Blake’s Margins

Blake’s Margins: An Interpretative Study of the Annotations. Hazard Adams.
Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland and Company Inc., 2009. pp. 204. £32.50. ISBN: 978 0 7864 4536 3.

As Adams points out in his introduction to Blake’s Margins, although Blake’s annotations to writers such as Bacon, Lavater and Watson are often alluded to by critics, very few substantial studies of those annotations have been published. Eleven volumes bearing Blake’s comments have survived, along with sheets of notes to Wordsworth’s The Excursion and a transcript of the annotations to Spurzheim’s Observations on the Deranged Manifestations of the Mind, and Blake almost certainly recorded various observations in other books, now lost to us. Of subsequent critical commentary, R. J. Shroyer and G. Ingli James provide introductions to their facsimiles (including Blake’s annotations) of Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man and Watson’s An Apology for the Bible, with essays on the subject by Morton Paley, Thomas McFarland and H. J. Jackson, as well as one book, Jason Allen Snart’s The Torn Book: UnReading William Blake’s Marginalia. As Adams observes, his own approach – dealing directly with Blake’s words with a special emphasis on providing a descriptive context for each text that Blake annotates – is very different to the postmodernist and deconstructionist line taken by Snart.

As such, Blake’s Margins is much clearer than The Torn Book, its plainness of style being very much evident in the first chapter that turns to Henry Fuseli’s translation of John Caspar Lavater’s Aphorisms, a book that Blake returned to with considerable pleasure (drawing a heart around his and Lavater’s names) despite – or even because of – the differences that emerged between them. On first reading, Blake scholars may feel a certain sense of disappointment here (as I certainly did): there is little that is specifically new or innovative in how Adam’s interprets the aphorisms, in contrast to example to Jeanne Moskal’s influential reading in her 1989 essay on “The Problem of Forgiveness in Blake’s Annotations to Lavater” or, more recently, Sybille Erle’s 2006 piece, “Leaving Their Mark: Lavater, Fuseli and Blake’s Imprint on Aphorisms on Man”. Nonetheless, the virtues of Adams’s writing soon becomes clear: while this book will not especially provoke critical waves, nor will it be subject to scholarly fashions and, as a book, provides a careful and extremely well considered contextual account that will be of lasting benefit to all readers of Blake (indeed, in his introduction Adams emphasises that he writes “less for scholars well acquainted with Blake’s writings and art” and more for students and the general reader, p.3).

The chapter on Lavater sits with a number of others dealing with Blake’s responses to various psychological and philosophical topics, such as those on Sir Francis Bacon, J. C. Spurzheim, and George Berkeley. Blake’s benevolent feelings towards Lavater are clear when turning to Bacon. As Adams points out (following other commentators before him), Blake’s damning verdict of Bacon is expressed less by his words and more by a marginal illustration of a devil’s arse dropping excrement on the words “A King” (p.84). Despising Bacon’s politics, Blake has little more to admire in Bacon’s economics (considered by Blake to be no more than usury), religion (he accuses Bacon of atheism), philosophy (with a critique of the limits of inductive reason), nor his aesthetics. Blake is a little more sympathetic when annotating George Berkeley’s Siris, although the fact that he does not mark at all the first two thirds of the book which discuss the beneficial properties of tar-water do not provide us with knowledge of whether Blake agreed or disagreed with Berkeley’s foolish opinions. Adams is clear and precise, however, when detailing Blake’s contentions with aspects of Berkeley’s Platonism, as well as the fact that Blake may also have misunderstood parts of Berkeley’s philosophy. With regard to Spurzheim, Blake made only two annotations but, as Adams points out, these are significant both because of the aspersions of insanity that were made against Blake during his lifetime and the influence of Spurzheim’s phrenology on his series of Visionary Heads (p.139).

If philosophy and psychology dominate a considerable part of Blake’s marginal annotations, it is unsurprising to see that the other types of text that detained his reading were those dealing with religion and the arts. Blake’s antipathy to Sir Joshua Reynolds is notorious, and Adams notes that the annotations to the Discourses “range from angry accusations and denunciations to the occasional agreement.” (p. 109) In general, Blake considered Reynolds a hireling and hates the President of the Royal Academy’s self-satisfaction, complacency and hypocrisy, but these notes are also a source for Blake’s opinions on significant matters such as the role of imitation in education, genius in the arts and attention to “minute discrimination”. It is uncertain whether Blake read all of Reynold’s Discourses, but throughout it is clear that both artists held fundamentally different opinions as to the purpose of imagination. The annotations to Henry Boyd’s translation of Dante’s Inferno, by contrast, are less angry, though still motivated by disagreement with regard to what he saw as Boyd’s deism and the role of morality in religion. More interesting for later readers are the comments on William Wordsworth’s Poems, published in 1815 and lent to Blake by Henry Crabb Robinson. Robinson’s diaries and notes record a more favourable opinion on the part of Blake, but in the annotations he criticises Wordsworth’s notions of vision, imagination and nature. Nonetheless, if Adams is right and certain poems and passages marked with a cross indicate Blake’s hand, there may have been many passages dealing with innocence and experience, as well as those in the ballad form, that appealed to him considerably.

The final subject that attracted Blake’s pen was religion. A substantial chapter is devoted to Bishop Richard Watson’s An Apology for the Bible, published in 1796 and annotated by Blake in 1798. As an answer to Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (some of the content of which Adams summarises here), Watson sought to refute the attacks on the priesthood that appeared in the second part of Paine’s work (Adams writes that there is no evidence that the Bishop had even read the first part) and offer a defence of more orthodox opinion. Blake’s interest, suggests Adams, flagged after the first three letters; significantly, although Blake was by no means inclined towards Paine’s deism, that is not attacked here almost certainly because he was more concerned with expressing political sympathy with Paine as well as irritation with “Watson’s barely concealed snobbishness” (p.79). At the end of the artist’s life, comments in Robert John Thornton’s The Lord’s Prayer, Newly Translated (1827) provide an entertaining, pithy and radical blast against the often eccentric doctor, who Blake knew through John Linnell, and who had commissioned Blake for a series of woodcuts to Virgil’s Eclogues.

Blake’s Margins ends with a brief account of Blake’s reading and citations from a number of other sources, as varied as Joseph Addison’s Cato and William Gilpin’s work on the picturesque, concluding that he was “an avid critic and commentator” (p.197). Adams’s book is a clear introduction to several works which, obscure now, provide considerable insight into Blake’s ideas and philosophies on a range of subjects. Snart’s book is considerably more sophisticated in its approach to Blake and reading, but this interpretative study of the marginalia provides many insights into how those peripheral squibs and praises informed a great deal of the artist’s thought.