Tyger, Tyger, Copper, Copper

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake, the brilliant British poet, published "The Tyger" in 1794 and it's always been one of my favorite poems. I studied him during a brief period when I thought I might want to be a poet, a career plan undone by the fact that I hated it when others actually read my poetry.

Blake, obviously, didn't have that problem. But he had plenty of others. He struggled for recognition during his lifetime. He was plagued by chronic illness and also by apparent hallucinations. He often talked of heavenly visions, the appearance of angels or of his dead brother.  In my poet days, my coffee house friends and I joined in speculations that he was spaced on drugs, perhaps opium,  when he created his etchings, his paintings of coiling dragons, or wrote of tigers in all their wild glory.

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

But during my recent audiobook giveaway of The Poisoner's Handbook, an astute reader of this blog steered me to a research paper suggesting that Blake was actually suffering from copper intoxication resulting from his work as an engraver. Blake worked almost exclusively with copper plates that he painstakingly etched with a solution of nitric acid.

In fact, he'd began such work - and a lifetime of copper exposure -  when he was apprenticed to an engraver at the age of 14.  Could this account for his visionary writing and art work, I wondered. Could those gleaming visions of celestial beings be merely a byproduct of breathing in the fumes of a reddish-gold metal?

There is, in fact, a condition called "metal fume fever", also known as the brass shakes. When metallic fumes are inhaled - such as those produced by applying acid to copper - a host of unpleasant symptoms result, including tremors, yellowed skin, chills, nausea, aches and fatigue. It's mostly associated though with heating metals such as zinc or chromium during soldering work.

Blake did suffer at the end of his life from constant chills and tremors and from a definite yellowing of the skin. But while the description of metal fume fever fits those symptoms, it's more a good reminder that, yes, high metal exposure is to be avoided. There's nothing to really suggest visionary art.

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

A copper (Cu) atom

Although copper is an essential trace element - we need a tiny amount daily -too much copper exposure - and this can be from metal contamination of water and food as well as by inhalation - can lead to severe liver and kidney damage, with symptoms including nausea, dizziness, severe headaches and, again, that yellowed look to the skin.

Trying to retroactively diagnose Blake's death at age 70 in 1827, scholarly physicians have speculated about a number of naturally occurring diseases of the bile ducts, the liver and the kidneys. His symptoms can be matched to such illnesses as well as to chronic copper poisoning. It might even be that a natural illness was aggravated by metal exposure. It could be, as my reader suggests, that his copper work killed him.

But it doesn't appear that copper intoxication adds anything to art, as I had wondered. None of this suggests poetic flights of fancy, nothing hints that copper might have inspired verse like this:

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

It may be that copper exposure contributed to his death. But the visions - and the genius - were all his.

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Possibly yellow skin came from the nitric acid, which has that effect. I've seen it "first hand."

By Richard Blaine (not verified) on 28 Mar 2010 #permalink

As implied, yellow skin burns on my hands when working with nitric acid (in the good ol' days when working with gloves was for wimps).

By Richard Blaine (not verified) on 04 Apr 2010 #permalink