Blake and the Scholars: II

The Poetry and Prose of William Blake

edited by David V. Erdman, commentary by Harold Bloom
Doubleday, 906 pp., $12.50

A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake

by S. Foster Damon
Brown University, 460 pp., $20.00

William Blake
William Blake; drawing by David Levine

In the House of Commons a hundred years ago a false quantity in a Latin quotation might ruin a promising political career. So at any rate the legend goes. Today, if an episode for which I happen to have first-hand authority is representative, a misquotation from Blake—the one English Romantic who is still universally O.K.—seems to be the comparable faux pas. The episode occurred a few years ago at a meeting, as I understand, of Harold Macmillan’s cabinet, when Iain Macleod, the Minister of Health, was using Blake to confirm the platitude that persuasion is preferable to compulsion:

He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy.

If Blake said it, it must be right. But at this point a colleague interrupted. “You’ve got it wrong, Iain; what Blake wrote was ‘He who bends to himself a joy’.” To which Macleod, who is not an easy man to disconcert, retorted by betting him a fiver that Blake did write “binds.” Alas, in due course the Oxford Poets edition of Blake’s poetry was produced, and there undeniably the first of “Several Questions Answered” does read “bends” with no sign of a “binds” anywhere. But a Scot, however eminent, doesn’t like to lose five pounds, and so after honorably paying up Macleod consulted a Blakeman, who was able to assure him that “binds” is at least as good a reading as “bends” and is in fact the one preferred by Geoffrey Keynes, the doyen of British Blakemen. The fiver was thereupon repaid, and Macleod and his challenger were able to shake hands in the agreeable conviction that they were both right.

But were they? The standards of Blakemanship have become increasingly rigorous over the last sixty years. In 1905 John Sampson’s Oxford edition was a remarkable textual achievement, which still has its uses, but for most purposes it was superseded in 1925 by Keynes’s edition of the complete works, poetry and prose, and the 1925 Keynes was itself superseded by Keynes’s magnificent 1957 edition. It is of the essence, however, of the sacrificial ritual of textual scholarship that he who slays the slayer shall himself be slain. David V. Erdman’s edition of Blake, which has just been brought out in a handsome volume by Doubleday, is in fact as much superior to Keynes as Keynes was to Sampson and Sampson was to his predecessors (such as the weird Ellis and Yeats edition).

The variety of media in which Blake’s writings have come down to us and the fact that almost everything he wrote was revised at least once combine to make it as difficult to establish a definitive text of Blake as of Shakespeare, though the actual editorial problems are quite different. Nevertheless what Erdman has accomplished with Blake is broadly parallel to the work of such modern Shakespearians as Charlton Hinman, whose collating machine made such startling…

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