R. Paul Yoder
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Each volume in the Cambridge Companion series provides a sort of snapshot of the state of the art concerning its given subject at the time of its publication, and this is certainly the case with the Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Morris Eaves has put together an excellent collection of overview essays on Blake’s contexts and works. After Eaves’ Introduction, the book is divided unevenly into two parts: “Perspectives” and “Blake’s Works.” All essays in both parts include endnotes and suggestions for further reading. The point of the essays is not so much to make new arguments as to synthesize the body of critical knowledge into a useful companionable form, and in this the volume succeeds quite well. The only glaring omission from the collection is a discussion of Blake and gender, a difficult issue for which a summary essay, if not a true synthesis, would be especially useful.
Eaves’s Introduction establishes the metaphor of a journey of exploration for reading Blake. Eaves readily acknowledges the difficulty of Blake’s work and the strangeness of what passes for “meaning” there: “The basic strategy behind this Cambridge Companion is to respond to the difficulties with a variety of critical and historical explanations from several perspectives which seem to offer the most hope of catching Blake in the act of meaning something we can understand” (1). He juxtaposes the “simplifications” often used to make Blake more accessible to the “complications” that must be recognized to enter more fully into Blake’s world and work. Eaves asserts that Blake was “fundamentally resistant” to the “specialization” that underlies the social routines of “rationalization, scientific thinking, professionalization, industrialization, commercialization, institutionalization, modernization” (7). Perhaps Eaves’s most suggestive comment is that the “underlying problem of recognition is at the heart of Blake’s difficulties then [in his own time] and for us now” (9). That is, Blake’s readers in his own time could not quite determine just what he was about, and in our time, readers may not recognize the social context or traditions of thought in which he worked. Moreover, the problem of recognition is also thematic for Blake, for as Eaves puts it, “Blake’s epic plots depict a complex process of masking and subsequent confusion and misery, followed by equally complex unmasking, the identification of negations posing as metaphors, and the restoration of the true (original) links of identification” (11).
The “Perspectives” section of the collection provides a good introduction to Blake and to Blake studies. Aileen Ward’s “factual narrative” (35) seeks to “disentangl[e] as much as possible” Blake’s life from the legend (19). Nevertheless, she is selective about which facts and which legends. She recounts the illiteracy of Blake’s wife and the story of how Blake’s dead brother, Robert, revealed to him the idea of illuminated printing. She mentions the “unconscious homosexuality” of Blake’s patron William Hayley, but not Hayley’s supposed sexual advances toward Mrs. Blake. Whatever the final status of these gray areas, Ward’s summary of Blake’s life is very good, and her paragraphs on Blake’s ideas concerning the Last Judgment and on his illustrations to Dante, “Blake’s most drastic act of reinterpretation” (33), are excellent.
Joseph Viscomi uses the “Printing House in Hell” from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a guide for describing Blake’s printing process. Drawing from his own earlier work, Viscomi debunks, or at least qualifies, many common misconceptions about Blake’s work. For example, whereas it was once a given that each copy of Blake’s illuminated books was a meticulously unique work of art, Viscomi points out, “Making each impression exactly repeatable … was not really possible when working by hand with an assistant. While each copy produced was a unique work of art, most impressions printed and colored at the same time do not differ very much … Making each impression very different would have required more labor and time” (55-6). Viscomi also reminds us that Blake’s illuminated books represent relatively brief and sporadic periods in the artist’s long productive life: the books were “produced as fine ‘limited editions.’ They were not invented to secure financial independence, and they didn’t … [The books] were mostly underwritten by his commercial work” (60).