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    William Blake’s 'Pestilence', sympathy, and the politics of feeling

    Calè, Luisa (2022) William Blake’s 'Pestilence', sympathy, and the politics of feeling. European Romantic Review 33 (4), pp. 515-533. ISSN 1050-9585.

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    Abstract

    Pestilence has often been encountered as an 'invisible enemy'. What happens when we give it visual form? This essay examines the dynamics of sympathy, spectatorship, and the politics of feeling activated in William Blake’s watercolour ‘Pestilence: The Death of the First-Born’ (c. 1805), now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. While the Biblical story of Exodus controls the fear of the plagues by identifying the reader with the chosen people protected by providence, Blake’s Romantic vision articulates an alternative politics of feeling. Drawing on David Hume’s and Adam Smith’s theories of sympathy, this essay demonstrates how Blake’s composition invites the viewer to engage with the Egyptian plagues through a dynamics of divided attention, alternating between different points of view, identifying with the position of the destroying angel, the chosen, and the victims. The temporal dynamic of looking contrasts the gigantic form of the destroyer, which initially arrests the eye, with the miniaturized figures of the victims. By giving a face and a reciprocating gaze to the child threatened by the tenth plague of Egypt, Blake’s scene of Pestilence becomes a virtual test of moral sentiments in which viewers confront the ethics of freedom built on sacrifice.

    Metadata

    Item Type: Article
    Additional Information: Special Issue on 'Romanticism and Vision', guest edited by Terry Robinson and John Savarese
    Keyword(s) / Subject(s): William Blake, Pestilence, Exodus, Sympathy, Feeling, Fear, Attention
    School: School of Arts > English, Theatre and Creative Writing
    Research Centres and Institutes: Nineteenth-Century Studies, Centre for
    Depositing User: Luisa Cale
    Date Deposited: 14 Jun 2022 15:44
    Last Modified: 29 Jul 2022 00:55
    URI: https://eprints.bbk.ac.uk/id/eprint/46584

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