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John Linnell was a noted engraver and painter of landscapes and portraits and one of the few men of his time to appreciate the artistry of the poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake, who was some three decades older, though he later erased sexual imagery from his drawings. Linnell gave Blake the two largest commissions he received for single series of designs—£150 for drawings and engravings of "The Inventions" to the "Book of Job," and a similar sum for illustrative of Dante Aligheri's "Divine Comedy." Though in his late 60s, Blake drafted 100 watercolours on the subject during a fortnight's illness in bed, though most of them were not colored and only seven were gilded. He continued on the series until the day of his death in 1827. He spent one of this last shillings on a pencil to continue sketching. After drawing a picture of his wife, he put down his tools and began to sing hymns. His friend George Richmond reported, "Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten'd and he burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven." Linnel loaned his widow money for his funeral. "The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides" may have been one of his final works. It is set in Circle VII, Ring II of Dante's Inferno (Canto XIII), in which the Italian poet and the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro traveled through a forest haunted by malign winged death-spirits with human heads and female breasts. Here the repellent harpies make their nests.... They have broad wings, a human neck and face,Clawed feet and swollen, feathered bellies; they cawTheir lamentations in the eerie trees. [tr. Robert Pinsky]In Dante's account, these harpies eat the leaves of oak trees in which the suicides are encased, thus denying eternal life and damning the soul to an eternity as a member of the restless living dead; as punishment for choosing suicide to express grief, the entrapped souls can only speak when its tree is damaged; and when the other blessed and damned souls regain their bodies at the Last Judgment, the suicides will not be reincorporated but will hang their bodies on their branches instead, because they denied them in their final act of life and to serve as a reminder of what they denied themselves. Blake portrayed Dante tearing a leaf from a bleeding tree and dropping it at the sound of a disembodied voice beseeching, "Wherefore tear'st me thus? Is there no touch of mercy in thy breast?" The tree holds the soul of Pietro della Vigna, a chancellor and secretary to the 13th century Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II until, jealous that Pietro was wealthier than he and concerned that he was a papal agent, Friedrich imprisoned him and had his eyes torn out; Pietro killed himself by beating his head against the dungeon wall. To the left of Dante and Vergilius a female hangs upside down, transformed into a tree, perhaps a reference to La Meretrice (Envy), whom Pietro blamed for his fall. In 1918 "The Wood of the Self-Murderers" was sold by Linnell's estate for £7,665 to the British National Art Collections Fund, which then gave it to the Tate Museum. As William Wordsworth commented about his contemporary, "There was no doubt that this poor man [Blake] was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."
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