Lot 7
  • 7

William Blake London 1757 - 1827

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  • William Blake
  • The Soul Hovering over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life
    (The Soul Hovering over the Body)

  • pen and black and gray inks and watercolor over traces of pencil
  • 160 by 227 mm.; 6 1/2 by 8 15/16 in.

Catalogue Note

In the published edition of The Grave, this design is placed opposite a wrenching passage describing the soul leaving the body at death.  Blair describes the soul as ‘frantic’ as she ‘raves round the walls’ and ‘shrieks for help.’  Blake, however, has chosen to illustrate the last and quietest lines of the passage, in which the soul is reconciled to the parting.

How wishfully she looks
On all she’s leaving, now no longer her’s!
A little longer, yet a little longer,
O might she stay to wash away her stains,
And fit her for her passage!
  (p. 16)

This choice reflects Blake’s more positive outlook; for him death is a transition rather than a permanent separation. 

In The Soul Hovering over the Body the man has clearly died.  He is laid out on a bier and his body has the same stony quality as Christ in the Sepulchre, Guarded by Angels (fig. 5) or The Counseller, King, Warrior, Mother & Child (lot 13).  A preliminary sketch in the Tate (fig. 12A) is quite different in feeling. Although the soul is quite similarly conceived, even to the gesture of the hands, the body appears to be that of a living person who is just sleeping.   Blake draws him naked, lying on his side, his musculature carefully delineated, on his head is a laurel wreath and under his hand a lyre. 

What is surprising to the present-day viewer is Blake’s depiction of the soul as a woman when the body is that of a man.  That dichotomy is, however, supported by Blair’s text.  More shocking to his contemporaries was the fact that he included a corporeal representation of the soul in the same composition as the body.  In an anonymous review of The Grave in Scots Magazine, November 1808, the writer takes Blake to task:

There is just one circumstance, which runs through many of these pieces, which we cannot quite go along with; this is the representation of the soul in a bodily form.  Such an idea we think is greatly too bold; nor is there any thing in the manner which can atone for the defect in the original conception….It would even have been tolerable had the soul been introduced by itself without its bodily companion…1

1 The review is printed in full in David Groves, “Blake, The Grave¸and Edinburgh Literary Society, in Blake:  An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 24, no 1, summer 1990, p. 250.