Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant: Blake’s Poetry and Designs

(Note: this review is a corrected version of a review originally published in College Literature, 35:8 (Summer 2008): pp. 198-201.  The author would like to thank the editors of College Literature for making an exception in publishing the original version of this review.)

Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant, eds.  2008.  Blake’s Poetry and Designs: A Norton Critical Edition.  Second Edition.  New York: W.W. Norton & Co.  $22.50 sc. xxvi + 628 pp.

Mary Lynn Johnson’s and John E. Grant’s update of their 1979 Norton critical edition of Blake’s Poetry and Designs represents a significant step forward in the presentation of Blake’s work to the public.  Consistent with newer Norton editions, Blake’s Poetry and Designs is more compact, colorful, and better typeset than the first edition and incorporates significant updates to its content, continuing to arrange this content with the most widely circulated editions of Blake in mind.  Their 1979 edition followed Keynes’s edition of Blake in its chronological arrangement of Blake’s work, which had been the standard edition of Blake from 1925 to the seventies.  The updated Norton edition follows the now-standard Erdman’s edition, placing the text of the illuminated books first then following it with manuscript material, marginalia, and letters.  One effect of this change is to shift from a study of Blake oriented around the development of his thought through time to a focused emphasis upon the illuminated books.

This emphasis is reflected in the new edition in its inclusion of all of Jerusalem. The first edition had less than half of what is now considered Blake’s great work, so that all of Blake’s illuminated books are now presented in a Norton Critical Edition.  Johnson and Grant expand For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise from only the concluding “To the Accuser Who is the God of This World” to the complete text, add Blake’s marginalia to Spurzheim’s Observations on Insanity, and approximately double the text of Blake’s letter to Thomas Butts of 26 April 1803.  But where the editors giveth, the publishers taketh away, so as a partial trade-off for the inclusion of all of Jerusalem, the editors cut all of Hayley’s letters from 1800 and approximately ten pages of their selections from Blake’s notebook, which is no longer thematically organized.  The first edition’s sections on “Drafts” and “Love” from the notebook suffered the fewest cuts while its section on “Visions” is about half its previous length and “Art and Artists” is barely represented at all.

The net effect of these cuts is to reduce the notebook to a reading companion to the illuminated books emphasizing the themes of sex, love, and vision, a reasonable decision given the necessity of cuts and the new edition’s greater emphasis on the illuminated books.  Johnson and Grant are not as concerned with separating Blake’s poetry from his prose as Erdman was, but I wish they had chosen to follow their original chronological arrangement of Blake’s work.  As we approach the thirtieth anniversary of Erdman’s New and Revised Edition of The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, a chronological presentation of Blake’s poetry and prose could be a productive departure from Erdman’s norm, one conducive to new approaches to Blake’s material which have become increasingly historically oriented.

One radical departure from all prior presentations of Blake is this edition’s reliance upon The William Blake Archive for transcriptions of the illuminated books (Erdman’s text, cross referenced with originals, is used for Blake’s other works).  The William Blake Archive serves as an online companion to this edition as it is continually referenced in notes and introductory material.  Reliance upon the archive for transcriptions brings readers closer to Blake’s self-published illuminated works as they appear in the material objects he actually produced.  In the past, readers of Blake did not read Blake, but one editor’s ideal text redacted from a number of variant prints. The temptation to revise and correct Blake is for most editors of Blake difficult to overcome, but Johnson and Grant resist as much as possible.  The new Norton edition presents for the first time the particularities of Blake’s individual manuscripts, bringing the reader as close as possible to Blake’s text as it would be read in one of the illuminated works themselves.

This edition’s most striking feature is the quality of the color reproductions of Blake’s visual art.  Johnson and Grant were only able to include sixteen color illustrations in this edition, half the number of the first.  However, Blake’s illustrations are now printed on non-glossy, lightly textured, cream-colored paper, so that the Norton edition paper very closely blends with the color and texture of Blake’s own paper in some instances.  This choice of paper combined with Norton’s investment in high quality color reproduction allows Blake’s colors to leap as strikingly from the pages of Blake’s Poetry and Designs as they do when seen in person: precisely how they do not when they have to compete with light reflected from glossy paper – which, I might add, falls out of the older Norton editions quite easily while the new paper binds well.   I regret to report one printing failure, however: in my copy, the colors are slightly out of register in the reproduction of the title page to Europe (copy K), so Blake’s striking, vibrant blues come out a dull brown and the text is a bit fuzzy.  Aside from this glitch, there’s simply no going back to glossy reproductions of Blake’s art.  In addition to these color reproductions, eighty-six black and white illustrations appear throughout the text of the illuminated books, continually reminding readers that Blake didn’t just produce volumes of poetry but illuminated works.

Footnotes and textual notes emphasize literary references, suggest readings intended to make more coherent the tangled network of Blake’s mythological works, and usually make reference to Blake scholarship from the 1960s through the current decade, sometimes reaching further back.  Reprints of responses to Blake by his contemporaries are almost identical to that of the first edition, except that Lamb has been dropped and replaced by Leigh Hunt’s review of Blake’s exhibition, providing some representation of hostile reactions to Blake during his lifetime.  Selections of twentieth-century criticism are as annoyingly short in this volume as they are in any other Norton critical edition.  I suspect the editors feel the same way.  Only three of the essays in the first edition make their way to the second, with little representation of the editors’ own fortyish years of Blake scholarship.  Another terrible exclusion is any essay by David Erdman, who does however find his way into footnotes more often than any other Blake scholar except for Morton Paley.  The editors have been perhaps too careful about not citing their own work, their worst exclusions being reference to Johnson’s work on Blake and the emblem tradition in footnotes to For the Sexes and only a brief reference to Grant’s prickly, precise reading of “The Fly.”  But they make up for it by their care to cite when possible up-and-coming Blake scholars such as Angus Whitehead, whose meticulous work on Blake in the 1790s deserves close attention and appraisal.

Overall, the editors’ selection of twentieth-century criticism represents a variety of approaches, including an excerpt from Ginsberg on Blake, pointing readers to Blake’s influence on American literature and culture.  The select bibliography is extensive, inclusive of a number of points of view, and sensibly divided into categories that give newcomers to Blake scholarship some orientation to the amount and diversity of scholarship on Blake, while the chronology sets the production of Blake’s illuminated books within the context of his overall artistic production, his major life events, and British history.  By all standards this is the best edition of Blake available on the market today, especially if supplemented with online resources such as The William Blake Archive and The Blake Digital Text Project as intended.  I would say that its only shortcoming is one common to all text-based editions of Blake: art historical studies tend to be underrepresented in footnotes.  This edition, carefully assembled by two veteran Blake scholars, is ideal for graduate and undergraduate students as well as casual readers, reasonably priced, and sure to be a go-to edition for years to come.  The editors themselves should have the last word as they offer what might be the best advice possible to both long-time and brand-new readers of Blake: “Our advice is simply to start with whichever thread of meaning first catches your eye, follow that lead as far as it takes you; pick up the next loose end you see, and keep on exploring the book in your own way [. . .] keep following the glint of that golden string just ahead, winding as you go—and the walls will start opening before you.”