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By the time Romanticism on the Net was born in 1996, I and my colleagues Bob Essick and Joe Viscomi had been interested in technology in general and Romantic technologies in particular for a long time. In the ineluctable way that intellectual interests have of showing up in clusters unbeknownst to the participants, what I mistook in graduate school for my own preoccupations were not that different from the interests of several others. They were, to some extent, interests of the time. Bob Essick and I are near-contemporaries from entirely different backgrounds who were educated thousands of miles apart with no knowledge of one another; Joe Viscomi came from yet a third background of experience and education. Yet within a decade we converged at the out-of-the-way intersection of Blake, art, and technology. We were all drawn to the neglected technology of engraving and its graphic affiliates. Independently of one another we read eighteenth- and nineteenth-century engraving handbooks, histories of printmaking, and catalogues of prints and paintings, and we paid special attention to books and articles about Blake as, in Geoffrey Keynes’s phrase, poet, printer, prophet. And all three of us were concerned with the editorial issues created by Blake’s artistic technologies—understandably, since editing offers a compelling combination of the mental and the material that becomes, in effect, a concrete test of abstract ideas.

I had trained myself to think of Blake’s images as specialized visual products crafted by a specialized technician-artist, a fiercely active participant in a fiercely dynamic world of the communications branch of London commerce. I had learned to see that several features of Blake’s workways might be called romantic, even while he was very much a man of his time, place, class, and trade in others. In the name of originality, imagination, vision, and Jesus, he made unexpected choices in a highly routinized, conventionalized, formulaic trade, and—what had interested me most—when challenged or thwarted, he invented unusual narratives to defend those choices and to give himself reason to carry on. My attention had gradually shifted to his work as a particularly revealing instance of historical transmission and especially of what happens in the editorial realm when the artistic ideas and technologies of an artist in one era encounter the ideas and technologies of subsequent eras. In the early 1990s, the prospect of contributing to a Blake Archive, whatever that was, seemed an attractive way of learning by doing.

All technologies of communication (writing with a pen or a computer, sending Morse code with a key, copying pictures with engravings or halftones or digital algorithms) create editorial issues, but typically the technology an artist uses is tied into a smoothly operating system that joins producers to consumers with some degree of efficiency. The need to tie Blake’s atypical technologies of production to systems that it was designed to avoid if not replace has produced a complex history of striking editorial compromises. Any attempt to understand the atypical case—and one good way to understand it is to edit it—opens a new window on more typical cases, just as the shift to new digital media refreshes our understanding of print. And putting the three or four (graphic processes, letterpress printing, painting and drawing, and digital form) into a coherent quadrangle produces a formidable tangle of editorial problems.

By 1996 I was reasonably confident that, with the just-released first online iteration of the William Blake Archive (<>; see also “Plan of the Archive”), we were primarily on a mission of new-style editorial restoration. It was ecological (and, by luck, even millennial). The aim was to restore a reasonably high approximation of wholeness to the disaggregated fragments into which editors had systematically fractured Blake’s original works during more than a century of strenuous editorial efforts to render them, and him, more readable by making them more compatible with the habits and dominant institutions of modern culture.

Now that a decade’s worth of water has passed under the Archive bridge, I can see that I was disoriented if not dead wrong. Reintegrating some artistic fragments by relatively new digital means is indeed central to our enterprise. But to stop there would be in effect to suggest that most of the editorial, and much of the critical, activity that dominated the decades from the Blake revival of the 1860s to the end of the next century was largely misdirected, and that the Archive arrives only to cure editorial disease and restore lost integrity. Single-minded focus on restorative editorial ecology might also suggest that the vigorous tradition of critical lament over the amputated status of most edited versions of Blake’s work—it was first sounded by Blake himself, who complained to a potential customer who wanted designs shorn of words, that he had done it before and would do it again, “tho to the Loss of some of the best things (to Dawson Turner, 9 June 1818, E 771)—could finally be silenced. What began as a trickle grew to a downpour in my own generation, which simply could not write about our Blake without at least acknowledging the presence of the designs. Now we stood a chance of giving those critical insights the editorial forms they deserved: replacing the amputee William Blake with the master of multiple integrated arts, we could return to the seventh heaven where pictures and text were originally one. To the contrary, I now see that our project is at least as much about recapitulation and recycling as about restoration—and as much about fragmentation as integration.

I. Settlement One: Reconfiguring

It seems to me now that the best explanation for the Blake Archive’s place in the editorial history of Blake’s work is put in terms of editorial settlements, which, as the word suggests, are properly regarded as something like treaties with term limits. They settle conflicts by negotiation and mutual accommodation, but they usually have built into them elements of forceful imposition. They are most often, I believe, imposed by the requirements of the editors’s time and situation—the editorial version of posterity—and imposed by the living upon the defenseless dead. It is obvious that editorial settlements, as historical outcomes, tend to be characteristic of their era. As times change, the terms of editorial settlements change through recalibration to the broader cultural and technological fields in which they function. But, as dynamic participants in dynamic systems, editorial settlements do not receive the imprint of change passively. They themselves—some more than others, sometimes more than other times—have the power to alter other elements of the system of communication in which they participate.

Blake is a major example of how that might be. Editions of Blake have not just changed because our ideas of how to experience Blake’s work have changed; our ideas of what we want from reading and looking at Blake have also changed from experiencing new editions. Our attitude toward this relatively impersonal process of change oscillates between nostalgia for what is lost in history and faith in the work of evaluation and ranking performed by history. In the latter case we may see editions as part of the historical process of salvaging the must-be-remembered from the sometimes-worth-remembering and the totally-forgettable-waste-of-time. Editions so regarded are part of the answer to the abiding strategic question of whether we really need a new scholarly edition of poet X or catalogue raisonné of printmaker Y. In that (utterly standard, often expressed) view, editorial history participates in a largely beneficent providence through which the essential cultural work of filtering information in order to foreground the memorable, transmit it in reliable forms, and put the rest aside gets done.[2]

By 1996 Blake scholarship had already passed through a long evolution marked by at least two editorial revolutions, each with its characteristic settlement, one for the nineteenth century and another for the twentieth. The first, which concluded with the nineteenth-century editorial settlement, was the more radical of the two because it had to grapple directly for the first time with the full confusing force of the material legacy of Blake’s extant works. This settlement—for convenience I represent “it” is an abstract, impersonal force, but of course real people like Alexander and Anne Gilchrist, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Michael Rossetti, E. J. Ellis, and W. B. Yeats fully embodied it—imposed a set of radical editorial decisions. They set in motion the process (completed in the twentieth century) of fixing on Blake’s illuminated books as the foundation of his artistic legacy; split that legacy into its conventionalized components, words and pictures; rerouted the two (wherever bottlenecks, eddies, and dead ends had stalled or blocked the flow of information) into appropriately conventional and efficient channels; and composed, in words, the basic supporting structures for both words and pictures, that is, biographical narratives and critical explanations of this most difficult poet (so Blake became). The “strange and beautiful integrity” (Swinburne 287-88) that Swinburne found most particularly in illuminated printing, which Blake had advertised as “ornamental, uniform, and grand” (1793 prospectus, E 692), was transformed in response to the (rightly) perceived need for greater legibility. As Swinburne’s friend William Michael Rossetti observed, “Difficult under any circumstances, it would be a good deal less difficult to read these works in an edition of that kind [print only], with clear print, reasonable division of lines, and the like aids to business-like perusal” (see also Peattie; and Eaves, “Graphicality”). Pictures in various media were moved out of the center toward the periphery, where they could supply a frisson of interest and excitement (always a part of Blake’s attraction) without overburdening that generation’s attempt to answer its central question, who is William Blake? To achieve the “dignity” that Swinburne and others wanted to confer on their Blake, the “boyish” artist of “unmistakeable innocence” and “pure pleasure” (114, 139-40) that Swinburne and his contemporaries celebrated (on the one hand) would have to grow up (on the other)—which becomes a possibility only when others take responsibility for supplying him with the discipline that he could no longer supply for himself.

This more disciplined editorial vehicle delivered a poet who could be a major romantic once relieved of his pictorial burdens, while the pictures, relieved of their words, could be liberated for the sensual and intellectual thrills afforded by a minor artist of special fascination for early adopters with an appetite for the unconventional. The ranking of writer versus visual artist was less predictable and less significant than the naturalization of the split between the two, which provided more readily processed Blakes for each side of a divided cultural brain. Thus Gilchrist, Blake’s great biographer, told a fairly comprehensive story of a “pictor ignotus” who was both poet and painter but whose climactic artistic accomplishments were visual rather than literary. (This is part of a process of biographical clarification-through-simplification as well, since the pictures that Gilchrist identified as masterpieces—the Job engravings and the Virgil wood engravings—are far less obviously challenging than, say, the visual bizarrerie of Jerusalem. On the linguistic side, a parallel process favors the Songs of Innocence and of Experience.) Engraver was gradually folded into but tucked beneath painter, always the more elevated category. But the most important work done by “painter” was to help the twentieth century grasp Blake’s identity as a visual artist in the decades when the engraving trades were sinking into near oblivion, supplanted by photographic means of reproduction.

So, in short, the nineteenth century started the fundamental recovery work of preparing Blake for reintroduction into the communication system that he had attempted to resist with his illuminated books (and resisted also in other ways with basic, sometimes outlandish, choices in form, style, and content in both his literary and pictorial output). In terms of communication, the generation of Gilchrist and its immediate successors both reassembled and dissembled. They retrieved (by locating, recording, editing, and publishing) a useable core of dispersed artifacts that were scattered through the collections of Blake’s friends, followers, and customers and began to release them back into the active channels of communication as reenergized forms. In some the works were streamlined—reduced, simplified, and normalized for more efficient transmission—while in other, equally useful, respects they were enriched—indexed and catalogued bibliographically, glossed, and wrapped in biographical and (rudimentary) critical narratives.

II. Settlement Two: Consolidating and Institutionalizing

This generation of discoverers left its successors, notably Geoffrey Keynes, who presided over decades of editorial enterprise on Blake’s behalf, with a Blake to build upon in the twentieth century. The massive accomplishments of twentieth-century scholarship deeply exploited opportunities provided by the stratified understandings of Blake inherited from the nineteenth. But the structure was weakened by those same stratifications. The project of building, as it were, houses of biography, bibliography, art history, and literary criticism was indispensable, but the neighborhood that grew from the divided base was, after all, segregated. Its greatest strength lay in the efficiencies made possible by calibrating Blake’s work to the demands of a larger system. Its greatest weakness lay in the barrier it erected to a full artistic accounting.

Meanwhile, more gaps were filled, more well-constructed components put into place. In both depth and breadth, the editorial settlement that supported the twentieth-century experience of Blake comprised well-built printed editions that were far truer to Blake’s words than earlier editions (the editorial achievements of Keynes, Erdman, and Bentley stand out); and catalogues that recorded, usually in pictures as well as in words, a far fuller and more accurate account of the range of Blake’s visual work as printmaker and painter (the cataloguing achievements of Keynes, Bindman, Bentley, Butlin, and Essick stand out, while Essick and Viscomi have led the effort to understand the technical basis of Blake’s work as a graphic artist).

The editorial division of labor supported a critical enterprise deeply divided between words and pictures. On the word side institutions of literary scholarship generated thousands of articles and monographs—including what remains the greatest, Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry, 1947—that explored and explained the work of this poet-thinker. By 1962, when the first edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature was published, Blake had been installed fairly securely alongside five other major British romantic poets.[3] Meanwhile, on the picture side Blake became more and more recognizable—recognition boosted no doubt by his vastly increased visibility as a writer—but he drew considerably less, and less favorable, critical attention from art historians than from literary critics. Not that this necessarily exposed a failure of judgment. I am not contending that Blake’s accomplishments as poet and artist are equal, simply that any account of his work built too confidently upon the opportunities provided by the split is, at some level, bound to be mistaken.

The most impressive scholar-builders of the twentieth century never lost sight of this essential twist in their enterprise, and hence several of them did important editorial, critical, bibliographical, and biographical work—sometimes all of those—that acknowledged, at least by implication, that a more comprehensive Blake had been sacrificed to hard editorial necessities. The picture-commentaries associated with chapters in S. Foster Damon’s William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols, 1924, reflected the Victorian, Gilchristian sense of Blake as an artist-writer whose visual output it was still natural to include in the frame of reference, even though Damon founded his argument on the metaphor of Blake as a great philosophical poet and had quite literary aims. (In its first incarnation Damon’s monograph was a dissertation submitted but rejected for a PhD in English at Harvard.) After World War II Frye, as a Canadian teaching in the University of Toronto English department with a D.Litt. from Oxford, seemed far less conflicted: one could be forgiven for reading Fearful Symmetry fairly closely without fully realizing that Blake was a man who spent most of his working life making pictures. Soon afterward, though, Frye published a characteristically brilliant essay on Blake as a multimedia artist whose multiple talents had expressed themselves in combinations that could not be safely ignored. But by and large Frye himself managed to ignore them by making Blake’s words the basis of an interpretation that might include pictures but never really needs them. Damon’s later compilation, A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake (1965), is far less eclectic than his earlier study, despite the small handful of reproductions at the back of the book, because the Dictionary, for all its idiosyncrasy, reflects the mid-twentieth century sense that Blake is primarily a writer-thinker, whatever else he might be.

In the post-war era of massive growth in American higher education, the consensual center held firm at the printed scholarly edition, which in the form given it most influentially by David V. Erdman defined the quintessential Blake of the twentieth century. Erdman’s Poetry and Prose of William Blake, 1965, came packaged with “commentary by Harold Bloom,” an English professor who once wrote, “I read the work of one of the most eloquent descriptive passages in the language; I stare, disbelievingly, at an inadequate engraved illumination . . . .” (Bloom 18). Although Erdman’s edition retains occasional pointers to Blake’s visual work—references to “plates” alongside “pages,” for example, and a small batch of reproductions for a few isolated texts with graphic components so significant that the editorial transcriptions would look very peculiar without images nearby for reference—those are remarkably scarce relative to the lifetime investments of the artist.

Although when I entered graduate school in 1966 I fantasized, as I have mentioned, that I might conceivably be one of few students seriously interested in Blake as a visual artist and perhaps nearly alone in my preoccupation with Blake as a graphic artist, I soon discovered my parochialism. The first edition of Erdman’s expertly edited text arrived just in time to mark, unforgettably, its era at the very moment when powerful countercurrents were merging to create the next era’s Blake. This shift was hardly unpredictable. Any close observer would have been able to detect many early signs of movement—in Frye’s influential essay, in Jean Hagstrum’s William Blake Poet and Painter, in the increasingly substantial body of reproductions of Blake’s visual output such as the original series of magnificent Blake Trust/Trianon Press facsimiles,[4] and, perhaps, most important, in the increasing tendency of art historians to read the literary critics and vice versa. By the 1960s and early 70s a new generation of Blake scholars devoted to discovering a three-dimensional Blake was moving from margin to mainstream.

It became routine to honor Blake’s visual work even in the most literary of circumstances—sometimes with a nod but more and more frequently with concerted attempts to find useful ways of comprehending the words and the pictures as parts of a whole—if not necessarily the ideological or artistic whole that some were tempted to imagine (often with useful consequences whatever the correctness of the governing idea), then certainly a whole lifespan of productive artistic work. Still, much of the interdisciplinary scholarship resembled parallel play more than scholarly fusion. The disciplinary walls were too high and the understandings of what counts as literary and visual art, culture, and criticism too disparate to encourage true interdisciplinary collaboration on a large scale, though that happened occasionally.

Instead, literary critics tried their more or less untried hands at versions of art history while art historians did the same in reverse, each side attempting to incorporate the understandings of the other while creating essential resources that are standard in their disciplines—printed editions of rigorously edited texts, extensive catalogues of engravings, drawings, and paintings, extensive bibliographies, conscientiously documented biographies that attempted to narrate the complex, interwoven stories of life, works, and times, and critical works that had to be produced, vetted, and valued in separate academic disciplines to merge only later, in new studies of the multifaceted artist.

Inexorably, however, the crosscurrents of those streams of scholarly activity overlapped, if they did not quite merge, in a realization that the very foundations of study needed to be reconstructed. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, Blake studies reached its third milepost of self-criticism and self-revision since the initial excitement of discovery in the nineteenth century and the impressive institutional consolidations of the mid-twentieth. The realization was slow to arrive and, once it did, difficult to channel into productive work—into specific projects—but it was, I believe, an authentic if diffuse moment of revelation. Essick, Viscomi, and I have described this new lease on life, too neatly and optimistically but with some truth, as the product of the near-simultaneous solution, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, of a cluster of longstanding scholarly problems (Eaves, Essick, and Viscomi, “Millennium” 222; William Blake Archive, “Plan of the Archive”).

The first two editorial settlements had both been built around media challenges that had to be overcome or ignored. The first, call it the Gilchrist revolution, had favored a three-part strategy of specialization, simplification, and normalization to cope with the difficulties left by Blake’s complex artistic legacy. The second, the twentieth-century canonization of Blake, built massively upon the gains of the first, deepening and consolidating them by using the institutions of higher education as its main instrument. Scholars fed Blake’s work through the disciplinary filters of academia and, especially in the visual arts, through the adjunct cultures of libraries and museums. In both earlier settlements the media problems had been solved with Solomonic strategies of clarification by separation and subtraction. While the editorial projects that executed these strategies did so by pushing the confusions of integrated media (the illuminated books, say) to the periphery and breaking out specialized simplifications from the media-rich mix and installing them in the center, the artisan-printmaker-occasional-painter and homemade poet Blake was dignified by association with his betters, the full-time painters and the romantic poets.

But the streamlined products of those processes came ever more densely anchored in a network of interconnection produced by the intense exercise of intra- and interdisciplinary twentieth-century scholarship. The result was that the segregation of knowledge became increasingly evident, artificial, and, for many, unsatisfactory. The harder the scholarship labored to conjure the outlines of a more ample Blake, the harder it became to represent this amplitude concretely in ampler editions, and the more awkward and partial, not to say impoverished, the available tools seemed.

III. Settlement Three: Reorienting, Reverting, and Superconsolidating

A telling rush of further scholarly activity—with a high percentage of indicative delays and failures—emerged from this highly propitious moment. Beginning in the post-war period, new attention was paid to Blake’s visual work. Reliable print was sometimes stretched toward its limits by the demands placed on it by a range of ambitious editorial (and some kabbalistic critical) imaginations. Under the stewardship of Geoffrey Keynes, the Blake Trust and the Trianon Press issued a series of facsimiles that employed an ingenious and intricate combination of photography, rarely used gelatine collotype processes, and highly specialized, complex hand labor to execute magnificent reproductions in very limited and expensive facsimile editions. Practically anything with which David V. Erdman was associated qualifies here, including his solo Illuminated Blake, a monochrome edition with commentary; his Four Zoas edition (with Cettina Magno) based on infrared photography; his Night Thoughts edition (with Grant, Rose, and Tolley, two of three projected volumes ultimately published); and his remarkable “type facsimile” of Blake’s combination sketchbook and notebook (with Donald K. Moore for the complex and intricate typesetting). Later, editions centered on rolls of microfilm or albums of color slides were proposed, and some, like John E. Grant and Mary Lynn Johnson’s videodisc project, inspired by the advent of fragile new media, were well advanced before they collapsed. Less stressfully (as far as the medium is concerned) but perhaps most successfully as a whole, an international group of literary scholars and art historians created the six-volume Blake Trust/Tate/Princeton edition of Blake’s illuminated books (only) centered on faithful color reproductions, fresh textual transcriptions, and some of the best of late-twentieth-century scholarship.

As a total act of collective scholarly imagination, for a time this one lacked, as Blake might say, firm outlines. While these very clever tools provided the basis for a more ample representation of Blake’s work, that representation itself remained a phantom. And these specialized scholarly tools sometimes overworked their media because they had to. Of course, Blake’s case is not entirely exceptional; textual scholars are notorious for concocting editions of literary works that challenge the limits of the medium (as registered famously in Lewis Mumford’s complaint about the editorial “barbed wire” generated by ambitious mid-century textual scholarship). The problem was not the illuminated books as such or the other amalgamations of language and picture but Blake’s sheer artistic reach, which extends from written and printed words to pictures and words, picture-words, and pictures in various media. A credible edition had somehow to represent that range adequately, accurately, and economically in a form that made it accessible—affordable, of course, but also searchable. The goal, but not the means to reach it, was the product of nearly two centuries of Blake scholarship.

In 1996 digital media, the personal computer, and networked computing clearly offered enough fresh hope to lure some of us into spending a grossly disproportionate period of our lives beginning to figure out how to accomplish this aim—not by any means accomplishing it but taking first steps. When I put the matter this way, I find my rhetoric drifting back toward my earlier thought that such a radical editorial enterprise would untie Blake’s work from a history of harsh editorial reductions that had been required by the “hard necessity” (Swinburne 112) of dominant reproductive technologies in the late era of print. We conceived the Archive as, in effect, a technological remedy for stubborn editorial problems that were technological in an obvious sense: complex problems that involved art, the disciplinary constraints of scholarship, and the specialization of knowledge and labor, certainly, but fundamentally a technological problem, with a romantic technological vision at one end thwarted by the realities of communications technologies at the other.

As I have indicated, that way of thinking about what we do, though true as far as it goes, seems to me now misleading. The settlement represented by the Blake Archive—and I do think it imagines and to some extent executes a new editorial settlement—is radically conservative in two fundamental respects. First, it attempts to restore Blake’s originals to the center of the field of attention by offering the best, most carefully controlled reproductions possible. That restoration is the defining feature of the Archive as an editorial enterprise (but, again, with several precedents in print). Second, the editorial design of the Archive is conservative in its attempt to incorporate a substantial part of the editorial history of Blake’s work that has accumulated since his death in 1827. Instead of the fresh, untrammeled view of the original Blake that one might imagine, the work presented in the Blake Archive is enmeshed in a framework of supplementary information and optional views defined over the last 200 or so years by Blake’s most talented and resourceful sponsors. The superconsolidated array and the reorientation to visual reproductions of Blake’s original documents are new, at least on this scale (if ungainly), and the scholarly opportunities they offer altogether are unprecedented. But the elements are, at bottom, inherited. The entire editorial grid, reproductions and options alike, is further restricted by interlocking technical compromises imposed by the present, rather severe, limits of memory, bandwidth, software and hardware design, institutional requirements, and our own editorial imaginations.

The most widely applicable new editorial strategies and settlements do not generally replace successful old ones but leverage them, and ours is no exception. And the most successful and powerful do not simply provide useful alternatives—as facsimile editing, social editing, and genetic editing provide useful complementary alternatives—but rather syntheses of the kind sometimes imagined by the Greg-Bowers-Tanselle tradition of critical editing in its most ambitious and visionary moments. Paradoxically, the accomplishment we should probably be proudest of is inseparable from the underlying compromise, which is less a break with past scholarship than a monument to it and to the level of scrutiny it makes possible. Most of the separable elements in the Archive’s makeup, down to the minute details of imaging, transcription, editorial notes, search apparatus, tracking and navigational devices, metadata—the lot—have compelling analogies if not direct precedents in precursor scholarship. The plainest example is the digital version of Erdman’s printed edition of Blake’s text that we supply (and we would digest more of the printed record of Blake scholarship, editorial and otherwise, if resources of time, energy, money, and technology allowed). We have always been pleased to offer reproductions that may help conserve fragile originals, but equally important to our project is the harnessing of more than a hundred years of scholarly energy, including, curiously and strikingly, the very editorial effort that dismantled Blake into linguistic and pictorial elements, often in redundant, overlapping forms that aid scholarly work. Those reductions and redundancies are, after all, the basis of most scholarly processes of investigation and analysis; the Archive’s tools and options respond variously but fundamentally to the rudimentary actions that John Unsworth has identified as “scholarly primitives.”[5] The Archive attempts to restore images to the center of the editorial field while pulling the rest—transcriptions, image descriptions, bibliographical information, and search apparatus (conventionally split into text search and image search)—back toward the periphery.

There are many things to be said in our favor—and we have shamelessly said most of them on our own behalf, because a large part of the challenge of our work is convincing others that what we do is worth doing. The result is as a whole so useful that I predict that the Archive and its peers will evolve from supplementary into primary editions to which printed editions will be supplementary. For Blake’s work, the next editorial settlement will be, if not the Blake Archive, something like it: electronic, highly synthetic, and unstable relative to its printed predecessors. It will be created and maintained by more dynamic forms of editing that suit the medium, within current but everchanging limits, following the best practices the community can devise, expanding into a dark future.

My experience to date suggests that this new form of web-based scholarly editing—at least the version of it that we know from the Blake Archive—has already shown itself to be sufficiently distinct from other forms to need a new name. I think of it as x-editing. At this early juncture I know only enough to use it as a label for a miscellaneous and partial symptomology rather than a clearly articulated method. I suspect that sufficient reflection on our experience and the experience of others can produce a coherent account, but that would require at least a separate essay. For now I can offer just a sample of overlapping symptoms. X-editing as I know it—I will not be telling digital editors anything about the hard necessities of the medium that they do not already know—is

  • interactive

  • collaborative, requiring closely coordinated teamwork

  • offsite, conducted at several dispersed locations connected electronically

  • highly adaptive

  • approximate

  • tentative

  • experimental, ruled by trial and error

  • radically incomplete

X-editing might be called ugly editing or dirty editing if not for the suggestion of carelessness. But it is emphatically neither careless nor haphazard. Nor optional: it is, in most respects, required. By comparison with the noblest editing of the past, it admittedly lacks the dignity and respect that come with age and convention. Its unsettling factors have always been present in scholarly editing but seldom so urgently present and seldom acknowledged, much less discussed.[6] X-editing conforms to the curve of its technologies just as editions in print do, but it tracks the curve of change more closely with more acute awareness, necessarily, of the boundary between known and unknown.

The characteristics that define the profile of x-editing are thus responses to the harsh conditions of unstable but relatively inflexible digital environments in which editorial ideas must be conceived and editorial actions executed under constant threat of change and obsolescence. X-editing is tuned to the pressures of change even as it seeks, in some quite traditional ways, endurance—a familiar editorial goal. The pressures themselves are highly variable and ultimately unpredictable but also, simply, irresistible. They come from many directions, such as the multiple forms of software and hardware involved in any transaction; the personnel involved, equally multiplicitous; the sources of the material to be edited, which are often dispersed over a vast field; the network itself; and the end users, their needs and desires, their technologies, and so on. Editing under these conditions is, in a word, unnerving, potentially even paralyzing, and our greatest challenge is sticking with it despite the abiding uncertainties. Yet no one can say “I prefer not to” in this environment and still succeed. Stubborn refusal to budge is not an option.

The pressures, I would maintain, produce—demand—forms of editing different in degree and kind from their print-based relatives. X-editing does not simply complete or improve earlier kinds; it breaks with them, not out of editorial desire but out of desire fused with necessity. The need to cope with the present and future in such urgent, aggressive forms paired with the soothing, progressive rhetoric of humanities computing can blind us, as I have suggested, to our debts to the secondhand and the repurposed, without which we could not proceed. On the one hand, we aim to complete the construction of a noble editorial infrastructure that was begun in the nineteenth century; simultaneously, we introduce reforms to correct flaws that have always hindered the transmission of the knowledge of Blake from generation to generation. But the conditions of our work and medium force us, in some measure, not just to adjust and improve but also to lay new foundations that will have their own evolutionary cycle, as yet unrevealed.

In parochial terms, x-editing makes the Blake Archive both strikingly similar to and starkly different from the editorial legacy that it inherits. Insofar as it starts over in a new medium, it has certainly not achieved the dignity and respect that the Victorian editors, who loved and celebrated their Blake but worried over his reputation as a rebellious, creative child whose illegible word and picture play threatened his artistic standing, sought to provide with streamlined, modern printed editions. X-editing and the Archive have in a sense thrown Blake back into the realm of irreverence, inelegance, and indignity—the realm of technological experimentation where he began.

Should we, ultimately and improbably, succeed and the results approximate our hopes, what can we expect to achieve? Worrying about the legacies of transmission, some have posed the what-would-master-do question. What would Blake think of all the poking, prodding, slicing, and dicing that the Archive and its predecessors liberate us to do?[7] In my opinion, the question is powerful but misplaced. Blake was an artist, then; we are scholars, now, not acolytes but students. Thus the Blake Archive, as one of a new breed of scholarly editions, should not be primarily about being Blake or even appreciating Blake. It must be—we have agreed—about studying Blake. Empathy with the artist has a justifiably honored place in the history of literary studies; in the history of editing, empathic bonds between editors and their subjects have often shaped strong insights into authorial intention. But the specialized purpose of intellectual empathy tempers it into a tool of scholarly steel. So, when it comes to the question of what Blake would think, we do not ask. He does not tell.

The default ending for a Blake essay is an apt quotation—“Enough! or Too much” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, E 18) comes to mind, or something about being caught out as one of those “Philosophical & Experimental” characters who without poetic imagination are “unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again” (There is No Natural Religion, E 3). Blake was describing the trap laid by the material world—and he would not have exempted electrons. But he came to understand that, vision or no vision, we always work with two feet planted in that world. My guilty thought that the digital universe might liberate editing from old compromises is not utterly wrong. It does so in remarkable ways, but only while generating fresh compromises whose hallmark is daunting, potentially paralyzing uncertainty. In such a compromised and compromising environment, the only constructive course of action is to persist in doing what we can with what we have got. Even as the limitations of our processes undermine our product, we build our compromises on the brink of the known editorial universe. And, generally speaking, editors are not known for their imaginations. So, when it comes to our transformations, now, of romantic technologies, then, we can only work and hope.