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The Cambridge Companion to William Blake, ed. Morris Eaves

Tuesday, July 28, 2009 - 06:40
The Cambridge Companion to William Blake, ed. Morris Eaves. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 2003. 326 pp. ISBN-10: 0521781477(Hdbk)/0521786770(Ppbk), $90.00/$27.99

Reviewed by
R. Paul Yoder
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Each volume in the Cambridge Companion series provides a sort of snapshot of the state of the art concerning its given subject at the time of its publication, and this is certainly the case with the Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Morris Eaves has put together an excellent collection of overview essays on Blake’s contexts and works. After Eaves’ Introduction, the book is divided unevenly into two parts: “Perspectives” and “Blake’s Works.” All essays in both parts include endnotes and suggestions for further reading. The point of the essays is not so much to make new arguments as to synthesize the body of critical knowledge into a useful companionable form, and in this the volume succeeds quite well. The only glaring omission from the collection is a discussion of Blake and gender, a difficult issue for which a summary essay, if not a true synthesis, would be especially useful.

Eaves’s Introduction establishes the metaphor of a journey of exploration for reading Blake. Eaves readily acknowledges the difficulty of Blake’s work and the strangeness of what passes for “meaning” there: “The basic strategy behind this Cambridge Companion is to respond to the difficulties with a variety of critical and historical explanations from several perspectives which seem to offer the most hope of catching Blake in the act of meaning something we can understand” (1). He juxtaposes the “simplifications” often used to make Blake more accessible to the “complications” that must be recognized to enter more fully into Blake’s world and work. Eaves asserts that Blake was “fundamentally resistant” to the “specialization” that underlies the social routines of “rationalization, scientific thinking, professionalization, industrialization, commercialization, institutionalization, modernization” (7). Perhaps Eaves’s most suggestive comment is that the “underlying problem of recognition is at the heart of Blake’s difficulties then [in his own time] and for us now” (9). That is, Blake’s readers in his own time could not quite determine just what he was about, and in our time, readers may not recognize the social context or traditions of thought in which he worked. Moreover, the problem of recognition is also thematic for Blake, for as Eaves puts it, “Blake’s epic plots depict a complex process of masking and subsequent confusion and misery, followed by equally complex unmasking, the identification of negations posing as metaphors, and the restoration of the true (original) links of identification” (11).

The “Perspectives” section of the collection provides a good introduction to Blake and to Blake studies. Aileen Ward’s “factual narrative” (35) seeks to “disentangl[e] as much as possible” Blake’s life from the legend (19). Nevertheless, she is selective about which facts and which legends. She recounts the illiteracy of Blake’s wife and the story of how Blake’s dead brother, Robert, revealed to him the idea of illuminated printing. She mentions the “unconscious homosexuality” of Blake’s patron William Hayley, but not Hayley’s supposed sexual advances toward Mrs. Blake. Whatever the final status of these gray areas, Ward’s summary of Blake’s life is very good, and her paragraphs on Blake’s ideas concerning the Last Judgment and on his illustrations to Dante, “Blake’s most drastic act of reinterpretation” (33), are excellent.

Joseph Viscomi uses the “Printing House in Hell” from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a guide for describing Blake’s printing process. Drawing from his own earlier work, Viscomi debunks, or at least qualifies, many common misconceptions about Blake’s work. For example, whereas it was once a given that each copy of Blake’s illuminated books was a meticulously unique work of art, Viscomi points out, “Making each impression exactly repeatable ... was not really possible when working by hand with an assistant. While each copy produced was a unique work of art, most impressions printed and colored at the same time do not differ very much ... Making each impression very different would have required more labor and time” (55-6). Viscomi also reminds us that Blake’s illuminated books represent relatively brief and sporadic periods in the artist’s long productive life: the books were “produced as fine ‘limited editions.’ They were not invented to secure financial independence, and they didn’t ... [The books] were mostly underwritten by his commercial work” (60).

In “Blake’s Language in Poetic Form” Susan J. Wolfson questions whether Blake’s poetic practice is as “anti-formalistic” (63) as some of his pronouncements suggest. Her answer is that while Blake tends to avoid most poetic forms as such, he does use the material form of the printed page to add layers of meaning to his texts -- as in the end-of-line hyphenation of “me-tals” in Urizen or the famous “HEAR” acrostic in stanza 3 of “London.” Wolfson’s overall point is that Blake rejected Milton’s notion of blank verse as the verse of liberty, liberating himself so that he was able to exploit the possibilities of, for example, enjambment, a longer line and various types of rhyme. Oddly, on a somewhat different issue, Wolfson makes a good point that the “truncation” of King Edward the Third is a “formal determination, not a sketch left a ‘fragment’” (76), but elsewhere refers to the apparently complete America A Prophecy as a “fragment” (64) without offering any explanation for that assessment.

In “Blake as a Painter” David Bindman divides Blake’s career into 3 sections, “The young history painter, 1779-88,” “From the great color prints to the Butts Bible, 1795-c. 1810” and “Public failure and private success, c. 1809-c. 1820.” Bindman traces Blake’s ambitions to create “history” paintings, intended “to raise the morality and taste of the public through their exposure to paintings of virtuous and heroic conduct from the great ages of mankind” (86), and his influences both artistic and literary. Instead of oils, Blake painted in watercolor and what he incorrectly called “fresco,” and Bindman offers an excellent appreciation of the weaknesses of the latter and Blake’s mastery of the former. Best of all is Bindman’s discussion of how Blake’s illustrations to the works of other writers (Young, Gray, Milton, Dante) and the Bible reveal a “visual language acutely sensitive to artistic as well as literary traditions” (108). “Blake’s designs,” Bindman says, “constitute an active engagement with each text by an artist who never doubted that he was the peer of any author” (85).

In “The Political Aesthetic of Blake’s Images” Saree Makdisi argues that reading Blake is “really an ongoing re-reading” (112) of a given image, text or portion of a text as the reader moves back and forth within a larger “virtual text” comprising not just a single poem or book, but Blake’s entire corpus and the traditions within which he worked (126). Makdisi shows how Blake recontextualizes each repetition or “iteration” of a phrase, image or even an entire book so that it means differently than in other iterations in other contexts. Finally, he argues that “the very way we have learned to read is precisely what prevents us from reading Blake properly” (111). In other words, the chief impediment to reading Blake’s work is the way we have been taught to read, a literary aesthetic that must have political, philosophical and economic implications.

Jon Mee spends much of “Blake’s Politics of History” distinguishing Blake from other republican writers of the day. Mee notes that while Blake was “always a deeply political writer” and saw himself as a “republican artist,” Blake’s republicanism was committed to community or “brotherhood,” and so “may have been opposed to the abstract individualism of emergent nineteenth-century liberalism” (134). Mee cautions that “radical opposition during [Blake’s] lifetime was a heterogeneous matter” and that “not all republicans were in any simple way disciples of Paine” (134). Mee notes, of course, Blake’s attachment to the radicals associated with Joseph Johnson, but he points out that Blake’s “lifelong enthusiasm for visionary experiences and a correlative skepticism about the power of Reason mark an important difference” between Blake and the Johnson circle (138). Indeed, Blake’s involvement with political movements of his day is complicated by Blake’s tendency to “[treat] contemporary politics in terms of biblical precedents” (138).

In “Blake and Religion” Robert Ryan presents a very good summary of Blake’s position in relation to other religious movements of his day, including millenarianism, Deism and Dissenters, and he examines Blake’s attempts to “demythologize” Christianity by “remythologizing” it “in terms of his own tale of the Zoas” (155). Ryan argues that “In a time of intense political agitation [Blake] came to believe that a radical transformation of the nation’s religious consciousness was the first prerequisite to serious political or economic reform” (150). Despite Blake’s perception of the “total corruption of Christianity by what he sometimes called state religion and sometimes natural religion or Deism” (153), Ryan contends that Blake did not reject Christianity per se, but rather Christianity as it had been appropriated and controlled by the government and certain philosophical perspectives. Indeed, Ryan argues that Blake’s understanding of Jesus “is close enough to orthodox doctrine to be called authentically Christian” (161). The essay’s strongest aspect is Ryan’s discussion of the religious implications of Blake’s mythology, in which he says, “Blake came to understand the history of religion as the story, not only of perpetual antagonism between authoritarian dogmatism [Urizen] and radical iconoclasm [Orc], but of a more complex three-way interaction in which the imaginative, prophetic impulse in humanity arbitrates, even cultivates, a continuing conflict between belief and skepticism” (164).

In “Blake and Romanticism,” David Simpson surveys various attempts to define Romanticism, asking how Blake figures in each attempt. He finds that Blake is marginal to almost any definition of Romanticism, with the exception of that proposed by Harold Bloom in which Blake is central. Most theorists of Romanticism, Simpson suggests, were not very interested in Blake, but nevertheless seemed to find that “he cannot be ignored but cannot be quite integrated: the traditions which we need to know to make some sense of [Blake] are not the traditions that have gone into the favored models of Romanticism” (178). Blake finds a better home among “empirical-historical” critics, including David Erdman, E. P. Thompson and Marilyn Butler, who are less interested in defining something called “Romanticism,” but who, Simpson says, take for granted the importance of Blake’s work “to a tradition of radical dissent and political reference” (180).

Because of the spatial restrictions, the four essays in the section “Blake’s Works” feel a bit cramped. Nelson Hilton’s essay surveys Blake’s work from Poetical Sketches through the Songs of Experience, including Thel, Songs of Innocence, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Tiriel and (very briefly) All Religions are One, There is No Natural Religion, and The French Revolution. The discussions of Poetical Sketches and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell account for almost half of the essay, Sketches because it anticipates so many of Blake’s later themes, and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell because “More than perhaps any other of his works, [it] played a central role in the mid-Victorian re-invention of Blake and has benefited ever since from that positioning” (201). Hilton’s emphasis throughout is on Blake’s engagement with language, describing, for example, Songs of Innocence as a “series of vignettes concerning the psyche’s birth into language and protracted journey toward fuller awareness of the world of signs and sense exemplified and conveyed primarily by language” (198). Like Hilton, Andrew Lincoln surveys several texts (America, Europe, The Song of Los, Urizen, Ahania, The Book of Los and The Four Zoas), dividing the discussion into three parts: “Global revolution,” “Origins” and “Vala or The Four Zoas.” The bulk of the discussion focuses on Urizen and the Zoas as the most important works from this period, and Lincoln traces the development of Blake’s inquiry into the global human condition by examining the relationships among Blake’s mythological characters.

Mary Lynn Johnson’s essay on Milton is the most satisfying of the four in this section. Her confrontation with the intricacies and difficulties of Milton is sharply focused and informative as she situates the poem within “what became [Blake’s] Decade of Milton, 1800-1810” (235). In his essay Robert Essick focuses primarily on Jerusalem, offering a good summary of current thinking about the poem’s problematic structure. He then uses that poem as an entry into Blake’s later works, including The Ghost of Abel, Laocoon, “On Homer,” “On Virgil” and the illustrations for Dante, Virgil’s Pastorals and the book of Job.

Alexander Gourlay’s “Guide to Further Reading” offers a very useful list (with some annotation) of editions, biographies, critical introductions and collections, periodicals, bibliographies, concordances and dictionaries for the study of Blake and his works. He calls S. Foster Damon’s Blake Dictionary “an essential tool for Blake scholars at all levels,” but he cautions that beginners “should use it with care”: “Damon is always illuminating, but doesn’t consistently explain how he arrived at his insights” (291). This is good advice, even more applicable to Gourlay’s own “Glossary” in this volume. Two examples make clear the Glossary’s strengths and weaknesses. “Eternity,” Gourlay writes, “for Blake was not simply an infinite amount of time but rather the absence of the illusion of linear time and its sequentiality” (276); this description and the two sentences that follow it comprise a wonderfully concise explanation of one of the most difficult concepts in Blake’s work. On the other hand, Gourlay’s entry on Golgonooza is all too brief and a bit misleading: “The city of Golgonooza is the human body seen from a visionary perspective” (277). In some sense, Gourlay’s statement may be valid, but what then to make of Blake’s own identification of Golgonooza as “the spiritual four-fold London” (Milton 6:1, 20:40), or the fact that “Golgonooza is namd Art & Manufacture by mortal men” (Milton 24:50)?

Taken as a whole, the essays in the Cambridge Companion to William Blake mesh well together. Viscomi’s insight into the variations among copies provides a counter weight to Makdisi’s discussion of Blake’s effort to avoid factory-like repetition. Mee’s distinguishing of Blake from other republicans on religious grounds opens the way for Ryan’s remarks on Blake’s view of the need for radical religious reform in order to effect political reform, just as Ryan’s essay sets the stage for Lincoln’s discussion of Blake’s developing mythology. The emphasis on verbal language of Wolfson and Hilton is complemented by Bindman’s discussion of Blake’s visual language. An emphasis on Blake’s reinterpretation of earlier writers rings through the essays of Ward, Bindman, Johnson and Essick, while Makdisi, Ryan, Hilton and Lincoln consider Blake’s ongoing reinterpretation of his own earlier works. I tend to agree with Mary Lynn Johnson that the best way to read Blake (not just Milton) is to “set aside guidebooks, including this one, take a deep breath, and follow the hero as he breaks through the surface of the title page” (231). But as guidebooks go, this is a good one, and Eaves has put together a collection of essays that suggests the pleasures and rewards of reading Blake without shying away from the difficulties.