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Victor N. Paananen, William Blake. Updated Edition. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996. ISBN: 0-8057-7053-4. Price: £17.50 ($32.00)

  • David M. Baulch

…plus d’informations

  • David M. Baulch
    University of Washington

Corps de l’article

Among English authors there are probably few figures who present as many potential difficulties for an introductory volume as does William Blake. The breadth of Blake's talents as engraver, designer, printer, painter, and poet, as well as the notorious difficulty of his "system" and the composite nature of his illuminated books all conspire to make it tough to discuss Blake as simply or primarily a literary figure. Add to these difficulties intrinsic to the study of Blake's work itself, the vast, diverse, and conflicting contemporary critical approaches to it and the dimensions of the problem begin to assume their proper proportions. All these difficulties ensure a certain number of shortcomings and dissatisfactions with Victor Paananen's update of his William Blake in the Twayne's English Authors Series.

The strength of Paananen's update of his book, first published in 1977 (but whose initial draft was completed in 1972), is that it brings his analysis out of the so-called "golden age" of Blake studies by adding a Marxist dimension to its earlier focus on Blake's Christian vision. Concentrating on the dialectical character of Blake's thought, the readings of his works emphasize their critique of the social-material basis of culture. Thus, Paananen's book offers a scholarly, if narrowly-based, introduction to the study of Blake. William Blake gives a first-time reader of Blake a clear approach to his works; one that is, from a critical point of view at least, an improvement on the old recipe of sympathetic and enthusiastic identification with the search for spiritual truth-through-Blake.  [1] Paananen's new Marxist emphasis presents a Blake much more in touch with the material realities of the world, a Blake whose poetic vision is less an endlessly baffling elaboration of characters/symbols and geographical/mental regions, than it is an attack on the ideology machine of church and state, decoding their efforts to control the material and spiritual shape of lived experience. To this extent, the update also better serves the purpose of introducing readers to a Blake with whom they can find a more direct connection than did the first edition of William Blake . Still, the limited theoretical scope of William Blake 's approach is also the revised work's greatest shortcoming in that it does little to give a reader an accurate idea of the shape of contemporary Blake studies.

The updated preface and bibliography indicate WilliamBlake 's theoretical orientation and expose the gaps in the scholarship which informs it. After three pages in justification of his approach as reflecting the "Marxist turn" in Blake studies (ix), Paananen undermines his own point with the odd claim that "[d]espite my concern with explaining aspects within both Christian and Marxist thought, I do not feel that a book in this series should primarily argue a thesis" (xii). Despite this disclaimer, the book does argue for the significance, to the virtual exclusion of any other, of a Marxist approach. Beyond this, the "Marxist turn" Paananen sees in Blake studies, while an important and vital approach to the subject, seems more a result of his failure to fully inform himself on the shape of contemporary Blake criticism. The studies Paananen cites as evidence for the Marxist Blake, while fine scholarly studies, are all sufficiently dated as to suggest that more or less direct comparisons of Blake and Marx are not the central focus of the most recent scholarship.  [2] He claims his approach is both confirmed and inspired by the appearance of E. P. Thompson's "Witness against the Beast:" William Blake and the Moral Law (1993). The reason for Witness ' importance seems to rest with it being "written from the point of view of one of the world's most respected Marxists" (xi), while noting in his bibliography the work's "disappointing feature is that Thompson...does not develop comparisons between Blake and Marx as thinkers" (180). I would suggest that, rather than a limitation of Thompson's book, it is instead the limitations of the explanatory power of direct comparisons between Blake and Marx that has led Blake criticism in different directions.

This failure to acknowledge, incorporate, or even supply bibliographical entries for some key studies representative of the most currently productive directions in Blake criticism is the updated William Blake 's greatest shortcoming. Among the most startling omissions is any reference to recent influential studies emphasizing the importance of Blake's poetry within the context of an artistic process and the cultural conditions that shaped its appearance. Most prominent among these studies are Robert Essick's William Blake, Printmaker (1980), Morris Eaves' The Counter Arts Conspiracy (1992), and Joseph Viscomi's Blake and the Idea of the Book (1993). Essick, Eaves, and Viscomi have also made their mark on both the Princeton/Blake Trust facsimiles and the on-line Blake archive. The omission of these writers and this particularly influential direction in Blake studies, not to mention that of any of the numerous, sophisticated studies of Blake's language or attempts to examine Blake in terms of poststructuralist thought, marks a serious limitation to the scholarship informing Paananen's update.

The limitations of William Blake 's scholarship are apparent in its approach to Blake's works. In making the distinction between the illuminated works and those in conventional printing, Paananen does little to suggest either the nature or the importance of the illuminated books as representative of a composite art. Paananen states that the non-verbal aspect of Blake's works "either illustrates the text or otherwise compliments it" (17). Not only are the illuminated books more highly ornamented than Blake's few early works in conventional printing and his manuscript poems, but they necessitate an interdisciplinary approach in order to account the dual nature of these works as both visual art and poetry. William Blake neglects a large body of scholarship on the complex intertextual relationships of word and image in the illuminated books.

William Blake begins with a short biography of the artist, one very little changed from the first edition. While performing the necessary function of giving a reader some idea of the shape of Blake's life, it follows in the unfortunate tradition of Blake biographies by presenting him as a purely autonomous visionary artist, insisting "[t]he source of Blake's art was never to be the external world or the models provided by the work of others; instead, his source was always to be his own vision" (4). It is well known that Blake's art was quite alive to the influence of the external world both in terms of the thought that informs his visionary work and the form the visions take within the work.  [3] In this instance, I don't think the sentimental tone of this brief biography is so much a limitation unique to William Blake itself, as it is indicative of the generally unsatisfactory state of Blake biographies in their common dependence on Alexander Gilchrist's Life of William Blake .  [4] Perhaps the best view of Blake's life is afforded by G.E. Bentley Jr.'s Blake Records, since it does not aspire to construct a narrative about Blake from a single or consistent point of view, rather it simply presents the extant views of Blake from his own age.  [5]

William Blake proceeds by chapter through Blake's poetic works starting with The Book of Urizen , Poetical Sketches , The Marriage of Heaven and Hell . The French Revolution and America , Visions of the Daughters of Albion , Songs of Innocence and of Experience , The Four Zoas , Manuscript Poems, Milton , and Jerusalem . Frustratingly, Paananen quotes from The Complete Writings of William Blake edited by Geoffrey Keynes in 1966, an edition long since superseded by G. E. Bentley Jr's William Blake's Writings in 1978, and, by far the most popular serious edition of Blake's work, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake edited by David Erdman, mostly recently revised in 1982. Paananen's choice not to update his citations renders the book considerably less useful than it might have been otherwise.

One of the most interesting features of Paananen's approach to the Blake canon is that it situates The Book of Urizen rather than The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as the best introduction to Blake's works:

Even though The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c. 1793) is of particular value to anyone beginning the study of William Blake, it is perhaps unfortunate that this work has come to serve as almost the only one of Blake's, other than a few of his lyrics, that some students ever see. The work is hardly a characteristic production, as it is written largely in prose and contains only minimal poetry, and it is not mythic except in the appended "Song of Liberty" portion.


Paananen concludes of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that "the form and the content of The Marriage bear too many signs of an occasional work that depends on a parody of the opponent's methods to make debater's points" (56). This view of The Marriage is generated by paying too much attention to the Blake/Swedenborg relationship at the expense of a serious consideration of The Marriage 's treatment of the intrinsic relationship between the process of Blake's thought and his material methods of producing the illuminated books.

The analysis of The Book of Urizen as an attack upon empiricism and an exposition of the Blakean imagination is set up by way of a brief consideration of the tractates All Religions Are One and There is No Natural Religion . From these short didactic prose works, which are, in both spirit and form, precursors of The Marriage , Paananen deduces the essential tenets of the humanist vision he finds common to Blake, Marx, and Lenin. The treatment of There is No Natural Religion errs by reading the work as the total of the known plates from which Blake printed, rather than considering the work as an arrangement of the plates that he issued as an actual version of this work. Paananen chooses The Book of Urizen as "[t]he best work to introduce the reader to Blake's mythic figures and narrative method" because of its focus on "the limits we place on perception in our acceptance of the natural world" (24). This choice makes a good deal of sense in comparison to the all too common strategy of introducing readers to Blake through the deceptively difficult Songs of Innocence and of Experience as a basic statement of Blake's principles. The Book of Urizen becomes a key to "the outlines of Blake's mythic system" (38) and thus allows for the claim that it, like Blake's other minor prophecies, has "the same themes as the epics Blake later wrote" (40). This position minimizes the considerable development of these themes in the later works, and it fails to consider Blake's radical experiments in narrative form in these later works.

One can only wonder why the treatment of The Book of Urizen is followed by a brief chapter on Poetical Sketches which reaches the disappointing conclusion that "[p]erhaps we are wisest...to concentrate upon his [Blake's] adult productions" (46). Equally perplexing is the relatively large amount of attention Paananen gives to The French Revolution , a work known only through Joseph Johnson's proof sheets. While the chapter is supposedly on "The French Revolution and America ," its last page simply comments that America , "needs less commentary than The French Revolution because it is a less difficult work" (66). America , regardless of its supposed "difficulty," merits careful attention as the first of what critics now call Blake's "continental prophecies." Unfortunately, William Blake barely mentions these works in passing.

In his treatment of Songs of Innocence and of Experience , Paananen flatly rejects any potentially ironic readings of Innocence : "[a]ttempts by critics to make the Songs of Innocence ironic, to suggest that Blake undercuts or even mocks the perspective and language of innocence, are based on an inadequate grasp of Blake's thought"(72). Paananen paraphrases Stanley Gardner's argument in support of an exclusively innocent reading of Innocence , claiming "that at the time that these songs were written Blake shared the hope that childhood innocence was being protected and nurtured in the reformed charity school in the Parish of St. James" (73). In discounting the potential for irony to emerge in Songs of Innocence, especially when it is placed into a shared context with Songs of Experience would suggest that Blake's vision of the work is inflexibly bound to the supposed circumstances of its creation. Paananen insists that we take even one of the most obvious opportunities for an ironic reading of Innocence at face value, claiming of "Holy Thursday" that "[a] sight such as is presented in this poem seems to justify the pious conclusion 'cherish pity lest you drive an angle from your door'" (75). To read this line as advocating pity would go against all the negative connotations it carries in every other instance in which Blake employs it—excepting, of course, "The Divine Image". The visual dimension offered by the "Holy Thursday" of Innocence can easily be seen as supporting the argument for an ironic position. The stiff, dehumanized, ornamental wrought iron look of the design suggests the purely formal and institutional nature of the pity expressed in the poem. The design encourages a reader to see the Ascension Day event at St. Paul's as a moment of aesthetic satisfaction for the speaker of the poem. This is a satisfaction that does not allow the speaker to discern the individuality and the personal suffering of the children which compose the spectacle. To read the Songs of Innocence as having potentially ironic elements is not to deny the importance of innocence to Blake's artistic vision, it is merely to acknowledge the limitation of that state and the necessity to pass beyond it.

The discussions of Blake's longer, more complex works are predictably less useful than the treatment of the shorter works. The Four Zoas , Milton , and Jerusalem are probably impossible to present in a simplified form which doesn't grossly distort the richness of these texts in their seeming or actual chaos. Paananen situates The Four Zoas as the great achievement of Blake's mythic vision, calling it the poem which "comes closest to being the Romantic epic that every Romantic poet wanted to write. Blake's Milton and his Jerusalem lack this particular kind of success because of their concern with specific theological, even 'doctrinal,' issues" (90). This high praise for The Four Zoas runs a serious risk of universalizing the importance of this work. The Four Zoas does have an extremely significant place in Blake's canon because of its tangle of revisions over many years and the possibility that these reflect changing and ultimately irreconcilable intentions on Blake's part. The Four Zoas may well be "the flowering of the germ of an epic that is in The Book of Urizen " (90), but, in view of the later and more fully realized epics, The Four Zoas seems more like a workshop of ideas and techniques than Blake's ultimate poetic expression. The Four Zoas is where Blake recasts and begins to redirect his prophetic vision in the new directions realized in Milton and Jerusalem . Despite Milton 's and Jerusalem 's possibly more "'doctrinal'" focus, they offer radical experiments in narrative that don't yield to the kind of linear plot summarization upon which William Blake depends.

Paananen's readings of Milton and Jerusalem tend to rest upon explicit and implicit comparisons to what is perceived as the coherency of The Four Zoas . For example, in the discussion of Milton it is simply noted that there suddenly exists in "Book the Second" "a systemization of levels of vision not found elsewhere in Blake" without any inquiry as to what such a strange occurrence might suggest for understanding the work on its own terms, rather than by comparison to the structure of visionary states as presented in other works (136). The chapter on Jerusalem , in its attempts to offer the kind of plot summary which might prove superficially relevant when looking at The Four Zoas , is probably more misleading than it is useful.

Among the conclusions William Blake offers is that, "[w]e must learn to trust the intuition of the Songs of Innocence that humanity belongs to a better world than this one" (162), and that "[p]olitical revolutions, like those in France and America, reveal that the human mind is expanding toward the freedom of Eternity" (163) seem both naive and sentimental to a point that distorts the dynamic changes that took place in Blake's thinking in later years. Innocence is wonderful, but, as The Book of Thel so powerfully demonstrates, if it is not left behind when appropriate one never realizes a spiritual or intellectual maturity. To highlight in Blake a fervor for political revolution is to ignore much of his ambivalent treatment of revolution after the early 1790's when actual political revolution is only pure for a moment before it simply becomes another iteration of an eternal cycle of oppression. To say that this cycle of oppression is broken by "Blake's determination to reconcile subject and object before setting out on the revolutionary path" (163) again distorts the issue as it appears in Blake's later works. In both Milton and Jerusalem what Paananen sees as the "reconciliation of subject and object" is the only revolution that we can expect from Blake. While the scope of this moment may aim at universal significance, the insights it yields never permanently efface the fallen world from which they came.

Unfortunately, what Paananen's updated William Blake gains in usefully bringing a Marxist perspective to an introduction to Blake's work, it more than loses by not adequately taking into account the considerable interdisciplinary depth present in many contemporary studies of Blake. In keeping with the Twayne series, Paananen attempts to cover Blake's major works, an introduction to Blake might benefit, however, from more modest aims, so that it need no be burdened with trying to address The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem in less than fifty pages.

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