The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 55, "The Bard."

The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 55, "The Bard."

between 1797 and 1798
William Blake
1757–1827
Watercolor with pen and black ink, graphite and gouache on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream wove paper with inlaid letterpress page
Sheet: 16 1/2 x 12 3/4 inches (41.9 x 32.4 cm)

Thomas Gray’s poem “The Bard,” published in 1757, imagines a confrontation between the English conqueror Edward I and the last bard of Wales. Edward has ordered the Welsh bards put to death in order to suppress their telling of history. The Bard curses Edward and prophesies his ultimate defeat upon the return of Welsh rule, before throwing himself into the river Conway, a final act of defiance. The poem became extremely popular, helping to create an idea of Welsh mountains as synonymous with liberty.

In 1797 and 1798, the visionary artist William Blake created a series of exquisite illustrations to accompany Gray’s text. Some of the most vivid images highlight the narrative trajectory of the poem. The title page presents a composed Bard, draped in robes and holding his harp. As the poem progresses, the Bard develops a frenetic energy, his hair wild and his eyes lit with passion. The final page shows the Bard, barely colored, almost a force of nature, committing suicide in the Conwy.

B1992.8.11(28)
Inscribed in black ink upper right: "3"; in graphite upper center: "+ +"; on verso in black ink upper left: "4"; in graphite upper center: "2 x"; in graphite center: "1 X"
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection