blake's prophetic aims beautifully and assists him in establishing an intellectual agenda centered on this sort of questioning, destabilizing, interrogative approach to everything. The third chapter on The Book of Urizen seeks to illuminate the ways in which Blake exploited the Saturn-Melancholy-Geometry. Using a new phenomenological approach initiated by a contemporary philosopher, this chapter supports a completely new reading of the poem, one that essentially runs against the current of much scholarship of this text and restores Urizen to the position of a creator/artist whose sufferings and self-sacrifice allow Humanity and Imagination to exist. The final chapter on Visions is likewise a revisionist reading of the poem in the context of melancholia and a number of other paradigms—Oothhon as an abandoned and rejected woman, her connections with Sappho and Phaedre, her artistic nature etc.—all of them used to better understand one of the most complex and fascinating female characters in Blake's entire creation.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Munteanu, Anca Violeta, "William Blake and the transformations of the Renaissance notion of melancholy" (1999). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI9952688.