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Editing and Reading Blake

The Ends of Editing

W. H. Stevenson

  1. The first thought when planning to row the Atlantic must be: "Where to start from?" Then, having reached halfway, the only thought is: "Will this ever end?" The editor of works as vast as Blake's probably has similar, if less physical thoughts. This is not just a matter of working one's way through; it is a matter of answering all the questions that are to be answered; and that means at first finding the questions, and, not least, balancing them one against another. If the Complete Works are the target, the problem is to know how to limit the information; with a Selection, to know what text to include; and in either case how to say much in very little. The job may be less dangerous than rowing the Atlantic, but a good deal less finite.

  2. Storytellers, poets, musicians, painters, like actors, seek to engage the audience. So, in a fashion, do editors, but they need to be objective, to display the work, not to express it. The reader looks for understanding, not mere enthusiasm. Both editor and reader are seeking answers. Some they find; but for both the search never ends.

  3. Almost inevitably, scholars have either a literary or an artistic leaning; I do not say "bias," but it is a rare scholar who can be as familiar with one medium as with the other. David V. Erdman (after years of textual editing) concentrated on the designs and their visual effect, and produced The Illuminated Blake (1974).[1] More recently, The Tate Gallery, with David Bindman, Thames & Hudson, and the Blake Trust combined in producing The Complete Illuminated Poems (2000),[2] in which Joseph Viscomi provides an invaluable set of dating answers. Otherwise, the notes have a chiefly "literary" approach, laying stress on the poetry. I shall not attempt to deal with the body of his drawings and paintings. To try to do so would be to invite confusion, and so I shall restrict myself here to his writings and illuminated books.

  4. The first part of the search, then, is textual: to show what actually was written (and, in Blake's case, what artistic work was drawn and painted, and where it is placed), and to present it to the reader and viewer.

  5. The first duty of an editor is to present an accurate and useful text. For Blake, Erdman and Bentley have done this task as thoroughly and effectively as anyone could ask; but questions have scarcely begun, particularly when we turn to Vala. We wish to print an intelligible narrative whose reader should at least be able to understand situations and movements of events; but this is much more easily said than done. Blake has wallpapered over the opening pages to set up his narrative of The Four Zoas, barely hiding those problems that have occupied scholars for years and arise at once, and when these are passed, there are more to follow. What does the First Night consist of at last?

  6. After the confusion in the opening pages, the First and Second Nights develop into a long and fairly continuous narrative of the conflict between Urizen and Luvah, alongside the quarrels of Los and Enitharmon, pausing twice for laments from Enion. The second of these plainly marks the end of the Second Night. But where does the First Night end and the Second begin? After Enion's first lament on p. 18, Blake has added seven lines to the page, adding "End of the First Night." But he has already written in the margin on p. 9, as an afterthought, "Night the Second," marking out the division by heavy lines, and adding two lines to make sense of the division, although otherwise the narrative runs on to p. 18. After this, unfortunately, there are some wandering pages, numbered 19-22, but bound into the MS in the wrong order, that have to be fitted in somewhere. On p. 23, however, there is a title page for a new Night, perhaps the Second, but Blake, after an imposing "Night the," wrote, then deleted, "First," and no more. It makes sense to start the Second Night here, with the First ending in Enion's lament, as the Second does, ignoring the intervention on p. 9.

  7. However, on the basic principle of respecting an author's final thoughts, as indicated by the changes on p. 9, I chose to make the division at p. 9, although it makes a short First Night and a very long Second. Editors have to make such choices, which may still be contested by others. The question facing the editor is how far to lead the reader into all this. At one extreme, one may determine a text and present it as final; at the other give the readers all the fragments and leave them to make up the jigsaw themselves. A precipice on one side, a swamp on the other. The middle way of presenting one's own choice and pointing out the problems and indicating where the enthralled reader may find a full discussion, may seem the best, if one can find a sure footing. In any case, leaving the reader with a view only of confusion is, to change the metaphor, falling at the first hurdle.

  8. Some textual details are easier to identify, but no easier to settle. The question of how to deal with Blake's spelling and capitalization has been much discussed, is not settled, and, doubtless, never will be agreed upon. If we simply want to see what words and points Blake actually put down on paper, we can consult Erdman or Bentley. Otherwise, does it matter?

  9. There are three ways of looking at this question. First: does it affect the meaning of the passage? Second: does it affect the rhythm and rhetoric? Third: did Blake really care? As David Fuller has said, "It should be clear that any notion of 'Blake's punctuation' is highly problematic" (21).

  10. Why not "modernize" Blake's spelling, punctuation, and eccentric capitals? The reasons for retaining his forms are surely, first, that since Romantic times, we believe we should respect the author's wishes; and second, that by his process of illuminated printing his specific choices were burnt into copper and printed for all to see. Against that stands the need for later editors to produce a text which does not in itself bewilder the reader from the outset, and this need may require the editor to punctuate Blake for him. At the very least, there is one modernization no one can avoid: none of us is likely to use the "long s" (which I have yet to find in TrueType).

  11. F. W. Bateson, as my General Editor, laid down the policy that "whatever impedes the reader's sympathetic identification with the poet [. . .] whether of spelling, punctuation or the use of initial capitals—must be regarded as undesirable" (ix ).[3] Having accepted the task, I had to accept these quite emphatic constraints. Bateson, as a strong 1920s Socialist, looked for sound scholarship, combined with a presentation which would not alarm a readership such as the members of the Workers' Educational Association, aware of their lack of academic background but eager to remedy it. Those who want to know what Blake actually put down on paper can look up Erdman or Bentley. Otherwise, does it matter? Similar disputations of "authenticity" have enlivened musical theory and performance for a generation now, but the opposing sides have at last accepted a state of coexistence. A comparison with the treatment over the years of the texts of Shakespeare and the Bible is somewhat more relevant.

  12. In Shakespeare's time, of course, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization were still somewhat in flux, and modern editors cannot possibly identify any text as uniquely authentic. Editors, therefore, make their own choices among the various quartos and folios and their own preferences. The Bible, a text regarded as sacred, and under strict royal copyright from the start, is in a very different, strictly controlled, category, requiring exact reproduction; but though the actual words are sacred, consistent and extensive modernization of the spelling appears as early as 1638. Printers of the day plainly did not think such things mattered, and small variations in orthography continued for centuries, in a quiet acceptance of modernizing practices.

  13. Considering two of Blake's passages for their punctuation, as he published them:[4]

    I am your Rational Power O Albion & that Human Form
    You call Divine. is but a Worm seventy inches long
    That creeps forth in a night & is dried in the morning sun
    In fortuitous concourse of memorys accumulated & lost
    It plows the Earth in its own conceit, it overwhelms the Hills
    Beneath its winding labyrinths. till a stone of the brook
    Stops it in midst of its pride among its hills & rivers
    Battersea & Chelsea mourn. London & Canterbury tremble
    Their place shall not be found as the wind passes over
    The ancient Cities of the Earth remove as a traveler [. . .]
    (Jerusalem pl. 29/33:5-14)

    This passage typically disregards rule, and the lack of precise punctuation results in some confusion of sense. After "Divine" and "labyrinths," Blake has a tiny dot, a mark which often does duty either for a comma or for a full stop. In both cases, the sense is clear, and calls for a comma. After "lost," and after "rivers," he has nothing, and raises the question, Which is "fortuitous," the "ploughing," or the "creeping forth," its adult activity? A full stop after "sun" determines one reading; after "lost," another. Again, a matter of choice, not helped by Blake's lack of marking.

  14. Again, in Milton pl. 22:56-59:

    And these are the cries of the Churches before the two witnesses
    Faith in God the dear Saviour who took on the likeness of men:
    Becoming obedient to death. even the death of the Cross
    The Witnesses lie dead in the street of the Great City [. . .]

    This echoes Paul's words in Philippians 2:7-8: "[Jesus] [. . .] took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: / And [. . .] humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." Blake's dot after "death" corresponds to the Bible's comma; he has a colon after "men," as does the Bible (which is prodigal with colons), but nothing after "Cross" or "City." Is this the witnesses' faith, or do the cries begin at, "Faith in God [. . .]"? Keynes puts a full stop after "Witnesses," implying (but not indicating) that the cry begins at "Faith" (506). The quotation from Philippians means that the cry must begin at either "Faith" or "The Witnesses lie dead." Keynes chose the first, but the reference to Whitefield and Wesley, and the rhythm, surely call for continuity of the phrase, "before the two witnesses' faith in God [. . .]." But Blake does not mark the beginning of the cry and leaves it to us to decide.

  15. Do these minutiae of punctuation matter? Often, reading from the facsimile, one has to ask, When is a Blake colon an exclamation mark? Usually the sense is clear, but at times, in passages such as these, the typography confuses the sense.

  16. As to Blake's profuse use of capital initials: my own brief researches among such "ordinary readers" as admirers of J. K. Rowling's works, indicate that they are not after all alienated by the extensive use of capital initials in such phrases as "Master of the Dark Arts," but Blake's usage has created another area of dispute. Often they seem to be merely random:

                                    In Beulah the Feminine
    Emanations Create Space, the Masculine Create Time, & plant
    The Seeds of beauty in the Space.
    (Jerusalem pl. 85:7-9)

    The word "Create" is always capitalized in the late poems, where, like "Emanation," it carries a special meaning; and so, in this context, do "Space" and "Time." In this particular passage, the nature of "Feminine" and "Masculine" is central; in short, almost every word here is capitalized for a reason. But why "Seeds" and not "beauty"? In places, such as the Preface to Milton, almost every word seems to bear a capital initial, apparently simply because of Blake's enthusiasm at the moment. (See also the lines from Milton pls. 2-3 quoted below.)

  17. In Jerusalem pl. 47:16-17, Blake agonizes over Albion's collapse: "Shudder not: but Write. & the hand of God will assist you: / Therefore I write Albions last words. Hope is banishd from me." In Blake's usual practice, one might expect the word "hand" to be capitalized, rather than "Write"; but here Blake stresses the word "Shudder," and the feeling that Albion's words are almost too painful to record. Thus capital initials may be used to express powerful feelings, of enthusiasm, anger, or fear.

  18. One further detail: Blake rarely uses brackets (e.g., Milton pl. 8:4, Jerusalem pl. 18:7); but that he occasionally does may justify an editor in adding them. Sometimes his unmarked digressions can cause uncertainty, as in pls. 73-74 of Jerusalem, depicting the chaotic state of Albion in a sequence of disconnected passages, not easily explicated, whose inconsequentiality may easily entangle the unsuspecting reader. Brackets seem here the only practical way of warning the reader, and of separating some segments from the rest, so as to make their discreteness relatively clear.

  19. From time to time, an editor, in pursuit of clarity and ease of understanding, has to take minor liberties with the minutiae of Blake's text. Somewhere between Erdman's and Bentley's textual scholarship and Bateson's educational aims there may be safe ground for an editor, but it is advisable to choose the policy of typographical amendment carefully—and to wear a Kevlar waistcoat.

  20. These typographical details may not often affect the sense, but they do affect the pronunciation, and therefore the rhythm and flow of the verse. It is important to know how many syllables Blake intended. To take an obvious example: the word walked is, in modern speech, one syllable. In poetry, the word, so printed, may be one syllable or two. In most cases, the rhythm makes the answer self-evident, but not always. In the past, when the habit of pronouncing the -ed was still remembered, it was common to mark the short pronunciation as walk'd. Blake sometimes wrote one form, sometimes the other, and I am not yet convinced that he followed any regular practice, still less a rule, and, seeing no guide in the matter, I cut the Gordian knot and printed "walked" in all cases, leaving the reader's ear to decide (despite David Fuller's disapproval.[5]

  21. In a period when scansion involved the counting of syllables in the old familiar manner, poetic texts often marked out mute syllables, as in walk'd. The Scottish metrical psalms, printed at the end of many Bibles, are a good example of strict observance. The popular ballad stanza, the "fourteener," is divided eight-and-six, the first word of the second half not capitalized:

    And when by thee he shall be judg'd,
         let him condemned be;
    And let his pray'r be turn'd to sin,
         when he shall turn to thee.
                             Ps. 109:21-24.

    When me your fathers tempt'd and prov'd,
         and did my working see
    Ev'n for the space of forty years
         this race hath grieved me:
                             Ps. 9:29-32.

    Any spelling with -ed ("condemned") indicates a pronounced syllable; to avoid unwanted syllables, the raised comma is substituted for e, even at the expense of such impossible pronunciation as tempt'd. Not all publishers were as precise:

    "You're overtasked, good Simon Lee,
    Give me your tool" to him I said;
    And at the word right gladly he
    Receiv'd my proffer'd aid.[6] (Wordsworth 104)

    "Overtasked," but "proffer'd." All that can be said is that a convention, not rigidly followed by all, did exist. It remains for editors to follow Blake, or not, as they think best. Unfortunately, Blake's works have no such exactitude, and the editor is left to choose: to copy Blake's script exactly; to ignore Blake and follow modern conventions throughout; or to follow Blake wherever possible, with amendments to help with reading aloud.

  22. Fortunately, editors, handling texts on paper, rarely need to touch on specific pronunciations. Three spring to mind: the names Los, Urizen, and Vala. Is Los to be rhymed with cross, or with hose, with an unvoiced s? (I know of no such words in English, except some personal or place names, such as the name Voce and the place Wrose.) Admittedly with no more evidence than this, I have always taken Los to be homophonic with loss. American speakers, unaccustomed to the English short first vowel, tend to settle for the second. There one must leave it, to personal choice.

  23. Kathleen Raine derives the name Urizen from horizon, with overtones of your reason (2:56). Both imply a stress on the second syllable, but differ as to the vowel: a rhyme with eyes, or with ease? By once again reading aloud, in this case from most of The Book of Urizen, I find that stress on the first syllable, U, is the only way to make the verse scan; the i then loses stress, and all is clear.

  24. Like many people, I tended to pronounce Vala as Vahla, which seems more natural for an exotic name; but since it was pointed out (I think by Bentley, but I cannot fix on the place) that she is commonly identified with the veil, I have accepted the name as veil+a. In this case, the rhythm gives no help.

  25. These are only three cases, but they illustrate the importance of small matters for the rhythm and flow of Blake's verse. He was a lower-middle-class Londoner: I think of his accent as something like John Major's, allowing late eighteenth-century differences. The pronounced r, for example, went out of English usage around that time, except in various western areas (Somerset and Manchester spring to mind); but did Cockney Blake, brought up in the 1760s, still sound the r in Enitharmon? Can anyone tell? Most editors can find themselves lucky not to have to pronounce on the matter, but it is genuinely important that readers be helped to feel the flow of the verse—and the lack of either, where Blake may intend it so.

  26. Editors do tamper in these various ways with the minutiae of text that Blake left behind. The only justification with Blake's text is that to do so brings us nearer to Blake, and releases us from tripping over the manifold minor obstacles to understanding that Blake was not aware of leaving. But it must be done with care and judgment.

  27. Setting aside Blake's text itself, dating is one element that is rarely debated. That is not to say that dates are not discussed and disputed (although Viscomi's work, especially in Blake and the Idea of the Book,[7] has largely silenced debate for the time being), but that individual editors do not in general find themselves in the midst of such arguments over dating as face them in orthography. Yet most editions are arranged in an accepted order of dating. An exception is Erdman's edition, arranged first by genre and then by date. Perhaps we should pay more attention to this.

  28. The process of dating creates gridlines for events around us. More valuable is our perception of the rate and extent of the passing years. The importance of the opening years of the French Revolution in Blake's life is of course thoroughly covered; but we tend to miss the scale of events. It is easy to run the years of 1789 to 1793 together; we should reflect on the fact that three years are a substantial period, and that the years 1789 to 1792 were not one single summer of upheaval, but an extended period of politicking, which for many (Blake, Wordsworth, and co.) was three and a half years of "blissful dawn" to be alive in. But much can happen, and did, in three and a half years, when a brave new world is emerging. Then in 1792 came turmoil; but in the years after 1794, the hopeful days seemed long past, the government made more unpopular laws, a dreary, unsuccessful war dragged on, and prices went up.

  29. Consider these years in the life of Blake himself. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell reads like the work of a youthful iconoclast; yet he was about 33 when he wrote it, not usually the age of an enfant terrible. And we may debate the dating of Vala, from its beginnings in 1795-96 to its abandonment—when? 1812? We should consider the fact that, when he began this grand enterprise, Blake was still in his middle 30s, an age when one may still hold ambitions of coming greatness; but he was in his 50s when he left it aside, an age when it may seem clear after all that the great days are done, and it is time to settle for less. To generalize is to be an idiot, but perhaps we may add that, as 70 approaches, one may not care any more, and take on some large tasks, such as the Book of Job, or the Divine Comedy which life has become. Certainly, an editor should be aware of the personal meaning of time.

  30. It would generally be agreed, but I do not propose to argue, that, important though typographical questions are, the real core of an editor's task is to examine the substance rather than the mechanics of Blake's work, those elements that a reader is likely to find difficult to understand, so as to make them understandable, a very different, delicate, and more sensitive matter.

  31. Readers need no editor to make up their minds for them whether or not to accept the arguments of a critic who writes with a particular bias. Was Heathcliff a proto-Marxist, the archetypal capitalist, a tragic Byronic hero—or none of the above? The material an editor presents must at least try to be more objective. Editing as tendentiously as Soviet editors of Dickens in the 1950s, to demonstrate his basic Marx-Leninism, would invalidate an edition.

  32. My own task began before the floodgates of Blake scholarship had been opened. Important books had been written by Foster Damon, Martin Schorer, Northrop Frye, David Erdman, and others, but they were heavyweights; the mass of small detail that has informed Blake scholarship since the late 1960s had barely begun to appear. It seemed to me that information rather than interpretation was most needed. The aim was to avoid giving the work any particular coloring of my own, and to provide, as far as possible, everything necessary to enable readers to interpret Blake for themselves.

  33. This is more easily said than done. We go in pursuit of completeness and are faced with almost infinite information. Dealing with Chaucer, we would find ourselves in a remote world of which even now our information is restricted; with Pope, we would find a stable world, a small circle of London cognoscenti, the defined world of his friends and enemies, the dominance of well-known master works. Blake's eye scanned a world in explosion, and the universe beyond, helped not only by Milton, Bunyan, the recesses of the Bible, the fascination of obscurer writers on spiritual themes, and also by such apparently unrelated subjects such as his introduction through Basire and Bryant to the age's fascination with Druidical and Eastern antiquity, taking him on to Welsh nationalism and its poetry.

  34. Any attempt, then, to present readers of Blake with all the necessary information that they might lack opens Pandora's Box. Blake's Autolycus mind snapped up all manner of fascinating wayside material in any kind of order. It helps the editor also to be something of an Autolycus; a specialized fixation in a certain direction may reveal a great deal of valuable truths, but may at the same time exclude much more. We need a focus, but however objectively we try to select our necessary material, we all have some political, historical, or philosophical drift to our thoughts that will direct the kind of notes we provide.

  35. In the past, commentators on Blake tried to find a focus in him through a set world of symbols in word and design. It was too easy to take the line literally, "I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Mans" (Jerusalem pl. 10:20), and thereafter concentrate on finding and deciphering the golden elixir of a comprehensive system. Damon declared, "Blake heartily embraced Thomas Taylor's teaching that the Ancients concealed the Divine Vision under symbols ... Blake deliberately confused his prophetic books" (x). Reading Blake became somewhat like reading a newspaper in a foreign language, needing constantly to look up the meaning of words and images one by one. The reader soon loses touch with the much more productive approach to Blake's difficulties, in simply asking the question, "What's happening?"

  36. Kathleen Raine's emphasis in Blake & Tradition on the Neo-Platonism of Thomas Taylor was original and very valuable, and the vein is not worked out. Yet Kathleen Raine herself, in her concentration on one area, and silent but almost complete rejection of Blake's political concerns, diminishes the value of her own work. David V. Erdman's Prophet against Empire was a very necessary revelation of Blake's political enthusiasms, although he is sometimes inclined to find oppressed radicals under every bush. To state that the victory song of Vala p. 13 "evidently celebrates" the victories at Alexandria and Acre, is surely rash (Erdman 319). We all have to avoid the danger that "everything the reader needs (or wants) to know" becomes "what the editor thinks the reader needs to know." Fortunately, we seem to be past the era of the single-minded focus; Jon Mee[8] did not need to find one answer to the supposed Blake enigma.

  37. Matters requiring enlightenment may fall into three groups. First, simple matters of fact; the second are facts that are more than facts; the third are those intertwined with images, perhaps based on simple experience, but are enravelled with others in all manner of insights. Examples of the first group are the London places familiar to Blake from his childhood, and listed in the poem introducing Chapter Two of Jerusalem: "the fields from Islington to Marybone" will surprise many modern readers, who will not find Willan's farm or the Green Man pub in the A to Z maps. Some images were more familiar then than now. Derby Peak (Jerusalem pls. 21:34; 57:7; 64:35) is still much climbed, but less fashionable than it was in 1812; modern readers may need the editor's prop to follow the allusion. Again, not all Blake readers will have read Erdman's identification of the orphanages near Blake's Lambeth home (290); and so the list continues.

  38. Second are the details needing more than simple identification, having a deeper meaning for Blake. In Vala Night the Second l. 282 (p. 25:40), Luvah is "cast into the Furnaces of affliction and sealed." Modern readers of Blake are unlikely to know much about the general principles or actual practices of refining and casting iron in the eighteenth century. They need that information, and more, because this image of ferocious and fiery creation is just one of the images of the remaking of Luvah through suffering—such as the robes of blood, and the crushing of grapes in the vintage, echoing in the course of Vala and elsewhere. Likewise, the "Three Classes" referred to repeatedly in the first half of Milton are soon explained historically, but they carry a further meaning, demonstrating the ways in which people may respond to the demands of Imagination, so essential for Blake.

  39. Annotating is not just a matter of detail. Blake's vision easily extends itself into widespread ranges of experience. Blind spots are difficult to clarify; they may turn out to be extensive dark clouds. Complex ideas and images arrive singly, and may by blending make a problem of their own. The editor must attempt to balance the two.

  40. For example, on opening Milton, the first-line allusion to Beulah could make any reader of A Pilgrim's Progress feel at home; but almost at once, in the tenth line, what is to be made of "the False tongue, vegetated / Beneath your land of shadows"—and then Milton's six-fold Emanation, and Enitharmon's looms? We can settle down to a Bard's Song about a farming community of Palamabron, Rintrah, and co., even including Satan, but then be puzzled by the recurrence of familiar lines from The Book of Urizen. Where are we, and where are we going?

  41. A first reading of the whole poem leaves one with the impression of Milton's traveling through the abyss—yet he seems to be on at least two journeys, and at the same time lying in a coma. What at one time seems to be straightforward narrative of travel turns out to be very uncertain indeed. It is only when the nature of Time in Milton is recognized that the contradictions fall into place. This is a timeless universe; therefore Milton can travel by different routes, and lie in one bed, at the same time. It is an infinite, as well as a timeless universe.

  42. Consider more precisely pls. 6-20. After the epic opening, Blake opens the poem by introducing the Three Classes:

    Three Classes are Created by the Hammer of Los & Woven [. . .]
    By Enitharmons Looms [. . .]

    The first. the Elect from before the foundation of the World.
    The Second. The Redeemed. The Third. The Reprobate & form'd
    To destruction from the mothers womb:
                                                          follow with me my plow.
    Of the first class was Satan. With incomparable mildness [. . .]
    (Milton pls. 2:26-3:1; 7:2-5)

    Easily missed by an editor covering all this: the three classes of predestined souls, as devised by St. Augustine, and made notorious through Calvin, and then the echo of Blake's experience with Hayley about to follow, is the irony of the next line, on Satan's first appearance since The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, thirteen years ago: "Of the first class was Satan: with incomparable mildness [. . .]." Satan was once the heroic anti-Messiah; now he is the "virtuous" hypocrite. Hence, surely, the insistence of "follow with me." It leads the reader of 1800, besides, to the startling labeling of Satan blithely, and without comment, as of "the Elect." This is the old, calmly iconoclastic Blake of Marriage back again; but the editor's concern with explicable detail can easily ignore the irony of this line.

  43. Besides keeping up with such detail, the editor must be concerned to display the big picture. The depiction of personal irritation with Hayley is noteworthy, but not the function of the Bard's Song, which continues to develop towards its prime purpose, to lead us to the point where Milton determines to return to Earth to redeem the errors of his previous life. In the process, new images appear, whose importance ranges throughout Milton, and well beyond. In particular, there is the Couch of Death, on which Albion will sleep in a coma until "the time of the End" (Jerusalem pl. 7:64), here almost incidental to the scene of the Great Assembly the Bard is singing about, but the foundation image of his two last great poems, and the pattern of the couch on which the shadow of Milton sleeps as his soul journeys towards his meeting with William Blake. Besides this, the Bard introduces the concepts of Contraction and Opacity (pl. 13:20), and Time and Space (pls. 8:43, 13:16), as elements of the mortal world, ruled respectively by Los and Enitharmon, for the protection of souls in the mortal world.

  44. These motifs may appear as details, but they become more than details, extending and becoming woven into strands across all later works, poetic or visual. They may not be essential to the plot, but they are essential Blake. It is a major feature of his work—not only his writing—that certain motifs recur throughout, especially but not solely in his three major epics, in which they are at least as important as the narrative.

  45. The Atlantic, for example, does not appear often. It is the barrier between king and rebels in America, and, apart from the seventeen occurrences in Jerusalem, chiefly in Chapter Two, scarcely seems worth comment. Yet in those appearances it has developed into an ominously threatening image. For Blake's contemporaries, the Atlantic was not merely an obstacle to be routinely crossed; it was the relentless "old grey widow-maker" that threatened all, and drowned many travelers west- and east-bound. Blake took this "boundless ocean, bottomless, / Of grey obscurity, filled with clouds & rocks & whirling waters" (Jerusalem pl. 39:14-15), and made it an emblem of the brutal force of unimaginative despair that divides peoples from one another, and the soul within itself (Jerusalem pl. 38:65-70).

  46. And apparently gentle images may carry great force. The most striking of these is the garment, which reaches its most fearsome expression in the Covering Cherub, expressing as an image his late concept of States, outlined in the Canterbury Tales Prospectus (Notebook, pp. 79-80) in the commentary on A Vision of the Last Judgement, where he makes the distinction between the apparent character, the behavior, the deeds which individuals clothe themselves with, but which are emphatically not the personality itself. The State is a garment, a covering; when discarded, it reveals the real person it hides. So in The Marriage, pls. 17-19, the fearsome serpent vanishes in the face of Blake's nonchalance, and the Covering Cherub vanishes at the climax of both Milton and Jerusalem. He has no substance; he is a shadow, the temporary State put on by an Individual. Blake states the concept in full in the late pl. 18 of Milton, and succinctly and effectively in the verse To the Accuser, epilogue to For the Sexes:

    Truly My Satan thou art but a Dunce,
    And dost not know the Garment from the Man:
    Every Harlot was a Virgin once,
    Nor canst thou ever change Kate into Nan.
    We must look for the Individual, not the Shadow.

    I have not mentioned the great poetry in the added pls. 10 and 18 of Milton, nor the set of full-page illustrations which make a dramatic commentary on the whole. To some extent, Blake's books accumulate as did the books of the major prophets: an original core is filled out by relevant material from elsewhere. Blake could never "murder his darlings," to leave out any inspiration, so that his books sometimes spread like an overgrown garden, full of obscuring undergrowth and unexpected brilliances, with pathways like those behind Alice's Looking-glass, aiming at one center and arriving at another. It is not easy to follow through the many digressions. Yet this is what the poem is about, and it is the editor's job to find ways to clarify by the broad outline and the manifold details.

  47. There are other motifs besides these: those of the designs. A most striking element of The Book of Urizen, and other works of the period, is the number of claustrophobic designs: figures crushed under rocks, trapped in caves, trapped by coiling serpents. Some of the designs in Job express the same sensations. Against these are the joyful designs of figures flying free in the air: and all the variations in between which reflect the poetic material they illustrate.

  48. In all this, the editor must keep head above water. The process is multifarious, not to be set out in a single line. Blake faces an editor with many minutiae to explain, features to elucidate, the wider perspective to be shown, whether of a poem or of Blake's whole work, the strands that reach across poems, and at times by pointing to the idiosyncrasies to reveal the poet within the poems. There is no simple formula for it. Success in the endeavor to clarify will not come from a counting-house procedure of working one's way through and checking off all points of interest and obscurity. That hardly needs to be said. The truth surely is that there are too many facets at any point in Blake's work for it to be possible to elucidate every detail; and I have barely touched upon the intrinsic importance of his designs. The best thing an editor can hope for is to light a way through a work, to open out the manifold variety within it, and to stimulate the reader to go on searching. Not to analyze but to absorb, because Blake finds no bounds to the vortex of Heaven in a wild flower.


[1] David V. Erdman, ed., The Illuminated Blake (New York: Anchor Books, 1974).

[2] David Bindman, William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000).

[3] From the introductory Note by F. W. Bateson, General ed., Longman Annotated English Poets, in The Complete Poems of William Blake (1971). This note was reproduced in the 2nd ed. (1989) but not in the 3rd ed. (2007).

[4] Quotations from Blake's works here follow the punctuation, etc., found in the Tate facsimile.

[5] See Fuller 25-26, where he discusses this matter more fully.

[6] In the same stanza, the words "sever'd" and "endevour'd" also appear.

[7] Joseph Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton UP, 1993).

[8] Jon Mee, Dangerous Enthusiasm (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1992).

Works Cited

Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. Providence, R.I.: Brown UP, 1965.

Erdman, David V. Blake: Prophet against Empire. 3rd ed. New York: Dover, 1977.

Fuller, David. William Blake: Selected Poetry and Prose. Harlow: Longman-Pearson Education Limited, 2000.

The Holy Bible. Edinburgh: Alexander Kincaid, 1775.

Keynes, G. L., ed. The Complete Writings of William Blake. London: Nonesuch P, 1957.

Raine, Kathleen. Blake & Tradition. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.

Stevenson, W. H., ed. The Complete Poems of William Blake. Text by D. V. Erdman. 1st ed. Longman Annotated English Poets. London: Longman Group UK Limited, 1971.

Wordsworth, William. Lyrical Ballads. Bristol: Biggs & Cottle, 1798.

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