115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“I have heard thee with the hearing of the Ear but now my Eye seeth thee": The Visual and the Visionary in William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job

Lauren Smith, Brown University

In the final chapter of the book of Job, Job describes his spiritual transformation in terms of a progression from hearing God to seeing God. In his Illustrations of the Book of Job, William Blake brings Job’s vision before the readers eyes in an attempt to show that which cannot be seen.

Proposal: 

In the final chapter of the book of Job, Job describes his spiritual transformation in terms of a progression from sound to sight, “I have heard thee with the hearing of the Ear but now my Eye seeth thee” (KJV Job 42:5). What, however, is the nature of this sight Job attests to? Is it merely the material sight of the physical eye? Unlike Moses’s seeing of Yahweh’s backside on Mount Sinai, Job’s vision is not an explicitly asked for and provisioned sight of God’s glory; nevertheless, like Moses whose face ever after shone with the uncanny rays of an otherworldly light, Job is forever altered, or rather enlightened, by what he witnessed. But what did his eyes see? The only indication from the text is that the Lord “answered Job out of a whirlwind” (KJV Job 38:1). Yet side from the whirlwind, God’s answer does not present Job with anything immediately visible. Still, through God’s interrogation Job comes to see the material world differently. He learns to see through the material to the spiritual, to see through creation to the creator.

Self-professed visionary artist and poet William Blake implicitly addresses the question of the nature of Job’s vision, and of vision in general, in his late masterpiece Illustrations of the Book of Job (1825). This work contains 22 engravings, each accompanied by excerpts from the text of Job, as well as other biblical books. Thus, while Blake ostensibly aims only to illustrate the book of Job as found in the Hebrew Bible, what results from his choice of scenes to illustrate, his very illustration of those scenes, and his careful choice and arrangement of text, is a vividly Blakean rendition.

It must be noted, however, that while Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job is unmistakably Blakean, and in some instances even contrasts sharply with more mainstream interpretations of the text, Blake likely understood his Illustrations as revealing the essential meanings of the original as opposed to revealing his own meanings. In fact, the title plate to Illustrations itself suggests that Blake understood his work to in some sense be the book of Job as it presents first and above all the title, “The Book of Job” in its original Hebrew: ספר איוב. The qualifier, “Illustrations of,” appears only secondarily and in English.

In any case, Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job does more than merely illustrate. In this paper I will show how Blake brings Job’s experience before the readers eye in order to encourage in the reader the very transformation Job underwent, in order aid in seeing through the material to the spiritual, in order to show the reader that which cannot be seen.