BLAKE, William (1757-1827) - BLAIR, Robert (1699-1746). The Grave. A Poem. London: T. Bensley for R.H. Cromek, 1808

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Large 4to., (14 x 11 4/8 inches). Etched portrait frontispiece of Blake by Louis Schiavonetti after T. Phillips, additional etched title-page and 11 plates by Schiavonetti after Blake. Modern full crushed brown morocco, gilt by Bayntun of Bath (head of the spine chipped with loss, hinges a bit weak).

Provenance: with the small library label of Estelle Doheny on the front paste-down.

'The Grave accorded with the Post-Enlightenment vogue of melancholy' (Simpson, 11).


First edition with illustrations after Blake, who was commissioned by the engraver and would-be publisher Robert H. Cromek to illustrate Robert Blair's poem: "Blake quickly produced about twenty designs for 'the insignificant sum of one guinea each' (Smith in Bentley, Records, 464). Fifteen were selected for Blake to engrave, as Cromek announced in a November prospectus. Blake etched one design, Death's Door, as an example; Cromek exhibited it, along with the drawings, at his shop. The darkly reticulated white-line etching proved so out of step with contemporary tastes that Cromek soon hired the fashionable engraver Louis Schiavonetti to engrave all twelve designs actually published" (Robert N. Essick for DNB).

Blair worked slowly on 'The Grave', which he had begun while living in Edinburgh. "The long genesis of the poem probably resulted from an extreme care not so much born out of perfectionism as out of wariness on the part of Blair, due to a Calvinist cultural climate in Scotland that was only very slowly changing so as to accommodate poetry. The advance of the evangelical revival in Britain in the 1740s licensed the often gloomy, emotional excess that Blair poured into his religious poem and spurred its author to seek publication. In 1742 the poem was finished and Blair sent the manuscript to the great hymnist Dr Isaac Watts, who attempted, unsuccessfully, to interest two London booksellers in publishing it. In 1743 with the help of another English divine, Dr Philip Doddridge, Blair succeeded in having 'The Grave' published in quarto and it enjoyed an instantly huge vogue.

"As one commentator has noted, 'The Grave accorded with the Post-Enlightenment vogue of melancholy' (Simpson, 11). Along with Edward Young's 'Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality' (1742-5), Blair's poem initiated a fashion for 'mortuary poems' and Young himself had been inspired to continue in his own, longer project by the success of Blair's work. Blair's poetry is a harbinger of the literary cult of sentiment and paves the way for the melancholy writing of such proto-Romantic writers as Thomas Gray and James Macpherson. The repeated publication of 'The Grave' also afforded the opportunity for one of the great Romantic artists, William Blake, to provide illustrations for it in 1808" (Gerard Carruthers for DNB).