Van Kleeck, "Editioning William Blake's VALA/The Four Zoas"

Editing and Reading Blake

Editioning William Blake's VALA/The Four Zoas

Justin Van Kleeck


  1. Of the many mysteries that William Blake left us to ponder over, one has proven to be particularly vexing for us and for the maker himself: the illustrated manuscript poem first titled VALA and later re-dubbed The Four Zoas. Even after more than 200 years, in which Blake has gone from obscurity to surprisingly broad appeal, VALA/The Four Zoas stands out as one of the richest and most complex works in the poet-artist's impressively prolific career. Offering one of the few surviving manuscripts of Blake's poetry, and the only glimpse we have into the compositional processes behind his late epic Prophecies, VALA/The Four Zoas presents an arresting vision of the fallen world as the poem's characters struggle amongst themselves toward regeneration, redemption, and a return to fourfold Eternal unity as “One Man.”

  2. But the plot is only one part of the manuscript's fascinating draw. Its many large folio leaves offer a material testament to Blake's struggles with the content and form of his myth in both its verbal and visual elements. As such, the multitude of discontinuities, disjunctions, textual cruxes, vacillations between readings, and (for us and likely for Blake) irresolvable inconsistencies in the poem represent a challenge that some have accepted boldly, that some have accepted only in small pieces, that others have shied away from confusedly, and that others have ignored completely. Each of these complex elements of the manuscript played an essential part in its evolution from VALA to The Four Zoas. Because its multiple “transformations” remain visible on the revisionary surface of the page, the manuscript's “final state,” as Blake left it, is one of process, of movement, of change.

  3. The minute particulars of Blake's heavily revised, seriously complicated, and never finished work have long represented a major field of contention and interest in Blake scholarship. Facing such a challenging task, editors have adopted multiple approaches for engaging with and then representing the original artifact. In turn, their editions come to play an integral role in larger Blake scholarship and so how this work has been understood, both by scholars (of all levels) and by “general readers.” Editing thus represents a unique act of “interpretation” in its own right. So, too, does what I call “editioning,” or the process of turning some original work into a distinct object and work through the process of reworking and representing it in an edition. On the one hand, editing and editioning reflect contemporary trends in literary scholarship, whether through an editor's relationship to a specific audience or through an editor's contextual influences and use of scholarship when editing the materials. On the other hand, they also seriously influence or even determine many aspects of literary study by providing the resources—usually in lieu of an original artifact—that scholars use for engaging with a work, formulating opinions, and then making their own arguments about it.

  4. Therefore, if we hope even to understand Blake's manuscript without extended, hands-on access to the artifact itself, then we must first discover the methodologies behind the editions we use, assess the ways that editors put their principles into practice, and consider how the editions are shaped by the editors' stated (and unstated) purposes. And then we must see how, when they both obscure and clarify the works being edited, editors and their editions shape our understanding. That is, we must examine how the manuscript has been both edited and how it has been editioned. Such a comprehensive and critical method of using editions—determining and recognizing each element of an editorial methodology in a given edition—represents the only way that one can carry out a reliable study of Blake's VALA/The Four Zoas manuscript.

  5. The need for critical scrutiny when using editions of VALA/The Four Zoas exists not just because the manuscript's fragile condition makes studying the original itself nearly impossible, forcing us to rely on various editions of it as faithful and reliable representations. We often can gain new insights into the manuscript's particularities, its many interwoven and highly heterogeneous threads, through an editor's serious engagement with them, which has come to be expected in any true scholarly edition. Such an expectation of rigor may seem at first a relatively modern priority, something superseding “belleletristic” editing. In fact, a look at the editorial history of VALA/The Four Zoas reveals that a core belief in fidelity and precision represents perhaps the most important and dominant part of editorial methodologies—as represented by and in editions of the manuscript. When we actually recognize this principle in its various manifestations, we also can see where editions lack the rigor that an editor has attempted (and usually promised) to uphold. In turn, we can discover the weaknesses in an edition that otherwise we might have accepted whole hog. We thereby can consider an edition's context and how our expectations relate to it, which adds a degree of self-awareness to our own scholarship in a specific time (as Proust might say) and place.

  6. At one extreme of the editorial axis, an editor may decide to adopt an entirely “genetic” or “documentary” approach to VALA/The Four Zoas, treating it as a physical object and so having as little recourse to supposed authorial “intentions” or narrative “sense” as possible. Instead of representing a work of literature, a coherent “poem” (with or without accompanying illustrations), such an editor most likely will ignore or minimize questions of order, sense, continuity, and so forth, focusing instead on “interpreting” what physical-textual evidence remains and the possible insights it can offer into the artifact's growth.[1] The resulting edition would present something far from a “reading” text, a traditional “poem,” but instead a record of “data” for subsequent critical use.

  7. For a genetic editor, the VALA/The Four Zoas manuscript would be a manuscript first and foremost and forever, but many editors (and their readers) would find such a treatment of Blake's work to be insufficient—likely as Blake himself would have. At the other extreme of the methodological spectrum, an editor may wish to approach the manuscript with the understanding that it was meant to be, and so is, a poem to be read as the author intended: in as sensible a manner as possible. That is, this editor would read the manuscript text and interpret the material and textual evidence so as to find the “right” order for the poetic narrative, even if the physical evidence did not fit the perceived sense of the narrative. Recovering—or discovering—this order amidst the “chaos,” the “literary” or “intentionalist” editor would then refashion the manuscript's contents accordingly for his/her edition text—thus creating an “ideal” version of a poem. The result, of course, would require an editorial representation or re-forging of Blake's manuscript and would involve multiple degrees of alteration, conjecture, and inevitable misrepresentation. However much actual editorial imposition exists in this sort of edition, the edition itself would present to readers a relatively sensible poem—the “reading text” that many edition users (scholars or “general readers”) seem to desire. [2]

  8. Editions of Blake's VALA/The Four Zoas fall at various points on this spectrum, sometimes straddling the fence or blending methods from the two different schools of thought. While such a general “middle path” might offer the most satisfying results to the most individual edition users, it also creates the conditions in which we find many editors adopting seriously self-contradictory methods in order to reach some solution. This sort of method mixing, intentional and unintentional, has rather profound effects on every edition of the manuscript to date. Ironically enough, a majority of Blake's editors frequently strive to separate “objective” or “scientific” methods of editorial fidelity and precision from dangerously “subjective” interpretations of Blake's poem based solely on personal whim and reader preference. They try to divide editing from interpretation through commentary (in prefaces and notes) and materially/structurally (in the editions). Nevertheless, interpretation remains crucial in every editorial methodology and edition—and this interpretation is of a literary, even aesthetic nature at that, not simply interpretation of physical evidence.


  9. We can learn much about the reasons for this harmonious discord in editorial methods by looking at the current complexities of the manuscript itself through a brief biographical and bibliographical history. Then, we can broaden our perspective, pull back from the particulars, and examine how some key editors of Blake handle their materials and, in the process, shape so much of scholarship. I hope that my approach will show the challenges VALA/The Four Zoas poses and the way editors have tried to overcome them for us, or help us overcome them, or just make us more bloody confused.[3] After striding through the past, perhaps then we can step forth into a possible future for Blake's restless manuscript.

  10. Blake began his poem with the original title VALA probably in 1796 or 1797, and from the beginning it represented a new venture for him both as poet and as illustrator of his own writings. He had just recently finished a lengthy project to illustrate Edward Young's long meditative poem The Complaint, better known by its subtitle Night Thoughts. Commissioned by the publisher Richard Edwards, Blake produced 537 watercolor illustrations on large folio leaves provided for this purpose by Edwards. Only 43 of these were engraved for an edition of the first four Nights, the only one of the four intended volumes ever published.[4] Perhaps inspired by Young and his poem's movement from fall to apocalypse through nine Nights, or perhaps reacting to the poet's religious orthodoxy, Blake borrowed the nine-Night, fall-to-judgment structure for his own new poem VALA. At the same time, Blake “revised” his models in characteristic ways as he laid out his own, much darker vision of the fallen universe and its pantheon of mythological-symbolic characters struggling for dominance in their state of separation while simultaneously plodding towards the Last Judgment.[5]

  11. At the end of his authorial labors, Blake created a manuscript of 70 folio (or nearly folio) leaves and three fragmentary leaves, or 146 pages total, most of which contain both text and some sort of illustrative design. To do so, Blake “borrowed” more than just ideas and structures from the Night Thoughts project; he also borrowed materials, executing nearly all of VALA/The Four Zoas on leaves left over after he completed his watercolor drawings and engraving proofs for Edwards. In the early portions of his own manuscript (now pp. 1-18, 23-42), Blake used the blank leaves and wrote in a large, fine script, generally; he even took the time to draw guiding lines in pencil in order to keep the lines straight across the page, as well as numbering many of his lines. Similarly, he spent more time on his illustrations: some, in the earliest pages, were colored with light watercolor washes, and many of the other illustrations are developed beyond a simple “rough sketch.” These combined factors present a strong image of an author with both a care and some future intention for his work beyond a sketchpad. And the remainder of the original manuscript, the rest of VALA, may have had a similar appearance to these pages—possibly providing a good basis from which to print and publish the new work.[6]

  12. However, the extant manuscript is much more complex, and much less finished, even at the most basic level of the pages. Besides the blank leaves described above, Blake at some point also began reusing leaves with his Night Thoughts proof engravings on the fronts. These reused proofs first occur on p. 43 and continue to the end. There is an equally noticeable shift in Blake's writing on these pages, too. Rather than keeping up an ornate script, he wrote his lines in the text panels on the front and on the blank backs in a less-careful, smaller script than on the previous pages. Similarly, there are no well-developed, let alone ornamented or “finished,” illustrations in these pages. Looking at the highly heterogeneous manuscript now, from our perspective, we surely will encounter a serious difficulty concluding what this reuse of proof sheets and change in hand represents for Blake: a change in publishing intentions, a lack of fresh materials, a recopying of text from heavily revised original pages, or something else?[7] Faced with so much uncertainty, we surely might ask: Why this change in materials and methods?

  13. Blake's biography provides the answer to this question. Failing to find a publisher, or lacking the resources to engrave and print the work himself, or intending to leave it in an unpublished state, he continued working on the text of his poem and its designs for well over a decade. These revisions grew out of significant events and changes in Blake's personal life. After moving to Felpham in late 1800 to serve as engraver-in-residence for the poet and socialite William Hayley, whose circle of close acquaintances included such famous figures as William Cowper, Blake attempted to follow Hayley's advice for achieving commercial success. Public tastes and personal conflicts proved too much for Blake the engraver—but even more so for Blake the author of original (“inspired”) poetic and pictorial works—and, in 1803, he left Felpham and returned to London.

  14. Blake experienced yet another personal “revelation” in this period that had a more direct impact on the illuminated poem VALA as it then existed. In 1804, Blake had a remarkable reaction to the artworks he viewed while visiting the Truchsessian Gallery, which sparked a renewal of inspired Christian vision—“the light I enjoyed in my youth,” Blake called it—after twenty dark years.[8] With financial pressures constantly looming like some “rough demon” overhead, Blake struggled through and kept his artistic eye trained on the bright flame of inspiration—burning brightly once again—amidst the commercially gloomy streets of London.

  15. As Blake the author changed, he also struggled to salvage the original material of VALA in the face of a new, and in many ways vastly different, vision. The years in which he revised VALA—both before and after the return of Christian light—also overlap the years he began composing his two later, engraved epic poems, Milton and Jerusalem, both of which he probably began sometime around 1804 (as the title pages record). Blake kept trying to fit old and new material together while creating these new works, which resulted in an exchange of ideas and material from early to later works. The ultimate effects on VALA were clearly significant, even leading Blake to re-title the poem as The Four Zoas during perhaps the latest stage of revision.[9]

  16. Due to his tenuous financial resources, as well as his perception of British artistic tastes, VALA remained a work in manuscript (i.e., neither engraved on copperplates and printed, as with Blake's other poems, nor published) and a work in progress. But he seems to have either failed or neglected to finish the manuscript completely—in terms of its poetic text or its illustrations—and so left innumerable portions literally in pieces. At some late point in his life, he gave the manuscript to his younger friend and patron John Linnell. It remained in the Linnell family until sold as part of the estate in 1918, after which it was anonymously donated to the British Museum, where it was bound in a large codex.

  17. Whatever the manuscript's condition when Blake gave it to Linnell, E. J. Ellis and W. B. Yeats recount in their 1893 edition how they found it when they began to edit it for the first time: as a veritable chaos of paper, a pile of unbound and unsorted folio leaves. That is, the manuscript's leaves had fallen into complete disarray, apparently with no sort of perceivable order in what, to the would-be editors, clearly represented some sort of poetic work. Thus, Ellis and Yeats's first task was to put the leaves in the best order they could find (or make) using whatever clues Blake had left amidst the other chaos on the pages themselves. We can see some of the traces of this formidable struggle in various inscriptions still on the pages, such as on p. 15 (two long notes by Ellis—the first from 1891, abandoning the leaf as a fragment, and the second from 1904, relating his belief that it should go in its current position based on a suggestion by a man named “Fleay”) and elsewhere in the middle Nights. As they struggled with the massive, chaotic physical evidence, they also relied heavily on the text, using their perception of the narrative as a central clue to how to put the pieces back together; as such, their reliance on interpretation of the poem guided their editorial efforts. The order that Ellis and Yeats reached then took physical form in their edition text of “Vala,” part of their 1893 three-volume edition, The Works of William Blake.

  18. However, after coming into the possession of the British Museum, someone at the Museum decided that this order was not the right one. After consulting with Geoffrey Keynes, the manuscript was reordered—and numbered on each recto in pencil—to accord with Keynes's 1921 Bibliography of William Blake. Someone also attempted to collate the manuscript against Ellis's solo 1906 edition, in the process making many pencil inscriptions giving page numbers and the name “Ellis.” Finally, before the actual binding of Blake's multiply variable manuscript, someone at the Museum reordered—and renumbered—it yet again, which brought it to its present order as bound and safely stowed away in a British Library safe. As happened with Ellis and Yeats, these many reshufflings were attempts to arrange the raw physical data of the manuscript for the best narrative sense of the text as a poem: the search was for the proper reading sequence. Ultimately, then, we have no way to know the order that Blake either intended or left off with when he turned the manuscript over to Linnell. Nothing, it seems, can be taken for granted when it comes to VALA/The Four Zoas as a literary-pictorial work or as a literary-pictorial artifact.


  19. Obviously, then, ambiguity abounds in the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript resting peacefully in a library safe. The complex “revision sites,” encountered on nearly every page, range from clear authorial directives for revisions (transpositions of text on a page, transpositions of entire pages), to highly ambiguous authorial directions, to irresolvable moments where Blake himself seemed uncertain about what he “intended.”[10] In order to show how the manuscript has been edited, and thus given a varying number of “authoritative” forms through editioning, I would like to touch on a few of the more famous, and infamous, complications or problems in the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript.

  20. If we simply turn to a page in the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript, even the first (title) page, we likely will encounter some fairly obvious sign that the work is unfinished. We frequently find large blocks of text added in all directions—horizontally, vertically, diagonally—in margins or amongst earlier lines, sometimes in pen, sometimes in pencil, sometimes even in colored pencil or crayon or some other instrument. On manuscript p. 4, for example, Blake carried out at least two separate stages of addition to the central text now on the page, including a passage in pencil at the top (probably, but not certainly, the latest addition), two vertical lines originally in pencil and then written over in ink in the left margin, a single vertical addition in two blocks in the right margin, and three lines added below the last line of central text. Another good example comes on p. 34, which contains a long episode of over 100 lines that Blake added to the original text, thus filling the otherwise empty bottom and left margins with stanzas—and a crescent-like symbol to mark the insertion point of the addition. Thanks to these directions, editors have an easy time of it—simply inserting the many lines into the text where indicated, following the fairly straightforward narrative. The text on p. 4 is a little less certain, but all editors agree in the most sensible order and so build a progression in which new and old flow together.

  21. Besides adding expansively to VALA, Blake also cancelled much of the original text in equally various ways. Night I, especially pp. 3-12, have been so heavily revised that now at least three layers of text exist on most of the pages—some recoverable, most not. These passages provide a profoundly tantalizing palimpsest that editors and critics have long sought to recover (and/or hypothesize about). On pp. 5-7, Blake left a particularly famous puzzle for his latter-day editors and readers to ponder over. Here, Blake enclosed different portions of the text—not the original text but later layers of the palimpsest—in boxes or circles, either before or after striking through parts of it. However, he also appears to have revised that text after making the boxes/circles, which makes their purpose and the status of the enclosed text utterly uncertain. Did Blake intend to retain the text by marking it in this way, or did he finalize the cancellation with these symbols after a failed attempt to revise and retain them?[11]

  22. To give the earliest approach to this passage, Ellis and Yeats (editing almost entirely on the interpretational end of the spectrum) completely rearrange the manuscript text with almost no precedent from Blake or the manuscript page order. This may be due merely to a reversed page ordering (verso of leaf [p. 6] placed before recto [p. 5]), which is how they arrange the pages, but this seems unlikely and certainly unfounded since the illustration on p. 5 is one of the few nearly finished ones in the manuscript and so early. Plus, they print the first two lines from p. 7 with the text on p. 6 (as it comes before 5), followed by the text of p. 5, then the rest of the text of p. 7. Ellis and Yeats make serious textual alterations with little attention to the physical, bibliographical details and only the most minor notes of their work, simply rearranging because they feel the resulting narrative is most sensible (or aesthetically pleasing). Ironically, though, their rearrangement (accidental or not) of the Tharmas-Enion-Spectre episode creates a confusing scenario in which Enion first draws forth Tharmas's Spectre, Tharmas sinks into her filmy woof, and then the Spectre issues from Tharmas and Enion weaves him a body. Later editors see this passage much differently; prevailing editorial opinion holds that Blake enclosed the passages in order to cancel them but perhaps added a few splices here and there to smooth out the resulting narrative. As such, this is typically what we find when reading an edition, not the narrative that Ellis and Yeats created.

  23. Most of Blake's cancellations are much more straightforward than on these pages, though, ranging from erasures with replacement text written over them, to extensive passages covered in thin, water-based wash (e.g., on pp. 6 and 8), to strikethrough lines of different kinds, to heavy scrawls that completely obscure words and lines, and so forth. With all of these unavoidable traces of revision, of expansion and contraction, Blake's manuscript looks like a work in progress that never found, and cannot find, the material-textual “peace” that its author (most likely) intended.

  24. Night I also introduces several other ambiguities into the work that Blake left us to read, behold, interpret, and edit. On p. 9, Blake added an apparent heading for “Night the Second” in the right margin, as if he intended to begin a new Night with Los and Enitharmon wandering in the “world of Tharmas.” However, the “End of the First Night” occurs later in the manuscript—not once but twice, on p. 18 and again on p. 19. Only two editions of the poem, D. J. Sloss and J. P. R. Wallis's The Prophetic Writings of William Blake (1926) and the series edited by W. H. Stevenson (first ed. 1971), actually incorporate the apparent start of Night II on p. 9 as the final revision. As such, Night I in these editions goes up to p. 9 and then jumps to pp. 19-22 (rearranged as pp. 21-22, 19-20; see below). Night II starts midway down p. 9, goes to p. 18, then jumps to p. 23 and continues to the “End of the Second Night” on p. 36.

  25. Stevenson's explanations for his decision (in a separate article) are telling. He says that because, as editor, he

    had to present a single, unequivocal text to my readers, I decided to present them with this rearrangement, not because I like the rearrangement for its own sake, but because the new text seemed to me to make very good sense as narrative, and as narrative construction. (“Two Problems” 14-15)

    His interpretation of the poem based on this arrangement is that Blake added pp. 19-22 after introducing the concept of four Zoas and then had to reconcile that with the birth of Los and Enitharmon from Enion in the opening of Night I (15-16). By reordering the pages and Nights as Stevenson thinks should be done, “the pattern of four Zoas is satisfied, and the original story of pp. 3-9 is reconciled to it”; further, with this new end and beginning of Nights, “The turning-point is now the change of scene from Eternity to mortality” (15, 16). Still, this hypothesis/rearrangement must remain conjectural, since “the evidence of the MS is that Blake himself was uncertain, rather than that he had decided, and it is not for us to make up his mind for him” (16). This last statement is most interesting, since by editioning this new page/narrative order, Stevenson does in fact “make up [Blake's] mind for him,” finalizing the poem for readers so that it makes sense. That is, so that the poem makes sense to Stevenson (and Sloss and Wallis), which in essence finalizes the narrative and indeed makes up Blake's mind for him, as far as readers are concerned.

  26. As if an identity crisis for the first Night were not enough, the Night that comes next/second on p. 23 of the manuscript is not in fact the “Second,” since Blake erased the number in its heading possibly after several revisions (from “First” at least, maybe from “Third” as well) and just left a blank: “Night the ”. Things become still more complicated at this point because pp. 19-22, cut from a single leaf that once contained a very rough sketch of a face, are all late insertions into the manuscript. In their present order as bound, they seem to make little narrative sense, not only because they occur after the first “End of the First Night” on p. 18, but also because “End of the First Night” occurs again on p. 19 and is followed by more text on p. 20 (i.e., the other side of the same leaf) and pp. 21-22, the former a pencil passage and the latter a long account of the Zoas going to war. Thus, as a transition from the early material on p. 18 to the even earlier material on p. 23, these pages create more puzzles rather than solving any—which has lead many editors and critics to believe that they were bound in reverse order, with pp. 21-22 rightly preceding pp. 19-20. Even this solution, though, does not completely resolve the inconsistencies between the added text and the original context. Perhaps consequently, nearly all editors accept p. 23 as the beginning of the second Night—save the exceptions discussed above.

  27. While Nights I and II represent a clear challenge to anyone approaching VALA/The Four Zoas as a readable poem, no twisted maze has received as much attention as Blake's seventh Night—or, more properly, his two Nights Seventh. That is, “Night the Seventh” heads the section comprising pp. 77-90 and the section immediately following, pp. 91-98. Further, at some point Blake decided to rearrange the second Night Seventh by dividing it midway down p. 95 and flipping the parts fore and aft so that the latter portion precedes the former. Additionally, either before or after this reversal, Blake added a significant amount of material to the original end of VIIa, extending from pp. 85 to 90, which even necessitated the insertion of two new leaves (cut from a print of Blake's engraving Edward & Elenor, appearing on pp. 88 and 89). This last addition contains perhaps the key turning point in the existing narrative for the entire poem, for here the characters Los and the Spectre of Urthona embrace and intermingle, providing the first sign of an upswing towards regeneration even though the embrace is incomplete (because Enitharmon, the female Emanation of Urthona/Los, flees).

  28. As we find upon looking at past complete editions, from E. J. Ellis and W. B. Yeats in 1893 to Cettina Tramontano Magno and David V. Erdman in 1987, most editors (as well as literary critics) follow Geoffrey Keynes in labeling these two Nights Seventh “a” and “b” (so, “VIIa” and “VIIb”). But other matters prove much harder to agree upon—or solve—and thereby grant us a unique view into how theory shapes praxis and the editions we use. Some editors, such as Sloss and Wallis and David Erdman (1965, but not 1982), place Night VIIb in a separate appendix in their edition texts, since it was presumably replaced by VIIa. However, H. M. Margoliouth in 1956 and G. E. Bentley, Jr. in 1963 make the opposite argument, that Blake wrote VIIa before VIIb—Margoliouth basing his argument on a perceived narrative continuity from Night VI to VIIa to VIIb if the late addition to VIIa is excluded (xiii), Bentley basing his argument on holes showing that VIIa was bound with preceding pages and on what he believed was obviously late Christian symbolism in VIIb (see, e.g., Vala or the Four Zoas 163).

  29. Most editors print the two Nights consecutively, as bound, or place the supposedly later Night VII in an appendix. But two editors adopt a much more radical approach to resolving this “problem” of two Nights Seventh in a would-be “Dream of Nine Nights.” In the fall 1978 issue of Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, three scholars published their arguments for how to handle the Nights Seventh—all involving a conflation of the two Nights into a single “Night the Seventh.” Convinced by John Kilgore's proposal, David Erdman implemented the conflation in his 1982 edition by inserting Night VIIb, as reordered by Blake, into VIIa just before Blake's late addition on p. 85.[12] Erdman chooses this arrangement because it makes for “a better reading sequence” and, by following Blake's instructions for VIIb, does “the least injustice to the claims of narrative and the manuscript evidence” (“Editorial Problem” 137). In an eerie instance of coincidence, Landon Dowdey implements a similar conflation in his 1983 edition, though he argues that he based his arrangement on an independent inspiration sparked by a suggestion G. E. Bentley, Jr. made long before the 1978 debate in Blake Quarterly (B:4 n. 7:19). Although Erdman's and Dowdey's similar versions vie with several others for being “the” Night the Seventh, it is clear that readers of their editions would have a completely different experience than readers of others editions—and, of course, of the manuscript.

  30. Night the Seventh, both of them, is not the end of story—in all senses of the word. For quite a few other challenges or problems remain in the rest of the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript. Indeed, the very next Night, the Eighth, presents one of the most noticeable and most extensive instances where Blake attempted to fit later, very different material into VALA. As all editors agree, Blake appears to have written much of this Night VIII in the present manuscript after the return of Christian vision, so after 1804, which makes the content much different than what precedes and follows this Night. Here, Blake focuses most on a universe at war as humanity reaches the nadir of its existence, which occurs through the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus. With an unprecedented amount of biblical characters and themes, Night VIII incorporates Christian material much more pervasively than any other portion of the text, along with political and other references that seem to mark it as one of the latest additions to VALA—likely replacing some original “Night the Eighth” now lost.

  31. As a result of this addition, however smoothly (or not) incorporated relative to the preceding Nights, Blake added a lengthy passage to the beginning of Night IX in order to segue from chaos to apocalypse—creating what appear to be two apocalypses, one in the added beginning (pp. 117-19) and then the long, original version that follows to the “End of the Dream” on p. 139. Moreover, Blake left multiple directions for revising Night VIII: transposing passages on pp. 100 and 101; inserting a portion of p. 113 on p. 104; and inserting the rest of p. 113 to p. 116 at a point on p. 106. In the manuscript, then, Night VIII remains extremely unsettled as an addition to VALA in its original form before revision. Yet to produce their “settled” texts (to use Stevenson's word [Poems xii]), editors follow Blake's relatively clear directions for reordering passages and implement the authorial intentions. In the process of editioning the text here, they do in fact settle the text, creating a version that then may well seem complete to readers.

  32. Blake's “Dream” may end on p. 139, but the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript does not. Several fragmentary pages, probably from one or more notebooks, have been bound after the last leaf, constituting pp. 141-45 (with p. 146 a blank verso). The first leaf, pp. 141-42, contains material clearly remaining from Blake's early drafts of the text, probably of Night I, which he never used. The last leaf, p. 145, also contains earlier material for a portion of the main manuscript text, though the corresponding text appears in the late Night VIII. The text on pp. 143-44, a very small sheet that was torn and so leaves some text unaccounted for, corresponds with text on pp. 7 and 8 in Night I.

  33. For most of its critical and editorial history, these particular tidbits of fragmentary text represented more early/draft material that Blake ultimately replaced with the text in the main manuscript. G. E. Bentley, Jr. made another revision to common opinion by arguing that this material was actually later than that on pp. 7 and 8, an attempt by Blake to revise the already heavily revised account of Tharmas, Enion, and the Spectre of Tharmas (see, e.g., Vala or The Four Zoas 160). Erdman agreed, going so far as to conflate the two separate texts for a “final version” in his 1965 edition. In the fall 1978 Blake Quarterly, though, Andrew Lincoln argued against Bentley's conclusion and in favor of the older view; Erdman, convinced to revise himself in this case as well as with the Nights Seventh, accepted Lincoln's argument and un-conflated his edition text accordingly. So now, post-1982, we find the text on pp. 7-8 of the manuscript back in pp. 7-8 of Erdman's edition. Both arguments appear plausible, but neither offers a perfectly problem-free solution due to specific revisions in each place that complicate any conjectural composition history and resulting hypothesis.

  34. Any one of these textual cruxes, along with the myriad milder misfits, may prove a puzzle that many readers get stuck on and cannot move past. Or, perhaps more troubling, many or most of the original ambiguities may go completely unnoticed or be deliberately ignored depending on the reader and the edition used. In turn, the possible editorial approaches to handling the challenges have particular benefits and consequences, as well as motivations and interpretive biases, that influence a reader's final understanding. But they all reflect how any editor of the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript will have to make some sort of decision when it comes to representing the material-textual evidence in an edited (and variously “settled”) version of what Blake accomplished. So, too, will each reader, whether upon reaching one of those small narrative incongruities that cannot be smoothed over or upon diving headlong into the vortex of the manuscript in its full chaotic splendor.


  35. We now have looked both at the history of VALA/The Four Zoas and at how editors have handled specific rough spots to date. If we broaden our perspective and look at the more general level of complete versions of VALA/The Four Zoas, many of which are part of larger editions, we can get a clearer picture of overall editorial approaches to the manuscript and the entirety of Blake's corpus. Doing so, we soon see the same sort of fuzzy division between fidelity and interpretation that showed up on the small scale. Many editors have approached Blake's manuscript text with the understanding that it was meant to be a finished poem and thus should be a finished poem when represented in print. Most prominently, Ellis and Yeats, Stevenson, and Dowdey make extensive alterations (on top of Blake's own revisions) in order to fashion a readable, sensible poem for their readers on every page. These editorial interventions can range from modernization of punctuation and spelling (Stevenson), to rearrangement and actual rewriting of passages (Ellis and Yeats), and even to translation of the original poetry into modernized prose (Dowdey), just to name a few examples.

  36. In most cases, the editorial finalization (small or large) leads to some degree of misrepresentation as well, since the editors either deliberately minimize the full extent of the manuscript's unfinished condition or transform that evidence so much as to make it negligible when using their editions. We find this most noticeably in text-only versions of the manuscript's contents. However, even facsimile reproductions, as in Cettina Tramontano Magno and Erdman's 1987 edition, undergo a vast re-presentation according to editorial views and goals, these editors completely reordering the reproductions to follow Erdman's edited text; in addition, the images are greatly reduced in size and produced with infra-red photography, which reveals many details of the pages but also darkens them quite dramatically when printed in black and white. Editors of facsimiles clearly make literary interpretations of the manuscript text as a generally consistent poem, arranging their editions and the reproductions of the pages therein accordingly.

  37. At the same time, even editors more focused on development and genetic issues, as part of a methodology of strict fidelity and precision, ultimately rely upon some degree of literary interpretation—even while taking great pains to avoid it. But this same general appeal to precision, rigorously “objective” scholarship, and fidelity to Blake's manuscript runs through nearly every edition, no matter how different the actual version is from the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript. We can find good examples of this in arguably the three most recognized scholarly editors of Blake: Geoffrey Keynes, G. E. Bentley, Jr., and David V. Erdman. Each alters the original manuscript in various ways, despite their individual claims about the importance of fully encountering Blake's revisions and about the reliability of their methods of textual perfection.

  38. Keynes is a monumental figure for more than just editing. As Robert N. Essick puts it, Keynes “more than any other individual shaped the public perception of Blake in the twentieth century” (129). Although Ellis and Yeats edited the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript first, Keynes represents the accepted beginning of the editorial tradition for virtually all subsequent scholarship. With Keynes, then, Blake's “text” takes on a reliable form, as Keynes himself so emphatically states was necessary when he undertook filling in the hole left by years of inaccurate editions of Blake's writings. In the preface to his 1925 Writings of William Blake, Keynes laments how

    [Blake's] text has suffered more than that of most writers from the apparently uncontrollable impulse shewn by some of his editors to make the words convey a meaning desired by them instead of that which he intended. An additional misfortune lies in the almost unbelievable carelessness with which several of his manuscripts were transcribed for the press. (1:xi; italics removed here)

    Keynes's influence remains an important one, be it through the reprints of his different editions or through his status as a model for subsequent editors (e.g., Alicia Ostriker [1977]).

  39. Keynes's role as a model of strict scholarship is not so straightforward, though. Keynes alters and supplies punctuation, which is inconsistent with his semi-genetic edition text in which some authorial revisions are included and identified. This amalgamation of methods reveals some of the true details that usually do not show up in a clean text, and so Keynes rightly deserves his acclaim as Blake's first scholarly editor. But his mixed text also limits our ability to experience the fullness of Blake's personal and textual development in deference to a better understanding Blake's “meaning”—even as Keynes challenged his initial audience's tastes by including cancelled material in the first 1925 edition and onward until his death in 1982.

  40. G. E. Bentley, Jr. may serve as the most striking example of the tension between faithful editing and literary interpretation in the two different versions of VALA/The Four Zoas that he produced. In the transcription accompanying his 1963 full-size facsimile edition, Vala or The Four Zoas, Bentley strives for strict diplomacy. He explains, “It is the aim of this book to present as precisely as possible both the problems [in the manuscript] themselves and some solutions of them” (xii). Indeed, his editorial aim has been “to make the relatively raw materials of the poem as clear as possible,” “to reduce such hypotheses [about tidying up loose ends] to a minimum” and thereby, “as far as the limitations of type will permit, to give a perfect text of the poem in all its careless, curious, and perverse minutiae.” Yet Bentley also believes that those same “problems,” which need to be presented “precisely” to readers, free the editor from a straight jacket. As he puts it, “A certain amount of juggling or excision is required to bring all the lines into the sequence Blake intended” (italics in the original). The resulting transcription, then, is its own sort of “hybrid” (to use Ellis and Yeats's word for their text [II:299]), mixing diplomatic literalness with literary interpretation and transposition. On the one hand, Bentley incorporates genetic symbols into the edition text to better identify Blake's multiple revisions over the course of working on the manuscript, giving it the appearance of most genetic editions. On the other hand, Bentley makes various alterations of the original to construct a more sensible, settled text, such as inserting marginal additions per Blake's directions . . . or because the addition seems to fit best somewhere in the earlier text.

  41. In his revised version of this transcription for William Blake's Writings in 1978, Bentley attempts to combine his fully inclusive, genetic text with more overt editorial impositions—entire pages (rather than lines) transposed, altered and supplied punctuation—as a sort of compromise. But he wants to be clearer than Keynes about the supplied material, every jot and tittle, so he uses other symbols along with the genetic symbols to distinguish editorial additions from authorial revisions. Pulling back from his determinedly precise methods, Bentley more carefully seeks “a solicitude for both the patience of Blake's reader and the precise accuracy of Blake's text” (1:xliv) and tries to weave together the two threads of objective fidelity and subjective interpretation that he once struggled to separate. Unfortunately, the thick barb-wire of the editorial apparatus makes using Bentley's text of Vala or The Four Zoas in this edition immensely challenging at best . . . for whatever type of reader.

  42. For better and for worse, Bentley stands out for the degree to which he makes bibliography a part, indeed the foundation, of his methodology. His 1963 facsimile edition represents this best, though all of his work as editor and literary critic reflects an unusual—indeed unrivalled—awareness of the materials as materials. Thanks to Bentley's idiosyncrasies and the degree of his concern for bibliographical fidelity, his work provides the most extensive record of manuscript details to date, even though these same idiosyncrasies also seriously affect that record in many key ways. And, thanks again to Bentley's fidelity principle, we do have a full-sized (black-and-white) reproduction of the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript. However, these very characteristics also isolate Bentley to a great degree, for no other editor has gone so far in bibliographical examination and representation of evidence. And the differences between Bentley's two editions serve as remarkable witnesses to how the harmonious discord between fidelity and interpretation can rend an edition just as easily as strengthen it.[13]

  43. Keynes and Bentley rightly stand as key figures in the biography of Blake's manuscript, but Erdman's presence in the overall history perhaps is the dominant one at this point. Erdman's The Poetry and Prose of William Blake (1965) and its successor, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (1982), took sound scholarship and textual fidelity in representation to a higher level. And part of his editions' success grew out of the degree to which he made these “perfected” texts easily available, in relatively affordable and compact one-volume editions. While this may seem like a trivial matter, in fact the nature of an edition as a physical object (size, price, availability, maybe even jacket design) surely influence its larger acceptance. Just compare an Erdman edition with Bentley's two-volume Writings, for example . . . not to mention Bentley's gargantuan 1963 facsimile.

  44. Erdman makes his own proclamations of precision before his first edition was published in 1965. In a quasi-review of Bentley's facsimile, Erdman moves from criticizing to correcting Bentley and sets a high bar for his forthcoming Poetry and Prose of William Blake (1965). Erdman tells readers that his newly adopted editorial aim has been “To perfect Blake's text . . . ” of The Four Zoas (“Binding” 113), though that eventually came to mean the complete “text” as well. He maintains, even amplifies this expectation throughout his editions. In the preface to his 1982/1988 Complete Poetry and Prose, Erdman again uses high rhetoric to make his point: “This edition of William Blake seeks to supply a sounder and more uncluttered text for reading than has been heretofore available, with a full apparatus of variant and deleted passages for study” (xxiii). This deleted text, some of it available for the first time according to Erdman, “allow[s] us a comprehensive view of Blake as a reviser of his own poetry,” especially since readers “confront [in Erdman's edition] an accurate and well-nigh complete collection” of Blake's writings. This passage echoes Keynes's statements, quoted above, separating himself from previous editors and their less-desirable, because less-scholarly, texts.

  45. Even Erdman, however, relies on more than strict fidelity in his quest for the “perfect” Blakean text. While his various means of making a good “fit,” especially but not only when it comes to the Nights Seventh, resulted in what is now the standard scholarly edition of Blake, they frequently undermine Erdman's “precisely” punctuated text and unprecedented efforts to recover lost layers in the manuscript palimpsest.[14] Despite Erdman's own assurances, his personal “vision of [Blake's] vision” (Complete xxvi) largely shapes the nature and content of his version of Blake's manuscript—“The Four Zoas”—and produce an extensively finalized poem for his readers.

  46. While genetic editors surely would cringe at Erdman's editorial liberties, critics and students and even other editors have not. Far from it. Erdman, for the most part, has ascended to the top of the Blakean editorial mountain. Stevenson's and Ostriker's use of the Erdman text as the basis for their own textual editing reflects this “Erdman effect” well, not to mention the MLA Seal of approval on his 1982 and 1988 editions; these definitely help to identify him as the “standard” when it comes to editing Blake. However, his determinant role in the understanding of Blake and of Blake's “text” has serious consequences along with the benefits his desire for perfection produces. Erdman's “Night the Seventh” may be the “Night the Seventh” for many readers, just as his reshuffled sequences in his and Magno's facsimile may be the order of the manuscript-as-object in its entirety. The popularity of his textual edition, especially amongst serious Blake scholars, and the relative availability of his co-edited facsimile (versus Bentley's pricey big book) only amplify the prominence Erdman maintains even after his death in 2004. Consequently, Erdman's shift from literary critic to textual editor (and back and forth again) is a key moment for all of Blake scholarship.[15]

  47. The cases of Keynes, Bentley, and Erdman as the three “pillars” of editing Blake make plain how our understanding of VALA/Four Zoas depends greatly upon the individuals constituting and shaping the many forms it takes. After all, they make the decisions when editing that largely, but not completely, determine how the manuscript is editioned. Each edition, then, is an interpretation-in-print, not to mention a critical argument about how Blake can (and should?) be edited. When it comes to the material condition of these editions, we must recognize immediately how much the medium employed by each editor both determines and profoundly limits the options for representing Blake's VALA/Four Zoas manuscript. This is necessary not only for a fully informed view of the edition, but also for fairness to the editor. The physical dimensions of most editions define the page-space in which a text has to be fitted, occasionally with an accompanying apparatus beneath the text. One result of this is that the editorial presence—be it Sloss and Wallis, Bentley, or Stevenson, who all use footnotes—frequently competes with the edition text, supplementing it even to the point of distraction and overcrowding.[16]

  48. Additionally, the physical structure and organization of an edition's contents have profound consequences on how we engage with Blake's work. For example Bentley places his 1978 version of VALA/Four Zoas in volume two of his edition—after what he considers “Blake's greatest and most characteristic literary achievements,” the illuminated poems (Writings 1:xxxviii). Similarly, both Bentley's and Magno and Erdman's facsimiles put the reproductions at the end of the edition as a whole in order for the editors to provide ample preparatory information: commentary, bibliographical data, etc. Whether intentionally or not, editors highly influence—and perhaps highly determine—readers' perceptions of the manuscript by giving their explanations before the text and/or reproductions of the original manuscript. That is, readers may form certain conclusions, assumptions, and expectations based upon the various sorts of evidence that editors provide as preparation for entering the vortex of VALA/Four Zoas. A rather startling example of this sort of preemptive biasing occurs in Stevenson's edition, where he does much more than just warn readers of the difficulties lying ahead in Night VIII. Stevenson first gives a hypothetical composition-revision history for passages in the Night and then states, “The reader who finds the sequence difficult would do well to miss out at the first reading” of specific passages (indicated in a table) (Blake 416). Much as he undertakes the most thorough (interpretative, explanatory) annotation to date, Stevenson here tries to assist his readers by suggesting a detour around the complicated track through this portion of Blake's text. Thanks to his directions as editorial traffic cop, readers of Stevenson's edition will completely “miss out” on material—just because it might prove difficult to follow along and less enjoyable to read.


  49. While editors may force us to use their editions in particular ways through such physical arrangements and comments, we should recognize that the editors themselves also were forced in many respects by the medium in question. After all, a material edition can only accommodate so many possibilities of presentation. Thus, while personal interpretations and priorities clearly shape the patterns produced, the materials also clearly influence the methodology for producing those patterns in significant ways. The limitations of the material edition have become most pronounced over the past decade or so due to the virtual explosion of digital scholarship in the humanities. A vast number of scholars and editors have realized that, as Jerome McGann puts it in “The Rationale of Hypertext,” using books to study books “seriously limits the possible results” due to the “scale of the tools”; in contrast, electronic tools “lift one's general level of attention to a higher order” (12). McGann focuses on the “tools” and points out that traditional critical editions are difficult to produce, read, and use because they share the same physical form as the object of study; they force the scholar to invent analytical mechanisms that must be displayed and engaged at the primary reading level—hence the need for apparatuses to incorporate additional editorial material (13).

  50. In contrast, virtual editions alone have the capability to present all the relevant materials at once because they are not bound by the time-and-space frames established by material books (McGann, “Rationale” 14). Peter Shillingsburg suggests the value of electronic editions for editorial purposes when he emphasizes, “Presenting information in an orderly form, not just establishing a single authenticated text, is the editorial function” (Scholarly Editing 38). Freed from the material strictures and structures of traditional print editions, critical editors have a vast number of options for performing this essential function.[17]

  51. We can experience this function in action, as well as the limitations McGann highlights, in every material version of Blake's VALA/Four Zoas manuscript. Because of the complexity of the work, an editor is practically forced into various forms of separation, exclusion, and alteration of the extensive, but equally essential, material evidence. Otherwise, he or she has no real hope to perform “the editorial function,” as Shillingsburg puts it. Magno and Erdman are the last editors to publish a new version of the manuscript in 1987 and so before the emergence of electronic editions as a viable choice.[18] In the present age, however, digital scholarship and editing in and for an electronic medium have gained further popularity and scholarly acceptance—as we can see most readily, perhaps, in the case of The William Blake Archive, which has received numerous awards and in 2005 became the first electronic edition to receive an MLA Seal as an “Approved” edition.[19] Other well-known and well-respected online critical editions include McGann's Rossetti Archive and The Walt Whitman Archive, just to name a few.[20]

  52. As a quick browse through any of these electronic critical editions/archives will prove, the digital medium's virtually limitless ability to store data and its freedom from the structural determinants of presentation offer profound ways to “lift one's general level of attention to a higher order” indeed. In the Blake Archive, for example, not only can we view multiple copies of Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion, but we also can compare those copies plate by plate thanks to the Archive's Compare feature. Besides the full-color reproductions themselves, which print editions rarely can provide, the Blake Archive presents material that would require multiple print editions—along with a wealth of supplemental material (transcriptions, editorial descriptive commentaries and notes, and other resources). Moreover, only in an electronic environment such as the Blake Archive or other hypertexts can we perform high-speed, extensive textual searches—thus turning transcriptions into tools for indexing, collating, and other forms of very specific scholarly analysis, not just aids for reading. The Blake Archive and other image-based editions/archives also allow for image searching as well, though these features are still fairly rudimentary because they require encoded metadata for searching; at present, a computer cannot fully “read” an image as it can a text.

  53. Of course, the electronic medium has its own serious influences on, and limitations of, original literary materials being edited for a new and entirely different (because immaterial) environment. Most noticeably, electronic editions create drawbacks and alterations such as the “abstraction” of the original artifacts, the limited screen-space for representation, the likelihood of getting lost in a mise en abyme of hypertextual links, and so on. All of these necessary alterations for digital representation have as many consequences upon readers' understanding of the edited materials as do the alterations required by conventional typography and physical books. Further, while the electronic medium certainly offers much freedom for an editor to present materials and a user to access those materials, not every recent scholar accepts electronic editing as the best next step, and some rightly warn us of the other side of the virtual coin.

  54. Kathryn Sutherland in particular remains skeptical of the growing scholarly belief that the electronic environment is virtually free from the constraints faced by print editors. Specifically, she questions the assumption “that, unlike the book, the computer is a totally mimetic space unshaped by the constraints of its own medium” (17-18). These digital constraints affect electronic editions—even archives—in their own ways, which then combine with traditional limitations of print editions. After all, both are the products of human editors; the difference is in the tools, none of which are perfect. As such, Sutherland rightly warns us against becoming “too enamoured of electronic simulation” (18) and turning to the computer as a free space for editors and readers.[21] Because electronic editions are still in a nascent phase, with plenty of theory and excitement but not a lot of actual development, there remains much to learn. Nevertheless, we can accept Sutherland's healthy skepticism about current electronic editions without giving up on them as “a recyclable wastebank” (25), nor should we dump them in the “dank cellar of electronic texts” (Shillingsburg, “Dank Cellar” 19) for the long-term.

  55. Much as Sutherland looks back to print technology to counteract a naive awe of digital technology, Peter Robinson makes a valid criticism of electronic scholarly editions to date: they do a good job of presenting original materials but a poor job of showing how different versions and variants among related materials actually relate. But that is not to say that presenting materials, variants and versions and all, without extensive editorial commentary (and other meaning making) is necessarily a bad thing. McGann and many others have argued persuasively about the value a de- or un-centered hypertext can have for readers. Still, informed editorial guidance, and not only with materials as complex as VALA/The Four Zoas, is surely invaluable. Therefore, we can take Robinson's admonition seriously and combine the power, flexibility, and open space of cyberspace with enough editorial assistance (behind the scenes and center stage) to provide readers with as much detail as possible. This does not mean that every electronic editor must also become a computer programmer, nor that every editor must by default try to adopt every available technology to please every possible reader. As with print editions, the electronic edition will (and maybe even should) be dependent upon a given editor's goals . . . which we hope will be made after extensive research into current best practices and opportunities.[22]

  56. Another critic of electronic editing, Phillip E. Doss, makes equally important points for us to keep in mind. According to Doss, in a hypertextual environment the textual editor holds unprecedented sway over interpretive possibilities because that editor builds the hyperstructure that necessarily exists with and supports the critical hypertext (216). Consequently, a hypertext reflects the editor's methods as much, if not more, than a print edition; Doss emphasizes that we must never forget this electronic constructedness, no matter the apparent freedom granted by hypertext. Even in cyberspace, it seems, the editorial ethos remains a fundamental part of a hypertextual edition regardless of how “abstract” the virtual world may appear or how many liberating options it can provide to readers/users.

  57. However, we can nuance Doss's point and see how the act of preparing an electronic edition simultaneously makes an editor more self-aware of his/her methodology. The computer's very real limitations do not negate the ways that the electronic medium provides new methods and insights for engaging with works of any form. Again, the key is informed, critical use of the tools and the products. McGann highlights the new methods of scholarly analysis thanks to the different “scale” of the digital tools, but we also should recognize that editors can gain as much insight and self-awareness for the same reasons. That is, not only do they have to carry out the traditional practices of textual criticism and scholarly editing; they also have to reanalyze the edited materials for electronic representation. The various “texts” underlying a critical edition (e.g., document type definition or DTD; encoded files containing text, apparatus, and so forth; style sheets for display) all follow strict guidelines of logic in order to function, and so each requires extensive, detailed analysis and understanding both of editorial methods and of the materials being marked up. Editors must go through additional stages of labor when creating a virtual edition, each stage forcing them to think through their principles and their practices—or else face the terrible error messages that lie waiting with every test-run or debugging. Ideally, then, the extra steps required for preparing digital tools can help editors to be more careful about their methods and more self-conscious when putting principles into practice.


  58. In the editorial history of Blake's VALA/The Four Zoas, there is an extensive engagement with the physical manuscript and the text using traditional methods of editing (be they genetic or belletristic). But that solid foundation of traditional scholarship only sets in relief the very clear lack of editors and scholars using electronic tools to edit what is such a multiply hyper text. This lack of an electronic scholarly edition of Blake's VALA/Four Zoas manuscript brings me to the final point in my brief overview of how it has been edited, interpreted, and editioned: my own efforts to edit it with colleagues at the Blake Archive.

  59. As may be obvious in the preceding account of electronic editing and the future of Blake's VALA/Four Zoas manuscript, I have a strong attraction to the electronic medium for further editorial and scholarly engagement with the original. (Though, as a bibliophile and quasi-Luddite, I still must prefer the original artifact itself.) The different types of thinking on a “higher order,” for editors and edition users, that electronic editing allows through its methods and its tools surely “promise much riches” (as Urizen would say) when it comes to Blake's VALA/Four Zoas manuscript. Indeed, with all of its internal variability of text(s) and materials, this manuscript seems a perfect fit for digital scholarship and electronic editing. For example, Blake's multiple “texts”—his successive stages of revision—can be rendered separately in an electronic version, allowing us to focus on particular stages as we wish. In a single, powerful source, we can carry out the scholarship that H. M. Margoliouth attempts to do, and thereby allow us to do, through his first-ever “disentanglement” of that early poem “Vala” (xi-xii). Or we can get even more myopic and examine specific revisions, as Bentley hoped to make possible with his symbolic identification of genetic “series” in the manuscript text (see Vala or the Four Zoas xi).[23]

  60. Further, an electronic edition can offer any number of more “finalized” versions of the text should we choose—incorporating versions such as Ellis and Yeats's or Dowdey's on one extreme and Keynes's or Erdman's on the other, or even providing an entirely fresh reading text. If an editor has the knowledge to prepare the electronic text(s) properly, perhaps along with some Printer's and Coder's Devils to help out, such options of representation all depend upon the mere click of a few digital buttons—not mounds of paper.

  61. Perhaps most importantly, the electronic medium's storage capacity and immaterial dimmensionlessness also mean that reproductions of the manuscript's pages can accompany the textual re-representation—in any number of ways. Without the additional limitations of expense, full-color reproductions finally become a realistic option (as the Blake Archive's surprisingly extensive contents exemplify).

  62. Besides having transcriptions and/or edited texts along with images all available on our screen, we have the possibility to perform various kinds of analyses on those images, such as zooming or a choice of varying orders of navigation. These and many other existing features of electronic editions offer new means for us to study, interpret, and experience Blake's VALA/Four Zoas manuscript, even if we miss out on its physical reality; the possibilities for other, more powerful features seem equally rich as technology develops exponentially.

  63. Despite the clear usefulness of having the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript in some electronic form, no editor has published a full electronic version, critical or otherwise. To my knowledge, the only versions of the manuscript currently available online include two electronic reproductions of Erdman's text from Complete Poetry and Prose and an odd “experimental hypertext” that contains a few random pages related to the manuscript—but seems to be as much about “Pedro,” the icon for the South of the Border tourist shop in South Carolina, as Blake's manuscript![24]

  64. Luckily, some literary scholars have addressed the possibilities offered by electronic editions for studying Blake's work. For instance, David M. Baulch addresses the “multiple plurality” of Blake's manuscript—from its characters to its material-textual condition. He argues that “hypertext can preserve the integrity of the manuscript of The Four Zoas as a total of its narrative possibilities,” since hypertext allows for asynchronous and non-linear relationships—the many possible worlds of The Four Zoas that constitute it (154). Baulch contrasts this reciprocity of edition with edited text to the existing print editions, which “attempt to extract a single, coherent linear narrative from a tangled manuscript of multiple revisions. Such editing privileges one set of possibilities, which unavoidably distorts what The Four Zoas manuscript presents to its readers” and contradicts/obscures Blake's “non-Newtonian” theme and methods.[25] Baulch thus recognizes the influence that editors and their material editions have on how readers engage with, and so understand, Blake's heterogeneous manuscript, and he calls for an electronic version as a more fitting alternative. Additionally, Donald Ault's intimidating examination and mapping of the various perspectives and internal “revisions” by Blake's characters, as part of the non-Newtonian narrative, seem to represent a rich possibility for exploration in the electronic medium. Nevertheless, no editor has taken up this particular challenge—whether or not we agree with Stevenson that “increasing certainty [has been brought by editors] to Blake's text” (Poems xi) or that the manuscript's visual/pictorial components have been covered by Bentley and Magno and Erdman with their facsimiles.

  65. Having learned from these literary critics and from editors of VALA/The Four Zoas, I can see the many exciting opportunities that a digital VALA/The Four Zoas manuscript will make possible. And I am trying to put these lessons learned and visions experienced into practice as I help the editors and other colleagues at the Blake Archive to prepare the first electronic edition of the manuscript for future publication. There, it eventually will join the forthcoming edition of the Island in the Moon manuscript[26] and other materials, including the so-called Pickering Manuscript (Pierpont Morgan Library) and Blake's Tiriel and Notebook (British Library). This electronic edition of VALA/Four Zoas is based on a fresh transcription of the manuscript text, prepared using both of the available facsimile editions, a microfilm of the manuscript, extensive comparison with print editions of the text, and examination of the original manuscript itself.[27] Along with the fresh transcriptions will be fresh (and I must say spectacular) full-color digital images at unprecedented 300 dpi resolution.

  66. To place this new edition on the editorial spectrum, from genetic to belletristic, let me say more about my methodology and the methodology of the Blake Archive editorial team. For myself, when I first undertook preparing a textual transcription for a dissertation project, I started from a belief that the most accurate way to edit Blake's manuscript is to treat it as a manuscript in every aspect, not as a finished poem for continuous reading (though it may allow such a reading in many cases) and not as an orderly “sequence” of text and illustrations. The Blake Archive takes this approach as well, for its editions are founded on an “object-based” representation of Blake's works—everything from highly faithful transcriptions, to per-copy orders, to multiple versions of a single work (rather than an edition of the work). Speaking for myself, I recognize very clearly that Blake tried to bring VALA/The Four Zoas to a finished state over the many years that he worked on it, regardless of the final form that he may have intended for it (illuminated manuscript, engraved and printed Prophecy, conventionally printed letterpress text with engraved illustrations, etc.). Indeed, I am quite convinced he intended it to be such a literary-visual work. Nevertheless, Blake himself never actually brought it to this state, and by turning it over to Linnell in an unfinished condition, he finalized this unfinishedness and left the work as a “'work in progress' eternally” (to quote Erdman, Complete 788). Whenever an editor alters the original, be it the most minute “accidentals” or the most glaringly obtuse “substantives,” the editor imposes a finality, sense, and meaning on Blake's work that reflects the editor's intentions as much as, if not more than, the author.[28] Thus, the object-based editorial foundation of the Blake Archive, like my own personal methodology, focuses first and foremost on the physical manuscript as it exists, not as what it might or could or should have been.

  67. Looking back at the editorial history for predecessors and exemplars, I find that Bentley's textual transcription comes closer than any editorial representation to conveying the manuscript's true condition. Unfortunately, Bentley diminishes the fidelity of his transcription by inserting passages conjecturally and adopting other methods of alteration, so that his interpretations (based on physical, textual, and narrative grounds) still skew the evidence in some important ways. Be that as it may, I think Bentley's original transcription offers the best model to date for handling Blake's manuscript text. That is, a fully genetic and literal transcription, also making use of textual symbols and other similar designations within the edition text itself, provides the best means for accurately presenting the evidence as it exists on each manuscript page—many of which contain layers of text and multiple revisions that resist being bound in an orderly form. Moreover, such an edition text provides the only means for presenting the evidence in a way that keeps users of the edition—scholars and/or general readers—fully aware of the manuscript's heterogeneous, complexly woven web-work of multiple stages of composition and revision. When an editor keeps this material-textual fact at the surface level, the editor can lessen the amount of misrepresentations on both ends—editor's and reader's. One look at nearly any point in Bentley's transcription immediately calls our attention to the truly unsettled text of the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript.

  68. However, a fully faithful and useful editorial version would avoid the different rearrangements and insertions of text that Bentley makes, changes that are due in large part to the limitations of his typographic format. Were he editing in print with existing technologies, he could use newer methods of photographic and electronic printing to represent text in multiple directions, wherever they occur or in some predetermined place on the page (e.g., the top or bottom margin), without having to insert them into the central text and/or print them in a linear manner. The electronic medium offers even more options in this regard, for windows with horizontal and vertical scrolling virtually break the boundaries of physical margins. While even this sort of representation often involves some form(s) of alteration, rather than strictly precise textual reproduction, I feel confident that it allows for a much more accurate form of presenting the original text.[29]

  69. For example, in a digital window, an editor could easily accommodate the extensive additions Blake made in the margins of p. 34, which fill the bottom and left margins nearly completely and are written both horizontally and vertically. Bentley, confined by conventional print, inserts these additions into the central text as Blake directed (Vala or The Four Zoas 34-36). An electronic version of this page not only could leave the text in the margins; it also could render the text in the left-margin vertically. Or, in the early pages of Night I, an electronic version could present multiple layers of the palimpsest (as far as they can be recovered) on the screen, allow the user to toggle between layers, or simply present the latest layer. With more flexible forms of navigation, users even could carry out multiple “readings” of the Nights Seventh, with or without editorial predetermination, and so judge for themselves what (if anything) creates the best “fit.” Thus, both the editor and the edition's user have many more options in an electronic medium.[30] I must stress, though, that these options always should begin from an initial editorial version that reproduces the original as faithfully and in as much detail as possible—in terms of the content and order on each page, as well as the order of pages in sequence as currently bound.

  70. Additionally, I think that Bentley's facsimile also offers the best model for representing the manuscript photographically: in full-sized reproductions. Of course, the next step (hitherto not taken) requires color reproductions, of whatever dimensions, that utilize the rapid advances in digital photography and so promise ever-increasing accuracy in capturing the manuscript's many crucial visual details. These can be displayed at amazing new depths of detail thanks to high definition. Full-sized reproductions are an option, too, thanks to the ready availability of large monitors. But even smaller (i.e., normal) monitors offer benefits, since the detailed color images can be viewed in sections. Combined with reduced, screen-sized images, such an approach to viewing can help to make up for the limitations of computer reproduction.

  71. The benefits of digital images also outweigh the limitations, I think, when we factor in the many electronic imaging tools that computers now put at scholars' fingertips. Only in a digital environment can we carry out extensive image analysis (through zooming and comparisons, for example)—as well as image manipulation (such as color and contrast adjustments, polarization, granulation and other special effects, etc.) should we wish.[31] Methods such as these, when used as part of a scholarly undertaking (or maybe just having fun), obviously represent a much “higher order” of analysis that becomes possible only when we move beyond the medium of conventional print editions and traditional tools of scholarship, such as magnifying glasses, note cards, and the hard-coded editions themselves.

  72. Of course, as I stated above, the electronic medium imposes its own idiosyncratic distortions and impositions, which have particular drawbacks when it comes to Blake's VALA/Four Zoas manuscript. So we still must use an electronic edition with as much self-consciousness and critical awareness as we should print editions. Most obviously, the “abstraction” of the original material manuscript into digital space creates—and in this case encodes rather than hard-codes—an experience that differs drastically from the experience of holding Blake's large manuscript (or even a print facsimile edition of it), turning the pages one by one, feeling the texture of the paper, scanning the large leaves, and so forth. After reading Blake, we may consider this to be a terribly Urizenic enterprise that seriously skews some of the most important features of the poet-artist's work. Just as the printed page flattens crucial details in Blake's original illustrations and obscures the layering effect of his textual revisions, the computer screen may flatten whatever it displays even more extensively—with backlighting and constant screen redrawing as well.

  73. Again, however, using the digital images in full awareness of the specific alterations and misrepresentations enforced by the medium in question can ameliorate this effect. Also, thinking back to Dowdey's profound translation of the manuscript's poetic text into “a modernized prose adaptation of Blake's text” (Mitchell 116), we have to consider how electronic encoding itself translates the original into a new “genre.” An electronic source file, with all its hierarchy and various degrees of tagging, bears little resemblance to handwritten lines of verse and/or prose on the pages of a manuscript. (And obviously the VALA/Four Zoas text will have little to do with hierarchy!) The finished puzzle may resemble the original, but the actual electronic pieces require completely different methods of fitting together. The act of marking up a text that, in its original form, often is immensely difficult to decipher also introduces even more chances for human error—mistakes when transcribing the text, mistakes when tagging the text, mistakes when preparing the style sheets to render the text, etc. A hypertext, therefore, may add even more chances for inaccuracy and unreliability than a print edition. However, the ease with which digital images of Blake's handwriting can accompany electronic texts, and the ease with which users can study the two together along with other tools described above, may give edition users the chance to catch such editorial mistakes more readily than they would in a print edition.[32]


  74. This critical look at tagged texts brings me to the Blake Archive's XML-encoded transcription and the electronic edition we are preparing.[33] We plan to use a color-coding schema (and a key to the color code that is readily available to users from each manuscript page) to identify the different types/stages of text when displayed. We also have plans for eventually providing different types of edited text—clean versions without rendering and non-final text, versions that exclude other specific types of text, and so forth—though at present the Blake Archive is focusing on diplomatic/genetic rendering of manuscript materials. Our current intention is to have the base transcription be as literal as possible, without conjectural transpositions or even alterations based upon Blake's directions, and fully precise in its representation of all Blake's most characteristic idiosyncrasies of composition—including his punctuation or lack thereof.[34] We have prepared extensive textual notes to accompany/supplement the transcription, covering details of revision, of the manuscript's material features, and of some cases of variation between our text and other significant editorial versions (e.g., especially those of Keynes, Bentley, and Erdman).

  75. The foundation for all of this textual material, though, will be the first-ever color reproductions of the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript in full, prepared from new digital photographs from the British Library. As images of Blake's original artifacts provide the basis for everything in the Blake Archive, these digital images will be the focal point for presentation, with the transcription and notes supplementing the reproductions of the manuscript. Enlargements of the main display images also will allow users to focus in closely on the reproductions as part of their reading/studying experience.

  76. Thus, in every piece and at every stage of putting together Blake's puzzle, we have striven to make the original artifact the foundation and determinant of our practices and of the final product. In our notes, we avoid making any straightforward literary interpretations of the text, just as we try to avoid editing in such a manner, and we remain faithful to the physical order of the manuscript in its current condition rather than execute Blake's (supposed) intentions, clear or not. Admittedly, I may sound like so many of my predecessors at this point as I try to separate precise editing from literary interpretation, creating my own harmonious discord. That said, I am not attempting to promise that our version is the definitive edition of Blake's manuscript itself, nor would I try to claim that the Blake Archive's object-based version is entirely objective and free from its editors' own presumptions and priorities (e.g., that Blake's manuscript should be rendered as such, and that deliberate editorial alteration is more problematic than helpful). Nor would I say that electronic editing is the best, most Blakean, most useful way to edit Blake.

  77. However, this edition of VALA/The Four Zoas is unique in many ways, opening the opportunity for many new insights into the manuscript. Firstly, my detailed examination of editions of the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript has made me highly aware of my ethos in action as I have helped to edit the manuscript. Being part of a larger team of skilled, experienced editors has helped even further, but here too personal biases had to be recognized and accommodated in much the same way. That is, each member of the team has a particular area of expertise and attention from which to approach the manuscript—be that the text, the images, certain editorial views, etc. Because of the collaboration involved in the collective effort, we all have been forced to articulate and defend our views, hear other opinions, and then reach an agreement that seemed most appropriate and consistent with the Blake Archive's standards. I know this process has been, and will continue to be, highly valuable for my understanding of both editorial practice and the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript.

  78. Secondly, this edition of Blake's work involves an additional struggle with the electronic tools being used to represent it, requiring further analysis of the original artifact and the methods being used to edit it. In deciding how to tag a textual particular, how to display various types of the manuscript's content, or how to prevent inconsistencies between the transcription and the electronic source file, the editorial team has been forced to reconsider every element of our methodology and of our underlying conclusions about the manuscript. These additional stages of preparation also forced us to engage with the manuscript repeatedly, many more times than would have occurred if only preparing a print edition. Finally, we have had to consider at every moment how our choices will affect the users of our edition in their understanding, indeed their experience, of what Blake himself created . . . with additions from other, later hands.

  79. All together, I know full well that the Blake Archive's electronic edition, however faithful we have tried to make it in text and image and order, will be when published an editorial representation that can never stand in for the original. My hope is that it might prove reliable enough to provide a useful supplement for studying Blake's manuscript in all of its intricate particulars. I also hope that it might become an enduring part of the greater editorial history of this great work. Perhaps, then, the Blake Archive's version of VALA/The Four Zoas in cyberspace may open a vortex for many more travelers through Eternity and allow them to “enter into” this grand work of art.

    Coda: The Manuscript “Itself”[35]

  80. As I mentioned, the Four Zoas manuscript was donated to the British Museum in the early twentieth century, and now it belongs to the British Library, bound in a codex and stored in a safe. More specifically, the Library classifies Blake's highly fragile and highly valuable manuscript as a “Z-Safe Restricted” work—which, translated from the argot, means that it stays in the safe almost without exception. After passing through so many hands and receiving so many post-authorial significations, the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript has been placed nearly off limits even to serious Blake scholars.

  81. This is unfortunate in many respects. The manuscript's disappearance behind the veil of security only emphasizes the importance that editions play in our understanding of it. Now that actually engaging with the original is next to impossible, we have no choice but to rely on editorial engagements with, and responses to, that original in the form of editions. Unfortunately, achieving the degree of critical awareness that I have argued for confronts a direct challenge when we realize that most individuals will begin their engagement with Blake's manuscript in a given edition. Thus, most scholars and readers will begin with a limited purview—limited within the borders of their tools, the edition(s) used—and so have no way to compare the resource they use with the original it represents.

  82. I experienced the reality of this situation myself thanks to the truly unique chance I had to study the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript directly, to engage it in brief Intellectual Battle. I spent five days (7-11 March 2005) in the British Library consulting Blake's manuscript, during which time I was able to see the original in its current state, examine many of the important cruxes and characteristics that I discuss above, and ultimately realize just how complex the web-work is in so many of its threads.[36] On one hand, the experience gave me a newfound respect for those editors who tackled the daunting artifact and tried their best to represent it in some way to an audience of scholars and general readers. On the other hand, I realized just how inadequate any edition would be; the most important and affective details in Blake's work lie far beyond the powers of photography, typography, and commentary to capture.

  83. Most important in this respect, my time studying the manuscript—which included an examination of its text and its illustrations, as well as various pieces of material evidence (stitch marks, tears, patches, etc.)—gave me a much stronger foundation from which to approach editions of it. I find it unfortunate that many scholars, and even general readers, likely will never get to see the stunning, intimidating, and tantalizing work that William Blake—not to mention a few others—finally left us with.


1. The “genetic” approach to editing has a fairly long history in Germany and France, though it gained impetus in Anglo-American editing most noticeably in the mid-twentieth century. For some extremely helpful introductions to genetic criticism—or critique g�n�tique—see the following: Hans Zeller, “A New Approach to the Critical Construction of Literary Texts,” Studies in Bibliography 28 (1975): 231-64; TEXT 3 (1987); Hans Walter Gabler, George Bornstein, and Gillian Borland Pierce, eds., Contemporary German Editorial Theory, Editorial Theory and Literary Criticism (Ann Arbor, Mi.: U of Michigan P, 1995); Yale French Studies 89 (1996); Word & Image 13.2 (April-June 1997). One of the earliest editions of English literature employing these methods is Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr., eds. Billy Budd: Sailor (An inside Narrative) (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1962). Additionally, John Bryant's The Fluid Text: A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen, Editorial Theory and Literary Criticism (Ann Arbor, Mi.: U of Michigan P, 2002) provides a valuable application of genetic methods to the editing and representation of manuscripts—Bryant's focus being Melville's Typee manuscript. A good article on the application of genetic methods from a more “traditional” perspective is Albert J. Von Frank's “Genetic Versus Clear Texts: Reading and Writing Emerson” (Documentary Editing [December 1987]: 5-9). Von Frank's account of how genetic methods allow more insight into an author's intentions and the literary value of his/her work bears a striking resemblance to Geoffrey Keynes's arguments in his editions of Blake, in that both strive to amalgamate genetic methods with a more reader-friendly text; it thus strikes a compromise between strictly genetic/diplomatic methods and intentionalist, literary-oriented methods. Two critical works on the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript that I found particularly helpful because of their focus on its genesis are Andrew Lincoln's Spiritual History: A Reading of William Blake's Vala or The Four Zoas (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1995) and John B. Pierce's Flexible Design: Revisionary Poetics in Blake's Vala or The Four Zoas (Montreal and Kingston, London, and Buffalo: McGill-Queen's UP, 1998).

2. “Intentionalist” (or “idealist”) editing has been the predominant trend in Anglo-American editing for much of its history. W. W. Greg's “The Rationale of Copy-Text” (Studies in Bibliography 3 [1950-51]: 19-36) serves as something of a “base text” for this approach (though it has a history before Greg), while Fredson Bowers and G. Thomas Tanselle, among many others, more recently have carried the tradition through their work as editors and in individual publications. Luckily, however, these editors and others like them base their editions on sound scholarship and careful examination of all the evidence in question in the process of making their (authorially) “final” text.

3. For both my biographical and my bibliographical history of the manuscript, I am especially indebted to two works by G. E. Bentley, Jr., for their account of Blake's life and collection of records related to it: Blake Records: Documents (1714-1841) Concerning the Life of William Blake (1757-1827) and His Family [...], 2nd ed. (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2004); and The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2001). While Bentley's views and data are not universally accepted, he has done easily the most intensive and useful bibliographical work on the manuscript to date, not to mention his invaluable biographical pursuits.

4. Blake's watercolors for the Night Thoughts project are reproduced in Edward Young, Night Thoughts, with Illustrations by William Blake, 2 vols. (London: Folio Society, 2005) and John E. Grant et al., ed., William Blake's Designs for Edward Young's Night Thoughts: A Complete Edition, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1980); for the published engravings, see Robert N. Essick and Jenijoy LaBelle, ed., Night Thoughts, or, The Complaint and the Consolation: Illustrated by William Blake, Text by Edward Young (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1975). According to Paul Mann (“The Final State of The Four Zoas,” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly 18.4 [spring 1985]: 204-15), Blake even might have received copperplates from Edwards along with the blank leaves, though no direct proof of this hypothesis is extant. However, Bentley cites a correlation between the size of the central panels of the Night Thoughts engravings and Blake's Jerusalem plates; see Blake Books 641-42.

5. Perhaps the best critic on Blake's “conversation” with Young is Peter Otto. See especially Blake's Critique of Transcendence: Love, Jealousy, and the Sublime in The Four Zoas (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000); see also his recent essay, “From the Religious to the Psychological Sublime: The Fate of Young's Night Thoughts in Blake's The Four Zoas,” in Prophetic Character: Essays on William Blake in Honor of John E. Grant, ed. Alexander S. Gourlay, Locust Hill Literary Studies 33 (West Cornwall, Ct.: Locust Hill Press, 2002) 225-62. Also see Jeremy Tambling, Blake's Night Thoughts (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005).

6. This intention may have remained as late as 1803, when Blake was at a very different place (personally and physically—see below). In a letter to Thomas Butts, Blake discusses how his “three years trouble” may be worth it, for he has created “a Sublime Allegory which is now perfectly completed into a Grand Poem” (Erdman, Complete 730). However, because written in 1803, these statements may apply to Milton or Jerusalem rather than The Four Zoas—perhaps an early version or early portions of either of these works, which were in fact printed and sold later. Still, it is worth keeping in mind that Blake never seems to have abandoned the desire “to speak to future generations” (ibid.) in his visionary works.

7. For a much fuller account of these bibliographical details, from scripts to pages and beyond, please see Bentley's Vala or the Four Zoas and Blake Books 453-64. Bentley argues persuasively that Blake was recopying drafted material on these proof pages, rather than using them for new text, which supports the view that he completed an early version of VALA that was then reworked heavily. Bentley was the first to recognize that p. 48/49, one of the proof pages, was also used as a backing sheet for a proof of a design for William Hayley's A Series of Ballads, from June 1802 while Blake was at Felpham working for Hayley (see below). Bentley believes, then, that “Blake transcribed p. 48, and probably the rest of the poem, after June 1802” (Blake Books 455).

8. For Blake's account of this experience, see his letter to William Hayley on 23 October 1804.

9. For more discussion on the title, see my article “Blake's Four...'Zoa's'?” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly 39.1 (summer 2005): 38-43, along with the follow up discussion: Magnus Ankarsj�, “Blake's Four 'Zoas'!” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly 39.4 (spring 2006): 189-90; Justin Van Kleeck, “'mark ye the points,'” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly 39.4 (spring 2006): 190-91.

10. “Revision site” is John Bryant's apt term for any place where an author revises a text in some way (55 et passim).

11. Andrew Lincoln has made the most direct and influential examination of this particular crux in his article “The Four Zoas: The Text of Pages 5, 6, & 7, Night the First” (Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly 12.2 [fall 1978]: 91-95). As we shall see, this entire issue of Blake Quarterly represents one of the most significant scholarly engagements with the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript to date.

12. The relevant articles in this issue of Blake Quarterly are by John Kilgore (107-14), Andrew Lincoln (115-33), and Mark Lefebvre (134); Erdman's article, in which he accepts Kilgore's solution, follows Lefebvre's article (135-39).

13. Dowdey's inspired “edition” of the manuscript presents a more drastic witness than Bentley in this regard, for it seems to fall to pieces as the editor-illuminator attempts to represent his experience of Blake so that others might experience Blake, at once abusing and adopting scholarly methods and all things “academic.” This early declaration from Dowdey sets the tone for a continuous haranguing of “academic” and scholarly approaches: “Trying to 'understand' the poem in an academic or abstract way will force you to stand outside it, unable to see through your own opaque shell of commonplace activity” (v). Ironically, he declaims academic/scholarly methods while also trying to adopt them (most clearly in his notes, which read almost like the apparatus in a typical scholarly edition � la Greg or Bowers).

14. Erdman refers to making things “fit” numerous times, but see especially his introduction to Night the Seventh in his textual notes in Complete (836).

15. Before editing Blake for Poetry and Prose in 1965, Erdman made his name as Blake critic with Blake: Prophet Against Empire in 1954 and elsewhere.

16. This competition of edition text and footnote is most drastic in Bentley's William Blake's Writings, where the footnotes occasionally take up more page space than the text of the poem.

17. For more enlightening and enjoyable discussion of editing by Shillingsburg, see Resisting Texts: Authority and Submission in the Constructions of Meaning, Editorial Theory and Literary Criticism (Ann Arbor, Mi.: U of Michigan P, 1997).

18. A few Blake editions have been published since Magno and Erdman's edition, though none including a new or significantly revised version of VALA/The Four Zoas. Ostriker's was reprinted without changes in 2004, and Stevenson's revised and expanded edition came out in 2007. (For my review of Stevenson, see Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly 42.2 (fall 2008): 73-75.)

19. Before receiving the Seal, the Blake Archive also was awarded the MLA's Prize for a Distinguished Scholarly Edition—becoming the first electronic edition to receive the award (see the Blake Archive's home page at

20. The Whitman Archive is particularly relevant to Blake's manuscript because the editors use an extensive set of textual symbols and methods of textual rendering in order to present genetic transcriptions of Whitman's manuscripts. These devices and the methods for marking up and displaying them can serve, and indeed did serve, as potential models for an electronic edition of VALA/The Four Zoas (see below).

21. The larger collection in which Sutherland's essay appears contains a wealth of enlightening new work on electronic editing and editions. Along with Sutherland's essay, discussed here, also see Edward Vanhouette, “Every Reader His Own Bibliographer—An Absurdity?” (99-112), and especially Elena Pierazzo, “Digital Genetic Editions: The Encoding of Time in Manuscript Transcriptions” (169-85). Another similar and relevant article by Sutherland is “Material Text, Immaterial Text, and the Electronic Environment,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 24 (April 2009): 99-112 (her response to McGann's “Rationale”). An even more thorough examination of digital humanities scholarship than the Ashgate anthology is A Companion to Digital Humanities; see especially Perry Willet's “Electronic Texts: Audiences and Purposes,” and Martha Nell Smith's “Electronic Scholarly Editing,” in which Smith may over-generalize a bit in claiming that “...under-informed skepticism has been replaced by the realization that critical engagements with new technologies are the best hope for advancing knowledge production in the humanities.”

22. For examples of work done on Blake in the field covered by Robinson's second criticism, a lack of using computer assistance to analyze electronic editions, see various essays by Nancy M. Ide, such as: “Meaning and Method: Computer-Assisted Analysis of Blake,” Literary Computing and Literary Criticism: Theoretical and Practical Essays on Theme and Rhetoric, ed. Rosanne Potter (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1989): 123-41; and “A Statistical Measure of Theme and Structure,” Computers and the Humanities 23.4-5 (August-October 1989): 277-83. There is still much to be done with computer analysis, of course—and surely having more scholarly electronic editions available for analysis will be helpful in this regard, especially if built as Robinson wishes, so that they “present materials which can be dynamically reshaped and interrogated, which not only accumulate all the data and all the tools used by the editors but offer these to the readers, so that they might explore and remake, so that product and process intertwine to offer new ways of reading.” We can almost answer Robinson here with McGann's affirmation that “One can build editorial machines capable of generating on demand multiple textual formations—eclectic, facsimile, reading, genetic—that can all be subjected to multiple kinds of transformational analyses” and, in the process, emphasize and build on the critical methods underlying the “machines” themselves (“Text to Work” 27). An editor can indeed, and with Robinson's prodding and McGann's assurances, perhaps more editors will build editions in these flexible, informative, and useful ways.

23. Scholars also interested in this genetic reconstruction of the manuscript, for the purposes of literary analysis/interpretation, are John B. Pierece, Flexible Design: Revisionary Poetics in Blake's Vala or The Four Zoas (Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1998), and Andrew Lincoln, Spiritual History: A Reading of William Blake's Vala or The Four Zoas (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1995). Margoliouth, of course, also is greatly concerned with the genesis of the manuscript for his “disentanglement” of VALA from The Four Zoas, for which he relies heavily on the line numbers Blake put on many pages of the manuscript; however, the dates and reliability of these line numbers are both contentious issues, and both Bentley and Margoliouth attempt to interpret them but encounter serious problems in using them to order (or argue for an order) of the text.

24. Electronic versions of Erdman's text appear in the Blake Archive and the Blake Digital Text Project edited by Nelson Hilton (; for the “experimental hypertext,” see F. William Ruegg's Blake's “The Four Zoas” Fetishized: An Experimental Hypertext (

25. Recall Shillingsburg's remark about “the editorial function” and “orderly form” here! Stevenson provides a serendipitous example of this larger editorial purpose in action, specifically applied to Blake, when in his first edition he states, “It is necessary for an editor to present a settled text” (Poems xii). It seems editors, even Blakean editors, are largely a Newtonian bunch—or even worse, Urizenic, as Paul Mann argues in his 1980 dissertation (64 et passim) and less forcefully elsewhere.

26. Please see the article by Rachel Lee and Ali McGhee in this volume of Romantic Circles Praxis, in which Lee and McGhee discuss their work on the Blake Archive's forthcoming edition of An Island in the Moon.

27. I examined the VALA/Four Zoas manuscript at the British Library from 7-11 March 2005, during which time I checked my transcription against the original and also studied—and nearly got lost in—the illustrations; see my Coda.

28. W. W. Greg provides a classic definition of “substantives” and “accidentals,” plus an editor's handling of them, in “The Rationale of Copy-Text” (21).

29. On the other hand, McGann makes a good point about the limitations of computers for display and browsing: “We are not even close to developing browser interfaces to compare with the interfaces that have evolved in the past 500 years of print technology” (“Text to Work” 17), not to mention the loss of physical interactivity in the “kinetic environment summoned (and symbolically coded) in books” (18).

30. McGann emphasizes this point, arguing that a hypertext edition or archive is formed to “disperse attention as broadly as possible,” with an indefinite number of “centers” and relationships possible (as modeled on the Internet and even the traditional library) (“Rationale” 29-30). Thus, it gives power to the user/reader because it does not dictate or privilege anything but gives many options as independent (but interrelated) items, be it whole texts or portions of texts (30). Daniel Ferrer addresses the virtues of hypertext for manuscripts and literary working papers specifically in “Hypertextual Representation of Literary Working Papers” (Literary and Linguistic Computing 10.2 (1995): 143-45.

31. McGann performs such an analysis-through-manipulation using D. G. Rossetti's The Blessed Damozel in “Imagining What You Don't Know: The Theoretical Goals of the Rossetti Archive” (

32. The ease with which electronic texts can be revised and updated also makes correcting these editorial mistakes a more feasible option than it is with print editions.

33. The Blake Archive has adapted Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) standards for all of its electronic editions, though its Document Type Definition (DTD) is specific to the Blake Archive because of its stronger focus on physical objects. Similarly, the text tags for VALA/The Four Zoas and other manuscript works are based on TEI standards with changes to make them more appropriate for the Blake Archive and the works being encoded. The recent version of TEI standards, TEI-5, was released after our initial markup of VALA/The Four Zoas, so we will need to update the markup before publication.

34. See the Blake Archive's many existing transcriptions for examples of their approach, plus their “Editorial Principles” in the “About the Archive” section of the site.)

35. The scare quotes in my coda's title suggest that the idea of experiencing some object/artifact “itself,” in its true and unmediated form, is contentious to say the least. For an excellent discussion of this veritable sub-field of textual criticism, see Hershel Parker's article “'The Text Itself'—Whatever That Is,” TEXT 3 (1987): 47-54.

36. I have to thank Morris Eaves in particular, along with Robert N. Essick and Joseph Viscomi—together the three editors of the Blake Archive—for making it possible for me to access Blake's manuscript. Morris Eaves wrote my letter of recommendation to the Library and so literally “cracked the safe” for me. I repaid him with a two-day crash course on the manuscript, which I believe still has him woozy.

Works Cited

Baulch, David M. “Blake’s Vala or The Four Zoas: Hypertext and Multiple Plurality.” Wordsworth Circle 30.3 (summer 1999): 154-60.

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