- William Blake's Conversations: A Compilation, Concordance, and Rhetorical Analysis
Perhaps no other scholar has made as lasting a contribution to the material conditions and contexts of Blake studies than G.E. Bentley Jr, who has spent a distinguished and productive career documenting virtually every aspect of Blake's life and work (e.g., in the indispensable Blake Records) and analyzing the significance of the gathered information (e.g., in the splendid biography Stranger from Paradise). William Blake's Conversations provides a fine supplement to the prior work, especially since it continues Dr Bentley's tendency of offering extremely useful reference works for any critical undertaking. As Mary Lynn Johnson succinctly states in her foreword, 'By gathering all known records of Blake's oral remarks, making each word accessible in a concordance, and subjecting the whole to a provocative rhetorical analysis, Professor Bentley has performed a significant scholarly service.' While only fifty or so of Blake's contemporaries recorded his voice in script, the spirited tone of utterance, as Bentley suggests in his in-depth introduction, will only confirm past impressions of the painter/poet/prophet as 'brilliant and bold, profound and perverse, eloquent and enchanting, idiosyncratic and wise.'
As presented in the primary section of the work ('Thus Spake William Blake'), Bentley covers an impressive span of Blake's life (from 1767 to [End Page 427] 1831), although as this temporal range indicates, the earliest impressions are offered by those repeating his own recollections while the later are offered by those reporting after the fact his final passage to eternity. Bentley has chosen a rather broad definition of conversations to include memorable fancies from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and depositions for his trial for sedition, which in general works well. However, while the impetus for inclusion is admirable, the broad range itself becomes occasionally problematic. For example, I and other Blake critics have tended to read the 'I' of The Marriage as characterized and dramatized to achieve certain textual and narratological ends, rather than simply tracing Blake's tendency of speaking with the eternals resident in thought; thus, the presence of the dinner-party conversation with Isaiah and Ezekiel in a 'Memorable Fancy' seems inherently problematic. Otherwise, the broad parameters of the book provide an exemplary widened context within which to gauge the reception of Blake's words and acts.
The materials gathered manifest an admirable hyper-organization designed to offer maximum benefit for subsequent scholarship, and Bentley's analytic prose, primarily on display in his superb introduction, reflects as well an engaging style both welcoming and, upon occasion, self-deprecating. The largest section for the book, for example, is taken up by a concordance of all included conversations, which will be of obvious use to scholarly endeavours, but Bentley also explores the play of language, in appendices dedicated to 'Blake's Imperfect Rhymes' and a 'Table of Rhyme Sounds,' that connect the public and private dimensions of a complicated and eccentric conversationalist. As well, the introduction unfolds in thirteen interrelated yet nonetheless discrete thematic subsections - from 'The Tao of Blake' to 'Descriptions of Blake as a Conversationalist' - to allow rapid progress toward a sought scholarly end. For this reason, among many others, Bentley's William Blake's Conversations will join his other foundational works in exerting an enabling influence on future research and generating admiration by those who follow where Blake's conversations lead.
Mark Lussier, Department of English, Arizona State University