Blake Triumphant

Blake and Tradition The Bollingen Series XXXV: 11

by Kathleen Raine
Princeton, Vol. I, 460, Vol. II, 367 pp., $22.50 the set

William Blake
William Blake; drawing by David Levine

Most readers acquainted with good poetry, if we want their opinion of William Blake, will cite Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Doubtless they will speak well of these pieces as being both “lyrical” and “original.” But I think few readers can make much conversation about Blake’s late and philosophical poems; these are not included within the common anthologies; and even if they were, they would probably seem too difficult to follow. Blake died in 1827 at the age of seventy. But it has taken more than a hundred years for competent scholars to know and appreciate him. As late as 1910, when the famous 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica appeared, the item about the poet Blake finished him off in a single sentence: “With the publication of Songs of Experience Blake’s poetic career, so far as ordinary readers are concerned, may be said to close.”

But all was not lost. His biographer went on to acknowledge that Blake at least survived in the role of a designer of books and a distinguished visual artist. It was said that he took so much interest in his drawings that he failed to make his texts intelligible; as if the elucidation of his meaning could be done better by a visual symbol than by a concatenation of words. I think we would have chosen to keep both channels open, the words and the pictures alike, because neither interfered with the other but they worked beautifully together. The words are highly charged with meaning; and incidentally they offer a visual pleasure too, being made by the poet’s own hand and therefore shapely and cursive, though etched in reverse upon the plate. Just often enough we are delighted to find some page-space used for an illustration appropriate to the text; it may be black-and-white, or water-colored, or even illuminated.

My two paragraphs, I believe, are not out of order; they are meant to introduce Miss Raine in her role of special distinction. She writes out of a most intensive reading of Blake, in a book of two volumes having seven parts and twenty-seven chapters; and she has also at her disposal special illustrations numbering up to 193, and averaging seven-plus per chapter. The texts to which the illustrations refer are not recited fully, but used as needed. I imagine that there is no other book about Blake which employs just these properties. It may now be surely declared that she is the one woman writer who ranks with the dozen-or-so gentlemen scholars who, during the last forty-five years, have raised a mighty poet from the dead. How sad it would have been if no fine woman had cared sufficiently for Blake’s verse!

Miss Raine’s book is sumptuously printed under the auspices of the Bollingen Foundation; and from it, upon the invitation of Mr. Paul Mellon and the Trustees of the National Gallery at…

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