William Blake

Homer and the Ancient Poets

1824–7

Medium
Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper
Dimensions
Support: 371 x 528 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the National Gallery and donations from the Art Fund, Lord Duveen and others, and presented through the the Art Fund 1919
Reference
N03353

Display caption

This is one of Blake's illustrations to The Divine Comedy by the medieval poet Dante. Blake used a new English translation of the poem which was seen as a major contribution to our national literature. Blake's ambitious response to the text was also informed by nationalism. Dante describes an imagined pilgrimage, guided by the poet Virgil, through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise. Here Dante and Virgil look down into Limbo, where they see Homer, holding a sword, and other poets. Homer celebrated the Trojan war; Blake, opposed to war, described the Greek and Roman poets as 'slaves of the sword'.

Gallery label, October 2001

Catalogue entry

N03353 Homer and the Ancient Poets 1824–7 [A00005-A00011; N03351-N03370; T01950-T01956; complete]

N 03353 / B 812 8
Pencil, pen and watercolour 371×528 (14 9/16×20 3/4)
Inscribed ‘HELL Canto 4’ in ink over pencil b.r. and, on reverse in pencil, ‘N 13 next at p 78’ t.c. and ‘14’ t.r., both turned through a right-angle, and ‘N 13 next at p 78’ in centre Watermarked ‘WE’
Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the National Gallery and donations from the National Art-Collections Fund, Lord Duveen and others, and presented through the National Art-Collections Fund 1919
PROVENANCE As for N03351
EXHIBITED Tate Gallery (41 iii), Manchester (48 iii), Nottingham (42 viii) and Edinburgh (60) 1913–14; Tate Gallery 1947 (60)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.227 no.101i, and 1880, p.228 no.123i; Roe 1953, pp.60–1 no.8, repr.; Blunt 1959, pp.89–90; Klonsky 1977, p.116, repr.; Klonsky 1980, pp.138–9, colour pl.8; Gizzi 1983, p.86 repr.; Fuller in Art History 1988, pp.360, 372 n.17

An illustration to Inferno IV, 8–12, 29–30 and 64–94, a scene in the first of the nine circles of Hell, Limbo. Blake combines the incident of Virgil and Dante looking down into the abyss thick with cloud with that of their first seeing the ancient poets by the light of the fire.

Dante lists only four poets, Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. Roe suggests that Blake added the fifth figure to equate the poets with the five senses, holding them to be embodiments of rational as opposed to divine inspiration. Blake's opinion of the ancient poets is given in the inscription on the drawing preceding this one in the series, in which Homer is the central figure: ‘round Purgatory is Paradise & round Paradise is Vacuum or Limbo, so that Homer is the Center of All [;] I mean the Poetry of the Heathen Stolen & Perverted from the Bible not by Chance but by design by the Kings of Persia & their Generals The Greek Heroes & lastly by the Romans’ (Fogg Museum; Butlin 1981, no.8127, repr. Roe 1953, Klonsky 1980 and Gizzi 1983, all as pl.7). Blake saw the Greek and Roman poets as ‘Slaves of the Sword’, their art being subservient to war-like governments (preface to Milton c.1800–10, c.f. also On Homer's Poetry and On Virgil, c.1820; Keynes Writings 1957, pp.480, 778). Blake shows the poets in a Grove, a symbol of error which prevents them from seeing the flying Daughters of Imagination. Blake regards the pastoral figures making music in the Arcadian scene to the right in a more favourable light than he does the poets.

Fuller accepts that here Blake is attacking Dante's view that, although the classical poets are in Hell because they lacked the Christian faith, they are to be admired for their ethics and philosophy. He points out that, contrary to Roe's suggestion, the figures floating in the sky are derived from Dante's original text.


Published in:
Martin Butlin, William Blake 1757-1827, Tate Gallery Collections, V, London 1990