Sarah Haggarty. Blake's Gifts: Poetry and the Politics of Exchange

By Rowlinson, Matthew | Studies in Romanticism, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview
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Sarah Haggarty. Blake's Gifts: Poetry and the Politics of Exchange


Rowlinson, Matthew, Studies in Romanticism


Sarah Haggarty. Blake's Gifts: Poetry and the Politics of Exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. 238. $95.00.

The title of Sarah Haggarty's book contains a genitive that could be either subjective or objective; "Blake's gifts" might refer either to gifts Blake gave or to gifts that he received. This ambiguity is entirely appropriate to the topic of the gift as it was theorized by Marcel Mauss, whose work incorporated the Maori idea that "even when it has been abandoned by the giver," the gift "still possesses something of him" (The Gift, trans. W. D. Halls [London, 1990], 12). The gift is possessed by, or possesses, both giver and receiver at once, and is thus understood by Mauss not as a form of property that can be alienated by exchange but rather as the material embodiment of a social relation.

Haggarty's rich and perceptive work takes Mauss's account of the gift as its main theoretical point of reference, together with subsequent developments and critiques of his argument by Pierre Bourdieu, Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrida. The ambiguity of the gift I began by noting registers in Haggarty's treatment of Blake both as a recipient of gifts, for instance of patronage and inspiration, and also as the giver, above all, of his work. This is to my knowledge the first extended reading of gifts and giving as topics in Blake's work and as organizing principles in the processes of its production and circulation. The value of the project is manifest in the quality of the readings Haggarty produces, especially in sections on Milton and Jerusalem. Through attention to these and other key texts, the book provides a particularly thorough accounting of Blake's engagement with Romanticera debates in political economy--on the question of charity and poor relief--and in aesthetics--on the question of whether the work of art is best understood as an inspired gift or as the product of labor. Though original, however, Haggarty's work is by no means sui generis; rather it belongs to one of the most productive recent tendencies in criticism of British Romanticism. Exemplified by Simon Jarvis, David Simpson, and Andrea Henderson, this critical approach studies how writers and the process of literary production in the period were embedded in diverse, historically specific relations of exchange.

Blake made his poems and designs, as Haggarty begins by noting (23), in an economic context where capitalism was not pre-eminent; after the period of his apprenticeship, his labor was always embodied in artifacts and never sold in an abstract form. This, together with the critique of exchange contained in Oothoon's lament from Visions of the Dau2hters of Albion, has led to interpretation of Blake's works focusing on their production rather than on the ways in which they were exchanged. Following Mauss, Haggarty's study is based on the proposition that not all exchange involves commodities, or even equivalents; it begins with an excellent account of Blake's often-difficult relations with his successive patrons and with other readers and viewers of his work. Haggarty argues that in those relations Blake "improvises reciprocity" (82), defining his exchanges with those to whom he addressed his work in ways that seek to reconcile the contradiction between obligation and generosity inherent in the gift without annulling it as such.

In tracing these relations, Haggarty's archive comprises the surviving letters of Blake and his correspondents, the Descriptive Catalogue of 1809, and memoirs by acquaintances like Henry Crabb Robinson. Her book also offers extended readings of Blake's published poems and designs as well as of important passages from his annotations to Joshua Reynolds's Discourses. In these readings, the book demonstrates how pervasive is the question of the gift in Blake's work and in Romantic-era discourse more generally. The critique of charity that Blake sustains throughout his work is reviewed and set in the context of writing on poor relief and on charity by Edmund Burke, Tom Paine, Thomas Malthus, and Edward Copleston, among others.

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