Inspired beyond understanding

William Blake - William Blake: The Creation of the Songs - William Blake
July 6, 2001

To engage fully with the poetry of William Blake, it is essential to place his writing within his art. For there is a visionary and organic symbiosis between his words and the illuminated world he creates. To this effect, the William Blake Trust began a project 50 years ago of publishing Blake's illuminated books in colour facsimile editions, starting with the unique coloured copy of, arguably, his greatest and most challenging work, Jerusalem , in collaboration with the Trianon Press in Paris. Numerous other facsimiles of his illuminated books were published over the next several decades, culminating in the 1991-95 six-volume Collected Edition of Blake's Illuminated Books, with extensive scholarly material accompanying the facsimiles.

These texts were aimed at a knowledgeable and erudite readership. The trust's new William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books is a one-volume edition for a wider audience. For the first time, all the illuminated books are available in colour under a single cover, with a short but helpful introduction by David Bindman (general editor of the six-volume set), but with its extensive academic apparatus removed. The final section of the volume contains transcriptions of the printed texts to help elucidate or decipher the engraved text. In addition, a chronology of Blake and his times is most useful, as is the page of suggestions for further reading, though one would have welcomed the inclusion of further works from the mid-1980s, by Nelson Hilton, T. A. Vogler and, later, Vincent De Luca.

The most impressive development in Blake studies over the past 30 or 40 years, which Bindman's introduction aptly confirms, is a deeper understanding of the importance of a thorough knowledge of Blake's production techniques. Blake's striking innovations in etching and, later, major improvements in colour printing meant that he could produce and publish his own works entirely independently of other printers. Given the dangerous times (revolution in France), this was vital to avoid censorship and even accusations of sedition. Bindman's introduction gives a brief and helpful account of Blake's unique production processes. He also places Blake in the context of other painters and sculptors of his time, with whom Blake often came into close contact, such as John Flaxman and the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli. He does not, however, manage to fit in the painters and poets who came to praise Blake in later life and who played an important role in securing his reputation.

As Bindman says, all art for Blake was a form of prayer, which suggests classical influences - as for the Greeks, religion and art were not separate experiences, they were bound together. This classical connection might have helped Bindman to elucidate even more clearly for readers why Blake's later works are "hard to understand". It is worth mentioning that Blake wrote not only to be understood, but to create works of simply staggering beauty. Such beauty stimulates readers to a level beyond "understanding", to something we might describe as almost a witnessing experience - both of a religious and of an aesthetic kind, albeit fused as it was for the Greeks - which may invaluably complement the more rational, overtly verbal aspects of Blake. This edition has excellent reproductions and fine layout, good annotations and is inexpensive, which means that it will be warmly welcomed both by scholars and general readers.

The recent Blake exhibition at Tate Britain also chose as one of its central themes the importance of his printmaking skills, even displaying a replica of Blake's printing press from his home in Lambeth. The accompanying catalogue, William Blake , will warm the hearts of Blake admirers. The general conception is effective, and it has several short articles helping to introduce the layman to Blake's life and times.

Marilyn Butler's chapter is informative and rich, as she employs her wide historical knowledge of the Romantic period to focus on Blake's situation. She also challenges some of the pervasive and unsubstantiated notions about Blake's character that continue to weary more informed Blake scholars and even creep into Peter Ackroyd's introductory essay. She has paid scrupulous attention to biblical and gothic, as well as nationalist (Celtic) influences on Blake. Butler also demonstrates a thorough knowledge of the impressive breadth of Blake's reading, from his interest in Emanuel Swedenborg to a fascination with the psychological writings of David Hartley and Erasmus Darwin. Not to mention that he was, of course, steeped in English literature. He was greatly interested in literature of earlier periods and nations and had a reputation for being a voracious reader.

The next few years may also see a rise in the appreciation of the extent to which Blake was influenced (in spite of his often quite strong attacks on the mindless copying of the ancients) by Greek sculpture and literature. His commitment to ideas of individual freedom and his challenges to authoritarian government, as well as his epic forms, his renewal of the pastoral genre and his commitment to lyric forms can be traced to the rise of interest in Greek culture in the period 1740-90. Thomas Gray would have been one of the first influences on Blake in this regard, but Blake was also fascinated by readings of new translations of Plato at the house of Flaxman and others. He used with delight Greek words for names of characters and places, such as Bromion, Oothoon, Theotormon, Thel, Golgonooza and Lethe.

Butler's introduction is also most enlightening about the wider circle of artists, benefactors and friends who influenced and supported Blake. She reminds us that Flaxman and A. S. Mathew paid to have Blake's Poetical Sketches printed in 1783 (though not published). There were also the less helpful William Hayley and much more beneficial patrons such as Thomas Butts (Blake's patron for more than 20 years) and, later, John Linnell. Linnell introduced Blake to Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Edward Calvert, who later formed a group of Blake admirers, "the Ancients". Butler notes that it was W. B. Yeats, around 1900, who began recuperating Blake from the bizarre and intolerant notions about him that had occasionally plagued him during his lifetime. And it was only in the 1950s that David Erdman, basing his critique on the more intelligent historical, artistic work of the 1940s, produced his Prophet against Empire , which made Blake's extraordinarily original works more accessible.

The Tate catalogue also has a helpful bibliography and index, though some important works are missing. Most notably absent is reference to the pioneering work of such early experts on Blake's etching techniques as John W. Wright, who published detailed and sophisticated work in the Blake Newsletter in the 1970s. When one compares the Tate catalogue with the 1978 one, one feels enormous appreciation for the advances in production, layout and general sophistication that 22 years later have made possible an even more impressive publication. However, Martin Butlin's introduction to the former is still a fine piece of work and should not be forgotten or overlooked.

One might wish to complement these books with Drawings of William Blake (1970) and The Fitzwilliam Museum Catalogue , William Blake (1970). Also, Dover has in recent years produced some high-quality, inexpensive (about £4.95), full-colour editions of the Songs, The Book of Urizen , The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (a different copy from the earlier Keynes edition of 1975), America and Europe .

All three books are helpful sources of information about the location of many of the more important works, now scattered around the whole of North America and Britain. Not only are the British Library and British Museum vital repositories, but the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the Keynes Collection, the material at the Yale Center for British Art, the Huntingdon Library at Pasadena, the Humanities Research Centre at Austin, the King's College, Cambridge collection, the Pierpont Morgan Library, the New York Public Library, the Rosenwald Collection, Glasgow University Library and many other institutions hold copies of the illuminated books.

Michael Phillips's William Blake: The Creation of the Songs is written for a scholarly audience. The attention to the finer points of the development of the Songs from earliest manuscripts to the final late, brilliantly coloured editions does mean, however, that any Blake enthusiast should be able to enjoy it as well. Phillips has been working on Blake for some 20 to 30 years, and his erudition comes to the fore in this remarkable study of the generation of the Songs from early manuscripts and drafts. His thorough immersion in printing, etching and engraving processes has given him the fundamental basis for a more precise and in-depth account of the gradual evolution of the Songs than can be found anywhere else in Blake literature. It should excite and inform any Blake scholar and will become indispensable. As Phillips states: "Nothing can tell us more about Blake than study of the processes by which his works reached their final form." Nothing can reveal to us more the "meaning" of Blake's illuminations either, for Blake may be unique as a poet in creating a composite art that demands that the reader achieve an entirely new attitude to "reading". Without this, she or he is unable to experience Blake's illuminations in the visual, emotional, spiritual and intellectual aspects they offer for a richer aesthetic response.

Kathleen Wheeler is a fellow, Darwin College, Cambridge.

William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books

Editor - David Bindman
ISBN - 0 500 51014 8
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £39.95
Pages - 480

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