Blakean Pedagogy: An Introduction to <em>William Blake and Pedagogy</em>

The present volume intervenes in the notion that pedagogy is of a secondary concern to Blake scholars by showing how William Blake’s work can invigorate the classroom. Contributors use Blake’s inspiration to create new teaching methodologies, propose new assignments, engage new public audiences, and critically explore the emergence of new technological modalities. Famously difficult, Blake nevertheless constructs crucial dialogues in fields from the digital humanities to manuscript history and affect theory. This volume shows how teachers can take advantage of his holistic approach to pedagogy—his insistence that teaching is entangled with every part of our lives—to contest standard approaches to Blake in the literature classroom.

Blakean Pedagogy: An Introduction to William Blake and Pedagogy

Andrew Burkett
Union College

Roger Whitson
Washington State University

Thank God I never was sent to school
To be Flogd into following the Style of a Fool (510) [1] 

1.        In his resplendent though often overlooked watercolour Age Teaching Youth (ca. 1785-1790), William Blake crafts a complex visual meditation concerning the nature and function of teaching and learning (Figure 1). The scenes of pedagogy depicted in this image articulate Blake’s brilliant entanglement of a range of topics and concepts that, during the period, become critical for his work: experience and innocence, childhood and adulthood, authority and subordination, human society and the natural world. The drawing prompts its viewers to ponder one of Blake’s most fundamental questions concerning education: where, in what, or in whom does the power and right of pedagogical authorization rest? And the image does so by guiding its viewers through a range of much more subtle and nuanced queries. The sage, with his open book, looks like the teacher. Yet, the student who responds to its leaves by pointing to nature and the firmament beyond explicitly recalls the position of one of the most famous teachers of Western history: Plato’s gesture to the heavens from Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens (1509-1511). Meanwhile, the youth who wears the luminous flower-print dress in the foreground seems to ignore this scene of instruction entirely while intently studying his own book. The obscured left hand might suggest that this youth is drawing in a pose similar to what Blake would later reserve for the inward posture of his colour print Newton (1795), in which the natural philosopher is criticized for ignoring imagination by favoring an abstract nature found only within his own scientific representations.

2.        As with many of Blake’s works, Age Teaching Youth transforms classical figures in order to pose questions about the interplay between reason and imagination. The expansive gesture of the Platonic student is interrupted by the comparatively darker colors and lines of the Newtonian student—perhaps suggesting that the visionary imagination is annihilated all too easily by the spectre of reason. The Platonic student and the sage almost look like ghosts. Neglected entirely by the Newtonian youth, they appear to fade into nothingness, as knowledge marches onward to modernity. If “Age” represents visionary expansiveness and the entanglement of knowledge, then the standardization and disciplining of learning found in the concentration of the modern Newtonian “Youth” suggests a knowledge that learns nothing, as it focuses only on what is in front of its own eyes. [2] 

Figure 1: Age Teaching Youth (ca. 1785-1790), William Blake (British, 1757-1827). Ink and watercolour on paper, unique (108 x 80 mm). Photo Credit: ©Tate, London 2015.

3.        The entangled composition of Age Teaching Youth reflects Blake’s complex attitudes toward teaching. Blake’s life is filled with scenes of education. G. E. Bentley, Jr. argues in The Stranger from Paradise (2001) that Blake “was clearly a natural teacher” and was probably far more “involved with teaching than we have any direct evidence for” (182, 185). Bentley, further, recalls several episodes illustrating that—as a teacher—Blake was more concerned with inspiration and compassion than technical skill. For instance, when George Richmond complains that he is experiencing difficulty in finding inspiration, Blake responds by turning to his wife: “It is just so with us, is it not, for weeks together, when the visions forsake us? What do we do then, Kate?” To which, Catherine Blake responds, “We kneel down and pray, Mr. Blake” (as cited by Bentley, 183). Another fascinating pedagogical episode from Bentley involves a young Samuel Palmer, who, upon first meeting Blake, is struck by his fixed “grey eyes” as well as a question that Blake asks the young artist: “Do you work with fear and trembling?” Palmer responds that he does, and Blake remarks: “Then . . . you’ll do” (ibid., 183). Finally, Bentley presents a short piece by Frederick Tatham recounting two scenes that reveal the role of social class in Blake’s pedagogy. The first involves a “sickly” young man who “passed [Blake’s] House daily” and “looked interesting & eager” (ibid., 183). Blake begins to teach the young man, but his pupil quickly falls ill. In response, Blake and his wife “never omitted visiting him daily & administering medicine, money, or Wine & every other requisite until death relieved their adopted of all earthly care & pain” (ibid., 184). In the second scene, Tatham recalls a story by Catherine Blake during the years that Blake taught drawing to “some families of high rank.” Such employment, Tatham continues, was not very profitable

for after his lesson he got into conversation with his pupils, & was found so entertaining & pleasant, possessing such novel thoughts & such eccentric notions, together with such jocose hilarity & amiable demeanour, that he frequently found himself asked to stay [to] dinner . . . Thus he stopped whole days from his work at home . . . (ibid., 184)
As Tatham’s story goes, Blake was subsequently “recommended & nearly obtained an Appointment to teach Drawing to the Royal Family,” but, of course, this shocked rather than delighted Blake, who quickly became worried that “he would have been expected to have lived in comparative respectability, not to say splendour, a mode of life, as he thought, derogatory to the simplicity of his designs & deportment” (ibid., 184, 185). As such, Blake is said to have rejected the offer, ended his appointments with his other students, and decided to get by on other sources of income. These anecdotes really only give us a glimpse of the kind of teacher that Blake might have been, but they also reveal a generous but eccentric mentor dedicated to transforming his students and making their lives better, not merely giving them marketable skills.

4.         Blake’s approach to education stresses the entangled, holistic scene of teaching against the emergent standardizing logic of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism, with its tendency to devalue formerly-profitable artisanal trades that were becoming increasingly mechanized in factories. As Saree Makdisi argues, Blake’s poetry is concerned with an historical moment when “more and more peoples around the world were being violently yoked together to serve the same system of production and exchange as . . . the nature, cultures, and lifeworlds of England were being altered beyond recognition” (318). The entanglement that Makdisi identifies in Blake’s work reaches into our own time, with the ecological and political crises that Blake resists resonating with our own struggles and questioning of the tidy periods we ascribe to such work in historical criticism. Studying Blake’s refusal of the standardizing logic of capitalist production can inspire us to reject the various ways that the contemporary university “Flog[s] [its members] into following the Style of a Fool”: from the encroachment of market-logic into our universities to the violence done to our students in the guise of standardized testing and the exploitation and even starvation of adjunct labor. We believe that passionate pedagogical reflection doesn’t end with the classroom and instead follow Blake’s example by proposing that it is entangled with every part of our lives. Blake reminds us that any pedagogical stance is political and must therefore come to grips with what Henry Giroux has called “critical pedagogy.” For Giroux, critical pedagogy is concerned with “helping students to ‘read’ the world critically” rather than “helping students to ‘master’ the tools of reading” (2). It also requires that teachers be as active as students in “the pursuit of truth and social change,” meaning that our role as teachers is irreducibly connected to our roles as scholars, advocates, and democratic citizens (198). [3] 

5.        The present volume intervenes in the notion that pedagogy is of a secondary concern to Blake scholars and reveals that this attitude would be anathema to Blake. Aside from the transformative work of Robert Gleckner, Mark Greenberg, David Gross, and Thomas Pfau, few have explored Blake’s art and poetry in the context of pedagogy. [4]  Even Bentley reveals an attitude toward pedagogy that we find all too prevalent in literary studies today when he argues that “teaching is only art at second hand” (185). Few publications or other resources on teaching Romantic-period literature exist, nor are there many publishing venues for scholars interested in sharing pedagogical research. [5]  At best, teaching is presently most often seen in an analogous manner to how Brett Hirsch views pedagogy in the digital humanities, as an “afterthought, tacked-on to a statement . . . after the word ‘research’ (or its synonyms), often in parentheses” (5). The general absence of scholarship in this area is particularly perplexing when it comes to Blake given how difficult it is to teach his work in college courses, as we and a number of our contributors confess. In order to address this and related pedagogical issues, we have solicited and gathered together a range of essays that tackle the most pressing common questions and concerns that both groups and individuals now face when working to understand and discuss Blake’s art and poetry.

6.        Inspired by our contributors’ essays, we have organized the introduction to this collection around a cluster of topics that enable explorations of Blake’s work in a variety of contexts. We focus on a range of common pedagogical matters: methodologies (Geraldine Friedman and Mark Lussier); audiences (Paige Morgan); modalities (Jason Whittaker); and assignments (Mike Goode and R. Paul Yoder). These clusters are critical for the investigation of almost any literary-historical figure or period but are particularly relevant to engagement with the multimodal complexities of Blake’s work. While each of the six essays addresses all four of the categories, individual contributions focus and elaborate primarily upon one of them. Additionally, we mobilize these topics with the intention of furthering Kate Singer’s provocation from the first post of Romantic Circles’ pioneering Teaching Romanticism Blog. “[W]hat happens when,” Singer asks, “even momentarily, we envision our praxis, our ideas, and our literary theories through the lens of pedagogy? Does pedagogy need to have a greater or different role in our thinking, and if so how?” We intend to use this issue of Romantic Circles Pedagogy Commons to demonstrate the various possibilities of a Blake Studies invigorated by a greater attention to pedagogy—as well as to say, unequivocally, yes: pedagogical scholarship is vitally important to the future of our field.


7.         Given the natural limitations of the essay format, the contributions to this volume are best understood not as comprehensive statements but, instead, as intellectual and pedagogical interventions issued to stimulate new conversations about how to teach and discuss Blake’s work. As such, articles in this collection responding most directly to issues of methodology consider how different approaches to exploring Blake’s complex work can provide students with tools for wrestling with the daunting nature of his art and poetry. What diverse approaches, interpretive and explanatory grids, or critical, historical, and theoretical lenses do we primarily adopt (both successfully and unsuccessfully) when we set out to teach Blake’s poetry and art?

8.        As a self-described non-expert of Blake’s work, Geraldine Friedman describes “developing a pedagogy of non-mastery”—one in which she uses her “limitations as the basis of a pedagogical methodology rather than seeing them as something simply to be overcome” (par. 2). Turning to the work of Silvan Tomkins and Baruch Spinoza, Friedman relies upon the affective movement in recent scholarship in order to foreground personal stories of affective responses to Blake that serve as entrées into a pedagogical methodology for conveying the profound difficulties that both faculty and students experience when approaching his art and poetry for the first time. There is much to be said about why students often react so strongly to Blake’s work, and this type of affective response is something that Karen Swann and others have noted as well in recent years. [6] 

9.        Friedman explores some of Blake’s most celebrated works: “All Religions Are One” (comp. ca. 1798), “There is No Natural Religion” (comp. ca. 1788) and especially The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) and Milton (comp. ca. 1804-1811). She explores these texts in order to create what, drawing from the language of The Marriage, she calls the “improvement of sensual enjoyment” (Erdman 39). She finds this enjoyment enhanced by directing student attention to The William Blake Archive, which, as she notes, provides rich digital editions of Blake’s plates when compared to letterpress versions or even printed editions of his work. Friedman explains that the Blake Archive’s textual transcriptions and magnification functions add to a readerly experience of “sensual enjoyment.” These and related functions of the website help to immerse students in the poetry and art as they zoom in and out, for instance, and are able to appreciate Blake’s plates more intimately—thus breaking inside-outside distinctions or at least blurring them further. Friedman’s analyses of The Marriage are among this collection’s most developed and nuanced—enabling textual and pictorial close readings. She prompts readers to consider why faculty and students alike often seek to read at a distance from rather than inside the Blakean text, and her close readings actively immerse readers of the essay back into the poetry and art as her affective theory of pedagogical response is itself generated out of these close readings of Blakean text and pictorial image.

10.         Furthermore, as Friedman envisions what she plans to do differently in future courses focusing on Blake, she enacts her essay’s affective theory at the level of its own form and content. Readers will quickly recognize Friedman’s wonderful sense of humor, which is both refreshing and enlivening and which productively fosters new affective approaches to teaching Blake’s work. Teachers need to strive to foster pedagogical methodologies that introduce honesty about our own affective responses to Blake’s complex art and poetry. This type of approach to Blake is one that took some time for Friedman to arrive at and accept during her teaching career, but now that she has paved the way, other faculty need not suffer or struggle in precisely these same ways and can instead choose to adopt similar pedagogical methodologies of “non-mastery.”

11.        Mark Lussier’s contribution at first appears as if it is the least concerned with giving teachers practical tools for addressing Blake in the classroom. Yet his piece is also a powerful exemplification of what a Blakean approach to teaching might look like in literary studies. Lussier intricately deconstructs Blake’s form of mirror writing as a pedagogical method designed to induce what Alain Badiou has called “infinite thought.” Badiou associates infinite thought explicitly with the transfinite calculus of Georg Cantor and argues that such thinking can only occur with mathematics. Lussier shows how the mise-en-abyme of Blake’s mirror writing proves that such thought can be found within illuminated poetry as well because it forces readers “to open the doors of perception” (par. 4) by fusing “the psychological and textual within the meta-textual zone of the pedagogical in the service of cultivating salvific forms of self-annihilation” (par. 5). For Lussier, Blake’s difficulty is the central point for studying him because Blake directly works against the sense of separation and individuation that is a product of Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage. Blake’s mirror shatters Lacan’s mirror.

12.         In the afterword of Romantic Dharma: The Emergence of Buddhism into Nineteenth-Century Europe (2011), Lussier rejects what he calls the Western pedagogy of compulsion, and its obsession with defining achievement by appealing to external rewards, for the more compassionate approach to teaching signified in Buddhist practice. Lussier’s pedagogy of compassion “establishes and encourages discovery grounded in the present moment of a student’s engagement with the material at hand and the personal growth that results when a student makes the material his or her own” (185). Lussier develops confidence among his students by emphasizing a gradual growth of knowledge, a familiarity with the ethics associated with that knowledge, and a wisdom derived from having to give things up and leave them behind. Lussier sees Blake’s invocation of self-annihilation as a pedagogical tool with a primary outcome: the transformation of the student has to be self-directed because only the individual can choose to enact this subjective activity.

13.        Lussier’s piece for this collection acts as a textual enactment of his compassionate pedagogy. He focuses on how the notion of a personal reception of Blake’s work is annihilated by the inter-operational textual dynamics of the illuminated books. The Blakean scene of pedagogy is one of profound unlearning, as one interpretation after another is subjected to a powerful machine of contradictory viewpoints and images destroying one subjective perception after another. “The mirrored text provides structure,” Lussier argues, “[and] pursues transformative reception dynamics in an attempt to create a communitarian model capable of addressing all readers without tyrannizing any of them” (par. 14). The double movement of Blakean pedagogy is crucial yet also unendingly complex and thorny. By pointing out these structures and dynamics, Lussier argues that teachers seeking to make Blake more palatable miss the point of his transformational challenge. Self-annihilation is difficult, but the pursuit of wisdom, compassion, and democratic community are well worth the effort. In other words, if Friedman’s piece gives a methodological approach to understand the ways in which students and teachers avoid immersion in Blake’s text, Lussier shows the benefits of facing the Blakean abyss head on.


14.        When considering our audiences as teachers, Friedman and Lussier show us that different students have very different needs when encountering Blake’s work. Paige Morgan’s contribution to this volume dramatically expands upon issues concerning audience and reception in the context of Blake’s various projects. Morgan’s work does so by revealing that ostensibly straightforward questions concerning student audiences or faculty-student pedagogical dialectics quickly snowball into many more complex inquiries: with whom do we talk about Blake when we talk about Blake?

15.        As Friedman notes, graduate students are much more heavily invested in feeling the need to master Blake’s work, as we often are as faculty members, but this phenomenon quickly becomes meaningfully different from the challenges (as well as the novel opportunities) that open up when discussing Blake outside the academy. The Blake Society is a British non-profit charity organization that, as Morgan explains, is devoted to “working towards greater recognition of Blake” but that, unlike the academy, does not have “a specific argument or narrative about Blake that [they] are trying to advance” (par. 14). Instead, founded and organized upon principles more closely related to Michael Warner’s concept of the “counterpublic” or Michel Foucault’s notion of “heterotopic space” (Morgan par. 24), the Blake Society’s ultimate goal is to create multiple publics who are free to engage and experiment with Blake’s works and their various traditions. Morgan’s essay questions what “pedagogy” means beyond the Ivory Tower while showing the complications of a group of Blake enthusiasts who radically question the role of teaching when no one believes in the pedagogical authority that too many academics take for granted.

16.        Like many of our contributors, Morgan begins with a story of personal engagements with Blake’s art and poetry. She narrates these experiences through a trajectory that links her work as a student to her career as a teaching faculty member and an Executive Committee Member and Trustee of the Blake Society. Morgan’s story underscores experiences familiar to us and to many of our students. A series of formal engagements revealed to her the need to foster in her own students an escape from the “mind-forg’d manacles” that oftentimes come hand-in-hand with the academy’s burdensome practices (as cited by Morgan par. 5). It is Morgan’s hope that students might break free from those restrictive institutional settings in favor of experiences with Blake far afield from the college campus through opportunities like those offered by the Blake Society. Morgan’s essay, further, describes the type of labor involved in a non-profit charity organization that actively runs on little funding and the types of events that it nonetheless achieves despite apparent financial limitations. Blake Society events are often shockingly antinomian in nature, as in Morgan’s example of a society occasion in which disadvantaged British school children were brought together at the London Zoo to recite Blake’s “The Tyger” to actual tigers living in captivity. Such an example reveals the crux of Morgan’s essay and its major intervention in this volume, as it exposes just how important it is to stress that academics cannot lay an exclusive claim to understanding, appreciating, or engaging with Blake’s poetry and art.


17.        What forms do we use when we teach Blake’s work in college classrooms or discuss his poetry and art in public forums? A whole range of diverse and dynamic resources are now available for engagements with Blake’s work inside the classroom and beyond, [7]  and Blake scholars have a long history of experimenting with different modalities to present his work to students. [8]  As Ron Broglio writes, the “new media representation of William Blake’s work provides a heuristic” for seeing Blake’s art and poetry in new ways. [9]  How do we use these different modalities to allow students to encounter Blake in a transformative manner?

18.        Jason Whittaker opens his essay with a description of the contemporary publishing scene of digital books, expectations about reading habits in the college classroom, and his own general preference for e-books over traditional print modalities. The result of the present move to e-books signals, for Whittaker, that “we have arrived at a crucial stage in the use of Blake in the classroom, where mobile electronic devices will soon be ubiquitous” (par. 2). Whittaker’s anecdotes about the reading habits of his students, who increasingly turn up to class with e-readers instead of traditional books, might signal that we are quickly arriving at the usage of these types of e-readers and other technologies in pedagogical situations as the norm rather than as the exception. However, many students might now be using e-books, but many others still do not—either because they cannot afford them or because they still prefer print books. A further complication is the fact that tablets and mobile devices make it more likely that such technologies will not be provided by universities or colleges but, instead, will need to be purchased by students and their parents for use in the classroom. Noting the economic inequalities of this rapidly complexifying pedagogical situation, Whittaker employs his narratives concerning personal reading habits, teaching, and learning in order to take up an “issue of digital pedagogy that is especially pertinent to Blake studies: what is it that students are actually reading and what role will e-books have in education in contrast to traditional print formats?” (par. 2). Blake is especially pertinent here in raising these questions concerning traditional versus e-book modalities because the plates of his illuminated manuscripts continuously force us to confront the nature and function of reading practices.

19.        Whittaker’s goal in raising questions about teaching Blake’s composite art through new electronic devices does not mean a discarding of print in the classroom, as there will continue to be a place for David Erdman’s edition, for example. [10]  The role of Blake’s work in relation to print has been questioned for several decades now by scholars precisely because Blake hoped that illuminated printing would become a new media platform that would make obsolete his need for letterpress printing methods. Blake’s process is inherently antithetical to letterpress printing methods, and this is why Blake’s art and poetry have been taken up so often in early digital engagements with his work. Whittaker argues for an analogue approach to Blake, seeing the material originality of the illuminated prints as crucial for understanding them—even despite the fact that most students and scholars of Blake never see these original prints.

20.         In the 1990s and early years of the twenty-first century, the primary platform for experiencing digital textuality was the screen of a desktop or laptop computer. For this reason, it is clear why print formats would be preferred for most readers and teachers of the period. Hardware and software technologies have, in the interim decade, increased the ubiquity of e-readers, creating a watershed moment that rivals the invention of the PC or the development of the Web. This change radically challenges the traditional teaching of literature. Further, the scholarly temptations to idealize certain digital projects like the Blake Archive for use in college classrooms can be problematic when they obscure the fact that there are whole sets of academic and institutional speeds associated with these now-aging modalities. [11]  Whittaker’s research implies that academic archival projects may have a responsibility to deliver apps for mobile devices while also exploring how such devices might change the ways Blake is taught in the classroom.


21.        R. Paul Yoder’s and Mike Goode’s respective essays represent the pithy, provocative, and playful types of contributions that we requested from our contributors and reflect on assigning Blake’s work in a variety of contexts. In undergraduate institutions focused largely on discussion-based classrooms, the most often taught texts are Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), The Marriage, the so-called “Lambeth Books” (e.g., The Book of Los [1795] and The [First] Book of Urizen [1794]), as well as the Continental prophecies, and especially America a Prophecy (1793) and Europe a Prophecy (1794). In fact, faculty are not likely to move beyond these books in introductory survey courses in Romanticism. Yoder notes that Songs is almost certainly Blake’s most often taught work but adds that, because so many different copies of that work exist, there are a range of difficulties in teaching the text in college classrooms. Bentley lists thirty-four different total orderings of the plates of Innocence and the combined Songs, and Yoder explains that faculty almost always assign only one of the orderings, focus on a letterpress edition of the Songs, or use the Blake Archive to show the variety of plates as they teach or have students complete readings (Yoder par. 1). Drawing upon Neil Fraistat’s argument concerning poetic sequencing from The Poem and the Book (1985), Yoder focuses especially on the notion of “contexture,” which, he explains, “results from the poets’ deliberate sequencing of poems in Romantic poetry collections” (par. 3). Yoder’s pedagogical investigation of the Songs complicates Fraistat’s approach, as each different copy has its own contexture that shifts (often significantly) from copy to copy across, for instance, the thirteen different contextures presently offered by the Blake Archive. [12]  To make matters even more complicated, later owners of individual copies of the Songs would oftentimes reorder their particular copies, as Yoder points out.

22.        To illustrate these issues to students, Yoder envisions a new type of class focusing entirely on the Songs. Such a course would ultimately ask a student or group to be assigned a particular contextural sequence from the Songs and to become the authority of their copy during the rest of the term. For Yoder, this type of assignment would come closest in the classroom to experiencing the Songs in their totality. Blake’s approach to creating the Songs is one in which, as Yoder notes, a certain level of play is built into the design process. Teachers and students alike must embrace play in order to experience the basic nature and function of this work. Such pedagogical approaches to assignments explore the difference between active and passive forms of engagement with Blake’s texts.

23.        Goode’s essay also embraces play with Blake’s work, as it relies upon hyperlinking to a variety of resources across the Web as well as to Goode’s own teaching documents. Goode is interested in helping students to understand how W. J. T. Mitchell’s notion of Blake’s “composite art” decomposes as the Web engages with Blake’s original poetry, painting, and printmaking. [13]  The title of Goode’s essay, “Google Blake,” reveals this author’s commitments to thinking through innovative assignments involving Blake’s poetry and art, as it could be taken as a descriptive title or an imperative one. The Web tends to fragment Blake’s composite art into so many textual and pictorial pieces, “atomic artistic particles much smaller than the unit of the book, poem, plate, or picture” (par. 1). Goode’s essay critiques the reliance of so many scholars on Mitchell’s belief about the composite nature of Blake’s art. Instead of bemoaning the digital atomization of Blake’s work, Goode sees it as providing a tremendous pedagogical opportunity.

24.        Building upon his 2006 PMLA article “Blakespotting,” Goode’s introductory web-browsing assignment involving viral media and its accompanying research project ask students to track the propagation of a given proverb from Blake’s The Marriage across the Web. [14]  The only major prerequisite in his simple and elegantly designed assignment is a device with Internet access. In the first stage, “Searching for Blake’s Hellish Wisdom,” a major goal is for students to build archives of evidence in order to spur classroom discussion concerning the nature and function of the proverb form and Blake’s proverbs in particular. Goode’s follow-up project, “Re-searching for Blake’s Hellish Wisdom,” is geared for advanced undergraduates or graduate students and requires students to build upon and further develop academic research skills. Goode’s projects might be especially helpful for non-experts of Blake’s work or for new faculty only beginning to teach Blake’s poetry and art. That said, even veteran academics would do well to have their students engage with these assignments—especially since they open up new understandings and appreciations of the instabilities of Blakean poetical and pictorial texts. Goode’s assignments are highly structured all the way down to their clearly demarcated tables, which are readily adaptable to a variety of formats.

25.        We see Goode’s piece as perhaps our volume’s best example of how pedagogical reflection can transform scholarly practice. Goode sees pedagogical and critical value in “the rhizomatic realm of Wikipedia, which tempts your indiscriminate wandering” for enabling an encounter with Blakean transformative experiences (par. 1). Accordingly, the projects that he offers have the potential for producing a feedback effect in which students as well as professional scholars who had previously been convinced of Mitchell’s composite art might start to consider the viral capabilities of Blake’s artworks.

Conclusion: Blakean Pedagogy

26.         In very different ways, the authors of this volume intervene in contemporary education by applying what we call Blakean pedagogy: a style of teaching that has the potential to change both students and teachers. Blakean pedagogy encourages visionary experience, entangled knowledge, and a belief that learning is part of our lives as citizens. Respectively, Blakean pedagogy rejects calculated technique, discrete disciplinary knowledge, and the assumption that education exists only to develop specific, marketable skills. In the spirit of our contributors, who explore how these profound experiences appear in some of the least expected places, we have chosen to conclude this introduction by relating our own transformative scenes of Blakean pedagogy.


Roger: I love to teach Blake because he frightens me. I never know where the conversation is going to go. I have no idea what students will think as they walk out of the classroom with Blake’s visions of body-horror and hellfire burning in their heads. One of the best evaluations I ever received from a student appeared on and was associated with a class on Blake: “I’m not sure if I learned anything, but he sure boggled my mind a bit.” The worst response came from a graduate student who, evidently, didn’t realize that I was a Blake scholar. “I don’t get why anyone would write about this guy,” she said off-handedly during our discussion, “he’s too strange.” Robert Early, my colleague and fellow Blakean at Saint Louis University (SLU), first showed me the unpredictable pedagogical potential of Urizen during a session he led in my Spring 2002 “Introduction to Poetry” class. The class was designed to allow students to understand the fundamentals of poetic expression. I adopted Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry (1997), a book that I had studied during my undergraduate years, along with the Dover edition of Blake’s Urizen and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943). As Bob entered my classroom, I was skeptical. I’d been a big fan of Eliot’s work and was eager to outline the musicality of his verse. I wanted the Blake session to finish before it began.

Bob asked the class to sit in a circle. I sat directly in front of the crucifix hung in a prominent place in every classroom at SLU. I tried to make a few jokes to start the class, but I looked at Bob and realized that he wasn’t in the mood for levity. There was a strange fire burning in his eyes as I introduced him. He was clearly somewhere else.

“So, let’s take a look at the preludium, shall we?” Bob began his lesson somewhat abruptly, but the students looked eager to begin. “Blake is such an individual thinker. He’s not like most of the people you’ll read in this class.” My brain wandered to Eliot’s essay on Blake, in which the modernist poet praises Blake for the “naked[ness]” of his vision but is ultimately condescending with regards to his lack of poetic education and calls Blake’s work formless (90, 91). “[T]he weakness of the long poems is certainly not that they are too visionary, too remote from the world,” Eliot contends, “It is that Blake did not see enough, became too much occupied with ideas” (91).

Then Bob’s voice started booming. “Lo, a shadow of horror is risen / In Eternity!” (70). The students looked blank-eyed and remained completely silent. “Who is this shadow?” A hand slowly and (I could tell) nervously raised. “Yes?”


Bob looked pleased but also disappointed. “Yes, but who is Urizen? The shadow of horror? And who says this?”

More silence.

“Eternals?” The meekness of the students was in a harsh contrast to Bob’s otherworldly enthusiasm.

Still more silence.

“Well, the poem says, ‘Some said / ‘It is Urizen’ but then the poem says that the shadow is unknown” (70).

Bob’s eyes widened. “Yes! That’s right. Why?”




(This was the first time I had invited someone else as a guest speaker in my class. It was only my third semester teaching and my first literature class. During the previous year, I had remarked to someone that the most frightening thing to me about teaching wasn’t grading or lecturing. It was the knowledge that, if I stopped talking, the class would break down. Silence was entropy: eating away at the reality of my classroom and convincing the students that I had nothing real to contribute to their lives).

More silence. Bob was clearly more patient with silence than most people.

“Could it be,” another student seemed to grow a bit with confidence, “that both Urizen and the eternals are brought into existence by naming each other? Meaning: their anxiety creates . . . um . . . themselves?”

“Yeah! Yeah! When does this happen?”

We sat there for quite a while pondering this question. It created a space in the middle of the classroom where time slowed down. The silence started becoming full and substantial, rather than entropic—almost, for a moment, a “universe of starry majesty” (109). Bob’s voice passed through the space like a ghost phasing through a wall: “isn’t it happening now?”

The class ended. I was fascinated by the fact that we spent an entire hour talking about three lines, that these three lines so clearly articulated my own anxieties about teaching literature, and that this anxiety took on a meta-textual resonance that lured the class into further reflection. What I feared the most, the silence of an empty classroom, became the very thing that was most valuable about Bob’s lesson. Blake had anticipated my own response and implicated me in the violence occurring in Urizen. Such experiences, I learned, were common for teachers of Blake, and this sense of entanglement played a large part of my own transformation into a Blake scholar.


Andrew: On Halloween a few years ago—perhaps an auspicious coincidence—I had scheduled to teach my first rare-books event at Union so that my students, who had been very much struggling with Blake’s work (and especially The Marriage), could investigate his poetry and art in the context of the Trianon Press facsimile editions. My emeritus colleague, mentor, and friend, Jim McCord, who had recently retired from the very tenure line that I had just taken up, kindly took me under his wing and showed me the obvious treasures as well as wonderful secrets of our Romantic rare-book materials. Because our institution was founded during the age of Romanticism in 1795, as I love to remind my students, we have a lot of incredible late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century materials among our rare-books collection and especially for a small liberal arts college. Jim helped me to pull a remarkable set of books to share with my small, advanced-level Romantics seminar: the beautiful Trianon versions of The Marriage, America, Europe, The Book of Los, The Book of Urizen, and the Songs. We placed these books around a long rectangular table at our rare books library and intercalated them with a number of exceedingly rare Romantic-age materials.

I should stress that this was my first term teaching at Union, and I was petrified to be leading undergraduates through our rare books room and particularly with my colleagues from the English department and library joining us that day. Perhaps in order to deal with these fears, I decided to over-prepare for that afternoon by also bringing in my laptop, a projector, and a drop-down screen to display Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” from an edition of The Marriage available at the Blake Archive. I had hoped to remind my students to seek out the proverbs as they carefully leafed through the Trianon facsimile. As my students moved cautiously around the dimly-lit table, they gradually gained confidence in engaging with the pillowed books in front of them—slowly picking them up, cradling their spines, and opening the Blake facsimiles to reveal their stunning illuminated plates. As they did so the room suddenly went absolutely silent, almost as if we had entered a museum or cathedral instead of a rare books library. For half an hour these young men and women, one of the most engaging and talkative groups of my career thus far, quietly peered into these materials, warily touching their delicate pages while variously gazing at and studying Blake’s plates and other materials with a level of hushed intensity that I had never witnessed before in my teaching.

And then that day’s most interesting moment happened: one of my particularly precocious students stopped to look at the projection of the Blake Archive and apparently gravitated to one of Blake’s proverbs. I asked her what she was doing and gently prompted her to return to the rare books themselves, the class’ obvious focus of attention, or so I had hoped. But out of curiosity, I asked her which proverb she had been reading. “That one,” she said as she began to walk away, pointing to the grainy line’s image on the screen and reading aloud to me her unsurprising choice given the heavily formalized pedagogical scene of that day’s class, “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy” (35). “What does that mean?,” she asked, “I read that one over a few times last night.” Other nearby students looked up from their materials, and within a few seconds everyone around the table was listening intently to what would be my reply. “Well, I’m not so sure,” I said, “What does this proverb mean? What do you make of it? And why did you pick this one? To be honest, it has never been one of my favorites.” For the next forty minutes, the remainder of our time together that afternoon, my students and I gathered around the humming projector and wobbly drop-down screen in a dark corner of the room to discuss as a group this and other of the proverbs from the Blake Archive’s digital edition.

At first I felt completely defeated, thinking to myself that we could have been anywhere instead of a rare books library to engage in this type of discussion. “We might as well be back in the classroom!,” my mind raced. But then it dawned upon me that all of my recent research concerning the “composite art” and the much-debated differences between the “textual” versus the “physical” versus the “digital” Blake were suddenly playing out around us in the room and right before our very eyes. We could have been just about anywhere in studying and discussing together this version of Blake—and that was precisely the point—because Blake’s art and poetry might certainly live in the rarefied spaces of libraries and museums, but it also lives in print and in readily accessible hardcopies and digital archives as well as far-flung online spaces. Blake lives in all of these places and spaces and many others besides. This is something that I certainly knew to be true in a scholarly sense but that I had never fully appreciated or experienced in a pedagogical way, and this scene of teaching and learning had brought the criticism and theory to life for me and, through me, for my students that afternoon at the rare books room. Indeed, I should have paid a lot more attention to my student’s chosen proverb a long time ago: “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”


Works Cited

Badiou, Alain. Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy. Trans. and Ed. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens. London: Continuum, 2003. Print.

Bentley, Jr., G. E. The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001. Print.

Blake, William. The Illuminated Books of William Blake. Gen. ed. David Bindman. 6 vols. 1991-1995. Princeton: Princeton UP and The William Blake Trust. Print.

Blake Digital Text Project. Ed. Nelson Hilton. 2003. Web. 7 May 2015.

Broglio, Ron. “About This Volume.” Romantic Circles Praxis Series: Digital Designs on Blake. Ed. Ron Broglio. Series Editor Orrin N. C. Wang. Jan. 2005. Web. 7 May 2015.

Coad, David T., Jonathan Cook, Kelly Curtis, and Katherine D. Harris. “BeardStair: A Student-Run Digital Humanities Project History, Fall 2011 to May 16, 2013.” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy 4 (2013). Web. 7 May 2015.

Colebrook, Claire. Blake, Deleuzian Aesthetics, and the Digital. London: Continuum, 2012. Print.

Eliot, T. S. “Blake.” The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays. London: Dover, 1998: 88-92. Print.

Erdman, David V., ed. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. New York: Random House, 1988. Print.

Giroux, Henry A. Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Learning. Granby, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 1988. Print.

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

Gleckner, Robert F., and Thomas Pfau, eds. Lessons of Romanticism: A Critical Companion. Durham: Duke UP, 1998. Print.

Goode, Mike. “Blakespotting.” PMLA 121.3 (2006): 769-786. Print.

---. “The Joy of Looking: What Blake’s Pictures Want.” Representations 119.1 (2012): 1-36. Print.

Gross, David. “Infinite Indignation: Teaching, Dialectical Vision, and Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” College English 48.2 (1986): 175-186. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Translating Media: Why We Should Rethink Textuality.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 16.2 (2003): 263-290. Print.

Hirsch, Brett D., ed. Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics. Cambridge: Open Book, 2012. Print.

Jerusalem: William Blake’s Illuminated Book app. JUGEND LLC. 2015. Web. 7 May 2015.

Keramidas, Kimon, Amanda Licastro, and Roger Whitson. “Digital Literary Pedagogy: An Experiment in Process-Oriented Publishing.” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy 4 (2013). Web. 7 May 2015.

Linkin, Harriet Kramer. “How It Is: Teaching Women’s Poetry in British Romanticism Classes.” Pedagogy 1.1 (2001): 91-115. Print.

Lussier, Mark. Romantic Dharma: The Emergence of Buddhism into Nineteenth-Century Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. Print.

Makdisi, Saree. “Empire and Human Energy.” PMLA 126.2 (2011): 318-320. Print.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Blake’s Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978. Print.

Ryder, Martin. “Critical Pedagogy.” Nov. 2013. Web. 7 May 2015.

Santa Cruz Blake Study Group. “Review of The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman.” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly 18 (1984): 4-30. Print.

Singer, Kate. “Welcome to T[eaching] R[omanticism] at R[omantic] C[ircles].” Web log post. Teaching Romanticism Blog. Romantic Circles Pedagogy Commons. Ed. Kate Singer. Sept. 2010. Web. 7 May 2015.

Swann, Karen. “Teaching Jerusalem.” European Romantic Review 25.3 (2014): 397-402. Print.

Teaching Romanticism VI: William Blake. Ed. Daniel Cook. Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture, 1780-1840. Web. 7 May 2015.

Whitson, Roger and Jason Whittaker. William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.

The William Blake Archive. Ed. Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. 1996. Web. 7 May 2015.

William Blake’s London app. Tate Gallery. 2014. Web. 7 May 2015.

Yoder, R. Paul. “What Happens When: Narrative and the Changing Sequence of Plates in Blake’s Jerusalem, Chapter 2.” Studies in Romanticism 41.2 (2002): 259-278. Print.

Zoamorphosis: The Blake 2.0 Blog. 2010-2011. Web. 7 May 2015.


[1] Unless otherwise noted, all parenthetical page citations for William Blake quotes refer to David V. Erdman’s edition of The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (1988). BACK

[2] “Entanglement” in this introduction resonates with Claire Colebrook’s comparison between Blake’s understanding of radical immanence as the intrusion of the infinite “into all aspects of existence, and its vortical opening from every aspect of the world,” on the one hand, and Gilles Deleuze’s mobilization of the virtual in his reversal of Platonism, on the other (76). “Rather than see the actual world as deriving from static forms,” Colebrook argues while interpreting Deleuze, “the actual world comes into being by contracting all the potential differential relations . . . The world we know and live in is composed of actual relations among differences, but it is possible to intuit the virtual differential forces from which actuality has been contracted” (xiv). BACK

[3] The scholarship on critical pedagogy is much too vast to review here adequately. For a more comprehensive introduction, see the online reading list that Martin Ryder maintains at the University of Colorado at Denver. To be clear, our account of Blake’s pedagogy and critical pedagogy does not mean that we do not feel that the humanities have a duty to make graduates employable. But we also recognize that our pedagogical role does not end with employability. BACK

[4] See, for example, Robert F. Gleckner and Mark L. Greenberg’s Approaches to Teaching Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1989); Robert F. Gleckner and Thomas Pfau’s Lessons of Romanticism: A Critical Companion (1998); and David Gross’ “Infinite Indignation: Teaching, Dialectical Vision, and Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” For more recent work in this area, see Roger Whitson and Jason Whittaker’s chapter “Digital Creativity: Teaching William Blake in the Twenty-First Century” in William Blake and the Digital Humanities: Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media (2013) as well as Daniel Cook’s in-progress edited collection Teaching Romanticism VI: William Blake, which presents brief observations from Richard C. Sha, Małgorzata Łuczyńska-Hołdys, and Stephen Behrendt. BACK

[5] Romantic Circles Pedagogy Commons, edited by Kate Singer, is central here, as is the 2010-2011 run of Romantic CirclesTeaching Romanticism Blog with contributions by Deidre Lynch, Erik Simpson, Eric Eisner, Katherine D. Harris, Patricia A. Matthew, Roger Whitson, Crystal B. Lake, Scott Haegle, and Lindsey Eckert. Other journals dedicated to literature pedagogy include both Pedagogy and The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. For helpful relevant essays from these sources, see especially Harriet Kramer Linkin’s “How It Is: Teaching Women’s Poetry in British Romanticism Classes”; David T. Coad, Kelly Curtis, Jonathan Cook, and Katherine D. Harris’ “BeardStair: A Student-Run Digital Humanities Project History, Fall 2011 to May 16, 2013”; and Kimon Keramidas, Amanda Licastro, and Roger Whitson’s “Digital Literary Pedagogy: An Experiment in Process-Oriented Publishing.” BACK

[6] See Karen Swann’s essay “Teaching Jerusalem” for more on her approaches to teaching the illuminated books. Geraldine Friedman attended Swann’s workshop with us on “Learning to Teach by Teaching Jerusalem” at the 2013 meeting of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism in Boston. Swann’s presentation and the essay that has since emerged from it have been centrally motivating factors behind the present volume, precisely because of the types of stimulating questions and conversations that Swann’s lecture and discussion launched concerning Blake and pedagogy during and after the NASSR conference. BACK

[7] See, for instance, Erdman’s The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Princeton University Press/The William Blake Trust’s hardcopy editions (1991-1995), Trianon Press facsimiles, the Blake Digital Text Project, the Blake Archive, Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, Zoamorphosis: The Blake 2.0 Blog (Zoamorphosis currently provides a portal to The Blake 2.0 Cloud’s aggregated sites), and iOS apps ranging from the Tate Gallery’s William Blake’s London to JUGEND LLC’s rendition of Blake’s Jerusalem (comp. ca. 1804-1820). BACK

[8] For a history of the different editions of Blake’s work, see Whitson and Whittaker’s chapter on “Archives and Ecologies” in William Blake and the Digital Humanities. BACK

[9] See the Romantic Circles Praxis volume devoted to Digital Designs on Blake (2005) for a theory of Blakean new media that embraces what Ron Broglio and other scholars in the collection identify as the “performative” aspect of such work. BACK

[10] One of the many reasons why the Erdman edition remains indispensable for contemporary Blake scholars is the fact that the Erdman estate keeps his scholarship perpetually in the public domain. Both Nelson Hilton’s Blake Digital Text Project and the Blake Archive maintain easily-searchable digital copies of the Erdman edition on their sites. The former also has a concordance that interfaces with their online Erdman edition. BACK

[11] N. Katherine Hayles’ consideration of the Blake Archive in “Translating Media: Why We Should Rethink Textuality” is important here too, as she explores the material difference between the bits of the archive and the print materiality of Blake’s plates and paper. It might also be worth discussing the place of a program like Optical Character Recognition (OCR) in this discussion. OCR takes a digital image and then uses probabilistic logic to match that image with the closest machine-readable character. One of the problems mentioned by the Santa Cruz Reading Group in their 1984 review of the Erdman edition is the difference between printed typography and Blake’s etched letters. When we confront a character deemed similar by an OCR algorithm, we see a further layer of separation between Blake’s original material prints, their pixelated simulation in digital images, and the machine-readable algorithmic output of OCR. BACK

[12] See R. Paul Yoder’s essay “What Happens When: Narrative and the Changing Sequence of Plates in Blake’s Jerusalem, Chapter 2” for more information about his theory of narrative sequencing in Blake’s work. BACK

[13] See W. J. T. Mitchell’s Blake’s Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry (1978) in which he argues that Blake wanted “to create unity out of contrariety rather than similitude or complementarity” (33). BACK

[14] Also see Mike Goode’s article “The Joy of Looking: What Blake’s Pictures Want” for more of his scholarship regarding the “delinquent tendency on the part of Blake’s ‘composite art’ to de-compose itself whenever and wherever it finds an audience” (5). BACK