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 of his madness came to be called in doubt. The most curious attempts to interpret Blake, made in the early years of the twentieth century, were those by Ellis, who, among other things, invented the legend that Blake was Irish, and G. K. Chesterton, whose book, published in 1910, is justifiably described by the authors of the new bibliography as “inaccurate, emphatic and misleading.”

In the years before and after the First War the whole situation was radically altered by the publication of two works: Joseph Wicksteed’s Blake’s Vision of the Book of Job (1910) and Foster Damon’s William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols (1924). By studying not only the plates of the Job but the legends in the margins surrounding them, Wicksteed showed that Blake intended to expound a carefully worked out doctrine based on the biblical text but varying from it, and in some points actually criticizing it. Foster Damon tackles a wider problem and succeeded in extracting from Blake’s prophetic books a system of ideas and symbols which he showed to be both consistent and original. At the same time he destroyed the legend of Blake as the innocent illiterate who worked simply by divine inspiration, by demonstrating that he had read and digested a vast quantity of literature, theological, philosophical, and poetical.

From then on the floodgates were open. Blake was shown to be a Hindu mystic and a Christian heretic, a Freudian and a Jungian, a Communist and a nationalist, an expressionist and a surrealist; there was no school of thought or art, past or present, with which he was not found to have some affinities. Every line that he wrote was dissected and loaded with interpretations and meanings which, though they would no doubt have fascinated the author, would also have puzzled him.


So long as critics concentrated their attention on the Prophetic Books the situation was relatively easy, because, though Miss Kathleen Raine’s statement that “Blake ceases to be obscure when we discover his sources” is an exaggeration, the system of ideas which Damon was the first to disentangle in these strange works certainly exists and can to a considerable degree be reduced to definite principles—though it must never be forgotten that these principles develop and change during Blake’s long career. But the situation became much trickier when, having sucked the later works dry, Blake fans turned to the early lyrics. Whereas the Prophetic Books are obviously obscure but susceptible of definite analysis, the Poetical Sketches and the Songs are apparently simple but so suggestive and allusive that they provide the basis for an almost endless number of interpretations, most of which cannot be proved wrong but none of which can be demonstrated to be right.

An example of how they can be treated is provided by “Infant Joy”:

I have no name
I am but two days old.
What shall I call thee?
I happy am
Joy is my name,
Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty Joy!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee;
Thou dost smile.
I sing the while
Sweet joy befall thee.

Mr. Hirsch, who analyzes the poem at considerable length, quotes the first sentence from Wicksteed’s interpretation of this poem, in which the child is speaking: “In my journey through Time I have only reached the moment of impregnation, of ‘holy Generation’ in the body.” The passage about the poem which he quotes from Gleckner’s interpretation is too long to give in full, but the following sentence will give the flavor of his analysis: “I am, I exist, says the infant joy; ‘and, since I am happy in that existence, happiness or joy must be my name.’ The adjective merely becomes a noun; the quality assumes concrete symbolic form; the essence achieves identity.” Mr. Hirsch begins by pointing out that Blake uses no inverted commas in the poem, which, he says, “dramatizes the feeling of love and empathy” between the child and the mother whom he believes to be the two speakers in the poem. Whether or not the reader agrees with this statement, he will be surprised to notice that Mr. Hirsch in fact prints the poem with inverted commas, as well as with certain alterations to Blake’s punctuation. Mr. Hirsch treats “Infant Joy” as illustrating the first stage in the cycle of man’s life from Innocence through Experience to the final return to Innocence, an interpretation which is entirely consistent with Blake’s views. But much of this exegesis is more difficult to follow. Can one really believe, for instance, that “The movement of the little poem is one of gradual distancing—from the pure identity of mother and child in the first stanza to their loving separateness in the second…The effect of this distancing is to suggest the larger cycle of life in which this is a significant moment”? Both Mr. Hirsch and Mr. Hagstrum, who is more concerned with the decoration and its relation to the text than with the text alone, agree that the contrast between the unopened flower hanging down on the right and the opened blossom surrounding the main group has a reference to the birth of the child, but can we go the whole way with Mr. Hagstrum when he puts forward the view that they actually suggest “the phallus erect and in repose”?

In comparison with the books discussed above, Middleton Murry’s essay, first published in 1933, seems enchantingly old-fashioned. There are no references to Blake’s sources in Indian theology or Icelandic legends, and the names of Plotinus and Philo do not occur in the index—for the good reason that there is no index, a fact which is typical of the book. On the other hand the author’s treatment of his subject is vitiated by his attempt—not always successful—to identify Blake’s views with his own opinions on all subjects, particularly on the relation of sex to religion. One wonders who thought of reprinting Murry at all; it would have been far more useful to republish Foster Damon’s William Blake.

This Issue

October 28, 1965