A Note on Blake's Method

The image on the left is a facsimile reproduction of "THE FLY," from Blake's Songs of Experience. Unless your monitor has an extraordinarily high resolution, or you're sitting much too close to the screen, it's probably unreadable. It does, however, point up one of the most striking aspects of Blake's art: the dynamic relation of word and illustration. Even in this low-resolution image, the viewer's eye is drawn to the interfusion of the two: the trees ramify into forms that here and there meet and extend the marginal illustration, so that we're forced to take in the plate's impression as a whole, and not as a text glossed by illuminations or, what would be even more antithetical to Blake's method, as text and subtext.

Some scholars, W. J. T. Mitchell for one, insist that almost every Blake poem "is a perfectly adequate, self-sustaining text, which does not need the accompanying illustrations to make it a successful work of art." To my mind, the highly valorized formulation "accompanying illustrations" robs Blake's books of their entrancing power: if anything the engravings are the literal ground or medium of the poetry. Without them, the words are unmoored from their decisive materiality, just as the images in isolation, though never merely painterly, are too idiomatic for any confident explication.

It's significant that tropes derived from his engraver's craft figure prominently in Blake's poetry, as though he were associating the locality inhabited by his poetic genius not with the Word, but with plate, aqua fortis, wax, brushes, burin, and press. In a time of television and VRML web pages, it's hard to imagine how much of Blake's achievement was a reaction against the privileged status of the written word. (Even decades later, in one of his late sonnets, Wordsworth would rail against the emerging illustrated broadsheets: "Avaunt this vile abuse of printed page!")

The realization that these are, in fact, "Songs" brings us yet closer to the manifold quality of Blake's method. Indeed, Blake may have set many of the Songs to music and sung them himself. Peter Ackroyd quotes a letter in which Blake reports on one of the conversaziones he attended at the home of the Rev. and Mrs. Mathews (and satirized in "An Island in the Moon"): "After this [the recital of one of the Songs of Innocence] they all fell silent for a quarter of an hour."

It's unlikely, perhaps, that such a company would fall silent for half a minute, much less fifteen at a stretch, but what becomes more evident in the later works, with their almost full-blown synesthesia and historical-epic ambitions, is already emerging in the Songs of Innocence: the restrictions of medium and genre in art and poetry--and the physiological restrictions of our senses themselves--are ever at odds with the will to create and perceive things in the full plenitude of their being. Blake, like other visionaries, didn't doubt that plenitude. And finding that life is a mere subset inscribed within it, as by a Urizenic compass, Blake strove to widen the circle by whatever means were at hand.

The gilt-edged word might be "Gesamtkunstwerk," a German term that conveys the idea of a totalized work of art. But it's particuarly apt here, for as engraver, poet, musician, and mystic, Blake worked with as much innovation, and as successfully, as any English artist to achieve it.

Stanza 1
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