The Social Hell of William Blake: the Impact of the Industrial Revolution on Blake's Illustrations of Dante's Inferno

Myat Thinzar Aung

Abstract


In 1824 CE, William Blake was commissioned to illustrate the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Amongst 102 illustrations of this epic poem, Blake devoted two thirds specifically to the Inferno. Within the scholarship on Blake, the prevailing analysis of his illustrations shows his meticulousness in treating religious imagery and his devotion toward Dante. Such treatments do not emphasize how Blake’s illustrations reflect the social changes in nineteenth century London. In this paper, Blake’s paintings of the Inferno are examined to understand how they convey ideas not present in the original text. This research revolves around allegory in Dante’s epic and how Blake would have interpreted the work in his day. When Blake started painting the Inferno, the Industrial Revolution had already begun. As London became highly urbanized, factories were built with the promise of better commodities for its citizens. Concurrently, transportation, communication, and access to mechanized goods improved. Amidst advances in science and industry, London became a crowded, unsanitary place covered in smoke, where workers suffered from diseases and low wages due to coal burning and laissez-faire capitalism. Dante wrote his epic during exile from Florence in 1308 CE, inspired by life events of his time. Because over five hundred years separated Dante from Blake, this paper asks questions on how the era of the latter artist informed his thinking about the great poet. What was Blake’s perspective on daily life in London? What type of imagery in Blake’s drawings deviated from the descriptions in the text? Most broadly, how did Blake approach the Inferno in the nineteenth century? To answer these questions, this paper examines William Blake’s illustrations to reimagine Dante’s Hell to argue that his illustrations of the Inferno are his social commentary on the status quo of London during the Industrial Revolution.

Keywords


William Blake; Industrial Revolution; Divine Comedy

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