Rediscovering William ‘Hurricane’ Gilbert: A Lost Voice of Revolution and Madness in the Worlds of Blake and the Romantics

Paper presented at BARS Conference on ‘Romantic Revelations’, University of Keele (July 1999)
© Marsha Keith Schuchard 2005, all rights reserved


1 In spring 1796, while living in Bristol, the youthfully radical Coleridge invited an eccentric writer to contribute to his journal The Watchman. Though the essay on ‘The Commercial Academic’ was once attributed to Davies Giddy, it is now recognized that its author was William Gilbert, who also contributed a ‘Fragment by a West Indian’, passages from his unpublished poem The Hurricane. [1] Coleridge edited Gilbert’s lines to form a brief conversation poem in the manner of his own ‘Eolian Harp’ and ‘Reflections on Leaving a Place of Retirement’:

Near where with Tropic heats bright CANCER glows,
And Sun-beams glitter with perennial force;
Girt by the azure wave an Island lies,
Called by Spaniards, ANTIENT.
The balmy East here holds perpetual sway,
And blows salubrious to the toil-worn Slave.
The Eastern Shore receives the welcome Gale,
And leads to Caverns, or the brow of rocks;
To gravel banks with glitt'ring Shell-fish strew'd,
To deep-green Mangrove, or the shadowing branch
Of lofty Cedar, dropping blossoms white,
That tremble as they fall, and meet the wave
Progressive to their root. Here, oft at Eve,   
When length'ning shadows to the calmy wave
Shot dubious twilight and alluring gloom,
I've sat contemplative—and viewed the breeze
Checquer the water, with far-streaming light
That glistened as with gems: I've sat and thought
That all the hopes attending various man,
Were robbers of his rest; I've thought that Love
Was all the sum indulgent Heaven e'er meant
To form our Bliss. I thought so and was blest. [2]

Despite the serene eloquence of the passage, Coleridge was troubled by the combination of genius and madness in his friend Gilbert. On 17 December 1796, he sent the recently published Hurricane to John Thelwall, with this comment:

—A strange Poem written by an Astrologer here, who was a man of fine Genius, which, at intervals, he still discovers.—But, ah me! Madness smote with her hand, and stamped with her feet and swore that he should be her’s—& her’s he is.—He is a man of fluent Eloquence & general knowlege, gentle in his manners, warm in his affections; but unfortunately he has received a few rays of supernatural Light thro' a crack in his upper story. I express myself unfeelingly; but indeed my heart always achs when I think of him. [3]

2 As we shall see, Southey, Wordsworth, and Keats also admired Gilbert’s poetic gifts, but they were curiously reticent about Gilbert’s life in London, where he lived between his two residencies in Bristol. It is possible that they were genuinely ignorant about Gilbert’s career as a radical astrologer and Freemason in London (1788-1795), or they were sufficiently alarmed by his revolutionary activities to suppress their knowledge of his other life. However, as the editor of The Hurricane facsimile observes, ‘The crack in the poet’s “upper story”, like that in Blake’s more distinguished cranium, receives its “supernatural light” as a refraction of Swedenborg’s “theosophy”.’ [4] In order to rediscover William Gilbert, it will be necessary to dig into the occultist underworld of Blake’s Swedenborgian milieu in Lambeth and London. In the process, it will become clear that Gilbert provided a direct link between the radical urban world of Blake and the revolutionary natural environment of the Romantics.

3 Born in Antigua in the West Indies, Gilbert (1760-1825?) was the son of Nathaniel Gilbert, a wealthy plantation owner and speaker of the House of Assembly. [5] Though the Gilberts had long been slave-holders, Nathaniel was convinced by John Wesley in 1758 that the slaves should be educated and converted to Christianity. A re-born Gilbert returned to Antigua, where his eloquent and courageous preaching won over hundreds of slaves to Methodism. According to Southey, ‘This conduct drew upon him contempt, or compassion, according as it was imputed to folly, or insanity’—words predictive of later reactions to Nathaniel’s son William. [6] After Nathaniel’s death, the preaching was carried on by African women, one of whom married William’s cousin Francis and became a distinguished abolitionist writer. [7] This family background of radical, unconventional beliefs shaped the young William’s own heterodox ideas. Though Gilbert’s recent editor observes that ‘little is known about his life’ before he came to England to train as a barrister, Gilbert actually revealed much about himself in the pages of The Conjuror’s Magazine, published in London in 1791-93, as an organ of radical Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry. By linking the correspondent ‘B’, code name for Gilbert, with the poetic friend of Coleridge and Southey, we begin to suspect that the latter’s silence about the astrologer’s activities in London was deliberate. Moreover, like his close neighbour and Swedenborgian colleague Blake, Gilbert ran real risks with the law as he articulated his radical theosophical vision.

4 In the July 1793 issue of Conjuror’s Magazine, Gilbert revealed that he entered the royal navy in February 1779 and served nearly three years, during which he visited New York and Charleston, South Carolina. [8] Returning to Antigua in 1783 (‘the year of American peace’), he served as clerk to the Assembly before leaving for England to train as a barrister (ca. 1784). Then, according to Joseph Cottle, Gilbert went to Portsmouth, where he defended a victim of military court marshal and, upon losing the case, became deranged:

In the year 1787, a want of self-control having become painfully evident, he was placed by his friends in the Asylum of Mr. Richard Henderson, at Hanham, near Bristol, when I first knew him. He occasionally accompanied John Henderson into Bristol, on one of which occasions, he introduced him to my brother and myself, as the ‘Young Counsellor!’,.. Many and great talkers have I known, but William Gilbert, at this time, exceeded them all. His brain seemed to be in a state of boiling effervescence, and his tongue, with inconceivable rapidity, passed from subject to subject, but with an incoherence that was to me, at least, marvellous...

He continued in the Asylum about a year, when his mind being partially restored, his friends removed him, and he wholly absented himself from Bristol, till the year 1796, when he re-appeared in that city.[9]

5 Cottle’s account gives a clue to where Gilbert went in 1788, for John Henderson (who died in November that year) was an ardent student of Swedenborg and other mystics. [10] The eulogist at Henderson’s funeral was William Agutter, an admirer of Swedenborg, who later became minister at the Asylum for Female Orphans in Lambeth (where Blake and the non-sectarian Swedenborgians often met). [11] Gilbert evidently met another Swedenborgian astrologer, Ebenezer Sibly, who introduced him to the ‘irregular’ (i.e., occultist) Freemasons in Bristol. [12] In 1788-89 both men moved from Bristol to London, where Gilbert took up residence on the Bridge Roads in Lambeth, just a short walk from Blake’s home in the Hercules Buildings. [13] From Gilbert’s later references to Swedenborg and his partisans in the Conjuror’s Magazine, it is clear that he frequented their meetings and read their publications. Like Blake, he became disillusioned with the more prudish and conservative Swedenborgians (who met at the Great Eastcheap Chapel) but found sympathetic colleagues among the radical Swedenborgian Illuminés (who met in Masonic lodges, private homes, and at the Lambeth Asylum). [14] However, there is no more evidence of Gilbert’s activities until he appears in the pages of the occultist magazine.

6 In July 1791 various newspapers reported that Ebenezer Sibly had defeated the government’s effort to suppress his astrological and occult publications. On 4 July, The Gloucester Journal expressed its pleasure that the second edition of Sibly’s New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences would now be printed in sixty weekly numbers:

... the cabal, formed on purpose to cry down this interesting book, hath been defeated, and driven from every argument set up against it.—The Act of Parliament, by which the work was at first suppressed, has since been repealed.

The Journal subsequently explained that ‘the work was at first suppressed, under an idea that it discovered secrets dangerous to be known.’ [15] Sibly’s book was dedicated to the Grand Master of the Freemasons and it revealed his friendship with John Henderson, the abolitionist Methodists (including James Gilbert), and the Swedenborgians. It was his radical interpretations of the astrological charts of George Washington and the American and French revolutionaries that alarmed Pitt’s government.

7 Sibly’s success in defeating the attempted suppression inspired his occultist friends to launch the Conjuror’s Magazine in August 1791. Published by Henry Lemoine, a French Huguenot and self-educated hack writer, the magazine catered to the growing demand for anti-government, astrological, magical, and millenarian literature. [16] Lemoine persuaded (or was persuaded by) Henry Fuseli to reprint Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy in a cheap, serialized edition. Fuseli’s motives are obscure, but it seems likely that he hoped to sabotage Thomas Holcroft’s rival edition. Blake had worked closely with Fuseli on his translation of Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man (1788), and he engraved a plate for the Fuseli-supervised edition of Hunter’s translation of the Essays on Physiognomy (1788). Thus, Blake must have been aware of and sympathetic to Fuseli’s ‘public-spirited’ gesture of making Lavater available to a popular audience. However, in order to save money, Fuseli’s designs of Lavater’s physiognomic heads were engraved by Barlow, the most mediocre of the artists who worked on the deluxe editions. Among contributors to the magazine were Lemoine’s friend Richard Cosway (‘R.C.’); the Swedenborgian Masons Ebenezer Sibly, his brother Manoah Sibly, and George Adams; the Masonic magician Katterfelto; the Rosicrucian Francis Barrett (‘F.B.’); and—most importantly—William Gilbert (‘B.’). [17]

8 In the September issue, the frontispiece was Fuseli’s ‘Head of Satan’, while Gilbert announced his forthcoming ‘Essay on Magic.’ In October, Fuseli contributed a ‘Head of St. John’, while Gilbert presented Agrippa’s chart of Hebrew names (from which Blake had earlier taken the names Tiriel, Zazel, and Bne Seraphim). [18] As a preface to the chart, Gilbert expounded learnedly on the theory and practice of magic—in a discourse that sheds light on Blake’s own ‘illuminated’ theories. Because the Conjuror’s Magazine has become a rare work, it will be useful to give a lengthy extract of Gilbert’s theosophy:

... The macrocosm, or great world, corresponds, nerve to nerve, and joint to joint, with the microcosm or little world... This is answer enough for all the impudent trash and lies of the Hemi-cyclopedias on the present subject [magic and magnetism], for this wise century past. ‘Seeking to be wise, they became fools.’ St. Paul.


... No divination is perfect without astrology... But astrology has of late been considered merely as giving an intimation of future events; so, that her grand office of gate-keeper or usher to magic, (viz. the action of the mind, as walking, speaking or embracing, is the action of the body) has been forgotten.


... Now, there arises another distinction, spiritual magic and natural magic... no part of a man, internal or external, can exist without its own proper spirit. ................................................

... It must be remembered, that as man is three-fold, so are his members; that is, there is a spiritual, innermost or remotest, a natural or external, and a medium between these two extents, viz. an internal... Mr. Swedenborg, before me, has very elaborately explained this in his ‘Treatise of the Holy Scripture.’


... The ancients felt the seat of their strength to be in mind; they invigorated as they spiritualised; they expressed their idea of strength by the seat of the most subtle spirits, the nerves; they enlarged, they grew firm as they approach divinity...


   The class I am now with, Magicians, do not in religion as chymists in spirituals, speculatively deny its possibility or sneer at its principles... As a parallel to these, are those mystics, nay even receivers of Swedenborg, whose practice has been hugging the ground like a worm, while their intellect has been basking in some of the brightest beams of divine splendors.


   The putting the mind of man into motion by the deepest or most efficacious or most mental means, which the person can devise, is spiritual Magic Practical; the devising or knowledge of these means is spiritual Magic speculative or scientific.

   As man embraces in his form (that of God) the forms, and consequently the principles or spirits of all creation, it follows that, when these springs are touched in him, they are touched in all creation. Hence at his fall, at the moment that his mind ceased to be the garden of GOD, the ground brought forth thorns and brambles: hence at his renewal in peace and love, ‘the wolf shall dwell with the lamb.’... Therefore the true magician is the true christian... (CM I,77-79). [19]

9 In the same issue, Gilbert contributed a politically daring account of ‘the singular life and fate of Count Cagliostro’, who was currently suffering in an Inquisition prison in Italy. I argue elsewhere that Blake admired Cagliostro, who was currently the subject of vicious attacks from the conservative press. [20] Under the title ‘Rosycrucian Philosophy’, Gilbert asserted that ‘it is well known’ that Cagliostro was the friend of a German Count who was a Rosicrucian (evidently the Comte de St. Germain, a crypto-Jewish alchemist), and that the fraternity is also called the Illuminati. (p. 85). [21] Since Edmund Burke (whom Gilbert later scorns), had warned about Illuminatist infiltration of English Freemasonry, this identification was risky for an avowedly Rosicrucian magazine. [22] Even worse for the conservative faction of Swedenborgians, Gilbert claimed that ‘the society forming this branch of the sect is now held at Avignon.’ This revelation of links between the Swedenborg society in London and the lodge of Illuminés at Avignon would provoke government suspicion about the loyalist group at Eastcheap as well as the more radical Swedenborgian Masons. In November, the magazine featured a biography of ‘the Celebrated Mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg’ (CM I,130).

10 However, by January 1792, Gilbert was skirting close to the limits of seditious publication, when he wrote ‘Cagliostro to Triumph as a Freemason.’ After painting a sympathetic portrait of the Cabalistic magician who was charged with fomenting the French Revolution, Gilbert concluded:

The Free Masons are the only Corporation, whether under the name of a church, a nation, or a society, who have melted the knowledge of God the Creator possessed by the Antients into the same fire with the knowledge of a Redeemer given to Christians. May they shine with invigorated glories! They shall! And shall give Rome the blow, it has always suspected and feared from their hands. As far as Cagliostro is a Free Mason, he shall revenge and triumph (CM I,187).

Gilbert defended Cagliostro’s system of Egyptian theosophy and brandished the capitalized slogan, ‘LIBERTY IS SOLIDITY.’ That this issue featured Fuseli’s design of ‘The Magician Balaam’, which was ‘purposely engraved for this work’, suggests Fuseli’s continuing interest in Cagliostro, whose occultist collaboration with Lavater had received wide publicity.

11 Becoming increasingly reckless, Gilbert predicted in December 1791 the coming downfall of European kings, and he pointed especially to Gustav III of Sweden, who planned to lead the counter-revolutionary armies against France: ‘The Head of Sweden [will be] drowned cruelly’(CM I,144).  After Gustav was assassinated in March, it was widely speculated that the Swedenborgian Masons—including the Swedes who were then resident in London—had collaborated in the plot. In fact, the inside knowledge revealed by an April article on the Swedish assassination, coupled with Gilbert’s description of the damned Gustav in Hell, suggests his contact with those Swedish Illuminés accused of conspiracy (CM I,382,396-97). Gilbert also mocked Pitt, the Duke of Richmond (later Blake’s great enemy), Sir George Yonge, and ‘any tottering German despot’ who opposed the French—thus risking prosecution for insulting King George III.

12 During this month of radical pronouncements, Gilbert moved from Blake’s neighbourhood in Lambeth to #11, Devonshire Street, Queen-Square. He apparently sought a more convenient address to accommodate his plan to establish a secret occult society, which he announced in February 1792:

   I have for a considerable time, had it in contemplation to establish a Weekly Lecture or Conversationi for the occult sciences and true philosophy; but the want of a proper basis in the public mind has delayed it.

   I would indeed establish two societies—one more open, the other more consolidated: the last should be of renovated, purified, and invigorated Free Masonry, from which I will not exclude women... Mr. Locke will keep a book for Subscribers (CM I,220).

Unfortunately, Locke’s register has not been located, but it is certainly possible that Blake was associated with Gilbert’s secret society. [23] By this time, Conjuror’s Magazine had developed an enormous circulation, which meant that it fell under the same kind of scrutiny given to Paine’s Rights Of Man and other ‘seditious’ publications aimed at a popular audience.

13 In March 1792, while the editor boasted of his collaboration with a French occult journal, Gilbert referred to his plans to organize ‘Country Societies’ (which would sound ominously like corresponding societies to the government) (CM I,336). In May he gave a detailed plan for his network of magical societies:

Proposals for instructing Pupils in Spiritual Knowledge, including a Plan for commencing Societies or Colleges for receiving instruction.

Mr. William Gilbert will teach Astrology and Spirit, with the nature and use of Talismans...


As there are many excellent treatises in the Latin tongue on Astrology and Magic, Mr. Gilbert will also instruct any Lady in that language, in order to promote her better knowledge of Spirit and Astrology...

Societies.—To accommodate the lowest class, Mr. Gilbert will instruct any number of persons from three to twelve...    (CM I,400)

By the word ‘Spirit’, Gilbert probably meant necromancy or evocation of the spirits of the dead—a magical art practised by Blake since the death of his brother in 1787. [24]

14 Gilbert’s radicalism now caused increasing alarm among the more moderate Swedenborgians who contributed to the magazine. In May the editor announced, ‘We esteem ourselves highly favored by Mr. Adams; his observations and strictures shall be attended to... proper attention has been paid to his remarks’ (CM I,400). George Adams, who served as mathematical instrument maker to the Prince of Wales, was a Swedenborgian and student of the occult, but he shared the growing political conservatism of the Eastcheap faction. [25] From this point forward, though the magazine maintained its Whiggish perspective, its astrological predictions would favor George III. [26] In October 1792 the editors praised Adams as a ‘mathematician in Fleet Street, who is a great admirer of the Theosophists’ (CM II,66).  However, by November, even the moderate Adams became an object of government suspicion, for the magazine reported that he was examined, with eighteen others, at Bow Street(CM II,143).

15 Meanwhile, a former neighbour of Gilbert began a friendly rivalry in astrological interpretations.  William Elder (‘W.E.’) of ‘22 Kendall Place, near Lambeth Walk’, was praised in June 1792 as ‘our worthy friend at Lambeth’ (CM I,404,432-33). It is possible that Elder was the ‘W.E.’ for whom Blake later colored a copy of Night Thoughts in 1797. [27] Another neighbour and friend of Blake, John Augustus Tulk (of Kennington Lane, Vauxhall), was probably the ‘J.T.’ who contributed a nativity of Swedenborg in January 1793. In April 1793 Ebenezer Sibly (‘Mercurius’) praised Gilbert’s work, while his brother Manoah Sibly sent in nativities of his twin children (CM II,320,370). Manoah, a Swedenborgian minister who also worked as a court-reporter, probably supplied the gossipy news on current trials, libels, and scandals. His expertise in short-hand would later be utilized by the London Corresponding Society, when it defended members during the treason trials of 1794.

16 Though the editors continued to complain about shackles on the press, government placemen and spies, and the folly of going to war against France, Gilbert went beyond their parameters of dissent. In May 1793 he claimed that the Duchess of York, daughter of Frederick William II of Prussia and wife of George III’s second son, had a passion for chiromancy or divination by hand:

... Her royal father has been celebrated as an illuminé, and there is great affinity between the characters.

   The Princess Royal is said to be a deep student in astrology; in which she perseveres, notwithstanding the advice of Mr. Best to the contrary (CM II,404).

George Adams and the conservative Swedenborgians had earlier lamented the influence of the radical prophet, Samuel Best (‘Poor Help’) on the royal family. [28] At a time when the Duke of York was back-pedaling from his earlier radicalism and association with illuminist Freemasonry, the characterization of his wife as an Illuminé and astrologer would have greatly annoyed George III and Prime Minister Pitt. [29]

17 By July 1793, Gilbert’s revolutionary predictions and political indiscretions went too far—even for the Whig editors. In that month, he lamented the apparent betrayal of his former friend William Elder: ‘how came W.E. to be my open enemy in this Magazine, both personally and as to France?’ (CM II,518). As Michael Phillips shows, the inhabitants of Lambeth were now subject to intense pressure to spy on their neighbors and report any radicals to the government. [30]   In a defensive move against Elder’s criticism, Gilbert revealed biographical details of his earlier service in the royal navy and hinted at his friendship with the Duke of Gloucester, brother of George III and uncle of the Duke of York:

... [Prince William of Gloucester] has followed me every where—into the navy, to New York, on board the Warwick, to Antigua, the place of my birth, to England again, and now to friendship with France. Besides this, he was always a favourite with me.(CM II,517)

18 Though Gilbert’s characterization of the Duchess of York as an Illuminé was certainly reckless, his claim that the Duke of Gloucester currently maintained his friendly attitude to France was asking for trouble. Gloucester had long been associated with illuminist Freemasonry, and he continued to share occult studies with Cosway, Loutherbourg, and other Swedenborgian Masons. [31] Moreover, he kept up a secret correspondence with a prominent Illuminé in Lyons, France, whose Cagliostroan ritual he tried to introduce into English Masonry. Though he ended the risky correspondence when England declared war on France in January 1793, Gloucester remained a student of Swedenborg and theosophical Masonry until his death in 1805. Following his comments on Gloucester, Gilbert praised Swedenborg’s ‘Canon for the Apocalypse’ and linked the Swede’s pronouncements on ‘the consummation of the old, and commencement of the New and Eternal’ with revolutionary developments in France.

19 Gilbert linked his Swedenborgian commentary with a proud assertion that he had earlier sent the editor a prediction that 14 July would mark the end of counter-revolutionary victories. Now, as reports reached London of the assassination of Marat on that day, he was triumphantly proven right. Though Gilbert admired Marat as an enlightened republican, he argued that his former hero had achieved too much power:

His death bears thus; the French have lost their Archangel but not their God—consequently, there is now no medium between them and their God, and they cease to be vincible. ... It was then a proud and auspicious day for the Republic when he fell—for now, no individual among them, but yet the aggregate, possesses his zeal. The fire now has the benefit of diffusion without dissipation, and while it has lost locality retains its heat, and is, to its extremes, a furnace. (CM II,518)

With a prediction that ‘the allies will not continue to triumph till September; their neck is broken already’, Gilbert sang his swan song in the Conjuror’s Magazine. In August 1793, the title was changed to The Astrologer’s Magazine and the editor Lemoine evidently sold it to another publisher. Though the magazine continued to praise the English reformers—such as Priestley, Walker, Eaton, Muir, and Palmer—it no longer catered to the Swedenborgian Illuminés.

20 Once Gilbert disappeared from the occultist magazine, little is known of his activities until he appeared in Bristol in early 1796. [32] There his old friend Cottle introduced him to Southey and Coleridge, then in their pro-revolutionary phase. Gilbert had worked for a long time on his poem, The Hurricane: a Theosophical and Western Eclogue, for he referred earlier to its theme in the Conjuror’s Magazine of March 1792 (CM I,341). In the poem, he revealed that he was still in London in 1794, when he saw an exhibition of a dried mermaid in Oxford Street. [33] He also followed the career of the prophet Richard Brothers, who proclaimed himself Prince of the Hebrews in 1794 and promised to lead the Jews back to Jerusalem. However, Gilbert did not accept Brothers' pretensions, and he criticized his former illuminist colleagues, ‘the highest and wisest of you’, who became ‘the staring dupes of any Brothers who cries, Hark! To Jerusalem!’ (H, 93n.K). Like Blake and Fuseli, he admired the radical Rosicrucianism of Erasmus Darwin’s poetry, and he despised the conservative mathematicism of Isaac Newton’s partisans.

21 However, it is his continuing praise of Swedenborg and his utilization of Swedenborg’s belief in ‘illuminated’ Africans that suggests the possibility that Gilbert was in contact with Blake in the lost years of 1793-95. Like Blake, Gilbert was struck by Swedenborg’s argument that there was an interior community of Africans, whose virile potency made them capable of spiritual influx and angelic communication. Gilbert followed the efforts of the Swedish abolitionists to found a Swedenborgian colony in Africa, and he was aware of the timidly compromising changes made by the Sierra Leone Company to the original illuminist proposals (CM I,383). Blake drew on Swedenborgian themes in ‘The Little Black Boy’ (1789), and he addressed the slavery issue in Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), as well as in his engravings for John Stedman’s narrative of his experiences with slavery in the West Indies. [34] In successive works—America (1793), Europe (1794), and The Song of Los (1795)—Blake developed an occultist, radical myth of the interrelationship of the continents that bore a striking resemblance to the myth developed in Gilbert’s Hurricane. There may well have been a mutual influence.

22 In 1796, after Coleridge printed fragments of The Hurricane, he persuaded Gilbert to publish the whole. In his Preface, Gilbert explained that the poem ‘is grounded on, a Theosophical view of the relation between America and Europe; but concatenated, because necessary for illustration, with the two old Quarters of the Globe’ (H, iii). He then extended the theosophical principles he had earlier enunciated in his ‘Essay on Magic’ to the spiritual principles that rule different continents. The poem itself retraces his love for a beautiful young woman, who is washed up on shore by a violent hurricane. Like Stedman, he describes an idyllic scene of innocent love and sensuality. The atmosphere of timelessness and retreat from the turbulent world also pre-figures that created by Byron in the Haidee episode in Don Juan. Like the Swedenborgians, Gilbert searched for the proper mental mate with whom he could achieve ‘conjugial love’, as Southey ruefully noted:

Poor Gilbert is deplorably in love with one of the daughters of Wainhouse whose poems are to be found in Burnetts Library; he says ‘she has a greater compass of mind than any woman he ever conversed with.’ She ridicules him I understand. A   debating society meet every Saturday night at the Red Lodge, the members are respectable, and Gilbert the Cicero of the forum. [35]

23 However, it is the bizarre series of notes to The Hurricane that both enraptured and embarrassed Gilbert’s friends. Southey tried to get his review of the poem published in the British Critic:

It is upon a strange poem with still stranger notes, written by a man of brilliant genius and polished manners who is deranged. It is easy to imply this without doing it in terms as would wound his feelings... I know him and pity him. [36]

Coleridge and Southey evidently showed the poem to Wordsworth, who was much impressed by the prose in one of Gilbert’s notes. In his own notes to The Excursion, Wordsworth remarked: ‘The reader, I am sure, will thank me for the following quotation, which, though from a strange book, is one of the finest passages of modern English prose.’ He then quoted a passage from The Hurricane:

A man is supposed to improve by going out into the world, by visiting London. Artificial man does; he extends with his sphere; but, alas! that sphere is microscopic; it is formed of minutiae, and he surrenders his genuine vision to the artist, in order to embrace it in his ken. His bodily senses grow acute, even to barren and inhuman pruriency; while his mental become proportionally obtuse. The reverse is the Man of Mind: He who is placed in the sphere of Nature and of GOD, might be a mock at Tattersall’s and Brookes’s, and a sneer at St. James’s: He would certainly be swallowed alive by the first Pizarro that crossed him:—But, when he walks along the River of Amazons; when he rests his eye on the unrivalled Andes; when he measures the long and watered Savannah; or contemplates from a sudden Promontory, the distant, Vast Pacific—and feels himself a Freeman in this vast Theatre... His exaltation is not less than Imperial... He becomes at once a Child and a King... His Mind in himself is also in his GOD; and therefore he loves, and therefore he soars. [37]

That Keats found inspiration in this passage for his brilliant image of ‘Stout Cortez... upon a peak in Darien’ has long been recognized by scholars. [38]

24 The note that really distressed Gilbert’s romantic friends, however, was his claim that he was related to a tribe of ‘Gibberti’ in Africa, who acted as merchants and emissaries for the Abyssinians, who in turn inhabited the original Garden of Eden (H, 73-83). That Gilbert’s family really had intermarried with Africans meant that there was some plausibility in his belief of kinship—a point never mentioned by Cottle and Southey, who also never mentioned the Swedenborgian origins of Gilbert’s African theosophy. Cottle later wrote that Gilbert disappeared in 1796, but Southey was still in touch with him in March 1798. [39] According to Southey, after Gilbert published The Hurricane, he ‘placarded the walls in London with the largest bills that had at that time been seen, announcing “The Law of Fire”.’ [40] It was apparently later in 1798 when Southey concluded that Gilbert was trying to sail to Africa in search of the ‘Gibberti’. Worried about Gilbert’s mental condition, he wrote to Fuseli’s friend Roscoe in Liverpool to find the poet and prevent his sailing. [41] Over the next decades, the Bristol circle believed—or claimed to believe—that Gilbert was dead. In fact, he had migrated to Charleston, South Carolina, where he prospered in that city’s lively subculture of French revolutionaries, Methodist abolitionists, and Jewish Freemasons.

25 Were Gilbert’s Bristol friends aware of his activities as a radical, illuminist Freemason in London? Southey, whose uncle was a prominent Mason in Bristol, was almost certainly a member of the fraternity. [42] Moreover, he was a keen investigator of the Swedenborgian movement and the radical occultist underground in London (which he colorfully described in Don Espriella’s Letters from England in 1807). However, Southey also studied carefully the revelations of the Abbé Barruel, who accused the Swedenborgians and Illuminés Théosophes of Masonic conspiracy. [43] He recognized both the truths and falsehoods in Barruel’s sensational exposé:

A little of what was ascribed to them [the Illuminists] had really occurred, but the whole plot, colouring, and costuming of the book [Barruel’s Memoirs] were fictitious. It was a work written to serve the purposes of a party, with the same spirit and same intent as those which in old times led to such absurd and monstrous calamities against the Jews; and, had its intent succeeded, there would have been a Saint Bartholomew’s Day in England. True it was that a Society had existed, whose object was to influence the governments of Europe; it was well organized and widely extended, but enthusiasm, not infidelity was the means which they employed. [44]

Southey may have feared being tarred with Barruel’s broad brush, if he revealed anything about the revolutionary Masonic activities of Gilbert.

26 Coleridge was also familiar with Illuminism and with Barruel’s accusations of Masonic conspiracy. However, as late as June 1800, Coleridge could proudly accept Southey’s charge that he ‘illuminized’ in his political attitudes:

You say I illuminize—I think that Property will some time or other be modified by the predominance of intellect... but first those more particular modes of Property itself must be done away, as injurious to Property itself—these are, Priesthood and too great Patronage of Government. Therefore if to act on the belief that all things are process and that all inapplicable Truths are more Falsehoods, be to illuminize, why, then I illuminize! [45]

These words would have been applauded by Gilbert, whose peculiar economic theories in ‘The Commercial Academic’ had earlier impressed Coleridge. In 1815, as Coleridge struggled with opium addiction and political confusion, he remembered his old friend. After jotting down his thoughts on ‘Community with nature; + the Eye & Heart intuitive of all living yet One Life in all; + the modifying Imagination, the true creative... robur intellectuale’, Coleridge noted:

The preceding Mem. reminds me of poor Gilbert’s—No one will understand me... I understand myself... We all love to be a little mad, when we are certain that there is no Witness or Noticer of our madness. Two Master-feelings are gratified—Freedom & Dependence.—Who can be himself, who does not at times prove to himself that he is free? [46]

Perhaps Coleridge envied the reckless Gilbert, who always confidently affirmed his freedom—even when confined for lunacy or persecuted by government spies.

27 Though Southey and Coleridge gave partial witness to Gilbert’s radical esprit, Wordsworth never mentioned any personal information about the poet, whose prose he so admired. Was he too aware of the political hazard in public association with Illuminism? During his youthful residence in France, Wordsworth may have attended lodge meetings, as suggested by the Masonic affiliation of several of his French friends and the oblique wording of his tribute to the revolutionary officer Michel Beaupuy:

By birth he ranked
With the most noble, but unto the poor
Among mankind he was in service bound
As by some tie invisible, oaths professed
To a religious Order. Man he loved
As Man... [47]

But, like much else of his revolutionary activity, Wordsworth quietly buried his possible ‘illuminist’ past. [48]

28 Byron saw the extract from Gilbert’s poem in Wordsworth’s Excursion, and he may have read the whole Hurricane. Though he was possibly influenced by Gilbert in the Haidee episode in Don Juan, he ridiculed the type of millenarian enthusiasm espoused by Gilbert. In fact, Byron’s description of Wordsworth’s unintelligibility in the Excursion could well have applied to Gilbert: ‘—who can understand him?... Jacob Behmen—Swedenborg—& Joanna Southcott are mere types of this Arch-Apostle of mystery & mysticism.’ [49] Unlike Gilbert and the theosophical, ‘illuminist’ Masons, Byron participated in rationalist, ‘illuminatist’ lodges in Italy, whose members struggled to implement on earth—in defiance of heaven—their revolutionary vision. [50] In the process, he became the object of police surveillance over the radical Carbonari.

29 In 1820, when Southey praised the ‘passages of exquisite beauty’ produced by Gilbert, ‘whose mind was in ruins’, he also noted, ‘I have among my papers some curious memorials of this interesting man.’ [51] One can only hope that the increasingly reactionary Southey did not destroy those memorials—and that the rediscovery of William ‘Hurricane’ Gilbert will continue.


[1] . Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Watchman, ed. Lewis Patton (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970), 168-72, 350-51.
[3] . Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Collected Letters, ed. Earl L. Griggs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), I, 164.
[4] . Introd. to William Gilbert, The Hurricane: a Theosophical and Western Eclogue (Bristol: R. Edwards, 1796). Facsimile Rpt. (Oxford and New York: Woodstock Books, 1990), [ii].
[5] . ‘William Gilbert’, DNB, Supplement I.
[6] . Robert Southey, The Life of John Wesley (New York: Evert Duyckinck, 1820), I, 210-11.
[7] . On Ann Hart Gilbert, see Mona Ferguson, ed., The Hart Sisters: Early African Caribbean Writers, Evangelicals, and Radicals (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1993), 5-14.
[8] . The Conjuror’s Magazine, or Magical and Physiognomical Mirror (London: W. Locke, 1791-93),II, 517. Henceforth cited in text as CM Vol, p.
[9] . Joseph Cottle, Reminiscences of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1847), 31-32; see also, Early Recollections; Chiefly Relating to the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, During His Long Residence in Bristol (London: Longman, Rees, 1837), I, 62-69.
[10] . Cottle, Reminiscences, 361-68; ‘John Henderson’, DNB; Astrologer’s Magazine (November 1793), 156.
[11] . ‘William Agutter’, DNB. In May 1797 Southey urged his friends to ‘get Agutter’s papers’ in order to write ‘a full life of John Henderson’; see New Letters of Robert Southey, ed. Kenneth Curry (New York: Columbia UP, 1965), I, 127.
[12] . On the activities of Ebenezer and Manoah Sibly, see J.C. Brookhouse, ‘The Good Samaritans or Ark Masons in Politics; with a Note on Some of Their Members’, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, 24 (1911), 81-106.
[13] . Minet Library: Parish of Lambeth, Poor Rates (1788-1792).
[14] . For background, see my article, ‘The Secret Masonic History of Blake’s Swedenborg Society’, Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, 26 (1992), 40-51.
[15] . Gloucester Journal (19 January 1792).
[16] . ‘Henry Lemoine’, DNB. Lemoine was friendly with Richard Cosway, Isaac Disraeli, David Levi, and the Goldsmid brothers. His research on the history and techniques of engraving may have led him to contact with Blake. He also became London’s greatest expert on Jewish literature and printing.
[17] . For the identification of Gilbert as ‘B.’ see Ellic Howe, Urania’s Children: The Strange World of the Astrologers (London: William Kimber, 1967), 23-24.
[18] . David Erdman, Prophet Against Empire, rev. ed. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969), 137-38.
[19] . I have put together a complete run of the magazine from the incomplete holdings at the British Library, Bodleian, and New York Public Library.
[20] . See my articles, ‘William Blake and the Promiscuous Baboons: A Cagliostroan Sèance Gone Awry’, British Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies, 18 (1995), 185-200; and ‘Blake’s Tiriel and the Regency Crisis: Lifting the Veil on a Royal Masonic Scandal’, Blake, Politics, and History, eds. Tony Rosso, Jackie Di Salvo, and Christopher Hobson (New York: AMS, 1998), 115-35.
[21] . On the Jewish origins of St. Germain, see Raphael Patai, The Jewish Alchemists (Princeton: Princeton Univeristy Press, 1994, 463-587. It is also possible that Gilbert referred to Swedenborg, who was sometimes described as a German baron in London newspapers.
[22] . In November 1790, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke instructed the reader to ‘See two books intitled Einige Originalschriften des Illuminatenordens.—System un Folgen des Illuminatenordens. Munchen, 1787’, Reprinted in Two Classics of the French Revolution (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 169.
[23] . A possibility first presented by Mark Perugini, ‘Blake’s Prophetic Books’, Times Literary Supplement (29 July 1926), 512.
[24] . Howe, Urania’s Children, 24 n.1; G.E. Bentley, Blake Records (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969), 32-33.
[25] . Adams initially supported the illuminist activities of the Duché family and the foreign Masons who visited them at the Lambeth Asylum; however, he became increasingly conservative. See George Adams, Lectures on Natural and Experimental Philosophy, 5 vols. (London: Robert Hindmarsh, 1794).
[27] . See Gerald Bentley, Blake Books (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 645.
[28] . See William Spence, Essays in Divinity and Physics (London: Robert Hindmarsh, 1792), 47-53. Blake’s friend Cosway owned multiple copies of this book.
[29] . For the Duke of York’s changing politics and Masonic associations, see Schuchard, ‘Blake’s Tiriel’.
[30] . Michael Phillips, ‘Blake and the Terror, 1792-93’, The Library, 6th s., 16 (1994), 263-97.
[31] . For Gloucester’s illuminist career, see Schuchard, ‘Blake’s Tiriel’, where I argue that Blake portrays the prince in the guise of Ijim, brother of Tiriel.
[32] . By February 1796, Coleridge refers to Gilbert as a friend; see Coleridge, Collected Letters, VI, 1004.
[33] . Gilbert, Hurricane, 51 n.A. Henceforth cited in text as H.
[34] . Barlow, the engraver for Conjuror’s Magazine, also contributed to Stedman’s work.
[35] .  Robert Southey to Henry Southey (7 March 1798); in New Letters of Robert Southey, ed. Kenneth Curry (New York: Columbia UP, 1965), 162.
[36] . Southey to Williams Wynn (26 January 1797); New Letters, 120.
[37] . Quoted in Cottle, Early Recollections, 67-68.
[38] . Introd. to Hurricane, [iii]; ‘Gilbert’, DNB.
[39] . Southey, New Letters, I, 161-62.
[41] . Southey, New Letters, II, 442.
[42] . W.J. Williams, ‘Was Robert Southey a Freemason?’ Transactions: Lodge of Research, #2429 Leicester (1926-27), 68-76. Also, see Southey’s Masonic emblem and allusions in The Doctor (London: Longman, Rees, 1834), I, title-page, 136, 165.
[43] . See the long extracts from Barruel’s Memoires pour servir a l'Histoire du Jacobinisme (Londres, 1797-98), in Southey’s Common-Place Book, ed. J.W. Warter, 4th s. (London: Longman, Brown, Green, 1851), 380-83.
[44] . Robert Southey, Letters from England by Don M.A. Espriella, 3rd, ed. (1807: London: Longman’s, 1814), III, 196.
[45] . Southey, New Letters, I, 215.
[46] . The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn (London: Pantheon, 19—), III, 4243-4 and note.
[47] . The Prelude, Book IX, ll. 309-13; in William Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989), 516.
[48] . See Kenneth R. Johnson, The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998).
[49] . See Byron’s Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie Marchand (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975), IV, 324.
[50] . Richard Lansdown, ‘Byron and the Carbonari’, History Today, 41 (1991), 18-25; Zambelli Papers, British Library: Add. Mss. 46,878.ff.142-46.