Marylebone Toll Gate at Great Portland Street in 1790

Reading The Sports of Cruelty

The Sports of CrueltyThis little book is both a gem of folk tale snippets and an analysis of William Blake’s use of fairies and folklore in his work. The Sports of Cruelty: Fairies, folk-songs, charms and other country matters in the work of William Blake by John Adlard was published in 1972 and I’m surprised I never encountered it in my previous travels. I found it by way of a happy accident, while looking for books to assist me in my research of fairies for my novel-in-progress. It is very much a scholarly book, with hundreds of references and footnotes, and it going to take me several readings to fully ingest it. However, here is a glimpse of what I have so far found inside.

Adlard begins by pointing out that “… though the English fairies are conspicuous through twenty years of his creative work, the folklore sources have been largely ignored.” This was 1972, remember, so this may have changed by now. The premise of the book is that Blake drew heavily from folk tales and songs, even though he himself was a man of the city. Adlard reminds us that even though Blake lived in London for all but three years of his life, his London was not the London of today. In his day, “Open country started at Portland Chapel” in Marylebone.

Marylebone Toll Gate at Great Portland Street in 1790
The Marylebone Toll-gate at north-end of what is now Great Portland Street in East Marylebone, circa 1790, courtesy of the City of Westminster Archives Centre.

As well, Blake and his wife would begin their day by walking for twenty miles, stopping to dine at some little inn, and then walking the twenty miles back home. Which begs the question, how did the man ever get anything done? From this we get the sense that while Blake may have received his formal education at the Royal Academy, he potentially received an entirely different education, and found much inspiration, in the landscape and stories he encountered along the way. He most certainly encountered England’s vast array of regional folk tales and lore in the literature of the day.

This can be seen in the words Blake chooses, such as Pen, a “North Country monosyllable” which, according to the English Dialect Dictionary, refers to the pudendum of a sow. This is found in Blake’s “The Everlasting Gospel”, in the lines

“Just such a one as Magdalen
With seven devils in her Pen;…”

Also, Stile, a monosyllable which “seems limited to the South-West”. Ruth Tongue, author of Somerset Folklore, says this is a mid-19th century word for spindle. This comes from Blake’s “When Klopstock England defied” in the lines

“Thrice Blushing he redend round
And the Spell turned & unwound
It spun Back on the Stile
Whereat Klopstock did smile”

So we find these little hints of “folk” language in Blake’s work, just as we find what I can only call retold folk tales, which nicely plants Blake in the same arena as all of us who retell fairy and folk tales today.

Among Blake’s earlier poems there is a little group of tales of lost children and lost parents. We have first of all the emmet-mother of “A Dream” (Songs of Innocence) lost in the grass and directed home to husband and family by a friendly beetle and glow-worm. In the poem that follows it, “The Little Girl Lost”, a girl called Lyca also loses her way, while gathering flowers. She lies down under a tree, worries about her parents, but finally sleeps. Lions, leopards and tigers emerge from caverns, play around her, strip her, then carry her, sleeping still, to their caves. (p. 39)

Why lions and tigers? First, Adlard compares these poems to a Somerset story, “Goblin Combe”, in which a little girl is lost, flings herself down in tears, and is calmed and led home by a group of fairies who come out of a nearby rock. It is from this tale, and others like it, that Blake possibly culls inspiration for his own work, or retells the tales outright. But far more interesting is “the Lion year”, a “persistent English tradition in which, every seven years, a lioness gives birth to a litter. Should anything happen to the lioness or to one of her cubs, many women will die in childbirth during that year. This seventh year is the Lion year, or sometimes the Tiger year.

But what of Blake’s fairies? Adlard claims that “His use of fairies, through twenty years of creative work, may have been inspired by articles in The Gentleman’s Magazine for July and August 1795″ in which the following appeared:

The origin of vulgar superstition is a very curious subject, which, leading us often into the most remote antiquity, lays open the early history of nations, but is generally obscure in proportion to its antiquity. Of this remark a strong proof may be deduced from our antiquated notions about ‘The faery ladies dancing on the hearth’; of which our best poets have frequently made so good a use;…(The Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1795, page 553)

From Blake’s reading of these magazines, Adlard suggests, the winged fairies of Thomas Stothard’s illustrations for The Rape of the Lock were born. This is fascinating story told by Mrs. Bray in her Life of Stothard, that “a friend” was present while Stothard was painting a picture of a reclining sylph. Encountering some difficulty in its portrayal, the friend suggested “Give the sylph a butterfly’s wing, and there you have it.” Aldard contends that if this friend had been Fuseli, then Fuseli would have had much more to say about the matter than stick a wing on there. It is possible this friend was Blake.

Whether that is true or not, Blake’s fairies have “little glancing wings” (Visions of Daughters of Albion), and are an expression of “natural joy, a spontaneous expression of energy, a moment of desire immediately satisfied” (from Mark Schorer’s The Politics of Vision). So how did all of this come about? Through folktales, of course.

The catching of the fairy in Europe smacks strongly of West Country lore. Thoms reported in the Athenaeum for October 9th 1847, that in the neighbourhood of Truro both fairies and moths were called Piskeys. Robert Hunt has a Cornish story of a man who caught a fairy and carried him home in his cuff. In Devonshire and West Somerset it was once considered imperative to catch the first butterfly of the year. (pages 79-77)

Of witches we learn that

‘the tying of knots’, a widespread belief, to prevent fruitfulness. It is done by repeating after the priest the benediction at the marriage, knotting a string at the name of each Person of the Trinity. No child is born of the marriage for fifteen years, unless the string is found and burned. One authentic case has been recorded in Arran, and we found knowledge and belief of it up the Mayo coast to account for childless families. (page 98)

While in Blake’s work we find:

“They tie the Veins
And Nerves into two knots & hte Seed into a double knot.” Jerusalem, Plate 66: 48, 49 (CW, page 703)

and

“She ties the knot of milky seed into two lovely Heavens.” Milton, Plate 19: 60 (CW, page 501)

Coincidence? Possibly not.

The Sports of Cruelty is absolutely packed with information like this, relating it to Blake’s work, and to that of his contemporaries, while giving a very broad look at English folklore in general as well as the people who were making use of it in Blake’s time. It is truly a little treasure for enthusiasts both of Blake’s work and of English folklore. One might ask why a man who drew so heavily from his own visions would resort to using folk motifs in the first place, especially when the Age of Reason was in full swing.

When the world dismissed tales and traditions as fiction and childishness, he [Blake] could retort: “Fable; yet they contain Vision…” (page 125)


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