Magnus Ankarsjö – William Blake and Religion

William Blake and Religion: A New Critical View. Magnus Ankarsjö
Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland and Company, 2009. pp. 163. $39.95. ISBN: 978 0 7864 4559 2.

The second book by Ankarsjö to be published by McFarland, William Blake and Religion shares some themes with his earlier title, William Blake and Gender (2006) in that one of the aims of this book is to take recent discoveries about the religious background of Blake’s family and explore these in relation to his views on sexuality. Most important for  Ankarsjö’s ideas is the work undertaken by Marsha Keith Schuchard in Why Mrs Blake Cried (2006) and various essays by Keri Davies that have uncovered links between Blake’s mother and the Moravian church. The Moravians, a religious group that had its roots in the followers of John Hus in fifteenth century Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic), experienced a religious revival in the eighteenth century under the charismatic leadership of Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf during which period they encouraged greater equality between the sexes in comparison to most religious movements of the time, and established a small but devoted church. In addition to the research of Schuchard and Davies (to which may be added Robert Rix’s re-evaluation of Blake’s relations to the various religious sects of his day in William Blake and the Cultures of Radical Christianity, 2007), the most important figures to William Blake and Religion are David Worrall, who cast fresh light into the activities undertaken by Swedenborgians at the end of the eighteenth century, and Helen Bruder because of her re-evaluation of Blake and gender studies in her extremely influential and important book, William Blake and the Daughters of Albion (1997).

Ankarsjö sets out these foundational figures in his introduction, as well as providing a brief detour via one dead end of Blake studies that occasionally rears its head (though not with academics working in the field), the late E.P. Thompson’s assertion that Blake was a Muggletonian in his 1993 book, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. Dealing with Thompson briskly, Ankarsjö’s task is to focus instead on the effect that newly discovered materials relating to Moravianism will have on our understanding of Blake. As such, with particular emphasis on both religion and sexuality, William Blake and Religion is probably one of the first of what is likely to be a growing number of texts that will explore the intersection between Blake and the Moravian Church. In addition, in his first and best chapter, Ankarsjö also pays attention to the continuing influence of Swedenborgianism, the teachings and church established by the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg who claimed constant and visionary experiences of the spiritual world, throughout the 1790s (which many – though by no means all – of Blake scholars assume the artist had turned his back on after publication of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), as well as a more prickly relationship with Unitarianism, which influenced a number of his contemporaries that Blake would have encountered via the circle gathered around the publisher Joseph Johnson. Ankarsjö is clear and convincing when outlining these religious contexts, and makes some extremely interesting and relevant observations, for example in his repetition of Keri Davies’s comment at the Blake 250 conference in 2007 that the position of Moravianism as neither dissenting from, nor wholly within, the mainstream Anglican church means that we shall probably have to revise many oft-repeated (and dearly held) assumptions about the dissenting radicalism of Blake’s background.

This chapter is by far and away the best in the book, but some problems emerge when dealing with the next two chapters, “Blake’s Religion” and “Blake’s Sexuality”. Part of the difficulty emerges with the step that sometimes appears to be made once the Moravianism of Blake’s background is recognised: it seems very clear that Blake’s mother was a Moravian, and also that Blake’s parents attended a Moravian church. As such, it is extremely probable that Blake grew up in a household that was infused with Moravian values. However, to follow this to the conclusion that Blake himself was a Moravian, or strongly influenced by Moravian ideas, is much more problematic. Keri Davies is always careful when drawing such conclusions – much more so than Schuchard, in my opinion – but Ankarsjö to me appears to dither and this sometimes creates problems with understanding entirely what the relationship with Moravianism brings. Some sections, for example when dealing with notions of conjugal (or conjugial, in Swedenborg’s phrase) love appear to be very profitable when explaining Blake’s own attitudes towards religion, but the chapter “Blake’s Religion” as a whole ends up somewhat confusing: it is hard, in the end, to pin down what Blake’s religion was. This is due to two reasons, one of which I think is a fault with Ankarsjö approach to his subject, one of which is much more general.

First of all, Ankarsjö tends to cherry-pick texts, looking for ones that may reinforce his approach to Moravianism in particular but also that Blake continued to look towards Swedenborgianism. This, for me, is extremely unsatisfactory because some of Blake’s most profound and extensive documents dealing with religion, such as the late epic Jerusalem or The Everlasting Gospel, offer complexities which could easily deny the more straightforward application of Ankarsjö’s thesis. This leads to the more general point: few other English writers (or, indeed, artists) spent more time than Blake in dealing with the topic of religion and the divine, but any attempt to pin down Blake in terms of a particular sect appears to me doomed to failure because of the idiosyncracies of Blake’s spiritual vision, his fairly consistent refusal to participate in a church (unless, perhaps, it is because as Keri Davies has suggested the Anglican Church was, in the end, broad enough to encompass his vision). I emphasise here the idiosyncracy of Blake’s religious views rather than the Romantic “eccentricity” which Ankarsjö rightly dismisses in his introduction: Blake was a deep and profound thinker on religious topics, not least in that he perceived the fundamental problems of attempting to fix experiences of the divine within human structures, systems against which he always struggled. In the end, my problem with this part of William Blake and Religion results from a degree of confusion as to whether Ankarsjö is proposing what we may call a “strong” theory of Blake and Moravianism, where that religion helps to explain more or less completely the framework of Blake’s belief – the evidence for which I find rather hard to accept; or whether he is working towards a “weak” theory, in which Blake’s Moravian background predisposes him towards a number of tenets and attitudes, for example with regard to ecumenicism and sexual love, which – by contrast – does appear extremely enlightening for me.

Although I found myself somewhat confused as to Ankarsjö’s aims in the chapter on Blake’s religion, a more serious flaw is to be encountered in his chapter on Blake’s sexuality. Before turning to this flaw, it is right to remark on where Ankarsjö’s comments are illuminating, for example in reinforcing the attitudes towards “free love” that were developing both among Blake’s radical associates of the eighteenth century and “conjugal love” that existed in the Moravian Church and Swedenborgianism.William Blake and Religion has much to say that is useful in this regard, although again the tendency to jump between different Blakean texts can be confusing. However, where the flaw exists is that Ankarsjö’s apparent desire to claim Blake as a proto-feminist can be rather unsophisticated and extremely problematic. The repeated assertions by Anne Mellor as to Blake’s intrinsic sexism is a coarse and unhelpful position, one which Helen Bruder in particular has treated to appropriate criticism (and which has also been aided by more work by scholars such as Davies into Blake’s early female collectors). However, Bruder maintains a healthily caustic attitude to Blake’s sexual politics which seems largely to vanish in William Blake and Religion. Ankarsjö’s desire to read white where others read black leads him, in my opinion, into some rather bizarre interpretations.

For example, in a comment that actually appears in the chapter “Blake’s Religion”, Ankarsjö makes the following observation of Blake’s comment in his description of the painting “The Last Judgement” that “There is no such thing in Eternity as a Female Will”:

First, it has to be pointed out that Blake here is strictly following the creation myth from Genesis, which clearly was in line with his increasing interest in the Bible and traditional Christianity at this point in time. In Genesis, as we know, woman was created from a body part of man in order to be his life companion. If we, as Blake, follow the analogy through to the other extreme, as it were, then man and woman are reunited and are as one. Hence, as much as man has no will of his own in eternity, neither has woman. Quite simply, separate and individual wills do not exist. (p.66)

To place Blake’s thought in a biblical tradition is perfectly correct, and it may also be right that Blake did not believe in the existence of separate female or male wills (and Ankarsjö’s remarks on the role of the Spectre in Blake’s writings as a ravenous, separate male will are also appropriate here). However, there remains a problem for me in Blake’s remark that the rush to embrace him as a proto-feminist fails to encompass sufficiently: even if Blake does not believe in a separate male will in eternity, he offers no denunciation of it that is comparable to his denunciation of the female. The rejection of a separate male will remains, unfortunately, implicit throughout too much of his writing, while the renunciation of female will is, equally unfortunately, far too explicit at times. More simply, Blake may not be a sexist, but sometimes his rhetoric comes very close to reinforcing sexist stereotypes; there are blind spots which we should not neglect. As such, like Bruder and Tristanne Connolly, I am less keen to smooth over some of the sexual ambiguities in Blake’s works while accepting, like those critics and Ankarsjö himself that denunciations of “sexist” Blake have been based on rather crude interpretations of the sexual politics of his poetry.

Ankarsjö’s final chapter, on “Blake’s Utopian ‘Colony'” offers an interesting discussion of slavery that owes much to the work of David Worrall. Ankarsjö’s contribution is to offer a critical reading of some of Worrall’s arguments, in particular the almost entirely negative interpretation of the proposed Swedenborgian colony in Sierre Leone in terms of its gender equality, so that Ankarsjö discovers more sympathy to proto-feminist arguments among the Swedenborgians than Worrall does – though in the end he agrees that it was a largely patriarchal exercise. In addition, he offers some significant comments on similar utopian colonies from the time, such as those by Unitarians. Where the chapter is on more shaky ground is in assuming that the conference attended by Blake in 1789, and where a colony in Sierre Leone would have been under discussion, still continues to influence Blake’s work on his final epics, Milton and Jerusalem after 1808; indeed, the chapter ends unsatisfactorily with a rather cursory pointer towards Blake’s attitudes on slavery that would surely have benefited from contextualisation in the evangelical fervour surrounding the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

William Blake and Religion offers some valuable contributions and summaries of contemporary arguments surrounding Blake’s Moravian background. When discussing the interrelation of Moravianism with Swedenborgianism and even Unitarianism, it is clear and eminently useful as a guide. The book is more confused, unfortunately, as to offering an account of Blake’s religion, probably because it strives a little too hard to map out the influence of Moravianism throughout Blake’s work which, in my opinion, tends to distort sometimes what Blake had to say on the subject. In the light of current research it is clear that Blake must have been marked by Moravianism – and yet the implied move to read Blake as a Moravian appears unsatisfactory at times in discussing Blake’s own thoughts on religion and the divine.

Print as Social Media: The William Blake Birthday Book

I was recently sent a copy of this delightful book by Felicity Bowers. Rather than provide a straightforward review I have decided to write about it in a slightly different format – partly because of the date of publication (2007) but also because, while reading it, several other thoughts on a broader theme became apparent to me.

The Birthday Book was published to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth and launched with an exhibition, “All that we See is Vision”, in November of that year at the House of William Blake in South Molton Street, where Blake lived in the early nineteenth century. The book also grew out of a long-established group, the William Blake Congregation, which was set up in 1986 by Simon Miles and which meets every year at Tate Britain to celebrate Blake’s birth. As such, the editors sent out invitations to artists and poets influenced by Blake who in turn spread the word to others, submissions then being brought together to produce the final book.

The result is a collection of 61 poems and illustrations printed in colour and taking Blake, directly or obliquely, as a source of inspiration. By and large images and poems alternate throughout the book, with plenty of pages combining both in a manner befitting Blake’s own method of production (and demonstrating just how much easier his task would have been had he lived and worked in the age of digital reproduction). Contributors include several famous figures, such as Adrian Mitchell, Michael Horovitz and Chris Orr, as well as plenty of others who may or may not be enthusiastic amateurs (or, at least, unknown to me). This is by no means a criticism of the project, as opening up Blake to the widest possible audience is of especial interest to me.

With regard to the images and poems themselves, the quality of such a collection is variable – as one would expect of a medley such as this – and the same is true of style, media and presentation. Some particularly attracted my attention: Jan Martin’s elegant, minimalist linocut, “Heaven in a Wild Flower”, is graceful and delicate, inviting the viewer to consider Blake’s imaginative infinity in the spaces bounded by a firm line; Roger Wagner’s untitled woodcut is reminiscent of Blake’s designs for Thornton’s Virgil and his watercolour “Albion Rose”, as well as alluding to elements of the fourfold vision in The Four Zoas and Jerusalem; Partou Zia’s painting, also untitled, depicting a woman painting in a book beneath a tree, was especially poignant for me, as I had met Partou – an Iranian born artist who had lived in Newlyn since 1993 – several times before her early death in 2008.

The contributions tend to be divided between those that reinterpret a particular text or motif from Blake – such as Brian Catling’s “Blake – The Flea”, Karen Camp’s “from Songs of Innocence – Night”, and Michael Chaitow’s “Energy is Eternal Delight” – and those that use Blake as a starting point for original compositions that echo Blakean themes and styles, or aspects of his biography, rather than specific minute particulars, such as Horovitz’s “Footnotes to Blake” or interFerence’s “To Whom It May Concern.”

The thoughts roused in me when reading through The William Blake Birthday Book were most intriguing in dealing with the social feeling that runs throughout the book. Social media may be a buzzword when dealing with online and digital platforms, but everything about this printed book – from its conception to the delicious jumble decoherent responses – points to how other formats may be social media. In particular, considering the conversations inspired throughout the pages of this little book, the editor’s acknowledgement of thanks to “all the artists and poets who responded with enthusiasm at short notice and accommodated our strange request to use handwriting in the age of email and to work at the same size as the printed image in the age of photography and digital scanning” is a tribute to the aspirations of this (itself delightfully strange) work inspired by one who described himself as “very much delighted with being in good Company.”

The William Blake Birthday Book is available from www.williamblakecongregation.co.uk. For more information on the Blake Congregation, including its next meeting at Tate Britain, visit williamblakecongregation.wordpress.com.

Editing and Reading Blake

Romantic Circles has just published another volume in its Praxis series, Editing and Reading Blake. Co-edited by Wayne C. Ripley and Justin Van Kleeck, this collection of essays looks at the profound challenges William Blake poses to both editors and readers.

Ripley’s introduction provides an overview of how editors have represented Blake over the past century and a half, including how the editors of the Blake Archive transform the possibilities of accessing Blake’s work.

Subsequent essays include those by editors of Blake, such as David Fuller, W. H. Stevenson, and Mary Lynn Johnson, that explore particular contexts and issues that emerge when engaging with Blake’s idiosyncratic texts. In addition, a series of essays by authors such as Rachel Lee and Justin Van Kleeck explore the special considerations that come into play when dealing with the requirements of new technologies.

As all editorial work requires mediation (and thus misrepresentation), so the notion that we can in any way read Blake’s works as he intended them is increasingly being recognised as “an editorial fantasy”. The collection also looks to future ways in which Blake’s works will address audiences.

Editing and Reading Blake can be read at http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/editing_blake/.

Two new publications from Palgrave

Palgrave Macmillan has two significant new publications on William Blake for 2010, one of which was published on May 13, the second of which will be available in June.

Queer Blake, edited by Helen P. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly, is a collection of essays dealing with “weird, perverse, camp and gay dimensions of the artist’s life and work”. The sixteen chapters provide both propagandist and sceptical observations on Blake’s queerness, but all offer fresh insights into the Romantic’s work when heterosexuality is ditched as the norm for viewing his art and poetry – a position that was impressively advanced by Christopher Z. Hobson in his 2000 book, Blake and Homosexuality.

Helen Bruder is an independent scholar and the author of William Blake and the Daughters of Albion (1997) and editor of Women Reading William Blake (2007). Tristanne Connolly is Assistant Professor of English at St. Jerome’s University in the University of Waterloo, Canada, and author of William Blake and the Body (2002) and editor (with Steve Clark) of Liberating Medicine 1720-1835 (2009). Queer Blake costs £50.00 and is available from the Palgrave website.

Blake on Language, Power, and Self-Annihilation by John H. Jones is the first study to to consider the significance of Blake’s concept of ‘self-annihilation’ as it pertains to language and communication. Chapters on the discourse and concept of self-annihilation are followed by specific readings of the term in Blake’s works from Songs of Innocence and of Experience to Jerusalem. Jones is Associate Professor of English at Jacksonville State University, USA and the book, costing £52.50, will be available from June 25 but can be pre-ordered from the Palgrave website.

Seen in My Visions

Seen in My Visions: A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures. William Blake (edited by Martin Myrone).
London: Tate Publishing, 2009. pp. 128. £12.99. ISBN: 978 1 85437 863 7.

Published to accompany the exhibition at Tate Britain last year that recreated Blake’s private show of 1809, this small, elegant book presents Blake’s once neglected Descriptive Catalogue with quiet, understated authority. Much of this, of course, is due to the great change in status that Blake’s work has undergone since his death, yet the collection of colour plates presented here, along with the Catalogue itself and Martin Myrone’s introduction and notes, provides Blake’s one-man show with a cultural significance that would have astonished the Romantic artist’s contemporaries.

Seen in My Visions is divided into four sections: Myrone’s introduction and a bibliographical note is followed by the Descriptive Catalogue itself as well as the paintings that were included in the Tate 2009 exhibition. The volume concludes with a glossary of art terms used by Myrone and Blake. Myrone’s essay, “The grand Style of Art restored”, is concise but extremely informative, providing within its few pages a surprisingly comprehensive (and comprehensible) account of the contexts of the fine art scene as it existed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Myrone’s main concern is the institutional practice of the Royal Academy, designed as a showcase to promote contemporary British artists and one that very quickly prompted opposition that resulted in alternative one-man shows, beginning with Nathaniel Hone’s exhibition in 1775. Leading artists such as Gainsborough, Barry and Fuseli sought alternatives to the hegemony of the Academy; as such, Blake’s decision to exhibit was by no means as eccentric as (in the eyes of those few contemporaries who saw them) were the works of art on display. As Myrone concludes, Blake was not that unusual, and many artists “had tried to acquire a public reputation, and avoid the pitfalls of the big annual exhibitions, by setting up their own shows” (p. 18).

While Myrone effectively contextualises Blake within a sphere of contemporary practice that was not, then, particularly unusual, the Descriptive Catalogue itself cannot but appear idiosyncratic even after two centuries. The longest section of text describes a a painting of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which emulated a Gothic, medieval style that was considerably out of favour with early nineteenth-century tastes. Charles Lamb described this as one of the finest pieces of criticism he had ever seen, and certainly it demonstrates Blake’s incisive opinions, but other readers such as the Hunt brothers and Robert Southey who encountered his denunciations of Rubens and Titian, as well as his declarations of the primacy of semitic over classical art considered him at best eccentric, at worst mad.

The plates of surviving works (eleven out of sixteen included in the 1809 show) include some of Blake’s most famous images, such as The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan and Christ in the Sepulchre, guarded by Angels, as well as early, more conventional examples of Blake’s art such as The Penance of Jane Shore, which he had painted in 1793 for exhibition in the Royal Academy. Some of these paintings, notably the rich temperas of which Satan Calling up his Legions is a good example, have suffered considerably over time, the canvas having cracked and darkened. The watercolours, however, particularly the glorious angels guarding Christ, remain translucent and vivid. By displaying mainly biblical subjects or those drawn from contemporary poetry (for example Gray’s The Bard), rather than those figures that comprised his own mythology, Blake attempted to present himself in a relatively conventional light, yet the non-mimetic, gradiose figures elevated from flat, pre-Renaissance backgrounds, could not have appeared as anything other than impossibly bizarre to most viewers at the time.

Myrone’s glossary, as with his footnotes to the Catalogue, provides a lucid explanation of various terms. The book as a whole has been designed as a catalogue for general readers (and visitors to the 2009 show) rather than academics, and the strength of Myrone’s style is his ability to convey the complexities of art history with an assured, light touch. Blake’s painting, in contrast to his poetry and printmaking, tends to be a neglected subject, but recent exhibitions and the continuing interest of twenty-first century artists in Blake indicate that “Seen in My Visions” probably marks the start of a new trend in Blake studies that will pay more attention to that art.

William Blake’s Life & Work

The first  in a series of publications called Zoamorphosis Essential Introductions is now available. This will provide a set of concise, clearly presented guides that draw on the latest research in Blake studies to outline different approaches to Blake’s poetry and art.

William Blake’s Life & Works is a clear and elegant introduction to one of the most remarkable poets and artists ever to have lived and worked in the British Isles. This concise book, first in the Zoamorphosis Essential Introductions series, provides an account of Blake’s biography and his major works that draws upon some of the most recent scholarship on Blake, presenting that material in an accessible fashion.

This is available as an eBook in HTML and PDF formats, with an ePub version for mobile readers due soon. To download a copy go to the Publications page.

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.

Studies on Blake’s reception

As this is the main focus of my own research, the following is an introduction to the main publications that have appeared dealing with the reception of Blake’s work. The top-10 format is simply to make this manageable, and most of the following are books although Mike Goode’s Blakespotting is a superb article. Published in chronological order, they demonstrate that this is a relatively new field in Blake studies (with a few honourable precursors). Anyone interested is also recommended to refer to Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly which frequently includes articles on Blake’s influence.

1. Dorfman, D. Blake in the Nineteenth Century (Yale UP: 1969). Still the best guide to Blake’s reception in the immediate period after his death. While the theory of reception has moved on considerably since publication of this book, it is a comprehensive study of literary and artistic influences.

2. Bertholf, R. and Levitt, A. Blake and the Moderns (SUNY: 1982). A collection of essays including ones by Hazard Adams on Blake and Yeats and Robert Gleckner on Joyce, this concentrates on the literature and has largely been superseded by Larrissy (see below) but still worth reading.

3. Dent, S. and Whittaker, J. Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife from 1827 (Palgrave: 2002) A polemic and wide-ranging survey organised thematically rather than chronologically. This is the first to try and extend studies of reception beyond literature and the fine arts and, because of this, is inevitably full of gaps.

4. Tambling, J. Blake’s Night Thoughts (Palgrave: 2005) Although not devoted to reception of Blake alone (dealing more generally with Blake as a poet and artist of the night), there is some very useful material here on his influence on figures such as Blanchot and Mann.

5. Larrissy, E. William Blake and Modern Literature (Palgrave: 2006) The best survey of Blake’s influence on literature since the very end of the nineteenth until the late twentieth centuries. Focuses on high rather than popular formats, but more coherent because of this.

6. Clark, S., and Suzuki, M. The Reception of Blake in the Orient (Continuum: 2006) Blake’s printmaking ironically brought him wider acceptance at an early stage in Japan, at least as an artist, than in western Europe and America, and this collection of essays deals with Blake’s relation to orientalism as well as how he was used by figures such as Yanagi Soetsu.

7. Goode, Mike, Blakespotting (PMLA, 121.3: 2006). An excellent and witty survey of the uses of Blake in popular culture, beginning with Donald Trump’s use of the Proverbs of Heaven and Hell.

8. Clark, S., and Whittaker, J. Blake, Modernity and Popular Culture (Palgrave: 2007). With two essays on Blake’s contemporary circles, most essays in this collection deal with reception during the Victorian period through to the beginning of the twenty-first century.

9. Ault, D. and Whitson, R. William Blake and Visual Culture (ImageTexT, 3.2: 2007) ImageTexT is devoted to interdisciplinary comics studies, and there is some material here on Blake’s influence on graphic novels as well as other visual forms.

10. Trodd, C. Visions of Blake: William Blake in the Art World, 1830-1930 (Liverpool UP: 2010) Forthcoming. Will offer the most comprehensive view yet of Blake’s artistic influence in the century after his death.

New titles on Blake for 2010

New books on Blake due out in the first half of 2010.

A new reprint of the two volume edition of Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake will appear as part of the Cambridge Library Collection in April, and another reissue is Bill Gillham’s Blake’s Contrary States: The ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ as Dramatic Poems, first published in 1966 but now available in paperback from February. In Contrary States, Gillham argues that the apparent contradictions of Songs of Innocence and of Experience are due to the fallacy of reading them as Blake’s opinions, rather than projections of dramatic states.

One possible oddity released in January of this year is the somewhat bizarrely titled And did Those Feet in Ancient Time: Poetry, William Blake, Hymn, Apocrypha, Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, Glastonbury, Book of Revelation, Second … Heaven, Industrial Revolution, Old Testament,  by Frederic Miller et al which offers yet another reading of the Glastonbury myth of Christ’s visit to Britain in the light of Blake’s famous lyric from Milton.

More substantial scholarship will be found in Collin Trodd’s Visions of Blake: William Blake in the Art World 1830-1930, which was due for publication in 2009 but has been delayed till later this year. Similarly,  John H. Jones will explore the significance of Blake’s concept of ‘self-annihilation’ as it pertains to language and communication in Blake on Language, Power, and Self-Annihilationto be published by Palgrave in May, and although publication details are not yetforthcoming, Faber and Faber is due to release a selection of Blake’s poems in June with an introduction by the poet and critic James Fenton, who has occasionally written on Blake as in his 2007 essay on Blake and slavery.

Blake and Conflict

Blake and Conflict. Sarah Haggarty and Jon Mee.
Palgrave, 2008. pp. 256. £50. ISBN: 9 7802 3057 3871.

Blake and Conflict is a collection of essays from a 2006 conference of the same name. Jon Mee and Sarah Haggarty propose a way for dealing with Blake’s contrary visions in a time of conflict as a series of conversations (with particular reference to Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of the inoperative community), although they recognise that this runs the danger of denying or even sanctioning violence in Blake’s work, drawing on William Keach’s critique of a masculinist will-to-power that is found in his art and poetry. Conflict in Blake’s art and writings is dealt with here in terms of interweaving dialogues between religion, politics and the visual arts, beginning with Saree Makdisi’s “Blake and the Ontology of Empire”, which builds on the Orientalist critique found in his previous work (including William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s), examining how Blake “refuses Orientalism” because he rejects “the logic of individualism predicated on an opposition to otherness” (12) which had become ingrained in a western discourse that bound together Orientalism, imperialism and western subjectivity founded on moral virtue as the basis for the self-regulating self. Blake’s God, by contrast, is an open one, and his task (evident, for example, in his reading of Paine’s Age of Reason) is to recover an “unperverted Bible” of love and forgiveness.

Makdisi’s thoughtful essay goes very well with Angus Whitehead’s contribution, “‘A wise tale of the Mahometans’: Blake and Islam, 1819-26”, which takes a fascinating look at the Islamic community which was becoming increasingly visible in early nineteenth-century London. Study of Blake’s relationships to Islam have started, finally, to become more noticeable among scholarly articles, providing a minor counterpoint to Blake’s obvious engagement with Christianity of various types and Judaism. Blake’s direct references to Islam are, to say the least, fleeting, and Whitehead draws attention to differing interpretations of Blake’s Orientalism (such as Makdisi’s outlined briefly above, or Larrissy’s more critical interpretation of Blake in thrall to Orientalist attitudes). Whitehead draws on three late references to Islam by Blake, in a conversation with Crabb Robinson, the visionary head of “Mahomet”, and his depiction of the prophet in Dante’s Inferno, presents positive representations of Islam. A similarly meticulous approach to the historical record is provided in David Worrall’s “Blake, the Female Prophet and the American Agent: The Evidence of the 1789 Swedenborg Conference Attendance List”, which builds on previous research conducted by Worrall into the 1789 conference to identify some of the radical (and sometimes shadowy) figures encountered by Blake, such as Dorothy Gott, author of The Midnight Cry, and Colborn Barrell.

Susan Matthews’s “Impurity of Diction: The ‘Harlot’s Curse’ and Dirty Words”, focuses on the role of prostitution as an essential corollary to the formation of polite society and the figure of the virtuous woman. Blake, argues Matthews, uses diction transformatively to celebrate female sexuality (her comments on our assumptions to locate sexuality in “corporeality” rather than “spirituality”, and thus fail to appreciate the complexity of Blake’s opinions, are particularly pertinent here) rather than transmit dominant ideas of his day. It is Blake’s dialogic, indeed often ambivalent, relations with Christianity that  are covered in the following two essays: David Fallon’s “‘She Cuts His Heart Out at his Side’: Christianity and Political Virtue” considers attitudes to civic virtue which, in humanist thinking, tended to be held in opposition to traditional Christian virtues, but not in the line of “Commonwealthmen” writers such as Milton, Harrington and (later) Richard Price with which Blake was aligned by Gilchrist and others. Fallon sees Blake as demonstrating “evident affiliations” with civic humanism, but making “distinctive alterations to produce the type of citizenship he valorized” (97).

Haggarty, in “From Donation to Demand? Almsgiving and the ‘Annotations to Thornton’”, places Blake’s annotations to Thornton’s Lord’s Prayer Newly Translated in the ongoing separation of virtuous gift-giving from economics during the long-eighteenth century, remarking that Blake’s own ideas are often contradictory and even incoherent without a more profound understanding of the gift. One contributor to the debate around economics and charity was William Godwin, who also features in Jon Mee’s “‘A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action’: Mutuality, Converse and Mental Fight”, which considers the role of conversation in the liberal public sphere as an alternative to commonly perceived French despotism at the time. Mee identifies two cultures of conversation: one polite and consensual, the other “capacious enough to include contention and dispute” (129). Considering the importance of the latter to Dissenting traditions, Mee starts from Blake’s satire on conversation in An Island in the Moon through his illuminated books, seeing in this “aspect of the everday world” a “utopian possibility for the future” (139). Sibylle Erle’s “Shadows in the Cave: Refocusing Vision in Blake’s Creation Myth” reinterprets the metaphor of the cave to refer fairly specifically to Blake’s account of sight and the eye, particularly in relation to empirical philosophers such as Locke and Newton.

This discussion of the science of optics is a serendipitous link to the final three essays of the collection, which deal with various aspects of Blake’s visual arts. Mark Crosby’s “A Minute Skirmish: Blake, Hayley and the Art of Miniature Painting” concentrates on that minute particular of Blake’s artistic career, the miniature paintings he conducted in Felpham, as a site of conflict with his patron William Hayley, Blake’s technique often being at odds with Hayley’s instruction and presaging the disputes that were to come later. Luisa Calè, in “Blake and the Literary Galleries”, contrasts the rivalries of the illustrated book market with those of the literary galleries, such as the ones established by Fuseli and Boydell, the latter dealt with most notably, of course, in Morris Eaves’ Counter-Arts Conspiracy. Blake’s work for Young’s Night Thoughts especially, Calè argues, demonstrates how he was “experimenting with different book formats in an attempt to access the literary-gallery market” (204), from which he had only ever received minor commissions.

Finally, Morton Paley’s “Blake’s Poems on Art and Artists” looks at his various texts from 1798-1811, such as the annotations to the works of Joshua Reynolds and the Descriptive Catalogue, but also his verse on contemporaries, that deal with art and artists. Although the prose writings have received considerable scholarly attention, Paley argues that the occasional poetry should not be dismissed as doggerel but examined both as satire and “as expressions of Blake’s views about art, artists and the art market” (210). The range of essays from established and new scholars is impressive and generally well integrated, making this an extremely significant and useful collection.