Dramatis Personae

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 2 I N T R O D U C T I O N >  

“In the Moon, is a certain Island….”

William Blake’s An Island in the Moon, written c. 1784, is a spirited prose satire with extravagant dialogue and humorous as well as poignant songs and poems, three of which were used five years later in Songs of Innocence. The title comes from the first words of a 16-page manuscript that Blake never published and which ends abruptly, missing its last page or so. Blake was 27 years old, five years a professional engraver, two years married, and a new co-proprietor of a print-selling business, hoping, as he makes clear in Island, to make money and a reputation, but also, no doubt, to buy time for his other loves, poetry and painting. Blake was also the author of Poetical Sketches, songs and poems written primarily during his engraving apprenticeship, when he was a teenager. The printing of these early literary works in 1783 was sponsored by John Flaxman, the great English sculptor and classicist, and other friends who, like Blake and Mrs. Blake, attended the literary salon of Mrs. Mathew. Blake sang and read his songs and poems at these “most agreeable conversaziones” and, according to one participant, “was listened to by the company with profound silence, and allowed by most of the visitors to possess original and extraordinary merit.”

The characters and scenes parodied in Island are almost certainly drawn from the salon environment of Mrs. Mathew’s and the gatherings Blake and Mrs. Blake attended at the houses of his other friends. The boisterous Quid, one of three philosophers and a self-professed cynic, represents Blake himself. His name refers to money, specifically a pound, and is Latin for "what"--an inquisitive “what?” as well as an exclamatory "what!" He mocks everyone's ambition and vanity, including his own; Suction the Epicurean, also a philosopher, is based on his younger and much beloved brother Robert, who was 17 in 1784 and whom Blake was teaching to become an artist. Around the same age as Robert was William Henry Mathew, Mrs. Mathew’s son, who was the model for Sipsop the Pythagorean, the third philosopher. There has been much speculation on the identities or sources for the other characters. Obtuse Angle probably represents Thomas Taylor, the Platonist; Inflammable Gass represents either Joseph Priestley or William Nicholson, both of whom experimented with inflammable gases; Mrs. Gittipin may be based on Nancy Flaxman, wife of the artist, and Etruscan Column represents Rev. John Brand, the secretary of the Society of Antiquaries.


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