In this haunting image, Blake has left the confines of Blair’s poem. Unlike most of the other engravings, the illustration of The Soul Exploring the Recesses of the Grave bears no reference to any lines in the poem, and commentators have not been able to link it to a specific passage. The description in 'Of the Designs,' simply reads:
The Soul, prior to the dissolution of the Body, exploring through and beyond the tomb, and there discovering the emblems of mortality and of immortality.
Taken in the context of the poem as a whole, this design is clearly a pair to and in some ways a mirror image of, Death’s Door. The main actor is an extremely elegant young woman as opposed to a stooped old man. The setting in The Soul Exploring is clearly a cave, while in Death's Door it is a rough hewn but distinctly man-made structure. Within the first is a corpse, laid out on the ground, the body surrounded by flames; in the second is an empty bier, awaiting the arrival of the old man. Above the cave in The Soul Exploring is a young man, partly clothed, his arms raised in a gesture of surprise or fear. He is bathed in the cool dim light of the moon, its crescent form visible between his legs, while in the background are distant peaks of mountains. Above the building in the second is another young man, nude this time, his body radiating light as if he were himself the sun.
Given the complexity of Blake’s imagery, it is not surprising that the subject here has been interpreted by different scholars in precisely opposite ways: as a figure awakened to immortality or as man warned of death he cannot see.1 Most interpretations, however, lean toward the latter view and since Death’s Door is almost universally recognized as an image of transcendence and resurrection, The Soul Exploring the Recesses of the Grave would be one of mortality and death. As Essick and Paley note, everything here suggests obscurity and restraint -- the darkness, the tentative gestures, even the woman’s tightly coiled hair.2 The very coloring of the design reinforces this imagery. The cool tones of the sky and the wan yellow moon are eerily reflected off the body of the young man, but shed very little light and no hope.
Blake’s handling of the medium in this composition is extraordinarily subtle. He modulates the color of the sky so it gradually becomes paler and thinner in the areas surrounding the young man. He also scrapes away some of the surface around the figure, perhaps also as a way or lightening the color or in order to redraw the contours of the figure itself. While the composition is dominantly blue and gray, including the flames surrounding the body, Blake adds a few touches of pink to the figure.There is a preparatory sketch for the watercolor in the British Museum (Butlin 629, pl. 862), which has all the major elements of the composition and is roughly the same size (252 by 139 mm.)
1 Helmstadter, pp. 54-56 and Essick and Paley, pp.66-67, respectively
2 Essick and Paley, p. 66-67, who knew the composition only from Schiavonetti's engraving.
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