At Tate Britain

Frank Kermode

A great many people seemed willing to incur the expense, and the discomfort of prolonged queueing, to see the big Blake exhibition at the Tate.* Some, no doubt, were expert even in the most rebarbative of the Prophetic Books. Others perhaps only remembered some poems and some stimulating aphorisms glorifying Desire (‘the whole creation will appear infinite and holy … This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment’) or insulting Joshua Reynolds (‘This Man was Hired to Depress Art’). A few may have been excited by the promise addressed to Christians at the top of one of the Jerusalem plates:

I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball;
It will lead you in at Heavens gate,
Built in Jerusalems wall.

The great Northrop Frye, in whose book Fearful Symmetry it is sometimes difficult to know where Blake stops and Frye starts, claimed to have wound the string and rediscovered ‘the lost art of reading poetry’, presumably to be found at Heaven’s gate. But it seemed improbable that anybody would catch the end of the string in this show. The exhibits are dimly lit (no doubt in the interests of preservation) and the captions not much above knee-high, so that even when direct eye-contact is possible there is much stooping and peering. I kept thinking of a moment in one of Nabokov’s novels where the hero, ‘a hunchback for the nonce’, bends low to insert his latchkey in the inconveniently low lock of his front door.

Still, one was left in no doubt about the scholarly comprehensiveness of the exhibition. Pretty well everything, from early to late, is represented there, with informative if inaccessible commentary adjacent on the walls. The admirable Juliet Stevenson provides an audio commentary. And there are lots of educational backups, some, like lectures by Peter Ackroyd and Tom Paulin, now over, others, including various conferences and courses, still to come.

The most visible, and in some ways the most instructive of the exhibits are those which demonstrate Blake’s technical innovations. Only one of his books, the early Poetical Sketches (1783), was typeset and printed in the usual way. His later books are, for the most part ‘hand-made objects, individually produced by the author-artist himself, and even copies of the same book can differ from each other in the complement of pages, page order, colour, and occasionally the wording’ – so says David Bindman in his introduction to William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books (Thames and Hudson, 480 pp., £39.95, 30 October, 0 500 51014 8). Obviously not many such books could be printed, which accounts for their extreme rarity, but Blake thought his method greatly preferable to the one that was perforce used by the likes of his adored Milton, normal typography being a limitation on vision he deplored as much as Marshall McLuhan.

By trade an engraver, Blake devised a new technique which he called illuminated printing, making the copper engraving plate something like equivalent to a woodcut block. The technique, elaborate and slow, was refined over the years and became extraordinarily complex in the later pro-phetic books, especially in the packed hundred pages of Jerusalem. The pages of such a work, illuminated over a long period, dense with verse and elaborate designs, testify to the poet’s almost incredible industry. Composing the stuff must have been speedy by comparison with the labour of printing and illuminating it; or perhaps there was no preliminary composition, perhaps Blake used the copper plate as a sketchpad, as Peter Ackroyd suggests in his biography.

Michael Phillips’s replicas of the original plates testify to the artist’s industry and also to the devotion of modern Blakeans. The lay observer can hardly bear to contemplate the toil involved in all that neat, packed engraving, let alone in having to do everything backwards. Ackroyd, feeling the pain, says of a famous passage in Jerusalem, plate 10: ‘One can see him bent over his plate, with his engraver’s lamp and magnifying lenses, rapidly writing his verses backward with the quill: “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans/I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.”’

The most familiar books are the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience, where the pages are less densely cluttered and the words can be read more easily. They remain harder to read than the kind of printing Blake deplored, which is why the unsparingly splendid Thames and Hudson book, in which the words are throughout rather more visible than they are at the Tate, nevertheless contains an appendix in which they are all set forth in small but legible modern type.

Blake later combined the two Songs into one, sometimes engraving the Experience poems on the back of plates used earlier for Innocence. So pairs of complementary or contrasted poems would be separated only by a few millimetres of copper. Opinions differ as to the contribution of the artwork to the poetry. Some true Blakeans insist that the designs are integral parts of the poems; others treat them as an irrelevance or even a distraction. How much does that great poem ‘London’ gain from its associated design? Michael Mason, in his Oxford edition, would say it receives no benefit at all. E.P. Thompson was equally firm. His long and detailed study of ‘London’ is interested in Blake the radical, and he studies the poem entirely as a matter of language. It is certainly of interest that the word ‘charter’d’ made its way into the poem in a revision, that the final stanza about ‘the youthful Harlots curse’ was an afterthought, and that ‘the mind-forg’d man-acles’ were originally ‘german forged links’. ‘Charter’ was a key word in the debate about The Rights of Man (charters may seem to confer but actually remove rights), and in the time of Pitt’s repressions German mercenaries were brought to London to ensure public order. Removing ‘german’ gave the poem far more general application; the new, unforgettable phrase is true of all times. There are arguments about how long Blake’s dangerous radical, ‘Jacobin’ phase lasted; perhaps the execution of the French king gave him pause, perhaps not. But then there are arguments about everything connected with the poet: for instance, when did he turn against Swedenborg? Some say at the time of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, some even say never. Anyway, I feel sympathy with the view that the illumination of ‘London’ contributes little or nothing. It seems to go better with a passage in a quite different book: ‘I see London blind & age-bent begging thro the Streets/Of Babylon, led by a child …’ (Jerusalem).

The fact is that Blake is so open to interpretation, in the apparently simple lyrics as well as in the vast rambling prophetic books, that modern readers tend to choose either Blake the radical or Blake the occultist, recalcitrant disciple of Swedenborg, student of Jakob Boehme, allegorist of the Bible. Questioned about such matters he would have declined to answer reasonably. When somebody asked him why he was so sure that Michelangelo was the greatest artist, though he knew the work only in black and white reproductions, he replied that the archangel Gabriel had informed him that it was so. No use arguing with that. And he had a great many visitants and informants of the same calibre.

The work most people know best, apart from the Songs, is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’; ‘The cut worm forgives the plow’; ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time’. We tend to like it when he exalts Gratified Desire and hates impediments to it: ‘Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be constrained.’ But he would not have submitted to our inevitably rational questions about these beliefs; he will not reason or compare. Whatever we can think to say about him demonstrates that we are still trapped in ‘single vision’, still wearing the manacles.