Index Bibliography

An Island in the Moon

Currently Available:

An Island in the Moon, c. 1784-85 (Fitzwilliam Museum): electronic edition

Dates are the probable dates of composition.

Perhaps drawing on a literary tradition of moon-voyage or flight narratives, Blake sets the earliest extended manifestation of his penchant for satire "In the Moon" on a "certain Island" with "some affinity to England" (object 1, page 1, Erdman page 449), which provides the domestic settings—study, parlor, garden—for a boisterous sendup of middle class London social and intellectual life distilled into eleven brief chapters of "Great confusion & disorder" (object 10). The use of dialogue interspersed with song lyrics links An Island in the Moon to both contemporary theatrical forms and broader eighteenth-century traditions of satirical narrative. Blake’s experiences in the London social circle of the Rev. A. S. Mathew and his wife Harriet in the 1780s may be the main inspiration for these mocking reflections, which feature impertinent, passionate, confrontational characters, some if not all derived from Blake’s contemporaries. The philosopher-trio Suction the Epicurean, Quid the Cynic (perhaps Robert and William Blake), and Sipsop the Pythagorean join such companions as Inflammable Gass the Wind Finder, Obtuse Angle, and Mrs. Nannicantipot in a swirl of idle gossip, recitation, rude joking, drunken singing, and passionate wrangling about topics of current interest: "Fissic Follogy, Pistinology[,] . . . Hogamy HAtomy, & hall that" (object 5). The resulting disarray, bordering on farce —"O ay come Ill sing you a song said the Cynic. the trumpeter shit in his hat said the Epicurean" (object 3) — is a self-undermining scramble that deflates nearly every pretense to lyricism or serious thought. Blake, writing in his mid to late 20s, demonstrates a born satirist’s instincts for the ridiculous. Though satire is never entirely absent from the illuminated books, only in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) is it the dominant mode. An Island in the Moon underscores the importance of the extensive stretches of humor and satire that show up frequently among his other writings. So, although Blake left it orphaned, untitled, and unfinished in a heavily revised manuscript, Island is in some sense a primary literary experiment for him, setting the undertone of much to follow.

Island is an incomplete manuscript written in pen and ink in Blake’s hand. It notably contains the earliest extant drafts of "Nurse’s Song," "HOLY THURSDAY," and "The Little Boy Lost," which make their first published appearance in his Songs of Innocence (1789). The history of Blake’s associations with the Mathew circle, along with topical allusions to balloon hats—a short-lived fashion associated with early demonstrations of ballooning—and the performing monkey General Jacko, suggest a period of composition c. 1784-85. Before the manuscript was given to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1905, two or more leaves may have been removed, stranding the passage (". . . them Illuminating the Manuscript . . .") that begins abruptly on object 17. The contents of a final page of lettering and rough sketches (object 18) seem unrelated to the text of Island. The sketches and lettering on the verso of object 18 may reflect Robert Blake's attempts to draw subjects that had been set as exercises for him by older brother William, and, in some instances, corrected by one of them (see the Object Note under Editors' Notes for object 18). For more details about the entire manuscript, see Work Information, available from each object view page.

Related Works

Related works currently available in the William Blake Archive appear as links below. Works not currently available appear as plain text.

  • "The Little Boy Lost," plate 13 in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Innocence and of Experience
    Relief etching and some white-line etching, 1789. Bentley 139, plate 13.
  • "HOLY THURSDAY," plate 19 in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Innocence and of Experience
    Relief etching and some white-line etching, 1789. Bentley 139, plate 19.
  • "Nurse's Song," plate 24 in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Innocence and of Experience
    Relief etching and some white-line etching, 1789. Bentley 139, plate 24.