21 JUNE 1975, Page 18

Spreading the word

Sir Geoffrey Keynes

The Illuminated Blake annotated by David Erdman (Oxford University Press £10.00) William Blake had to wait nearly a century after his death before being given a really widespread recognition of his merits as artist and poet. Even then it was his paintings and colour prints that attracted most attention. His claims as poet, prophet and philosopher were more slowly recognised than as artist. It is true that his collection of lyrical poems known as , Songs of Innocence and ; of Experience had been given for many years a somewhat patronising praise for their obvious attractions, as an apparently naive form of poetry accompanied by charming decorations in the small number of copies finished and distributed by Blake himself. Many of these poems could appeal to children though their real meanings were far beyond childish comprehension. Before the turn of the century collectors of literary oddities were paying relatively high sums for these uncommon prizes as they turned up in the sale rooms, but the larger 'Illuminated Books,' as they came to be called, appealed only to the discerning few, and these appreciated the beauty of the coloured designs more than they did the etched text enshrined in the centres of the pages. The books have much in common with mediaeval manuscripts, by which they were certainly influenced, though the method of their execution invented by Blake was very different, combining text and designs both etched on copper plates, which were printed in coloured inks and then painted with watercolour washes, or sometimes wholly colourprinted. It was all very eccentric and confusing, and a suspicion lingered on into the present century that Blake's mind was more than a little touched by insanity, so often the easy way out ot excusing the excesses of artistic genius. Ultimately, after the establishment of an almost complete typographical text of Blake's writings in the 'twenties, more general attention was given to the longer esoteric poems and so to attempts to relate the text to the decorations. During the last fifteen years there has been an outburst of academic interest in Blake's work, particularly in the United States of America, where Blake seminars have become a frequent feature of the University campus, striving very seriously to understand what Blake was trying to convey.

In 1949 the William Blake Trust was founded in England, as an educational charity, in order to produce a faithful facsimile of his last and greatest poem. Jerusalem, etched on a hundred plates and, in one copy only, brilliantly coloured. No commercial firm of publishers would have undertaken this, the financial risk being unacceptable. With the help of an endowment from the estate of the late Walford Graham Robertson the Trust published five hundred copies of a hand-coloured facsimile of Jerusalem made by the Trianon Press in Paris, and this edition was successfully marketed at cost price. This initial success has enabled the Trust to publish at cost price almost the whole series of Blake's Illuminated Books in exact facsimile, sometimes with the generous help of American benefactors. The purposes of the Trust have thus been partially fulfilled by enabling many University Libraries and Art Galleries to provide for students facsimiles of original works which were otherwise available only in varying degrees of rarity. But these facsimiles have necessarily been expensive and students have not been able to acquire them for themselves. Now Professor David Erdman and the Oxford University Press have provided a "student-directed" volume containing reproductions in monochrome of all the Illuminated Books and of one engraved book, The Gates of Paradise, together with a scholarly commentary printed alongside each plate. It is a bold enterprise (shared by Doubleday of New York), providing so large a corpus of Blake's work at a total cost of ten pounds, and it deserves to succeed.

The monochrome reproductions printed by offset are only as good as can be expected in a volume containing so much at so low a price, and they do not challenge comparison with the expensive Blake Trust facsimiles. Most of the pages are reproduced from coloured originals, and this tends to blur the details of the designs. They can, however, be regarded as useful guides in academic discussion and for study by students in the privacy of their own rooms. It will still be necessary for the more enthusiastic scholars to see the books in colour facsimile or, better still, in the rare original forms.

Professor Erdman is recognised as one of the foremost authorities among Blake scholars and his explanatory annotations must command the utmost respect. Yet he himself would be the last to claim that he is always right and everyone else who disagrees is wrong. The fluidity of Blake's ideas and the depth of his intellectual processes leave little room for dogmatism. That is the feature of his writing which makes these illustrated poems so deeply interesting and rewarding as a subject for academic study. Symbolism in philosophy may be dangerously suggestive and may lead to reading' more into esoteric texts, such as Blake's, than is really there. Simple explanations become suspect merely because they are simple, and Professor Erdman knows his Blake so well that he can always find justification for his most ingenious theories by fetching out allusions from distant parts of Blake's poems. The necessity for every Blake scholar is to keep as close as possible to the fundamentals of his message, which was that of the complete artist proclaiming the victory of the human imagination over any materialistic values. Professor Erdman may perhaps be guilty of sometimes erring in this direction, becoming too diffuse and failing to relate the decorations to the text as closely as he should do. One suspects that perhaps Blake is not really quite so complicated as some scholars like to make out. But Professor Erdman's ideas are always interesting and cannot be lightly set aside.

Occasionally, however, he can be quite obviously wrong in his description of a design, such as the one at the foot of the second plate of Blake's only dramatic piece, The Ghost of Abel, his last work executed in etched copper plates. He describes the design as depicting Cain lying on the body of Abel. Yet Blake has described the scene on his first plate as, "A rocky Country. Eve fainted over the dead body of Abel". The figure called Cain is plainly female, with long tresses of hair, one breast visible beneath her, and wearing a skirt. So even Homer may nod, a fact which will encourage students to study Blake's designs the more closely and to use their own judgement in interpreting what they see. Taken as a whole Professor Erdman's book provides for his chosen audience a wonderful spread of ideas in an exciting field of 'art-wedded-to-poetry' such has never been provided by any poet-artist other than Blake.

The subject-index furnished at the end of the book is of great interest and value.

Sir Geoffrey Keynes has compiled William, Blake's Illustrations to the Bible and has written, among many books, William Blake, Poet, Printer, Prophet.