Monday, December 06, 2010

CRYSTAL CABINET

Blake's illustration to Milton's Comus commissioned by Thomas Butts dated 1815


Thomas Butts was a principal patron of William Blake during the leanest of times in his life. It is hard to conceive of how Blake could have continued his imaginative work without the financial support which sales to Butts provided. Mary Butts, the great-granddaughter of Thomas Butts had the childhood experience of growing up under the influence of William Blake whose pictures adorned the walls of a room in her home. In her autobiography The Crystal Cabinet: My Childhood at Salterns, she applies the metaphor of Blake's poem to understanding her adolescent years. Her book was first published in 1937, shortly before her death, over objections from her fractious family. It was reissued in 1988 including material which had formerly been deleted.

Joel Hawkes of the University of Bristol wrote an article on Mary Butts's book which he called Inside The Crystal Cabinet: Truth, Lies and Vision in Mary Butts’s Autobiography of Place. On page 3 of the article we read:
"The title The Crystal Cabinet is borrowed from William Blake’s poem of the same name. In understanding Butts’s interpretation of Blake’s poem, and of Blake’s art more generally, one begins to see how Butts searches for truth and for vision through the creation of place within her writing. Salterns, as a place, is a means to this vision. Butts had grown up at Salterns – a large 21 acre estate near Poole – surrounded by Blake’s work. Butts’s great grandfather, Thomas Butts, was patron to William Blake, and in Mary’s childhood, in a room known as the ‘Blake room’, there hung a large number of Blake’s paintings, now found at the Tate Britain (Butts 1988, p.13). The house was also reportedly filled with other works of art, particularly those of the Pre-Raphaelites – the Rossettis were friends of her father’s (p.142). Butts, with good reason, writes that her early life was ‘saturated’ with art (1988, p.31)."

Hawkes' article on page 5 comments on the poem which Butts used to create a framework for her autobiography:

"Blake’s ‘The Crystal Cabinet’ explores the movement from Beulah to Generation. In the poem, a young man is taken away from the ‘Wild’, where he tells us he was ‘dancing merrily’ – a place of innocence. He is caught by a maiden, taken into the cabinet, and locked up with a ‘golden Key’ (1972, p.429, ll. 1-4). In the cabinet he sees another England, another London and Thames (ll. 9-12). They are like the one he knows, but different. A sexual and imaginative development takes place with the maiden, and during his experience the youth strives to ‘seize the inmost form’ of this event (l. 21). Doing so, he bursts the cabinet, becoming a ‘Weeping Babe’ – born into our world of experience (l. 24). The youth of the poem is moving from one realm to another through sexual and imaginative experience. It is a passage, indeed a rite of passage, from innocence to experience – one that unites the two opposites. It may seem like a fall in the tradition of Adam and Eve, but for Blake one must move from the innocence of the earthly paradise of Beulah into Generation, in order to progress spiritually. To not allow oneself this sexual and imaginative route, leads one only to Ulro, where Thel in Blake’s Book of Thel falls. With no imaginative and sexual experience one becomes half dead, a ghost in ‘a schizoid second infancy or idiocy’ (Bloom 1971, p.57)."

Blake's Crystal Cabinet is open to interpretation, at which many have tried their hand. We will have a further look at in later posts.

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