Bringing Catherine Out of the Shadows

January 25, 2024

For as long as I have been enamored with Blake’s work, I have held the view that Catherine was far more involved in the creative process than was generally known. Over the many decades that I taught Blake’s illuminated poetry to college students at Long Island University, I presented this idea, based on what I knew about the wives of artists. Those who don’t compete as creative artists, like Lee Krasner with Jackson Pollock, or Georgia O’Keefe with Alfred Stieglitz, often remain in the shadows as silent partners, financial supporters, and emotional stabilizers. Blake had a name for such female personae—emanations.

Fortunately he believed that the separation of male figures from their emanations brought ruin, resulting in a fallen world! This is probably because in religious terms the source of emanations is divine. Even considering Blake’s intention to characterize the feminine as issuing from a divine source, emanation carries the implication of a spectral being, not a complete, fully fleshed-out self—as in Plate 100 of Jerusalem, where Enitharmon appears as a grey ghostly being with back turned to the reader. She is not a whole female so we can never see her expression as she stands facing the shining, sexual Los/Artist/Blake from whom she emanates.

In 1975 I attempted an improvisation on this plate in needlepoint, which was the beginning of my reflections on and empathy for Catherine. The idea that she was an emanation, projected from another being, kept Catherine’s profound role in their private press as a colorist and press partner largely unsuspected until the Tate Britain exhibition of 2019. Given her volatile husband’s extremes of fiery passion and anger, she almost certainly was the calmer partner, a fully self-realized co-creator, and promoter of his vision. Now let’s get her a grave marker of appropriate recognition

Joan Digby

Joan Digby (Professor Emerita/Long Island University) earned her doctorate in 18th Century British Literature, is former Director of the LIU Poetry Center, and co-founded New Feral Press, Oyster Bay NY.

She is the donor of start-up funds gifted to the Blake Society to encourage fundraising towards commissioning a grave marker for Catherine, acknowledging her artistic work as William’s partner. This project is moving forward under the leadership of Blake Society Trustee, Tamsin Roswell.

We’ve started the discussion with the City of London Corporation about finding a way to honour and mark Catherine Blake’s presence in Bunhill Fields Burial Ground. We had a first, very positive, meeting with councillors, officers and advisors of the City’s guiding authority. There are various restrictions about what can be done in this already crowded historic space, but also many opportunities. The discussion we’ll now follow involves using the golden string concept, from the words cut into William Blake’s new gravestone, with the idea that we can find a way to ‘wind the string’ toward the Catherine’s resting place, perhaps with the golden string cut into the paving. The ball is in our court to get design proposals drawn up for their consideration. We’ve also opened discussion with the Corporation about them updating the public information at Bunhill Fields so that it is both accurate about William Blake’s location, and also includes Catherine Blake. The hope is that we can get something in place by 2027, for #Blake200.

Tamsin Rosewell