The torn book


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The torn book fixity, fluidity, disorder and energy in William Blake's marginalia
Physical Description:
xvi, 227 leaves : ; 29 cm.
Snart, Jason Allen, 1973-
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English thesis, Ph. D   ( lcsh )
Dissertations, Academic -- English -- UF   ( lcsh )
bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )


Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 2002.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 217-226).
Statement of Responsibility:
by Jason Allen Snart.
General Note:
General Note:

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University of Florida
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aleph - 028837035
oclc - 50444640
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Full Text






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(Bindman 116)


When composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline,
and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world
is probably a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet.
Shelley, Defence of Poetry (798)

If Shelley is being entirely serious, what status do we afford the printed page? Is

it, and the marks upon it, some feeble shadow which is all we have left to represent what

was once some monument of inspiration? Is it possible that, to quote Shelley's example,

"Milton conceived the Paradise Lost as a whole before he executed it in portions" (799)?

In The Torn Book, I want to consider how we navigate an alternate possibility: that the

page (or by extension the book, the engraved plate, the painted canvas) is not secondary

to an original conception, it does not receive parts of an already completed whole, but is

itself integral to imaginative invention as a process. Is the act of writing merely fixing

into permanence, as best one can, what inspiration has already provided, or does the act of

writing in fact condition what one can imagine next? And by extension, does the

materiality of language then not influence meaning as we read towards it, or indeed does

materiality not guide the very reading strategies we bring to bear on any given work?

Perhaps meaning is not translated to materiality, but is a result of materiality. And might

art's materiality mean?

To Begin: A Digression

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield complains that he could never do

very well in Oral Expression, one of his prep school classes, in which students were

required to deliver speeches in class while other students prepared to shout "Digression!"

at any moment when the speaker did not "stick to the point." "'That digression business

got on my nerves'," he tells Mr. Antolini, his old English teacher. "The trouble with me

is, I like it when somebody digresses. It's more interesting and all" (183).

Since I like digressions too, and as such have engaged in one early on, it is

probably appropriate to at least digress about digressions. I have often felt that my

academic work has been a series of digressions: a process of continually explaining what

I have just said, which itself was an explanation of what I had said before that, and so on.

The work of reading and writing has never for me produced a finality, but on the contrary,

has simply presented me with more that is unfinished. One begins to wonder, "at what

point was I actually saying something central and not digressing?" Not to mention the

nagging question: "when will I be finished?" If I had been a student in Holden's Oral

Expression class, I would have be stumped to "stick to the point," in that the point-some

originary, imaginary profundity-has long since disappeared. I can hardly deny that much

of my thinking in critical and scholarly terms (and, more than likely, all other terms) has

been in the form of digression. So I am not going to try and explain away digression, but

rather assert it as a valid form of doing work and generating ideas. Ross Chambers, in

Loiterature (his title suggests a kind of "literature" that "loiters"), writes of a

"deliberately digressive criticism" (15) as one that seeks to create "conditions under

which if is possible to step out of line" (Foreword). Roland Barthes, in S/Z, writes that

"the work of commentary ... consists precisely in manhandling the text, interrupting it"

(15). To extend Barthes' idea of an interruptive commentary, mine has been a

methodology which remains open not just to interrupting texts, but to interrupting itself,

moving towards alternate possibilities instead of trying to exhaust one in order to move

on to another.

As Chambers does, for example, what I would like to challenge is the notion of

digression as some veering from the "correct" path: getting away from "the point." As

Chambers asserts is the case for literature which digresses, I believe critical work can also

carry "an implied social criticism" (9; my italics). Too often, writes Chambers, "criticism

depends, like social order itself, on ... discriminating and hierarchizing, determining

what is central and what is peripheral" (9). My project looks in part to Blake's marginalia

for insight into "central" issues his work forces generally. My approach to the subject

matter at hand embraces digression as a mode of moving between centres and peripheries.

To digress is to challenge dogma, closure, received wisdom, with some new way

of looking at or thinking about something. This new "thing"-this process for

arriving-challenges the usual, and it must often take the form of new expression. It must

put words together in new ways. It must define words, redefine them, and redefine those

definitions, often by interrupting itself. Digression is an open process for it seeks to make

a new link; sticking to the point is to close argument at some end. Digression allows for

what Chambers calls the "permeability of contexts" (12). Sticking to the point too

myopically denies the possibility for self-reflexivity, for reconsideration, for interruption,

for multiple and perhaps interfering (though perhaps not mutually destructive)


For me, writing on Blake, it is almost impossible to avoid digression. Since

Blake's work itself rarely follows a strictly linear process which moves through and to a

single point, any discussion of Blake must open itself up to moments of reconsideration

and self-reflection. Often I find that in writing towards a particular argument, I am forced

to re-evaluate not just the argument itself, but my argumentative methodology altogether.

It is difficult to "prove" things about Blake's work in a traditional, rhetorical claim-and-

support fashion. As many times as one can find support for a given claim, one can likely

find as many instances which confound that claim. It is partly my purpose here to show

the ways in which Blake's art so often functions to force these kinds of tensions, aporias,

or reconsiderations: it simply demands a different kind of reading and argumentative

strategy. Thus I have organized much of the present work into sections that often arrive

at "conclusions" they had not entirely introduced, or digress into areas I had not foreseen

from the outset. Rather than going back and always deleting my "progress" through any

particular section, in order that just the conclusions remain, I have tried to retain that

sense of progress and process. Again, the point is to provide a sense of how often Blake's

art works to confound traditional modes of formulating argument based on observing

details and developing models and rules into which those details fit: an "ultimate

structure" or "great final ensemble," as Barthes might call it (S/Z 12). Nonetheless, I have

structured things fairly rigorously at points and have made some general observations,

and outright claims, regarding trends I see in some of Blake's work.

Ultimately however, any criticism which works towards completely systematizing

an argument about Blake will serve only its own categorical, limited ends. When

digression is not possible, criticism will cease to be of value. Foucault writes that

"commentary... can never be completed" (The Order of Things 41). Thus I offer the

warning in advance that much of the work here explores Blake in ways that sometimes

need explaining and digressing, and that do not pretend to exhaust any one "topic." Nor

do they always pretend to be entirely commensurate with some of the methodologies

more often at work in Blake scholarship. Chambers writes, "Digression is a discursive

'slide' ... along a line of continuity that links one context and its other [or others]" (12).

So digression works in an important way: it forces my own project to remain open to new

contexts, and in so doing helps me to resist making overly systematized arguments

(which seems appropriate as I explore Blake's own anti-system project), even where

strong currents of much Blake scholarship would suggest I do so.

If there is some originary point from which the rest of this digresses, it could be

something like: Blake's poetry is anti-system and anti-systemic. However, as Blake's

work itself has taught me, without exploring the particularities of that statement, and then

the particularities of further statements, and then the particularities of those statements,

any point remains an abstract, universalizing system itself which cannot manage critical

and creative thinking and so denies the possibility for their existence. As Barthes admits,

"I name, I unname, I rename" (S/Z 11).

Having digressed this far, however, and before I lay out the general argument at

stake, I must stress that there is a linearity to my overall project, despite the often non-

linear nature of the subject matter. Donald Ault asks that readers experience his

Visionary Physics "sequentially, from beginning to end" (xiii). The reason is that

excerpted moments in his otherwise sequential argument will not make sense (or will

make misleading sense) if those moments are removed from the larger context, which

develops Blake's response to Newton in terms of the abstract models of their conflicting


The present project is undeniably linear in the sense that the focus in earlier

chapters helps to explain and justify the critical gestures that I choose to make (and that I

choose not to make) in later chapters. That is, the lacunae of later chapters may seem less

significant (or at least less like mistakes) in light of earlier chapters.

But I digress.

Invention and Discovery

The usual argument goes that something like fire, for example, is not invented so

much as it is discovered. But if there is invention in the discovery of fire, it surely comes

as somebody, somewhere (or perhaps many people in many places) invents a new

relationship between himself or herself and something in his or her world. So even if fire

is discovered, more than we would say it is invented, certainly there exists some element

of invention in the process: the invention of a relationship.

In the scientific revolution of the 17" century, we get some sense of a community

of thinkers trying to come to grips with the otherwise disorderly universe in which they

lived. Robert Markley, echoing Frank Manuel, writes of Newton's "compulsion to

establish order in his undertakings" (Fallen Languages 131). Newtonian mechanics

looked to find order, some predictable relation between cause and effect, which could

explain the micro- and macrocosmic phenomenal worlds. This was to be a system which

described the order believed to inhere in observed phenomena, and which could thus

predict those same phenomena into futurity since it revealed some fundamental level of

relationships. Concomitantly, language needed to be trusted as a medium to express

discovery, but one that did not alter or condition it in any way. (Foucault traces this myth

of language to language's "original form, when it was given to men by God himself...

language was an absolutely certain and transparent sign for things" (The Order of Things


Mine is not an archaeological project to discover something hidden, something

which exists in entirety a priori of my finding it. For this project is as much invention as

discovery. In fact, "the point" of certain kinds of critical work is, I think, to undermine

the notion of a complete argument that can be expressed entirely independently of the act

of its being made; independent, that is, from the process of its being put it into words.

(This is perhaps also commentary's implied social critique, and its alternate

possibility-that textuality makes meaning, it does not just provide access to it-is in fact

what I have learned from Blake's work itself.) Richard Howard, introducing Barthes,

writes that "all telling modifies what is being said" such that "the message is a parameter

of its performance" (S/Z xi).

For me, the additional important thing that the distinction between discovery and

invention does is to foreground what Tilotamma Rajan called the "supplement of

reading": the necessary addition that is our reading of any text, space, event, or history,

and thus by extension the role of materiality, of the graphicality of words on the page, for

example, in making meaning (Rajan Supplement of Reading).

If we assume that things in texts are there, a priori complete, to be discovered,

then the supplement of reading is not that important, for there is nothing to differentiate

one reader from another; reading does not really add anything to the text, since the text

does not need to be supplemented. Reading to "discover" presumes to reveal that which

already exists, whole and unified. Italo Calvino, glossing Roland Barthes, reminds that

for literature in particular, "language is never transparent, and is never merely an

instrument to convey a 'meaning' or a 'fact' or a 'thought' or a 'truth'" (The Uses of

Literature 29). Barthes himself writes that "objectivity ... [is] an imaginary system like

the rest" (S/Z 10). I return to the issue of transparency in Chapter 2; Blake seems

particularly insightful in his criticism of Newtonian science by identifying in it the

impulse to deny the role of language in conditioning discovery, not just expressing it.

It is important here to admit the present work to that category of writing, be it

"literature" or not, that treats reading as a process partly of invention; thus its language is

implicated in what it purports to find. Otherwise, the category of "writer" or "reader"

becomes more nominal than any consideration of the diversity of each and every reader,

or of the process of reading. No less, if reading only discovers, one must assume as a

correlate that what is to be discovered, what is hidden in texts, is a static "thing," like a

treasure chest, to which all persistent readers will eventually arrive, finding, presumably,

the same treasure. To assume, however, that readers invent, that they supplement the

text, is, I hope, to reinvigorate the possibility that not all readers are the same, and that

what they find is not always, or maybe never, the same thing that other readers find. Or,

should I say, what one reader invents is not necessarily going to agree with what any other

reader invents. Relationships to texts remain fluid, opening up the potential for inventing

relationships between texts, between texts and things or texts and ideas or texts as ideas,

that are always various and variable. Part of the crises of representation and epistemology

that Blake confronted involved how to manage being in a world that did not allow for

such openness and potential difference.

The Argument in Brief

I make the argument that Blake's marginalia are part of his composite art (just as

they are part of his anti-Newtonian poetics) in that annotation represents the un-fixing of

the fixed, authorial perspective by another hand, voice, or eye (all of which go to form a

particular perspective independent of the one, or ones, already represented on the page);

the energy of the marginalia can function to open up play, disorder and difference just as

Blake's text and illustration often work to direct the reader away from reading simple one-

to-one relationships between text and illustration. The act of annotation represents a

serious challenge to the implied authority of the finished page, and specifically reminds of

the role that materiality plays as we build meaning. To mark by remarking the page is to

reassert textuality.

Tearing the book, the metaphor of my title, is to destabilize claims towards

unequivocality, or un-equi-vocality, or not equal voices, which certain kinds of argument

make upon the page (especially argument that takes its own textuality as transparent).

The "torn book" is the page revealed as a site for contestation, a site from which the

voices silenced by singular authorship (and thereby, authority) can reemerge.

The purpose in suggesting connections between otherwise disparate thinkers, as I

do in my final chapter, is to develop a kind of energy within the current project in order

that it never be entirely closed; by suggesting how "disorder" operates in various

contexts, I hope to set the conditions under which my own work can remain itself always

potentially energizing and less prone to the closure of any final, comprehensive


Blake's work did, in fact, create a new kind of space, a new experience of reading

(at least for me as a reader), in which textual instabilities and interventions could function

positively to inform and energize critical practice. While I have not risked textual

disruption here, I have tried to at least highlight my own self-consciousness about issues

of language, discovery, invention and meaning, and the possible consequences of

developing a systematic argument, or arguments.


P R E F A C E .............................................................................. .................... ................

Invention and Discovery................................. .... ..............iii
The Argument in Brief ............................. ........................... ............. ... ...........



1 BLAKE'S ANTI-SYSTEM COMPOSITE ART ....................................1

Introduction ................................................................. ...........................
W illiam Blake ............................ ................. ..... .......
Blake's Anti-System Project ........................................................4
Blake and N ewton .............................. .... ... .... .... ..................... .....6
Blake's "Newton"............... ................ ........................ ........13
Anti-System Summary .....................................................21
Blake's Composite Art ................................................................ 22
Composite Art Summary ............................................. .......... .......37
Notes................................. .................... ....... .................. 38

2 FIXITY AND FLUIDITY .............................................44

H ere and N ow ........................................................... .................. ........48
Books: Real and Ideal ....................... ................... ..............49
Fixity, Fluidity, Inspiration ....................... .. .. .... .......... ....54
W working Blake ........................ ............ .. ....... ................. 58
Fixity : Fluidity : Song : Book ......................................... ...............61
Frontispieces to Songs of Innocence and of Experience................. .......... 63
"Introduction" to Songs of Innocence ..........................................................66
Orality and Books (Reading Allowed)...................... .. ..... .. ...............70
Fixity and Fluidity in The Book of Urizen ........................ ......................75
Tension in The Book of Urizen .................................. ........................85
C conclusions ............................................. ................................................... 92
N otes..................... ....... ......................... .................94

3 CRITICAL USES OF BLAKE'S MARGINALIA ...................................................... 101

Introduction ................................................................................... 10 1
Why Marginalia?........................ ...........................104
Marginalia in Blake Scholarship .................. ............ .... 106
Synecdochic Structure in Blake's Marginalia:
The W (H)ole of Blake................................................... ... 113
Fitting the Whole of Blake In ........... .............................. .......117
M parking .......................... .. .............. ... ... .............. .. ....122
C conclusion .............................................. .................. .... 123
Note .............................. ..... ........................... 125

4 BLAKE'S MARGINALIA ....... ...... .......................................................128

Introduction ....................................................................128
"The Imagination which Liveth Forever"......................... .......................134
Wall of Words: The Untouchable Page ........................ ....................141
Annotating : The Four Zoas : Tracing ..................... ......... .. ........... 145
Marginalia as Path : Further Into The Four Zoas ...............................................149
The Opinion of Will Blake ....................... .................154
Conclusion .................. ..... .............. ........ ........... ..............161

5 MARGINALIA: FURTHER POSSIBILITIES ......................... .............. ...........166

Introduction..................... ... ..................166
T im e................................... ....................... ........... .........167
Areas for Further Research ...................... .................................182

6 AN END, AN APPROXIMATION ........................................ .................... 192

Introduction ..................... .......... ........ .......... ....................... 192
Disorder ................................. ............................. ................197
Entropy: Some Definitions................ ....... ...........................200
Postmodem ....... ............................ ........................... ...........207
Openings and Conclusions .................................. .......................... 212

W ORKS CITED .......................... ..................... ......... ........... ..............217

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .............. ............................227

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy



Jason Allen Snart

May 2002

Chair: Donald Ault
Major Department: English

William Blake's marginalia receive little critical attention. Yet they are deeply

embedded in contemporary currents in Blake scholarship, including those which attend to

the material and textual dimensions of Blake's work, to his anti-Newtonianism, and to his

anti-systematicity. The marginalia are part of Blake's composite art, in which elements

that share the same page are made to illuminate one another, though often in seemingly

contradictory ways. While Blake's marginal notes may comment directly on particular

sections of the text at hand, they also function as textually disruptive on the page, forcing

the reader's awareness of the degree to which formal layout and features like pagination

guide our reading. The marginalia often work counter to the control imposed by the

finished, printed page. Thus the marginal notations are textually and materially

meaningful. Study of the original volumes reveals a number of textual and material

problems that seriously complicate the ways in which the marginalia have been treated to

date, since they remind that the page does not necessarily give transparent,

uncomplicated, or unproblematic access to "ideas" behind the words. The marginalia

participate deeply in writing, reading, authority, and the production of meaning, as those

issues circulate throughout Blake's work. Ultimately, the degree to which disorder

functions as part of the annotated page resonates with other critical projects which look to

interrogate, and suggest alternatives to, that which is overly systematic and repressive.


I have sought for a joy without pain,
For a solid without fluctuation
Why will you die 0 Eternals?
Why live in unquenchable burnings?
The Book of Urizen, Copy C II:4


In Chapter 1 I situate my work in two major areas of Blake scholarship: Blake's

anti-system project, and the nature of his composite art. I discuss how critics like Donald

Ault and Stuart Peterfreund have suggested ways in which Blake was using his poetry and

illuminations to construct an anti-Newtonian poetics. Also, I confront Blake's composite

art as it is explored by critics like W. J. T. Mitchell, in which text and illustration often

work in self-conflicting and disruptive ways.

Blake is deeply concerned with the tension between the fixity of the metal plate

yet the fluidity of his poetic vision. Thus the themes of writing and reading, and the

attendant symbols of books, pens, hands, readers and writers, form one of the most

elaborate and important contexts in Blake's work. I consider in detail the "Introduction"

to the Songs of Innocence and The Book of Urizen, in terms of how they develop a

specific conception of the artistic process (one in which there is considerable tension

between creative energy and the necessity of having to fix that energy into material form


on the page), and how they suggest Blake's deep concern for the materiality of making art.

The metal plate, the book and writing, figure centrally in Blake's poetry as part of

his anti-Newtonian, anti-system project to create a different space, or experience for the

reader reading his work. The tor-book, an image which provides my title, represents the

deconstructing, or tearing, not just of "the book," but of all that the book is made to

represent in Blake's work, in terms of abstract systematizing, and suppressing individual,

creative vision by fixing abstract systems in writing.

Part of the anti-Newtonian project, and the creation of a new space of poetry, is

what has been called Blake's "composite art": the combination of text and illustration

functioning in complex and fluid ways upon the page. Below, I develop the relation

between Blake's anti-Newtonianism and his composite art. The way in which Blake

forces the dialectical interaction of abstraction and representation, as W. J. T. Mitchell

has called them (38), challenges the otherwise empirical weight of the page as ground for

argument, for the relationship between the particularity of each "page" (or of any one

perspective) is often made to grate against whatever pretensions towards universality the

page (the book, the author, the perspective) might make.

William Blake

A little biographical information might be useful for setting up what I would like

to highlight regarding the historical Blake: his status as a literary figure and his relatively

late entrance into the Western canon (and the misconceptions which surrounded] Blake

as a canonical figure-thus my use of more popular sources like anthologies and

dictionaries); and the material conditions of his life as both artist and engraver which so

deeply impacted the form and content of much of his poetic work. Most English

literature anthologies introduce William Blake by way of reference to the view held by

most of his contemporaries that he was an eccentric or a curiosity. "Earned a meagre

living working for publishers as an engraver," begins the Penguin Dictionary ofArt and

Artists entry on Blake. These more popular renderings are, in fact, in line with many

scholarly conceptions: W. J. T. Mitchell writes that "of all the major artists and poets of

the English Romantic movement (in which [Blake] was a marginal, isolated figure), he

was the slowest to achieve critical acceptance as formally and intellectually coherent"

("Chaosthetics" 443). Northrop Frye, writing as recently as 1947, felt compelled to

"complete the destruction of the myth that Blake is a literary freak" (Fearful Symmetry

148). Even Coleridge as a relative contemporary of Blake, writing in 1818, seems

surprised to read, for the first time, Blake's Songs (first published 29 years earlier, in

1789), suggesting the limited degree to which Blake was in cultural circulation: "I have

this morning been reading a strange publication ... Poems with wild and interesting

pictures ... printed and painted by the Author, W. Blake" (quoted in Bentley, Records

251). And William Rowland, in Literature and the Marketplace, writes of Blake's

"struggle for economic survival" and his "situation as a man caught between two worlds,

an inspired prophet who must make a living in the world as he finds it" (81-82). So how

did this poet and engraver manage to produce such vivid, imaginative works throughout

his life: (1) knowing that even the small audience he had likely would not understand his

vision, and (2) caught between his work as an engraver and his work as a poet? To many,

Blake was no more than an eccentric man, practicing a style of copper plate engraving


that cost a great deal in terms of time, energy and money, but that yielded little in the way

of a mass producible result-and this in an age when Josiah Wedgwood was beginning to

mass produce art on pottery and china (Ackroyd 65). While Blake never rejected artistic

exploration or invention, even in the form of new ways to execute artistic ideas, he never

condoned the idea of mass produced art or what it did to artists: it turned them from

inventive creators into mechanical producers. It was just one type of system against

which Blake's art often seems to work.

Blake's Anti-System Project

Blake characterized the empirical ethos as a "Single vision & Newton's sleep,"

against which he juxtaposed a "twofold," and even "fourfold," vision tied both to the

rational and the imaginative worlds (Letter to Thomas Butts in Erdman 722; Blake

quotations are from David Erdman's Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake unless

otherwise noted). Donald Ault has characterized this single vision as having its primary

drive "toward realizing the coherence and completeness of a narrative world or text...

and toward realizing a preordained 'end' or closure that resolves conflicts into a unified

whole" (Narrative Unbound 4). Blake's idea of poetic inspiration remained

"incomprehensible / To the Vegetated Mortal Eye's perverted & single vision" since it

retained complexity and contradiction which would not submit to resolution (Jerusalem

202). It is Blake's conception of the Newtonian impulse and its limited and suppressive

vision against which he would construct his own system of visionary myth and prophecy.

To suggest that impulse in the Newtonian narrative toward closure and resolution,

take, for example, the letter Sir Isaac Newton wrote to the Royal Society in 1672: "this

analogy twixtt colors and refrangibility is very precise and strict; the rays always either

exactly agreeing in both or proportionally disagreeing in both" (Newton). Newton was

writing about his experiments with light and the conclusions he reached about the rules

that governed refraction. Among those conclusions, he noted that light of a certain

wavelength (what he knew as colour) would always be refracted by a prism (light's

refrangibility) to the same degree, while light of a differing wavelength would be

refracted in a proportional distance that never changed. Red light, for example, would

always fall in the same place in the prism's rainbow, a constant proportional distance from

all the other refracted colours. Alexandre Koyr6 has described Newton's findings here as

"the indestructible linkage between degree of refrangibility and color" (45). What is

clearly important for Newton is that he has discovered, he claims, a system, a method, for

describing observed phenomena, and for predicting the details of those phenomena as

they might occur at any future point in any given place. Thus the "indestructibility" that

Koyr6 emphasizes, which is itself one of the central tenets of the systematic project that

Blake found to be operating in what he called "Newtonian." Those tenets include

language taken to function as mere description, prediction into the future by abstracting

from certain details (while repressing others), and the claim to universality. Notably, the

central "Newtonian" figure in Blake's work, Urizen, writes in his book of "eternal brass"

(Urizen, 72; my italics), and elsewhere broods "in horrible fear of the future" (Foar Zoas:

Night the Seventh, 354).

Blake and Newton

A word on "Newton," "Newtonian," and "Blake" is probably in order, since it is

important to reflect on what those terms mean for the present comparison and contrast.

Thackray writes, in Atoms and Powers, "Newtonianism [meant] many things to many

men" (5). And Perry Miller, in "Bentley and Newton," notes that Newton himself was not

quite a "Newtonian" (277). Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers observe that "ethics and

politics" drew on Newtonianism (27), and Alexandre Koyr6 writes that "all the new

sciences that emerged in the eighteenth century... tried to conform to the Newtonian

pattern of empirico-deductive knowledge" (19). We need to be careful and not take

mention of "Newton" on Blake's part to necessarily coincide with some bio-historical

figure from the 17' century. Nor should "Newtonian" be taken necessarily to describe

anything about Newton's method per se, since it became, after Newton, a cultural

development all of its own. Newton and "Blake's Newton" are very different things, and

Blake's critique of "Newtonianism" operates on a much wider social level than just

commentary on a particular scientific method or cluster of ideas.

In fact, the historical Newton, at least what we might construct based on his own

writings, and the historical Blake, again, what we might construct from the art he left us,

may have been more similar than the usual binary opposition assigned to them would

suggest. Of course, Blake himself seemed to align his art directly against Newton

(explicitly at any rate); however, there are perhaps some similarities worth noting

(without, hopefully, overstating the case).


Blake and Newton were greatly imaginative systematizers, forced to confront and

deal with gaps in systems of explaining human experience and natural phenomena.

Admittedly, Newton and Blake reacted very differently to the gaps any system seemed to

have. Newton looked for a suture: a predictive method which could describe and unite

the variability of the micro- and macrocosms he explored. Blake, however, forced

disruption, discontinuity and incommensurability, producing an art he hoped would

reflect and embody the feelings he had of experience, and which would communicate the

primacy of the individual imagination. As such, Blake's is often called an anti-system

project (or poetics), and that it certainly is. However, Blake's work itself is certainly not

without systematic, or at least systemic, elements of its own.

Certainly Newton was aware of his work as systematic, though he may have tried,

overtly, to deny its breadth. In a letter accompanying his "Hypothesis on Light" in 1675,

Newton claims that the letter itself, as with the introduction to the "Hypothesis," is to

illustrate his optical papers only: "that no man may confound this with my other

discourses, or measure the certainty of one by the other." But, as Richard Westfall notes,

"it is quite impossible to reconcile the actual 'Hypothesis' with Newton's deprecations of it

... The 'Hypothesis' contained much more than an explanation of optical phenomena"

(270). Proposing the idea of a universal aether with implications well beyond the nature

of light, Newton spends half the "Hypothesis" offering what Westfall describes as "a

general system of nature" (270). And as Newton must have foreseen, the ideas he

expressed began a new round of disputes and controversies with Robert Hooke and the

Royal Society. Newton's fear that his ideas on light, no less than his ideas on a general


system of nature, would surely "ingage [him] in vain disputes" and "controversy" suggests

the degree to which he was aware that even his most experimentally sound system would

not satisfy all those in the scientific community given the potential gaps and

inconsistencies it was sure to have (Newton quoted in Westfall, 269).

In the case of Blake, recall that he may not necessarily be as anti-system as he is

often claimed to be, or, perhaps, as he often claims himself to be. Even arguments

against Blake as a kind of systematizer fall back into the language of systems. Donald

Ault attempts to reassert the context of Los's statement (in Jerusalem 10:20), "I must

Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Mans" to remind that it is not Blake's

statement necessarily. Ault writes that "Blake's treatment of Los's system ... is not

without irony... Blake's reaction was against all systems." Yet further he writes,

"Blake's 'system' is poetic or visionary" (Visionary Physics 29). Ault might place 'system'

in hesitant quotation marks, but there still seems to be poetic construction going on for

Blake on the level of perceptual framework, which is systemic if not systematic. It is

likely best to speak of a Blakean system of poetry advisedly (as Ault does). But I

maintain that there is a project going on in Blake's work which is not so fluid or

deconstructive as to elude the "systematic" entirely. Some contend that it is Blake

scholarship which renders Blake's work systematic, not the work itself. Steven Shaviro

considers this possibility: "Blake is interpreted systematically because it has been

assumed... that Blake's works do in fact constitute a system" ("Striving With Systems"

272). However, I think there is too much explicit evidence in Blake's art that suggests

dependence on systemic ways of reading (and which therefore required systemic ways of

writing) to claim that systematicity is laid over Blake by scholarship, and not in part

drawn out by it.'

For example, Robert Gleckner writes that "each of Blake's two song series ...

comprises a number of smaller units ... so that the relationship of each unit to the series

as a whole might be stated as a kind of progression" (10). I contend that Gleckner is not

making a system where one did not previously exist, but pointing to systematic

relationships that are inherent in the work, even when we take into account that Blake

shifted the plate order of the songs in various editions. One might argue that nothing is

inherent in a text until it is created by the reader. But by this logic, if you can argue that

Blake's system only appears so because readers make it so, thereby derailing my

contention that Blake is, in some ways, systematic, then we can as easily say that there is

no systematic project in Newton either, since it is only the reader of Newton who creates

a system, not Newton himself. For the purposes of the comparison it makes possible, I

will contend that there can be things in texts which are not merely the product of reading.

Or, if all things in texts are the product of reading, then certain consistent patterns must

emerge from all competent reading, that is, reading sensitive to the resonances and self-

reflections the text invites.

So I think Gleckner, for example, has noted something in Blake which, unless one

were to practice bad scholarship, cannot go unnoticed: a relationship of units which form

a progression. While I do not subscribe to the linearity of Gleckner's "progression" model

-if by that he means each poem necessarily follows one from the other-I think the

relationship of units he suggests is both productive for reading Blake's work, and


evidence of a kind of Blakean system. And certainly there is nothing to say that the units

themselves cannot shift and change, especially as plate orders change. Indeed, the artistic

techniques Blake used throughout his career to create the same "units," as Gleckner calls

them, varied enough that figures which appear to invoke a particular type often grew out

of very different material processes. Consider the "old man" in plate 2 of All Religions

Are One, relief etched and printed in monotone, to the "old man" (and child) in plate 84

of Jerusalem, relief etched but with added watercolour and pen and touches of gold.

Compare either of these techniques, themselves different enough, with pencil sketches,

for example, like the "Head of Job" (Keynes, Drawings of William Blake 74). They are

all the old man, and thus invoke a particular symbolism, but each seems different enough

to potentially disrupt the very symbolism it imports.

W. J. T. Mitchell, whose Blake studies capture more of the poems' fluidity than

do Gleckner's, cites instances of "illustrations which do not illustrate" to show how Blake

forces us to read pictures "in the context of other, similar compositions" (Blake's

Composite Art, 4-5). Again, this suggests a sort of archetypal system or network in which

illustrations import symbolism from other contexts in which they've appeared. Mitchell

later writes that "Abstract linear forms such as the vortex or the circle provide the

structural skeletons" for much of Blake's art; and they are "repeated so systematically that

they suggest a kind of... repertoire of leitmotifs that can be repeated in widely differing

contexts" (37; my italics).

In order not to overstate my case though, it is clear that where Newtonianism

required that gaps and inconsistencies in the system be either filled or erased (or avoided


with covering letters), Blake's system highlights incommensurabilities as fundamental to

the human condition. Lest we charge Newton with believing too unquestioningly in the

comprehensiveness of his system, though, we might recall what he was reported to have

said to his nephew, Benjamin Smith:

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to
myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the
sea shore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding a
smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the
great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
(quoted in White, 343)

Ultimately, I am much more concerned with "Blake's Newton" as a poetic figure,

than with Newton as an historic figure; certainly the two are not identical, nor, perhaps,

do they even share as much in common as we might assume. And I am concerned with

Newtonianism as Blake engaged it: not necessarily just a set of procedures practised by a

man in Cambridge, but the cultural movement that had become Newtonianism by Blake's

time. (Koyrd writes that even by the end of the 18* century, "Newtonian science seemed

to reach its final and definitive perfection" (17).) Blake engaging "Newton" or

"Newtonianism" is complex, for as Donald Ault, following Thomas Kuhn, writes, "in the

years following the emergence of Newton's paradigm ... Newton's system insinuated

itself into a vast range of intellectual disciplines" (Visionary Physics 46). And Alvin

Toffler, introducing Prigogine and Stengers' Order Out of Chaos, writes that the

"Newtonian model gave rise to analogies in politics, diplomacy and other spheres

seemingly remote from science" (xxiii). In fact, it is most likely that Blake encountered

Newtonianism through the textbooks he was engraving, or perhaps in reading through the

libraries of friends like the publisher Joseph Johnson. I would say issues of whether

Blake actually read anything by Newton are much less central here than the pervasiveness

of systematized ways of thinking and organizing culture that Blake chooses to embody in

his poetic "Newton" (and in other figures, like Urizen). Whether Blake is "right" about

Newton per se, is less important, for me, than what develops from Blake's critique, and

what new things and ways of thinking he makes possible.

Donald Ault writes that "to most Newtonians there was no question whether a

logical system could explain the whole of the world; the only question was, which system

could best characterize nature's inherent logical structure" (Visionary Physics 28). And

Peterfreund reminds that "up to Blake's time, the response of eighteenth-century literature

to Newtonian science is unanimous in its belief that Newton's mathematics and physics

are fully disinterested, inductive, impartial and authoritative" (21). Newtonianism

became the set of keys-even the key-which would reveal the logic of action at a distance,

light, alchemy, and the Bible. Toffler writes that in the Newtonian system, "every event

was determined by initial conditions that were, at least in principle, determinable with

precision. It was a world in which chance played no part, in which all the pieces came

together like cogs in a cosmic machine" (xiii). Newton sought an all-embracing model of

the universe on both microcosmic and macrocosmic levels. Biographer Richard Westfall

notes that Newton presented himself often as a "natural philosopher confronting the entire

sweep of Nature" (270), and Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs writes that "to Newton himself all his

diverse studies constituted a unified plan for obtaining Truth" (17). Anachronistically

speaking, it is surely this Newton-the totalizer-and his belief in some discoverable

system to unify, and to explain the connections between, quite simply, everything, that

Blake picks up in his creation of Newton as a poetic figure.

Certainly Blake's relationship to the Newton he creates is complex, however

much Blake aligns Newton with other poetic figures like Urizen, and however much

Newton and Urizen represent the most reprehensible (for Blake) impulses in culture to

abstract, universalize and control. We need go no further to discover some of this

complexity than Blake's 1795 painting entitled Newton. Here we find, I think, both a

clear critical stance by Blake against systematic projects like Newtonianism; yet there is

also the added dimension of Blake's own implication and participation in that system. It

is this duality that I would like to keep foregrounded throughout my discussion.

Blake's "Newton"

In Blake's portrait (if I can call it that) of Newton, Newton is more Greek god than

Cambridge loner (Figure 1-1). His is a body of material potential. He traces or measures

a figure which seems to cause and to mirror his own. In one sense, the figure's muscular

body bends to produce the Euclidean triangle on the page, yet the placement of the scroll

at the figure's feet also causes the body to take the shape it does; he must bend to the

ground to reach it. The "Newton" of the picture is both producing but also produced by

his measurement; perhaps we can see depicted here Blake's "same dull round" wherein

"If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character. The Philosophic & Experimental

would soon be at the ratio of all things & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the

same dull round over again ... He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only" ("There is

no Natural Religion," 3).


This circularity-Newton both creating yet being shaped by his creation-is crucial

to Blake's Newtonian critique in the painting, since it implies his larger critique of a kind

of language, or a use of language, which assumes itself to be entirely passive and not in

any way involved in inventing that which it purports to discover. That is, it is a language

which presents itself as both transparent and uni-directional. It is assumed to flow as

description towards objects which exist a priori of that description. However, Blake is

clearly aware that language is a much more powerful tool, and that it creates the stuff of

science and art and life as much as it describes it. Thus, without seeming to be aware of

it, the figure in Newton is as much controlled, and bent nearly double, by the written

triangle, as he is in control of it.

Note how the figure's right hand forms a triangle of its own with the knuckle of

the middle finger and the pointer finger forming two sides while the scroll itself forms the

base. Note again how the left hand forms a triangle with the bent pointer finger as two

sides and the compass as a base. In the pencil sketch for Newton (see Keynes Drawings

of William Blake 18) there is, in fact, an additional triangle which does not appear in the

colour print; it is formed by the figure's index finger, the extended middle finger and the

compass. (In the sketch, Newton's fingers seem decidedly disproportionate. The middle

finger which extends down the compass, and which goes to form a triangle that does not

appear in the colour print must measure at least the length of the left forearm.) It is

revealing, I think, that many of the figural triangles which emerge are formed by some

combination of the human figure and the apparatus of his science. It is also noteworthy

that Blake would use the triangle as his basic, repeated shape here, and that triangles form

one of the most basic mathematical shapes in the figures which accompany Newton's

own works, like the Principia. (For readings of Newton see Donald Ault's Visionary

Physics, 2-4; and W. J. T. Mitchell's "Chaosthetics: Blake's Sense of Form," and Blake's

Composite Art, 49.)

In terms of language then, for Blake it is clearly at least bi-directional, that is, it

describes, but also creates in that description. Thus it can create away difference while

posing as description; further, it can mask a subjective voice by presuming objectivity.

Thomas Kuhn, in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions describes the effect: "normal

science ... often suppresses fundamental novelties [differences] because they are

necessarily subversive of its basic commitments [its abstract models]" (5). And further,

certain experiments are often ignored if they "[yield] neither consistent nor simple results

... they [remain] mere facts, unrelated and unrelatable" (35). Umberto Eco offers

another version: "we travel knowing in advance what we are on the verge of discovering.

.. Someone discovers something different and tries to see it as absolutely analogous to

what he already knows" (54, 74). Peterfreund describes Blake's reaction to this (mis-)use

of language (denying its power to create what is assumed to exist) in terms of an


that all texts, as the artifacts of specific individuals writing
in specific contexts of time and place, are rhetorical, or
argumentative, and that the situation could not be
otherwise, since all language is produced by individuals
speaking from positions ... accordingly, there is no such
thing as disinterestedness ... no authority, only usurped
freedom. (22)


For the Newtonian text to claim authority is, in Peterfreund's reading of Blake's

critique, only for the text to usurp the power of readerly interpretation under the aegis of

textual control, itself girded, in Newton's case, by claims to the empirically verified

"rightness" of the argument. Blake imagines the power and variability of language in

Jerusalem in a conversation among the Four Zoas, the "Visionary forms dramatic":

creating exemplars of Memory and Intellect
Creating Space, Creating Time according to the wonder Divine
Of Human Imagination, throughout all the Three Regions immense
Of Childhood, Manhood & Old Age[;] & the all tremendous
unfathomable Non Ens
Of death was seen in regenerations terrific or complacent varying
According to the subject of discourse & every Word & Every Character
Was Human according to the Expansion or Contraction, the
Translucence or
Opakeness of Nervous fibres such was the variation of Time & Space
Which vary according as the Organs of Perception
(Jerusalem, Plate 98: 28-39)

Here language is recognized as a subject-dependent instrument of creation. No claims

to authority are made, beyond the assertion that every word and character vary

according to the individuality of their speaker.

Blake's critique of the Newtonian system focuses on that system's denial of the

power of language, thus its power of abstraction, thus the tendency for systems to

prescribe a futurity which suppresses the detail of difference in order that the system

maintain itself. Blake will present this closed circularity often, though most notably in

the inescapable circularity of Urizen measuring the world that he has produced, yet

producing the world by measurement. For Urizen forms his weights and measures

before exploring his surroundings; "He formd golden compasses / And [then] he began

to explore the Abyss" (The Book of Urizen, VII:39-40). There seems no escape from

the process of creation-as-measurement that figures like Urizen and Newton are caught

in. (I look specifically at The Book of Urizen, written during the same time period that

Blake worked on Newton, in greater detail in Chapter 2.)

To return to Blake's Newton, though, it is important to remember that while the

figure certainly dominates the work, the background is equally revealing. Against the

definite outline of the figure, Blake offers an ambiguous background which seems at

once ocean, land, rock, vegetation and an accident of watercolour. Newton is one of

twelve large colour prints Blake produced in 1795. There is debate surrounding the

exact technique he used, but it likely employed either millboard or metal plate. While

Frederick Tatham reports that Blake used millboard, Raymond Lister, in Infernal

Methods, suggests that "the effect could have been obtained from a sheet of zinc or

copper" (59). (Tatham's account is provided in Gilchrist's Life of William Blake on

page 366, but it could not have been from firsthand knowledge; Tatham was not even

born when Blake was developing the technique in the early 1790s.) Blake etched or

painted his design (in the reverse direction of what would appear in the final product)

either on the millboard or metal plate, and then pressed the design to paper. He could

then add different paint to the millboard or plate and press the design again. This

produced a "mottled" background, or, as Michael Phillips writes in the Tate Gallery's

William Blake exhibition catalogue, "highly reticulated surfaces often of great richness

and individuality" (106-107). It is certainly this individuality-the accident of colour-

which informs the critique at work in the colour print.

In "Chaosthetics: Blake's Sense of Form," W. J. T. Mitchell reminds us that

"when seen in the context of late-eighteenth century printmaking ... his [Blake's]

handling of color is notoriously indifferent" (444). Indifferent to what though?

Convention? Outcome? Mitchell writes further that "Blake clearly intended his art to

look the way it did," and that the sorts of questions Blake forces deal as much with

"moral, political, and metaphysical" issues as with aesthetics (445). What comes from

Mitchell's discussion, I would argue, is that Blake was really not indifferent to his

handling of colour, however much he might have invited chance into his creation. That

is to say, in creating the background to frame Newton, Blake did not seem to set out to

create a certain pattern which he could have predicted before it came to be; however,

Blake is clearly aware of (not indifferent at all to) the effect he wanted and the

technique which would produce that effect. Blake might have been indifferent to

colour, but certainly not to its handling. Mitchell describes the technique Blake used to

produce the background effect; he assumes that millboard, and not a metal plate was

used: "this sort of color printing involved the application of colors to a piece of

millboard that was then pressed against the paper and pulled away, leaving an

unpredictable and random pattern of mottled impressions" (455; my italics). In

addition to Blake's awareness of colouring and of the material used to register paint to

paper (either metal plate or millboard), it is also possible that Blake was highly aware of

the paper itself, and the way in which it would take up colour. Very close study (7x

magnification) of the original Newton on display at the Tate Gallery in London reveals

that the paper itself seems to have just enough texture to make exact copies impossible,


and even to produce what often appear to be figures, letters, even words that almost but

do not quite emerge. This is particularly true of the pencil sketch for Newton that Blake

executed. While there does not appear to be any actual writing under magnification,

with the naked eye, the light pencil shading Blake has used to indicate the background

tends to catch the minute wrinkles of the paper in such a way as to suggest writing that

has been lightly erased. Thus Blake seems to have been aware of the potential for near

emergence inherent in all aspects of the colour printing process, not just the pressed

millboard or metal plate.

Robert Essick, writing on the recently discovered copy E of The Book of Urizen,

notes Blake's "purposeful incorporation of the accidental with artistic production"

(102). Ironically, Essick confronts the issue of intentionality as it arises in relation to

another of Blake's backgrounds. (Though background, in this case, produces what

Essick calls "the most significant design variant" (101).) In Plate 9 of copy E, Essick

notes what "looks like a grazing horse, complete with an eye and slight indications of a

nose" (101). The eye and nose are created by denser spots of colour printing. Essick

writes, "there is no evidence of work with brush or pen ... Thus, the horse-like image

may be an accidental product of color printing rather than the result of an intentional

act" (102). As with the Newton background, we see here a certain kind of

intentionality: at the very least, an awareness of consequence. "Blake chose color

printing," as Essick notes (102; my italics). Did he choose it because it rendered

unpredictability and chance variation? Does meaning thus emerge differently from

different kinds of intentionality?

The question in regards to the Newton print remains though: How does the

background, so different from the strength of line in the figure, function in terms of the

critique at work in the print? Can we even call it a "background" given the negative

valence that term carries. Is Blake playing with our sense of background as somehow

secondary, even marginal? Do we assume the figure is therefore foreground and

central? What status do we accord these formal parts in their ability to critique one


It is most easy to see "Blake" in the indefinite background whose fluidity is

meant to suggest the fluid multiplicity, an endless detail of difference, denied by the

Euclidean triangles in the foreground. There is certainly a degree to which the

individuality of each work, a result of the technique and materials Blake has chosen to

use, works against notions of systematic reproduction. Ironically, the effect of near

emerging writing or forms that is available in the original material disappears when the

work is reproduced by most methods in books today. Under 7x magnification, the

pencil sketch reproduction in Martin Butlin's The Paintings and Drawings of William

Blake is revealed as columns and rows of perfectly ordered tiny dots, an image of

identicality itself (this is particularly true for the background). William Blake has made

certain aspects of his work entirely unreproducable, as though to guarantee at least

those aspects against mass production as a kind of system deeply associated with the

Newtonian system against which Blake worked.

The material and technique themselves are used to critique the very image they

produce. But I think Blake is as much the Newton figure as he is the chaos of the

setting. Some critics have even suggested that the Newton face is that of a younger

Blake (Ackroyd, 201). Peter Ackroyd writes:

there is no reason to believe that Blake thought of
Newton as a very different kind of writer from
himself. Indeed there is an intensity about this
image that suggests he recognized the creative
importance of the scientist's vision ... Perhaps
also, in this contemplative figure, there is some
suggestion of the obsession and isolation that
were part of Blake's own experience. (201)

Ultimately, I think Blake was too aware of himself as an artist in a Newtonian

world to completely extricate himself from the material conditions of that world. Nor,

does it seem, did Blake want to remove himself from the tensions and contradictions

which accompanied his work as a poet and engraver. They were, in many ways, his

source material for thinking through the fluidity of poetic vision and the necessity of

activating that vision by fixing it on the printed page. Chapter 2 deals, in greater detail,

with the tension between fixity and fluidity in Blake's work, and the degree to which

Blake participated in both the fluidity of poetic imagination yet the fixity of setting

imaginative vision onto the material page.

Anti-System Summary

I have situated the crux of what has been identified by various commentators as

Blake's anti-system (or anti-Newtonian) project in the operation of language/design

itself, extending to the page, books and writing as key components in stabilizing and

perpetuating any system. I am casting the assumed stability of language/design on the

page as "fixity," thus giving me that part of my subtitle, "Fixity, Fluidity, Disorder and

Energy." Fixity implies singular perspective, univocality, and the suppression of

anything that might alter and upset the operation of the fixed system. Those elements

which operate to counter "fixity" I would like to group under the heading, "fluidity," the

second term in my subtitle. To suggest that those elements which operate to de-stabilize

the foundation upon which fixity depends are "fluid" helps to ground my thinking in the

very materiality of Blake's artistic production. For if the copper plate implies a kind of

fixity by its very hardness, then I think the acid mixture and watercolour washes imply a

fluidity which is no less related to physical, artistic production, yet which counters the

solidness of the metal plate. Blake presents this opposition in The Marriage of Heaven

and Hell as one between the "books [and] ... libraries" of received ideas ("the method

in which knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation") and printing in "the

infernal method" with "corrosives" which reveal error (Plates 14-15). I would like to

now suggest ways in which Blake encounters (and counters) fixity by means of what has

been called his Composite Art.

Blake's Composite Art

Poems with wild and interesting pictures.
Coleridge describes Blake

Stephen Kellert writes, in In the Wake of Chaos, that chaos theory is not "as

interesting as it sounds" (ix). Part of what I think he means is that chaos, the thing

itself, the set of behaviours that it is, might be pretty "interesting" (as in "exciting,"

"energized"), but the theory of it, the writing about it, is not. Sadly, there is not always

profundity by association in scholarship. Or, it is not always possible to make the


product of one's study as dynamic or challenging as the subject of one's study; and it is

rarely possible, when dealing with a subject involved in a far reaching cultural critique,

to avoid entirely some of the pitfalls that that critique points to. Having said this,

perhaps as a sort of pre-emptive self-defence, I want to now engage Blake's art from a

"different" angle, and divide my discussion between Blake's anti-system project and his

composite art, knowing full well that such a division is arbitrary and likely runs against

the grain of many of Blake's moves to unite contraries that had otherwise been

artificially divided. For despite calling this section "Blake's Composite Art," it is really

still deeply tied to his anti-Newtonian, anti-system project. The purpose of division here

is very much functional, since it allows me to situate my own project in terms of certain

scholars who have concentrated primarily on Blake's art or primarily on his anti-system

project. There is a tendency, it seems, to privilege one over the other. Or at least to

always address one just as a component of the other. I cannot claim to be doing

something entirely different here; however, if I ever do privilege one perspective on

Blake over another (the compositeness of his art over the anti-Newtonianism, for

example), I hope there are as many instances of that privileging reversed.

Ultimately, it is clear that the way a composite art can be made to function on

the page-that is, its form-to force disruption, non-linearity between text and design,

conflict, or change, is an outgrowth of content. Blake's composite art will not submit to

the kind of reading which requires the stability of traditional or simple relationships

between elements on a page (graphic to text or graphic to graphic). The instability

Blake forces between the parts of his composite art (if it can be divided into parts)


marks one of the most anti-Newtonian aspects of Blake's page. And it is important to

recall, again, as Donald Ault has written, "'Newtonian texts' are by no means restricted

to Newton: his is simply an extreme form of narrative stance which Blake's narrative

systematically opposes" ("Incommensurability" 159).

Imagine how "design" interacts with text in something like Newton's Principia:

a good example of a systematic book whether Blake actually had the opportunity to read

it or not. (Ault contends that "it would seem Blake did have some firsthand information

about Newton's ideas" (Visionary Physics 45).) There must be a direct and clear

relationship between what is being written and what is being drawn for the argument to

work, and thus for the language used to communicate the system to reveal the supposed

unambiguity of the system itself (which is supposed to exist prior to its description).

Indeed, the graphical is simply another way of saying what the text has already said.

Take, for example, Book I of the Principia, Section III, Proposition 11: "Let a body

revolve in an ellipse; it is required to find the law of the centripetal force tending toward

a focus of the ellipse." Newton continues, "Let S be a focus of the ellipse. Draw SP

cutting both the diameter DK of an ellipse in E and the ordinate Qv in x, and complete

the parallelogram QxPR" (462). It is likely second nature for us to accept the imperative

voice of the Newtonian narrator and to "let" the figure accompanying the text do exactly

as the narrator says. Or, to more accurately reflect our relationship to the text, we will

"draw" or "cut" or "complete" the figure as we are told to do by the narrator. Following

from this, we trust the narrator to be describing the process of creating the figure such

that it parallels the argument it accompanies. All told, we relinquish our power of

interpretation (and, indeed, action) in allowing the Newtonian narrator to dictate the

direct relationship between text and design and to thereby assume complete control over


Part of what Blake's composite art questions though are the assumptions of

authority and control over interpretation made in demanding such direct text and design

relationships. One might simply argue that Blake is doing art and Newton is writing a

scientific treatise: of course things are going to be different. But that is exactly the

point. Blake chose to work in such a way as to reveal some of the things that the

Newtonian text takes for granted, and to question what sorts of implications would arise

from that, and he could only do so by creating a very different kind of reading

experience on his own page. Indeed, Blake's art requires that there be space for the

reader to grasp the text as sometimes self-reflexive, sometimes ironic, sometimes not

offering the most simple relations between its parts. Ault writes in

"Incommensurability" that mathematical notation and the graphic illustration which

accompanies it "cannot bear an ironic or parodic relationship" (164). In denying the

potential for irony, the Newtonian text denies the reader entry into the meaning making

process for there can be no multiple senses in which a text can exist.

For Newton, text and design together are assumed to reveal the ultimate

unambiguity of nature, and thus must themselves present, in their relationship to one

another, an equally stringent unambiguity. Newton even stressed the need for singular

clarity in his analysis of The Book of Revelation: "God who knew how to frame it [that

is, put the Apocalypse into language] without ambiguity intended it [clarity of

description] for a rule of faith" (quoted in Manuel, Appendix A). As Ault notes, "It is

quite clear that this Newtonian voice equates 'multiplicity' with 'confusion' and

therefore needs to ground his direction of the reader's responses in a similar need for

reduction of multiplicity to univocality" ("Incommensurability," 162).

In setting Blake's composite art as a reaction to text-design relationships in the

Newtonian text, it is most important to note that the Newtonian relationship between

text and design must be singular, permanent, and stable ("unambiguous" to use

Newton's terms) if the system is to function as universal and fully predictive, just as

Newtonian reading must arrive at a singular ("correct") interpretation, thus proving and

further guaranteeing the univocality of the text as final authority over its own meaning.

This connection between univocality, or single-voicedness, and textual authority will

become crucial in subsequent chapters which look at the act of annotation as a

multiplying of voices on the page, and thereby as a direct challenge to authorship

(ownership of meaning on the finished page) as guarantor of singular interpretive


Approaching the relationship between elements on the page from a different

perspective, one might say that the reversibility of time supposed to inhere in classical

science is made to inhere in the description and argument of that system whereby the

reader must be able to travel from text to design or from design to text without

interruption or complication at any moment in the process of reading. In this sense,

there can be no interference between elements which go to illustrate an argument. The

space of the text must be an absolute space like the one Newton posits in the Principia:

"Absolute space, of its own nature without reference to anything external, always

remains homogeneous and immovable" (408). We cannot read the relationship between

text and graphic on page 60, for example, only to find that the same graphic is doing

something entirely contrary on page 120, that is, interfering with what we have already

read. The potential for interference would act as an initial clue that ambiguity might

exist where the Newtonian text would prefer to remove it entirely. Certainly ambiguity

would suggest that the Newtonian text was losing control over itself, relinquishing

meaning, rather, to the reader and to the variability of readerly (or context specific)


Such is the space of Blake's art, wherein readers are forced to deal with

perspectives that change almost as often as we turn the page; thus, elements on the page

are set up so as to interfere with one another, and to always comment on their

appearance elsewhere. (Interestingly, a working model of glossing.) Time, the arrow of

our reading Blake, moves in one direction, since Blake is constantly inviting

interference: if you read about Los in The Book of Los and then find him different in The

Book of Urizen, there is no going back and undoing your first knowledge. If you

encounter the child perched directly atop the head of the Bard in the "Introduction" to

the Songs of Experience, you must consider that image as it intrudes upon its

counterpart: the child unattached to the piper in the "Introduction" to the Songs of

Innocence. I argue that Blake's insistence upon contraries throughout his work

demands that we navigate interference as an inescapable part of Blakean reading.

The insistence to cause interference we find in Blake's work cannot be said to

exist in something like the ideal system-of-the-world textbook. If you read page 200

first, in which "Figure III" (whatever it might be) illustrated some point made in the

text; then you read page 3 in which "Figure I," the same triangle, perhaps, as in Figure

II, illustrated some other point; the stability assumed to inhere in the one-to-one

relationships between text and design would make it possible for the two figures to exist

in absolute, non-relative (non-interfering) space. One would not interfere, disrupt, or

necessarily change the other. There is "one" way to read Figure I and "one" way to read

Figure III, and there is, ideally, no possibility for interference between the two.

The space and time in which text-design relationships in the Newtonian text

function is, in some ways, absolute and reversible. You could read Figure III before

Figure I as easily as you could read Figure I before Figure III, and because of the

assumed autonomy of their relation to the text, there is no "time" in your reading. There

is no way in which first readings necessarily change future readings. Perhaps it works

to say then that time in the Blakean text affects the reader and the text. Whereas time in

the Newtonian text might affect the reader (the argument develops, for us, linearly), but

does not (ideally) affect the text itself (moments in the text do not alter other moments).

I think this coincides with the insistence I (following critics like Donald Ault) find in the

Newtonian text to always control itself, to ground itself as ultimate authority over its

own meaning. Ault writes:

The Newtonian narrator asserts the semantic limits of the
possible meaning of the text, making the text usurp the
reader's role ... The reader is separated from the text as

the elements of the text are separated, isolated from one
another... Everything has been worked out by the text.
("Incommensurability," 162-164)

I must stress though, that my argument does not extend to the argument put forth

in the Newtonian text. For that is surely linear, and it develops in time. Certainly we

could not start at the end of the Principia, read backwards, and hope to understand.

Thus time, in this sense, is clearly not reversible, and it does need to move in one

direction if we are to comprehend the text. What I am arguing is that relationships

between text and design (or portions of argument and their attendant figures) operate

outside of the time of our reading them in the sense that the stability of those

relationships is not interconstitutive; text-design stability inheres regardless of what we

have or have not seen before in the book. In Narrative Unbound, Donald Ault deals

with the complicated text of the "unfinished" Four Zoas as it represents one of Blake's

anti-Newtonian texts. For Ault, "there are no context-free universal propositions in

Blake's poetry" (488, note 1). And the "experiential significance of an event is

determined by its location ... in the temporal series" (492, note 20). To me, the degree

to which Blake's poetry is context-sensitive speaks to its more general sensitivity to

time. Indeed, it depends on what Ault describes as "a reader whose perception is able to

alter the very being of the text's supposedly fixed facts" (6). The argument I have been

developing here is specific to the compositeness of Blake's art, in that any of Blake's

text-design relationships are equally sensitive to context (there are no universal

relationships?) as well as to readerly perception. This dependence on time, rendering

our sense of it as so immediately irreversible (and thus each new poetic thing we

encounter as constituted, in part, by all previous things), is, I maintain, a direct

outgrowth of Blake's stand against that characteristic of the Newtonian text which

conjures away the reader by asserting text-design relationships which can operate

outside of time, outside of context, outside of our process of reading. The imperative

voice of the Newtonian narrator tells us what is to be done to figures accompanying text

and tells us what figures and text mean by way of thoroughly disarming our power to

make text-design relationships do or be anything other than what the narrator demands.

For Blake, deeply concerned with the effects such a reading practice produces

(in terms of locking readers into one reading, one relationship with the text, and

removing the text from the possibility for self-reflexive change), it is not surprising that

his critique of systems would force an entirely different reading practice, and thus the

look of his page would differ greatly from any page involved in trying to assert a total

system (be it a Philosophiae Naturalis de Mundi Systemate or not). Take, for example,

Plate 4 from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The graphic "illustrates" a contest

between contraries, as the text on the same plate discusses. Roughly two years later,

Blake produced a very similar figural pattern and scene in "Good and Evil Angels

Struggling for Possession of a Child" (Figure 1-2). Aside from having the figures

reversed, Blake very nearly repeats himself. However similar the pictures are though,

they are deeply relative to their specific contexts. The space of Blake's art is by no

means an absolute space. More importantly, the time, or process of our reading, simply

cannot be reversible, for our seeing of one instance of the figures must inform (interfere

with) our next seeing of the same figures. The relativity of one to the other speaks to


the irreversibility of the practice of reading which Blake forces. Consider also some of

the more common figures which show up throughout Blake's art. For example, the Old

Testament patriarch, Urizenic figure who may, or may not always represent Urizen. The

old man who appears in the graphic which accompanies "London" (though there are no

old men in the poem) certainly interferes with other instances of the old man figure

appearing elsewhere-the "Ancient of Days" for example (himself interfering with

Newton as they both hold a compass). Most notably, the figural arrangement in

"London" appears in Jerusalem on Plate 84, where the text identifies the old man as

London, being led through the streets "by a child" (Erdman, Illuminated Blake, 363). At

least there is the potential for one appearance to interfere with any other (regardless of

the chronological order of their publication). And clearly Blake invites such

interference by depending on what critics like Mitchell have called the "lietmotifs" of

repeated types (37). In contrast, the ideal Newtonian text denies the possibility for

interference as a necessary condition for proving the stability of the system of the world.

And it does so by forcing only one relationship between figure and text-a relationship

that remains undamageable by past and future reading, thereby rendering the notions of

past, present and future irrelevant.

In terms of Blake's art itself though, there is much more to be said about the

relation between text and design aside from issues of time. Despite what often appears

to be a visual separateness of text and illustration on the Blakean page, there is evidence

that Blake may have thought of the two elements in very similar ways. If anything,

Blake's composite art brings the supposed sisters of painting and poetry together, not so

much for a family reunion, but rather to interrogate what might be a false division and

separation between the two. Or Blake seems to be challenging any "unification" of the

sister arts which attempts to make one do what the other normally does. Mitchell

describes this, in Blake's Composite Art, as trying to make "pictures 'speak'" or "poetry

visual" (34). Blake's critique seeks for some more fundamental way to unify, or seek

connection between, things which have been divided. Mitchell reads in Blake the

impetus "to discover a new basis for.., unification" (34). Thus, for Mitchell, the

compositeness of Blake's art involves as much the combining of two different kinds of

representation (text and picture), as it involves the search for "the parallel engagements

of imagination and body with their respective mediums, and in their convergence in the

more comprehensive idea of the 'Human Form Divine'." (34). Mitchell finds in Blake

that "the body and the imagination are separable principles only in a fallen world of

limited perception, and the business of art is to dramatize their unification" (35).

Important for this project is to note how complicated the interaction is between

what we can sometimes (but not always) identify as the graphic versus the textual on the

Blakean page; especially important are the kinds of disruptions and discontinuities

which can be forced when we must consider the textual alone, the pictorial alone, and,

more often, the combination of the two operating in conflicting ways. But it may only

be our reading strategy, and not Blake's, that wants to see text and illustration as

different elements working on the same page. We must recall that when Blake

engraved, he had to write backwards on the copper plate (a skill he often practised in his

notebooks). Words took on the form of pictures themselves, and often in the leaves and

twining vines that encircle Blake's text, we can almost see words that are struggling to

form themselves and break free of the bound plate. The intertextual windings lead our

eye from text to graphic as though we are to read picture just as we have been reading

text. Note Blake's Laocoin for an example of "text" and "illustration" which seem to

force the shape of one another (Figure 1-3).

There is some scholarship which ignores either text or illustration and

concentrates on one of the two elements. Heather Glen, for example, offers an

elucidating reading of "London" in her Vision and Disenchantment: Blake's "Songs"

and Wordsworth's "Lyrical Ballads." Yet her argument thoroughly ignores the

illustration (110ff.). The complex nature of the relationship between text and

illustration in much of Blake's work really does require at least a nod to both, however.

This is especially true for a poem like "London" in which the illustrations) (a young

child (?) leading (?) an old man; a figure warming (?) his/her (?) hands by a fire; bear no

immediate relationship to the text). Erdman's speculations on what the illustrations

illustrate are almost entirely derived by importing symbolism from other poems; for

example, "Another vagabond boy at a smokier street-fire than the family's fire in the

previous page ["The Little Vagabond"] ... His [the boy's] flame we have seen in

miniature under the title of 'Holy Thursday'" (88).

Note also, for example, the illustrations in Figure 1-4 from America; Erdman

identifies the figures as Urizen and Ore (Illuminated Blake, 146-148). The complicated

system of differences and similarities between the contrary characters, their strikingly

similar poses yet clear contextual differences, and further, the relation between the two

which develops as we read from Plates 8 to 10 and beyond suggest that such an easy

'naming' is potentially misleading. On Plate 8, it is as though Urizen, seated above a

textual block, looks "up" towards what we might imagine as Ore, when, on Plate 10, we

see Orc looking "down" from beneath a textual block (Erdman, 146, 148). But there is

no reason to assume, as Erdman does, that the figures are Urizen and Orc at all; if they

are, their near-identical poses suggest that a more complicated reading is necessary than

labelling them as binary Reason-Imagination, Bad-Good opposites. The text makes

reference to other characters who might be represented in the illustration. "Orc" on

Plate 10, for example, may just as easily be the fiery Angels alluded to in line 1 of Plate

11 (who are, themselves, aligned with Urizen's "clouds" on Plate 8, yet they "bum with

the fires of Ore," pictured on Plate 10). In fact, the line which suggests that the figure is

Orc-"buming with the fires of Ore" (Plate 11, line 2)-occurs after the figure itself

which is on Plate 10. All of this is to suggest the fluidity (or capacity for change) with

which Blake presents the characters of his myth, and with which we must read

relationships that develop between characters, and between illustration and text.

To set Blake in a general tradition regarding his use of text and illustration, he is

both following and reforming the Whitney emblem tradition (see Figure 1-5).

Whitney's text and illustration are kept clearly separated on the page-indeed the picture

is framed within the frame of the printed page. Yet the poem elucidates its attendant

illustration directly, "What hideous hagge with visage stere appears?" (192). Unlike

what we might expect from Blake, Whitney answers his own question, offering a textual

explanation of his illustrated "Envy." Whitney even glosses his own work, referring to


"Envy's" tradition in literature and offers a Latin motto and an accompanying aphorism.

In the Whitney tradition, correspondence between all elements of text and graphic are

clear and direct, creating what Blake might have recognized as a kind of system of

signification that was extremely limiting and highly didactic. However much Blake is

informed by the Whitney emblem tradition and by the Gothic art he so prized, Blake

introduces an element of fluidity to the otherwise fixed system of meaning and


The complexity of Blake's approach to uniting the visual and verbal is most

fully captured if we can consider the interplay of textual and graphic as dialectic;

however, it is a kind of dialectic which keeps thesis and anti-thesis from a final, ending

synthesis. Thus text and graphic inform each other, but do not necessarily progress into

some final, closed unity. However, W. J. T. Mitchell describes Blake's combined text

and illustration in his Blake's Composite Art:

neither the graphic nor the
poetic aspect of Blake's composite art assumes
consistent predominance: their relationship is
more like an energetic rivalry, a dialogue or
dialectic between vigorously independent
modes of expression. (4)

The use of "dialectic" here seems rather loose, given that Blake's "dialectic" is so clearly

different, even antithetical, to the dialectical process of thesis => antithesis => synthesis.

Indeed, Mitchell's point about text and illustration is that one never synthesizes the

other, though he does not interrogate his own use of the concept of dialectic. In

contrast, Stuart Peterfreund asserts that "William Blake rejects the proposition that

human understanding arises from dialectical logic" (38). That is, where binaries are

concerned, one need never occlude the other, in the process of it becoming known or

understandable. Thus Urizen is both Blake himself and Newton at the same time. Or,

as Blake writes in the "Grey Monk," a "Tear is an Intellectual Thing" (489, 1.29); it is

not emotional or rational, but both.

Mitchell's sense of the dialectic in Blake changed markedly from his 1978

Blake's Composite Art to his 1996 "Chaosthetics."2 In "Chaosthetics," Mitchell writes

that "terms like form and chaos, sanity and madness, are dialectical categories that are

mutually necessary to one another for their meaning." But further, "they cannot be

resolved in some higher synthesis (Hegelian or otherwise) but are continually

reinscribed as boundaries of the thinkable" (448). To grasp Blake's use of the dialectic

as an organizing principle, we likely need to reconsider the very grounds for an

argument that would assert any singular and consistent use of any one kind of dialectic

(or non-dialectic, for that matter). For indeed, there are likely many instances of Blake

putting various kinds of dialectical relationships into play. In terms of the

compositeness of Blake's art and whether there is one nameable dialectic relationship

which remains constant as far as text and design are concerned, it is likely safest to

conclude that there is no one type of relationship that inheres all the time; rather Blake's

composite art forces us to evaluate each text and design combination as we come to it,

in its context, and in context of what we have previously seen. As Fred Dortort writes,

"Not simply dialectical in the sense of one being in opposition to the other, the

interaction between text and graphics continuously fluctuates" (23).

However much the reader might vacillate regarding the nature of Blake's

dialectical procedure though, it is clear that the often-quoted "without contraries is no

progression" dictum is more complicated than just some master progress-narrative of

repression and obliteration, which Blake's England had likely taken to heart all too

readily, and which Blake scholarship sometimes takes at face value (Marriage of

Heaven and Hell, Plate3). Thus we must read Blake's composite art with the sense in

mind that text and illustration are likely to function in more complex ways than one-to-

one relationships, but that those complex ways are not always predictable or the same.

Certainly, when we encounter illustrations which, as Mitchell writes, "do not

illustrate" it is more likely an artistically competent move by Blake than a mistake (4).

As Ault writes in Narrative Unbound, "Conflicting statements [and illustrations?] may

function to open up a play of differences rather than to indicate Blake's confusion" (xvi).

It is these "differences," and the openness of Blake's poetic page, that suggest ways in

which he was able to retain a certain fluidity in his work despite the apparent fixity of

the printed page.

Composite Art Summary

The nature and function of Blake's composite art are deeply tied to the tension

between fixity and fluidity Blake felt in producing his imaginative vision in the material

world, for the appearance of the Blakean page, and what it forces us to confront as

readers, is intensely bound up with Blake's anti-Newtonian project. That is, in place of

the Newtonian text, which claims for itself objectivity and which treats language as a

tool for description, not creation, Blake presents us with words and characters, figures

and shapes, which always seem to assert their own contextuality, and thus their

openness to our supplement of reading. Most important for the discussion which

follows is the degree to which Blake's composite art, in making material Blake's

challenge to Newtonian "single vision," forces us to deal with text and design

relationships which often operate in disruptive and self-conflicting ways. And it is the

fundamental challenge to the authority assumed by the Newtonian narrator (as

interpretive guarantor of its own text) which operates in Blake's composite art that I will

argue to be operating with equal force through Blake's marginalia.

In Chapter 2 I will examine more closely the tension between fixity and fluidity

as Blake expresses it in his work in order to more fully explore that cluster of symbols

which includes the book, the metal plate, writing and reading.


1. To situate this discussion in terms of my earlier invention versus discovery
discussion, I need to clarify that what inheres in a text is, arguably, there to be
discovered. However, I think Blake's art in particular is of a type that invites this kind
of discovery, only to require a certain revisionary invention. That is, it is a process of
discovery which undermines itself as discovery at numerous key junctures. In this
sense, the reader seems always required to (re)invent his or her reading strategies in
order to manage non-conventional textual moments. Again, Calvino recalling Barthes:
"Barthes tends to think of literature as the awareness that language has of being
language, of having a density of its own, and its own independent existence" (28-29).

2. Mitchell's use of "dialectic" in terms of Blake's work had, in fact, changed by his
1994 Picture Theory in which he notes that "interactive opposition" in Blake is "not
necessarily resolution or Hegelian synthesis" (114, note 8).

Figure 1-1 William Blake's "Newton" (Ault, Visionary Physics, frontispiece)

Figure 1-2 "Good and Evil Angels Fighting for Possession of a Child,"
and detail, Plate 4, Marriage of Heaven and Hell
(Ackroyd Blake book cover; Bindman 110)


.. '- II-

ir A:- .d ,.

ri ,

Figure 1-3 William Blake's Laocoon

J i -'
|! i
. -"(



Figure 1-4 Urizen(?) in "America" and
Orc(?) in "America" (Blake's 'America: A Prophecy' and
'Europe: A Prophecy' facsimile Plates 10 and 12 Copy M)


s1 EA iF

Figure 1-5 "Envy" from Whitney's Choice of Emblems (94)


There is no difference between what a book talks about and how it is made.
Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (4)

What a book talks about. How it is made. What is the connection? Deleuze and

Guattari suggest that there is such a deep connection between what a book talks about and

how it is made that the divide between subject matter and the process of creation

disappears. Important for the context of such a claim, however, is their conception of

what an "author" is, and thus what goes into making a book. Deleuze and Guattari write

of themselves as authors: "each of us [is] several ... we have been aided, inspired,

multiplied" (1). And later, "There are no individual statements" (37). This is to suggest

the complex multiplicity of drives and desires that intersect at those moments we name

(invoke the name of) an author; an author is not a stable, unchanging unity, or a coherent,

repeating philosophy, however much that model might be idealized by reading practices

that seek stable and coherent meanings in and between texts (and thus stable and coherent

authors as guarantors of that meaning).

Much of the early critical work on Blake, even the projects that brought Blake into

the Western canon, tended to treat "Blake" as a smooth set of practices and beliefs that

did not contradict or interrogate each other. It seems as though systematizing Blake, or

finding Blake's system, was assumed to be the only way to save the poet from early

charges of eccentricity and madness. (Joseph Farington, a member of the Royal

Academy, writes in his diary: "Blakes eccentric designs [to Young's Night Thoughts]

were mentioned... Hoppner ridiculed the absurdity of his designs ... They were like the

conceits of a drunken fellow or a madman" (Bentley 58).) Northrop Frye, writing around

1947, tells us in his opening sentence that Fearful Symmetry "offers an explanation of

Blake's thought" (3; my italics). And anything admitted to the "canon" of Blake's work

"not only belongs in a unified scheme but is in accord with a permanent structure of

ideas" (14). The tense dualism that requires Blake consistently be either mad or sane

informs Frye's work, since it functions to gauge the success of the critical project itself; if

Blake can be proven sane, criticism has done something worthwhile. Curiously though,

the need to prove a structure in Blake, the requirement to untangle contradictions, speaks

as much in unison with those voices who would charge Blake with madness as against

them. For Frye persists in his deeply systematizing project (which itself is to

discover-never to invent-the systematic and coherent structure of Blake's canon) while

arguing that Blake "demonstrates ... the sanity of genius and the madness of the

commonplace mind" (13). Frye, in developing the importance of Berkeley's dictum esse

estpercipi (to be is to be perceived) in understanding Blake, forces the possibility that, if

Blake is perceived to be mad, then perhaps he is mad. But while Frye does not address

the tension his own work elicits, I would argue that it should fall to criticism now, not to

prove that Blake is sane, but rather to question "madness" itself as a politically and

culturally formulated category. Critical work may raise such questions implicitly by

disavowing the impulse to explain by systematizing, which often amounts to proving

"sanity" by ignoring "madness." W. J. T. Mitchell, in "Chaosthetics," allows for the

possibility that "Blake was a bit mad some of the time, in different ways on different

occasions, and that he was equally sane (also in different ways) on others" (448).

In addition to Fearful Symmetry, works like S. Foster Damon's A Blake

Dictionary show that need to explain Blake as a consistent and reliable author in order to

prove his sanity, again as though the requirement to explain did not just as easily confirm

Blake's "madness." The tension that inheres in Frye's Fearful Symmetry-between

declarations that Blake is not mad, which depend on proving a Blakean system, and our

ability to show that system only by flattening contradiction-informs Damon's book as

well. For example, Damon writes with confidence that "'gold' signifies 'intelligence'"

(xii). But 3 sentences later, "Blake's symbols are not mechanical or inflexible" (xii).

Damon asserts that "[Blake] introduced flat contradictions, which can be resolved only

when the meaning is understood" (x). But what if the contradiction is the meaning? Or

what if what Blake meant was to create a text, a space for the reader, which made

contradiction possible, even forced it as a condition of reading? What new kind of

reading does this require? Damon continues, "System there is, but it must be discovered"

(x). And further, "The purpose of this dictionary is to make things easier for readers"

(xi). Interesting to note is that critical programs like Damon's are often accompanied by

an equally rigorous and systematizing (that is, normalizing) editorial policy (more on

Blake anthologies below). As Damon notes, "like all Blake scholars, I have felt free to

repunctuate in the interest of clarity" ("Note" 1).

The impulse to explain as it manifests in editorial decisions is evident in what

seems the usual, and for that reason transparent, practice of grounding Blake's poetry in

reference to literary "tradition." For example, David Worrall, in his Urizen Books, offers

this textual note to accompany Plate 3, verse 1 of The Book ofAhania: "Fuzon's chariot

echoes Milton's 'Chariot of Paternal Deitie, / Flashing thick in flames' in Paradise Lost.

.. For other flaming horses and chariots see Butlin [nos. 385, 386, 390]" (184). What

does this note do? Milton's verse itself could be explicated with reference to further

sources; we are offered a curious kind of information in this textual note. It seems

haunted by the spectre of a critical desire to prove Blake's "sanity" by traditionalizing

him: showing what or who Blake is like, what he might have read, or what he might have

seen. The very concept of an echo is confusing in this sense-echo: "the repetition of a

sound caused be a sound wave coming against some opposing surface ... to imitate ...

to flatter slavishly" (Webster's 127). Does Fuzon's chariot do something outside the

text? Does the reader (only Worrall?) call into the caverns of his or her reading

experience in hopes of hearing something back? Does the text itself voice something?

Does it hear back? When does echo stop being echo? When the chariots no longer

flame? Certainly such a textual note is a valuable piece of information, and I am not

suggesting it be removed. But is it all we need to know, if we need to know anything?

What motivates the editor to provide such information and how does it affect the

possibilities of our reading?

Here and Now


If there is a fundamental difference between projects which explain Blake to make

things easier and the present one, it is that I am not trying to smooth contradictions or

tensions, so much as I want to draw attention to them and consider what develops from

leaving them in place. That is, what happens if we can learn to read with difficulty

instead of with ease? What happens when not everything fits, or when everything fits in

different ways?'

In this chapter, I pursue the tensions introduced by Blake as a deeply self-reflexive

author, and I examine the explicit way in which the subject of Blake's books, that is, what

they talk about, is deeply connected to how they are made. Nelson Hilton and Thomas A.

Vogler, in their "Introduction" to Unnam'd Forms, suggest that Blake's was a "print

consciousness" and that "material traces of Blake's writing practice ... [are] an integral

part of whatever artistic meaning can be read in Blake's texts" (6). What Deleuze and

Guattari highlight for me, as I try to extend my reading of Blake as an artist aware of

material processes, is the conception of the book as always a production of print

consciousness, but one stemming from an "author" as intersection of multiplicities

(perhaps multiple multiplicities, and perhaps self-contradictory). The page (the many

pages of any author) is thus a site for many, potentially contradictory, self-interfering

impulses and pressures, which find their way from writing practice to printed page.

In this chapter I look at Blake's "Introduction" to the Songs of Innocence and The

Book of Urizen (mainly as they are printed in Erdman's Collected Poetry and Prose of

William Blake), in addition to other of Blake's work, in terms of the tension between

fixity and fluidity, although these terms are by no means themselves always mutually


exclusive, or fixed. Generally, I pursue the fixity of Blake having to attach what he called

Poetic Genius, or inspiration, to the material page (and thus to participate in limiting

imagination to the frame of the book), contrasted to the fluidity Blake seemed to have

believed to inhere in the poet's vision and in the "infinite" he alludes to in The Marriage

of Heaven and Hell. I set up the conceptual fixity-versus-fluidity framework in order to

further elaborate books, writing and reading as elements of one of the most persistent and

present constellation of symbols throughout Blake's work. (Erdman has called a portion

of this "Blake's workshop symbolism" (Illuminated Blake 13).) This context will

become extremely important for subsequent chapters in which I set Blake's marginalia as

a practice deeply informed by (and informing of) Blake's theories of reading and writing.

Important for chapter 2 is to examine how Blake is implicated in the fixity/fluidity

tension, since he must, due to the material conditions of book production, fix his fluid

vision to the page. Blake's willingness to implicate himself in processes otherwise

associated with such figures as Urizen (and Newton), such as binding vision into book

form, suggests to me the complexity with which Blake approached his work as an artist in

what Stuart Peterfreund called "a Newtonian World" (Blake in a Newtonian World).

Books: Real and Ideal

The process of much of Blake's art, his writing practice, was a physical and

material one, often more muscular than just pen and paper would require. The tools of

Blake's work included the graver, the burin, acid washes, metal plates, and a rolling press

with 4 foot spokes, used as handles, to turn the press. (The Tate Britain's Blake

exhibition had on display a press similar to the one Blake would have used; Abraham

Bosse's "Cette figure vous montre Comme on Imprime les planches de taille douce"

[Tate #99] shows an apprentice printer using both hands and a foot to turn the great

wheel.) Blake describes his method in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as "printing in

the infernal method" (Plate 14). "If the doors of perception were cleansed," he writes,

"every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite" (Plate 14). It is important to note that

Blake posits his printing method, the infernal method, as a way to produce books, as a

way to teach a certain kind of reading and, ultimately, a certain kind of perception. His

process of relief etching was, in fact, directly contrary to the standard method of the day,

intaglio engraving (a technique Blake would have learned as an apprentice and at the

Royal Academy) (Ackroyd et al. 104). Thus what the book is about, ultimately, is how it

was made, for it is made to teach (by requiring) a different kind of reading strategy. The

book printed in the infernal method is to communicate a depth and clarity of vision.

Deleuze and Guattari pursue their own version of this book, suggesting that "the ideal for

a book would be to lay everything out on a plane of exteriority... on a single page, the

same sheet: lived events, historical determinations, concepts, individuals, groups, social

formations" (9). Nothing would be hidden.

But this is the ideal. In the real world of books, even A Thousand Plateaus is

bound by the conventions, the material necessities, of ink and paper and hands turning

pages. They have attempted to confound traditional reading, to counter "the State as the

model of the book" by writing in "plateaus." They write, "a book composed of chapters

has culmination and termination points." But plateaus "can be read starting anywhere and

can be related to any other plateau" (22). (Of course, we still cannot begin mid-sentence

somewhere in the book and hope for things to make sense, so really, we cannot start

"anywhere.") For Deleuze and Guattari, the form of the book is a political option: one

choice among many. "To attain the multiple," they write, "one must have a method that

effectively constructs it" (22; my italics).

Blake's method is clearly set up to oppose certain reading practices; for him,

creating form is also choosing a political option. I covered this, in part, in Chapter 1 in

my analysis of Blake's text as anti-Newtonian. But if the ideal is to print in the infernal

method, to reveal the infinite, to lay everything out on a plane of exteriority, to make all

interpretive options equally accessible, then what is the reality of the book? And how

does that reality intersect with the very reading practices Blake works against? Take, for

example, the reality of a Blake edition like David Erdman's Complete Poetry and Prose

of William Blake. Northrop Frye described Blake as the "victim of anthologies" because

of the limited way in which they tended to represent the artist. Beyond the "dozen or so

of his lyrics," normally collected in the anthologies Frye was familiar with, "we are

threatened with a formidable bulk of complex symbolic poems known as 'Prophecies'"

(3). But even if anthologizers now feel less threatened by collecting more than just

Blake's lyrics, Frye's assertion continues to hold true.

Blake is still the victim of anthologies, even of anthologies like Erdman's: likely

the best available edition in terms of inclusivity, textual notation, and affordability. It

aims "to supply a sounder more uncluttered text for reading than has been heretofore

available" (xxiii). However, we know that it includes only a fraction of the artwork


which is to accompany Blake's texts. (And only some artwork which is to stand alone.)

As Donald Ault writes in "Unreading 'London"'2:

in its [Erdman's Complete Poetry and Prose of William
Blake] attempts to approximate through conventional
printing methods the subversive materiality and visual
dimension of variant copies, this text acknowledges not
only the radical openness of Blake's poems to conflicting
readings but also ... the resistance of these poems to being
"read" at all, in the conventional sense of that verb. (132)

Erdman's edition typesets what should otherwise appear in handwriting. It chooses

among many possible textual variants. It regularizes lettering, capitalization, sizing,

spacing, even punctuation at points ("Most of the corrections of text have been small,

corrections of spelling and capitalization and of editorial bracketing or spacing" (xxv)).

My point is certainly not to disparage what is the most accessible Blake edition

available; I use it throughout the present work. In fact, many Blake editions do not even

consider that textual, let alone narrative, inconsistencies (so-called) might be intentional

and thus should be reproduced, or that interpretive possibilities (intentional or otherwise)

opened by a text, rather than being regularized and shut down, can be made to remain

open. Duncan Wu, in his commentary to The First Book of Urizen, asserts that the "I" of

stanza 2 is "Blake, the poet, receiving] the dictation of the Eternals" (100). And in The

Book of Urizen as anthologized by Johnson and Grant, the editors assert that "The Book of

Urizen is about Urizen but not by him" (140). However, one could just as easily assert

that the "T' is, like the only other "I" in certain copies of the poem, Urizen himself, and

that the book is the book of, as in created/owned/produced by, Urizen. Viscomi,

following many other commentators, notes that the title The [First] Book of Urizen


"underscores the idea that Urizen is a parody of Genesis, the first book of Moses" (280).

Clearly Genesis is not the first book about Moses but, traditionally, by him; to suggest

that a book of Urizen is as much by as about him is not such a stretch.

Perhaps it is even Urizen, not "the poet" (if even that is necessarily "Blake"

himself), who hears the Eterals "gladly" because he can take their version of the story

("of" Urizen) and put it into his own words, thus offering his perspective (line 5).

Consider how radically this alters our reading. If Urizen is writing for himself the words

of the Eternals as they are spoken to him, then lines like "He strove in battles dire / In

unseen conflictions with shapes / Bred from his forsaken wilderness" (Plate 3, 13-15)

become the cry of an oppressed hero who is struggling to survive despite having been

forsaken by those who might help him. If we believe Wu, and Johnson and Grant, that

Urizen is not speaking, but is being spoken of, then we must close the possibility that

Urizen himself has been forsaken, for line 15 would imply that the wilderness has been

corrupted by Urizen's presence, not that it and he have both been abandoned.

The fact remains that there is simply no justification for assertions like those of

Johnson and Grant or Wu which look to control by limiting interpretive possibility, other

than to make things easier for the reader. Indeed, denying one interpretive choice which

we might make based on the title alone, before even getting to the text, closes down

innumerable possible interpretive branchings that might result. My general point is to

highlight the reality of books, writing and reading, and the problems printing and

production introduce into our study of any text or version. In this I feel the tension

between fixity and fluidity-between stable meanings and changing possibilities-which is


to inform the readings I make of Blake's work in this chapter. There are, finally, certain

pragmatics we cannot idealize away.

Fixity, Fluidity, Inspiration

Much of the fixity-fluidity tension arises from the way in which Blake expresses

his conception of poetic inspiration and artistic execution. Take for instance, the implicit

tensions on the artist in the 1809 Descriptive Catalogue. Blake writes in defense of

"representing spirits with real bodies" in painting (541), suggesting that there is

something different in the real bodies than in the spirits which they represent.

Specifically, Blake is referring to the work on display at his 1809 exhibition, held at his

brother James' shop at the comer of Broad Street, Golden Square, in London. He

describes one work as "the spiritual form of Nelson guiding Leviathan" and another as

"the spiritual form of Pitt, guiding Behemoth" (528-530). Blake makes clear his

conception of the bodily form as something different though derived from inspiration.

That spirits are bodied forth by the artist suggests Blake's deep awareness of the

processes of mediation which occur between vision and material product.

In defending his style as one of strong outlines lineamentss) against the "blotting

and blurring" (529) of oil, Blake makes the case for poetic visions being "organized and

minutely articulated beyond all that the mortal and perishing nature can produce" (541).

The artist's vision comes to him "minutely organized," and thus he must create in a

medium which allows for such minute organization to be communicated. "Spirits,"

writes Blake, "are organized by men" (542). There is clearly no interrogation here of that

tension between the fluidity of inspiration and the artist having to fix that vision to the

page: it is simply what happens. To complicate matters, Blake seems to be arguing that

vision itself is already minutely organized despite it having to be organized by men, thus

perhaps mitigating the culpability of the artist in limiting vision to the page. In the

rhetorical move which posits a visionary world that arrives to the artist already organized,

already "fixed" in some ways, Blake is obfuscating his own complicity in organizing and

fixing vision, and thus in limiting imagination. Erdman notes that Blake, as printer,

illustrator and publisher of his own work, "guaranteed the direct communication of the

author's original and final 'invention' and 'illumination' to the... reader... of each

original copy" (Illuminated Blake 10). However, as we see in the Descriptive Catalogue,

Blake implies that there is a stage prior to invention-a stage of spirits-with which the

poet has to contend. So while the communication from invention to reader might be

perfect, since Blake executes his own invention, there is much to suggest that the stage

from inspiration to invention (from the "spirit" of Nelson to the "real [represented by the

artist] body" of Nelson, only named as Blake begins to draw it on the page) might be

more complicated.

If Blake does not pursue the tensions involved in such mediation in the

Descriptive Catalogue, we must make allowances for context and recall that Blake is in

the business of selling. He aligns himself with a tradition that, in large part, he himself

imagines ("Michael Angelo" [sic] and "Rafael" [sic]) and against another (Titian, Rubens

and "Correggio" [sic]). Yet he is writing as the voice of one, crying in the wilderness, for

his water colours "are regularly refused to be exhibited by the Royal Academy, and the

British Institution" (527-528). In setting himself up as the oppressed artist, Blake,

perhaps by necessity, underplays the sorts of tensions he otherwise elicits on the

composite page. In trying to sell his work, Blake is unlikely to present himself as

ambivalent about his practice as an artist, and thus he effaces much of the otherwise

conflicting tensions apparent elsewhere. Nowhere in the Descriptive Catalogue do we

find the same sort of ambivalence about such organization that is otherwise so persistent

in Blake's work.

One immediately obvious example of this ambivalence is in The Tyger, in which

the narrator asks himself directly, "What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful

symmetry?" Indeed, even this question becomes "What immortal hand or eye, / Dare

frame thy fearful symmetry?" by the end of the poem (lines 4 and 24), suggesting that the

question is not just one of artistic ability, but is one which involves the choice to

transgress some kind of boundary. "Dare" certainly connotes a sense of threat and

consequence where "could" does not. The option to transgress also invites the question:

whose authority legitimates the boundary to begin with? Is it God's? Tradition's? The

Royal Academy's?

Further, as is clear from Blake's drafts of the poem, he chose to change the

original "Dare form thy fearful symmetry" to "Dare frame thy fearful symmetry" (795),

likely to evoke even more specifically the materiality of representation. In this poem,

composed entirely of questions, the narrator is deeply ambivalent about the artist's

capacity to frame the subject in the confines of a representing medium. Indeed, the kind

of minute organization called for in the Descriptive Catalogue is by no means an

uncompromised endeavour if we believe the narrator in The Tyger: "On what wings dare

he aspire? / What the hand dare seize the fire?" (7-8). Harold Bloom describes the

illustrated tiger as "a shabby pawn-shop sort of stuffed tiger" with "a confused and rather

worried smile on what the text would hold is the fearful symmetry of his countenance"

(35; Figure 2-1). Bloom seems to work from the assumption that Blake tried to, but could

not, draw tigers very well. Admittedly, it is not a particularly awe-inspiring tiger. (Nor is

the lion in Urizen, Plate 23; Illuminated Blake, 205.) The point remains, however, that

the illustration does, in fact illustrate what the poem is about, much more than it

illustrates the mere text of the poem. For while the text tells us of fearful symmetry, the

poem is about being afraid of symmetry. So even if Blake could not draw tigers very

well, it is significant that he clearly realized the fact, and from that realization came the

questions we read posed in "The Tyger." Perhaps the fearful symmetry, which the

narrator ascribes to the tiger, speaks more to some impossibility of the poet achieving

symmetry between visions (of tigers, of the cosmos) and what she or he must produce of

those visions in the material world. Is the narrator afraid of the impossibility of achieving

symmetry between vision and execution? Is Blake?

My general point is definitely not to make the charge that Blake "contradicts

himself": that is, at one point he questions the effects of organizing/framing vision, at

another he does not, and at still another, he suggests that vision is already minutely

organized and is thus not limited by the artist. On the contrary, the conception of the

author as a multiplicity, as Deleuze and Guattari suggest, would make it quite easy to see

a different Blake writing in each of these instances, and each of them equally "right."

What comes from this does not require that we synthesize the contradictions, but that the

contradictions as contradictions speak to a difficult tension between vision and

materiality, fluidity and fixity, that Blake himself struggled with constantly.

Working Blake

I discuss Blake's "method," although he employed many, in order to highlight

some of the material conditions of his work as an artist and engraver, and in order to

suggest how those material conditions influenced his artistic vision. As Jean Hagstrum

has written, "[Blake] was deeply involved even in what he rejected" (143). Hagstrum's

particular argument focuses on Blake's rejection of the Enlightenment, despite his deep

involvement with its styles and ideas. Blake, as any satirist, needed a certain familiarity,

needed even to admit a certain implication in and complicity with, that which he satirized.

Northrop Frye writes, "it is not so much that Blake is unfair to them [Newton, Bacon or

Locke] personally" (187), and later "not one of these thinkers are as opposed to Blake's

mode of thought as, for instance, Hobbes, whom [Blake] never mentions" (188). Frye,

like Hagstrum, identifies in Blake the impulse he had to involve himself in the systems

and ideas against which he worked, at the same time (and perhaps as a necessary

corollary) to the way in which he involved them in his poetry. Thus the importance of the

"Newtonian world" (as Stuart Peterfreund calls it), and the Newtonian currents against

which Blake chose to swim in his poetry. For Blake could not possibly have ignored the

Newtonian or imagined it out of his poetry. On the contrary, he imagined it deeply within

his composite art, by way of a challenge to what he perceived as its basic errors, that is,

its sense of an a priori order to the universe which could be found and described and yet

remain unaffected by the inescapable textuality of that discovery and "description."


Joseph Viscomi describes Blake's artistic practice as one in which "the language

of the medium frames and generates conception, and in which invention and execution

are inseparable" (Blake and the Idea of the Book 32). Not surprisingly, Blake often

signed his work, "The Author and Printer W Blake," as he did in Milton (Erdman,

Illuminated Blake 217), in order to highlight the fact that he had kept intact those two

elements of artistic production he thought so important: invention and execution. As a

working engraver, though, Blake often had to execute other artist's inventions, and, as

Bentley's Blake Records show, other artists often executed Blake's inventions. For

Robert Blair's The Grave, for example, Blake made 13 illustrations, though 12 of those

were eventually engraved by Schiavonetti, despite Blake having been commissioned by

Robert Hartley Cromek to design and engrave the illustrations (Bentley 166-172; 617).

Blake writes, in a letter to Flaxman, that "Mr. Cromek ... wished me to produce.

.. about twenty designs ... [he] has set me to engrave them" (Bentley 168). But in the

prospectus to Blair's work, Cromek describes 'Twelve very spirited engravings by Louis

Schiavonetti, from Designs Invented by William Blake" (169). Inasmuch as Bentley

describes Cromek as an engraver "who was just venturing forth as an entrepreneur and

promoter" (167), and that the business arrangements between Blake and Cromek for the

Blair illustrations were, at best, confused, recent Blake biographer Peter Ackroyd is quite

right to have concluded that Blake was "part of the first great period of commercialism

and mass manufacture in English history, and he was one of its first casualties" (75). In

fact, where Blake referred to "my friend Cromek" early in the Blair project, afterwards,

Blake was to write in his notebook, "A petty Sneaking Knave I knew / O Mr Cr------, how


do ye do" (Bentley 171). Likely because of instances like this one, Blake makes clear that

one of the many aspects of mass producing art, and of producing art for profit, with which

he disagreed most was the separation of invention and execution.

Blake's materials included, at various times, pencil, paper, ink, copper plates,

varnish and ground, graver, aqua fortis, water colours and pigment (Erdman, Illuminated

Blake 11). While Blake actually practiced a number of different styles of engraving,

printing and painting, I focus here on his copper-plate engraving, what he called relief-

etching. Blake began with a copper plate, cut to size from a larger metal sheet. He then

roughed out his designs (words, illustrations, or both) with white or red chalk. He painted

over the chalk outlines with a mixture of salad oil and candle grease. The grease-oil

mixture would resist the aqua fortis-made of vinegar, salt armoniack, baysalt and ver de

griz-which bit into the unprotected areas of the metal plate. The designs Blake had

painted with salad oil and candle grease would appear raised from the plate as the acid

mixture bit in. Once the designs had been "revealed," Blake applied ink using a common

printer's ball of cloth, and the plate was pressed onto paper. Blake made a preliminary

wash for the paper with glue and water, and then hand-painted the words and images with

a distemper of water, pigment and carpenter's glue. In some cases, it appears that Blake

painted directly on the copper plate; this produces a more mottled, blotchy page. Joseph

Viscomi's Blake and the Idea of the Book is a minutely detailed elucidation of Blake's

relief-etching technique. Viscomi himself prepared plates using what he presumed to be

Blake's methods to see what results they yielded.


The significance of Blake's technique are many. It was often a literally revelatory

process-as acids dissolved surface layers-and thus deeply tied to Blake's conception of

what art should do by way of teaching a different kind of reading, and, by extension, a

different kind of being in the world. Whether the material method led to the poetic theory

or vice versa is the stuff of chickens and eggs; the two were undoubtedly interconstitutive

and operated in a feedback loop. Important is that Blake could unite invention and

execution where the mass production of art would divorce those two. Each copy would

come out slightly different because of the hand-painting. Viscomi explains that "an

impression pulled from a painted plate necessarily depletes the colors ... if unreplenished

the colors produce a substantially less intense image" (280). Oddly, Viscomi refers to

this as part of the "exigencies of the technique," though I would argue that Blake chose

the technique because it rendered a product most in line with his artistic ideals (280). As

I asserted in Chapter 1 in relation to Mitchell's discussion of "Newton," that the

technique produced unpredictable results does not suggest that Blake was therefore

indifferent to those results. On the contrary, Blake seems to have intended

unpredictability, even chaos, in his work-the background in Newton for example.

Through this type of engraving and printing, and by virtue of the variations it produced,

Blake could work against the Newtonian single vision which sought uniformity and

intellectual, not imaginative, investigation.

Fixity: Fluidity : Song : Book

In the "Introduction" to the Songs of Innocence, Blake figures the process of

inspiration being given material form on the page. The metaphor which underlies what

might otherwise appear to be the simple action of the poem suggests the impossible

dilemma of the artist whose vision comes from the non-rational world of imagination, yet

who must fix that vision in material form for it to be shared. The tension between the

fluidity Blake associates with poetic imagination and the fixity of the material page is also

evident in The Book ofUrizen. Urizen is situated between the fluid "Etemals" (which

represent, to him, unlivable disorder) and the fixity of the world he wants to create (a

"solid without fluctuation," he calls it), though both of these "states" are compromised

and ambiguous.

As I have suggested previously, in my discussion of Blake's "Newton," for

example, there is a marked degree to which Blake implicates himself in the tendencies

toward fixity, which, as an artist in the material world, he cannot escape. And so there is

a great degree of self-reflexivity, especially in The Book of Urizen. For example, Urizen

legitimates his authority as creator of a prescriptive world system-the very thing Blake

supposedly works against-in books of metal which are clearly analogous to Blake's own

engraved metal plates. While working through his own implication in and participation

with the Newtonian, Urizenic world of systems and metal plates, Blake does fight to

retain a degree of fluidity in his work. He produces and reproduces his work in such a

way as to ensure an individual uniqueness for each version, and Blake rarely settles on a

fixed order for plates within works or for works within collections. The challenge is

clearly to any sense of final closure a poetic project might have.

Frontispieces to Songs of Innocence and of Experience

Before looking at the "Introduction" specifically, it is productive to note some of

the key differences between the illustration on the Innocence frontispiece and that on the

Experience frontispiece; therein we find a graphic representation of the dubious

relationship between artist and inspiration Blake will explore directly in the

"Introduction" (Figures 2-2 and 2-3). In the Innocence frontispiece, a naked child flies

above the head of a bard or piper; Essick's commentary in William Blake at the

Huntington suggests that "the piper is a persona for Blake himself" (50). The child flies

on or with a cloud arrangement compressed within foliage and branches of twining trees

which bracket the left and right margins of the page. In this arrangement we are perhaps

getting a glimpse of the material world closing in upon the celestial world implied by the

cloud and child, just as our progression through the innocence collection will lead us

towards experience (we come closer and closer to experience closing over us). Erdman

suggests the contrary: "the cloud is ... inside the protection of the branching trees" (43;

my italics). Given the constant tension between the vegetative and divine worlds

throughout the songs, it seems unlikely that trees would represent "protection" of any

kind; at the very least, it may be protection whose positive aspects are haunted by

negative senses of enclosure, entrapment and containment.

The realm opened by the child for the piper is identified by Erdman as "that of the

imagination" (Illuminated Blake, 43). (Consider, however, that the Piper in the

"Introduction" to Innocence is already piping songs when the child appears, suggesting

that he does have access to imaginative energy without the child. What the child, in the


"Introduction," seems to provide is more like the impetus to put creative energy into some

form which can be shared with others: that "Every child may joy to hear" (line 20); I

would still call this inspiration, though of a specific type.) It is crucial to note that in the

frontispiece illustration the child and piper are not in material contact with each other;

rather, the piper watches attentively, with his pipe ready, looking at/to the flying child

whose arms are open in a gesture which suggests he is presenting the heavens above to

the piper. Harold Bloom, in Visionary Company, asserts that "the design in the

frontispiece is of a shepherd dropping his pipe ... So the Songs are not piped" (34);

however, it is clear from the picture that the piper holds his pipe, and it is clear from the

text that he does pipe a song. (The narrator tells us as much directly.) Bloom's rush to

get to the writing of the song misses the progression from pre-linguistic to textual

expression so important to the poem.

As the text of the "Introduction" tells us, the child in the poem is "on a cloud,"

defying the laws of the rational world. However, in the frontispiece to Experience, the

"piper" (though he no longer carries his pipe) holds the child (now figured with angelic

wings) against his head. The Experience frontispiece does not directly illustrate any

specific textual moment, as the Introduction frontispiece does. That such direct relations

are no longer present works as a good reminder that we are, in fact, entering into the

world of experience, in which nothing is as easy as it was in the world of innocence (if it

was even "easy" then). (For example, questions are posed and answered in "The Lamb";

they are only posed in "The Tyger," and then without question marks.) In the Experience

frontispiece, the two figures are in direct contact, unlike in the Innocence frontispiece.

Instead of looking to the child for inspiration, the piper seems to have captured

inspiration, physically restraining the child against him, and now both figures look out

from the page to the reader. Erdman seems to see none of the dark overtones of capture

and restraint (even domination and ownership) that I would suggest are operating in the

experience frontispiece. He writes simply that the piper's hands "are holding the hands of

a naked boy who is not now on a cloud but is winged for potential flight" (70). Essick

suggests a parallel to the image of St. Christopher carrying the Christ child across a river

(56). Given the context of the "Introduction" to the collection, however, I would argue

that the change in the relationship between the piper and child is more ominous than

merely "holding hands" would suggest. That the child might be prepared for "potential"

flight is less important than the fact that he is not flying, and indeed would have to escape

the piper's grasp to fly. In addition, the flight would be more "believable" in the sense

that the child has wings. Thus his ability to fly would be explained to some degree,

especially if we assume that the child is not now a child but a winged angel. In the

Innocence frontispiece, the child flies without explanation.

Curiously, the Experience piper steps towards us with his right foot leading,

whereas the Innocence piper steps forward with his left foot leading (Erdman, Illuminated

Blake 70). Erdman does not comment on the significance of this. Perhaps the piper has

implicitly moved, or "taken a step," towards reaching us as readers, in that from looking

to inspiration, he has now captured inspiration; the next "step" for the artist is towards the

reader. Perhaps, in experience, we are more aware of the artist as mediator between

vision and page, where in innocence, we assume no complications between visionary and

everyday worlds. In the Experience collection, we might see the artist having moved

towards us; that is, he has become more concerned with (or is now faced with) the world

of experience. Despite the tendency to see pictures as "spatial" and text as "linear," it

seems that Blake is inviting a pictorial linearity in having the Innocence and Experience

frontispieces so clearly connected, though with changes to reflect some progression or

movement in the larger thematic story. Mitchell describes this: "any words we find to

describe the frontispiece to Experience will have to involve transformations and reversals

of the language discovered in the poem and illustration which introduce Songs of

Innocence" (5). As I show below, the "Introduction" to the Songs of Innocence works

through the pattern which implicitly links the innocence and experience frontispieces: the

increasing mediation between artist and inspiration. What complicates the "Introduction"

to Innocence is that sense of the necessity for the poet to fix inspiration to the page, just

as the piper is eventually illustrated as seizing and restraining inspiration.

"Introduction" to the Songs of Innocence

The "Introduction" to the Songs of Innocence is an apparently simple poem, as are

many in the collection. The poem maintains its regular trochaic tetrameter from start to

finish with no irregularities, broken words, or enjambments. The A-B-A-B rhyme is only

abandoned in stanza 3, in which lines 1 and 3 end with "pipe" and "again" respectively,

and in the final stanza in which lines 1 and 3 end in "pen" and "songs" respectively. The

first non-rhyme is revealing in that it reminds of the insistence with which the child

compels the piper to put his "Piping" into nameable form and content: that is, the child

asks for a "song about a Lamb" (line 5). Notably, the child requests that the Piper play


the song "again" and sing the song "again" (lines 7 and 11). It is not until the Piper writes

his song down "In a book that all may read" (14) that the child vanishes and thus does not

request a repetition. The need for repetition by the artist until the point at which writing

occurs suggests the precarious valence writing will have in this poem particularly (as I

explore below) and in many other instances throughout Blake's work. For it is a process

by which imaginative vision can be shared (without its having to be repeated by the

artist), but also the point at which that vision, or creative energy, is forced into one fixed

form upon the page and the possibility of its ever becoming something else is closed

(though Blake's art certainly works to disrupt that closure to some degree).

The second non-rhyme points to the uneasy relationship between the artist's

"pen," as mediator between inspiration and material page, and the "songs" as necessarily

mediated forms of inspiration, though perhaps slightly different than their written (not

sung) counterpart. The immediate context of the "Introduction" in the songs of innocence

(either about or from innocence) likely invites a simple reading.

What makes the "Introduction" so fascinating is not that Blake dismisses the

rational world in favour of the visionary, but rather that he acknowledges materiality as

inescapable: a necessary reality of artistic production. The first stanza introduces the

Piper, "Piping down the valleys wild / Piping songs of pleasant glee" (7). The Piper is

suggestively representative of the artist, and the simplicity of his pleasant songs is likely

meant to remind us of the apparent simplicity of the very Songs we are reading. It is also

important that the Piper is not silent, and thus not devoid of creative energy. Blake

introduces a child in line 3 who immediately defies Newtonian physical law by floating

on a cloud. The child's call to the Piper to "Pipe a song about a Lamb" suggests that he is

some form of inspiration, though again, the Piper was not without song prior to the

child's call; that "The Lamb" is a poem in the "Innocence" collection, reminds us of

Blake's immediate involvement in what is at stake. The Piper responds willingly to the

child's call, perhaps as the artist responds to inspiration by giving form to creative energy.

The Piper's art is met by the child's curious reaction: "he wept to hear" (7). We

will discover in line 12 that the tears are tears of joy. But that the child cries to hear a

song played by the Piper foreshadows the negative aspect of the artist's limiting role in

transmitting inspiration or in giving form to (that is, fixing) imaginative energy. It is as

though Blake imagines inspiration hearing itself as translated by the artist, and then

weeping for what has been lost in that translation. Perhaps there is some part of the child

that weeps for the Piper's "songs of pleasant glee" which are now about something. The

piper's artistic mediation elicits at best a dubious response from the child. In stanza

three, the child calls for the Piper to drop his pipe and sing, which he willingly does. And

by stanza four, the Piper is called to "write / In a book that all may read" (7). Here is the

end of the progression from music to song to speech to printed word: a progression which

illustrates the movement further and further away from the Piper's first songs. Thomas

A. Vogler, in "Hearing the Songs," describes this movement: "from prelinguistic

utterance to its representation and amplification in written language." But, as Vogler

suggests, "the process may contaminate its source" (Approaches to Teaching Blake's

Songs of Innocence and of Experience 127).


As the Piper begins to write, the child disappears: "he vanish'd from my sight" (7).

That is, as creative energy is fixed onto the printed page (it is given definite form), the

artist closes the possibility for that creative energy to become anything else. From the

moment of possibility, at which the creative impulse might impel the artist to create any

number of things, the artist moves towards the finality of the fixed page. (Notably, part

of Blake's larger poetic project seems to have been to subvert the fixity and finality of the

finished page; examples abound, including re-ordering plates in various works or

colouring works by hand in order that each might be different from the others.) However,

the fixity of the printed page and the fluidity of inspiration are clearly at odds. Though, as

the final stanza suggests, the material page (fixity) and the creative impulse (fluidity) are

inescapable necessities if art is to be possible.

And I stain'd the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear

These lines express the complicated tension between fixity and fluidity, and are,

themselves, open to different readings which produce different valences for the artistic

act. Does the process of staining the water clear it? In this sense, does fixing vision to

the page make it clear, as in visible, to an audience? Or is the water clear to begin with

but then stained by the artist? That is, does fixing vision necessarily limit that vision to

one of what might have been many variations? (It is this sense of possibility inherent in

creative energy before it is given material form-whether final or not-which suggests to

me "fluidity.") That Blake chooses a water image-an overtly "fluid" image-to represent

the Piper's final writing of the song may function to undermine the very fixity such

writing suggests. As I had mentioned earlier, Blake seemed to work constantly against

the sense of any work being "final" or "finished." Indeed the water image here may

allude to Blake's water-colouring of the Songs themselves: a process which rendered

differences between all the versions.

Finally though, the staining of the water at least yields a material result that "every

child may joy to hear" (7). (Adults can perhaps also joy to hear, though that joy may

always be tinged by the sense of loss for what else might have come from the child's call

to the Piper to give form to his imagination. This assumes we can align children with

Innocence and adults with Experience, but even that does not seem always to be the case,

as in the "Chimney Sweeper" of Experience.) But if inspiration is to be shared, it must be

fixed to the printed page, otherwise vision remains the artist's alone. The fluid, non-

rational world of inspiration is accessible by the artist; but that part of inspiration, perhaps

represented by the child, which compels creative energy to be organized into material

form, requires that creative vision be fixed in place by the artist's pen. Without the

printed page to transmit vision, the artist is no more effective than he who does not accept

inspiration at all; the Piper, for example, becomes as solitary with his vision, or with his

songs of pleasant glee, as Urizen will later appear with his books of metal.

Orality and Books (Reading Allowed)

My discussion up to this point has not treated one of the major components of

Blake's work in general, and certainly a facet of the "Introduction" which needs attention:

the orality implicit in song as a form. Recall the rhyme in the final stanza which does not

follow the pattern A-B-A-B: Line 1 reads "And I made a rural pen" while line 3 reads

"And I wrote my happy songs" (my italics). The irregularity in the rhyme draws

particular attention to the friction between the pen as an instrument of writing, but song as

an oral form. That hearing is a sense more receptive in innocence than in experience is

suggested in The Song of Los, in which Blake writes, "the delicate ear in its infancy / May

be dull'd" as a result of growing into the world of experience (Plate 7, 5-6). (The

formation of the senses is generally imagined as a process of contraction throughout

Blake's work.) Blake is even said to have sung his compositions at various informal

gatherings (like those of the Reverend Anthony Stephen Mathew and Harriet Mathew in

Rathbone Place), though none of the music survives, if it was ever transcribed. Certainly

Blake would have been familiar with popular song; he did 9 engravings for Joseph

Ritson's Select Collection of English Songs in 1783 (Bentley 610).

Singing and speaking are clearly powerful forces in Blake's work; they perhaps

represent a movement away from the finality of the fixed, written page. The materiality

of the voice may have felt less threatening for Blake than the material permanence of

graver and metal plate, or even of pen and paper. Thus a consideration of orality bears

directly on the larger issues of fixity and fluidity at stake. It is crucial that the narrator in

the "Introduction" consoles himself with the knowledge that every child may joy to hear

the songs that he is writing. The important though implicit step is the re-enactment of the

words by the human voice to enable a hearing. (We might think, for example, of "The

Cradle Song" or "Laughing Song.") As such, even the written word when it is

reproduced has the potential to go beyond the limitations of the page upon which it was

written-to be lifted from even the finished page and thus reopened and reconsidered.

Below, I discuss some of the problems that arise for our reading Blake after he has

been processed by editors: after punctuation and syntax are regularized for example. But

would reading aloud open up these "problem" areas to allow for multiple hearings more

easily than a fixed (especially typeset) version does? Take the syntax of "LONDON,"

Copy G, for example. Blake inserts a period at the end of the first stanza, suggesting that

the narrator "marks" just marks of weakness and woe. Stanza two is kept separate from

the marking verb. Thus we begin stanza 2 reading towards a new verb, something being

done to or in every cry, every man, every voice, etc. But there is no verb to be found

unless we read-by-ignoring the period which separates the catalogue of "every's" from "I

hear," the first verb to come in stanza 2. Thus, to have access to "mark" or "hear" as the

verb connected to the nouns of stanza 2, we must read against the rules of punctuation.

(It is almost as though Blake brackets the "every" catalogue with periods to open both

verbs as equally accessible, but neither more "correct" than the other, thus emphasizing

that it is our choice to transgress syntactic, "charter'd"?, rules.) But Erdman, in The

Complete Poetry and Prose, eliminates the second period, forcing us to read "hear" as the

more syntactically correct verb.

Ironically though, if we were to "hear" the poem read aloud, the multiple semantic

possibilities would remain untroubled by the limitations of, in this case, punctuation, so

long as we cannot hear punctuation as easily as we can see it; (in other words, more

readings are allowed when we read aloud). Even if we hierarchize possible meanings as


we hear a poem (by choosing most likely subject-verb-object connections), those choices

are still ours, not subject to an external authority (like an editor). Re-visioning the

material page as a space of contested authority will have deep implications for later

chapters, in which I consider marginalia as, in part, the creation of dialogue upon the

otherwise univocal page.

But what then is the status of "the book" in these songs? How do reading,

writing, hearing and teaching intersect? Consider that Blake's songs, Shewing the Two

Contrary States of the Human Soul, is itself a book taking part in a prominent (and, at the

time, lucrative) tradition of children's books-Barbauld's Lessonsfor Children from Two

to Three Years Old, for example-which were invariably types of instruction manuals

(books for "showing"?) often deeply informed by the Calvinist belief in the inherent

sinfulness of children. Calvin writes, "infants themselves ... bring their condemnation

into the world with them ... though they have not yet produced the fruits of their iniquity,

yet they have the seeds of it within them" (Institutes Vol 2: 8). Mark Leader, in Reading

Blake's Songs, notes Blake's immediate involvement in children's literature as an

engraver, working on Wollstencraft's translation of Salzmann's Elements of Morality for

the Use of Children; Blake also met children's authors like Barbauld and Chapone

through his connection with their literary circle (4). Blake seriously complicates the

implicit belief that children can be instructed, and thus corrected, by virtue of a book; thus

the "book" becomes a multivalent symbol whose positive or negative valuation depends

perhaps most heavily on what we import as readers in terms of our belief about authority,

teaching and books.

The book in Blake's songs is at best a mediator between children and adults, and

does not itself represent an artifact of either innocence or experience. The book is

certainly not an untroubled source of authority, any more than it can contain a

transcendent truth or morality. Like most of the songs themselves rather, the status of the

book as "of innocence" or "of experience" depends most heavily on the reader's

perspective. Is it possible to extend this argument and suggest then that if children are

inherently sinful it is only so in the eyes of the adults who see them as such? The

illustration on the Innocence title page shows a nurse or mother with a book, and two

children, among other figures and designs (Figure 2-4, Illuminated Blake 44). The

argument goes, as Erdman himself notes in Illuminated Blake, that the adult figure "holds

open a book for boy and girl to read" (44; my italics). Essick notes the critical revision

Blake makes to the otherwise common children's book motif of a mother reading to a

child: "the heavily dressed mother or nurse shows the book to the boy and girl" (52). The

activity is apparently innocent enough; however, I would remind that at points even

Urizen responds to various interlocutors by stating that if he is misunderstood, or that if

his laws seem perverse, everyone should just read his books (see for example The Four

Zoas VII, 79). And on Plate 5 of The Book of Urizen Urizen holds a book open for us to


The positioning of the book on the Innocence title page in between adult and child

figures perhaps represents its ambiguous nature: part of both the world of experience and

the world of innocence. Indeed the necessity of learning by reading, that is, being

directed into a formal structure of knowledge, is perhaps one of the markers that signals


our progression from innocence (the stage of sounds and voices) to experience (the stage

of written argument). The book may be just as much "between" adult (experience) and

child (innocence) metaphorically as Blake presents it literally between the figures on the

title page. (Admittedly, one of the children is beside the nurse and not separated from her

by the book. However, both children are looking at the book and not at the nurse, so the

books remains a form of mediation between all three.)

Contrast the attention to orality in the Songs with the specific form with which

Urizen is associated in the narrative named for him: his is the "book" of Urizen. In all

copies but G it is the "First" book of Urizen, suggesting that Blake envisioned more to

come in a series (Erdman 804). Most commentators agree that The Book of Urizen

represents the first book in the "Bible of Hell" Blake promises on Plate 24 of The

Marriage of Heaven and Hell (see for example Viscomi 280-281). (The Book ofAhania

and The Book of Los are the "second" and "third" books of Urizen respectively.)

Fixity and Fluidity in The Book of Urizen

As I had suggested above in my discussion of ideal and real books, textuality and

variation play a considerable role in how we read; meaning is not transcendent of

materiality but deeply informed by it. Perhaps for no other "book" is this more true than

for The Book of Urizen. Thus I must caution immediately that I focus on limited

examples, and I muster those examples to explore only a limited perspective on the book.

There are many, many more which could be pursued. Further, I will not attend to every

illustration, nor can I possibly account for every variation in the extant copies. I quote

primarily from the version of Urizen collected in Erdman's Complete Poetry and Prose of

William Blake, except where recourse to other versions opens up further possibilities to

consider reading, writing and books as symbols and as activities. The plate order printed

by Erdman is not one we can confirm that Blake ever devised; thus the arrangement is

entirely editorial. (One editor calls it "'ideal"' (Worrall, The Urizen Books 148).) A

particularly productive aspect of the plate order Erdman gives is the inclusion of Plate 4,

a plate otherwise absent from 5 of the 8 known variants (present in A, B, and C). By

productive, I mean that it makes possible a great deal of critical exploration and insight

because so much crystallizes on the one page. In, or on, this plate, Urizen (likely) seems

to deliver the only direct speech to appear in the poem. It begins, "From the depths of

dark solitude ... I have sought for a joy without pain" (Plate 4, lines 6-10; Erdman,

Illuminated Blake 186). It is this joy without pain which exemplifies, for most readers,

that characteristic so fundamental to Urizen: the denial of contraries and a desire for

singularity. To complicate matters, though, Blake has not given quotation marks to signal

when the speech (if that is what it is) begins, though many editors add quotation marks

for what they call clarity (for example, Dover Publication's 1997 The Book of Urizen-the

facsimile does not include Plate 4, yet the "printed text" version does, though "with some

normalization of Blake's spelling, punctuation, and capitalization" (Publisher's Note)).

As to why Blake removed this plate from some versions of the book, I can only

speculate. Most striking to me is the convergence between the narrative of the book-the

separation of Urizen from the Eterals (or the "falling" of Urizen)-and the dropping of

the plate in which Urizen is most firmly constituted as an active agent, actually speaking

on his own behalf. Does Blake make Urizen "fall" from his own book? Personally


disturbing is the fact that the only page to have come loose and fall from my own copy of

Erdman's Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake is the page on which Plate 4

appears. Do we "explain" this by saying that of course that page would fall out since I

turn to it so often? Did Blake make Plate 4 fall because he returned to it so often?

Viscomi asserts that while the exclusion of some plates from some versions might

be arbitrary, the exclusion of Plate 4 (and Plate 16, a full illustration) was "systematic and

thus meaningful" (283). Viscomi contends that in Plate 4 "Urizen speaks," and he

(Viscomi) shows how Plate 16 in Copy A depicts Urizen in fire, a symbolic equation

which would "prevent fire from functioning consistently and clearly as a visual symbol of

true as opposed to false creation" (283-284). So, as Viscomi's argument goes, Blake

drops the plates to maintain consistency. All of this only follows, of course, from a

general readerly approach which presumes to uncover some pre-existing consistency and

clarity, two characteristics I would not assign to Blake at all, and which assumes that only

that which is systematic is meaningful. As I have tried to show, this approach pervades

Blake criticism right down to the editorial, textual-note, level.

Take Plate 14, for example (Figure 2-5). Worrall, working from Copy D, asserts

that the figures represented are "Eterals" (41). But the rightmost figure, to which a

"blue wash" has been applied, looks very much like the figure identified elsewhere as

Urizen. The long white beard and the blue tint are highly reminiscent of the figure in

Plate 20 whose identity is hard to determine. Is it Urizen because of the beard? Does it

coincide with Chapter V, "Urizen deadly black, [not blue] in his chains bound"; though is

Urizen in chains, or is he the object being observed by Los, 10 lines above, who "endur'd


his chains" (Plate 13)? Now chains themselves become a complicating, not a clarifying

factor. Appeals to consistency, especially to explain authorial intention, simply do not

stand up. If anything, what Blake forces us to consider are the implications of the

"Urizenic nature of [Los's] activities," as Paul Mann writes, and, further, that characters

"intergenerate" one another, as Tilottama Rajan writes (54; 259). In light of these

complications, the argument that Urizen would appear too "heroic" if his speech were left

intact, as Viscomi contends, does not ring true to me, especially because of the fluid

nature of every character throughout the poem. Further, I discuss below the problems of

labelling a character "too" anything, in that such a relative estimation depends on our

comparing the agent of a local action to some larger construct which we must call "the

true character," but which is no more true than the ideal Copy D of the book itself.

Consider that with Plate 4 (also referred to as 4a in some numbering schemes) removed

(to make Urizen less heroic, as Viscomi argues) the narrative moves from "Shrill the

trumpet: & myriads of Eter / -nity" on Plate 3 to "In living creations appeared / In the

flames of eternal fury" (lines 44-45 to Plate 4, lines 1-2, Copy D). Up to this point in the

narrative, Urizen has been trying to survive his expulsion (or withdrawal, depending on

whose perspective we believe) from Eternity by organizing, building and creating. With

Plate 4/4a excised, the Eternals arrive and chase Urizen into the "desarts and rocks" (20)

with their flames of fury. They drive him to "howlings & pangs & fierce madness ... Till

hoary, and age-broke, and aged. / In despair and the shadows of death." (24-27).

Especially if we recall that this book ofUrizen could be as much by him as about

him (just as Genesis is said to be by Moses, not about him), then I think we must consider

how easy it might be to see Urizen as deserving of our sympathy. After all, the Eternals

appear to have just chased him into seclusion for no reason. It is the Etemals (assumed to

represent "true creation" because associated with fire?) who are jealous, vindictive, and

arbitrary with their anger. At least with Plate 4/4a intact, we get a chance to see Urizen

proclaim his laws in books of metal, and as such we are given some reason to explain the

Etemals' reaction to him. I would argue that with Plate 4/4a excised, Urizen becomes a

much more sympathetic character. Thus Viscomi's argument that Plate 4/4a makes

Urizen too heroic does not take into account that other perspectives might be possible. It

depends very heavily on closing interpretive possibilities which complicate our sense of

perspective-that is, who we believe could be telling the story, and thus our sense of how

characters represent good or evil forces. Mitchell certainly understates the case: "the

identification of figures is often problematic" (Blake's Composite Art 109). Note the

further irony that with Plate 4/4a excised, it is the Eternals who appear with the shrill

trumpet blast. But with Plate 4/4a in place, it is the seven deadly sins of the soul, bor of

Urizen himself, who appear. And Plate 4/4a makes Urizen too heroic?

Much of this is to suggest the tension between fixity and fluidity (in materiality, in

interpretation) that pervades a book like Urizen. Of course, in studying that tension, I

cannot remove myself from it. As such, admittedly, I commit some of the editorial faults

that Blake's texts so clearly work against, for to proceed, I do need to fix a few things in

place. For example, I name the bearded figure pictured throughout the book as Urizen

where it seems productive to do so, even though the text does not necessarily make such a

direct assertion. In some ways, naming of this sort is a convenience which identifies the

activities going on in the text with those being performed (or whose consequences

appear) in the illustration. To speak of "Urizen" then is often to speak of a set of

activities or desires occurring in a specific context, more than it is necessarily to speak of

a unified, stable character that is posited to exist outside, even to transcend, the text.

(Thus there is no "too" heroic.) As those sets of activities and desires vary from context

to context we are forced to think of "Urizens" even while we write of "Urizen." To speak

of a "Urizen" (or of any other character) as existing somehow outside of the activities

presented in Blake's texts is to suggest an "ideal" against which we are forced to measure

every instance of "his" "appearance," by which I mean the appearance of U-R-I-Z-E-N as

a collection of marks on the page. It seems we will always be confounded then by

individual contexts which do not conform neatly to the posited ideal, in which case we

are left to say that Urizen is an inconsistent character, is acting "out" of character, or

worse, that Blake is inconsistent in his characterization. What seems more productive,

however, is to consider character only as individual contexts of activities and desires

grouped under a common name. Thus contradictions are not deviations from some ideal,

but rather they constitute the character itself. (I would argue that this more closely

approximates real people, who are themselves often a series of contradicting desires and


I am choosing to move fundamentally away from the assumption, implicit in

systematic critical projects like those of Frye and Damon, that there is some mythic field

which constitutes, grounds and guarantees the coherence of narrative and character (and

thus writing and reading), or against which we can gauge the consistency of any action.

Since I entertain the likelihood that characters do not act so much as action defines one

parameter among the larger set of some nameable agency, I am choosing to follow Ault's

description of characters as "complexes of relationships, with no real interiors" (Four

Zoas 280). His description is specific in this case to the Lamb of God and Satan in Night

VIII of The Four Zoas; however, I see no reason why the description cannot be more

generally applied. Ault's attention to "perspective ontology" may, in fact, be another way

of framing "character" as a category constituted by, not proof of, agency at a given

moment (280).

My purpose is to concentrate on The Book of Urizen as a text in which the tension

between fixity and fluidity crystallizes in a most profound way. Blake, as I tried to show

in the "Introduction" to The Songs of Innocence, is in no sense interested in evading or

transcending the material nature of artistic production in his poetry, despite his concern

for the limitations of materiality, or for avoiding the issue of having to fix his artistic

vision to what may appear the immobile and immobilizing page. As Paul Mann writes,

The Book of Urizen is "a book about books" (49). It is a "system of enclosures" (52).

More than this, Urizen is a book about the impossibility of getting outside of the book

one is writing.

Blake complicates the usual prophetic outside of some transcendent authority

through and from whom the poet receives dictation. In the Preludium to The Book of

Urizen, the writing "I," hears the call of the Etemals gladly, and invites them to "dictate"

words and "unfold" visions. This is, presumably, a kind of invocation to the muses, after

which the writer receives what become the text and illustration we have before us. But,


as Mitchell contends, the "distinction [between Urizen and the Eterals] is not reducible

to absolute good versus absolute evil," and thus our Eternal guarantors of "true"

revelation are dubious (116). What does it mean, though, for the reader, when

complications themselves unfold over the course of the book. Do we "believe" the

Eterals' vision? Do we side with them, and for how long?

The persistence with which Blake complicates the book (in terms of character,

narrative, text and illustration) speaks perhaps to his belief in our need to be complicated

out of believing the Eterals' vision as, by default, good, and any opposition to them as

bad. For example, what are we to make of the Eternals who weave a "woof" and call it

"Science" (Plate 19:9), or who "erect the tent" (Plate 19: 18) which separates them from

Los (whom they had commandeered into watching and confining Urizen to keep him

separate) (Plate 5:35-40)? Consider that Urizen creates the "Net of Religion" (Plate 25:

21). How do we align ourselves with or against one but not the other of these characters

given their similar actions?

Consider further the perversity of Blake moving the Preludium in Copy E from

the front of the poem (where we are tempted immediately to believe the Eternals as an

extra-textual authority) to a place between Plates 5 and 6. Where we would have "For

Eternity stood wide apart, / As the stars are apart from the earth" (Plates 5-6:40-1), we are

given "For Eternity stood wide apart," full page illustration of a floating, Urizenic figure,

then "PRELUDIUM / TO / THE FIRST BOOK OF URIZEN" (Copy E, Plates 5, 12,2,

following numbering system used by Bentley, Erdman, and Keynes). In Copy E, it is not

until Eternity is already "wide apart" that the writerly "I" calls for them to dictate words


and unfold visions. In fact, Blake moves the Preludium wide apart from where it should

sit as prelude to the poem, as though moving the textual block were tantamount to

moving meaning. In Copy E we are forced with the possibility that something like the

"Etemals" are no more than E-t-e-r-n-a-l-s marked onto a page, and are thus no more

outside of those marks than meaning is outside the materiality of the book. What does

this separation, material and thematic, say about the legitimacy of the Eternals as epic

narrators (dictators?)? Mitchell writes that Blake forces us to confront "the potential

egotism and megalomania of the prophetic, bardic role" (112). Following from this, it

becomes almost impossible to fix meaning. Yet we have before us a seemingly fixed

book. The more we interrogate that fixity though, the more fluid things become, and we

are confronted with a text that has forced a very different kind of reading strategy than the

kinds of books suggested by the Urizenic books of law and measurement, themselves

clearly reflective of the Newtonian text Blake wanted to work against.

Blake does look to generate new kinds of poetic spaces and experiences by way of

showing the hollowness of some of the assumptions behind "Newtonian" reading

strategies which look to fix and stabilize meaning under authorial guardianship (as I

discussed in Chapter 1). In "Incommensurability and Interconnection in Blake's Anti-

Newtonian Text," Donald Ault writes that "Newton was arguing for a single unified

proto-philosophy and religion" (150). And that "One of Blake's central purposes in

constructing anti-Newtonian narrative was to create in his readers an experience of the

bankruptcy of the kinds of assumptions about the interconnections in knowledge,

perception, and reality in the doctrine of the prisca sapentia" (141). The abstract,


universalizing nature of the laws which Urizen writes in his books of metal in The Book

of Urizen, and the clear association between Urizen and Newton, suggests that, for Blake,

there was a deep connection between the systemic nature of Newtonianism (as a cultural

phenomenon) and the act of writing which ensured that system's cultural centrality.

Urizen writes, not just in "books formed of metals" (Plate 4, 24) but in "the Book / Of

eternal brass" (Plate 4, 33). Here he creates

One command, one joy, one desire,
One curse, one weight, one measure
One King, one God, one Law. (Plate 4:38-40)

That the book is eternal is crucial, in that it represents the very fixity, which Urizen

assumes for his universalizing system, against which Blake will posit the fluidity of his

own poetic work, even as that work participates in fixities of its own.

We see abstraction as a form of control in Urizen as he explores his surroundings

in The Book of Urizen: "He form'd a line & a plummet / To divide the Abyss beneath."

Urizen forms "scales to weigh ... massy weights ... a brazen quadrant... [and] golden

compasses" (Plate 22: 32-40). Critically, as I had mentioned in Chapter 1, Urizen forms

the weights and measures before exploring his surroundings. Thus what he finds will be

circumscribed by the abstract, standardized weights and measures. Stuart Peterfreund

writes, "In the pursuit of a rational, universal, materialist understanding of reality,

prescriptive thought attempts to deny the emotional, personal, and spiritual dimension of

understanding through a strategy of marginalization and repression" (38). Compare this

with an editor providing a "Preface" of some kind to The Book of Urizen in which we are

told who is or is not speaking, what certain characters represent, what symbols mean, and

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