William Blake (Symons)/Extract from Varley's Zodiacal Physiognomy


John Varley, astrologer and water-colour painter, was introduced to Blake by Linnell, and it was for him that Blake did the 'visionary heads' described by Allan Cunningham, p. 420 below. 'The Ghost of a Flea' exists in both forms described by Varley, in a sketch of the head (which he reproduces, engraved by Linnell, in a plate at the end of his book, together with two other heads in outline), and in a full-length picture in tempera. The passage which follows is taken from pp. 54, 55 of 'A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy; illustrated with engravings of heads and features; accompanied by tables of the times of rising of the twelve signs of the Zodiac; and containing also new and astrological explanation of some remarkable portions of Ancient Mythological History.' By John Varley. London: Printed for the Author, 1828.]


With respect to the vision of the Ghost of the Flea, seen by Blake, it agrees in countenance with one class of people under Gemini, which sign is the significator of the Flea; whose brown colour is appropriate to the colour of the eyes in some full-toned Gemini persons. And the neatness, elasticity, and tenseness of the Flea are significant of the elegant dancing and fencing sign Gemini. This spirit visited his imagination in such a figure as he never anticipated in an insect. As I was anxious to make the most correct investigation in my power, of the truth of these visions, on hearing of this spiritual apparition of a Flea, I asked him if he could draw for me the resemblance of what he saw: he instantly said, 'I see him now before me,' I therefore gave him paper and a pencil, with which he drew the portrait, of which a facsimile is given in this number. I felt convinced by his mode of proceeding that he had a real image before him, for he left off, and began on another part of the paper to make a separate drawing of the mouth of the Flea, which the spirit having opened, he was prevented from proceeding with the first sketch, till he had closed it. During the time occupied in completing the drawing, the Flea told him that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of such men as were by nature blood-thirsty to excess, and were therefore providentially confined to the size and form of insects; otherwise, were he himself, for instance, the size of a horse, he would depopulate a great portion of the country. He added, that if in attempting to leap from one island to another, he should fall into the sea, he could swim, and should not be lost. This spirit afterwards appeared to Blake, and afforded him a view of his whole figure; an engraving of which I shall give in this work.