William Blake’s "Laocoön"

Why the poet's engraving reads like a protest poster

Anahid Nersessian

Image Content Callouts

  • William Blake believed that the Laocoön statue had been copied from a sculpture in King Solomon’s temple, showing God flanked by his two sons, Satan and Adam. In Blake’s view, the original meaning of the image has been corrupted. It was not supposed to record an event from the Trojan War but rather pose a philosophical problem: How can we come to recognize that although we are mortal, our true nature is divine?
  • The two snakes represent good and evil. One of the most pernicious features of monotheism, according to Blake, was that it divided aspects of humanity into this binary. In fact, in Blake’s view, these are just the names we have been taught to give to the natural forces of contraction and expansion, restraint and freedom, form and energy. Without the productive collision of these two forces, no creation—and certainly no art—is possible.
  • Blake’s father was a hosier. At the time, it would have been typical for his son to follow in his professional footsteps. But by age fourteen, Blake had declined to go into the family business and begun to train as an engraver, a highly skilled profession that was increasingly threatened with obsolescence by the cheap, mass-produced prints that would soon dominate the market. In addition to making his own art, Blake also took on commercial work and commissions, which furnished the entirety of his income. His original compositions—beginning with Joseph of Arimathea, produced when he was just sixteen—went completely unnoticed in his lifetime, and he died in relative obscurity.
  • “Art can never exist without Naked Beauty displayed,” reads one of the slogans on the image. Blake’s human figures are often naked and always muscular, closely resembling those painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In his depiction of the human body, Blake was hugely influenced by the great artist of the Italian Renaissance; he began collecting prints of Michelangelo’s work when still a teenager, using whatever pocket money he had. This partly explains why Blake’s figures look the way they do: Michelangelo, like many artists of his time, used male models even when painting female bodies; many have remarked that Blake’s women look more like conventional representations of men. But there was more to it than that. Blake was convinced that sexual difference was an illusion, evidence that human beings had fallen—as in the Book of Genesis—from a state of higher, more integrated existence. His ambiguously sexed figures gesture toward a state beyond the gender binary, which he believed would have to be overcome before humankind could be truly free.
  • Under the snake at the right, the Hebrew letters spell out “Lilith,” a name that may be derived from a class of ancient Mesopotamian spirits called lilītu. In one Kabbalistic tradition, Lilith is Adam’s first wife. She refuses her husband’s attempts to dominate her, telling him that they are made of the same substance (earth) and are equals. When Adam refuses to capitulate, she flies into the air and disappears, and Adam is gifted with a new, more subservient wife named Eve. By carving Lilith’s name in the heart-shaped space between God and Adam, Blake may be trying to reinscribe feminine sexual agency and power within Judeo-Christian myth and to insist that without a recognition of equality between all persons, the relationship between God and his creatures is incomplete. Across his work, Blake argues for the erotic autonomy of women, particularly in the great poem Visions of the Daughters of Albion, in which a young girl rejects the stigma of having been sexually assaulted and embraces a polyamorous ideal of erotic emancipation.
  • There is no separating out Blake’s words from his images. As an engraver and visual artist, he thought of words as material objects, marks on the page that truly existed in the physical world. As a poet, he thought of images as arguments, and the pictorial elements of his work often push back against or complicate what we think the text is saying. In Laocoön, the phrases surrounding the central image, which is drawn from classical antiquity, pulls the ancient story of Laocoön and his sons into the present. Together, word and image suggest that the human calamity of war—and in particular the death of innocents—is at once an age-old problem and one that deserves new and intense attention in the modern era.
© The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

Welcome to A Closer Look, a new column at The Yale Review, in which we invite a writer to annotate a piece of art or an archival object. Mouse over the image and click on the blue circles to learn about the object’s history, provenance, and cultural relevance today.

William Blake began engraving Laocoön around 1815. The image, now on display in an exhibit of Blake’s work at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, depicts the marble sculpture known as Laocoön and His Sons, probably carved by three Greek artisans at some point between the second century BCE and the first century CE and found buried in a vineyard in Rome in 1506.

A decade after etching his image of the sculpture by hand, Blake returned to the plate to add the writing that now surrounds it: dozens of phrases articulating his radical philosophy of free love, economic equality, religious syncretism, and the necessity of placing art at the service of political revolution. Blake was also vehemently antiwar, and the resulting print, which expresses those sentiments, is uncannily contemporary, resembling a broadside or protest poster. Its combination of word and image is typical of Blake, as are statements like “Where any view of Money exists, Art cannot be carried out, but War only” and “The Whole Business of Man Is The Arts & All Things Common.”

The story of Laocoön, a Trojan priest, is a parable of the barbarity of war, most famously described in Virgil’s Aeneid. During the siege of Troy, Laocoön warns his fellow Trojans not to accept the offering of a giant wooden horse from the opposing army. Two serpents, likely sent by the goddess Athena to help the Greeks win the war, emerge from the sea and devour Laocoön and both his young children. As Virgil tells it, in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation:

At first each snake entwines the tiny bodies

Of his two sons in an embrace, then feasts

Its fangs on their defenseless limbs.

In a 1766 essay, the philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing hailed the statue as an example of art’s capacity to freeze and dilate a single moment in time—here, a moment of unfathomable pain from which it ought to be impossible to look away. I visited the Getty Center on October 18, 2023, a day after hundreds were killed at the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City. As I stood in front of Blake’s engraving, its phrases blurred and blinked against an image I had seen on the internet that morning of a man carrying the remains of his child in a plastic bag. I raised my phone, took a picture of Laocoön, and sent it to a friend. I added no words because I had none.

Originally published:
November 15, 2023


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