Introduction - Once Only Imagined



Once Only Imagined




KK: I want to begin at the most obvious place by having each of you take another look at Morris's original occasion for the 1982 round robin. His injunction at the time was to assess "the state of the art in Blake studies and to prophecy: what has been done and how well, and what needs to be done?" (390). It's a directive that prompted some highly variable responses twenty years ago. How would you answer the same directive today?

And to complicate the question somewhat, I'd like to get your thoughts on what kind of reading the round robin makes in retrospect. From my vantage point, for example, the Golden Age of Reproduction that has flourished in the decades after 1982, of which the Blake Trust series and the William Blake Archive are exemplary products,[12] looks like a largely unanticipated development. My sense is that there was a certain amount of complacency about reproductive issues among the various participants, a feeling that much of the necessary spadework had been accomplished and that it was time to turn to the more heady work of interpretation. Is that a fair assessment of how things stood in the early 80s?

RNE: Yes, I think that is a fair assessment. No one anticipated—perhaps no one could have anticipated—the impact of computerized presses (essential to the Blake Trust series of the 1990s) and the Internet. Both the editing of Blake's texts and the reproduction of his pictorial images have been profoundly affected by these technical innovations. And I can't recall anyone saying much about the importance of exhibitions, both as a medium for scholarly investigation and as a way of making Blake the artist better known to the public. But prophecy is more fun than history, so I'll try my hand at some predictions once again.

It seems to me (this is all very subjective) that there have been two major developments in Blake studies, over the last twenty years, in addition to the electronic revolution already noted. Certainly the School of Erdman has triumphed over the School of Frye. Situating Blake within various historical contexts has been a major occupation on both sides of the Atlantic. At the same time, Blake's technologies as a printmaker have been eagerly explored. There is also some interesting work underway (but little published to date) on Blake's media and techniques as a painter. To these two recent strands of Blake studies let me add a third and seemingly outdated one. Some of us have not totally given up on explication, at least in the classroom. Erdman's Prophet Against Empire, generally seen as the godfather of the modern historical approach to Blake, is a work of interpretation as much as contextualization.[13] I think that the next development in Blake scholarship may well be an attempt to synthesize these three approaches in ways that engage context (political, religious, social) in the direct service of interpretation and explore the interconnections among Blake's methods of writing, drawing, etching, printing. The ideological implications of graphic technologies, as it were, coupled with the ways Blake's texts and images were both shaped by and point toward their methods of production and their producer's social context. I'm cheating a little in making this prophecy because I have already seen this type of synthesis unfolding in Saree Makdisi's book on Blake, forthcoming from Chicago UP, and Rosamund Paice's essay on Blake's Laocoön engraving, forthcoming in Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly.[14]

JV: Although Gleckner, Adams, and a few others warned against reading the poetry to support theories (still excellent advice), you may be right about "reproductive issues" taking a backseat to "the more heady work of interpretation." But I guess you had to be there. Entering the 1980s, we seemed a long way from needing Bob's "Finding List of Reproductions of Blake's Art" (1971). What was once scattered was now coming together in a manageable number of reference works. Martin Butlin's magnificent 1981 catalogue raisonné of the paintings and drawings (twenty years in the making, though actually begun by William Michael Rossetti for Gilchrist's Life of Blake in 1863) was now available, as were Bindman's Complete Graphic Works of William Blake (1978), Bob's William Blake, Printmaker (1980), with his catalogue raisonné of the separate plates in press; we had the Clarendon edition of Blake's Night Thoughts (1980); reproductions of Dante (1980); the illustrations to Thomas Gray (1971); facsimile editions of Job, Grave, Vala, Tiriel and the Notebook; and catalogues for exhibitions at Kunstalle Hamburg, Tate Gallery, and Yale Center for British Art (1975, 1978, and 1982). In addition to the Blake Trust/Trianon Press facsimiles, we had Erdman's Illuminated Blake (1974) and affordable editions of Marriage, Milton, Songs, and Urizen in full color. We had two journals (Blake Studies and Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly); an annual bibliography; a reprint of Damon's dictionary with a helpful index by Morris (1979); Bentley's enormous Blake Books, describing every copy of every illuminated book and every engraving (1977); and fine editions of the poetry and prose by Keynes, Erdman, and Bentley. We even had a Norton critical edition (1979).

All this industry culminated in Blake finally making it into the standard reference of Romantic studies, Jordan's fourth edition of The English Romantic Poets (1985). Missing from the first three editions, Blake was no longer "preromantic"; Blake Studies had affected and benefited from ongoing re-evaluations of Romanticism itself, resulting in Blake becoming an essential figure of the movement. So, not only were we ready to get on with the "heady" stuff of interpretation, but we fully expected and hoped art historians would join in. Many of us recognized that reading Blake's art required more than translating pictures into text and interpreting the translation. We recognized the need for more dialogue across academic disciplines if, as Adams noted, "there is any hope of a language being developed that will deal more successfully with Blake" (401). Paley was so optimistic that he feared "a rash of iconographic 'readings'" and a misuse of all the new scholarly tools (427). Blake had been served very well by a few British and European art historians (Blunt, Butlin, Bindman, Lindberg, Dörrbecker), and what Bob saw as the prerequisites to legitimizing Blake in the eyes of American art historians were met: catalogue raisonnés, higher prices at the auction houses, and exhibitions. So why did American art historians not join the feast?

I'd like to think that the quality of the reproductions (black and white, too few in color, very few to size) failed to entice, but that can't be it. Art historians have been relying on poor reproductions for years. I suspect, as Adams noted, that art historians are still "too deeply submerged in assumptions that don't allow for Blake's existence" (401), or, as Grant put it, are trained to see by Reynolds (442). At the time, I said that art historians were usually no better informed about graphic art than their literary counterparts. Even in art history departments where British Art is not an oxymoron, print remains the bastard child and Blake continues to fall between the cracks. He is a graphic artist and a painter tied to the word, working small$mdashprimarily in watercolors—and painting idealized figures in the great ages of portraiture and landscape painting in oils. Blake's place in literature required changes in literary taste; apparently, as Bob noted all those years ago, a similar change of "taste" in art history is still needed if Blake is to move from "naïve genius" outside the "main course of European art" to an essential part of that course.

If we were complacent about reproductions, it was because we seemed to have so many—and expected so little from them. Celebrating the publications of Butlin's catalogue and the Clarendon Night Thoughts, Grant said: "Although many of the reproductions in both volumes are not of good quality, their shortcomings are not seriously misleading" (442). This is true so far as it goes—compositions are represented in their entirety, but the images are not true to size or color (even the ones in color) and are but shadows of the originals. They point to the original rather than reproduce it. What you refer to as the largely unanticipated "Golden Age of Reproduction" that occurred in the 90s is golden, I think, less for the number of new (and affordable) color reproductions than for the incredible fidelity now possible. We now have digital reproductions that can be studied in place of the originals by editor, literary scholar, and art historian. And as Blake's popularity increases, resulting in more exhibitions and higher prices at the auction houses and, ironically, less access to the originals, the need for such reproductions will only increase. With print reproductions, we were satisfied with basic information about the composition. Now, with high-resolution, color-corrected digital images we have information about the artifact; we can tell if something has been erased from the paper, added to the print, or altered in pen and ink, and much more. I hope that this kind of bibliographical, aesthetic, and technical information, as well the ability to manipulate images on one's home computer to detect what has heretofore required examination of the originals, stimulates new ways to teach, research, and think about art in general and Blake in particular. Bob's and my "Inquiry into Blake's Method of Color Printing" is a case in point.[15] It uses new technology and digital reproductions in the service of scholarship and could not have been written twenty years ago. Digital reproductions of Blake's color prints and of our facsimiles provided incredible details that enabled us to marshal material facts about production and technique that fall below the threshold of vision, even in the originals.

Our reliance on reproductions will increase, and changes in the mode and quality of reproduction will necessarily affect the what and way we know. These kinds of epistemological questions inevitably arise with changes in representation and are, in the wake of the Internet, affecting intellectual culture at large and not just the study of Blake. Nevertheless, it seems our hopes today echo those made twenty years ago. As Gleckner said then, we now have the scholarly tools to "reach a more intelligent interpretation" of Blake (435). The Blake Archive will continue to grow over the next decade with Blake's paintings, prints, sketches, drawings, and manuscripts; with its excellent reproductions, diplomatic texts, and searchable images, it will provide the raw material for critical, interpretive, bibliographical, and art historical analyses. May complacency about reproductions turn to enthusiasm and art historians take note.

ME: To some extent the 1982 assessment was correct. Joe gives the details that lay behind the sense of satisfaction that most of the basic scholarly tools and materials were finally in place—and, as he says, maybe you had to be there. It's also true that, as predicted, a healthy flow of criticism and interpretation continued in the 80s (and 90s), but for the most part it didn't, I believe, build on any consensus established in the previous period. That is, it refused to be fully part of any continuing project. Scholars like to talk about the "community of scholars" and their ongoing "conversations." Much of the published critical work in the last two decades of the century started more or less new conversations in tune with larger conversations in the humanities. Insofar as they've focused on political and historical issues they're in the line of Erdman, you might say, but by and large they haven't engaged directly with Erdman's interpretations of Blake.

But one of the chronic problems that Blake presents is information overload, and I comment further on this a bit later. Information overload is a problem that comes with being in the world these days, but Blake does exacerbate it—and makes the work of scholar-critics especially painful. Consider the prediction Bob made at the start of the interview, that "the next development in Blake scholarship may well be an attempt to synthesize these three approaches in ways that engage context (political, religious, social) in the direct service of interpretation and explore the interconnections among Blake's methods of writing, drawing, etching, printing." Whew—that's a pretty tall order. There are advantages, after all, of having your field of vision limited ("English" and "art history" are useful disciplinary limits; the unillustrated printed edition of Blake is an imposed technical and economic limit, also useful sometimes). Some of the most brilliant work on Blake has been done in ignorance of the total picture. That sounds perverse and irresponsible, but it's true, and ignorance is one of the enabling conditions of scholarship. Hypothetically, if we were to provide critics with a virtual copy of all the information relevant to understanding Blake, we would give them the London of Blake's time (for a start, before giving them the rest). That's why people go digging into archives of old papers and pictures, to simulate that recovery of the past as best they can two hundred years after the fact. But aren't they lucky that the number of surviving documents is so limited! That's a line of argument that lands us back in 1952, before all those wonderful resources for studying Blake became available.

I agree with Joe's assessment that "with print reproductions, we were satisfied with basic information about the composition. Now, with high-resolution, color-corrected digital images we have information about the artifact; we can tell if something has been erased from the paper, added to the print, or altered in pen and ink, and much more." No sooner did "we" have the reproductions in Butlin's catalogue and Erdman's Illuminated Blake, Bob's catalogues, and even the six Blake Trust volumes than we saw that, with new media, we could have more. As someone once wrote, or rather etched, "less than All cannot satisfy Man" (NNR [b], E 2). (And I easily looked that up in the electronic Erdman in the Blake Archive.)


KK: Bob, in your answer to my first question you touch on two venerable genres of scholarship as leading indicators of the state of the art in Blake studies; let me ask you about another in which you've had a longstanding interest. If editions and critical monographs, which you discuss above, are two obvious yardsticks by which we measure an author's critical reputation, then the scholarly biography is a clear third. Though I haven't tallied the number of Blake biographies that have been written to date, it's a fairly sizeable lot; lining them up side by side would offer visual proof—if any was needed—that the idea of a definitive biography is as much a myth to be debunked as that of a definitive edition. We keep churning out new biographies of Blake because each generation of biographers has its own totems and taboos; the question of Blake's sanity, for example, is one that has waxed and waned in popularity over time.

In 1982, you sounded the call for a new biography of Blake, one "informed by modern psychological insights" (399). By 1995, Peter Ackroyd had come out with a life of Blake, with G. E. Bentley Jr. following suit a few years later in 2001. In your opinion, what kind of Blake does each of them give us? And is the rich psychological portrait you imagined twenty years ago still a desideratum of Blake scholarship today?

RNE: I think that an interpretive life of Blake, one that takes into account modern insights into psychology, is still a requisite. To paint with a very broad brush, Ackroyd's Blake (1995) could be placed in the category of a "popular biography." Unlike some of my academic friends, who found some factual errors in the book and thus dismissed it, I think that Ackroyd does a good job, although the portrait of Blake that emerges is not all that different from what we knew about Blake's character from earlier biographers, Alexander Gilchrist (1863) through Mona Wilson (1927). Bentley's The Stranger from Paradise (2001) is a thorough documentary life, one that further narratizes his indispensable Blake Records (1969) and updates it. Bentley's portrait of Blake has a curiously (but perhaps accurately) split personality. While the book is filled with quotidian facts (commissions, money, work, patrons), Bentley's sense of Blake, as the title suggests, is of a very other-worldly personality. The transcendent and the mundane never quite come together, but perhaps they never did for Blake either.

The current biographical scene still allows room for the sort of interpretive life I envisioned back in 1982. Although it would run the danger of falling into the biographical fallacy (if that beast still exists), the type of biography I have in mind would make more use of Blake's poetry as a portal into his character. To repeat a point I made twenty years ago, Blake wrote one of the most complex psychological and biographical poems in the language, Milton a Poem. If Wordsworth's biographers delve into The Prelude, why can't Blake's biographers have a go at Milton? Other psychologically-oriented approaches also come to mind, including a more self-conscious struggle with the spirit/matter split indicated by Bentley's biography.

Tom Mitchell raised the issue of Blake's sanity in 1982. The topic still seems resistant to critical inquiry. Most of Blake's admirers, from John Linnell to the present, have felt compelled to defend their hero against charges of insanity (or even the sorts of emotional instabilities we are all prone to) so that Blake's work would be taken seriously. Those who write about Vincent Van Gogh feel no such need, but a prejudice against unusual forms of brain chemistry still inhabits Blake studies. I've had trouble dropping any hints about Blake's possible schizophrenia (although I may have sneaked a sentence or two past Morris for his forthcoming Cambridge volume). Having known a few marginal schizophrenics (it's always a matter of degrees, and takes many forms), I find that they make startling connections among things that "normal" (but less insightful?) people do not perceive. If they could write poetry, they would create long, rambling poems filled with polymorphous metaphors that would lead any scholars who took such writings seriously to respond with long, detailed critical studies seeking out the full range of the text's radiant meanings. Remind you of anyone you know?


KK: Morris, I can't resist bringing up that cranky tone you adopted in the SiR introduction all those years ago. For readers who may not have seen the original, here are a few of your opening words: "I have been noticing more than usual lately just how wrong people can be about Blake scholarship. In the past decade many a loose-tongued author has tossed off complaints about a 'Blake industry' or a 'Blake establishment.' Stretching the meaning of 'industry' to include the collective curriculum vitae of Blake scholarship is as parochial as stretching the definition of 'universal' to include your favorite Victorian poem, and it only goes to show that most scholars would have a hard time spotting a real industry or a real universe across the library quadrangle" (389). As a reality check, you go on to substitute the "little, homemade, bumptious, and entirely unintimidating world of high Blake scholarship" for the fiction of a Blake industry you found all around you.

A lot has transpired in Blake studies since you wrote that introduction twenty years ago. As Joe notes elsewhere in this interview, "Blake Studies [has] . . . benefited from ongoing re-evaluations of Romanticism itself, resulting in Blake becoming an essential figure of the movement." Has our author's climb up the institutional ladder of success resulted in Blake scholarship becoming more of a bona fide industry (whatever that might mean), less a cottage industry over the years? Or is it as "homemade" and "bumptious" as ever—a clear case of plus ça change plus c'est la même chose?

ME: Hey! I thought my tone might have been reassuring—at least to those who had been fantasizing about a Blake industry that would oppress their critical expressions. Though I think I may see what Joe means when he says that Blake studies has "benefited from ongoing re-evaluations of Romanticism itself, resulting in Blake becoming an essential figure of the movement," I'd want to add that the most recent waves of revaluation, from the mid-80s on, have tended to diminish the useful authority of Romanticism as a label altogether. Furthermore, although the available evidence suggests that Blake's reputation in what remains of this Romantic "movement" or "era" hasn't altered drastically, I don't sense that Blake has the cultural centrality, the being-here-now kind of presence, that he temporarily had back in the 60s and 70s. It's probably not an accident that Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly was born in 1968 as Morton Paley's Blake Newsletter. Although Blake's become something of a fixture now, he was probably a more successful cultural icon twenty and thirty years ago. And Blake scholarship, as I say elsewhere in the interview, is less integrated, less a project, now than it seemed then, at least to some.


KK: We'll circle back to the Blake industry, but I want to spend some time indulging in a little retrospective prophecy by turning to Joe's 1996 BIQ essay on Blake's death.[16] Joe, the picture you paint of Blake's last 24 months or so of life is especially poignant for its friction between Blake's body progressively racked by pain and disease, and his defiant spirit struggling to go about daily work in the face of chronic illness. Engraving and drawing, always a spiritual anodyne, increasingly became a physical hardship for Blake to bear. But as you relate, he was dogged to the end, propping himself up with pillows when bedridden to write a letter or labor over the Dante illustrations throughout much of 1827.

In this context, you go on to discuss Blake's contemporary biographer, Frederick Tatham, and his staging of a deathbed scene that shows a supernaturally prolific Blake rallying in his last hours "to color, draw, sing, and talk."[17] It's as though at some level Tatham sought to compress all Blake's unfulfilled dreams for the future into a final energetic fit of industry and productivity climaxing in death. While the genre of the scholarly biography—putatively factual and historical in its account—may not be the most obvious space for this sort of imaginative extension of an artistic canon, it seems to me that the kind of prophetic exercise we're engaged in here is. Looking back on Blake's final works—the Job engravings, the Dante watercolors and engravings, and others—can the three of you by their light see where Blake might have gone next, as printmaker or poet? This is retrodiction, not prediction:[18] granting Blake another five to ten years of relatively good health to pursue the work he loved, can the three of you sketch out, as a critical experiment, a brief descriptive catalogue of what might have been or almost was? How might Blake have developed technically and stylistically in the years 1827-1837?[19]

RNE: Blake left several projects incomplete at his death, including the Genesis Manuscript (now in the Huntington Library), the Dante engravings (all seven are clearly unfinished), and the watercolors illustrating Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (private collection). These he would have finished, and perhaps he would have executed more engravings after his Dante watercolors and a selection of the Bunyan designs. The most significant development in Blake's late career as a printmaker was the return to traditional line engraving without etching. His meeting John Linnell in 1818 was crucial, both artistically and financially, in prompting this change. My best guess is that Blake would have continued to execute line engravings under Linnell's patronage, particularly if the Job and Dante proved reasonably successful in the marketplace. The Job engravings are of course a return to images Blake had produced years earlier. Continuing with that model, perhaps Blake would have been commissioned by Linnell to engrave some of his illustrations to John Milton's poems. We know, for example, that Blake executed at least three Paradise Lost watercolors for Linnell in 1822, much as he and Linnell copied the Job watercolors first executed c. 1805-06. The 1822 Paradise Lost designs may have been the first steps toward a complete set for Linnell, and that in turn could have been the basis for a series of engravings like the Job. I think it rather less likely that Blake would have produced more relief-etched illuminated books, with the possible exception of brief tracts like On Homers Poetry [and] On Virgil.

In the last few years of his life, Blake is not known to have composed much poetry. I suspect that would have continued if he had been granted another decade of life. Short prose statements of the sort covering the Laocoön engraving seem to have been his preferred genre near the end of his days.

JV: I've written a bit about what others were doing about Blake and with their Blakes the first few decades after he died, but never thought about what he might have done had he lived another ten years. I am sure his to-do list remained long and fascinating. As Bob mentions, he left many projects unfinished, but he also had a lifetime of works he could return to, and returning to images and ideas and, as Bob has demonstrated in Language of Adam, reconceiving them each time they are executed was characteristic of Blake.[20] He could return to sketches and develop them into finished watercolors, paintings, or prints; or to any number of design series and redo them; or to any of his hundreds of copperplates, including, of course, those forming illuminated books. During the last year of his life, he reprinted in bright reddish-orange ink The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (copy I) and Songs of Innocence and of Experience (copy X), both for the poisoner Wainwright, and finished them in his beautiful, albeit labor-intensive, time-consuming, elaborate style. But he also reprinted Jerusalem (copy F) in stark black ink, leaving it boldly uncolored. It was not unusual for Blake to work in different media and different styles during the same period, but I think the Jerusalem white-line and "woodcut-on-pewter" designs, which appear almost primitive in their directness and lack of fine detail—and so perfectly realized in two-dimensional black and white—represent where he would have gone in relief etching. You see this very expressive manner, in which the marks of the tools in the act of making the image are plainly visible, in the Virgil wood engravings and the last relief etchings, On Homers Poetry [and] On Virgil and The Ghost of Abel. And you see it in each of the 102 Dante watercolors; at various degrees of finish, each celebrates process—or what Blake called "practise"—in its vigorous unerased pentimenti.

As Bob notes, the Dante engravings are unfinished, but I think we agree that they probably were not going to be finished as densely as the Job engravings. With Job, Blake returned to a simpler and more direct way of delineating form, to a style of engraving lines characteristic of Renaissance or "ancient" engravers, whose style was considered almost crude compared to the sophisticated line systems (e.g., dot and lozenge hatching style) used by engravers of Blake's day. Job has Dürer in mind, but the Dante engravings are simpler still, more Raimondi and Mantegna, with more untouched, or white, space, that is, more like drawings, the original paradigm for engraving. Blake thought he was engraving like the ancient engravers all along, but in fact it was not until he began to show the younger artist, Linnell, untrained as an engraver, the works of the ancient engravers that he began to see them with new eyes and began the process of unlearning his own trade. This unlearning continued in the last three years of his life as he was surrounded by young artists—students really, Palmer, Calvert, Richmond, Sherman, Tatham—interested in graphic art but trained as painters. Despite his chronic pains, these last years were among his happiest. He had artists who loved and admired him and treated him as their "Interpreter," and in spirit he was feeling young again. I think had he lived, the Shoreham period, the period of Samuel Palmer's greatest works, would have lasted longer, and Blake would have continued his experiments at simplifying the pictorial plane. Maybe he would have executed another set of wood engravings.

I think all his life Blake enjoyed being a student in its purest sense, of returning to things with fresh eyes. In 1802, six days shy of his 45th birthday, he told Butts that he would not send him a drawing till he had again reconsidered his notions of art and "had put [himself] back as if [he] was a learner" (letter of 22 Nov. 1822, E 719). He says much the same thing two years later after seeing the Truchsessian gallery of pictures: "I was again enlightened with the light I enjoyed in my youth" (letter of 23 Oct. 1804, E 756). Art saved him, not only at the end of his life, prolonging it, I'm sure, but also during those years he clearly suffered from depression, when he "traveld thro Perils & Darkness" (letter of 22 Nov. 1802, E 720). His way of fighting the spectre was to work daily—and, I suspect, to learn or see, if not also do, something new. He summed up his lifetime of working as an artist and fighting the losing fight against commerce and organized religion in the Laocoön aphorisms. One is particularly relevant: "Practise is Art If you leave off you are Lost" (E 274). As noted, Blake routinely looked to his own repertoire for inspiration, but I don't think he ever rested on his laurels. Like Picasso, his favorite work would have been "the next one." Tatham got the last hours wrong, but the last years were marked by the energy and spirit Blake expressed for another homecoming, from Felpham to London: "I have a thousand & ten thousand things to say to you. My heart is full of futurity" (letter of 25 April 1803, E 729).

RNE: Joe's suggestion that Blake might have gone on to create more wood engravings is perceptive. Let me just mention one work that clearly moves in that direction: the detailed drawing on a woodblock of The Prophet Isaiah Foretelling the Destruction of Jerusalem in the British Museum. We can add this to the list of works left unfinished at Blake's death.

ME: That's a pretty peculiar question, Kari!—one of those what-might-Hamlet-have-done-after-the-play-was-over-if-he-hadn't-been-killed kinds of questions. Blake seems to have become calmer and more reflective in those final years, and probably nothing would have altered that trajectory. Bob has demonstrated more than once how in those years Blake opened himself to important stylistic influences from John Linnell, and, if he had lived longer, I can imagine that he would have opened himself further to new influences in the maturing signature styles of the young admirers in his immediate circle—Samuel Palmer, for example. Joe characterizes the last years of Blake's life as years when he was "unlearning" the conventions of "his own trade." Unlearning was so congenial an idea to Blake—it fits with his predilections, which led him to suppose that real learning was always a form of retrieving "original" ways from beneath layers of corruption, in this case original ways of execution, while discarding those corrupt new intrusions that The World was always trying to push on him. And while we're on this road, we may as well go further and imagine that his visual defensives, his theoretical devotion to line and definite form, might have collapsed entirely so that the spirit of Turner, say, might have entered him. Blake's later literary inclinations tended to brevity, as Bob points out—and there is something final about Jerusalem that doesn't anticipate second thoughts in multiple installments of illuminated (or other) verse. But in the worthy cause of speculation, if nothing else, can't we imagine a return to poetry after he gets a bit tired of illustrating this and illustrating that (Job, Dante, Milton, etc.) on commission? Not that he wasn't a superlative illustrator, not that he wasn't intensely influenced by those young artists to produce visual rather than literary work, but I'd say Blake was always ready with more words. And then, if his wife Catherine had died before he did, of course—an entirely possible outcome—that might have changed everything in his mood and his imaginative responses to life. Naturally he might have done what so many bereft partners in old marriages do as their final exertion of imagination: made himself die. But if he could have gotten over that terrible threshold alive, he might have changed artistic directions radically. Unfortunately, death was terminal.


KK: Morris, as editor of Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, you get to sample a little of everything related to Blake that comes down the academic pipeline. Are there any recent critical developments that surprise you? It seems predictable to me that articles and monographs on Blake would mirror larger disciplinary approaches and trends—the "class-race-gender triad . . . codified as cultural studies" that you mention elsewhere, for example. What I'd like to know about is the wild card in Blake scholarship. Anything come to mind?

ME: I don't think I have much insight on this one, except insofar as the Blake Archive is a form of criticism, which is true to a point. Naturally I cherish the idea of the Archive as the wild card in Blake scholarship—but then, we're all in love with our self-aggrandizing delusions, and I'm afraid editors may be especially vulnerable because they always have to wonder if anyone is taking their work seriously. But really I don't think there's a wild card. There has been a fair amount of interesting work in the last two decades, including work on language, on gender and sexual orientation, on biographical issues. Some of the most interesting has produced a more detailed understanding of the discourses of radical and popular culture of Blake's time. It has been very suggestive, but its direct relevance to Blake is sometimes questionable, because it tends to take the form of "sounds/looks sort of like Blake" and "reminds one of Blake." And Blake always presents the problem of the unconventional, which I've discussed elsewhere—he may remind us of Christians as he does of pornographers, Muggletonians, Swedenborgians, and the electromagnetist sex therapists, but he is seldom an easy fit in the context because he's such a contrarian. Religion, I think, is largely unrecovered terrain. Morton Paley and Robert Ryan are among those who have written interestingly and informatively about it, but much, much more remains to be done before we'll come close to understanding Blake's age as the religious age it clearly, fundamentally was. But all these are more in the order of good ideas than of wild cards, if wild card is meant to suggest a winning hand. Though, always, I may be dead wrong.


KK: Morris, your role in the original round robin all those years ago was essentially that of impresario: after convening the special assembly on the future of Blake studies, you retreated to the wings, choosing to keep your own hunches and meta-reflections under wraps. From my vantage point, though, it looks like you eventually offered a prophecy of sorts in arrears—some fourteen years later. It comes at the end of an astute essay published in the Huntington Library Quarterly in 1996.[21] "On Blakes We Want and Blakes We Don't" closes with a generally complimentary appraisal of the late E. P. Thompson's posthumously published Witness Against the Beast, a peculiar monograph that argues Blake was the last of an obscure antinomian sect.[22] You write: "I do not personally see Blake as a Muggletonian in any interesting sense, although I respect the effort to see him as one for honoring the double enigmas of Blake's terrific oddity and his kinship with marginal others. The trend-lines at least are right, I believe, and Thompson's focused, archival approach is the one that promises the greatest gains at this point in the history of Blake studies."[23] Given the six or so years that have lapsed since you wrote those lines, does Thompson's "focused, archival approach" seem as full of potential today as it did yesterday, or are you energized by a different sort of critical response to Blake these days?

ME: I comment on this a bit above and below. Since I wrote the sentences on E.P. Thompson, Keri Davies has proved that Thompson's main bit of evidence, having to do with Blake's mother's supposed family connection to the Muggletonians, is wrong.[24] (I remember David Erdman saying years ago that he was sure Thompson, as savvy as he was, was on the wrong track in trying to pin Blake's radical heritage on a family connection so concrete and specific.) But, yes, I believe that Thompson's "focused, archival approach" is still the most promising at this stage. But it's also among the most challenging, because it doesn't lend itself to quick results; it demands years of close study in chilly, dark places. The academy's reward system doesn't give much incentive for that kind of work.


KK (Question for Morris): Many of the critical essays you've written over the years have embedded in them a candid admission of your failure to understand Blake's later prophecies. It's a recurring trope that I've come to value in your work. Of these admissions (and there are a fair number of them), the following—a rewrite of something Harold Bloom once said about his experience with Blake's illuminated books—is likely the most heartfelt in its formulation: "I stare, disbelievingly, at the mystifying poetry and pictures it claims to account for, and then I try, too strenuously, to wind the golden string of the criticism into the heart of the illuminated books. I understand the criticism at least well enough to lipsync it, but I know I do not understand the poems and pictures . . . yet? The light of promise flickers in the darkness."[25] Most recently, as editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Blake, you station this "difficult Blake" (your moniker for the Blake of the later prophecies) at the front door of the volume—not as a Cerberus to frighten the uninitiated away but as a welcoming figure to beckon them in. It is a testament to your powers as a scholar and writer that you succeed in making the invitation so attractive. As if in answer to the question Bob poses in his contribution inside—Is Jerusalem unreadable?—you write in the introduction: "The aim, in the long run, is to keep faith with Blake's fundamental unreadability."[26] As a precept, it's cogent, even beguiling. But talk a little bit, if you would, about what it means to translate the precept into critical practice. "Keeping faith with Blake's fundamental unreadability" recommends what sort of role for the critic?

ME: "Keeping faith with Blake's impossibility" may just be my pretentious way of saying that I think it's healthiest to fully acknowledge Blake's difficulty than to pretend otherwise. "Fully acknowledge": acknowledge that it's not average difficulty but difficulty degree zero. I think we have to avoid falling into a routine either of using the difficulty as a club to beat an "unreadable" Blake with, or of denying the difficulty by making confident assertions about the supposed meanings of the work, about political and social attitudes and opinions, biographical data, and so on that can't be better supported than most of them have been.

In the late 1950s and 60s, in the wake of Frye's and Erdman's books and the explosion of scholarly and critical interest in Blake, it was tempting to see Blake's work as a public works project, a critical problem that might be solved by critical labor that would build brick by brick on a firm foundation carefully laid and protected by the community of concerned scholars from careless misinterpretation. This temporary phenomenon probably helped give rise to the illusion of the "Blake Mafia" and "Blake Industry" that Tom Mitchell and I mention in the 1982 statements.

So what does a reader get out of Blake, then? It's hard to put your finger on, but I think it's close to the experience Bob described in his 1982 remarks: the "reader participation demanded by . . . 'open' structures'" in which "the structure for the text is but the cue for an event wherein the reader realizes that the text is only one moment in a continuum of which he is himself a part" (398). This is true to some extent of all texts, I'm sure, but it's so extravagantly true for Blake that it becomes a signature of his work. But readers (a thin term for people in this position) faced with such unusual demands, and finding that even their best reading skills aren't working with the usual result, cope with their anxieties in various ways. They may claim that Blake is fully comprehensible after all. This was often said in defense of Blake by Frye and then by others, though it's also true, I think, that Frye's occasional late interpretations of Blake became awfully formulaic. Or they may say that Blake is insane, hence unreadable, and doesn't deserve the attention he gets; that a careful look at the political or social contexts reveals that he is, after all, in a readable tradition (that happens to be a lot more readable than he is). Or they may say that he's really a poet but not an artist or really an artist but not a poet, thus limiting the information they feel compelled to tackle.

But my own experience jibes with Hazard Adams's: "It is always interesting to observe," he wrote in 1982, "what is simply skipped over in commentaries on the prophecies" (400). And, as for the "hope of a language being developed that will deal more successfully with Blake," he concludes, "I am not sure most of us know how to formulate the problem or even what it is" (401). Then, curiously but I would contend symptomatically, a page later he is saying that "In the end, though, there is a message or there are messages in Blake, and Blake scholarship and criticism ought to be involved in making these messages available to a needy world" (402). Similarly, Blake himself issues lots of promises to readers to the effect that what he's saying is crucial and that if only they'll follow his illuminated golden string through the darkness they'll end up in heaven's gate built in Jerusalem's wall. But if anyone has been able to follow that string I don't know it.

Two caveats: I don't mean to say that Blake is unreadable. He's eminently readable—just impossible to understand past a certain point. And I don't mean to say that scholarship and criticism have been ineffective in revealing the outlines or in filling in countless helpful details. I mean that the level of meaning that Blake allows, as far as I can tell, cannot be expected to support those important messages that Hazard mentioned, and that Blake certainly seems to claim he's delivering. But, as Hazard's comment shows, trying to make sense of Blake's work, stressful as it is, doesn't necessarily lead to despair. What Blake is, is thrilling to read. And the intensely participatory reading experience that Bob describes is what keeps the thrill alive. Together, that experience of reading on a high wire combined with the promise of rescuing a major artist from obscurity and oblivion have provided the impetus to keep readers reading and lookers looking ever since that group of Victorians showed how to make Blake audible and visible.

Finally, I would never deny the possibility that the impossible dream may someday become possible after all.


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