William Blake’s Manuscripts: A One-Day Symposium

BlakesManuscriptsSymposiumThe schedule has now been set and registration is open for William Blake’s Manuscripts: A One-Day Symposium. This symposium will be held at the Huntington Library on June 7th, 2013, and the list of Blake luminaries speaking include (in alphabetical order) Luisa Calé, Mark Crosby, Morris Eaves, Alexander Gourlay, Steve Hindle, Rachel Lee, Joseph Viscomi, Angus Whitehead, and John Windle. Attendance costs $31.50 and includes lunch, introductory remarks, two plenary sessions, two panels, and closing remarks by Mark Crosby (lunch is optional: conference registration alone is $15.00 and free for students). I would encourage anyone interested in Blake and able to travel to San Marino, California in June to take advantage of this opportunity.

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

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.

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.”