restricted access How We Are Reading Blake: A Review of Some Recent Criticism
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Review Article How We Are Reading Blake: A Review of Some Recent Criticism V . A. DE LUCA W.J.T. Mitchell. Blake's Composite Art:A Study of the llluminated Poetry Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1978. xix, 231. $16.50 Brian Wilkie and Mary Lynn Johnson. Blake's 'Four Zoas': The Design ofa Dream Cambridge, Mass: Hazvard University Press 1978. xiv, 302. $15.00 Kathleen Raine. Blake and Antiquity: The A. W. Mel/on Lectures in the Fine Arts 1962 Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1977. xv, 116. $5·95 Blake studies, gathering in force since the 1960s, are now at high tide. Inundated as we are still, it is nevertheless possible to discern the main channels through which the tide has advanced. One line of advance has proceeded towards a full comprehension ofBlake's pictorial art as essential to our sense ofhis total achievement . Recent publications include reproductions of the works of illuminated printing in David Erdman's llluminated Blake (Doubleday 1974), fulI-colour reprints , in relatively cheap form, of several of the engraved prophecies, and a significant number of minutely scrutinizing essays on Blake's designs. At the same time another line of inquiry has also advanced in strength. Sustained by the prestige of Northrop Frye and the intense advocacy of Harold Bloom and other commentators, Blake's three long epic prophecies, The Four Zoos, Milton, and Jerusalem, have attained respectability in the canon of major English poetry, and several full-length books devoted exclusively to one of more of these works have appeared in the 1970S as part of a thrust to consolidate that reputation. Two of the books currently under review epitomize respectively the main lines of advance in recent Blake scholarship suggested here. In Blake's 'Four Zoas': The Design of a Dream Brian Wilkie and Mary Lynn Johnson present the most detailed consecutive commentary ever devoted to a single Blake poem; in Blake's Composite Art W.J.T. Mitchell sets for himselfa task different in kind and broader in scope: to discover and illustrate the essential principles whereby Blake organizes his designs and relates them to his poetry. UNlVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 50, NUMBER 2, WINTER 198011 0042-D247/S1/0100-(2)8$oo.ooIo IC 1}NlVERSITY OF TORONTO PRESS READING BLAKE 239 These two books differ also in more fundamental ways, and the differences point to another sort of division, critically more significant, that is occurring in Blake studies. When critics began to give the longer prophecies important treatment , they felt impelled to rescue them from a long-established reputation for incoherence and inscrutability. Hence critical stress fell on the intellectual and artistic integrity of the works, the coherence of the narratives, the accessibility of the referential system of symbols, the richness of the philosophy. In their study of The Four Zoos Wilkie and Johnson are the latest critics to take such an approach. They are after coherent meaning lodged in a coherent structwe, and they pursue it through consecutive commentary, much as Bloom did more than fifteen years ago in's Apocalypse. Another critical trend has become evident in the past decade, however, one which tends to present a Blake whose works evade translation to determinate meaning and reduction to conventional form. Blake's Composite Art belongs to this critical milieu. In it Mitchell joins a number of recent Blakeans (see, for example, essays of McGann, Easson, Curran, and Kroeber, gathered in Curran and Wittreich's Blake's Sublime Allegory [Madison 1973]) who, though no less admiring of Blake than earlier commentators, notice in his work not threads of continuity but radical disjunctions, not consistent unequivocal meanings but meanings both ambiguous and provisional, not invitations to systematic interpretation but dissociative techniques that tend to discourage it. In such criticism the curious formal properties of Blake's art replace his 'philosophy' and 'system' as foci of attention. His artistic stature no longer at issue, a quirkier, more teasing, more liberated Blake is now allowed to disport himself without apology. In Mitchell's study, Blake's Composite Art, the visual designs that accompany Blake's poems are liberated first from the expected role of pictures to represent natural...