Review: U2, Songs of Experience

As the biggest band in the world (or, at least according to Rolling Stone, one of the top 100 and the only one to make it through more than three decades without changing their lineup), U2’s latest album, Songs of Experience has been attracting a great deal of attention. So far, so unsurprising. What is more surprising is that the latest addition to their corpus should be named after a William Blake collection – a trick they’ve pulled off not once, but twice, with Songs of Experience the follow-up to their 2014 album, Songs of Innocence.

The reviews are, frankly somewhat mixed: perhaps the most damning has been Kitty Empire’s two-star summation of SoE as “an insipid try-hard” (ouch), while Amanda Petrusich argues that the band has “run out of things to say” and, in one of my favourite reviews, Calum Marsh observes that the band is struggling to make itself relevant in the second decade of the twenty-first century; against these more negative pieces, David Fricke argues that, while flawed in parts, it is their most powerful album in a long while and Alexis Petridis noted it as album of the week.

Of course, what the world has been waiting for is a middle-aged academic to weigh in the subject, so to ensure that no more breath is baited I’ll offer my brief summary of the albu. As a musical addition to a band’s output that has not, frankly, much interested me since their 1987 The Joshua Tree, I was genuinely surprised to actually rather enjoy the album, certainly much more than Songs of Innocence which was the insipid contribution to their back catalogue. There are the inevitable jangly guitars, signature mark of David Howell Evans (because, even thirty years later, I can’t bring myself to call him the Edge, as much as anything because I’m never one hundred percent sure where the capitalisation starts…). Actually, U2, while being far too middle of the road for my tastes deserve much greater respect than any sarcastic knocks from a literary scholar and so I shall simply observe that Songs of Experience, while amusingly pompous at times (this is, after all, U2) is certainly much more listenable than recent work.

What this review will focus on instead is how significant the title choice is. Songs of Experience, named, of course, after William Blake’s 1794 famous collection of verse, was meant to be released more quickly after Songs of Innocence as a companion piece but apparently, due to the progress of the 2016 election and a near-death experience on the part of Bono (I’m genuinely resisting all the tasteless jokes for a moment). Personally, I suspect the almost-unanimous hostility that greered SoI was another reason to pause: convincing Tim Cook to release the album to every owner of an iOS device was business genius but a bit of a PR disaster – it’s been a long time since Apple was synonymous with the phrase “think different” and the sheer arrogance of assuming a few hundred million iPhone and iPad owners wanted to listen to your Blake-inspired warblings was astonishing.

By contrast, Songs of Experience is genuinely enjoyable at times if somewhat more maudlin and still obviously the work of a band that believes it will change the world. This is clear on tracks such as “Lights of Home” (available in two versions on the album), which is actually one of my favourite tracks but with its final chorus – ominously repeating a motif from SoI‘s “Iris (Hold Me Close)” – enters full on pseudo counter-culture territory as it invites listeners to “free yourself to be yourself”. A proverb of hell this is not. It’s almost as though punk never happened and, at that precise moment, reminds me of Primal Scream’s great song, “Kill All Hippies.” Nevertheless, the album often displays a greater degree of self-knowledge that is genuinely touching, as on “You’re The Best Thing About Me” when Bono sings “Shooting off my mouth / That’s another great thing about me”. How many of his critics have thought that about him?

Petrusich’s review is one of the most thoughtful but, for reasons I’ll come on to later, also one of the most inappropriately academic. A couple of paragraphs in, she endeavours to explain the significance of Blake which, of course, invites all kinds of generalisations and inadvertent falsehoods which is often the case in the format of a music review. As Blake himself wrote, “to generalise is to be an idiot; to particularise is the alone distinction of merit”. Her overall point, however, is correct – if also somewhat obvious: to future generations, it is Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience that will be remarked worthy of the distinction of merit. She also points out that while U2’s Songs of Innocence did seem to capture some of the essence of childhood and adolescence, their Songs of Experience seems to miss much of the point. On the whole, I agree: the experience of U2’s songs is generally a more self-concerned – if sometimes genuinely touching – mark of introspection, the obsession with the authors’ own mortalities, rather than Blake’s genuinely angry cries against social injustice.

This is not to say that U2 have not read Blake. Originally, I had intended to offer a more detailed analysis of many of the individual tracks from the album, but the blog In Search of Rock Gods has already done this and I recommend that you read this for a detailed song-by-song analysis in the post “Hopeful Symmetry: A Blakeian Look at U2’s Songs Of Experience“. I do not completely agree with all of the author’s observations – I think there is a tendency to find similarities where some may be much more tenuous, nonetheless the following is an interesting example:

“Infant Sorrow”: My mother groaned, my father wept: Into the dangerous world I lept, helpless, naked, piping loud.
“Lights of Home”: I was born from a screaming sound.
“The Showman”: Baby’s crying because it’s born to sing.

This demonstrates both a strength and weakness: the line from “Lights of Home” is genuinely compelling and an interesting allusion, but that from “The Showman” is far too generic to be convincing. However, the ultimate argument of “Hopeful Symmetry”, and one which I found illuminating, is that both of U2’s albums work by reflecting and pairing each other. Thus, for example, “Love Is All We Have Left” (SoE) pairs with “Iris” (SoI) and “American Soul” (SoE) with “Volcano” (SoI). This point is intelligently made, and the repetitions of phrases and motifs suggest that this was clearly intended by the band, leading to a more dialectical approach to the two collections that would fit with a Blakean approach to the two contraries of the human soul.

And yet, ultimately it is Songs of Experience itself that fails to convince me that U2 have clearly absorbed the darker energies of Blake’s poetry. Like the earlier collection of poetry, there is a lyric that deals with an iconic place: for Blake, it is London – for U2, it is America. Both are ideas as much as physical locations, and both deal with the darker manifestations of those places – Trump’s USA and the England of William Pitt. First of all, Blake’s “London”:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

This poem has been known to generations of children (and rightly so) and I know from my experience of teaching those school children when they come to university it is a poem that leaves a lasting impresion on them (even if they are not always sure why). Contrast this to U2’s “American Soul”:

Blessed are the bullies
For one day they will have to stand up to themselves
Blessed are the liars
For the truth can be awkward

It’s not a place
This country is to me a sound
Of drum and bass
You close your eyes to look around

Look around, look around
Look around, it’s a sound
Look around, look around
It’s a sound

It’s not a place
This country is to me a thought
That offers grace
For every welcome that is sought

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

It’s not a place
This is a dream the whole world owns
The pilgrim’s face
It had your heart to call her home

Call her home, Brother John
So every mother’s weepin’
Dream on, Brother John
In your dreams you get me sleepin’

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

American, American

Put your hands in the air
Hold on the sky
Could be too late, but we still gotta try
There’s a moment in our life where a soul can die
And the person in a country when you believe the lie
The lie (the lie, the lie)
There’s a promise in the heart of every good dream
It’s a call to action, not to fantasy
The end of a dream, the start of what’s real
Let it be unity, let it be community
For refugees like you and me
A country to receive us
Will you be our sanctuary
Refu-Jesus

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

You are rock and roll
You and I are rock and roll
You are rock and roll
Came here looking for American soul

American soul, American soul

I do rather like this track on the album – it has delightfully dirty, soulful backing guitars that give it a raw power – but as a modern counterpoint to Blake’s denunciation of the corruption of a country ruined by war it falls far short. Blake’s poetry is terse, burning with rage against religion, war, child slavery and child prostitution (the latter not abstractions in eighteenth-century London). By contrast, U2’s lyrics are… worthy. I admire the sentiment, but it is sentimental. The heart of Blake’s nameless narrator is filled with wrath, for Blake knew that the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction, yet U2 have hitched themselves up to the latter, preaching to the converted with weak puns (“Refu-Jesus”? Seriously?) rather than denouncing the evils that men do the children they should protect. A liberal piss fit because Trump was elected will never match the Jeremiad of Blake’s righteous wrath. It is one thing I have always loved about him – while the religious right frequently lays claim to the power of the words of the King James Version, it is that radical antinomian who denounces God, priest and king who more accurately captures the violent cadences of the Bible.

In the end, for me U2’s Songs of Experience is too weak, too well-meaning to fully adopt the mantle of Blake’s poetry. I do actually rather like the album (although much of this week I’ve been listening repeatedly to Martha Redbone’s Garden of Love as a truly wonderful Blakean adaptation), but ultimately the band is concerned with love conquering all. Although Blake frequently observed that experience was not the end, that “organized innocence” provided a fruitful marriage of the two contrary states of the soul, he was also a great enough poet to allow evil to speak with a clear voice, the better that it could be understood and rejected. This is the prophetic voice of the original Songs of Experience, one that contains – in poems such as “The Sick Rose”, “London” and, of course, “The Tyger” – some of the clearest delineations of evil ever to have been written and which Blake allows to stand alone at this point, without the intervention of a loving god to rescue us. Blake’ trusts his readers to understand within their own souls the pathways they must follow. After all, when he asks “Did he who make the lamb make thee?” he does not rush to provide an answer, for the assertion that love conquers all is meaningless for those whose innocence is taken away. In one of the darkest poems of Songs of Experience, Blake grimly observes:

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we

Against such clear-sighted vision, Bono’s assertion that “Love is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”, for all its invocation of near-death experiences, will always remain too simplistic, too glib by comparison.

Rev. of John H. Jones’s Blake on Language, Power, and Self-Annihilation

Cover: John Jones

John H. Jones. Blake on Language, Power, and Self-Annihilation. $90.00. Palgrave MacMillan, 2010. pp. xii+250.

John H. Jones’s Blake on Language, Power, and Self-Annihilation argues that dialogic self-annihilation in Blake’s oeuvre is a means of resistance to all forms of “philosophical and political monologism” that dictatorially impose a single vision upon readers and listeners.  Where monologism establishes the author as an authority and the reader as a passive recipient, Blake’s dialogism invites both readers and listeners to the process of creating textual meaning through authorial acts of self-annihilation, acts that are opposed to the assertion of Blakean “selfhood.”  Jones asserts that Blake’s “inspired discourse” anticipates Bahktin’s concept of dialogue, drawing upon Bahktin in each chapter to comment upon Blake’s use of discourse.  Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination and Makdisi’s William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s provide Jones with his theoretical orientation as he explores his thesis in chapters devoted to The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The [First] Book of Urizen, Milton, and Jerusalem. This monograph’s strength lies in its detailed examination of a subject that has attained a high profile in Blake studies in the years preceding its publication. Jones’s examination spans key works across Blake’s entire career and is supported by careful readings of select texts. Its weaknesses are that its appropriation of Bakhtin is sparse enough to be able to be cut entirely with no loss, and it at times presents a Blake so committed to non-authoritarian dialogism that he cannot say anything at all. Its greatest fault, ironically given the book’s thesis, is that its thesis is applied without development or modification in chapter after chapter. This monograph on Blake’s dialogism, therefore, does not sufficiently recognize the strength of assertions offered by a dialog, Blake’s greater proximity to some points of view than others, and seems unable to assimilate Blake’s insistence on definite form.

Sarah Haggarty’s Blake’s Gifts: Poetry and the Politics of Exchange

booksSarah Haggarty. 2010. Blake’s Gifts: Poetry and the Politics of Exchange. New York: Cambridge UP. $99.00. x+256 pp.

Sarah Haggarty’s engaging and original study, Blake’s Gifts: Poetry and the Politics of Exchange, examines the theme of the gift in William Blake’s poetry and personal letters. Blake’s notion of the gift is considered in five areas from which each chapter takes its title: economy, patronage, charity, inspiration, and salvation.  Because relatively little Blake scholarship is focused upon this topic, she theorizes her study by comparing Blake’s notion of the gift to either Derrida’s The Gift of Death or Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money,  Marcel Mauss’s The Gift: The Form and Reasons for Exchange in Archaic Societies, and Bourdieu’s titles on practice and cultural production. Most often siding with Mauss contra Derrida, Haggarty affirms that Blake’s notion of the gift maintains the idea of the gift as freely given in dialectic with the gift as the inauguration and sign of a relationship, seeking to contextualize Blake’s works within “the transactions of the world those works exist in” (p. 12).  “Politics” in Haggarty’s title may be therefore slightly misleading unless construed in a very broad sense: Blake’s notion of the gift, according to Haggarty, often serves the purpose of elevating his works and his relationship with his patrons and readers above economics and politics in their narrower senses, or transforming and redeeming politics and economics as they are normally practiced. Rather than emphasizing the language of price, debt, and experience in his notion of the gift, Haggarty argues, Blake preferred the language of “treasures, rewards, gold, talents, and riches” (p. 12), extending his readers‘ conception of economics beyond the acquisition of material wealth. Haggarty’s well-written monograph isolates one of Blake’s less-regarded golden threads and rolls it up into a substantial, complex study that sheds valuable light on a number of themes important to Blake scholarship.

by James Rovira

 

Genesis: William Blake’s Last Illuminated Work

Robert Essick’s and Mark Crosby’s Genesis: William Blake’s Last Illuminated Work (with an essay by Robert Wark: Huntington Library, 2012) has just been published by the Huntington Library. This impressive edition of the beginning of Blake’s rendition of the book of Genesis is aptly titled, as it is Blake’s last attempt at a work combining text and image. It’s very large, to accomodate full-size / full-color reproductions of the eleven leaves, most of which are pencil sketches — the more finished drawings are at the beginning, the most sketchy at the end, which may provide some indication of Blake’s work habits near the end of his life. These aren’t the watercolors of the Bible found on blakearchive.org. The book is available in green cloth with no slipcase or cover.

Stood up on its side this book is almost the same height as the books in the Illuminated Books series. But, it’s thin. 11 reproduced leaves printed single-side and 58 pages of text, notes, and commentary, plus a little bit of front matter. Because the pages are so large, of course, the notes and commentaries can be extensive and still not take up a large number of pages. Blake’s handwritten text on the most semi-finished pages are, interestingly, a Gothic script: Blake drew lines using a rule, wrote out his lines in his normal handwriting, then wrote over that handwriting in Gothic script for the final product.

According to a note by Rossetti, this book was commissioned by Linnell and begun in the last year of Blake’s life, so left incomplete at the time of his death. One leaf is watermarked 1821 and two are watermarked 1826.

My first impression after looking at these drawings is that Blake worked in this way:

1. rough sketch with lines drawn for text.
2. words in Blake’s own handwriting
3. More line detail added to the drawing
4. words in finished script (Gothic)
5. initial watercolor — heaviest coloring in the center of the figures with detail to be worked toward the edges later, so that these intermediate or early-stage colorings only have heavy colors in the middle of the figures.

The next step would have been final, detailed watercoloring, but none of the leaves were finished to that stage. Some of the latter sketches are very sketchy indeed: circles and ovals for bodies in some cases, circles and ovals with scribbles for initial detail (hair and robes) in others. Of course steps 1-2 and 4-5 could be in either order or combined.

Blake’s header for Chapter 1 is “The Creation of the Natural Man.”

Full color reproductions are followed by —

Textual transcription
Notes to the textual transcription
Comparison of Blake’s text to the Authorized Version
Forward to Wark’s essay by the Huntington Director of the Art Collections
Editors’ notes to Wark’s essay
Wark’s essay
Editors’ commentary
Index

The paper on which images are reproduced is not too reflective, which makes for a better viewing experience. I haven’t seen the originals so can’t speak to the possibility of any lost detail, but these appear to be very high quality reproductions, so I doubt that any detail was lost.

Overall, this edition of Blake’s last illuminated work has the potential to shed additional light on Blake’s appropriation of creation myths and on his views of Scripture as a printed book. His reproductions and departures from the text of the Authorized Version deserve some attention, as does his use of Gothic script.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: U Chicago, 2011

Michael Phillips’s beautiful and professionally-bound University of Chicago edition of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell appears to be a cover to cover facsimile of the Bodelian’s copy. I mean “cover to cover” quite literally: the image posted on Amazon and the publisher’s website is a full-color photographic reproduction of a nineteenth-century binding. Upon opening the book you will find a full-color reproduction of the inside cover. The next page — which is a blank page in the original — is again reproduced exactly — so that the cover shows wear marks, and front matter shows ink marks, book stamps, water stains, and all.

This edition, then, is an exact reproduction of Copy B of Blake’s Marriage from cover to cover, with the addition of Phillips’s extensive introduction, textual transcription, notes, commentary, a checklist of copies, and bibliography. There’s simply nothing quite like it; not even the edition published by the William Blake Trust for the Illuminated Books series. Owning this book is as close to owning an original copy of the Marriage as possible.

The William Blake Archive does reproduce Copy B of the Marriage with a textual transcription, so that you can preview the specific contents of the reproductions in Phillips’s edition there. This edition, however — being a full, cover to cover reproduction of the book owned by the Bodelian — includes some additional images that are not part of the same sequence of images available on the Blake archive website, though these are available elsewhere on the site. These additional images include reproductions from nine copies of what is Plate 14 in the Bodelian copy with alternate copies of a few other plates such as “A Song of Liberty” and one of the memorable fancies, in addition to a copy of “Our End is Come” preceding the text of Marriage. More details about Copy B are available on the William Blake Archive website.

Overall, this edition of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell is well worth the price and a good purchase even if you already own the William Blake Trust’s edition, both for its originality of presentation and for Phillips’s notes and commentary. This volume may represent the future for reproductions of Blake’s works: professional, full-color facsimile editions of each individual copy.

Fernand Péna and Guy Pearson

Ode to William Blake. Fernand Péna. Lezarts, 2010. €15.00. lezarts.info.Glad Day. Guy Pearson. Issimo, 2010. £11.00. guypearson.com.

Fernand Péna, based in Paris, has been a rock musician since the 1970s, one who’s influences include Tom Waits, Neil Young, The Doors and Frank Zappa. His latest project, released in late 2010, is the result of several years’ labour to bring together these influences with another love of his life, Blake’s art and poetry, in the form of the album Ode to William Blake. Comprising sixteen tracks, with a very handsome illustrated booklet that includes Blake’s lyrics as well as short essays in French and English on Blake’s life and works.

Péna’s voice is somewhat reminiscent of Tom Waits (or indeed Tom Petty),  and Ode to William Blake is a determined rock record (indeed, the back cover describes it as “Rock Songs with Words from the Mind”). Péna is extremely faithful – indeed, literal – to Blake’s poetry, drawing primarily from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, with only two tracks drawn from elsewhere in Blake’s corpus. One of these, “Oh, I say you Joe”, shares its origins with the Songs insofar as it is located in An Island in the Moon (the original source of such Songs of Innocence as “Holy Thursday”), while the last track on the album, “William Bond”, is taken from The Pickering Manuscript, most famous for the poem “Auguries of Innocence”.

After a slightly disappointing start with “Songs of Innocence” (the “Introduction” to Blake’s own Innocence), Ode to William Blake quickly improves with two of my favourite tracks from the entire album: “The Little Vagabond” and “The Little Boy Lost/The Little Boy Found”. Actually, I have a personal block with more of less all versions of the first poem in Innocence, it being, for example, one of the weakest tracks for me on Jah Wobble’s  The Inspiration of William Blake. “The Little Vagabond”, by contrast, establishes very firmly Péna’s strong rock and blues style guitar, with a very mellow backing track. Very occasionally, his French pronunciation either jars or adds an additional exoticism to Blake’s lyrics, but in general his gravelly voice is rich and luxurious.

Throughout the album as a whole, what is most fascinating about Péna’s work is how successfully he transfers Blake’s lyricism into soft rock that is not simply professional in terms of its musical quality (entirely to be expected of Péna’s background), but rather natural. The virtue of Blake’s songs is that many of them may be transformed into rock ballads, though there remain – as is to be expected – a few surprises. The slightly unconventional metre of “The Little Black Boy” returns the listener to Blake’s words in new and fascinating ways,  while the acoustic accompanying guitar of “To Tirzah” throws the frankly bizarre lyrics into [new light?]

Many of the tracks, such as “A Poison Tree” or “William Bond”, are dominated by vibrant classic guitar licks (so much so that “William Bond” in particular struck me as something that could have been produced by a group such as Pink Floyd in the eighties or nineties). Not that the style is by any means monotonous, however: thus “Oh, I say you Joe” experiments with a  calypso feel, while “Holy Thursday” is mournful and thoughtful. Péna’s talent is to have transferred Blake’s poetry to a popular format with aplomb and very evident affection.

Guy Pearson’s Glad Day, also released in 2010, is in a very different style although it too also draws largely from Songs of Innocence and Experience. Classical piece, primarily for piano and voice, these draw on a different tradition of classical music (though one that, in a few cases, such as the introductory track, “Glad Day”, also echoes with filmic references). Pearson’s style works best when focussed on his own virtuoso piano playing in accompaniment to such singers as soprano Rachel Major or James Savage-Hanford’s delightful tenor voice.

Several of the tracks are direct translations of Blake’s lyrics, such as the delightful “A Dream” or “Ah! Sun-flower” (both sung by Major). Elsewhere, however, Pearson provides some extremely interesting interpretations designed to capture elements of Blake’s art or poetry. “An Island in the Moon”, for example, is a marvellous instrumental that captures the joie de vivre of Blake’s satire and something of its rumbustious, rococo style, while “Newton” offers echoes of Michael Nyman’s work in order to express the mechanical (yet also immensely elegant) world view of the scientist and philosopher. Ironically, perhaps, it is one of my favourite pieces on the album and puts me in mind of Blake’s ambivalence towards Newton in his famous large colour print from 1795 – the angelic spiritual form of one of England’s greatest mind’s as beautiful as Satan in his former glory.

Of the eighteen tracks, others that attracted my attention include “The Tyger” and “Lux Nova”. “The Tyger” actually begins with haunting whispered words from the opening lines of Auguries of Innocence, “To see a world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wild flower”. The effect of this, particularly with Pearson’s minimalist introduction and – once more – Major’s wonderful soprano, is to focus the listener on the tiger as not merely an instrument of terror and the sublime but also return him or her to the beauty of this creature. “Lux Nova” does not draw directly from Blake’s own poetry, but this new light could clearly be one of Blake’s own innocent songs, or perhaps one of the those clear and lucid moments that emerge at the end of his grand prophecies such as The Four Zoas or Jerusalem, when the prophet Los emerges from the obscure and terrible darkness that has preceded. What is more, “Lux Nova” allows the listener to enjoy Pearson’s piano very simply.

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.”

James Rovira – Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety

Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety. James Rovira. Continuum, 2010. pp. 184 + ix. £60. ISBN: 978-1-4411-3559-9.

As James Rovira explains in the introduction to his book, despite the widespread dissemination of Søren Kierkegaard’s concepts in the early twentieth century, full-scale applications of those concepts to Blake remain relatively rare. What is surprising about this is that Kierkegaard was an important link between Harold Bloom’s and Northrop Frye’s theories of influence and their work on Blake, yet aside from a small number of essays the only book-length study of Blake and Kierkegaard is Lorraine Clark’s Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of Dialectic, published in 1991. Rovira suggests that widespread disillusionment with the religious contexts within which Kierkegaard worked is one reason why this philosopher, whose ideas are so fruitful to a study of Blake, has been widely overlooked; in any case, the various transformations that have taken place in discourses around religion in the public sphere in the intervening two decades since the appearance of Clark’s book mean that a re-evaluation of the relation between Blake and Kierkegaard is a timely one. Rovira may be seen to complement Clark in some ways, dealing as he does with texts prior to 1800 rather than after that date, and he concentrates less on the process of dialectic rather than the reasons why, in both Blake and Kierkegaard, acts of creation may generate a sense of anxiety within the self that is not adequately explained by current post-structuralist and deconstructionist theories.

This said, Rovira is somewhat more extensive than Clark in his treatment of both Blake and Kierkegaard. The opening chapter is generally excellent in providing information about the historical contexts in which both figures worked – my one proviso being that sometimes Rovira’s more emphatic statements about similarities between Denmark in the 1830s and 40s and Britain under a constitutional monarchy in the 1760s appear occasionally to make claims that, to me, would apply to many countries in western Europe and the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century. Part of my response, however, is due also to the fact that my own knowledge of Denmark at the time is poor and so, while attempts to provide a link between Blake and Kierkegaard in terms of the socio-political environments within which they both worked reads to me as occasional special pleading, I did enjoy and appreciate greatly Rovira’s treatment of Kierkegaard’s background. This provides some extremely useful insights into how his writings were produced and how they may be read by later generations of readers.

When turning to shared intellectual contexts, any sense of special pleading disappears completely: instead, by tracing Socratic and classical models of human personality, Rovira indicates thoroughly and clearly what Blake and Kierkegaard shared in terms of a philosophical heritage which formed both the points of origin and catalysts for reaction in each of their profoundly religious critiques of what it means to be human. Rovira notes how Kierkegaard came to the Socratic tradition via the German Romantics, a development which means that “[i]rony is not a mere trope in Kierkegaard’s thinking but, at least potentially, an existential stance.” (p.39) Socratic irony allows space for an existential self, and Rovira’s reading of the development of a dialectical author through Kierkegaard’s various philosophical texts is fascinating, emphasising as it does a deep critical and masterly engagement with existential doubt via pseudonymous authors such as Haufniensis and Anti-Climacus. Rovira follows this with a suitably thoughtful examination of Blake’s often complex relation to and use of Plato – sometimes demonstrating affinities to Platonic idealistic thought, as in his letter to Trusler in 1799, at other times ambivalent towards Plato. As Blake’s “world of ideal forms is a visceral one” (p.49), so Rovira suggests it is better to consider him as working in a tradition or genre of “apocalyptic” rather than “Platonic” idealism. This is an obvious enough point in many ways, but important in that Rovira follows it through that too often neglected tradition of religious thought from Augustine and Origen via Erasmus that allows Blake to be critical of the literal and scriptural materialisms of both the Thomas Paines and Bishop Watsons of his day.

This ties very neatly into Rovira’s account of classical models of personality that flourished in both Blake’s and Kierkegaard’s day, which in chapter three are related to the dialectical process in Kierkegaard’s transition from aesthetic to ethical personalities, as well as the movement in Blake from innocence to experience. This dynamic relation within the self, one of the clearest and most fruitful points of contact between both writers, also shares some features with Clark’s work, although Rovira provides a much fuller context for a study of Blake as he emphasises the movement between innocence and experience in Blake’s early works of the late 1780s and early 1790s. Within the third chapter are some particularly effective interpretations of the Songs, The Book of Thel, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion in particular, with Rovira indicating that rather than a standard path of progression from innocence to experience to higher, or organised innocence, we should instead the developmental process as “differentiations within innocence itself that are not usually registered within innocence” (p.71). Kierkegaard’s own model was the development of a bodily-oriented subject in the aesthetic stage, followed by a soul-oriented ethical stage, with a final spirit-oriented religious subject. Coyness – or, indeed, antagonism – among many secular critics about this spirit-oriented, religious subjectivity, tends to mean that those critics tend to ignore the joyous paradox that the self discovers its own eternal sense precisely at the moment that it annihilates self. Rovira is completely right to focus on this religious experience, too often brushed aside, as corresponding to Blake’s sense of visionary consciousness: as such, both Blake and Kierkegaard were able to “confront Enlightenment psychologies that mechanize human beings” (p.92), emphasising instead a break with immanence and environment that enables creation instead of reaction.

These contextual accounts take up more half of the book, and the final two chapters are given over to a reading of the problematic of generation more generally in Blake and Kierkegaard, followed by a detailed consideration of creation anxiety in The [First] Book of Urizen. As Rovira observes, in classical models procreation serves as the foundation for all future acts of creativity (and out of this creation anxiety arising from the attempt to create life and form outside of natural processes). In the first part of chapter 4, Rovira draws fairly extensively on Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety (written under the pseudonym Haufniensis) to help explain some of the dialectical processes at work in Blake’s concept of “Generation”, suggesting that both writers share a common concern with the relations of procreation and the fall of man that were relatively widespread throughout Christian Europe, if rarely dealt with as imaginatively as by these two writers. His summary of Blake’s concept as at work in Visions of the Daughter of Albion is particularly worth repeating:

These are the principle elements of Blake’s critique of fallen generation: it divides the self; it alienates feminine, sensual joy through both male aggression and male introversion; and it alienates both of these from each other, so that male sexuality finds its only expression through the aggressive impulse signified by Bromion. (p.112)

Sexual procreation is the model for all human creativity as understood by Blake and Kierkegaard, but it is the figure of Urizen, argues Rovira in his final chapter, that the full extent of creation anxiety as exhibiting tensions “between monarchy and democracy, science and religion, and nature and artifice” (p.121) finds its fullest expression. Again, Rovira particularly draws upon The Concept of Anxiety to help explain this demon-creator, but he also makes some interesting asides (for example via gnostic traditions) that also include some particularly telling criticisms of other commentators on Blake: a notable example of this is the tendency of Blake critics to see an attack on the Anglican church as an attack on all Christianity, defined as a somewhat generic “traditional” or “orthodox” Christianity. Rovira is quite correct to draw attention to the vagueness of such dismissals, although his discussion of Blake’s religious beliefs in terms of such things as Gnosticism would have benefited from further consideration of the discovery in recent years by biographical discoveries that place Blake’s mother in a Moravian tradition. Rovira is on more certain ground when dealing with the tensions between science and religion in the Urizen books, and I particularly enjoyed his readings of Urizen as the pre-eminent demonic character in Blake’s poetry (a position usually – though not always – reserved for Orc). Again, Haufniensis/Kierkegaard is the most pertinent text here, explaining the “misrelation to eternity” developed through the concept of spiritlessness, the “neither guilty nor not guilty” that operates as a “talking machine”. Ironically, this is a state without anxiety for the spiritless who may even then appear happy. “As a result,” observes Rovira, in a telling final few pages, “it is political and religious life, spiritlessness ‘is a perfect idol worshipper…’ Revivalists, kings, dictators, populist presidents, and fascists find their political fields ripe for harvest in a culture of spiritlessness.” (p.140)

Rovira’s book is an involved but extremely rewarding book, one that delves fully into the complex and sophisticated dialectical processes involved in Kierkegaard’s thought . There are two minor points where I take slight issue with Blake and Kierkegaard, both of them involving contextual materials. One of these, in terms of Denmark’s social and political history may be entirely due to my own lack of knowledge, though the other, regarding the Moravian contexts of Blake’s religious thought does require discussion in such texts that deal with Blake’s theological concerns. However, what Rovira does with incredible dedication and perspicacity is to trace through a discourse of profound spiritual and religious attention that does not easily sit well with many current frameworks for discussing Blake’s work, largely due to the fact that we tend to over-secularise and simplify the Christian doctrines within which writers such as Blake and Kierkegaard worked. Rovira’s reading of Urizen the “Creator-Monarch”, dictatorial in his act of fallen generation precisely because he refuses to consider the spiritual engagement of creation that is both the source and recompense of anxiety, is masterful while Blake and Kierkegaard as a whole is a carefully thought-through and argued text.

Helen P. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly (ed.) — Queer Blake

Queer Blake. Helen P. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly. Palgrave, 2010. pp. 264. $80. ISBN: 978-0230218369

Helen Bruder and Tristanne Connolly’s collection presents, for the first time, an encounter between queer theory and Blake studies. While authors have explored Blake’s relationship to masculinity, Steve Clark’s Sordid Images: The Poetry of Masculine Desire (1994); to homosexuality, Christopher Hobson’s Blake and Homosexuality (2000); to androgyny, Tom Hayes’s “William Blake’s Ego-Ideal;” and to gender, Helen Bruder’s collection Women Reading William Blake (2007) and Magnus Ankarsjo’s William Blake and Gender (2006); no monograph or collection about Blake has focused exclusively on queer theory. On the one hand, readers of Blake’s work are convinced in a vision of Blake’s marital bliss, perhaps punctuated by the story Thomas Butts told of Catherine and William reading Milton’s Paradise Lost in the nude. On the other hand, scholars rightly point out that Blake includes scenes of sexual violence, repression, even rebellion in many of his prophetic books. “The whole situation is queer” say Bruder and Connolly, and I am convinced they are right (4).

Luckily for readers of Queer Blake, Bruder and Connolly boldly venture into the closet of queer Blakean sexuality. They suggest that Blake’s status as a masculine ideal in many readers, the “healthy, macho, rough and ready, ‘typical’ English working class” vision of a “William Bloke,” too often obscures the queer relationships formed between Blake and his contemporaries and even Blake and his academic readers (5). “Queer is for poofy-toffs; transgender softness for bleeding-heart liberals” (6).  So, was Blake a normative sexual conservative, confining his sexuality to the marital bed; or was he a sexual libertine who explored beyond the safe “free-love” clichés given to most Romantic authors? There is enough evidence to titillate and suggest, if not prove, a queer Blake. In particular, Bruder and Connolly mention Blake’s description of Gothic artist Henry Fuseli. Blake describes Fuseli as “The only Man that eer I  knew / Who did not make me spew” (E 507). They call the statement “as curious as it is hiliarious, expressing attraction by denying repulsion, in abject terms of bodily fluids (if he didn’t spew, presumably he swallowed)” (10).

But “outing” Blake’s sexuality isn’t really the point of Queer Blake. Far more fascinating are the ways that queer theory can displace what Bruder and Connolly call the “masculine gaze” of subversive sexual acts in Blake’s work and, alternatively, the ways that Blake’s polymorphous sexual identity is fixed and fixated upon by Blakean critics. In the former, Bruder and Connolly sketch a Blake who harshly critiques masculine sexual forms of “trade and exchange,” celebrates “the centrality of feminine generosity to […] redemption,” practices the “orgasmic abundance” of a “transgendered aesthetic,” and speaks with what they describe as “not just a female voice but with his female voice” (15-17). With regard to Blake’s readers and critics, Bruder and Connolly note the tendency of Blake’s work to turn readers into prostlytizers of his thoughts and visions. Blake indeed has a charming and beguiling ethos, one that produces wildly different readings of his text. If critics and other readers cannot or will not agree on what Blake really meant or what kinds of desires Blake had swirling in his brain, Bruder and Connolly insist they should at least recognize their own queer desire for Blake.

Prefaced by the poem “Pansexuality (regained) by Helen Kidd, the essays in the collection prove a fascinating cross-section of these desires, identities, speculations and suggestions. The first group of essays articulates the challenges Blake’s work poses for queer theory. Christopher Hobson’s “Blake and the Evolution of Same-Sex Subjectivity” proposes that Blake’s work complicates Foucault’s argument that homosexual subjectivity did not exist before the eighteenth century. Richard Sha, in “Blake and the Queering of Jouissance,” suggests that Blake’s poetry can subvert models of jouissance that see it as inherently radical. Peter Otto’s “Drawing Lines: Bodies, Sexualities and Performances in The Four Zoas shows how the use of the bounding line in The Four Zoas maintains but also disrupts normative conceptions of the body and sexual politics.

Other essays engage with queer representations and their place in Blake’s visual imagination. Elizabeth Effinger’s “Anal Blake: Bringing Up the Rear in Blakean Criticism” focuses on Blake’s representation of buttocks to reveal the “anal anxiety” in Blake criticism. Martin Myrone’s “The Body of the Blasphemer” looks closely at Blakean watercolors to sketch a queer visual aesthetic for Blake based upon the visual uncertainty embodied in images like The Blasphemer. The impact of this queer aesthetic on more contemporary artists and their “transgressive, sado-masochistic lens” form the focus of Jason Whittaker’s “Trannies, Amputees and Disco Queens: Blake and Contemporary Queer Art.” Helen Bruder’s “‘Real Acting’: ‘Felpham Billy’ and Grayson Perry Try it On” showcases Blake’s The Pickering Manuscript, written during his stay in Felpham, and its staging of Blake as a feminized or transvestite subjectivity through “girly,” “bicurious” and “kinky” figures.

Reception and influence impact several of the essays in the collection.“Fear Not/To Unfold Your Dark Visions of Torment: Blake and Emin’s Bad Sex Aesthetic” by Tristanne Connolly finds a common link between Blake and artist Tracey Emin, a figure labeled by David Bowie as “William Blake as a woman, written by Mike Leigh,” in their shared fascination with bad sex. Bethan Stevens’ “’Woe & … sighs:’ Fantasies of Slavery in Visions of the Daughters of Albion suggests that Oothoon’s rape scenes in Blake’s violent poem are subversions of the heteronormative narration of Romantic period abolition literature. Caroline Jackson-Houlston’s “’The lineaments of … desire’: Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion and Romantic Literary Treatments of Rape,” on the other hand, takes Blake’s poem to task for its conservative female characters while wondering if the vision of lesbian desire in the poem might point to possibilities that are not respected by its imaginary historical space.

The act of queering traditional readings of Blake is also prominent in the collection. Steve Clark’s “’Yet I am an identity/ I wish & feel & weep & groan’” Blake’s Sentimentalism as (Peri)Performative” explores Blake’s poetry from a sentimentalist, rather than prophetic, tradition. Additionally, David Fallon’s “’By a False Wife Brought to the Gates of Death’: Blake, Politics and Transgendered Performances” contests the binary conceptualization of Blake’s reading of gender by comparing a wide range of Blakean works, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to Jerusalem, to show how Blake queers normative conceptions of sexual identity.

Finally, Blake’s singular relationships with men and women hold keys to considering non-traditional forms of queer subjectivity. Mark Crosby’s “’No Boy’s Work’: Blake, Hayley and the Triumphs of (Intellectual) Paiderastia explores Blake’s anxiety over the paiderastic teaching methods of William Hayley and Blake’s belief that such methods inhibited his creativity. Susan Matthew’s “’Hayley on His Toilette’: Blake, Hayley and Homophobia” analyzes the satiric figure of male effeminacy in the Notebook and the Bard’s Song from Milton to suggest that it is frequently misread as homophobic due to a blindness of the shifting sexual roles in the early nineteenth century. Keri Davies’ “My Little Cane Sopha and the Bust of Sappho’: Elizabeth Iremonger and the Female World of Book-Collecting” questions Blake’s sister Catherine and her spinsterhood, connecting it to the practice of female cohabitation and the early women book-collecters who were the first audiences for Blake’s work.

Queer Blake creates an opportunity for truly subversive readings of Blake’s work, life, and relationships. While complicating models of sexuality and subjectivity in both Blake studies and queer theory in general, Queer Blake also gives readers a complicated, contradicting, and contested portrait of Blakean sexuality. It is in this portrait that Queer Blake is singularly queer and uniquely valuable. Rather than settle for a hypostasized sexual identity for Blake and his work, Queer Blake is able to navigate girly Blakes and macho Blakes, heteronormative Blakes and anal Blakes, sentimentalist Blakes and transgendered Blakes.

Blake and Physiognomy

This new display in Room 2 of the Tate Britain collections for British Art 1500-2010 brings together a selection of Blake’s works in the context of Johann Kaspar Lavater, the Swiss pastor and physiognomist most famous for his book, Essays on Physiognomy. Translated in 1789, this book caused something of a sensation in Britain (as well as the rest of Europe), and Blake was commissioned – along with Thomas Holloway – to engrave a number of designs made for the Essays by Lavater’s friend, Henry Fuseli.

The display has been brought together by Philippa Simpson with input from Sybille Erle, who has long worked on Blake’s illustrations to Lavater and whose book, Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy was recently published by Legenda. It opens with a brief account that contextualises the ideas made popular by the Swiss writer. His illustrations to Essays on Physiognomy, begun near the start of Blake’s career, are followed immediately by designs for the so-called “Visionary Heads”, the series of drawings and famous tempera painting of the Ghost of a Flea that were composed at the instigation of his friend John Varley in the final years of Blake’s life. While Blake seemed to have taken a lifelong interest in the depictions of facial types that was consonant with the philosophy of Lavater, that interest was much less literal in many respects than Varley’s who, as various asides from his contemporaries made clear, believed more or less everything he heard and everything that he read.

Much of the display is comprised of selections from two series that Blake worked on: the large colour prints, including the magnificent illustrations of Nebuchadnezzar and Newton, and watercolours and engravings from the illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy. While Blake was immensely impressed by Lavater’s theories, having inscribed a heart around his and Lavater’s names in his own copy of the Essays, one of the most striking elements of this display is the occasional dissonance that appears to occur in Blake’s own art. Lavater suggested that through physiognomy was displayed the essential characteristics of a person’s character, and while Blake appears to have agreed with this basic tenet he also sometimes appears to turn the correspondences between psychic and physical attributes on their (so to speak) head. This is most evident in the print of Newton – in which the idealised spiritual beauty of the scientist betrays a cold, almost blind monomania rather than perfection of character – and Ciampolo the Barrator Tormented by the Devils. In this latter engraving, the malebranche, or horned devils that torture Ciampolo (whose sin is to sell political influence) have faces of refined gentlemen, offering a satirical cast on Blake’s use of physiognomy to reflect character.

As the curators make clear, if very subtly, though Lavater was considered one of the mildest of men his pseudo-scientific theories also contained disturbing aspects, most notably his anti-semitism. Lavater believed, for example, that by conversion to Christianity Jews would see their features slowly become less “jewish”, and once or twice the immensely philo-semitic Blake appears to pander to this crass prejudice, as well as – perhaps rather understandably – the straightforward Eurocentrism of the age.

While Blake’s illustrations dominate the display, there are also works on show from Sir David Wilkie and William Hogarth, whose painting of heads of six of his servants is a delightful masterpiece. While Hogarth is obviously fascinated by the features of his servants, his interest in physiognomy does not display the same fascination in abstraction, theory and types as Lavater’s and Blake’s but captures instead vivid characters rather than correspondences. Alongside this is a print of Blake’s depiction of the Canterbury Tales, vivid and brilliant in a very different way to Hogarth’s masterly painting. In his catalogue entry for the original painting, Blake had written: ”

Of Chaucer’s characters, as described in his Canterbury Tales, some of the names or titles are altered by time, but the characters themselves for ever remain unaltered, and consequently they are the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which Nature never steps. Names alter, things never alter.” (E532-3) Whereas Hogarth depicted individual characters, specific to the faces of the wonderfully mundane figures in his employ at that time, for Blake the illumination of types from literature was a more important consideration for the ideal artist.

The final items on display are two versions of the famous life mask of Blake made by James Deville in 1823. Deville, who created and collected phrenological casts, wished to capture the faculties of imagination which, he assumed, were displayed most clearly in the face of Blake. The versions, in plaster and bronze, have become one of the most significant and popular images produced by Blake, influential on a wide range of later artists such as Francis Bacon and Antony Gormley – and which I have long considered his most important piece of performance art. As ever, the life mask, is a fascinating piece and also offers an ironic counterpoint to many of my own assumptions regarding the pseudo-scientific gobbledegook that Lavater inspired: if physiognomy is not an index of character, particularly of the racialist strictures that it was to give rise to in the nineteenth century, it never ceases to amaze me how much of my own estimation of what type of man Blake was has been formed by looking on the somwhat stern, concentrated face preserved in Deville’s remarkable cast.

Blake and Physiognomy runs until 8 May 2011. Entrance is free.