The Corporate Professor   /   Spring 2012   /    The Corporate Professor

Under the Sign of Satan

William Blake in the Corporate University

Mark Edmundson

The Circle of the Lustful by William Blake, from Dante‘s Inferno, Canto V; LACMA/public domain; Wikimedia Commons.

Blake’s Satan has no tail, no claws, no fangs, no cloven foot, not even an odor of pitch on arrival and departure. This Satan is urbanely kind.

“I in my Selfhood am that Satan. I am that Evil One.”

—William Blake, “Milton”

Imagine waking up in a world gone wrong. You can feel it: things are out of joint. The center’s not quite holding and all the rest. Yet imagine that world as being more agreeable—more secure, more organized, more civilized (in a certain sense)—than any world you had ever imagined inhabiting. One has a wealthy sponsor. One is sheltered, valued. There is the matter of prestige. There is a firm sense of identity, at the very least. One can do one’s work. Distractions are few, privileges many. Yet still there is little doubt: one lives in a world gone wrong.

William Blake found himself in such a position when he turned himself over to the protection of his prosperous, kindly friend, William Hayley. Hayley rescued Blake and his wife Catherine from poverty (maybe from financial ruin) and from the neglect that had plagued the poet-painter’s work. He brought them out of the blighted, glorious London that Blake loved and into the countryside. (Blake’s attitude toward Nature was complex, but overall unfavorable.) Hayley gave Blake time, space, and money; he tried to make the poet into a success.

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