- Blake and Rousseau on Children’s Reading, Pleasure, and Imagination
Perhaps one of the most significant scenes of reading instruction in English art comes from the title page (fig. 1) of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789). The scene foregrounds literacy in the lower left margin with a governess holding a book on her lap, as a young boy and girl peer into the text. All seems as it should: an adult imparting knowledge and literacy skills to youth standing attentively at her knees. But in this otherwise serene and proper scene troublesome signs lurk. The tree on the right, with its fruits resembling apples in most copies of the title page and with a vine snaking around the trunk, recalls the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis.1 The little boy and girl face away from the Tree—perhaps suggesting their youthful naiveté—whereas the governess faces toward the Tree—presumably the source of her authority. Moreover, the onset of day or night, implied in the light and dark portions of sky in several copies of this design, may suggest that Experience will inevitably intrude upon Innocence.2 And the branches that nearly encircle in all copies the word “Innocence,” visually separating the children from it, seem to suggest its tentative status. Fortunately, a piper plays as he leans on the cursive “I” of “Innocence” and a bird soars above his head and another above “Songs”—all perhaps implying the joy and spirit that Innocence can still inspire.
As this title page suggests, Blake took a critical interest in education, especially in literacy, even though he himself had little formal schooling—except in the arts of engraving and painting. Indeed, his Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) parodied contemporary reading primers, which had become veritable mosaics of pictures, poetry, proverbs, and stories (see Taylor) and which (though “appealing” like other children’s books) “trend[ed] towards a . . . moralistic, rational view of education and reading” (Arizpe and Styles 65; see Clarke 94).3 Blake’s knowledge of primers and other tools for literacy training derived, no doubt, from his familiarity [End Page 199]
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with the flourishing market in London for children’s literature. This market influenced his production of not only Songs of Innocence but also For Children: The Gates of Paradise (1793) and the combined Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794–95). Children’s books were a lucrative market for Joseph Johnson, the liberal publisher, who often commissioned Blake to engrave designs for various books in the 1780s and 1790s and whose circle of writers and intellectuals (with whom the poet probably had some association) included such educators as Joseph Priestley, David Williams, and Mary Wollstonecraft. For Wollstonecraft’s instructive Original Stories from Real Life (1791) and her translation of C. G. Salzmann’s equally instructive [End Page 200] Elements of Morality, for the Use of Children (1791–92), Blake produced several perceptive, if not openly critical, engravings.4 His association with the coterie of Reverend and Mrs. A. S. Matthew probably introduced him to other educators and writers such as Mrs. Chapone, Hannah More, and Anna Letitia Barbauld. For Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose for Children (1781), he was commissioned to engrave designs as well as for The Speaker (c. 1780), an anthology of stories, moral tales, and poems “to facilitate the Improvement of Youth in Reading and Speaking” (see Lincoln 14).
Playing an important role—along with primers, stories, and poems—for literacy education was the fable, which “throughout the eighteenth century,” says Thomas Noel, “was highly regarded as either a literary genre with educational utility or an educational tool with the inherent attractiveness of literature” (12). Regarding this genre Blake’s views were quite mixed, however. In his Notebook poem “To Venetian Artists,” he associated a fable of his own with merriment or pleasure in lampooning these artists for their emphasis (in his view) on color, which he equated to illusion, over outline, which he equated to clarity...