Text, Image, Book: Reading William Blake

This paper shares much of its content with an exhibit hosted on the Nineteenth Century Scholarship Online platform entitled “William Blake: Image and Imagination in Milton.” The exhibit features more images and focuses in greater detail on interpretation and the imagination, while this paper includes an emphasis, absent in the exhibit, on the distinction in textual scholarship between the work and the text.

The reversed epigraph reads "Contraries are Positives / A Negation is not a Contrary." Detail, Milton C 30, 1811, Blake Archive, New York Public Library.

William Blake wrote poetry. He designed its presentation. And he built books that could realize his compositions in text and image, books that do not simply contain his vision but expand and fulfill it. In illustration, in production, in language, William Blake’s work is unique, and it produces certain attendant difficulties. We know, more or less, what to do with a codex of poetry. But how should we set about interpreting Blake’s multimedial, multidimensional art? This question becomes particularly urgent in Milton: A Poem, a work that challenges the way we think about narrative sequence, spatial proximity, thematic relationships, and causality. But this series of difficulties addresses only the lexical text of Milton; its material form presents an equivalent set of challenges. It will be the task of this study to describe and integrate the material and lexical elements of this work towards the process of interpretation.

The narrative of Milton divides into two books. The first book features the Bard’s Song, a collapsed adaptation of Genesis and the Fall in which Los, the Imagination, gives birth to Rintrah, Satan, and Palambron (identified with Blake), roughly representing inspired prophecy, moralistic convention, and mediation between art and the everyday world. Satan and Palambron feud, and Satan ultimately gives in to his inner rage, exposing his own hypocrisy and leading to Palambron’s spiritual vindication. In the second book, John Milton hears the Bard’s Song and descends from his slumber in Providence to incarnate in Blake. Meanwhile his female emanation Ololon, representing his wives and daughters, journeys to reunite with Milton, and in the end, the unity of Los, Blake, Milton, and Ololon triumphs. Summary, however, fails to convey the thrust of the work; in the tradition of visionary prophecy, Milton produces meaning through spiritual, imaginative aesthetic experience rather than narrative sense.

Milton, a combination of visual art and poetry, exists in four original copies (one of many paradoxes to follow), produce by Blake himself through a method he called illuminated printing. I will examine illuminated printing through the theoretical orientation of textual scholarship, specifically employing distinctions between work, text, and performance. These concepts will elucidate the consequences of illuminated printing for textual authority and for interpretation, set alongside a logic of imagination and creation developed throughout Blake’s work. In other words, I believe that the production techniques used to create Milton can tell us something about our notions of the text, the work, authority, and interpretation, and that these notions can simultaneously help us to understand Milton in language, in image, and as a unified combination of media. We can then begin to interpret Blake’s poem in its lexical and material complexity, and this project will conclude with an example of how this interpretation might unfold.

I. Work, Text, Performance

Any account of William Blake’s work in illuminated printing encounters a challenge in the conceptual and material specificity of his books. The relationship between work and text, as elaborated in textual criticism, offers us one way to describe this specificity. The conceptual link between the material text and the linguistic work it instantiates, represents, or refers to becomes contentious in textual criticism because, as readers, we want to subsume various materially and lexically distinct objects under a single idea. Accordingly, we find it useful to designate different physical objects instantiations of the same work, but very few of the parameters guiding this association are obvious or uncontroversial. This relationship takes on an entirely unique set of problems in Blake’s art. In order to understand this element of Blake’s illuminated texts, we must first present the issue with regard to the kind of literary texts that consist (or seem to consist) strictly in language.

The question of medium becomes preeminent here, as the two perspectives I will outline, represented by G. Thomas Tanselle and Jerome McGann, differ primarily in their understanding of the medium of literature. For Tanselle, the fact that “a work of literature can be apprehended either by eye or by ear” suggests that “its medium is neither visual nor auditory” (16). It follows, then, that “[t]he medium of literature is the words (whether already existent or newly created) of a language” (17). The work is an ideated object, activity, or process, produced through the mediation of material texts, which bring “an abstraction to the concrete, where it is alien” (65). In this schema, the content (language) can be differentiated from the medium (the material text), because the function of literature lies in its content, which represents “the effort of a human being to transcend the human, an effort constantly thwarted by physical realities” (64). Tanselle’s practice of eclectic editing derives from these views, as the ideated nature of the literary object ensures that any material instantiation is necessarily incomplete or other than the work itself, which remains an idea. Thus the responsibility of the scholarly editor is to shape the language such that it points to the ideated object of authorial intention – the thing the author (and subsequently, the publication network) attempts to mediate into a material text for transmission.

McGann, by turn, argues that the materiality of literature is an essential aspect of its content. Materiality functions as a fundamental condition of the work, because the work inheres in the text, rather than in abstraction from it. Materiality is fundamental because “literary works do not know themselves, and cannot be known, apart from their specific material modes of existence/resistance. They are not channels of transmission, they are particular forms of transmissive interaction” (The Textual Condition 11). If the work is inseparable from transmission, the medium of literature cannot be limited to language. Extra-linguistic elements (designated the bibliographic code, set alongside or in opposition to the lexical code, by D.F. McKenzie) work to influence, inform, or constrain meaning. But these elements are not necessarily corrupting, precisely because no text exists outside of a material context. Oral literature, too, always exists in a forming and informing context that depends upon physical media and processes (voice, sound waves, hearing). From this perspective, the quality, veracity, utility, or significance of a textual reproduction derives from the form of both its lexical and bibliographic codes.

This debate can be understood as a conflict between two differing conceptions of authority, with Tanselle insisting that the work is the work of the author, while McGann locates the work throughout the network of its material realization. William Blake’s illuminated poetry complicates this debate, which in turn clarifies what is unique about the relationship between Blake’s books and the concept of the work: their material context and lexical code defer to the same textual authority. Tanselle certainly would not deny the material authority of Blake’s originals, as he readily admits that in painting, “one has the work available on the canvas, and it exists nowhere else” (27). He further allows that works combining words and “visual effects” become “visual art,” presumably irreducible to the medium of language (17). Yet this designation would remain problematic as well, because Blake’s work is also insistently poetic. A precise expression of this difficulty will require that we specify the material conditions of Blake’s work, and of Milton in particular.

As noted above, Milton exists in four original, authorial, material sites of Blake’s artistic expression produced between 1803 and 18211, for which, as G.E. Bentley Jr. states, Blake

conceived both text and design, he etched them on copper which he had prepared himself, he printed the plates, he coloured them with watercolours he had ground himself, he stitched the leaves together, he advertised the books, and he sold them. Each step of the process except the making of the paper was performed by William Blake. For better and for worse, Blake is entirely responsible for the finished work. No compositors or printers or binders or publishers or advertisers affected in any way the form of Blake’s original works. If a word is beautiful or misspelled, if it is evocative or ungrammatical, the responsibility is entirely Blake’s. (“Blake’s Works as Performances” 138)

Accordingly, Blake’s books do not participate in the sociological processes that, for McGann, cooperate in the authorization of the work, and for Tanselle, begin its corruption. Instead, as Sukanta Chaudhuri suggests, Blake’s approach brings “material production within the ‘author function’” (92). In this sense, we might argue that Blake’s textual authority exceeds that of any author dependent on a publication network for the realization of their project (though, we should add, he did receive significant assistance throughout the process from Catherine, his wife). This is true, at least, with regard to the four original productions of Milton, for which William and Catherine Blake retain sole responsibility. Because, as John H. Jones suggests, “no writer has ever controlled so much of the process himself, nor has any writer been so self-conscious about the process of making books,” Blake’s books do not simply contain his text, but rather manifest his artistic activity in their every dimension (25). Their materiality is the expression of Blake’s efforts, in Tanselle’s words, to “transcend the human” (64).

By counterexample, in many cases we have no idea how writers imagined the presentation of their work, nor whether they even concerned themselves with the issue. And even if we know that an author strongly approved of a given edition, that does not make the author solely responsible for the outcome. Indeed, even in this situation of enthusiastic approval and declared intention, authorial responsibility remains negligible – someone else designed and built the thing, and approval is a far cry from unilateral creation. A first edition facsimile of Lyrical Ballads may grant its text some historical authenticity, but does it come closer to realizing the idea of the work for that reason alone? Depending on perspective, it may in fact be further from the work than a new scholarly edition that contains a more accurate, less corrupted text, as well as the later revisions of the poets. Reproduction projects (eclectic editions, facsimiles, etc.) inevitably involve struggles to determine the appropriate treatment of the object. However, in Blake’s case, full facsimile treatment indisputably comes closer to the work than any other form of reproduction. Facsimile representations relate to the originals in a manner analogous to the connection between a painting and its reproduced print. The latter loses the material texture and scent of the original, as well as the original’s material proximity to the artist, to the composition process, and to lived history that any such artifact carries. But a reproduction does convey most of the visual information present in the original, particularly if the print is size-accurate and high-resolution, and I suggest that we can think about Blake facsimiles in precisely this way.

What, then, are the consequences of Blake’s methods for editing? Blake proves nearly impossible to edit beyond the choice of a facsimile text, and The William Blake Archive has to some extent negated such decisions. If Blake’s work cannot be edited, this is so first because he has printed it himself, and is thus directly responsible for the result. The intentionalist editor must defer to Blake’s intentions, and the sociological editor must defer to the originary publication process, which belongs to the author in this case. Second, there is no possible recourse for correction. In the instance of a misspelling – a not infrequent occurrence – all an editor can do is make a note of the error, because replacing Blake’s autographic inscription with that of the editor’s own hand (or a computer’s) remains out of the question. Joseph Viscomi has argued that due to strong similarities between copies of works printed around the same time, Blake’s books could be grouped into editions – this perhaps represents the limit of a potential editorial practice that remains faithful to Blake’s original efforts2. I have to this point omitted discussion of text transcriptions in standardized typography. Such transcriptions prove convenient and useful, given that not everyone has access to the expensive Princeton University Press facsimile editions, and further, because Blake’s work is at times nearly illegible. The standard scholarly edition of Blake’s work, David Erdman’s 1982 Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, consists of stand-alone text and is cited throughout this paper. However, transcriptions should function strictly for convenience as they no way represent the experience of Blake’s work. I defer again to Bentley on this point3:

Blake’s words are not made up of Platonic archetypes of the letters of the alphabet; they are individual and meaningful and exuberant and beautiful in themselves. Any substitution of other forms or letters will significantly alter and falsify Blake’s intentions and his meanings. (“Blake’s Works as Performances” 139)

We may not have to ask how Blake’s art should look or how it should be presented4. But we do have to ask, in light of this expanded sense of intention and authority, a host of new questions that will guide our discussion: what elements of his work (in both process and product) are essential to meaning? Which elements of his work attempt relatively codified acts of signification, and which elements relate more generally to the sensation or experience of the work? How do we relate the text to the image, or how can we separate the text from the image? And how do we go about interpreting this work? These questions follow from two more fundamental queries, of immediate concern: how did Blake make Milton? Why did he make it that way?

II. Illuminated Printing5

The technical details and aesthetic logic of illuminated printing have become central to Blake scholarship over the past thirty years, beginning with Robert N. Essick’s William Blake, Printmaker (1980), and the authoritative tome on the subject at present is Joseph Viscomi’s Blake and the Idea of the Book (1993). These works, in the words of Morris Eaves, “cleared away a logjam of well-intentioned misinformation that had been accumulating for decades” (xx, foreword to Damon). This scholarship owes its centrality in part to the proliferation of high quality facsimile editions of Blake’s work, first produced by David Erdman (1974), David Bindman (1978), Martin Butlin (1981), and Essick (1983). Additionally, Bentley’s descriptive bibliography Blake Books (1977) might be the single most important enabling resource for scholarship on illuminated printing, and for materialist or textual criticism on Blake’s work in general.

William Blake spent much of his life as a commercial engraver, and this practice powerfully influenced his work in illuminated printing. Engraved reproductions of popular images could be printed in large quantities, and the form was financially lucrative. However, engraving was viewed as a derivative craft, one best employed in the reproduction of drawn or painted originals, and was thus widely seen as artistically inferior to drawing and painting. Blake believed strongly in the aesthetic viability of etching and printmaking as independent and creative artistic practices, and his work in illuminated printing affirms this position. Relief etching, the plate production technique Blake essentially invented, differs in both method and effect from contemporary engraving techniques, many of which sought to produce subtle tonal differences. Relief etching instead creates heavy, distinct lines (see fig. 2), and can be best understood alongside the practice of intaglio etching (see fig. 1). The contrast is clear in these examples from Blake and the great satirist-engraver William Hogarth.

Fig. 1. Detail from William Hogarth, “A Harlot's Progress” Plate 1, 1733 Intaglio Etching, Tate Museum Online.

Intaglio etching begins with the application of an acid-resistant ground to a copper plate. The engraver then lays a sheet of paper containing the design onto the plate, and cuts through both the design and the ground with an array of sharp tools, exposing the metal. Tonal effects can be produced by varying the proximity and density of parallel lines or introducing cross-hatching. The plate then soaks in acid, and the incisions that result are filled with ink that transfers the design onto paper when run through a press.

Blake’s method, by turn, produces the design in relief, rather than cut into the plate. First, he would cut the copper plate to a regular but not exact size. He would then apply the design directly to the plate in acid-resistant ink with pen or brush. While in intaglio etching, knives and needles are used to recreate the effect of brush strokes, relief etching allowed Blake to simply paint or draw on the plate. Because the printed image mirrors the plate design, any text would be inscribed backwards. If he wanted sharp, thin lines, he could paint over a larger section and then manipulate the ink with a needle in a manner similar to the intaglio technique.

Fig. 2. Detail from William Blake, The Ghost of Abel, 1822, Relief Etching, Blake Archive, Library of Congress.

Next the plate was ready to soak in acid, and after a period, the design would be reapplied in order to protect it and prepare for a second, longer soak. The result left the design standing in relief, rather than incised into the plate. And the relief surface would be a solid plane, rather than a series of minute lines with subtle differences in width and depth. Accordingly, at the printing stage, the relief plate required far less pressure than an intaglio plate to transfer ink to a sheet of paper. Registration between the plate and the paper was not always accurate, but as with plate size, Blake did not expect or demand uniformity. The printed impression was then ready to be finished in watercolor and pen – that is, illuminated – and upon its completion, the book would be tied together with string and sold, presumably to be professionally bound like most books of the era.

For our purposes, the most important part of Blake’s process is the direct application of design to plate, without an outline or model to trace. This meant that he could compose the image on the plate, specifically for the plate, responding to its particularities and his own spontaneity. The act of artistic creation, “autographic and flexible,” thus achieves a closer temporal and intentional unity than contemporary etching methods (Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book 44). In a persuasive argument on behalf of the logic of Blake’s method, Viscomi suggests that his practice develops

a sensitivity to the mind forming itself outside the body and inside the medium, a sensitivity predicated on the complete internalization of the medium. This union of invention and execution means that creative imagining and thinking occur simultaneously inside and outside the body. (Blake and the Idea of the Book 43)

This reading of Blake’s practice coheres with his metaphysical, theological contentions, namely that “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell 4, E346). While Blake probably had the text in hand prior to designing a given plate, its composition could follow from direct and spontaneous creation, in response to the medium, maintaining a unity of sense and intellect, body and soul. More practically, the flexibility of the process allowed Blake to compose a few plates at a time, without knowing how he was going to plot each plate or how many plates the book would require. Accordingly, as he claimed of the composition of one of his later poems, he could work “from immediate Dictation […] without Premeditation & even against my Will” (Letter to Thomas Butts, E729).

Viscomi’s reading proposes a technical and aesthetic rationale for illuminated printing. However, some scholars have discerned a larger ideological agenda in Blake’s methods. There is an essential curiosity in the idea of using a mass production technology, like a rolling press, to make single copies of politically radical, aesthetically and philosophically complex works. From this perspective, Blake reappropriates the printing press in service of a critical, subversive project that constitutes an ideological rejection of mainstream print culture at large and the homogenizing tendencies of mass reproduction in particular. This possibility is supported by the array of differences that exist between different copies of the same work. Stephen Leo Carr develops this variation into the basis of an influential interpretation, proposing that

[w]ithin the terms established by this system [mechanical reproduction], variation always seems a derivative and insubstantial phenomenon. Variation in Blake’s art must be understood in radically different terms, indeed in terms of a radical difference, for his mode of production disrupts the very possibility of simply repeating some authoritative version of a design over and over again. (184)

Given Blake’s contrarian disposition, radical metaphysics, revolutionary politics, and prototypical status as a fringe artist, this reading seems quite plausible. Viscomi7 and Essick8, however, have convincingly argued that the variable nature of illuminated printing was itself pragmatic and even commercially viable, particularly in an era in which spontaneous, autographic images were increasingly popular. In this view, Blake conceived of illuminated printing as an efficient and fairly inexpensive way to develop his projects, which he knew were unlikely to supplant his professional work.

Indeed, ascribing specifically philosophical or political motivations to the adoption of illuminated printing implies that Blake’s methods came into being outside of the influence of his professional and personal artistic practice. More accurately, as Jason Allen Snart proposes, “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 the imaginative invention as a process” (9). Thus we must maintain the possibility that Blake’s methods and beliefs relate reciprocally, informing each other, rather than the latter determining the former. The unique qualities of his approach, its “sensitivity to the mind forming itself outside the body and inside the medium,” likely do not follow from aesthetic theorization, but rather from a life of experience in artistic composition. Blake’s radical metaphysics, his visionary rethinking of the relation between materiality, perception, and the self, builds on a practice in which, as Snart suggests in a McGann-esque formulation, “meaning is not translated to materiality, but is a result of materiality” (9).

The aspects of illuminated printing discussed to this point – its flexibility with regard to composition, versatility with regard to outcome, and relative thrift and speed – imply that the method proved an ideal vehicle for the realization of the artist’s intentions. And I have earlier claimed that illuminated printing expands Blake’s textual authority to the bibliographic code. This is true if taken with the caveats that, first, his intentions may have been quite vague prior to execution, and second, the medium itself is characterized by intensive variability at every stage of the process. Every medium, the body included, resists our intentions to some extent, and no medium or object is a passive transmitter or receptacle of will and meaning. When we write or draw with a pencil, the object in our hands imposes itself on the inscription that results: the pencil determines the kinds of marks we can make, and the idiosyncrasy of the particular tool inevitably shapes the outcome to some irreducible degree, even if the difference between one pencil and another appears limited. In the case of illuminated printing, idiosyncrasy and variability are defining features of the practice and of the images it produces. Any mediating effects of the translation from ink to brush to plate, through acid, through press to paper, and finally to watercolor, should not be viewed as flaws of method, as they in fact represent an essential aspect of its logic. The details of Blake’s practice support this contention. As noted above, Blake did not cut his copper plates precisely, nor did he insist on exact registration of image to paper when it came time to print. Further, an acid bath is not exactly a predictable process, and its results inevitably varied. The actual printing would always produce a slightly different impression in response to each inking of the plate and each run through the press, and meanwhile, the plates themselves inevitably altered with use. Finally, as Catherine assisted Blake at every point along the way, most of his work is also, in part, hers.

Illuminated printing as practiced by William Blake assumed, accounted for, invited, and/or depended upon processual variation. As a result, we cannot say that every mark and every touch of color in Blake’s work appears as he consciously intended. Nor can we say that every particular visual element signifies something specific or anything in general. However, as Erdman suggests,

[i]t may not have been his particular consideration to make each copy of his Songs or each of his Prophecies a unique work of art, although in effect that is what he did, but he was obviously pleased to make every plate of every work a vehicle of fresh vision each time he touched it. (789)

The illuminated books thus stand in accordance with Blake’s goals in adopting a heavily mediated production process defined by variability in outcome. In other words, intention resides partially in the method of production itself, authorized by the artist to operate variably. I take Bentley to be sympathetic to this thinking in his insistence that Blake’s books are neither works nor texts, but rather unified acts of invention and execution – that is, performances. Blake may have maintained some notion of how a given image should look, accepting prints that vary within tolerable limits, or he may have simply decided whether or not he liked whatever came out of the press without any well-defined expectation of what he would find. In this schema, intention diffuses throughout the process, negating the possibility of any entirely purposeful outcome. Yet intention always returns to the artist in the form of a purposeful choice of method. Thus the word intention misleads insofar as it implies that Blake wanted the printed image to look exactly like the plate (only reversed, and on paper rather than copper). At the same time, intention is absolutely accurate insofar as it suggests that the only human beings responsible in any direct sense for the shape of the work were the Blakes.

This discussion of variation qualifies my earlier claim that William Blake maintains greater textual authority over his work than a writer dependent on a publication network. That claim remains viable at the level of the book as a whole, but becomes problematic when it encounters questions about the meaning or purpose of specific details. Each of the illuminated books exists in multiple copies, and each copy differs in various ways – most noticeably, in color scheme, which shifts radically from performance to performance. These differences raise several issues with regard to interpretation – perhaps foremost, we might ask: does a particular difference arise from variation inherent in the process, or through intentional revision? Readers of a technical, materialist persuasion generally attempt to determine the sources of variations “within the production process” in order to understand “how they came into being” (Essick 206). According to this perspective, we must understand the origin and purpose of a given difference in order to understand how it relates to Blake’s idea of the work. I doubt that Essick would begrudge anyone a speculative interpretation of any detail, but he might view that interpretation with skepticism in the absence of any evidence of direct intention.

There is certainly value in understanding which elements of a given image are directly authorial and which are more generally processual. With regard to the latter, it may prove impossible to specify the proximity of a variation to Blake’s approval or (possibly diffuse) intention. For example, there could be a whole range of visual outcomes that he disliked but tolerated, deciding against a new impression due to the constraints of time or expense, and there could be another spectrum of accidents or surprises he loved, appreciated, or simply didn’t mind. Such distinctions cannot be unearthed by critics in most cases, but would prove quite valuable to intentionalist interpretations. However, we risk losing the aim of the process, and may in fact subvert the intention and purpose of the work, by insisting on this differentiation between authorial and medial cause. In other words, we might also begin at a different level of analysis, one in which we would try to articulate what Blake meant to accomplish through the creation of the book. This method of interpretation would ask, “What are material attributes of this object, and how do they shape our interactive experience?” From this perspective, accidents prove meaningful in light of Blake’s more general aesthetic intentions. By way of analogy, an author attempting to produce a radically polysemous work intends unforeseen interpretations, which then exist both as indirectly authorial meanings and as readerly projections. Whereas Essick and Viscomi might insist on a distinction between affect and meaning, this kind of art challenges those distinctions; its intentions are more experiential than linguistically specific. Blake asserts as much in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, declaring his hope that “[t]he whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite. And holy … by an improvement of sensual enjoyment” (14, E39). From this point of departure, I propose that Blake intends, in and through Milton, a multi-sensual experience in which the reader must imaginatively reconcile disparate or even conflicting elements into meaningful cohesion. Along these lines, a fundamental connection exists at the intersection of text and image, in Milton and throughout the illuminated books; this intersection acts as a central juncture in the process of holistic, literal, and conceptual interpretation.

III. Text & Image

W.T.J. Mitchell terms Blake’s work “composite art” because it fuses image and text, or in our earlier terms, it fuses the lexical and bibliographic codes. Since Jean Hagstrum’s William Blake: Poet and Painter (1964), the distinctive textuality of Blake’s work has received substantial attention, best exampled by Mitchell’s own Blake’s Composite Art (1978), Nelson Hilton’s Literal Imagination (1983), and more recently, John B. Pierce’s The Wond’rous Art: William Blake and Writing (2003). These studies examine Blake’s treatment of text as a visual medium in relation to illustrations and other visual forms. Blake’s work connects text and image numerous ways; in one characteristic approach, his plates introduce “pictorial signifiers in the midst of alphabetic ones, with the inevitable effect of inducing the eye to pictorialize the rest of a plate” (De Luca “A Wall of Words” 231-2). The pictorialized text resists any reduction to a separable allographic module that could be extracted in transcription. In addition, much of the text itself cannot be represented through conventional typography, particularly when the lexical s tring of Blake’s writing intertwines with its surrounding illustrations (see figs. 3 & 4).

Fig. 3. A series of grim capitalized nouns - “Satan under the Unutterable Name”, “Great Solemn Assembly”, “Eternal”, “Eternal Death” - highlighted (or undermined?) by a rainbow arcing behind and through the text. Detail from Milton 11 (copy C), 1811, The Blake Archive, New York Public Library.

Fig. 4. Marginal figures and text intertwine, as a piper stands on an outgrowth of the “d” in “repelld.” Ibid.

The presence of illustration, however, should not imply that the visual elements of the work uniformly support or enhance the meaning of its linguistic dimension. If this were the case, a transcription might differ from a facsimile only in medium of signification, while maintaining the same general meaning. Instead, the Blakean text-image is far more problematic.

Harold Bloom, as part of his justification for entirely ignoring the visual dimension of the work in his Blake’s Apocalypse, notes that in his experience, “the poems are usually quite independent of their illustrations” (9). This is, of course, true – the text does not depend on the illustrations in order to achieve meaning, because the illustrations in fact, as Nicholas M. Williams suggests, “frequently serve as counterpoint to the verbal text, or set out in directions unanticipated by the words on the page” (3). The illustrations do not uniformly assist interpretation, but rather they challenge and complicate the meaning of the text. Additionally, we initially encounter each plate as a unified gestalt, such that “the attention of the reader is diverted from a sequential pursuit of words and lines to a visual contemplation of the whole block of text as a single unit, a panel” (De Luca “A Wall of Words” 232). The text of Blake’s late work tends to be visually condensed and at times becomes barely legible, requiring active perceptual effort to make its material inscriptions into signifying units of language (see fig. 5)9.

Fig. 5. The “wall of words.” Detail from Milton 28 (copy B), 1811, The Blake Archive, Huntington Library .

In some of these instances, the eye more easily navigates the text from top to bottom rather than left to right; in the lower half of figure 5, beginning at the second word of each line and moving down, we get the string “of a Globe / Microscope / ratio of the / every Space / visionary and / every Space / Eternity of / red Globule / measure Time / …” (29:16-24, E127). This reading, made available by the materiality of the text, provides a thematic background for the conventional left-to-right reading.

Johanna Drucker describes “a visuality of language which is not imagistic, but specific to the quality of written language itself;” I take this visuality to be intimately bound to the signification of text (109). I refer specifically to the tendency of text to become perceptually transparent or peripheral to the linguistic sense it carries, a tendency that appears strongest in standardized typography. For Drucker, the texture of text is somewhat ineffable: it is “[n]ot an inherency, but an actuality, tangible, perceptible, specific, and untranslatable, understood and grasped as effect” (109). Blake’s art plays on this particular visual quality of text by displacing lexical signification, which is normally immediate. In the process, the text of the illuminated books comes closer to visual imagery, presenting language in a form that must be experienced first in material and sensual terms before it can become the referential language of reading. This deferral of linguistic meaning participates in the fundamental argument of Blake’s art, which as Pierce suggests, grounds truth not in “the signified content of the media but the manner of interpretation and the ‘raising’ or enlarging of perception; graphic representation thus partakes of truth in as much as it is a conduit of truth” (64).

While many scholars maintain that context and presentation heavily inform, constrain, or determine the interpretation of text, the conceptual distinction between text and material form applies differently to Blake’s art, because there is no text to speak of (or read) outside of its presentation in the illuminated books. The notion of a material context – a form of presentation external to the work itself that influences meaning – fundamentally assumes that the text is directly influenced by non-authorial agents. Context is by definition marginal to text, and we might risk elaboration: context is sometimes considered non-authoritative, inessential, peripheral to meaning. For Blake however, the book is the context, and the book is all Blake’s, which is to say that none of it is peripheral and all of it is authoritative. The material book, then, cannot be interpreted as a context for his work because it is identical to his work. A conventional text contains elements incidental to meaning, residing in its material periphery. In Blake’s art there is no material periphery, as the literal margins of the book are often central to its signification. However, we can, and we inevitably do, make distinctions between elements we assume Blake intended to be relatively codified and determinate in meaning (his words, and in a different mode, his illustrations), and elements he intended to produce a more general affect (layout, certain marginal designs, color). Such distinctions are essential to analysis, and they structure this very paper. The important point is that in Blake’s art, we experience these elements in unity, and our understanding requires us to forcibly separate this unity. Terms like text and image give us ways to talk about Blake’s books, but the books themselves challenge this kind of conceptual differentiation.

This discussion seems to rest upon a central paradox: Milton expands textual authority and aesthetic experience to new material and sensory dimensions, but the book also insists on an expanded ideational role for the reader. We might expect, say in an illustrated children’s book, the additional information provided by illustrations to guide us towards interpretation – to make meaning more readily available. Blake’s book, on the other hand, contains more kinds of authorial information than a text, but requires more readerly effort to achieve meaning. By assuming sole control over the production of Milton, Blake has at the same time charged the reader with heightened responsibility. This paradox may be ultimately illusory, if framed slightly differently: because Milton unfolds in multiple sensory dimensions, it requires that we conceptualize, interpret, and reconcile elements that lack any obvious significance or clear path to coherence. We have already encountered some of these issues and the debates they engender: what is the significance of illuminated printing, as a practice and in affect? Of variation between copies? Of the text-image intersection? These questions reside in the bibliographic, material realm, and the following section will address the lexical code, specifically narrative, plot and the role of imagination in Blake’s work.

IV. Imagination

I have suggested throughout that the form of Milton, material and lexical, must be forcefully unified in the reading process. Our visual encounter with the text demands as much: as we struggle to read Blake’s barely legible text, we have to think about the way that it looks and make sense of that presentation. We meet a similar challenge with regard to the lexical code, as the narrative contains, in Harold Bloom’s words, “problems of continuity, and sudden changes in perspective” (“Commentary,” E909). In one sense, these difficult transitions simply highlight the generalized structure of any reading experience, through which a fragmentary lexical string becomes meaningful. Narratives always fail to accurately represent events, because they leave nearly everything to be inferred. This phenomenon unfolds in several senses; the most visible include instances where “[t]he threads of a plot are suddenly broken off, or continued in unexpected directions,” or when “one narrative section centers on a particular character and is then continued by the abrupt introduction of new characters” (Iser 293). Wolfgang Iser calls these omissions “blanks,” and they define the space of readerly ideation that structures our interaction with text:

Blanks indicate that the different segments and patterns of the text are to be connected even though the text itself does not say so. They are the unseen joints of the text, and as they mark off schemata and textual perspectives from one another, they simultaneously prompt acts of ideation on the reader’s part. Consequently, when the schemata and perspectives have been linked together, the blanks disappear. (293)

We can understand Milton as a series of blanks to be joined – blanks exist not just between “textual perspectives,” but also between lexical and material strata. Further, we might add that Blake’s book does not allow the reader to naturalize or efface her interpretive activity, and so the blanks never disappear. Ronald L. Grimes appraises this problem in terms that recall Iser’s formulation: “[c]onnective devices are muted, if not missing altogether. The ‘spaces’ between events seem to be blank, as if inviting the reader to fill them in by himself” (Grimes 64). Blake intends the reader to take ownership of her experience rather than attribute sensation to the object from which it derives. My argument here follows from the structure of Milton, as well as from the conception of imagination that Blake develops throughout his published writings, letters, and marginalia. I will outline that understanding of imagination here, and then examine how it might be put to interpretive work in the following section.

Form, in its material and literal senses, exists in imaginative order, in an idea outlined in the firm and definite lines of Blake’s relief plates and his poetry. That idea is simply direct and powerful experience, and it defines the goal of Blake’s art. In this art, true experience becomes possible through a revelation: separation, in all of its forms, deludes us, masking the ontological unity of our ever-present Edenic state. Our separation from each other and from the world in which we exist is an illusion. All experience partakes in reality, but moreso, all experience creates its reality. If we fail to actively shape our perceptions through inspiration, our perceptions will instead shape us, a fate that befalls Los, Blake’s personification of the imagination, early in Milton (3:29, E97). Truth thus lies in the idiosyncrasies that exceed the commonalities of our perception, that is, in those elements of perception that make the world ours in particular. The commonalities of perception are the basis of rationalization, which must be overcome because it seeks to reduce all being to a basic quantifiable standard that Northrop Frye calls “[a] consensus of normal minds based on the lower limit of normality” (FS 28).

The remainder or excess of experience, beyond what Blake will call the “natural,” grounds Frye’s definition of the visionary, who “creates or dwells in a higher spiritual world in which the objects of perception in this one have become transfigured and charged with a new intensity of symbolism” (FS 15). This concept of visionary experience distills the aesthetic purpose of Blake’s art. However, despite the indispensability of Frye’s archetypal project, a seminal imaginative shaping of Blake’s mythology, the work itself ultimately eludes any rigid systematization, including that of Frye’s approach. Blake’s mythology is, as McGann suggests, “notoriously private:”

[A]ny meaning which one derives from it will reveal more about the commentator than about the artifact or its maker. It is an art of creative obscurity because its obscurity repels generalized conceptions. The poetry carries meaning only along the grammars of individual assent. (“The Aim of Blake’s Prophecies” 12)

Indeed, though McGann does not discuss Frye in the course of his argument, “grammar of individual assent” seems an incredibly apt characterization of Frye’s Fearful Symmetry (1947), and it is no accident that the study responsible for inaugurating contemporary Blake scholarship comes so close to outright identification with its source. Harold Bloom reprises Frye’s systematic (literary) formalism in his 1963 Blake’s Apocalypse, but David Erdman’s historical, contextual approach in Prophet Against Empire (1954) perhaps exerts greater influence on contemporary criticism. Blake scholarship has produced studies detailing various influences or currents in his thought and practice: his relation to enthusiasm and radical protestant sects (Mee, Thompson) including Moravians and Muggletonians (Davies, Schuchard), Neoplatonism, hermetic and Kabbalistic traditions, Swedenborg and his ilk (Raine, Hirst), process philosophy (Bracher, Birenbaum), and a range of views on Blake’s complex relationship to empiricism (Ault, Peterfreund), ranging from outright opposition (a major theme of Fearful Symmetry) to covert affinity (Clark, Glausser). The variety of Blake scholarship affirms the depth and breadth of his body of work, and it also suggests the elusive quality of his art. Though contextual studies and systematic interpretations provide important insights into the varying tendencies in Blake’s work, that work inevitably exceeds the bounds of any particular frame.

V. Creation & Separation

Mark Bracher offers an insightful crystallization of Milton: “The ultimate goal of Milton, as with all of Blake’s poetry, is to bring about a state of affairs in which all beings are completely fulfilled – i.e., a state in which their essential being, their inmost possibilities, are actualized” (2). This actualization follows from a renewed understanding of creation, or more specifically the relationship between creations and their creator. The text of Milton unifies around the theme and problem of the separation of oneself from oneself, a process inherent in creation, production, and generation. Creation can synthesize or divide, it can return us to Eden or reenact the Fall. Imagination performs both the productive work of inspired perception and the reductive work of vivisecting ontological unity into a discrete, rationalized series of phenomena.

Milton begins in a fallen, fractured present. Its invocation differentiates between the poet’s visceral, material inspiration, “descending down the Nerves of my right arm […] From out the Portals of my Brain” and the enervated words of the “False Tongue” that envision a “land of shadows” (2:6, 10, 11, E96). The False Tongue makes “offerings” and “sacrifices” to an “Invisible God,” rather than actively producing and shaping God through “Human Imagination” (2:11-12, E96). In this context of prophetic speech, “words are actions” (Hilton 34). This distinction between a living, inspired, material artistry and a supplicating language of reference introduces the ethical dimension of Blake’s approach to creation, on which Milton reads as an extended treatise. As Kathleen Lundeen suggests, Milton works to demonstrate that “the authentic word is neither an abstract mediator of a thing nor a concrete mediator of an idea, both of which define language as an instrument of rational thought… the word in its unfallen state is an unmediated manifestation of life” (93). We can understand the visual quality of Blake’s word in precisely this sense, as the unity of living image and signifying language. This unity becomes an autographic and unique form of communication that conveys meaning above and beyond linguistic sense.

We follow this theme of material shape through the creation of Paradise, in which Jesus (“The Great Eternal Humanity Divine”) “caus’d the Spectres of the Dead to take sweet forms” (2:8-9, E96, my emphasis). The materiality of this divine act, its insistence on incarnation, points toward Blake’s artistic practice. The reality of Milton is at once material, linguistic, and spiritual, and the separation of these terms denotes emptiness and even sin. Accordingly, the Bard’s Song opens with John Milton distraught over his separation from his “Sixfold Emanation,” wandering the “intricate mazes of Providence” – as Bloom notes, this is an ironic inversion of a scene from the second book of Paradise Lost, in which the newly fallen angels debate “Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will and Fate” to no end, “in wandring mazes lost” (Milton 2:19, 17; Paradise Lost 2:559, 561). Milton’s journey, then, is a journey back to self-unity with lost aspects of his being, namely love and family.

The third plate of Milton, which appears only in the two most complete copies of the book (C and D), features Los forging or giving birth first to Urizen, and then to his male spectre and female emanation. This act demonstrates the relationship between creation, perception, and imagination that underlies the entirety of the Milton. It begins as the “Abstract Horror” (Urizen/Satan) refuses “all Definite Form,” and the fallen nature of this refusal follows Blake’s aesthetic insistence on firm, definite lines and ideas, as opposed to tonal subtlety or conceptual obscurity (3:10, E97). As the creation takes its shape, it begins to parallel its maker, from the “red round Globe hot burning” to the “two little Orbs” that become eyes, and then ears, nostrils, a tongue, and finally, limbs (3:11, 14, E97). Soon a “Female pale / As the cloud that brings the snow,” emerges, and then “A blue fluid exuded in Sinews hardening in the Abyss / Till it separated into a Male Form howling in Jealousy” (3:34-37, E97). Los “cherish’d” his creations “In deadly sickening pain,” and the Bard punctuates each step in this process with a grim refrain declaring “a State of dismal woe” (3:29-33, E97). The “woe,” “pain,” and “horror” echoing throughout the passage reflect more than the suffering inherent in procreation or artistic creation, though we recognize here the conventional imagery of inspiration – the muse, the blacksmith, the pain of giving birth. The difference between suffering towards artistic redemption and suffering in the terror of sin remains thin, and it turns on the power and responsibility of active ideation, which comes from the revelation of fundamental eternal unity. Within the schema of active imagination, we can sense the failure in this act of creation – Los does not realize that he creates extensions of himself, “Within labouring. beholding Without,” and that his creations are not external, abstract horrors but rather his own projections (3:38, E97). Creation reenacts the Fall when it entails separation from the Creator. The shape of this sin appears more readily elsewhere in Blake’s work; what Los has done is identical to Urizen’s folly in The Four Zoas:

Urizen saw & envied & his imagination was filled

Repining he contemplated the past in his bright sphere

Terrified with his heart & spirit at the visions of futurity

That his dread fancy formd before him in the unformd void. (II 34:5-8, E322)

Perception and creation combine for both Los and Urizen, producing terror in both instances because the beholder fails to recognize himself in what his “dread fancy formd.” Fear arises when our perceptions no longer belongs to us, when the world becomes an externality.

Blake articulates this risk through the concept of the Selfhood, which refers, in Frye’s memorable designation, to our “verminous crawling egos” (FS 73). This issue occupies Blake throughout his body of work and proves central to the trajectory of Milton. Selfhood derives from the idea of possession and always gives way to jealousy. Possession only becomes thinkable if the subject of experience separates that experience and its objects from himself. This separation depends upon a fragmented world, and for Blake, fragmentation signifies delusion. The world is whole, it consists in a oneness, and in reading Blake’s work, we are compelled to recognize and return to this oneness – lexical, visual, material. This does not suggest an end to identity, but rather an end to individuation, which separates identity from phenomena. True identity lies in our ultimate inseparability from the world, consisting of the deep interconnection through which self and world reciprocally come into being. In Frye’s words,

a world where everything is identical with everything else is not a world of monotonous uniformity, as a world where everything was like everything else would be. In the imaginative world everything is one in essence, but infinitely varied in identity. (“Commentary on Milton” 245, original emphasis).

The relationship between the self and its creations (which include perceptions), then, turns on the idea that when we create, we reincarnate ourselves. Blake’s critique of the Selfhood takes aim at any situation or discourse in which the subject of experience fails to recognize his underlying unity with, and responsibility for, his phenomenal reality. That reality is not outside the subject, it is the subject. And this logic guides our approach to reading Milton.

VI. Interpretation

Scholars working in the vein of both Frye’s formalism and Erdman’s historicism have generally, though not always, read Blake primarily as a poet. As noted above, Harold Bloom avoids the illustrations, finding their value “uncertain:” “Some of them seem to me very powerful, some do not; but I am in any case not qualified to criticize them” (Blake’s Apocalypse 9). Because Blake’s art contains so much to grapple with, many of the best readings have ignored entire dimensions of his books, and Bloom’s methodology in itself is no fatal flaw. However, I reject the notion that the illustrations require some particular art-historical expertise to be cogently evaluated (and I particularly doubt that Bloom, in his formidable cultural fluency, lacks whatever expertise that might be). The illustrations demand only a sensitivity and openness towards sensual experience, and anyone willing to accept and articulate this experience can contribute to our understanding of the visuality of Blake’s work.

The preceding account enumerates and organizes the challenges Milton poses: material form and production, textual variation, text-image interaction, narrative, the imagination. In the aesthetic encounter with Milton, however, these various elements exist in simultaneous unity or tension, rather than in a clearly distinguishable series. I propose, then, to stage an encounter that demonstrates how multiple strata of the book interact in the process of reading, continuing with analysis of the third plate of Milton. The logic of active imagination, outlined above, imposes order on the narrative of the plate, but must expand further in order to organize the interaction of t his text with its visual form. Interdimensional tension lies at the heart of the experience here.

Fig. 6. Detail from Milton 3 (copy D), 1818, The Blake Archive, Library of Congress.

Fig. 7. Ibid.

As Los begins his act of creation, three figures appear on the plate’s margin (see figs. 6 & 7). They seem, in fact, to represent the same figure in three contorted positions. The images (particularly the third) suggest a female form, but all three appear incomplete, as if the body had yet to fully differentiate its parts and segments. The text that spatially corresponds to the figures describes the formation of the “Abstract Horror,” eyes, ears, and nose, and this correspondence encourages us to read the figures as portrayals of this process. So our first assumption – which is indeed an assumption – is that the figures depict the narrative in some manner. But is this body actually developing in these illustrations? I would suggest that the third image, despite containing the clearest indications of sex, could in fact be the least biologically “complete” of the three bodies, set in a posture that either hides or eliminates its arms and one of its legs. The figures might be read to depict several possibilities, including sequential growth, sequential deformation, or multiple perspectives on a single moment-state. Continuing through the rest of the plate, an additional interpretation arises – rather than the Abstract Horror, the figure might represent the emergence of Los’s female emanation, “pale / As the cloud that brings the snow.” Or perhaps the first figure represents the Abstract Horror, the second the Male Form hardening out of blue fluid, and the third the pale emanation?

The visual dimension of the plate also complicates its text in a more general sense: while the narrative is horrific and hellish, the images suggest an entirely different (if difficult to define) tone or mood. Blue and green background shades give a sense of earth and sky, and the bodies seem either frightfully disturbing or eerily serene. Essick and Viscomi suggest that the postures of figures throughout the poem “express the distortions and burdens of the fallen world” (Milton 21). If the curvature of their forms implies contortion, it does not seem particularly violent to me, but rather smooth and fluent, possibly even graceful. The tension in tone between text and image that I read here draws the plate into close relation to Blake’s famous illuminated poem “The Tyger,” which stages a similar disconnect between the narrative of “fearful symmetry” and “deadly terrors,” set against the illustration of a peaceable, smiling tiger (see fig. 8).

Fig. 8. Detail from “The Tyger,” Songs of Innocence and of Experience (copy Y), 1825, The Blake Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


In “The Tyger,” this tension resolves when we realize that the text of the poem depicts the perspective of its terrified, fallen speaker, rather than the true nature of the tiger. We cannot, however, easily adapt this solution to our selection from Milton, because the narrative situation is further complicated by the frame of the Bard’s Song, which occupies most of the first book of Milton. Is the Bard – a stand in for Blake, prior to his redemption through John Milton – channeling the horror of Los, or giving words to his own sense of horror?


Fig. 9. Detail from Milton 3 (copy C), The Blake Archive, 1811, New York Public Library.

Perhaps we should direct our attention to the alternate version of this plate, found in copy C (see figs. 9 & 10). The relationship between versions remains an open question; in Bentley’s terms, this version would represent a separate performance of the idea. In the context of my reading, the variations seem significant, but all we can say with certainty is that this image provides a completely different experience. The background shading seems more purposeful, from the deeper blue surrounding the first figure to the lighter shades underlying the third, contrasted with the red background of the second half of the plate. The black ink of this text reads nothing like the red ink of the D version. Here, the second figure leans against a discernible rock-like object. Most strikingly, in this image each figure has light blonde hair, a more prominent pink-beige skin pigment, and in the third figure, perceptible facial detail.

Fig. 10. Ibid.

These developments raise the possibility that the C version depicts a later stage in the creation narrative, rather than an alternate representation of the same series or moment. This performance also moves into a more definitively oppositional relationship to the text. The image of copy D retains a ghastly quality that corresponds in some sense to the tone of the text. Its figures seem less human, lacking hair, nearly absent of facial definition and skin coloring – the human form as pure outline in a clay-colored red ink. By contrast, copy C presents recognizable, even beautiful forms against a ground of deep blue tranquility. Here, the “dismal woe” resides in the speaker or in the creator, but not in the creation.

In sum, we have two illustrations to the same lexical series that vary in form, color, detail, intensity, and emphasis. These differences certainly differ in source – for example, it remains possible that the C version of this plate has simply held up better and so its figures are more well-defined, as its ink on the whole is slightly clearer and less faded than that of the D version. Perhaps, then, the shape and detail of the illustrations were nearly identical, if not their coloring, when they came into being around 200 years ago. However, this possibility does not overcome or undermine the distinctive experience and unique potential for interpretation that each version presents. These two plates are sensually distinguishable in ways that impact their relationship to the text, and within the logic of Blake’s art, that change in sense is significant. The meaning of that significance will reside in the particular ideated interpretation brought to bear upon the object. In other words, these differences are significant to the extent that we do something with them, and this imperative follows from Blake’s control over the material process and presentation of the plate. I have not developed an interpretation so much as outlined a few possibilities, and already I have engaged repeatedly in dubious speculation. The fault may be my own, but I would suggest that interpretation cannot fully ground itself in the book, and this remainder of uncertainty functions as the purpose of Milton. Interpretation requires speculation; it will not find solid ground in the object unless it lacks the ambition to synthesize form and content, to seek holistic meaning.

Any reader, any scholar, in any encounter with any book, experiences thoughts and feelings specific to her particular history of being, a whole life that now finds itself engaged in interpreting a piece of written language. The vast majority of this deeply personal, deeply sensual engagement will never appear in critical reflection, which reduces or enlarges meaning to the common structure of our experience. The material book helps to constrain meaning by becoming a node through which we can standardize our understanding of the work. By interacting through books, we come to know which parts of the reading experience exist strictly for us, and which parts are available to others interacting with a similar text. Yet we sorely mistake Blake’s intentions – he produced fully aestheticized material objects, not lexical texts – if we entirely amputate the idiosyncrasies of our relationship to his work. Insofar as the reader puts Blake’s art to work, and puts herself to work in the art, she experiences the work, which in his terms means that she understands it. This understanding acts: understanding processes sensation, altering that sensation in the process. But at the same time, all readings fail to capture the object that is the book, which is in itself multiple. In different words, Milton asks the reader to develop a perspective that will make sense of experience, but the work itself withdraws from that interpretation, remaining in place and unchanged yet internally varied. Reading here consists in the collapse of separation, of invention and execution, reader and book. This collapse takes place in the reader, and it signifies the insufficiency of criticism, which always misses the book. Such insufficiency compels our humility, and further, compels us to seek the broadest possible grounds for interpretation. The more we attempt to account for, the more we may find our theories mired in conflict. Yet we remain faithful, nonetheless, by working through the work in every dimension we can perceive. Even if our criticism fails us, our experience in Blake’s art does not.

To make sense of Blake is to participate in the fleeting obliteration of Selfhood; we miss the value of this experience entirely if we locate this reading in the text, rather than in ourselves. The idiosyncrasy of a reading marks the truth of its process, the truth of its participation in the reality the work attempts to produce. When we approach interpretation, we sometimes want to say that our experiences differ, but the object does not. For Blake, our experiences differ – full stop. Radical textual (and visual) variation is only one axis along which we develop a unique relationship to the work, which also changes between copies, and even within the same copy through the passage of time. Insofar as Blake’s books concern experience, the source of experiential idiosyncrasy is less important than the affirmation of its inevitability and value. Within this logic, textual variation represents only one challenge, among many, to our attempts to separate ourselves from the work by defining what belongs to us and what belongs to it. Such logic upends the relationship between textual authority, intention, and meaning: Blake perhaps intends particular experiences and sensations through his art, but the truth of a meaning consists in the extent to which it is uncommon and specific to the reader, and variation furthers this specificity. If meaning fails to become personal or private in excess of common denotation, the reader has failed to unify the book, which demands a unity of book and self. This does not entail that Milton resists systematization, conceptualization, theorization, or coherence – the history of Blake criticism produces a beautiful kaleidoscope of systematic meanings. But its application must be specific and ultimately personal, irreducible to the activity of William Blake. Milton presents a mere series of objects, devoid of significance, barren in the absence of Human Imagination, which must imbue its events, form, and history with meaning.


Detail from Milton 46 (copy C), 1811, The Blake Archive, New York Public Library.

VII.  Notes

1The four copies are currently located at the British Museum, the Huntington Library, the New York Public Library, and the Library of Congress. Online facsimiles of each copy can be found at The William Blake Archive, a project helmed by Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. <www.blakearchive.org>. For more detail on the issue of dating the copies of Milton, see Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book.

2See Viscomi’s “William Blake, Illuminated Books, and the Concept of Difference.”

3For an extended treatment of this issue, see the Santa Cruz Blake Study Group’s 1984 review of Erdman’s edition in Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly. Full citation in bibliography.

4This claim is largely, though perhaps not entirely, accurate. In 1990, Bentley wrote:

A transcript in black-and-white words will falsify an astonishing proportion of what Blake was attempting to do, and even a careful colour facsimile will approximate to only one of Blake’s intentions or performances. Only accurate colour facsimiles of each coloured copy of his works in Illuminated Printing will do justice to his accomplishment. (“Final Intention or Protean Performance” 176)

Bentley’s wish came true with the arrival of the groundbreaking William Blake Archive of Eaves, Essick, and Viscomi. However, one limitation of this fantastic resource is that its facsimiles of the illuminated books represent just the printed image, rather than the entire page on which the image was printed, so any misregistration, misalignment, or variability in margin is effaced. These phenomena are common throughout the illuminated books, and they may tell us something important about Blake’s methods and concerns. With regard to Milton, the changing size of the margin from plate to plate seems to be the most prominent of these lost elements, but the pages are also strikingly larger than the images they contain. The editors have (I think, appropriately) determined that fidelity of image is more important than contextual fidelity; in a more perfect world, the archive would contain facsimiles of both the standalone image and the image embedded on its page.

5This section relies heavily on the research of Robert N. Essick, Joseph Viscomi, G.E. Bentley Jr., and John H. Jones.

6Citations of Blake’s text will follow the format (Plate number : Line number, Erdman edition page number).

7See Viscomi’s “William Blake, Illuminated Books, and the Concept of Difference.”

8See Essick’s “How Blake’s Body Means.”

9V.A. De Luca points out some notoriously dense plates from Jerusalem, but as Erdman notes, Milton “contains nearly as many words per page,” even though it was composed on plates half the size (Erdman 806).

VIII. Works Cited

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Carr, Stephen Leo. “Illuminated Printing: Towards a Logic of Difference.” Unnam’d Forms: Blake and Textuality. Eds. Nelson Hilton and Thomas A. Vogler. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1986. 177-196.

Chaudhuri, Sukanta. The Metaphysics of Text. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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