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This article is taken from PN Review 99, Volume 21 Number 1, September - October 1994.

Muggletonian Marxists: William Blake and Edward Thompson John Seed

E.P. Thompson, Witness Against the Beast. William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge University Press) £17.95

This book has been long in the making. It originated, as the preface tells us, in a series of lectures given at the University of Toronto in 1978 and one of the chapters - 'London' - was published in the same year. But Thompson was lecturing on Blake in New York a decade earlier. And in an important sense this book takes further an issue raised in 1963 in The Making of the English Working Class. Blake appeared at a number of key points in this book. Crucially, he was identified as a representative figure of late eighteenth-century popular radicalism:

Against the background of London Dissent, with its fringe of deists and earnest mystics, William Blake seems no longer the cranky untutored genius that he must seem to those who know only the genteel culture of the time. On the contrary, he is the original yet authentic voice of a long popular tradition.

'Those who know only the genteel culture of the time': Thompson's steely gaze was fixed here on an influential postwar literary orthodoxy in which the whole cultural tradition associated with seventeenth-century Puritanism, eighteenth-century religious dissent and nineteenth-century Nonconformity was relegated to the merely provincial and second-rate. Eliot's 1920 essay on Blake in The Sacred Wood was, I think more specifically Thompson's target here. For Eliot, though Blake was technically accomplished and unremittingly honest in ...

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