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The Cambridge Companion to William Blake
Morris Eaves, ed.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
£15.95, xix + 302 pages, ISBN 0-521-78677-0 (paperback).
£45.00, xix + 302 pages, ISBN 0-521-78147-7 (hardback).

Joanny Moulin
Université d'Aix-Marseille I


Like other books in the series, this Cambridge Companion is a collection of authorised essays by some twelve eminent Blake scholars. The targeted reader has to be the slightly improbable case of someone who would know next to nothing of William Blake and his poetry and yet would be well educated enough to appreciate such refined and well-written pieces of erudition. But that is because Blake's poetry is preceded by a reputation for difficulty which this critical reading guide is explicitly addressing, in an effort to convince potential readers not to let themselves be deterred. In fact, in his Introduction subtitled "To Paradise the Hard Way," Morris Eaves is actually striving to present Blake's very difficulty as a major incentive to reading his poetry. By so doing, he is almost advertising Blake as a rewarding field for new research, insisting that the eccentricity of this poet has induced various forms of reader resistance, the history of which calls for some synthetic study of the reception of Blake over the last two centuries. Several of the articles then come to confirm this strong impression that Blake studies are calling for some critical advancement. It may be that this book is less obviously fraught than some other Cambridge Companions with a sense that some recent scholarly breakthroughs have just been made on the subject, but it does convey the feeling that they are being built up to.

The first part, entitled "Perspectives," at least as much as the second on "Blake's works," is an exciting rendering of the actual experience of reading or rereading Blake today. It is likely that a greater number of early twenty-first century readers are better prepared to respond more favourably than Blake's contemporary did. And this would probably imply reconsidering the separation of Blake's texts from his pictures, once advocated by Rossetti and enforced as a sort of pragmatic bowdlerisation by the Victorian Blake revival. Aileen Ward's biographical chapter revisits the traditional icon of William Blake, while swerving off hagiography by insisting on the often soft-pedalled unruly aspects of the character. Thus, the young Blake is presented as having "voluntarily joined the front ranks of the crowd that marched on Newgate" in the Gordon Riots of 1780 and, more generally speaking, Blake's radicalism in politics and aesthetics is insisted upon, so that his comparative isolation in the London of his time is finally made to appear as the result and necessary condition of an uncompromising genius, recognised almost exclusively by a small circle of young originals, calling themselves the "Ancients," who leonized the ageing Blake as they would have "one of the antique Patriarchs, or a dying Michael Angelo."

But what is perhaps the most fascinating piece of scholarship in this collection is the article by Joseph Viscomi on "Illuminated printing," explaining with breathtaking evocativeness and profusion of details the fundamental techniques of etching and engraving as well as William Blake's innovative marriage of the two. This essay is illustrated by plates from the Encyclopédie in traditional engraving, black-and-white reproductions of some of Blakes's prints, and photographs of facsimiles of Blake's plates in the making, with a hand holding the pen, needle or burin in the foreground. Quasi-fictional passages offer evocations of William and Catherine Blake at work in their shop, and the Blakes come to life for all too short a while, as we imagine the poetry coming out of the rolling press, one page at a time. And we realise that Blake had invented the hybrid technique of relief etching, a hybrid of intaglio etching and engraving, which enabled him to combine text and picture on the same plate and into a single, quicker printing process. Blake must be envisioned as drawing and writing directly on copper plates cut to size, using as ink a brown asphaltum-based varnish favoured by etchers to "stop-out" the acid from biting the plate. One implication is that, as the printed image mirrors the plate image, Blake actually wrote backwards and did so with excellent dexterity. In a kind of inverted etching process, he then poured the acid for it to bite out the copper left unprotected by the varnish, and he did so twice, a two-stage etch being necessary for text to be "ex-graved" in relief, rather than engraved, but less deeply so than pictures.

Aileen Ward goes on with a wealth of details to explain the processes of printing out and colouring, and this new style of approach does at least as much as complicated textual exegeses to make us deeply understand and love the poetry of William Blake. Susan Wolfson interrogates the very notion of poetic form in a more traditional, close text analysis of some poems. David Bindman assesses Blake's achievement as a painter, showing that he was a life-long adversary of the mimetic school of painting represented by Sir Josuah Reynolds, then President of the Royal Academy. And as a case in point to prove, if need be, that Blake could never bring his practice of visual art down to mere illustration, it is remarked that, for instance, his designs for Edward Young's Night Thoughts were in fact commentaries that "corrected" the texts, by expressing Blake's disagreement with some of the poet's ideas.

Saree Makdisi and John Mee's contributions very efficiently situate Blake's aesthetics and politics on the complex and protean stage of so-called English radicalism in the early nineteen century. Robert Ryan achieves a similar task as far as religion is concerned, by showing how Blake is the spiritual heir and continuator of a long tradition of English dissenters, relayed and echoed in his days by such figures as John Wesley, Edward Priestley or Emmanual Swedenborg by whom he was briefly impressed, before he satirised his theses in The Marriage of Heaven & Hell. David Simpson offers a critical survey of the reception of Blake's works that makes him interestingly appear as a marginal and problematic case in theories of Romanticism, and it may well be that Blake's very marginality in this respect is a token that his work retains a potential for academic research today. The second part of this book focuses more didactically on four periods of Blake's poetic career, with studies by Nelson Hilton on "Blake's early work", by Andrew Lincoln on America and The Four Zoas, by Mary Lynn Johnson on Milton and by Robert Essick on Jerusalem. These will equal and perhaps complement a well-documented annotated edition of Blake's texts. The usefulness of the book is enhanced by Aileen Ward's Chronology of Blake's life and times, as well as by Alexander Gourlay's various contributions of a glossary of terms, names and concepts in Blake, a bibliographical guide to further reading in addition to some indications as to how and where to locate original engravings by Blake in various museums and institutions around the world.

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