The Manuscript. Tiriel (c. 1789) comprises a manuscript of fifteen pages of eight numbered sections plus three sketches and twelve known finished drawings (three untraced since 1863). Most of the drawings are more or less clearly related to passages in the manuscript. Originally, Blake may have planned to engrave the writing and the illustrations or a selection of them and assemble the two in a set sequence—with or without a publisher. Alternatively, he may have envisioned a typographic work with engraved illustrations. But he never saw the project through to completion, and the materials are now dispersed.
Tiriel is a harshly ironic family tragedy with strong, suggestive, but elusive mythical and allegorical overtones reinforced by Blake’s first use of the verse paragraphs and heroic fourteeners—fourteen-syllable lines with six or seven stresses—that he would employ for the roughly contemporary Book of Thel (1789) and other illuminated works: “Over the weary hills the blind man took his lonely way” until at last “He ceast outstretchd at Har & Hevas feet in awful death” (object 8, line 2, and object 16, line 7).
The eight-part narrative, though obscure in meaning, is simple in outline. It begins at the gates of a palace with the death of Myratana, wife of the old, blind, tyrannical king Tiriel—the two are monarchs of “the west” (object 15, line 5)—and ends with the death of Tiriel himself in the “vales of Har” (and Heva, his parents) (object 4, line 5) after a journey that brings him inevitably into conflict with his parents, brothers, and children. There are strong echoes of the Bible, Greek drama, and Shakespeare’s King Lear. A passage of rhetorical questions near the end, perhaps added later–“Why is one law given to the lion and the patient Ox . . .” (object 15, lines 11ff.)—resembles passages in other of Blake’s works of the period 1789-93, including The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The French Revolution, The Book of Thel, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, and America a Prophecy.
The Designs. Blake produced a dozen highly finished monochrome wash drawings to illustrate his poem Tiriel. Like the manuscript of the poem, the drawings are usually dated to c. 1789. Three drawings have been untraced since 1863: Har, Heva and Mnetha, Har and Heva Playing Harps, and The Death of Tiriel’s Sons (Butlin 198.3, 5, 9). One extant drawing, Hela Contemplating Tiriel Dead in a Vineyard (Butlin 198.12), is in a private collection from which we have not been able to obtain a digital image suitable for presentation in the Archive.
The character of the drawings indicates that they are preliminaries for intaglio etchings/engravings. Blake’s medium of relief etching, used in most of his illuminated books beginning c. 1788, did not require the preparation of finished preliminary drawings. He probably intended these illustrations to be interleaved with the text of Tiriel printed from etched and engraved plates or in letterpress. Such a book, if engraved, would be similar to what Blake described, with a rich use of hyperbole, in his manuscript of An Island in the Moon (c. 1784-85): “. . . I would have all the writing Engraved instead of Printed & at every other leaf a high finishd print all in three Volumes folio, & sell them a hundred pounds a piece” (Erdman page 465). If printed in letterpress, the book would be similar to conventional publications, such as Joseph Ritson’s Select Collection of English Songs (1783), for which Blake was regularly employed to engrave the illustrations.
Stylistically, the Tiriel drawings follow the neoclassical idiom of their time. Several wash drawings of the 1780s by Blake’s friend John Flaxman, such as A Procession of Early British Saints in the Fitzwilliam Museum, are similar in style, use of landscape backgrounds, and emotional expression. Objects 2 and 8, Har and Heva Bathing, Mnetha Looking On and Har and Heva Asleep with Mnetha Guarding Them, are more loosely executed than their companions and portray larger figures that fill more of the pictorial space. They may have been slightly later additions to the series.
Some scholars have dated both the manuscript and the drawings at least two years earlier than 1789—that is, before Blake’s invention and use of relief etching for the publication of his writings. For an argument in favor of an earlier date, see David Bindman, Blake as an Artist (Oxford: Phaidon, 1977) 43-44. The pencil Sketch for “Tiriel Denouncing His Sons and Daughters” is described by Butlin 199 as a preliminary for that wash drawing, object 6, but may be of a later date. The standing figures on the right in the pencil sketch are close to those in Blake’s etching/engraving of 1793, “Our End is come” (later state titled “The Accusers of Theft Adultery Murder”). Thus, the sketch may be a transitional work between the Tiriel illustration and the separate plate.
We are also pleased to announce the republication of John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative, of a Five Years’ Expedition, Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796), both uncolored and colored copies. Our presentation now takes into account the vignette, engraved and signed by Blake, on the engraved title page of volume 1. The small “Blake” signature on this design was not noticed until a proof of the vignette came to auction in 2014.
The Archive now contains 130 fully searchable and scalable electronic editions of important manuscripts and series of engravings, color printed drawings, tempera paintings, water color drawings, including 89 copies of Blake’s nineteen illuminated books—all in the context of full bibliographic information about each work, careful diplomatic transcriptions of all texts, detailed descriptions of all images, and extensive bibliographies.
As always, the William Blake Archive is a free site, imposing no access restrictions and charging no subscription fees. The site is made possible by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the University of Rochester, the continuing support of the Library of Congress, and the cooperation of the international array of libraries and museums that have generously given us permission to reproduce works from their collections in the Archive.
Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi, editors
Joseph Fletcher, managing editor, Michael Fox, assistant editor
The William Blake Archive