Willam Blake: Visions and Verses

By Galvin, Rachel | Humanities, May/June 2004 | Go to article overview
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Willam Blake: Visions and Verses

Galvin, Rachel, Humanities

A chapter in the first biography of Blake, published in 1863, is entitled "Mad or Not Mad." William Wordsworth once wrote that William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience were "undoubtedly the production of insane genius," and yet, "there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott." Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another contemporary, doubted Blake's mental balance, but also called him "a man of Genius."

An etcher, printer, and poet, Blake's tastes ran contrary to the inclinations of his time. While philosophers and writers of the eighteenth century set store by rationalism and science, Blake valued the imagination: "I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create." And whereas a Neo-classical formality and artifice were the reigning aesthetic, Blake looked to the Bible and Milton. Above all, he believed that the poet is a mystic visionary whose inspiration arises from within.

"I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's," he wrote. He prized Shakespeare, Jonson, and Spenser, and collected prints of Durer, Raphael, and Michelangelo-all of whom were unpopular at the time. One of his teachers at the Royal Academy told him to put out of his mind the "old, hard, stiff, and dry unfinished works" of the Italian Renaissance painters.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Wordsworth and Coleridge were recognized for having heralded English Romanticism with their joint work, the 1798 volume Lyrical Ballads-but Blake was overlooked. "Blake was not thought of as a major Romantic poet until after World War II," says Morris Eaves. "He's a kind of modern invention-although now, the most anthologized poem in the English language is 'Tyger Tyger,' which gives some indication of Blake's popularity."

Eaves, a professor at the University of Rochester, is working with Robert Essick of the University of California, Riverside, and Joseph Viscomi of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to change the way Blake is understood, two centuries after his death. Since 1996 the three have been pooling their resources and expertise to create the Blake Archive, a website that provides access to the comprehensive works of William Blake, both literary and visual, many of which are rare, fragile, or difficult to view. The site unites high-resolution images and texts from twenty Blake collections from institutions in England, Australia, and the United States. "There's no one else producing Blake with this fidelity, so that if someone wants to decide about whether a mark is a comma or a period, they can see it for themselves," Viscomi says.

J. Hillis Miller, a professor of English and comparative literature, praises the digital holdings and bibliography. "These, plus the remote borrowing privileges I have from the University of California, give me on my remote island in Maine the equivalent of a major research library of Blake materials, or rather something better than any physical library provides."

New additions to the archive include a colored version of America a Prophecy, printed circa 1807, completing the archive's collection of all extant copies. First published in 1793, the book is a meditation on the American Revolution, blending historical personages such as George Washington and Thomas Paine with Blake's own mythological characters-Urizen, the god of reason and political repression, and Ore, the spirit of energy and revolt. "The fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night; / For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease,'" Blake writes. The newly acquired copy is an oddity, the editors note, because it was printed with no other works at a time when Blake was not engaged in printing illuminated books.

The site allows the user to compare different copies of the same book, and to search all of Blake's work by a single word, character, or image. Graphics may be searched by a descriptive phrase, such as "chimney sweeper," "despair," or a gesture, such as "arm behind back.

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