Plate 2, Copy Z Plate 28, Copy Z

I start with my two favorite plates: the two frontispieces. A good place to start, I suppose. Where Blake, obviously, would have us start, since he made them frontispieces. Wonderfully executed figures, vibrant colors, lovely play of light. We see immediately how these are "illuminated" plates. They could be stain-glass windows, which I'm sure was part of Blake's intention. Interesting figures, doing interesting things: what they are doing is not quite clear, however. Since there is no text, we have only the images to figure out the sense of the plates.

Then again, once we read the "Introduction" to the Songs (a different plate), and read that into the frontispiece of Innocence, things start to fall into place. We see the "valleys wild," the rural heartland, the forest. The man with the pipe must be the piper, "piping songs of pleasant glee." He must be a shepherd, for behind him are many sheep. The figure hovering above him must be the child on a cloud. More of this below.

There are trees on either side, framing the picture. One of the trees is actually two, entwined about each other. This looks familiar. We will, of course, see it again: it is one of Blake's common visual tropes in the Songs, and we find it in both books. In a future move, I hope to do some comparison of these trees.

Now we return to the child on a cloud. A child on a cloud? At first, he seems something like an angel. That is the first thing that causes a twinge: where are the angel's wings? It's almost shocking to realize he isn't an angel. Though, iconographically, he is depicted as such. But it's an illusion.

Why is there a child floating in the sky? In the "Introduction" he is mentioned matter-of-factly. In the frontispiece, the depiction of figures is fairly realistic. The child appears, and then later "vanish'd." Blake treats this visitation, and this disappearance, as an everyday occurence. This is not supposed to cause us to wonder. So here at the very beginning, we are entering Blake's visionary landscape, a surreal landscape—a virtual landscape—that is nonetheless real. And it is the strange child that is leading us there.

In the frontispiece to Experience we do get an angel. So Innocence, which we associate with angels, is angel-less, and Experience, which we associate with the loss of innocence, has one, attaching itself to the head of the Shepherd like a bug, or like a small animal he can't shake. Another surreal scene. Another crack of the door, the portal, into another world.

My pejorative tone about the Angel in the bit above comes from the reading of those who read Blake's poems as attacks on church and state. Nicholas Marsh has a particular antipathy for Blake's angels, basically accusing them of standing by while atrocities occur, being "good Germans" (54). Keynes suggests, as do other commentators, that the angel in the Experience frontispiece is a reference to Ezekiel 20—the "covering cherub"—and, following that reference, symbolizes corruption. He writes, "The phrase was often used by Blake in his longer epics to mean the Selfhood, 'that self-seeking, which is the root of all Christian errors'" (Keynes, commentary to Plate 28).

But if we follow the lead of the Innocence frontispiece, and use the "Introduction" to Experience as a textual guide to the image, we can see other possible interpretations for the angel. He could represent the Holy Word "Calling the lapsed soul," calling the Earth to return, to "Arise out of the dewy grass." Whatever the angel represents, I think it, and all the angels in the Songs, are more complex than a fundamentalist reading of Ezekiel, and Blake, would allow.

What can I say about these two frontispieces viewed in juxtaposition? Do they give us a kind of Kuleshov effect, each influencing the meaning of each other, providing us with a third meaning? I'll leave that alone for now.

The images are quite different. We still have the rural, idyllic scene of the shepherd/piper with his sheep. The sheep are quite similar. But everything else has changed, which is not surprising with roving sheep. But I think Blake is trying for an effect here. He wants us to see the similarity AND the difference, in a kind of double-vision. He wants us to see that the two worlds depicted are at the same time different and the same. Here we have parallel universes within this universe. Our portal to each is somewhere within this one, and it is the state of our imagination, what our "inner eye" allows us to see, that determines which world we inhabit—that of Innocence or Experience. It is our subjective experience and seeing that places us in one world or the other.

I believe the fact that the respective depictions of the shepherd/piper supports this view. They are meant to be the same figure, and yet they're so different. First of all, they are clothed differently, Innocence in pink, Experience in green. What could this mean? Perhaps Innocence is supposed to look like a baby, and Experience, in green, represents some kind of corruption or transformation—bronze turned green, or a face turned green. Green faces in the Songs often depict a kind of corruption or world-weariness (green is coded similarly in medieval paintings). Also, Innocence is wispy and poetic, while Experience is big and buff, a soldier marching to battle. Are they in fact the "innocent version" and the "experience version" of the poet, as those two discourses define "poet"? They are, again, portals into parallel, virtual universes, and well as two distinct discourses.

That is one reason I like this pair. They are portals. Though in one the reader is drawn in: drawn into Innocence. In the other, the frame is filled with a departing figure, who threatens to knock down the reader on his way out. So departing Experience. But isn't that the exact opposite of what we usually think about this states? We leave Innocence behind and fall into Experience.

So already Blake is working the contraries.

How do these two pictures act as portals? And portals into what? Virtual worlds and narrative, which is another way to carve out virtual space. In the Innocence frontispiece we're invited in. Come and look at this world of Innocence: come and see what they (church-state-gentry) SAY it is. And the Experience frontispiece says, basically, the jig is up. The Shepherd there looks you directly in the eye and says: you know it's a fiction, a simulation. Now let me show you what it's really like.

Blake shows, in Experience, what a song book would look like when it actually reflected reality, rather than some fiction created by beadles and functionaries to keep the masses in line.

So what am I suggesting? That these two frontispieces invite us not only into a virtual world, but a narrative as well. The two avenues for stealth politics: subliminal virtuality and narrative. And the narrative is: wake up from the simulation! Escape the simulacrum!

In terms of how that narrative functions in Blake's book, which I suggest in (with) this site is in fact a kind of navigable space, a gameworld, there is much more to say. I will only say a few things here. We face the same problems with this text, particularly as it is made interactive in the Contraries Machine, that we do with other narratives in cyberspace. Lev Manovich discusses these problems, and reflects the subsequent anxiety they produce, in The Language of New Media. It would be easy to say, with the Songs, that there is no narrative, particularly if we posit, as I do, that it is in fact an interactive text. Rather a database we can access. But, unlike Manevich, I see no reason why Blake could not have imbedded multiple narratives into his "database." We may stumble upon them in our "surfing" of the text, or may make our own.

But then we have to ask if Blake would approve of such interactivity. He definitely has an agenda: engendering visionary consciousness. Could he allow the reader/interactor to find his/her way without his assistance? Without a poet, a piper, a visionary child, a bard, to show us the way? Is Blake just creating trajectories of possible narratives, or does he strive to "control the semantics of the elements and the logic of their connection so that the resulting object will meet the criteria of narrative"? (Manovich 14).

Hopefully some of that will come clear in future moves.

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