‘…A large proportion of the citizens, though assuming arms for the protection of themselves and their families had no desire of employing them against the royal authority; a much larger only united themselves with the insurgents, because, in a moment of universal agitation, they were the active and predominant party. Of these the former desired peace and protection; the latter, from habit and shame, must have soon deserted the side which was ostensibly conducted by ruffians and common stabbers, and drawn themselves to that which protected peace and good order. We have too good an opinion of a people so enlightened as those of France, too good an opinion of human nature in any country, to believe that men will persist in evil, if defended in their honest and legal rights.
What, in thin ease, was the duty of Louis XVI.? We answer without hesitation, that which George; III. of Britain proposed to himself, when, in the name of the Protestant religion, a violent and disorderly mob opened prisons, destroyed property, burned houses, and committed, though with far fewer symptoms of atrocity, the same course of disorder which now laid waste Paris…’
The text above comes from Sir Walter Scott’s “Life of Napoleon Bonaparte”. The British incident Scott refers to was the Gordon Riots, which today’s subject, poet William Blake, took part in. According to Michael Davis, in his “William Blake: a new kind of man”, ‘Blake, a revolutionary at heart, was in the front rank of the mob that surged down Holborn and stormed London’s oldest and largest prison, Newgate. Perhaps he got caught up in the crowd and was unwillingly carried along, or perhaps he actively joined it on its way to free not only the four rioters arrested a few nights before but also about three hundred other prisoners. By now the riots had become an incoherent revolt against authority, an outburst by the frustrated poor egged on by fanatics and criminals…
Blake’s view of the responsibility of society for the quality of life in his time, and for such an eruption as the Gordon Riots, is tersely expressed in his proverb: ‘Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion’… ’
William Blake was born on November 28, 1757, about fourteen years before Scott. He was twenty-two at the time of the riots.