More tea, Mr Blake?

Copy H of America: A Prophecy, in the collection of the British Museum

Tea gets barely a mention in the work of William Blake. Even though the poet’s life stretched across the period 1757-1827 when tea drinking becomes ubiquitous at all levels of British society, one searches in vain through his corpus for the infusions of the dried leaves that were available in grocers’ stores in every street of the metropolis which he called home. Not that this is at all surprising, of course. So much of Blake’s work is interested in offering accounts of humanity which are cosmological in their scale, aiming to observe and to evidence the vast unchanging cyclical rhythms of human history (both past and future). Though he enjoyed creating exciting, other-worldly names, there is no bohea or hyson in Blake’s universe. The work of eternity doesn’t stop for tea breaks. There are no tea tables in Golgonooza, the great city of the human imagination (though the existence of Blake tea-towels suggests that such an omission presents no obstacle to the twenty-first century commodification of Blake).

Mystical and impenetrable as Blake’s work can often appear, even to one well-acquainted with his prophetic style, it’s nevertheless the case that Blake was fascinated by contemporary affairs, asking his readers to locate passing events within the dynamic human tapestry that he wove. This, he argued elsewhere, lay at heart of the prophetic method. Prophecy lay not in attempting to predict the future, but rather in identifying the patterns that could be observed in the present, as a guide to the continuing unfolding of history. In his startling re-telling of the events of the American War – America: A Prophecy – Blake imagines the British attempts to curtail the rebellious colonies in apocalyptic terms:

And as a plague wind fill’d with insects cuts off man & beast;
And as a sea o’erwhelms a land in the day of an earthquake;
Fury! rage! madness! in a wind swept through America […]
The citizens of New-York close their books & lock their chests;
The mariners of Boston drop their anchors and unlade;
The scribe of Pensylvania casts his pen upon the earth;
The builder of Virginia throws his hammer down in fear.
Then had America been lost, o’erwhelm’d by the Atlantic,
And Earth had lost another portion of the infinite.

Is the unlading of the ships of Boston a reference to the Boston Tea Party, the ‘unlading’ in question being the rebellious ejection of 342 chests of East India Company tea into the salt water of Boston Harbour? Possibly. But the sense of these lines, at this early stage of the poem, is rather of the colonists being intimidated by the British show of force. It’s almost as if the Boston Tea Party had not happened, and the tea had – after all – been calmly offloaded onto Griffins Wharf and sold to its local consumers. But it might also be a reference to the closure of the port of Boston which followed the Tea Party, denying Boston’s mariners their livelihood. It was this, after all, and not the Tea Party (a term that first appeared in print only in 1834), that spurred colonial anger in the direction of revolt.

There is only one direct reference to tea in the work of William Blake. It doesn’t appear in the universal dramas of the illuminated books. Nor is it to be found in the lyric poems directed more straightforwardly to the social and cultural realities of life in London around the turn of the nineteenth century. Rather, it occurs in a chatty letter that Blake wrote to his brother, James, on 30 January 1803, during the brief period of his life when he lived not in London, but rather on the Sussex coast at Felpham. He and his wife had rented a cottage there at the invitation of the writer William Hayley. But although this coastal sojourn had begun in good spirits, Blake had soon come to detest his benefactor and the way in which – in his view – Hayley was trying to direct Blake’s artistic development.

Blake tells his brother of ‘a determination which we have lately made, namely to leave this place’, due to the unpleasantness occasioned by the ‘pecuniary connexions between H[ayley] and myself’. But Blake is keen to reassure James of his ongoing hopes for profitable commissions as an engraver. ‘I now have it in my power to commence publication with many very formidable works, which I have finishd’ he claims. He anticipates a near future in which valuable work ‘would make me independent’. We might guess that James was not at all convinced by this bravado. Much more comforting, however, is the rare authentic glimpse of domestic happiness which follows:

But I again say as I said before, we are very happy sitting at tea by a wood fire in our Cottage, the wind singing above our roof & the sea roaring at a distance.

Matters of pecuniary distress would worsen for Blake over the next 24 years. Though he returned to London, he never achieved the independence that he craved. But from the occasional hints we discern of Blake’s continued marital contentment, we can at least imagine a simple tea service forming the silent, unacknowledged backdrop for Blake’s complex visions of humanity. And perhaps it was this tea, as much as the acid of the engraver, which assisted him in ‘melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid’ (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 14).

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2 thoughts on “More tea, Mr Blake?

  1. I see you have had a good time reading Blake, even if it was only one cup of tea left. By the way When do tea-towel start and which was to orignal use of them (if somewhere in the literature)?. Thank you for the entry

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Your question about tea-towels is a good one – certainly the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t trace the term any earlier than 1863, though this is nearly a decade earlier than the first recorded usage of ‘tea cosy’. But the history of tea-related linen performing a function akin to what we call a tea-towel appears to have an eighteenth-century heritage. The OED notes that the phrase ‘tea cloth’ is in use from around 1770, and discerns two meanings: “(a) a cloth used for wiping tea-things after washing them; (b) afternoon t., a small table-cloth used at afternoon tea.”

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