Thursday, September 9, 2010

Poisoned by Art: The Chemical Life and Death of William Blake

by Deborah Blum

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake, the brilliant British poet, published "The Tyger" in 1794 and it's always been one of my favorite poems. I studied him during a brief period when I thought I might want to be a poet, a career plan undone by the fact that I disliked having my poems read by others, an attitude that caused me real problems in my college poetry class.

Blake, obviously, didn't have that problem. But he had plenty of others. He struggled for recognition during his lifetime. He was plagued by chronic illness and also by apparent hallucinations. He often talked of heavenly visions, the appearance of angels or of his dead brother. In my poet days, my coffee house friends and I joined in speculations that he was spaced on drugs, perhaps opium, when he created his etchings, his paintings of coiling dragons, or wrote of tigers in all their wild glory.

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

I rarely dwell among the metaphysical poets these days, having spent most of my post-college days writing about science, a subject that I'm happy to share with others. This year, after publishing a book called The Poisoner's Handbook, I've spent most of my time continuing to look into the ways we kill each other with chemicals. Yet, curiously, that led me back to William Blake. I discovered a research paper suggesting that Blake's death might have been caused by copper poisoning -- sometimes called copper intoxication - resulting from his work as an engraver.

During the year, I'd developed a certain fascination with the unexpected toxicity of valuable metals. In a previous post here, in fact, I explored the possible poisoning by gold of the powerful mistress of the French King. I decided to take a closer look at the role that copper exposure could have played in the life, and possibly death, of William Blake.

Much of Blake's income derived not from his poetry but from his work as one of the most able engravers of his time. To that end, he worked almost exclusively with copper plates that he painstakingly etched with a solution of nitric acid. In fact, he'd began such work -- and a lifetime of copper exposure -- when he was apprenticed to an engraver at the age of 14. Could this account for his visionary writing and art work, I wondered. Could those gleaming visions of celestial beings be merely a byproduct of breathing in the fumes of a red-gold metal?

There is, in fact, a condition called "metal fume fever", also known as the brass shakes. When metallic fumes are inhaled -- such as those produced by applying acid to copper -- a host of unpleasant symptoms result, including tremors, yellowed skin, chills, nausea, aches and fatigue. It's mostly associated though with heating metals such as zinc or chromium during soldering work.

Blake did suffer at the end of his life from constant chills and tremors and from a definite yellowing of the skin.

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

Although copper is an essential trace element -- we need a tiny amount daily -- too much copper exposure -- and this can be from metal contamination of water and food as well as by inhalation --can lead to severe liver and kidney damage, with symptoms including nausea, dizziness, severe headaches and, again, that yellowed look to the skin.

Trying to retroactively diagnose Blake's death at age 70 in 1827, scholarly physicians have speculated about a number of naturally occurring diseases of the bile ducts, the liver and the kidneys. His symptoms can be matched to such illnesses as well as to chronic copper poisoning. It might even be that a natural illness was aggravated by metal exposure. It could have been made worse, of course, by exposure to the acids used for etching.

Could such chemical exposure also explain Blake's claims that his work was influenced by celestial visions? There's nothing to suggest that copper aids in spiritual insights, that metal fume fever includes hallucinations involving saints, or invokes visionary poetry.

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Blake's work as a copper engraver -- he famously scorned oil paints in favor of his elegant etchings -- may indeed shaped his life -- have made him ill, more moody, more philosophical perhaps in his ideas of existence. But the chemistry of genius, whatever that may be? That was uniquely his.


KM said...

Reminds me of this:

Kathryn Casey said...

Love Blake's writings, Deborah, especially that particular poem. Fascinating post.