William Blake: Poet, Printer, Prophet
William Blake Poet and Painter: An Introduction to the Illuminated Verse
Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake
The writing of books about William Blake has become a major industry, particularly in America. Five—one admittedly a reprint—have appeared recently. One, the admirably edited and annotated Blake bibliography by G. E. Bentley and Martin K. Nurmi, lists 2,197 books and articles. The word deluge used in its blurb to describe the appearance of books on Blake is certainly no exaggeration.
Of the new books two deal primarily with Blake as an illustrator. Sir Geoffrey Keynes’s volume, the plates of which are based on those used in the facsimiles produced by the Trianon Press for the Blake Trustees, provides a remarkably good and remarkably cheap survey of Blake’s finest illuminated books. The sixty plates are not quite up to the standard of those in the facsimiles themselves, but they illustrate the best of Blake’s work in this field and cover his whole career as an illustrator in color from the Songs of Innocence and Experience to Jerusalem. At most one might complain that his early style of coloring is not quite fairly represented, since the plates from the Songs are all taken from a copy, admittedly a superlative one, colored in the last years of his life; and the light and delicate coloring used in copies finished before, say, 1795 can only be seen in the two plates from the Visions of the Daughters of Albion of 1793. As an Introduction Sir Geoffrey has written an admirably clear and concise account of the complicated technical methods used by Blake in the production of these illuminated books.
Mr. Hagstrum’s book is largely a straightforward account of Blake’s evolution as an engraver and as an illustrator, starting from the undeniably correct thesis that in his illuminated books it is essential to study text and illustration together, since the two form an indissoluble whole, so that each can throw light on the other. Mr. Hagstrum does not throw much new light on either, but his book is a sensible summary of what is known about both. He plays the all-too familiar parlor game of tracing the sources on which Blake drew in the visual art of the past and identifies some new ones, but they do not basically alter our view of the problem, since they belong to the categories Blake was already known to have used—medieval art, Dürer, Raphael, Michelangelo, Italian Mannerism, emblem books, and the work of his contemporaries and near-contemporaries.
Blake criticism has gone through a number of phases. After the publication of the Gilchrist biography in 1863 he was studied mainly as an illustrator and as the poet of the Songs, which were taken at their face value as exquisite and simple lyrics. His other works were in general ignored, and his madness was taken for granted. About the end of the century critics began to turn their attention to the prophetic books, which had till then been regarded as the unintelligible wanderings of a remarkable poet who had gone off the rails. At the same time the certainty…
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