I recently had reason to re-familiarise myself with the work of Artist and Writer William Blake. This happened through a pretty unexpected medium; that of the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon.
The character of Francis Dolarhyde, the antagonist of the Harris novel, is obsessed with one of Blake’s most iconic paintings; “The Great Red Dragon and The Woman Clothed in Sun”. This painting comes from a series of watercolours Blake painted called The Red Dragon paintings. He was commissioned to create a collection paintings intended to illustrate books of the Bible. The Red Dragon paintings illustrate the figure of “The Great Red Dragon” in the Book of Revelation. It plays a key part to his sadistic ritual and inspires him into “Becoming” The Great Red Dragon, through which he performs these rituals.
When I heard about the importance of Blake’s work to this novel and this character, I was really intrigued. Blake very much a revolutionary, as much as he was a man of his time; A true Romantic in every sense. His paintings, luscious, dark, sensual and sinister, captured perfectly the fascination of the time in Gothicism, explored by other artists, poets and writers such as Mary Shelley and Wilkie Collins. The Gothic was very much about the contrast of dark and light; the conflict between these two extremes, and how one works through them to find greater meaning in life. This, for me, perfectly mirrors the dilemmas of Francis’ character in the novel.
This is not the only reference to Blake made in the book. At the start of the book are featured two of Blake’s poems from his Songs of Innocence and Experience. “The Divine Image”, and “A Divine Image”.
I must admit, though familiar with Blake as both a writer and a visual artist, I had engaged more deeply with his written work. I studied selected poems from his Songs of Innocence and Experience, and found I was really taken with his style of writing, as well as the beautiful, passionate and almost mystical illustrations in his illuminated versions of these poems. His work has stuck with me until today, and though I am a little rusty on it’s ins and outs, I am still profoundly moved by his work when I encounter it. In fact, my favourite poem remains to be Blake’s “The Sick Rose”, his illuminated version of which is featured below (I could go into it’s meaning and relevance to me here but I fear that would be an entire blog post of its own!):
What is particularly interesting about Songs of Innocence and Experience, and what I love most about it, is that the majority of the poems are written to twin each other on a certain theme or topic, one in ‘innocence’, one after ‘experience’. I thought this was a fascinating approach to writing, and made the content of the poems all the more poignant and moving when reading them side by side. What’s more, it reflects perfectly the Gothic play of dark against light; purity against or alongside corruption, how we are changed for better and for worse.
Interestingly, Harris chooses to include the extract of a poem included in Songs of Innocence, but follows it with a poem Blake wrote and had intended to include as its mirrored poem for Songs of Experience, but in the end chose not to. It is clear, however, after reading both, the ways in which these poems mirror each other, and they reflect very powerfully the effect this writing technique has on the impact of the content of the works.
First, he includes a middle stanza from “The Divine Image” in “Songs of Innocence”:
The Divine Image
…For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Below it, is “A Divine Image” (I know, it confused me too!) which is the poem which Blake initially intended to be the above’s twinned poem in “Songs of Experience”, but which he decided against, for “The Human Abstract” instead.
A Divine Image
Cruelty has a Human Heart
And Jealousy a Human Face
Terror, the Human Form Divine
And Secrecy, the Human Dress
The Human Dress, is forged Iron
The Human Form, a fiery Forge
The Human Face, a Furnace seal’d
The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge
The ways in which, formally speaking, these poems mirror each other is clear. Blake outlines four features of humanity; The Human Heart, The Human Face, The Human Dress, The Human Form. The natures of these four elements seem to change dramatically between Innocence and Experience. Through innocent eyes, the “Human” is all virtue; Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love are its properties. Through the eyes of experience the ‘human’ becomes that of Cruelty, Jealousy, Terror, and Secrecy. There is ferocity and violence in this second piece; of fire and brimstone, of angst and toil. The message here is perhaps, arguably, an obvious one; with experience can often come a jaded view of the world; one more cynical and wary.
However, for me, the significance of these poems is in its exploration of how one’s innocence almost is the cause of their jading. In innocence, we are naive; we expect goodness and kindness in all people and things, or perhaps, we know not what to expect at all. In being so, the realities of life, of the toils we face, the disappointments, the betrayals, hit us all the more severely. And so, we become what has affected us; we become the disappointed, we create the toil for others. In living and being and learning, as we do, we create those monsters in ourselves.
This is, for me, mirrors very poignantly the process undergone by Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon. He, like us all, starts off a child; young and innocent, vulnerable, curious, but afraid. His circumstances are unfortunate, and he faces much of the cruelty and terror described in Blake’s Experience Song. This creates within Francis real conflict and also pain, which, I think, Francis tries to remedy by his creating of the persona of The Great Red Dragon – this transcendental figure, through whom he can escape and somehow redeem himself – take control and assert himself in a world which has neglected and made mockery of him. In doing so, he becomes an extreme version of “Human” expressed in Blake’s Experience Song – the cruelest, the most terrifying; of brutality and violence and aggression. He creates in himself a monster, but as a means, somehow, of redemption; to rid him of the shame he sees in his vulnerable innocent other or earlier self. He abstracts himself from a troubled world by becoming something he deems greater than himself; The Great Red Dragon. He is a monster of his own making; through no fault of his own – he cannot help his upbringing or physical appearance – but still, inevitably, he has created this monster himself.
And so, it seems, when looking for a source of inspiration for a character like Dolarhyde, who is desperate to be better but also to escape, the work of William Blake was the perfect place to find it. Through the Red Dragon paintings came the idolatry of a great demonic figure, one for Dolaryhe to aspire to be. Through Blake’s overall aesthetic and the context of his work came an art movement all about the pull of darkness and light, good and evil, love and despair; romantic, passionate, intense. The perfect framework in which to place a man disenfranchised with the world around him and seeking a place in which to explore these conflicts. Overall, the use of Blake as Dolarhyde’s “muse” so to speak, enriches both Dolarhyde’s character and the novel in general. This man is not just a sadist who enjoys killing people; that is an unfairly one-dimensional depiction of him. The most horrifying aspect of this character is his internal struggle. He is a deeply conflicted individual, who really only seeks a sense of worth and purpose; though in his case, through barbaric means. That’s not to justify it. But Francis’ struggle is like any human struggle – one between darkness and light.