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About this book

Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794) is William Blake's best-known work, containing such familiar poems as 'London', 'Sick Rose' and 'The Tyger'. Evolving over the author's lifetime, the collection was printed by Blake himself on his own press.

This Reader's Guide:

• explains the unique development of Songs as an illuminated book
• considers the earliest reactions to the text during Blake's lifetime, and his gathering posthumous reputation in the nineteenth century
• explores modern critical approaches and recent debates
• discusses key topics that have been of abiding interest to critics, including the relationship between text and image in Blake's 'composite art'.

Insightful and stimulating, this introductory guide is an invaluable resource for anyone who is seeking to navigate their way through the mass of criticism surrounding Blake's most widely-studied work.

Table of Contents

Introduction. ‘Piping down the valleys wild’

Abstract
‘Piping down the valleys wild’ William Blake (1757–1827) began his own ‘Introduction’, the first poem of what remains the poet, artist and engraver’s best-known work. Perhaps with the exception of the lyric that has become the hymn ‘Jerusalem’, all Blake’s most familiar poems, including ‘London’, ‘The Sick Rose’, and ‘The Tyger’, are included in Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794). Like many collections, Blake’s evolved over the course of his lifetime, but in ways very different from most other gatherings of poetry. Innocence (1789) had a few years of existence on its own, before being joined by Experience (1794), but the real distinction of Songs is that it was printed by Blake himself on his own press in the form of an illuminated book. Early responses to the poems tended be based on an encounter with the ‘composite art’ (a phrase that entered Blake criticism relatively early), but an irony of the wider dissemination of the poems from the mid- to later nineteenth century was that it required more traditional forms of typography and the sundering of the verbal and the visual. So Blake’s songs have been mainly encountered in the classroom separated from the visual aspects of Songs of Innocence and of Experience as published by their author. This situation has changed of late with the internet Blake Archive (discussed at length in Chapter 7) making the illuminated books available to the reader in something like their full glory, but the issue of teaching Songs with access to their original form remains a vexed one.
Sarah Haggarty, Jon Mee, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter One. Producing Songs: ‘In a Book that All May Read’

Abstract
Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794) is a book of two halves. Its first edition brings together an earlier illuminated book of1789, Songs of Innocence, with Songs of Experience, first issued as a discrete illuminated volume in 1794, slightly earlier in the year than the joint Songs. Two halves, then, or perhaps two wholes — for as we shall see, in the course of the next three or so decades Blake continued to issue copies of Innocence and Experience separately as well as together. Likewise some readers — for there were readers, even within Blake’s lifetime — read one and not the other, and those who owned both Innocence and Experience could and did have them bound together, or have the combined Songs separated. Readers, including William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Hazlitt, could encounter Blake’s poems and designs in other ways too, as we discuss in Chapter 2, and here our arithmetic of halves and wholes breaks down: individual lyrics or groups of lyrics from Songs were hived off, copied out by hand and circulated, excerpted and published in reviews and miscellanies, even sung and heard. Here we see Blake’s illuminated book, a distinct, etched, hand-printed, and often hand-coloured artefact, turned to a variety of forms and uses. That said, a degree of adaptability is written into Songs of Innocence and of Experience itself, a collection of poems whose ordering in particular Blake was liable to change. Over the years from 1789 to 1827, working with his wife Catherine, he assembled some 25 copies of Songs of Innocence, 13 of Songs of Experience (pairing some together), and 16 copies of the joint Songs.1 In the majority of copies, the order of poems varies, and as time went on some poems even migrated from one book to the other.
Sarah Haggarty, Jon Mee, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Two. Blake’s Contemporaries on Songs: Simplicity, Madness, Genius, and Swedenborgianism

Abstract
The individuals whose reactions to Blake we consider in this chapter were writing before any editions of his poetry besides his own illuminated books were available. This is therefore a story of partial, if sometimes remarkably acute, interpretations, of snatched poringsover borrowed books, of preconceived ideas about genius, and madness, articulated. There is no agreed script. Benjamin Heath Malkin launched a nuanced critique of Songs’ simplicity in A Father’s Memoirs of His Child (1806) but made his mark primarily by bequeathing accessible transcriptions of some of Blake’s texts to his readers, to do with, what they would. Henry Crabb Robinson transmuted Blake’s apparent madness into a form of Romantic genius in an 1811 essay for the magazine Vaterländisches Museum, but his efforts, which were to be replicated to some degree by anti-materialist commentators in the early nineteenth century, were felt mainly more diffusely, as writers such as William Hazlitt, William Wordsworth, and Charles Lamb responded in their own ways, usually in private correspondence, to those parts of the Songs’ poetry he made available to them. An important line of mystical commentary, sympathetic to the truth-claims of Blake’s visions, was set in train in by Charles Augustus Tulk, a disciple of the unorthodox theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, who lent Samuel Taylor Coleridge his own copy of Songs in 1818 and who may have authored the blazing defence of Blake’s myth-making imagination in the London University Magazine in 1830 (touched on in Chapter 3). Tulk was to hand the Swedenborgian baton to James John Garth Wilkinson, with whose early Victorian edition of Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1839) we end the next chapter.
Sarah Haggarty, Jon Mee, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Three. Reviving Blake in the 1820s and 1830s: Obituaries, Biographies, and the First New Editions

Abstract
‘The words of a dead man, | Are modified in the guts of the living,’ W. H. Auden: and it was on Sunday 12 August 1827 — prompted proleptically by fond negligence such as Charles Lamb’s — that Blake, like Auden’s Yeats, ‘became his admirers’ (Auden 1969, 141). Blake had been ill with shivering fits and ‘a cold in [his] stomach’ intermittently since 1825 (E777, 75; SP 434–4). But he had kept on working until his last days, primarily on visual art such as his designs inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. In April 1827 Blake had been commissioned by Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794–1847), artist, art critic and, later, reputed poisoner, to print what would be for him the final copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, a particularly opulent edition coloured richly in watercolour and liquified gold (E784; Viscomi 1993, 352–3, 365).
Sarah Haggarty, Jon Mee, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Four. Enshrining Blake in the 1860s and 1870s: Pre-Raphaelitism, Aestheticism, and Counter-Attack

Abstract
In this chapter we witness the explosion of interest in Blake in the mid-Victorian period, and consider two of its crowning critical achievements at length. First, the two-volume Life of William Blake: ‘Pictor Ignotus’ published in 1863. Largely written by Alexander Gilchrist, and augmented after his death in 1861 by his wife Anne, and Dante Gabriel and William Michael Rossetti, the Life of William Blake is perhaps the most decisive positive intervention in the reception history of Songs of Innocence and Experience there has ever been. Combining biography with a selection from Blake’s writings — and privileging Blake’s Songs and his euphonic designs for the Biblical Book of Job (1821, 1823–6) over all his other work — the Life has consistently been hailed as seminal, landmark, monumental. The second key publication we discuss is Algernon Charles Swinburne’s William Blake: A Critical Essay (1868). This is not a biography or textual edition but a critical monograph — a poem of praise in prose. As well as vindicating the ‘prophetic books’ from their alleged obscurity, Swinburne presents Songs as party to Blake’s deliberate and quite sane rebellion against the moral law.
Sarah Haggarty, Jon Mee, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Five. Blake and the Moderns: Symbolism and Scholarship

Abstract
For John Todhunter (1839–1916), lecturing on Songs of Innocence and of Experience to the female students of Dublin’s Alexandra College in the early 1870s, William Blake, by virtue of his social and political utopianism, was emphatically ‘a modern’. ‘But unlike many of our modern men,’ thinks Todhunter, ‘the genius of Blake led him not in the direction of rationalism and materialism, but in that of spiritualism and mysticism’ (Todhunter 1874, 14). Todhunter, a playwright and poet, uses the word ‘modern’ not to mean ‘contemporary’, but ‘to describe Blake’s avant garde qualities’ (Fletcher 1974, 6). Far from being a coterie poet, Blake, ‘quite a new discovery even for literary men’, is for Todhunter a prophet of ‘the universal brotherhood of democracy’. The endeavour of Todhunter’s lectures is to make Blake’s poetry accessible, immediate. He refers to Gilchrist’s Life, but also recommends a separate edition of Songs (probably R. H. Shepherd’s; see below) which may be had ‘for a few shillings’ (Todhunter 1872, 7). In all, Todhunter shows ‘a discriminating enthusiasm at a moment when Blake’s reputation was still equivocal’ (Fletcher 1974, 5).
Sarah Haggarty, Jon Mee, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Six. The Post-War Foundations: System, Myth, and History

Abstract
Damon’s Philosophy and Symbols was a major turning point in Blake criticism. At a time when English Literature was establishing itself fully as a subject in Anglo-American universities, the book offered Blake’s poetry as a corpus that merited serious academic study. Damon’s account of Blake’s work as a coherent structure may have foregrounded his mysticism, but it also provided a sense of a complex philosophical system, not easily dismissed as insane ramblings. This systemic approach proved very influential on post-war criticism, most notably Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry (1947), a book that remains a key text on any reading list for Songs. The other major development was the emergence of a historical school of criticism, concerned especially with placing Blake in the context of the reaction to the French Revolution. For this tradition, most obviously represented early on by Jacob Bronowski, Mark Schorer, and later David V. Erdman, historicising Blake was part of a political programme that was as enthused by the continuing visionary potentiality found in the poetry as by its relation to Blake’s lifetime. In terms of the Songs, this critical tradition was obviously drawn to the social criticism apparent in a poem like ‘London’, but also to the utopian possibilities of ‘Innocence’. Although there was a great deal of communication between the two traditions, the idea of Blake as a political poet was distinct from Frye’s emphasis on the human imagination and, especially, Harold Bloom’s account of Blake as part of a visionary company for whom apocalypse within the individual consciousness was the primary site of romantic revelation.
Sarah Haggarty, Jon Mee, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Seven. Freedom and Repression in the 1960s and 1970s: Form, Ideology, and Gender

Abstract
With the publication of major books by Frye and Erdman, the 1940s and 1950s had witnessed two of the enduring keystones of Blake criticism being put into place. Little written on Blake in the decades that followed did not orient itself in relation to these two monumental achievements in one way or another, but neither Erdman nor Frye had gone far into the minute particularities of Songs. Frye’s systemic approach tended towards elaboration of the mythology of the later prophecies, which provided the retrospective lens through which he saw the earlier collection. Erdman’s historical approach seemed most comfortable when matching Blake’s epic scale against the events of his time. With literary criticism beginning to develop seriously as a postwar academic subject, formal or close analysis of individual poems increasingly came to define its remit. This encouraged the analysis of the lyrics in Songs, and produced some wonderfully nuanced critical work by a host of scholars, attentive not just to the textual interplay that sustained individual poems, but also to the way these echoed between poems and across the collection. The first section here discusses the development of formal analyses of the poems, particularly in the work of the American scholar Robert F. Gleckner, noting its affiliation to Frye’s idea of the ‘human imagination’ as the ultimate meaning of Blake’s texts.
Sarah Haggarty, Jon Mee, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Eight. Blake’s Composite Art in the 1980s and 1990s: Textuality and the Materiality of the Book

Abstract
This chapter examines a sea change in Blake criticism that saw an intensifying move away from reading in terms of a Blakean system primarily identified with the mythos of the prophetic books. In the 1970s, literary criticism in the Anglo-American world started to be influenced by what became known as ‘deconstruction’, the critical movement associated with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and the Belgian literary critic Paul de Man, who wrote from within the American academy. Whereas earlier critical trends had tended to understand poetry as an iconic whole, deconstruction placed the emphasis on the play of the signifier, the way the text generated a network of traces that could never be stabilised into something as definite as ‘meaning’. Although this tendency, more generally, was not usually interested to recover any stable intention in the text, certainly not as its meaning as such, deconstructive responses to Blake were rather different, not least because they often understood the illuminated books to be actively encouraging an open-ended engagement with the text in Blake’s reader. So Paul de Man reportedly took the view that ‘Blake’s privileging of writing makes him less interesting to deconstruction, because it makes his work less resistant to its strategies’ (quoted in Mitchell 1986, 91). In one way, deconstructive criticism’s emphasis on Blake’s textuality meshed with and deepened the thematic interest in play found in more traditional critics like Glen and Leader, discussed in the previous chapter.
Sarah Haggarty, Jon Mee, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Nine. Worlding Blake Today: ‘Past, Present and Future Sees’

Abstract
There is by now an incredibly rich diversity of criticism discussing Blake’s Songs. This chapter attempts to say something about the most striking recent developments, but these continue to multiply in ways that are scarcely predictable, changing and reconfiguring our understanding of what remains Blake’s best-known work. The first part of the chapter returns to some of the gender issues discussed in Chapter 7. The feminist interventions of the 1970s and 1980s have influenced approaches that are now a central part of Blake criticism, encouraged by the way the texts seem to challenge crude binaries, but also at times get tangled in their own attempts to think a way beyond fixed identities. Gender studies of Blake have often taken an historical approach since the 1990s, locating Blake in relation to debates in his time about the emancipation of women (Bruder 1997), homosexuality (Hobson 2000), or eighteenth-century medical discourses surrounding the body (Connolly 2002). Much of this work revisits the issue of embodiment, which Bloom and earlier critics were so confident that Blake wished to transcend. Now criticism is much more likely to explore the consequences of a perception that ‘for Blake the ideal human is not a disembodied spirit’, but with a sense of the complexities involved (Connolly 2002, xv). As Connolly herself persuasively argues, Blake ‘at once reviles and glorifies the human body’ (vii).
Sarah Haggarty, Jon Mee, Nicolas Tredell
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