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Criticism 43.4 (2001) 492-496
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William Blake: The Creation of the Songs:
From Manuscript to Illuminated Printing
William Blake: The Creation of the Songs: From Manuscript to Illuminated Printing by Michael Phillips. London: The British Library and Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. Pp. xi + 180. 72 color plates, 37 black-and-white illustrations. $55.00 cloth, $29.95 paper.
To prepare himself to write this study of the genesis of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Michael Phillips gave two years of evenings to learning how to print, travelled all over the world to examine all but two of the fifty known copies, and studied in minute detail the notebook in which Blake entered drafts of all the poems of Experience, trying to establish, by tracing changes in ink colors and nib sizes, the sequence of occasions in which Blake entered or revised them. He also studied the political atmosphere of England and local events in Lambeth at the time Blake worked on the Songs, reading at length through parish records and newspaper advertisements. The results of all this research are gathered here in a handsome volume published to coincide with the major Blake exhibition at the Tate Gallery (November 2000), of which Phillips was a guest curator.
The seventy-two color plates are beautifully done and worth the price of the book alone (happily published in paperback from the outset). Anyone interested in comparing the often widely different colorings of certain plates should place this book beside the recent Blake Trust/Princeton edition of the Songs, edited by Andrew Lincoln (1991), and the older Trianon/Orion/Oxford version, edited by Geoffrey Keynes (1967); there is just one duplication of a plate. For not very much money we now can own good reproductions of at least one plate from twenty-one copies of Innocence or of the joint Songs. They are all different from one another, too, sometimes in striking ways, sometimes in subtle. Phillips gives us six versions of the title-page of Innocence, for instance, and five each of the Innocence "Holy Thursday" and the Experience "Nurse's Song," as well as a "London" and a "Tyger." (The "Tyger" is the same as the one from Copy T in the Blake Trust/Princeton edition; it is, alas, no more ferocious than in other copies, but is surrealistically colored like a calico barber pole.) With the expanding on-line Blake Archive and improving desk-top printers we may soon have even better means to ponder the effects of varying colorings, effects perhaps even on the meanings of the accompanying texts, but for now we must be grateful for these additions to what is in print.
Among the plates are reproductions of eighteen pages of the notebook (N 98-115 in the Erdman numbering)—those pages that carry texts or designs relevant to the Songs. These too are splendid: we can see what Phillips means by the different shades of ink and widths of nib. There are no transcripts in ordinary type as there are in David Erdman's edition of the notebook (Oxford, 1973); instead, in a very long central chapter, Phillips takes us step by step through the entire eighteen pages, transcribing each version of each poem and [End Page 492] noting each revision or crossing-out. Among the plates, finally, are photographs of Phillips's own copper plate copy of the Innocence title-page, and a few plates by other printers of Blake's day.
Though it stays focused on the evolution of the Songs, the book still seems something of a hybrid. Relatively short chapters on the printing techniques frame the long chapter on the notebook; the explanations of the former presume little knowledge and are generally very clear, but some technical details are controversial and can be assessed only by other specialists (of which this reviewer is not one). Sometimes ballooning out from amidst the usually chaste and exacting accounts of the notebook variora are detailed reports of Phillips's discoveries of possible sources or inspirations...