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18: TACKLING BLAKE

#18: TACKLING BLAKE. Reading Blake, you just wonder how he did it—see

so clearly the shape of what was to come and form so deep and humane and prescient a response. Blake can be labyrinthine, yes, and maddening, but what draws you on through all the commentaries and studies and rereading is not just the power but the unity and integrity of his thought—how each work illumines what’s gone before and prepares you for what’s ahead. Blake can be one of the great intellectual and aesthetic adventures; no matter where you stop, you’re further than you’ve ever gone before.

---Geoffrey Keynes’s edition for the Nonesuch Press is complete, portable and attractive, but the definitive text is the Anchor Books edition, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by David Erdman and with an immensely helpful commentary by Harold Bloom.

---The opening chapter in Bloom’s book The Visionary Company is a good floor-plan of Blake’s poetry and mythology, and his Blake's Apoclaypse is an excellent, detailed study—not, alas, easy to come by. The indispensable work of explication—one of the great works of literary criticism—is Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (Princeton). One of the standard works of reference is S. Foster Damon’s amazing A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake (Universtiy Press of New England, 1988), excellent for both the needful search and the occasional mind-boggling wander.

---For Blake as a visual artist, there are several inexpensive decent books of reproductions. The best I’ve seen is the catalogue of the wonderful Tate/ Metropolitan Blake exhibit of 2001, edited by Robin Hamlyn and Michael Phillips, published by Abrams—out of print, but not yet too hard or too expensive to find. S. Foster Damon’s book Blake's Job: William Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job (E.P. Dutton, 1969) is a concise and valuable book. And, unbelievably, all of Blake’s engraved work can now be had, in full color repro, in one volume, William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books, published in 2000 by Thames and Hudson and the Blake Trust, one of those times when the glories of modern color reproduction can make you feel as rich as a king. And the William Blake Archives (www.blakearchive.org) is the best of the many Blake websites—texts, reproductions, critical works.

---If you get mired in the late works, there is always Blake’s life story to fall back on, one of the most dedicated and inspiring literary lives. Peter Ackroyd’s 1995 Blake is fluent, intelligent and immensely moving, and Alexander Gilchrist, one of Blake’s earliest biographers, is also still very much worth reading. (The old Everyman reprint includes Blake’s etchings for Virgil, which are wonderful.) Blake’s life was such that it moved Kenneth Rexroth to write that “Blake, William Blake himself, is the viable myth, not Los or Enitharmon.”

Because Blake was so little known in his day as a writer, his literary influence skipped almost two generations of Romantics and Victorians. But as an artist he had a circle of devotees and disciples, including the extraordinary Samuel Palmer. Palmer is a smaller figure than Blake, whose vision was quieter, more crepuscular; indeed it’s hard to think of an artist for whom evening and oncoming night had, melancholy perhaps, but so few terrors. And as he left the early visionary works behind and became a Victorian landscape painter, the touch of the surnatural never entirely left him: any painting of Palmer’s, at long regard, is likely to develop a hint of the uncanny. Palmer was due for a revival, and in 2005 the British Museum and the Metropolitan engineered a great retrospective exhibit; the catalogue, Samuel Palmer 1805-1881: Vision and Landscape, by William Vaughan, Elizabeth E. Butler and Colin Harrison is splendid both in reproduction and text. If you want something less expensive, Colin Harrison’s Samuel Palmer (Oxford, Ashmolean Handbooks, 1997) is smaller but a gem; A Memoir of Samuel Palmer (London, Pallas Athene, 2005) has three short biographical pieces and lots of (small) reproductions. Palmer, like Sesshu, is an artist about whom I’m evangelical—don’t get me started.

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