Not for the Kiddies

Article excerpt

Forget about literature. A commercial publisher finds Blake's poems unsuitable for children.

I was recently invited to edit a selection of poems for children by William Blake, the English poet and painter (1757-1827), as one of a series of books in a large format with plenty of room for illustrations. My first thought was that Blake, a professional engraver, had already done that, and had illustrated his poems pretty well by himself, thank you very much, in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, though they were in a rather small format. After looking over several books already published in the series, however (Dickinson, Frost, Poe, Stevenson), I was won over to the project-provided I could include a few of Blake's own illustrations as enticements for children to find the readily available editions of the Songs.

Well, my editor pointed out, the series format is rigid; she would try to persuade her board to allow one Blake original at the end, but was not at all sure she would succeed even at that. The only opening was in the choice for a small black-and-- white picture of the author (perhaps a photograph!) at the end of the introduction; that could be by Blake. And I could say in the introduction that Blake was a professional illustrator and almost always included his designs with his poems, and I could list some books in the bibliography.

I hesitated, loyal Blake purist that I am. Though I have written about Blake's texts without factoring in the designs, I, like most Blake scholars, believe readers should see the composite text with designs as Blake made them. He nearly always engraved the words and the pictures, as well as decorations interwoven through the words, on the same copper plate, and often the pictures are surprising, less like illustrations of the words than metaphorical visual commentary on them. But I gave in. After all, I reasoned, for over a century Blake's designs were difficult and expensive to obtain, while his poetry, set in ordinary type and its spelling normalized, won many readers and admirers. Moreover, I have long felt that some of his designs weren't very good, especially in the Songs. I could do a better "tyger" myself than the stunned ill-proportioned tomcat Blake squeezed into the bottom of the plate bearing his most famous poem. Neil Waldman has painted a properly awesome tyger in his edition of the poem (Harcourt Brace, 1993), and Paul Howard has a good one in Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection, edited by Michael Rosen (Candlewick, 1998). Why shouldn't a new illustrator have a go? Would Blake himself have objected to someone else exercising his or her imagination over his texts? I didn't think so.

I won't deny that the fee was an incentive, too. For not terribly much work, and with the promised help of my eight-- year-old daughter, who has long had Blake's "Tyger" plate hanging in her bedroom and can sing his hymn "Jerusalem" with great flair, I would earn as much as I made on my last Blake book, which took me over a year to write.

So I plunged in. I needed about twenty-five poems to fit the format. After I made about a dozen obvious choices from the Songs, "Jerusalem," and a couple of excerpts from the long works, it began to come home to me how few poems Blake actually wrote that are suitable for children aside from the Songs themselves, and even some of those seemed either too namby-pamby or too difficult. I wondered if anyone had ever actually tested Blake's poems (and designs) on children and published the results. I thought nonetheless that I could meet the quota with a list not entirely predictable but still well representative of Blake's shorter works.

My daughter helped, not by locating poems, since she didn't know Blake well and had other claims on her reading time such as Harry Potter, but by going over the ones I typed up and circling words she did not know, or that "other kids might not know," to guide me in the annotations. …