Fuller, "Modernizing Blake's Text: Syntax, Rhythm, Rhetoric"

Editing and Reading Blake

Modernizing Blake's Text: Syntax, Rhythm, Rhetoric

David Fuller, Durham University

Problems of Representation: the Editor as Fictioner.

  1. Blake can be read in a variety of material forms. Though most people cannot get access to original copies of the illuminated books (some of which are extant in only one or two copies), thanks to some dedicated labors (particularly those of the Trianon Press), and to modern technology (especially different forms employed by the Tate Gallery / Princeton University Press facsimiles and the internet William Blake Archive), Blake can now readily be read in the combined verbal-visual form he intended.

  2. But he cannot be so read entirely. As most facsimiles implicitly confess by providing transcripts of their texts, the illuminated books can be difficult for readers familiar with the regularity of letterpress, especially when the incised lines impressed by the etched copper plate in the original are flattened out in reproduction. Facsimiles are probably more often accompaniments to letterpress reading than read in themselves. And in any case there are important differences between any facsimile and an original copy. Color applied through stencils (as in the Trianon Press facsimiles) is unlike color applied freely. Photolithography (as well as muting the effect of engraved incisions) regularly misrepresents some part of the color spectrum (the Tate / Princeton facsimiles, for example, represent gold leaf as a bland grey, so that its copies of the Songs and Jerusalem look strikingly unlike the glowing and shimmering originals from which they were made). With the Blake Archive, color seen on a screen is unlike the "same" color seen in a book (not lit from behind), never mind the myriad other differences between books and electronic media. And with all forms of reproduction, misprinted text in any individual copy has to be recovered from copies with different inking or printing failures; as does unreadable text that has been masked by paint or subject to other accidents; while destroyed text, which cannot be shown up by photolithography, can only be recovered by editors who are able to examine its residual indentations in originals—editors who may not agree about what readings those indentations imply.

  3. Facsimiles and photographs apart, Blake may be read in letterpress, which apparently offers to reproduce Blake's poetic texts exactly as he engraved and (or) printed them. Again this proves in practice highly problematic. A would-be non-interventionist editor must often invent what he or she purports to report. Most simply, an editor will regularly ignore the often significant textual differences produced by the different inking, printing, and coloring of different copies. (These could in theory be represented, but the apparatus required would be extremely cumbersome.) More fundamentally, Blake's engraved texts simply cannot be transferred directly to letterpress. Letterpress cannot reproduce the eccentrically shaped letters which some critics take as visual puns (os that are almost as: worship / warship); most letterpress texts do not attempt to reproduce Blake's spacing, though some critics regard this as important some of the time; and letterpress has no equivalents of Blake's eccentric marks of punctuation. Apart from the unique eccentricities sometimes taken for punctuation which may be the result of careless etching or poor inking, these include Blake's colons which merge into exclamation marks, his full stops which merge into commas, his sometimes uncertain distinction between lower case and capital letters, and his irregular spacings for all punctuation marks. All these irregular forms may imply irregular meanings. An editor who is committed to transcribing what Blake printed (or perhaps—though this can be quite different—to recovering from a comparison of many copies what he engraved) in fact makes choices about which standard letterpress punctuation mark most nearly represents the non-standard mark in the original, and is likely to make those choices in relation to contemporary expectations about punctuation in the relevant context. The result is that Blake's two most textually purist modern editors, when transcribing the same work from the same copy, several times represent its punctuation differently. Though all these problems may be acknowledged in a preface, solutions to them cannot be incorporated into a letterpress text, which is therefore often a form of fiction.[1]

  4. The problems are yet more complicated because in some texts Blake uses adorned scripts in which the adornments—which are nothing like letterpress forms of punctuation—act, and surely were intended by Blake, partly as forms of punctuation. Just how adorned Blake's script can be the opening text plate of America demonstrates (plate 3; plate numberings throughout are those of Bentley's edition—the only collected edition from which text and illustration can be discussed together). Here in every line a number of letters are exuberantly decorated—for example the d of "abhorr'd" (l. 11), which develops into a long vine; or the b of "limbs" (l. 16), which ascends as though recording the flight-path of a small bird or large insect. This is the usual form of Blake's script in America: other plates show even more fantastic adornments—for example, the beings, creatures, and shapes that grow out of "who commanded this, what God! what Angel" (pl. 13.7), or the similar beings that grow out of "earth" (pl. 17.5). Decorations of this kind are characteristic of Blake's script in many texts. In some places they punctuate quite as much as what we might usually recognize as punctuation. In the "Nurse's Song" of Songs of Experience, for example, a long tail on the "e" of "arise" (l. 6), filling the rest of the line, functions as a stop; or in America, plate 17, the exuberant tails on the "y" of "sky" (l. 10) and the "h" of "youth" (l. 22), both words which occur at the ends of paragraphs but are followed by no conventional punctuation, act as marks indicating conclusion. Conversely, irregular punctuation, as one aspect of the decorated character of a script, plays its part in adornment: it is not primarily syntactic, or rhythmic, or rhetorical; it is visual jouissance. In these cases, the forms in which punctuation occurs, and the ways in which it functions in the original, are entirely misrepresented when all the other adornments are stripped away and only what can be recognized as related to conventional punctuation remains, regularized in form and position into letterpress "equivalents." Blake's punctuation has to be understood in the context of his script as a whole in a way that conventional typography simply cannot reproduce.

  5. Moreover, despite Blake's own insistence on the expressive importance of detail in his texts, he was often not careful about punctuation. Most obviously, when Blake inked in text which had not printed properly he often did not ink in punctuation, and when he did he sometimes inked in punctuation different from that which other copies show to have been the punctuation of the copper plate. Then, passages adapted from one work to another—for example, the three appearances of the lines describing Los's fixing of Urizen's fallen form—have numerous differences of punctuation (The Book of Urizen, pls. 10-13; The Four Zoas, pp. 54-55; Milton, pl. b). Most repeated lines are not punctuated in the same way in their different appearances. The three-times repeated choric line of America plate 11 is punctuated differently at each appearance. The five-times repeated choric line of the Bard's Song in Milton is likewise never given with the same punctuation (pls. 3:25; 5:18; 5:50; 7:7; 9:31). The slogan, "Every thing that lives is holy," repeated from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in Visions of the Daughters of Albion and in America, is punctuated differently at each different appearance (Marriage, "A Song of Liberty," Chorus; Visions, pl. 11:10; America, pl. 10:14). The "Nurse's Song"s in Innocence and Experience have three common lines, but two of these are punctuated in the two poems differently.[2] While it might conceivably be argued that some of these differences are related to context, no dispassionate consideration could suppose that most are. Moreover, there is much more variation in punctuation between different copies of the same work than is generally recognized, not only because of misprinted punctuation, but also because, especially in later copies, Blake would often cover punctuation when he colored the plate. With one of the few texts with which a variorum of the punctuation has been attempted, The Book of Thel, of the work's one hundred and twenty-five lines (only two of which are unpunctuated) only thirty-nine are punctuated identically in the seventeen extant copies (Bogan 10). Much of the evidence derived from Blake's practices therefore—corrected and uncorrected misprinting, repeated lines, variations between copies—suggests that he was relatively indifferent about punctuation. While some of his punctuation may have been carefully considered and expressive, it cannot but be supposed that much of it was not.[3]

  6. Different problems about editing and punctuation are presented by the manuscript poems—primarily those in Blake's Notebook, the Pickering (Ballads) manuscript, and Vala; or The Four Zoas. The illuminated books were intended as public documents. The Notebook and the Pickering manuscript were not. With its beautiful copper-plate hand, during the early stages of composition the manuscript of The Four Zoas may have been intended as a public document. The deletions, transpositions, and increasingly chaotic additions made during its later stages of development almost certainly indicate that the manuscript became a working draft. The poems in the Notebook engraved in Songs of Experience are much more lightly punctuated in their manuscript forms, as are the lines of The Four Zoas that were engraved in Milton and Jerusalem. With manuscript works there is therefore an even slighter case for preserving punctuation which Blake's practices with turning (private) manuscript into (public) engraved text indicate that he would have revised had he prepared them for publication in his usual way.

  7. Evidently there is a need for the kinds of collected editions of Blake's texts produced by David Erdman and G. E. Bentley, Jr., and for the kind of facsimile edition of the illuminated books (in which the text and punctuation of the individual copies facsimiled is transcribed) overseen by David Bindman. There is a different but equally a particular value in the kind of collected annotated edition of Blake's poetry produced by W. H. Stevenson, and the comprehensive textually purist selection of Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant.[4] And Blake would surely be as delighted as he would be astounded by the availability of his work made possible through the internet by the William Blake Archive. But with all the foregoing considerations in mind, it should be clear that all editing is a form of construction, even a choice of misrepresentations, and particularly that any notion of preserving the accidentals of Blake's text is highly problematic and cannot be treated as a shibboleth. There is not only one useful way of editing. All editors can do is make choices, explain their grounds, and look for their consequences. How those choices are made depends on an edition's purpose and audience.

    A Representational Choice: the Editor as Moderniser.

  8. Modernizing the accidentals of Blake's text involves some losses. It also offers important gains. Principally, it can clarify problems of Blake's syntax, problems to which an editor attempting to transcribe need not attend, but for which a reader must find solutions. A reader confronting the considerable difficulties of Blake's text is not helped by the presence of punctuation in the middle of syntactic units, the absence of punctuation at the ends of syntactic units, and other elements of syntactic structure that are not marked by any form of punctuation, as well as a host of other idiosyncratic usages which cannot be explained in any systematic way.[5] All of this can make primary senses difficult to recognize. Of course, some schools of criticism would not recognize the idea of "primary senses"; but Blake's own criticism, in poetry, prose, and designs, makes it clear that he saw some meanings as more important than others. And while there may be a value in the sheer struggle with difficulty, the reader of Blake will never be short of that: it is all a choice of focus. Modernizing accidentals may mean that the editor is doing some of the ideal reader's work—clarifying, for example, the syntactic possibilities which are always present as a base from which interpretation may knowingly deviate. Sometimes a choice of senses has to be made in terms of a preferable shape for the rhetoric (whether, for example, it is characteristic in a given case for syntax and lineation to coincide or to be expressively at odds); sometimes it has to be made, not in terms of immediate sense and syntax, but in terms of context. Many readers are not ideal readers. Many readers benefit from having this kind of work done for them. The misreadings of editors are in themselves demonstrations of how often the reader unaided by editorial clarifications may misunderstand. Modernizing certainly runs the risk of producing meanings not intended by Blake, but then so can retaining Blake's punctuation.[6] I had thought of myself as a careful reader of Blake. Certainly, when I came to edit Blake's poetry,[7] I had read it carefully enough to have filled the margins and destroyed the bindings of more than one collected edition. But in editing him I noticed problems of syntax which I did not notice as a non-editing reader, and I suspect this is not unusual.

  9. Of course syntactic ambiguity can produce a valuable interaction of different meanings. It can also produce a mental haze antithetical to Blake's demand for the sharply precise. It is in his fallen state that Blake's archetypal artist Los utters "ambiguous words blasphemous" (The Four Zoas, p. 53:26); the inspired Los demands "explicit words" (Jerusalem, pl. 17:60). "Definite and determinate identity" only is the source of a perception of the infinite (Jerusalem, pl. 55:64): indeterminate syntax and a free play of signifiers is not. Where structure, sign, and play open up unlimited potential, words lose the precise significance which allows error to be snared and truth to be told so as to be irresistibly understood. The editor as ideal reader is often called on to help out in the wars of truth and error by making presentational choices.

  10. The common absence of punctuation at line endings, for example, often means that lines can be connected either backwards or forwards—as in the following:

    Albions Guardian writhed in torment on the eastern sky
    Pale quivring toward the brain his glimmering eyes, teeth chattering
    Howling & shuddering his legs quivering; convuls'd each muscle & sinew
    Sick'ning lay Londons Guardian, and the ancient miter'd York
    Their heads on snowy hills, their ensigns sick'ning in the sky
    (America pl. 17:6-10; Erdman 57)

    Here Blake's punctuation (the semicolon in the middle of l. 8) might suggest distributing the parallel phrases between the two candidates (Albion / London)—a choice no modernizing editor makes: the shape of the rhetoric (parallel phrases modifying the same noun) and the form of the verse (line-ending understood as a kind of punctuation) is allowed to predominate. Stevenson adds a full stop at the end of l. 6 so as to apply ll. 7-8 to London; Sloss and Wallis, Keynes, Bentley, and Mason add a full stop at the end of l. 8, and so apply ll. 7-8 to Albion. Stevenson seems to me wrong, mainly because his punctuation involves an awkward shift from singular to plural within the same syntactic unit ("his ... their"), partly because the lack of punctuation at the most probable point (l. 8) has a possible material cause (the word "sinew" only just fitted on to the etched plate). A similar problem occurs in America at pl. 16:9-10. Here an intervening illustration can be understood as decisive punctuation. Mason does so understand it; Sloss and Wallis, Keynes, Bentley and Stevenson (correctly, in my view) agree in regarding the syntax as continuous across the illustration. Similarly, in America pl. 17 Blake has no punctuation at the end of the last line of text. Mason connects this last line to the first of pl. 18; most editors add a full stop, accepting that the plate-ending acts as a form of punctuation and that pl. 18:1 begins a new syntactic unit. (In cases of serious doubt about the syntax, in the Longman / Pearson selection I gave the original punctuation in the annotation, and discussed alternative possibilities.)

  11. Blake's punctuation is, however, often not syntactic. Where it has a discernable specific purpose it may also be intended to point the rhythm (for example, by marking a caesura); or it may be intended to point the rhetoric where the shapes do not coincide with the lineation. In "Does he who contemns poverty, and he who turns in abhorrence / From usury: feel the same passion" (Visions of the Daughters of Albion, pl. 8:10-11), for example, the non-syntactic colon may be intended to point the parallelism of the preceding antithetical phrases, which is obscured by the lineation:

     Does he who contemns                       poverty
       and he who turns in abhorrence from usury
    Feel the same passion ...

    Or non-syntactic punctuation may sometimes be intended to signify what a twentieth-century poet might render by lay-out—a reading which considers each phrase or clause as a separate unit:

    Sweet moans,
                                 dovelike sighs,
    Chase not slumber from thy eyes.
    Sweet moans,
                                 sweeter smiles,
    All the dovelike moans beguiles.[8]

    These can be no more than hypotheses. In any case, much of Blake's punctuation cannot be explained in such ways. Distinctive idiosyncratic feature of the text that it is, much of Blake's punctuation is not specifically explicable. And it can be actively misleading about syntax.

  12. Blake's most notable and potentially misleading idiosyncrasy is his use of the full stop, which commonly occurs in the middle of grammatical units. This may sometimes be intended to mark internal rhyme ("The Little Boy Found": "Who in sorrow pale. thro' the lonely dale," l. 7),[9] though Blake often has internal rhyme unmarked by punctuation (as, for example, in "The Little Vagabond," ll. 3, 7, 15). But it apparently most often signifies the kind of minor syntactic disjunction which in modern punctuation would be rendered by a comma: "And because I am happy. & dance & sing" ("The Chimney Sweeper," Songs of Experience l. 9); "And Father. how can I love you" ("A Little Boy Lost" l. 5). Or a full stop can be (as it was commonly in the seventeenth century) an extra way of marking the end of a line, as in "Night," which has full stops at the end of each of the last four lines though the syntax is continuous.[10] Or it can be an extra way of marking the end of a stanza, as in "Laughing Song," which has full stops at the end of the first and second stanzas, though the three-stanza poem is a single syntactic unit.

  13. But though one can find reasons for some of Blake's idiosyncratic punctuation, there is no consistency about such usages, and there are many examples of punctuation that actively misleads the reader about the syntax.

    On his head a crown
    On his shoulders down,
    Flow'd his golden hair.
    ("The Little Girl Found" ll. 37-39)

    Here the presence of the syntactically redundant comma implies (absurdly) that "down" is a noun parallel to "crown" rather than as an adverb modifying "Flow'd." In "The Little Black Boy" on the other hand the absence of a comma where it is syntactically expected between two parallel phrases—"Comfort in morning joy in the noon day"—momentarily confuses about the function of "morning," which can be mistaken for an adjective modifying "joy" (l. 12). These oddities the competent reader readily negotiates. But the long poems, often much more syntactically complex than the lyrics, provide many examples of syntactic problems that are much less straightforward of solution. Bentley addresses the difficulty by frequently modernizing Blake's punctuation, with an elaborate apparatus to indicate where he does so. Even the purist Erdman alters the most syntactically misleading punctuation, recording such changes in his textual notes. It is the hint of a tacit admission that more might be valuable.

  14. There may be all sorts of meanings in Blake's punctuation. And in some of it there may be no meaning. Its meaning is often not syntactic, and it often misleads about the syntax. Readers of Blake may have many needs. For the deconstructive reader, of course, the more sources of indeterminacy the better—and Blake's highly idiosyncratic punctuation can certainly be a source of indeterminacy. For most readers, construing Blake's syntax is a need fundamental to other kinds of sense-making, including perception of the rhetorical structures that are often so important to the tone and feeling of his poetry. About this an editor can—as it was once thought an editor should—give guidance. But before rhetoric, rhythm.

    Editing for Rhythm

  15. By retaining Blake's indications of syllabic value, and thereby marking the distinction between these and other forms of the same words with different syllabic values, modernization can also help to point Blake's rhythms: for example, "ev'n," "giv'n," "black'ning," "sick'ning," "rav'nous," "wintry" (not "wintery"), and so on. These forms can be obscured by modernization, but modernization that retains them, by the new context of more familiar forms, draws attention to them.[11]

  16. This is particularly important from the point of view of Blake's rhythms with his distinction between final non-syllabic d or 'd and syllabic ed. It is not possible, of course, in the relatively free meters of the long-line poems, to be conclusively sure simply from any given case that Blake's practice was entirely consistent. However, his practice in the metrically regular poems suggests that inconsistencies are at most very few.[12] The two forms are used throughout his work, and the only alternative to supposing the intention of a consistent distinction is to suppose that the distinction is meaningless—a supposition which its use in the metrically regular verse, where Blake's intention can be judged against recognized patterns of syllabic organization, entirely contradicts. The convention of pronounced final "ed" in formal written usage was still very much alive in the late eighteenth century. It was still observed in the printed texts of the younger generation of Blake's contemporaries. It is observed consistently, for example, in Keats's 1820 volume. Rhymes on ed or d, in the few places where Blake uses them, indicate that the convention is being observed: "bed" rhymes with "ecchoed" ("Nurse's Song," Songs of Innocence ll. 14, 16), "followed" with "led" ("The Little Girl Found" ll. 45, 46); and (conversely) "mild" rhymes with "beguil'd" ("The Angel" ll. 3, 4). A more interesting and important test is provided by the poems and passages copied from one source to another—the two manuscripts of "I askèd a thief to steal me a peach" (Bentley 996, 1071);[13] the poems in Songs of Innocence first included in An Island in the Moon;[14] the poems in Songs of Experience drafted in the Notebook;[15] the passages from the early prophetic books transposed into The Four Zoas;[16] and the passages from The Four Zoas transposed into Milton and Jerusalem. With reworkings to or from The Four Zoas one must allow for the fact that reuse is almost never simply transcription. Blake almost always reworked material to suit the new context, or, one may deduce, simply with an aim of aesthetic improvement. Nevertheless, almost without exception, when reworking material from one poem to another, and often in the context of making numerous other changes, Blake retains distinctions between d or 'd and ed.[17] Writers on Blake's metrics have understood the distinction as meaningful (Paley 42-57). Modernizing editors have not, and have usually suppressed it, modernizing all forms without differentiation to ed.[18]

  17. Modern readers are not accustomed to observing Blake's distinction between pronounced and unpronounced "ed." Without a way of rendering it, therefore, the rhythms Blake intended, for which he had this still widely recognized convention of notation, are probably often not observed. Observing them may, in some cases, have results that are surprising even to Blake's most competent readers.

    Editing for Rhetoric

  18. My interest in rhetorical structures in poetry relates to my interest in music, which is basic to my sense of how poetry works. I love effects of verbal shapeliness, so am interested in reading poetry aloud—finding the musical shapes of poetry that are not always evident on the page, shapes that are discovered in the process of feeling one's way into the words by working them into the voice. To my sense, if one cannot love the sounds and shapes made by the words of a poem, one often cannot begin to love the poem at all. How Blake's poetry makes those sound-shapes line by line—the feel of its rhetoric, as of its rhythms—is part of what it means. In my view, appreciation of Blake's long-line poetry does better to begin with a voice workshop than a chronology of British culture in the period, a chart of symbolic translations, readings in Thomas Taylor, or whatever else might suit the tenets of a different critical credo. An editor can provide the basis for this kind of engagement by releasing the reader's attention from construing Blake's syntax to focusing on the shapes of his rhetoric.

  19. It may be that there lurks in some criticism a Modernist distrust of rhetoric in poetry, the unease voiced by Yeats when he quoted with approval the famous dictum of Verlaine—"wring the neck of rhetoric" (Oxford Book xii); or when he contrasted, in his own voice, poetry and rhetoric ("Anima Hominis" 170). When Blake compared his practices of varying tone in poetry with those of the "true orator" (Jerusalem, pl. 3), I understand him to mean in part the expressive shapeliness we think of as rhetoric, which he sometimes offers in quite evident forms, but which sometimes has to be more discovered within formal structures that conceal it, or at least make it less than obvious. Blake sometimes offers utterly overt structuration—accreted parallelisms conterminous with the lines, as at the climax of Milton (pl. 43.1-28). One can readily proliferate examples that have only slightly less patterning, evident visually on the engraved plate or the written page—the climactic questions of Oothoon in Visions (pl. 6:2-13), Orc heralding the end of empire or Boston's Angel declaring independence in America (pls. 8:1-15, 13:4-15), the laments of Enion and Urizen in The Four Zoas (pp. 35-36, 63-66), the songs of The Four Zoas with their loose stanzaic forms (pp. 14-16, 58, 59, 91-93), Los's "creation" (de-creation) of Urizen (The Four Zoas pp. 54-55; Milton pl. b:6-27), or Milton's moment of self-recognition and self-dedication (Milton pl. 12:14-32). These passages offer rhetorical patterning that the eye readily sees.

  20. What editing that points Blake's syntax can help readers to see more clearly is this kind of structuration where it is less obvious but (I would say) equally emphatic—less obvious because the rhetorical shapes cut across the structure of the line, often in irregular ways. The Milton climax and comparable passages are unusually geometric and Grecian for Blake: his typical manner is more one of Gothic asymmetrical symmetries. Though Blake's way with this is idiosyncratic and his own, it is a typical effect of English poetry to derive part of its energy from some clash between formal and syntactic structures—in Donne, for example, when the bounding outline that is the circumference of his energies (be it the Italian sonnet form or an elaborate invented stanza shape) can scarcely contain his exuberance: fulfilling the shape in rhythms and rhymes, breaking it down through syntax. Milton does very similar things both in his sonnets and in blank verse. This playing off the rhythms and syntax of stylized speech against formal regularities of the line or stanza was the usual limit of freedom in English poetry before Blake. For Blake it was not freedom enough. That the reader of Blake does not feel in his long-line poetry effects entirely similar to the contained and bursting energies of Donne or Milton is because the fundamental structure of Blake's long line is less rigidly regulated. Nevertheless, comparable effects are present if the reader develops a feeling for them; and, unless the reader experiences this, Blake's long-line poetry can seem much less energized by manipulations of structure than it is.

  21. I have discussed this elsewhere with examples from The Four Zoas and Jerusalem (Heroic Argument 89-93; "Blake and the Body" 67-70). As in those discussions, I have here rearranged the lines on the page so as to bring out their expressive rhetorical structuration (printing first the text from Erdman, to show Blake's lineation). I make no claims for my own particular arrangements: they are a device for demonstrating the presence of loose parallelisms, and might well be varied in detail. Their aim is to show the broad tendency of Blake's rhetorical structures, including shapes within shapes.

    Thou seest the Constellations in the deep & wondrous Night
    They rise in order and continue their immortal courses
    Upon the mountains & in vales with harp & heavenly song
    With flute & clarion; with cups & measures filld with foaming wine.
    Glittring the streams reflect the Vision of beatitude,
    And the calm Ocean joys beneath & smooths his awful waves!

    These are the Sons of Los, & these the Labourers of the Vintage
    Thou seest the gorgeous clothed Flies that dance & sport in summer
    Upon the sunny brooks & meadows: every one the dance
    Knows in its intricate mazes of delight artful to weave;
    Each one to sound his instruments of music in the dance,
    To touch each other & recede; to cross & change & return
    These are the Children of Los; thou seest the Trees on mountains
    The wind blows heavy, loud they thunder thro' the darksom sky
    Uttering prophecies & speaking instructive words to the sons
    Of men: These are the Sons of Los! These the Visions of Eternity
    But we see only as it were the hem of their garments
    When with our vegetable eyes we view these wond'rous Visions
    (Milton pls. 25:66-26:12; Erdman 123)

    Thou seest the constellations in the deep and wondrous night:
    they rise in order
      and continue their immortal courses
       upon the mountains
       and in vales
           with harp and heavenly song,
           with flute and clarion,
           with cups and measures filled with foaming wine.
    Glitt'ring the streams reflect the vision of beatitude,
    And the calm ocean joys beneath and smoothes his awful waves.

    These are the sons of Los, and these the labourers of the vintage.

    Thou seest the gorgeous clothèd flies that dance and sport in summer
       upon the sunny brooks and meadows:
    every one the dance knows in its intricate mazes of delight artful to weave,
    each one to sound his instruments of music in the dance,
                 to touch each other and recede,
                 to cross and change and return:

    These are the children of Los.

    Thou seest the trees on mountains:
    the wind blows heavy,
                               loud they thunder through the darksome sky
       uttering prophecies and
       speaking instructive words to the sons of men.

    These are the sons of Los, these the visions of eternity.

    But we see only as it were the hem of their garments
    When with our vegetable eyes we view these wondrous visions.

    This is the rhetoric of dance and song, but it is the dance of Isadora Duncan, not Anna Pavlova; it is the song of Renaissance monody, before the regularities of the bar-line and 4- or 8-bar phrase. The eye can find its shapes, but only rarely does the lineation present them to the eye: their expressivity is to be found by the voice. The single visual paragraph (on two plates) falls into three parts: "Thou seest the constellations … the flies … the trees," each part with a parallel conclusion ("the sons [children] of Los") but with variegated nuance (biblical ["laborers of the vintage"]; prosaic [the lacuna]; rhapsodic ["vision of eternity"]). Within each part asymmetric groupings are paralleled in the larger repeated shapes ("with harp … with flute … with cups" / "to sound … to touch … to cross" / "uttering … speaking"). The structure of the free seven-beat line is kept audible as a base from which the structures of the rhetoric divert ("And the calm ocean joys beneath and smoothes his awful waves"). Other rhythmic regularities play against this ("Glitt'ring the streams reflect the vision of beatitude": an iambic pentameter with inverted first foot, until collapsed towards prose by the multi-syllabic "beatitude"). Two concluding lines re-affirm the basic free long-line structure as they give a new perspective on the content: the wonders conjured by this rhetoric are no more than a partial glimpse of full vision. Within this variously shapely verbal music are more local patternings and sound effects, which the voice can find when the words are dwelt in as the tone of intense perception of the natural world to which the words point indicates that they should be, and which the lay-out here—Blake printed in the style of Ezra Pound—is intended to indicate.

  22. Of course, as the simplicities of demonstration require, this is in some ways an exceptional passage. Blake's punctuation here is by no means at its most misleading. The expression is almost uncharacteristically syntactic, as his rhetoric is, for the dance, especially shapely. But while these beautifully shaped paragraphs especially repay the voice's search for their structures, the effects are fundamentally typical of the smaller-scale interplay of syntax and lineation found throughout Blake's long-line verse. The reader can find these expressive structures more readily if the editor, by making clear the syntax, shows where to look and, by looking, how to listen for them. As Wallace Stevens has it, "In poetry, you must love the words … and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all" (161). Some critics of Blake, if they allow themselves the unprofessional idea of "loving" poetry at all, give the impression of taking an interest in anything but its words and rhythms. The characteristic vice of editors—a vice for which the professional world of letters offers special temptations—is to become obsessed with particles below word- and rhythm-level as a passport to joining an elite coterie in which discussion of editorial practice quite forgets the poetic purposes of loving the minutiae of articulation and embodiment.

    Radical Strategies

  23. It has been suggested to me that my re-writings here are related to the critical techniques proposed by Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann in "Deformance and Interpretation."[19] I could not agree more with the Samuels-McGann starting points: "interpretation of works of imagination call[s] for responsive works of imagination, not reflexive works of analysis" (29); "meaning is more a dynamic exchange than a discoverable content" (31). One may doubt whether so much critical activity that is here polemically discounted (reflexive analysis) has been so wholly on the wrong tack since Aristotle considered Sophocles. Nevertheless, any re-direction of professional criticism from its intellectually and imaginatively arid concentration on analysis is welcome; and on the most radical consequence of the Samuels-McGann argument—the "exposure of subjectivity as a live and highly informative option of interpretive commentary" (36)—I agree wholly. My Blake's Heroic Argument, in which the final chapter explains the experiences of and ideas about religion, politics, sex and gender, and education underlying the emphases of the book's account of Blake, is just such an elaborated argument for and exemplification of the explicit engagement of subjectivity in criticism. But in the present context my aim is more limited than that of Samuels and McGann. It is re-writing to reveal features of the rhetorical structure of Blake's poetry that are concealed by the conventions of its formal structure. The primary object of Samuels and McGann is not reflection on the object but on the nature of critical procedures. They mention in passing, as one possible mode of "deformance," "altering the spatial organization, typography or punctuation of a work" (37, and cf. appendix 2), but they explicitly choose not to explore this: with reflection on the nature of criticism, it would not take them so far as they wish to go.[20]

  24. There is similarly, I think, a distinction between the kind of re-writing proposed here and that required by the so-called "Ivanhoe game," in devising and developing which again Jerome McGann has played a prominent role (and on which see, for example Text Technology, 12.2 (2003), and multiple internet sources. This project, which takes its name from its beginnings, re-writings of the end of Scott's novel ("game" because it is performed co-operatively, in immediate or virtual contact), is a critical practice of re-writing to reveal reading possibilities coded or latent in a text. Insofar as it has ancient sources, its model is postmodern criticism's favorite originary practice, midrash. It may be compared to the central place given to structured play in the arts in Schiller's Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen.[21] But it should be primarily understood as a next step on from various later twentieth-century critical strategies which actualize more fully the reader's role in re-creating a text, of which those initiated by Barthes in S/Z and elsewhere on the "writerly" text, and the ludic aspects of Derrida's criticism, are the most prominent. Again the modes of re-writing it deploys are more radical than those proposed here, though, like those proposed here, the first aim is a more complete view of features of the originary text.[22]

    Coda: An Editor's Failures and the Limits of Choice

  25. I had few struggles or compromises to make with the Longman Annotated Texts Blake. I worked on the edition alongside and following on from some more purist editing as part of the Clarendon Press collected works of Marlowe—an old-spelling edition with full textual apparatus, which allowed me to consider from experience a range of editorial possibilities.[23] Longman was at one with my fundamental editorial choices and procedures. The general editor for my area of the series, Daniel Karlin, was nothing but helpful, supportive, and minutely attentive, suggesting many improvements. I now think it an excellent idea to print maps of Blake's London, Britain, and the Holy Land (such as are variously included in the editions of Bentley, Stevenson, and Johnson and Grant), but this simply did not occur to me. The only limitation against which I chafed related to illustrations. Much as Blake's poetry can stand alone as what generations of readers have taken it to be, a verbal art, I do see his work as fundamentally a verbal-visual composite. I should, therefore, have liked many, many more reproductions of plates from the illuminated books—and am accordingly envious of the copious color illustrations included by W. W. Norton in the new edition of Johnson and Grant and by Pearson-Longman in the new edition of W. H. Stevenson. However, in the internet world, with the William Blake Archive reproductions so readily available, and with the single-volume edition of the collected Tate-Princeton facsimiles also in print (ed. David Bindman, Thames & Hudson, 2000), this is a less serious limitation than it would once have been. And since I knew from the start that I was not to have the illustrations I would ideally have liked, even this could be turned into a kind of virtue. I decided that, for every plate of the illuminated books the text of which was included in the selection (and for each page of The Four Zoas included—about one hundred and seventy plates and pages in total), I would provide a brief description of the main elements of the illustrations—as far as possible objective, not interpretive. Like so many of the textual grapplings, this too was, in a minor way, a revelation: how difficult it sometimes is to say precisely what is represented; how often critics who discussed illuminations created what they apparently supposed themselves to see. But an account of that would be material for another essay.


[1] Erdman (786-87) and Bentley (xliii-xliv) both discuss the problems. Erdman admits that he is "inclined . . . to read commas or periods according to the contextual expectations." Their versions of The Book of Los (which exists in only one copy) differ over punctuation largely because Blake's marks cannot be directly transcribed into standard typography. Differences of interpretation or representation between the two editions can be readily multiplied: see Murray's review of Bentley, which concludes, "In the long run, the problems and the contradictory solutions available for them probably exceed even a theoretic comprehension, much more any set of workable editorial principles" (160).

[2] In Experience, ll. 1 and 5 have Blake's common non-syntactic full stop: "When the voices of children. are heard on the green / Then come home my children. the sun is gone down." The corresponding lines in Innocence, verbally exactly the same, both omit the stop. A similar apparent indifference about punctuation is suggested by different punctuations for parallel clauses in adjacent stanzas of "A Cradle Song":

Sweet smiles Mothers smiles
All the livelong night beguiles.
// [. . .]/[. . .]/
Sweet moans, sweeter smiles,
All the dovelike moans beguiles.

(The differences between the two stanzas are present irrespective of how the punctuation of the original is rendered.)

[3] Peter Middleton presents a confused argument for the importance of what he takes to be Blake's punctuation, but on the assumption that the forms and significances of the punctuation in the originals are those of letterpress. In the five-line passage mainly discussed he contrives to misquote the punctuation, the lineation, the paragraphing and the words.

[4] Johnson and Grant's selection, based on their own studies of original sources, also draws on both Erdman's edition and the William Blake Archive transcriptions: see its "Textual Technicalities," 599-602.

[5] For example, Blake's use of the question mark: contrast its complete absence from the questions of "The Lamb" with its copious presence in the questions of "The Tiger"; or, in "Earth's Answer," its absence from questions in stanza 3 with its presence in the middle of questions as well as at their end in stanza 4.

[6] See, for example, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "A Song of Liberty," Chorus: "Let the Priests of the Raven of dawn, no longer in deadly black, with hoarse note curse the sons of joy." Blake's meaning is evidently "[. . .] no longer, in deadly black [. . .]": priests, indicatively black-gowned, should no longer curse (not, as the punctuation on a modern interpretation implies, priests, wearing something other than their usual black gowns, should continue to curse).

[7] Fuller, Poetry and Prose. This contains the major works, mostly complete, each with an individual introduction and detailed annotation, including accounts of designs, and similarly annotated selections from The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem.

[8] "A Cradle Song." This hypothetical lay-out is based on Bentley's reading of the original punctuation:

Sweet moans. dovelike sighs.
Chase not slumber from thy eyes.
Sweet moans. sweeter smiles.
All the dovelike moans beguiles.

The stanza exemplifies the difficulties of rendering the punctuation of the original in letterpress. Erdman (12) and Lincoln (pl. 16) both represent the punctuation of this stanza differently from Bentley (37) and from each other.

[9] Cf. "The Garden of Love," where Blake marks internal rhyme by an a-syntactic comma: "And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars, my joys & desires." (On the rhyme "gowns" / "rounds," see my Poetry and Prose 96.)

[10] Cf. "Holy Thursday," Songs of Experience, stanza 1, in which each line ends with a syntactically redundant full stop. Also Songs of Experience, "Introduction," "That might controll. / The starry pole" (ll. 8-9), and "Earth's Answer," "Break this heavy chain. / That does freeze my bones around" (ll. 21-22)—though both of these are also examples of the ambiguous forms of Blake's punctuation. In the first case Bentley (174) gives no punctuation (perhaps interpreting the mark undoubtedly present in some copies as a spatter); in both cases Erdman gives a comma (18, 19), Lincoln a full stop (pls. 30, 31).

[11] Contracted forms are not retained by Stevenson, but are retained by Mason, and also in the more partial and conservative modernization of Keynes.

[12] One exception to Blake's ed indicating èd in his metrically regular verse comes in the "Introduction" to Songs of Innocence: "So I piped with merry chear, / ... / So I piped, he wept to hear" (ll. 6, 8). Here Blake may have thought of the "e" as necessary to modify the "i" and to distinguish "pipe" from "pip": cf. Songs of Experience, "The Little Vagabond," l. 3, "use'd" (Notebook, p. 105, "usd"), and Milton, pl. 11.47, "tone'd" (where the "e" is retained to modify the "o"), both cases of other verbs identical in form with nouns. In these cases the apostrophe is apparently used to indicate that the "e" should not be pronounced. See also my note to "Ah, Sunflower," Songs of Experience, l. 5: Poetry and Prose 95.

[13] In the fair copy Blake actually marks with an accent the "e" of "asked" in l. 1 (to distinguish it from monosyllabic "asked" in l. 3), and he maintains the distinction from the Notebook version between ed (l. 2) and 'd (ll. 7, 8, 12). "Turned" (l. 2) must be disyllabic: l. 2 is not otherwise the trimeter required by the ballad meter stanza structure to match l. 4.

[14] For example, "Nurses Song," l. 17, "The little ones leaped and shouted and laugh'd," where the same ed / 'd distinction is made in both versions.

[15] Here the distinction is reproduced with almost complete consistency. The single exception is "The Angel" where in the Notebook l. 6 has "wiped" (which, since it is not metrically impossible, may indicate only that in engraving the poem Blake changed his mind). In the draft of "My Pretty Rose Tree," "But my rose was turned from me" was altered to "But my rose turnd away with Jealousy" (l. 7); in the draft of "London" "The german forged links I hear" was altered to "The mind forgd manacles I hear" (l. 8)—both changes that clearly indicate Blake observing the 'd / ed distinction.

[16] See, for example, The Book of Urizen, pls. 10-13; The Four Zoas, pp. 54-55; Milton, pl. b: despite the changes of form between The Book of Urizen and The Four Zoas (short to long lines), and the overall abbreviation of the passage in Milton, there is only one single change of a verb form.

[17] See, for example, The Four Zoas pp. 39.17-19, 40.2-20, 41.1-18, and 42.1-19, which became Jerusalem, pl. 29[43].33-82: in a context of several minor changes the d (or 'd) and ed distinction is reproduced with complete consistency. Exceptions can be found: America pl. 8.6-12 is repeated verbatim in The Four Zoas p. 134.18-24, except that one ed becomes d. Whether this indicates Blake's occasional inconsistency or a change of mind about the rhythm is, of course, impossible to tell.

[18] The distinction is ignored by Stevenson and Mason. The only edition actively to bring it out in the text is that of Sloss and Wallis, which retains the non-syllabic forms and renders the syllabic form èd. Johnson and Grant indicate syllabic ed in their annotation.

[19] New Literary History 30 (1999), 25-56.

[20] On my basic sympathy for McGann's long-running arguments about the subjectivity of criticism, and an attempt to draw some different conclusions, see my "Keats and Anti-Romantic Ideology."

[21] On the Aesthetic Education of Man, in a Series of Letters, ed. and trans. by Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby, Oxford: Clarendon, 1967; throughout, but see especially Letter 15.

[22] For an attempt to give greater currency to critical practices broadly of this kind, synthesizing analytical, critical and creative work, and offering the reader a range of interactive strategies for structured play in re-writing texts, see Rob Pope, Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Studies.

[23] Tamburlaine the Great, Parts 1 and 2. In The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, vol. 5 (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1998).

Works Cited

Bentley, G. E., Jr., ed. William Blake's Writings. 2 vols (paginated continuously). Oxford: Clarendon P, 1978.

Bindman, David, gen. ed. The Illuminated Books of William Blake. 6 vols. London: Tate Gallery, 1991-95. (Vol. 1. Jerusalem. Ed. Morton D. Paley, 1991. Vol. 2. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. Andrew Lincoln, 1991. Vol. 3. The Early Illuminated Books. Ed. Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi, 1993. Vol. 4. The Continental Prophecies. Ed. D. W. Dörrbecker, 1995. Vol. 5. 'Miltona Poem' and the Final Illuminated Works. Ed. Robert N. Essick and Joseph Viscomi, 1993. Vol. 6. The Urizen Books. Ed. David Worrall, 1995.)

Bogen, Nancy, ed. The Book of Thel: A Facsimile and a Critical Text. Providence, RI: Brown UP, 1971.

Erdman, David V., ed. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965. Rev. ed., 1988.

Fuller, David. Blake's Heroic Argument. New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1988.

---. "'The Human Form Divine': Blake and the Body." Essays in English Romanticism 31 (2007): 53-73.

---. "Keats and Anti-Romantic Ideology." The Challenge of Keats: Bicentenary Essays, 1795-1995. Ed. Allan G. Christensen et al. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. 9-25.

---, ed. William Blake: Selected Poetry and Prose. London: Longman UK Group Limited, 2000. Rev. ed. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2008.

Johnson, Mary Lynn, and John E. Grant. Blake's Poetry and Designs. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979. 2nd ed., 2008.

Keynes, Geoffrey, ed. The Complete Writings of William Blake. London: Oxford UP, 1957. Rev. ed., 1966.

Mason, Michael, ed. William Blake. The Oxford Authors. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.

Middleton, Peter. "The Revolutionary Poetics of William Blake: Part II—Silence, Syntax, and Spectres." Oxford Literary Review 6 (1983): 35-51.

Murray, E. B. Rev. of William Blake's Writings, by G. E. Bentley, Jr., ed. Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly 14 (1980-81): 148-61.

Paley, Morton. The Continuing City: William Blake's "Jerusalem." Oxford: Clarendon P, 1983.

Pope, Rob. Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Studies. London: Routledge, 1995.

Samuels, Lisa and Jerome McGann. "Deformance and Interpretation." New Literary History 30 (1999): 25-56.

Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man, in a Series of Letters. Ed. and trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967.

Sloss, D. J., and J. P. R. Wallis, eds. The Prophetic Writings of William Blake. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1926.

Stevens, Wallace. Opus Posthumous: Poems, Plays, Prose. Ed. Samuel French Morse. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.

Stevenson, W. H. Blake: The Complete Poems. Longman Annotated English Poets. Text by D. V. Erdman. London: Longman Group UK Limited, 1971. 2nd ed., 1989. 3rd ed., 2007.

Text Technology: the Journal of Computer Text Processing 12.2 (2003). Special Issue on the "Ivanhoe Game."

Yeats, W. B. The Oxford Book of Modern Verse: 1892-1935. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1936.

---. "Anima Hominis." 1918. Selected Criticism and Prose. Ed. A. Norman Jeffares. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1970. 165-80.