In this, one of the most powerful and intense of the watercolors, Blake transforms Blair’s “strong man” into the “strong wicked man.” Schiavonetti’s etching based on this design appears opposite page 12 of the poem, part of a section in which Blair catalogues various attributes valued by mankind, -- beauty, strength and study -- that will be vitiated by death. Blair' s depiction of the strong man's death takes up more than a page, though only the last two lines of the verses below are cited in the engraving.
Strength too! thou surly, and less gentle Boast
Of those that laugh loud at the village ring!
A fit of common sickness pulls thee down
With greater ease, than e’er thou didst the stripling
That rashly dar’d thee to th'unequal Fight.
…What now avail
The strong-built sinewy limbs, and well spread shoulders?
See, how he tugs for life, and lays about him,
Mad with his Pain! Eager he catches hold
Of what comes next to hand, and grasps it hard,
Just like a creature drowning! Hideous sight!
O how his eyes stand out, and stare full ghastly!
While the distemper’s rank and deadly venom
Shoots like a burning arrow 'cross his bowels,
And drinks his marrow up. Heard you that groan!
It was his last. (p.12)
The character of the dying man is only treated in passing by Blair, as he mentions his being boastful and surly, though perhaps the ghastliness of his end implies that he had led a wicked life. Blake here equates strength with evil, linking the two in the title to the design. He shows the man, his head twisted to the side, his face distorted with pain and terror, his rigid body barely touching the mat. His fingers are claws clutching the bed clothes; lying just beyond his right hand is the goblet he apparently broke and over-turned in his death agony. His soul, equally tormented and surrounded by flames, flies out the window. The two grief-stricken women add to the emotional intensity; the one, identified in 'Of the Designs' as the daughter, stands quite still, in contrast to the turmoil around her; the other, identified as the wife, her mouth open, her hands beside her face, takes on the appearance in her mournful horror. She almost climbs onto the man’s pallet in her desperation, existing in a spatial no-man’s land, somewhere between the strong man and his fleeing soul.
There is a rapid pencil drawing in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Butlin 624, recto, pl. 860) in which Blake sketches the figure of the dying man and the two grieving women. It may be his first idea for the composition for although he establishes the major elements of the group, he shows the daughter kneeling rather than standing. In the final design her erect pose is a counterbalance to the other, more dynamic figures.
As befits its subject, The Strong Wicked Man is one of the most intensely colored designs in this set. Though the watercolor is applied with great subtlety, as in the other compositions, it seems to have a greater depth. The deep, nearly opaque blue surrounding the soul and the flickering red flames stand out from the dark, neutral gray of the surrounding room.
The Death of the Strong Wicked Man forms a virtual trio with The Soul Hovering Over the Body (lot 7) and The Death of the Good Old Man (lot 14). All are set in a confined space with a single window and show the soul leaving the body of a dying or dead man. The Strong Wicked Man and the Good Old Man can be seen as direct opposites with the emotions, characters and even the very composition reversed. The relation of the Strong Wicked Man and the Soul Hovering is somewhat more complex. The latter is a much more peaceful scene, the body of the dying man absolutely still. But one can see the echo of the anguish of the mourning widow in the hovering soul. Her body has the same long arc, and while she is more composed, her hands are roughly in the same position, but with the palms turned outward. Although the illustrations can be seen as paired opposites, these more subtle transitions give Blake’s watercolors a thematic texture that binds them all together.
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