Niall McDevitt

William Blake at Calvary’s Foot and Sinai’s Cave

William Blake never travelled to Jerusalem. Instead, two of his masterpieces
twin Britain with Jerusalem. The preface to Milton, ‘Jerusalem’ the lyric,
imagines Christ visiting England. His final epic Jerusalem the Emanation
of the Giant Albion imagines a mystical relationship between a male
Albion and female Jerusalem. Both long poems were illustrated and
self-published at his penultimate address in Mayfair: 17 South Molton Street.
It was here that Blake, returning from living in Sussex, ‘my three years
slumber on the banks of the ocean’, was reunited with the topography of
London. Professionally he decried London as ‘a City of Assassinations’;
but spiritually he transfigured his urban environment by twinning it with
biblical sites. One of these, Calvary’s foot, was partly on the street he lived
in; another, Sinai’s Cave, was a room in his actual apartment.
…….When Blake and his wife Catherine took up residence here in October
1803, it was under a cloud. Blake had had a contretemps with a soldier on
the doorstep of his previous address, a cottage in Felpham, and he was
facing trial in early 1804 charged with assault and sedition. As Blake worried
about the outcome of the case, familiarity with his new neighbourhood
took hold of his imagination. The back window of his flat looked west
towards Tyburn, the former site of public executions until 1783. Blake
would point out the window for the amusement of visitors, and quip ‘They
are preparing a gallows for me!’ ‘Tyburn’ was now set to become one of
the key concepts of his oeuvre. He must have been astonished to discover
that the River Tyburn was flowing directly under his street. Its course from
Hampstead to Pimlico still runs through the winding Marylebone Lane, the
cul-de-sac Stratford Place, and the obliquely angled South Molton Street
and South Molton Lane via Brook Street. The latter street namechecks the
river, also known as Tyburn Brook. (Confusingly, there are two Tyburn
Brooks. The other is a disappeared tributary of the Westbourne river.)
Blake must have pondered on the half-mile gap between the Tyburn river
and the area Tyburn, now known as Marble Arch. Soon he found a unique
way to bridge that gap. Two of his epic rhythmical septenary lines point to
the same exact London location, as if by Blakean GPS:

……..Between South Molton Street & Stratford Place, Calvary’s foot

This first line is from Milton. Blake is alerting his readers to a very important
area, one that Londoners and visitors to London cross everyday without
knowing. The intersection is not so obscure. It’s actually on Oxford Street.
While the Tyburn wends southward via Stratford Place and South Molton
Street, Oxford Street runs between them west and east. Formerly, Oxford
Street had been called Tyburn Road. It was the route that the condemned-to-
death had travelled for six centuries, and the vast mobs who watched.
The reason Blake names an otherwise unremarkable spot ‘Calvary’s foot’
is rooted in the heightened consciousness he was experiencing. A second
long line, this time from Jerusalem, echoes the topographical theme but
with added poignancy:

……..The Wound I see between South Molton Street & Stratford Place

Blake was conceptualising Tyburn as an English Calvary. Both places were
scenes of the lowest form of spectacle available to humanity. Of course,
technology had been upgraded. In Jerusalem the victims were crucified,
whereas London boasted a gallows that could dispatch twenty-four
victims at a time. We can see Blake standing on Oxford Street, looking
Tyburn-wards, and thinking: ‘Calvary’s foot’. This alters the cityscape. As
Calvary is always imagined as a hill, we imagine a hill climbing west from
the South Molton Street/Stratford Place junction. Calvary’s foot therefore
is the bottom of the hill, the beginning of the approach to the ‘place of
the skull’. It is a melancholy spot. Though culverted, the track of the River
Tyburn running below is sensed as a ‘Wound’. Blake’s poem paints a highly
imaginative tableau of victims preparing for the ordeal, a pagan scene not
unlike a hippy love-in:

…….……..Between South Molton Street & Stratford Place: Calvary’s foot
…….……..Where the Victims were preparing for Sacrifice their Cherubim;
…….…….Around their loins pour’d forth their arrows, & their bosoms beam
…….…….……With all colours of precious stones, & their inmost palaces
…….…….……...Resounded with preparations of animals wild & tame….
…….…….…….…..Displaying Naked Beauty with Flute & Harp & Song.

Though his vision is more primordial, Blake conjures the infamous triangular
gallows with its three legs and three cross-beams:

…….Mocking Druidical Mathematical Proportion of Length, Breadth, Highth:

One must also understand that Blake makes a connection between the
hangings of his own time – still taking place at Newgate prison – and rituals
of human sacrifice from British prehistory. Pitt’s Tories sentencing petty
criminals to death updated the druids of antiquity. In an earlier lyric ‘A Little
Boy Lost’ he told the tragic tale of a boy executed by a priest. The poem ends
with a bitter question: ‘Are such things done on Albion’s shore?’ At his new
address, awaiting his own legal fate, Blake might have taken his proximity
to the River Tyburn as a bad omen. It is likely that at quiet moments he
could, if he wished, hear the river. (It can be heard in the area today.) His
consciousness attuned itself to the Tyburn river so that it was written into
the epic landscapes of his final works. It first appears in The Four Zoas (p. 25,
l. 7-8) as the site of Albion’s demise:

…….……..Groans ran along Tyburns brook and along the River of Oxford
…….…….…..Among the Druid Temples. Albion groaned on Tyburns brook
…….…….…….…….…….…….Albion gave his loud death groan

This may have been written before he moved into the area, but it may have
been one of the many revisions he made before 1807 while he was reworking
Vala into The Four Zoas. (Despite years of labour, he did not publish it as
an illuminated book.) The juxtaposition of ‘Tyburns Brook’ and ‘River of
Oxford’ is suggestive of Oxford Street and Blake’s new environs. Of course,
he had grown up in nearby Soho. As a child he was doubtless aware of
the Tyburn spectacles but his parents probably prohibited him going. For
non-conformists, such activity was the work of ‘the Beast’. Now forty-six,
Blake may well have been feeling like his own Little Boy Lost grown up.
‘They took him to a holy place/Where many had been burned before.’(My
italics). Tyburn became an obsession. The ringing mentions of Tyburn in
the three epic poems he completed at South Molton Street add up to more
than the sum of their parts. They sound a reverberation, one of the most
impassioned of Blakean refrains:

…….…….…….…….….They groan’d aloud on London Stone
…….…….…….…….….They groan’d aloud on Tyburns Brook
…….…….…….…….…….…..Albion gave his deadly groan,
…….…….…….………….And all the Atlantic Mountains shook

With it, Blake turns geography to psychogeography, history to
psychohistory. The name itself is supposedly Saxon in origin, Teoburna,
meaning ‘boundary stream’. This is dull enough but catches the effect
of the river’s trajectory. Another theory says Tyburn is named after a
Germanic god of law – Tyr in Old Norse, Tiw in Old English – a more
chilling speculation: ‘Tyr’s stream’. If you think ‘Tiw’ is too foreign and
faraway a personage to impinge on your reality, he is also embedded in the
etymology of ‘Tuesday’. Worse, he is the namesake of the ‘T’ rune from
before the adoption of the Latin alphabet. In London, criminals were
sometimes branded with a ‘T’ to warn they would go to Tyburn if they
reoffended. Blake’s Tyburn is noisy, full of groans and howls and sighs.
‘Thus they weep upon the fatal Brook of Albion’s River’. Another name
for the gallows was ‘The Tyburn Tree’, the name inscribed on the modern
plaque at the beginning of Edgware Road today. The antinomian Blake
limns its origin:

……He (Albion) sat by Tyburn’s Brook and underneath his heel shot up!
…….…….…..A deadly Tree, he nam’d it Moral Virtue, and the Law
…….…….…….…….…….…….…….……Of God …

Had Blake’s nightmare scenario come to pass, he would most likely have
been hung in Chichester, possibly at the smuggler’s stone on Broyle Road,
a hill to the north of the city.
South Molton Street is also twinned in Blake’s imagination with another
biblical hill, this time from the Old Testament. On Plate 2 of Jerusalem, the
title page is inscribed ‘1804 Printed by W. Blake Sth Molton St.’ On Plate
3, the rhymed verse from ‘To the Public’ shows Blake comparing himself
to no less a figure than Moses:

…….…….…….…….Reader! lover of books! lover of heaven
…….…….……..And of that God from whom all books are given
…….…….…….……...Who in mysterious Sinai’s awful cave
…….…….…….…..To Man the wondrous art of writing gave,
…….…….…….……..Again he speaks in thunder and in fire!
…….…….………Thunder of Thought & flames of fierce desire:
…….…….…….Even from the depths of hell his voice I hear,
…….…….…….…..Within the unfathomed caverns of my ear.
…….…….…….Therefore I print; nor vain my types shall be:
…….………Heaven, Earth & Hell henceforth shall live in harmony.

As God once gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, he is now dispensing
edicts to humankind via the aforesaid ‘W. Blake Sth Molton St’. An impish
ambiguity hints that God could be addressing him from hell: ‘Even from
the depths of hell his voice I hear’. It more likely implies God is speaking
from heaven, and Blake is listening in hell. (This would make sense of the
last line about uniting Heaven, Earth and Hell.) Blake’s ‘cave’ is actually
a topographical site in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. Mount Sinai aka
‘Mount Moses’ has a cave at the summit where the prophet is traditionally
thought to have received the tablets. In Exodus, the tablets are written by
‘the finger of God’. Blake the writer fashions this as not only teaching
humans about law, but about writing itself. Blake the engraver must have
liked the word ‘graven’ from the King James Bible: ‘… the writing was the
writing of God graven upon the tables’. However, Blake’s process differs.
He is hearing the voice of God in a Sinai’s cave of the mind, located
‘Within the unfathomed caverns of my ear’. God doesn’t do the writing;
Blake does. ‘Therefore I print…’ Blake’s printing press is thought to have
been located in the centre of the front room of his first floor ‘appartment’
in South Molton Street, adjacent to the fireplace. The front room with its
tall windows was well-lit, a perfect artist’s studio. Blake and Catherine lived
in the smaller back room. This overlooked South Molton Lane which on
the Roque map of 1746 was aptly named ‘Poverty Lane’.
Blake’s iambic couplets seem to situate him in three places at once: 17
South Molton Street, Sinai’s Cave, and hell. This might seem depressing.
Undoubtedly his circumstances in late 1803, early 1804 were somewhat
hellish. However, Blake’s simultaneous mentions of ‘print’ and ‘hell’
remind us of the ‘Printing Press in Hell’ from his 1790s masterpiece
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. His tone is ebullient. Why? It’s crucial
to remember that he had not published a book since 1795. The prophet
was waxing hot again: ‘…nor vain my types shall be.’ Types is a metaphor.
Blakean text was not typeset. It was mirror-written onto the copper plate.
Milton and Jerusalem are both dated 1804, the date they were begun in
earnest. Thankfully, on 10 January 1804 a Sussex jury found William Blake
innocent of all charges. He returned again to London where his rheumatic
wife was being cared for by biblical sounding neighbours, Mr and Mrs
Enoch. Blake spent another seven years on the 50-plate Milton published
in 1811, and another sixteen on the 100-plate Jerusalem published in 1820.
Ironically, the only notice of Jerusalem was published in The London Magazine
September 1820 by Thomas Griffiths Wainewright. Blake’s clairvoyant,
clairaudient receptiveness had found a special vantage point in the Sinai’s
Cave of South Molton Street. ‘I write in South Molton Street what I both
see & hear.’ After moving to his final address on the Strand in 1821, his
literary output all but ceased. W. B. Yeats – the greatest of all Blakeans and
first to edit the complete writings of Blake – certainly noticed the line abut
the ‘Wound’ between South Molton Street and Statford Place. Scholars
have pointed out that the preceding mystical tercet contains a vision of
Ireland that was adapted by Yeats into the refrain of his ‘Easter 1916’:

…….……...I see a Feminine Form arise from the Four terrible Zoas
…….……..Beautiful but terrible struggling to take a form of beauty
…….…..Rooted in Shechem: this is Dinah, the youthful form of Erin

Niall McDevitt
is the author of three collections of poetry, b/w (Waterloo Press,
2010), Porterloo (International Times, 2013) and Firing Slits, Jerusalem Colportage (New
River Press, 2016).

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