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Digital Designs on Blake

Blake's Contraries Game

Joseph Byrne, University of Maryland

Images copyright c 2003 The William Blake Archive. This project is supported in part by a William Blake Archive Reproduction Grant for Graduate Students.

  1. You will find nothing here but fun and games. Granted, these games might only appeal to the more playful scholars of William Blake, and the fun they offer is of a decidedly cerebral kind. Nonetheless, all those who can imagine scholarship as a game, and games as a worthy subject of scholarship, are invited to play.

  2. Our games-master is William Blake himself. It is he who created The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which, I argue in this essay, was a kind of game. Using modern gaming parlance, I have re-named Blake's game "Contraries Game 1.0." The first half of this essay will deal with this game. The second half will deal with a scholarly, digitized version of Blake's originally codex-based game, which I have called "Contraries Game 2.0." At the end of the essay, you will have an opportunity to play the "Contraries Game 2.0" yourself. You may skip immediately to the game, but, as with any game, it would probably be more fruitful to first read the operating instructions and rules. These are provided in the essay proper, below.

  3. Please note that all the images used with this essay, and with the "Contraries Machine" (described below), are owned by The Blake Archive and are used with permission. It is strongly suggested that you travel to The Blake Archive to read, and agree to, their terms and conditions before proceeding.

    Contraries Game 1.0

  4. When William Blake futurity saw, did he foresee such things as video games? And did he foresee himself as one of those eccentric geniuses of the early 21st century who dream up the fantastic virtual worlds that thousands enter daily and only reluctantly leave? Whether he did or not, I think the case can be made that Blake anticipated, with his Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the type of hypermedia games that can be played in virtual environments. He did so by experimenting with multimedia, with textual interactivity, with agency and role-playing, and by using effects that simulated virtual immersion—all this together making up "Contraries Game 1.0". In calling it a game I do not mean to imply that Blake's intent was in any way frivolous. This was, for Blake, a game of critical import, central to his artistic mission: creating tools to help cleanse the reader's "doors of perception," to bring him/her to enlightenment through imagination.

  5. More particularly, Blake was creating with his game a virtual space, and an actual artistic engine, that would allow for the creative engagement with and integration of contraries. He highlighted such an idea in the Songs by giving the over-all work the subtitle "Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul." The most important contrary relationship in the Songs, of course, is that between Innocence and Experience. For Blake, as a quick perusal of the Songs will show, Innocence was largely associated with childhood, and Experience with adulthood; but, as a more methodical perusal will show, these associations are not absolute: we see elements of the jaded cynicism and world-weariness that Blake associates with experience in the The Songs of Innocence, and elements of joyful play in the The Songs of Experience [Note: To read the transcription of the text on Blake's plate, click on the image in the pop-up window. To return to the plate, click on the text]. As Nicholas Marsh notes, "It would be wrong to think of Experience as any wiser than Innocence" or any more cynical or world-weary; it would be equally wrong to think of Innocence as more joyful or playful (30). There are elements of both in each. For Blake, these were virtual time-spaces or mind-states, with portals from one to the other appearing in either world. And it was not the road to or from one or the other that concerned Blake, but rather the road between them which eventually led beyond all dualities. As Marsh notes, for Blake "[i]t appears that the route towards wholeness and a 'true' vision lies through combination of the two, not rejection of either of them" (30).

  6. Another important contrary relationship in the Songs, as Blake's well-formed lissome bodies and pseudo-Biblical language show, is that between the body and the soul. As with the split between Innocence and Experience, in the Songs the wall between body and soul is quite porous, and there is much intercourse between the two: for Blake, the body, including the sexual body, was not the enemy, but rather the locus of enjoyment and enlightenment. As Blake wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, all creation "will be consumed, and appear infinite. and holy . . . by an improvement of sensual enjoyment" (pl. 14).

  7. The true enemy consisted of the forces arrayed against sensual, and sexual, enjoyment—puritanical church institutions and the anti-sex God they represented, which Blake mocks in "The Garden of Love." The soul is not the enemy either, though it needed to be redeemed from the forces that would repress the pleasures of the body. For Blake, there was a Fall, and an expulsion from Paradise, but this Fall was not occasioned by sexual sin, but rather its repression. As W.J.T. Mitchell explains: "For Blake, in the final analysis the body and the imagination [or soul] are separable principles only in a fallen world of limited perception; the business of [Blake's] art is to dramatize their unification" ("Composite Art" 69). We need redemption not from the body or the soul, according to Blake, but from the false division between them. And it is the imagination's role to effect such a reconciliation.

  8. Imagination has a contrary as well: reason. If there is an enemy in Blake's illuminated books, it is reason. This is because, according to Blake, reason is the cause of the division of the world into contraries. The division of imagination and reason, according to Blake, is based on the 'Two Horn'd Reasoning, Cloven Fiction' represented by super-rational philosophies such as that of John Locke (Gates of Paradise, pl. 9). For Blake, reason-as-enemy was the scientific mind-set, and it needed to be rejected as a principle of organizing meaning—as opposed to knowledge—in the world. Liberation, Blake believed, comes not from reason but imagination, as it is expressed through art, and this is Blake's mission.

  9. Yet this liberation in spite of—and to some extent from—reason sometimes seems more flight than victorious fight; it is more like a "daring end run around the reasoning intellect that is everywhere both the goal and mechanism of Blake's art" (Behrendt 6). Unlike the synthesis that Blake advocates when representing other contraries in the Songs, the integration he advocates for reason and imagination is lopsided in favor of imagination. There is no hard-won co-existence here, no spiral dance of dualities, but rather an "apocalyptic" subsuming of reason into imagination. For Blake, there are many mansions in the house of imagination, but there is no room for the "Cloven Fiction" of scientific reasoning, for its purpose is to cleave everything in its path, leaving nothing but split off contraries wandering like Cain in the wilderness.

  10. I could spend much more time laying out all the other contraries found in the Songs—night and day, winter and spring, wilderness and Eden, even left and right political orientation (as well as left and right cognitive orientation)[1]—but it is the integration of such contraries that we must move to now. We might—and now shall—use another word for the play of contraries: dialectic.[2] As W.J.T. Mitchell writes, "dialogue and dialectic of contraries constitute the master code of Blake's text" ("Image and Text" 46). Eben Bass adds, "the total effect of Innocence and Experience is one of balanced opposites, each fulfilling and completing the other" (209). This is not a strictly thesis-antithesis-synthesis of Hegelian dialectics, but the functioning is much the same. Blake intended for his reader to come into a space where he/she could encounter the two contraries in dialogue, within the imagination, and come to a sense of resolution.

  11. Blake wanted his reader to hold both contraries in view in a kind of double-vision. As he wrote in a letter to Thomas Butts, "For double the vision my Eyes do see / And a double vision is always with me" (Letters 44). He was not suggesting we look towards the body or the soul to the exclusion of the other, but to allow them to remain, in fruitful contest, within the imagination. "Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence" Blake writes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (pl. 3). Just as opposition might be the truest friend, allowing the play of contraries might be the truest path to wisdom. And since Blake was more visual artist than rhetorician (and thank goodness for that!), he chose as the realm of this play of contraries that of the artistic imagination, rather than the Hegelian philosophical system.

  12. The interpretation presented above, of course, is not new. It begins with Blake himself. What is new to the discourse, however, is the idea that, in the Songs, Blake actually constructed virtual spaces, as well as a text-vehicle to navigate those spaces, which together constitute a "gameworld" where the reader can perform and play the dialectic game of contraries. In the following discussion of the Songs as a game in a virtual environment, I will draw upon the work of a number of New Media scholars. For a more detailed and general discussion of the work of these scholars, and the principles of games in virtual environments, the reader is invited to follow this link.

  13. Through his world-creating imagination, as well as his technique of illuminated printing, Blake created an imaginative world that can be inhabited and navigated. We can see this through his use of lighting and perspective in his plates, perhaps most clearly in the frontispieces of the two books. In the frontispiece to The Songs of Innocence, the reader, through the use of light and shadows, enters a world that seems three-dimensional. It recreates some of the immersive qualities of stain-glass windows, or perhaps a cathedral itself, with the arch of trees over the two central figures and the two column-like trees, the one on the right twisted in a way similar to the piers of many gothic cathedrals. Similar effects are found in the frontispiece to The Songs of Experience, with the figure striding outwards, nearly stepping out of the frame, implying that the reader might step into the frame.

  14. It might, however, be misrepresentative to choose two plates that have no text, and are thus anomalous to Blake's overall design for the Songs. Let us look at the first plate where text appears, the title page to The Songs of Innocence: Here the text is surrounded and entwined with, if not actually made out of, lush green foliage. Most of the plates in Innocence have a similar interplay between foliage and text. Do the words bring us into or take us out of the illusion of immersion? With their integration into the foliage, and their curved and round shapes, I would suggest that the words are meant to be viewed as exfoliations of the visual, and vice versa, and their function is to help draw us into the virtual world of the plate.

  15. Blake brings off a similar effect in his "Introduction" to The Songs of Experience, though this time it is words and cloud, rather than words and foliage, that work symbiotically. Sometimes Blake is playfully ambiguous with this effect. Look, for instance, at Plate 24, "Nurse's Song." I draw your attention to the leaf at the top of the plate, between the "e" and the "s" in "Nurse's." Or is it an apostrophe? Transcribers have had fits when faced with such textual ambiguity, not knowing whether to translate that leaf into an apostrophe or not. David Erdman's edition, on which the transcriptions on this site are based, chooses to make it an apostrophe, but other transcribers choose differently.

  16. It is not just the use of elastic space that creates the illusion of immersion, but also Blake's use of time. In the plates of the Songs, days come and go, some quickly, some slowly, with a focus on the most plastic times of all, those of dawn and dusk. The same is true for the seasons, though each book generally dwells within one season—Spring for Innocence, Winter for Experience. And while time functions in such a way as to structure temporal movement in virtual space, time can also can stand still. W.J.T. Mitchell writes: "In the simplest possible terms, [Blake's] poetry exists to invalidate the idea of objective time, his painting to invalidate the idea of objective space. To state this positively, his poetry affirms the power of the human imagination to create and organize time in its own image" ("Composite Art" 69)—that is, in the image of the virtual world the imagination maps onto consciousness. Mitchell sees such virtual space and time in opposition, as contraries, but I would suggest they could also be different modes of habitation in Blake's virtual world.

  17. It is not just by tricks of the eye and plastic use of time that Blake creates an immersive world, but also through characterization. Ron Broglio speaks to this when he writes, "[Blake's] characters are continually creating windows and doors into new worlds or falling through space and time in such a way that the fall creates both space and time. Through their immersive interaction with one another and their surroundings, Blake's characters forge the world upon which the narrative is staged" (3). This is particularly true of characters from Blake's other illuminated books, such as Milton, which Broglio, along with a consortium of others, is attempting to game in the Romantic Circles MOO. But it is no less true of the less-peopled Songs. For instance, if we look at Plate 6, "The Ecchoing Green," in The Songs of Innocence, we can see how the characters of this particular tableaux create the space through widening circles of movement, through dance and play. The boisterous children cannot even be contained within the picture frame: they rampage through the text box as well, spinning hoops and watching a batted ball fly. As in all of Blake's plates in the Songs, they carve out a space that can be inhabited.[3]

  18. It is possible, as many New Media scholars point out, that immersion can go too deep, creating anxiety and disorientation which ensues from a state in which we have lost touch with the so-called "real world." Bolter and Grusin posit hypermedia—playing multiple media off one another—as a strategy to be used to counteract a too-deep immersion. Does Blake have a strategy of hypermedia to prevent disorientation within his immersive, virtual space? I believe he does in his creation of borders and frames. Bolter and Grusin cite the theories of Leon Alberti in showing how such borders work to prevent an immediacy that is too transparent: for Alberti, a painting presents "a window on to a world of representation; the viewer remains on one side of the window at a safe, analytical distance from the objects of representation" (251). Blake is not as safe as that, or an immersive experience would be impossible, but he does provide safe-guards, especially when he creates separate windows for text and image, such as in Plate 13, "A Little Boy Lost."

  19. Here we see in the image box one of the more frighteningly immersive scenes in either book (and the fact that this appears in Innocence rather than Experience once again shows how elements of the other virtual world sometimes crop into the world of its supposed opposite): the little boy lost in a dark wood, with the will o' the wisp that he has followed about to fly off, abandoning him to the darkness. But here the text box is clearly delineated, framed off from the immersive scene above. The effect is one in which we are conscious, if not "hyperconscious," of two media at work. This hypermediacy serves to assuage our anxiety about the situation depicted in the image box. Blake allows us an escape hatch from too much transparency, immediacy, immersion.

  20. But Blake's windows and doors are not just escape hatches, they are also portals to other worlds. They provide us with ways into the virtual worlds of Innocence and Experience, and ways between them. Angels pass from one world to the next, and we may follow them if we dare [Plates 21 & 41]. Indeed, we must if we are to make peace with our contraries. "One does not become fully aware of . . . Innocence until one has departed that state and moved into Experience" Stephen Behrendt writes, and the same is paradoxically true of Innocence: one does not become fully aware of Experience, nor integrate it within his/her consciousness, until one has traveled from there to the virtual world of Innocence (54).

  21. Let's look at an example of what I am talking about here: Plate 27, "On Anothers Sorrow." Here we see the verdant foliage of Innocence change in color and begin to fall from the tree, bringing us into the winter climate, and time-space continuum, of Experience. This plate reveals a portal between these two virtual worlds: we can travel, in our mind anyway, back and forth. We can "quest" from one world to the next, and eventually come through another portal into the "real" world. If our quest has been successful, we will find our senses liberated, and the fallen world, created by our the displacement of our senses, redeemed. In a virtual environment, we encounter Coleridge's "suspension of disbelief," but in Blake's hands we find that such a world is also fruitful for the creation of belief, through a transformed consciousness.

  22. In the preceeding I have focused almost exclusively on the images, without saying much about the texts. I will analyze texts in other sections below, but I would like to note that Blake's texts are, in their own way, as immersive as his images. As Broglio writes, Blake's poems "create a field of play that omits an outside objective space for contemplation . . . . Normally when reading the reader occupies a double position—one inside the poem through the act of reading and a second outside the poem in the 'real world' beyond the book. However, Blake's [poetry] problematizes the second position and collapses it into the first" (Broglio 4). Broglio is no doubt correct, though, as with his images, Blake offers us "escape hatches" that allow us step out of immersion when it gets too deep, as well as allowing us to bring back to the "real" world the treasures of wisdom found strewn in the virtual portalways between virtual worlds.

    Blake's game is multimedia

  23. Blake's use of multimedia is perhaps the most distinctive element of his art. His use and combination of the media of painting and poetry, particularly, as well as his creation of technologies to bring the two media together in a single work of art, set him apart—causing bewilderment to his contemporaries and his isolation during his lifetime, but admiration and feverish scholarly activity today. But it was not just his proficiency in these media that is remarkable but also what he managed to accomplish with them: creating virtual worlds long before hypermedia tools made such things commonplace. Joseph Viscomi asserts that "working on metal with the tools of poet and painter enabled Blake to create a multi-media space, a 'site' where poetry, painting, and printmaking came together in ways both original and characteristic of Romanticism's fascination with autographic gesture, with spontaneity, intimacy, and organicism" ("Digital Facsimiles" par. 2). As already noted above, Blake not only uses multimedia to provide an immersive experience, but uses it to transform consciousness: "Blake continually emphasizes the mediatorial function of art, which serves as a catalyst in a transformation of a mental state" (Behrendt 22).

  24. Let's look at some examples. In Plate 22, "Spring," the media of both image and text playfully work together to make the sense of the poem. The child strives to "spring" out of the grasp of its mother, creating a visual/verbal pun; the foliage winding amidst, and springing from, the words of the poem does the same. We also see an angel playing a flute, fading into a golden invisibility as the sound of the flute goes "mute." The reader is lulled by the gold-lit sleepiness of the image and through the metre of the poem.

  25. We see a more harrowing multimedia performance in The Songs of Experience, in Plate 33, "Holy Thursday". We see "Babes reduced to misery," certainly, with the prone images showing signs of hunger-induced lethargy. It's also possible their misery goes deeper, that the bodies strewn about the scene are actually dead children, felled by a "cold and usurous hand" (certainly, with the white and ice-blue colors, we feel the cold) of the economic system that has destroyed them.

  26. Both of the previous two plates depict fairly realistic portraits. Blake also uses surrealism to perform the meaning of a poem as well, such as in Plate 25, "Infant Joy." Here we see a scene depicted in the heart of an indeterminate, rose-like flower. In a poetic way, it expresses the beauties and joys of new birth. If we listen hard enough we might hear the dialogue between mother and child: "What shall I call thee? / I happy am / Joy is my name" though such a dialogue occurring between a two-day old child and its mother is as surreal, or poetic, as the image.

  27. We might compare this to Plate 39, "The Sick Rose," in which the worm featured in the poem wriggles its way around the words, perhaps out of the words, upwards. Meanwhile, various figures react to the worm in differing ways—the female figure at the bottom, within the rose, seems to revel with and ride the worm, whereas the figures up above fearfully try to escape it. But whether his depiction is realistic or surreal, it is clear that Blake uses multimedia to collectively formulate the meaning of the poem, and at the same time allow for engagement with and immersion into virtual space.

  28. I would like to suggest that it is not just visual and verbal media that are represented in Blake's Songs, but also the aural. Blake did not call these poems "songs" for nothing. Though occasionally parodic—especially in Experience—the Songs are nonetheless constructed similarly to the hymns and popular songs of Blake's day. Some of Blake's contemporaries noted that Blake liked to sing, and some critics have suggested Blake may have sang his songs as he composed and printed them. This seems somewhat fanciful, but I do believe Blake expected the reader to hear a kind of "soundtrack" while reading the Songs. Stephen Behrendt sees the Songs as polyphonic musical texts, for which the reader must invent the music; in fact, it is the performance of the reader that makes them songs (48, 50). Nelson Hilton situates the Songs amongst the devotional song books for children that were contemporary to Blake, such as Isaac Watts's Divine and Moral Songs Attempted in easy Language, for the Use of Children, 1715, which Hilton claims Blake parodies in "A Cradle Song" ("Introduction" par. 4). Whether it is a parody or not, it certainly resembles a song in structure, and might very well be sung.[4]

  29. The Songs are also musical, as all poems are, in metre. Nicholas Marsh is particularly good at parsing out the metre of the Songs, showing their inherent musicality, a musicality that differs depending on where the song is placed along Blake's Innocence-Experience textual continuum. For instance, "The Shepherd," Plate 5, in The Songs of Innocence, Marsh points out "is written in regular anapests, a metre which gives it a more bouncy and tripping rhythm," presenting a "carefree and uncomplicated style [that] enhances the simple and positive picture presented" (16). In contrast, the songs of Experience often combine a "lumpy and irregular rhythm" that "adds to [a] destabilizing effect of metrical irregularity" (24, 18). He shows this in his metrical analysis of the "Introduction" to The Songs of Experience, which has a much more complex rhyme-scheme than the songs of Innocence, reducing the "chiming sing-song effect of rhyme" in the Innocence version, and introducing us "to a more complicated relationships between sounds," and between poems, and books of poems, in the combined Songs (18).

  30. The importance of Blake's use of multimedia, of course, is not just the effect it produces in the individual poems, but rather the effects it produces in the reader. With multimedia, Blake takes us beyond the "disinterested play of the senses" to a radically engaged sensual experience. His mission is to "rouze the senses to act," to activate the transforming imagination. If, as Nelson Hilton suggests, "man serves as his own jailor, imprisoned by his vocabulary, culture, and perception," in Blake's game it is the role of the senses—enhanced by multimedia, and further enhanced by virtual immersion—to liberate humans from their "mind forg'd manacles" (Hilton, qtd. in Marsh, 232).

    Blake's Game is interactive

  31. I have already discussed above how image and word interact in Blake's Songs. This interaction is also key to our discussion of the interactivity between reader and the illuminated poems. Steven Behrendt states the case in his introduction to Reading William Blake:

    The exceptionally interactive process of reading which the encounter with Blake's works entails is more dynamic—and frequently more disturbing—than anything for which most readers' training and previous experience have prepared them. The transaction between author and reader that is mediated through the printed text of any conventional literary work naturally involves an intellectual, emotional and aesthetic interchange. But the nature of that interplay is infinitely more complex in an art form like Blake's in which verbal and visual texts make simultaneous and often quite different demands upon the reader. (1)
  32. I would argue that one of the major contributions that the electronic editing of Blake has brought us is the understanding that Blake used his books as forms of hypermedia, in particular hypertext. Or perhaps it would be better to call Blake's illuminated books proto-hypertext, much the way Espen Aarseth considers the I Ching proto-hypertext (Cybertext 2). Whatever term we choose, the functioning is similar if not the same. I will attempt to go from the more subtle to the more obvious ways in which the Songs work as hypertext.

  33. First, we can speak of the intertextuality of the Songs as presenting hypertextual function. This is where poems, and text within poems, refer to one another, creating a kind of hypertext navigation within the mind of the reader. We see this most obviously in the songs that share the same titles, such as "Holy Thursday" and "The Chimney Sweeper." Since we have already looked at one plate of "Holy Thursday," and have ignored the arguably more prominent "Chimney Sweeper" poems, we will look at that pair now.

  34. The two virtual worlds that the two "Chimney Sweeper" poems represent are perhaps the most starkly contrasted in all the Songs; but this is only at first glance. Certainly visually they present stark contrasts: in the Innocence version, we see a whole crew of gamboling, seemingly happy boys. But if we look closer, we see that it is "coffins black" from which they are being released by a kind of Jesus-figure, after which they "run down a green plain leaping laughing they run / And wash in a river and shine in the Sun." An idyllic scene certainly but then it is only a dream, and the chimney sweeper then awakes in the cold dark to begin another day of drudgery. There is not even the consolation of a dream in the Experience version. Here the chimney sweeper is all alone, in a snowstorm—the snow already stained with the pollution from burning coal—perhaps homeless, covered head to foot in coal-soot; indeed, to enhance the effect of the image, it appears that Blake may have used some sort of coal mixture for his water-coloring, for the only real color in the plate is a rusty coal-oil brown. Still, the chimney sweeper admits to being happy, despite it all: "And because I am happy & dance & sing / They think they have done me no injury." But they have, "God & his priest & King" have turned the chimney sweeper's heaven into misery.

  35. The difference between the two poems, and the chimney sweepers who inhabit them, is that in Innocence the boy is still "asleep" to the social realities of the misery of the chimney sweeps' existence, and in Experience he is awake, he knows why he is poor. In this sense, the two poems work intertextually, or hypertextually: one is a dream and the other an awakening from a dream. We may travel from one to the other, awaking into one, falling asleep into the other; they are portals of meaning as well as virtual transport. These poems are also excellent examples of the social ramifications of such hypertextual, "virtual" surfing: they lead to the surfacing of outrage which, as Tim Fulford points out in "A Romantic Technologist and Britain's Little Black Boys," helped lead to the eventual amelioration of the conditions the poems exposed. Blake's virtual world does not allow for disengagement, for "lurking" in a gameworld. Through empathy with the subjects, we "click" on the "link" to reality and re-enter the world, bringing with us a goad to social action. We "surf" in a virtual world but eventually our surfing lands us on the shore of the things-as-they-are.

  36. The complex intertextuality between the words and images of these poems, both within and between themselves, may or may not comprise a "third text" or a "virtual text," as Behrendt suggests in his discussion of Blake and reader-response theory, but it certainly comprises a hypertext function. I want to make clear that the intertextuality I suggest is found in the Songs is not the same as that understood in reader-response theory. In the case of Blake, we are talking about an actual hypertextual machine, in the form of a multimedia book. I would also like to suggest that Blake may have had a primitive hypertext function in mind when he put the two books together. His purpose was to spur if not facilitate the physical comparison of his plates, particularly in the similarly-titled songs in both books, as a way of engaging contraries. It was with this idea in mind that I created the "Contraries Machine" that accompanies this essay, to allow the physical comparison of Blake's plates with the aid of a hypermedia device.

    Blake's Game creates agency

  37. Many of the things said above might also be said of role-playing in virtual worlds. The creation of roles, as well as agency, in virtual space is also, in effect, creating portals for virtual travel; they also provide a hypertextual structure that does not just link texts or books but also personalities behaving in virtual space. Bolter and Grusin suggest that empathy and shared point of view are an invention of the Romantics; Blake may not have been the inventor, but he certainly made use of the invention in his texts (245). There are many opportunities for the creation of "avatars," or game-playing personas, in the Songs, some of them masks for hiding from the implications of both innocence and experience, others allowing for problem-solving, for psychological closure. We will look at examples of both.

  38. Nicholas Marsh addresses the first kind of avatar, the mask that allows the reader to hide. He says that the "process of building false 'selves', and attempting to fix a 'self' beyond the reach of natural change is seen through the Songs," particularly, he adds, in the "Little Girl Lost/Found" poems. Ironically, the mask to hide behind is presented not by Lyca, the girl who is the eponymous figure of the poems, but rather her parents. Marsh writes, "Fear of their daughter growing up, desire to keep her dependent and as a child, turns them into tyrants, blind to natural truth, before their moment of vision" (176). Because of their fear, they "develop fixed delusions which close the personality away from infinity, vision and truth" (177). Eventually they are liberated by, as is usually the case with Blake, a "vision," one in which they see their daughter living in paradisiacal peace in the wild (where Blake's fearsome tyger lives); compelled by their vision, they remain in the wild themselves, which is in fact an island of innocence: "to this day they dwell / In a lonely dell / Nor fear the wolvish howl, / Nor the lions growl." In fact, in Plate 36, Blake depicts the entire family as children frolicking in the forest (along with a prone adult woman in the foreground; more on her below). Here once again we are presented with a virtual portal into a parallel universe, this time from Experience to Innocence. We are also presented with a situation in which the mask of fear, through "vision," might be magically transformed into a mask of liberation.

  39. But it might seem that we are ignoring perhaps the most salient and strange feature of the Little Girl Found/Lost poems: the fact that the little girl depicted is not even remotely little. In Plate 34, the only female figure that appears is a full-grown woman, scantily-clad and kissing a man.[5] In the following plate, Plate 35, a lost female appears, but this female is also clearly an adult. Then, as has already been noted, in Plate 36 the adult woman appears naked with her parents reduced to the figures of children—another strange reversal. What could possibly be the explanation for this? I admit I am flummoxed, but I can suggest a use for this discrepancy: we might see this series as a modeling of role-playing. The adult figure in the plates, particularly in Plate 35, might be the character who in fact is trying on the mask of her inner child, taking on that role in virtual space, as a way of resolving some conflict. The resolution might be represented by the otherwise bizarre stripping of the girl by the lions, after which they carry her naked to their cave, as well as by the ruby tears that the lion cries. Such a scene is oddly affecting, the lion and his bloodied tears representing empathy. The lion, like a helping "bot" (artificial intelligence program) in a virtual world, helps the lost girl/woman, and the reader that identifies with her, achieve some kind of closure.

  40. In the same way, the angels that roam about the two virtual worlds of Innocence and Experience act as helpful bots whose role, such as in Plate 20, "Night," is to relieve suffering: "If they see any weeping, / That should have been sleeping / They pour sleep on their head / And sit down by their bed." Nicholas Marsh suggests that these angels are rather ineffectual entities, standing by while the wild beasts howl, but that does not change the fact that these are bots necessary to the workings of Blake's virtual world(s). And unlike bots in many virtual games, these angel bots can also convert to avatars, allowing the one who takes on that mask to devote themselves to relieving the suffering that exists in both the worlds of Experience and Innocence. In any case, the transforming possibilities of role-playing in these worlds is substantial. Upon entering them, "we will find that individual poems elaborate real life situations, showing us how the 'two contrary states' . . . are lived out by actual people," both the characters that inhabit the virtual worlds and the players who take up their masks (March 29).


  41. In the end, of course, it is not argument that convinces in a gameworld, but rather immersive experience. This is true whether we are speaking of the gameworld that Blake created or the game of interpreting Blake's work. As Ron Broglio notes, one "can find the play/risk/possibility that work outside of traditional essays and books. . . . Through play comes learning and discovery rather than the more conservative description of a singular coherent argument" (6). Let that be my cavil and my caveat. Find one of the many virtual doors that Blake's work offers and slip inside for a while. Whether you enjoy the experience or not, you might find at least a layer of grime wiped clear from the doors of your perception when you re-surface in the "real" world.

    Contraries Game 2.0

  42. Now that we have seen how Blake "games" us, it is time to return the favor and "game" Blake. "Contraries Game 2.0" is described above as a digitized "upgrade" of Blake's game for critical, scholarly players. It is in fact a game of critical interpretation, inspired in large part by "The Ivanhoe Game" developed by Jerome McGann and Johanna Drucker.

  43. "Contraries Game 2.0," like "The Ivanhoe Game," is a game that makes use of "digital tools to augment critical reflection" and "produce simulated forms of meaning" (McGann 214). The "gameplay" is also quite similar to "Ivanhoe": players make moves of interpretation within "a field of interrelated textual, visual, cultural, and critical artifacts. The game 'moves' involve the production (the writing) of texts that integrate with and simulate the materials in the discourse field of the game. Players produce text in response to the opportunities and problems raised by the texts produced by the other players" (218). Unlike "The Ivanhoe Game," however, "Contraries Game 2.0" makes use of a hypertextual machine, which is described below. [For a more detailed discussion of McGann and Drucker's game, and its current stage of development, I invite the reader to follow this link.]

    Blake's "Contraries Game" is immersive

  44. In the section on interactivity above, I suggested that Blake put the two books of Innocence and Experience together with the expectation that the reader would compare them hypertextually, particularly those songs that have the same title, such as "Holy Thursday" and "The Chimney Sweeper," found in both books. I created the Contraries Machine to test this notion. The Contraries Machine is a hypermedia device that allows the reader/interactor to not only read verbal and visual together, but also to read Innocence and Experience together, synoptically, in virtual space.

  45. As I describe the Contraries Machine further, I invite the reader to actually open the Contraries Machine in a separate window, explore it for a moment, and then continue reading here. What immediately comes into view, when the reader opens the machine, is a window divided in half. The left side represents the virtual world of Innocence, the right side the virtual world of Experience. At the far left is a column of thumbnails which, upon clicking them, brings up Blake's plates for The Songs of Innocence. The thumbnails on the right represent plates from The Songs of Experience. All the plates are in the order of the plates from Copy Z of the Songs, owned by The Blake Archive. [Note: For optimal functioning for the Contraries Machine, your monitor should be at least 16 inches in width and set at a resolution of 1024 x 768 pixels].

  46. To compare the Innocence and Experience plates of similarly-titled songs, or to compare similar themes and designs, the reader only need click on the thumbnails for the contrary plates and the plates will appear in the center. If the reader scrolls down either column of thumbnails, he/she will also find the thumbnails from the other book. This is not meant to confuse the reader, but rather allow him/her to compare plates from the same book of songs, such as the two very different "Little Girl Lost" poems in Experience.

  47. Transcriptions of each poem are also available for viewing. You need only click on the big images and they "flip over" to reveal the transcription. To flip back over, click on any of the text and the image will be returned. If you would like a transcription in view as you look at a plate, you can choose the image in one column, and choose its transcription in the opposite column.

  48. In terms of the actual game-playing, there are many ways to proceed. For "single-player" game-play, one might choose a "quest" game, in which the player enters the virtual space of Innocence or Experience, explores that world, keeping a kind of travel log. The player might also be questing for, and collecting, magical talismans, such as animals (sheep, lion, tyger), blossoms, angels, musical instruments (harp, flute), game gear (cricket batt, badminton racket), lost children, etc. For it to be a game of contraries, each player should find an object in one world and then find its contrary match in the other (e.g. sheep in Innocence, tyger in Experience).

  49. Another single-player version of the game would involve role play. The player might choose one character in one world as an "avatar." For instance, a player might choose to become the nurse in Innocence. After exploring that world as that character, the player might even take that avatar into the other world, in this case Experience, to see how that world changes the avatar. Or the player, as avatar, might look for his/her contrary match in the other world. Some possibilities for avatars: nurse, angel, piper, shepherd, little boy lost, little girl lost, chimney sweep, infant, little vagabond, Old John, Ancient Bard, lion, tyger.

  50. The games above have "multi-player" equivalents. One player might choose to explore, and then represent, one world (such as Innocence), and the other player the other world (such as Experience). From this could come interaction and dialogue (by email, or instant messaging), with contraries being compared. Players representing contrary worlds could compare contrary talismans, or contrary avatars. Or a point system might be set up for the collection of talismans, or a competition set up where one player, representing one world, would choose an avatar and try to commandeer its contrary (by naming it, or even downloading the corresponding plate) before the opposing player could choose it for him/herself. The dialogue itself might be conducted using only the words Blake uses in the Songs.

  51. In terms of my own game-play, I chose a very simple road: I proceeded by bringing up two plates for comparison in the Contraries Machine, then filled in the game log template, putting in the thumbnails first. I made some notations on the visual and textual codes that are present in each plate, and compared the two, conjecturing on the meaning created by their juxtaposition. I also brought in the work of other scholars, as part of the "discourse field." Their imput usually spurred more of mine. The players might consult my game log, which records the first two moves in my game.

  52. As you will discover should you choose to play "Contraries Game 2.0" there is no real space within the Contraries Machine for text generation. This, hopefully, will be added in future iterations. In the meantime, you might open a separate window on your desktop computer to compile notes. Or you might use the HTML template I have created for that purpose.

  53. In the template page, there is a box in which you can put the thumbnails of the plates you have looked at, as well as ample space to type in notes. Exchange between players can be facilitated by email, which is how "The Ivanhoe Game" began, or instant messaging, if players want to play in "real time." In future versions of the game, an electronic interface could be developed, with, perhaps, the possibility of real-time, synchronous dialogue in a chat room—again, like "The Ivanhoe Game"—as well as a MOO for player moves. In terms of the "discourse field" or the manner of play, that is for the players to decide for themselves.

  54. The most interesting and fun game would be to see what the players invent on their own, using the Contraries Machine. The players might begin by writing out their own rules, and describe their specific gameworld. If this is a multiplayer game, the opposing player might strive to circumvent the game rules set up by the other player, since "hacking" the game is a game as old as games themselves.

  55. There is nothing left to say except "Let the games begin!"

Proceed to Contraries Machine

Works Cited

Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.

---. "Playing Research: Methodological approaches to game analysis." Paper Delivered at at melbourneDAC 5th International Digital Arts and Culture Conference. 5 December 2003. <>

Bass, Eben. "Songs of Innocence and of Experience: The Thrust of Design." Blake's Visionary Forms Dramatic. Eds. David V. Erdman and John E. Grant. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970.

Behrendt, Stephen. Reading William Blake. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2000.

Blake, William. For the Sexes: the Gates of Paradise. Electronic Edition. The Blake Archive. 12 December 2003. <>

---. The Letters of William Blake. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

---. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Electronic Edition. The Blake Archive. 14 December 2003. <>

---. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Electronic Edition. The Blake Archive. 5-16 December 2003. <>

---. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Reprint. Introduction and Commentary by Sir Geoffrey Keynes. New York: The Orion Press, 1967.

Broglio, Ron. "Living Inside the Poem: MOOs & Blake's Milton." Unpublished paper. Sent to the author by email on December 9, 2003.

Erdman, David, ed. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Online Edition. 6 December 2003. <>

Fraistat, Neil and Steven Jones. "Immersive Textuality and Romantic Gaming." Paper presented at Harvard University, March 3, 2003.

Fulford, Tim. "A Romantic Technologist and Britain's Little Black Boys." Wordsworth Circle 33.1 (Winter 2002): 36-43.

Genette, Gerard. Paratext: Thresholds of interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Gleckner, Robert F. and Mark L. Greenberg, eds. Approaches to Teaching Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1989.

Heim, Michael. Virtual Realism. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Hilton, Nelson. 11 December 2003. "William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience." The Blackwell Companion to Romanticism. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. <>

Hirsch, E.D. Jr. Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. New Haven: Yale UP, 1964.

Marsh, Nicholas. William Blake: The Poems. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Manevich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

McGann, Jerome. "Beginning Again and Again: 'The Ivanhoe Game.'" Radiant Textuality. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Ltd., 2001.

Mitchell, W.J.T. "Blake's Composite Art." Blake's Visionary Forms Dramatic. Eds. David V. Erdman and John E. Grant. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970.

---. "Image and Text in Songs." Approaches to Teaching Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. Eds. Robert F. Gleckner and Mark L. Greenberg. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1989.

Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2000

Viscomi, Joseph. "Digital Facsimiles: Reading the William Blake Archive." 8 December 2003. <>

---. "Reading, Drawing, Seeing Illuminated Books." Approaches to Teaching Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. Eds. Robert F. Gleckner and Mark L. Greenberg. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1989.

---., and Robert N. Essick. "An Inquiry into Blake's Method of Color Printing." Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly. Vol. 35, No. 3 (Winter 2001/2002) <>


1 Considerable space might be devoted to the contraries implicit in Blake’s illuminated print-making technique—in which he was compelled to design and to write his plates backwards—as well as the historical split in Blake scholarship between the verbal and visual interpretation of the Songs, but we have not the space here and besides, others, such as Joseph Viscomi, do so better than I ever could. I refer the reader to Viscomi and Essick’s “An Inquiry into Blake's Method of Color Printing.”


2 Some critics, such as E.D. Hirsch, vehemently resist such a term as applied to Blake. Hirsh contends that “Innocence and Experience were two mutually exclusive states of his own soul corresponding to two different periods of his life”(6). While I would obviously not argue that the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience were composed during two very different times in Blake's life, I believe it indefensible to suggest that even though he put the two books together, and made changes in the plate order and tinting to make the pairings more significant, Blake did not intend for the two books to be read in relationship with each other.


3 An interesting analogue to Blake's immersive image/texts are Tibetan mandalas, which are used in conjunction with a meditative practice that engenders a trance-like state in which the mandala becomes a three dimensional space that the meditator enters, and where he/she is spiritually transformed. I would suggest that Blake is striving for a similar effect.


4 Such modern musical eminences as Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughn Williams have set Blake's Songs to music; many others, including the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, have attempted more "amateur" settings.


5 It seems astounding that Blake originally included this somewhat risqué plate in The Songs of Innocence. It was only later, after the creation of The Songs of Experience, that he moved it to that book.


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January 2005