BLAKE’S MARGINS: AN INTERPRETIVE STUDY OF THE ANNOTATIONS by Hazard Adams, Reviewed by Morton D. Paley
 


BLAKE’S MARGINS: AN INTERPRETIVE STUDY OF THE ANNOTATIONS
By Hazard Adams
(McFarland, 2009) vii + 204 pp.
Reviewed by Morton D. Paley on 2010-05-22.

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With the increasing appreciation of the nature of marginalia as a genre, Hazard Adams's study of Blake's is a timely one. Adams has the fine talents of discussing difficult passages lucidly without simplifying their meanings, and, to paraphrase what he say of Blake's notes on Bacon (82), of finding the reasons for Blake's disagreements not on the surface but in what lurks beneath

The ten books that Blake annotated are taken in what is thought to be the chronological order of his reading them, beginning with Johann Caspar Lavater's Aphorisms on Man (English edition, 1788), whose importance to Blake is hard to over-estimate. He himself had engraved the frontispiece after a drawing by his friend Henry Fuseli, and Fuseli had translated the text. In Lavater, Blake saw a combination of Christian humanism and Enlightenment values, which Blake called "true Christian philosophy" (9). In the Aphorisms Blake found affirmations of intense enjoyment, individual genius, the inter-relatedness of God and man, and (as Adams points out) empathy. Lavater's book also made Blake highly aware of the aphorism as a rhetorical form, one that he found congenial and used in his early tractates There Is No Natural Religion and All Religions Are One. Blake did not, however, receive Lavater's views uncritically, but accepted the author's invitation to write marginal comments on those that made him "uneasy." Among these is the notion of Vice, which Blake considers "a Negative," but which he accuses Lavater of making "Staminal," thus anticipating his own doctrine of Contraries and Negations in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and later. Blake concludes this paragraph by saying: "But the or[i]gin of this mistake in Lavater & his contemporaries, is. They suppose that Womans Love is Sin. In Consequence all the Loves & Graces with them are Sin." As always, Blake totalizes here: he traces the cause of Lavater's "mistake" not to anything Lavater says explicitly, but to its root: "Blake knows [Lavater] is a Protestant clergyman and assumes that he accepts the doctrine of original sin as expressed by the Biblical story of Eve and the apple" (17). And even in these earliest known annotations of his, "Blake's radical position is that everything arises from and exists in an original and endless act of imagination in which we all participate" (19).

Next in chronological order are Blake's annotations to Swedenborg, prefaced by Adams's succinct explanations of Swedenborg's doctrines in his Treatise concerning Heaven and Hell. (The best detailed expositions of these are Lars Berquist's in his extraordinary biography, Swedenborg's Secret [London: Swedenborg Society, 2005]). Blake annotated the second edition, published by R. Hindmarsh, but read by Blake no earlier than 1787. (There are only three notes, one of which refers the reader to "Worlds in Universe" or Concerning the Earths in our Solar System, which first appeared in English in that year). The one note that applies to Swedenborg's text has to do with a passage about the plurality of heavens and hells, which concludes that "both Heaven and the World of Spirits may be considered as convexities, under which are arrangements of those infernal mansions." On this Blake writes: "under every Good is a hell. i.e. hell is the outward or external of heaven. & is the body of the lord. For nothing is destroyed." As Adams observes, "He is also emphasizing a relation of the inner world to the outer that is similar to his own imagery." This hopeful reading of Swedenborg, which aims to accommodate his views to Blake's own, is again to be found in Blake's numerous comments on The Wisdom of Angels, concerning Divine Love and Divine Wisdom (English translation 1788). In many of these, as Adams says, "Blake seems to be a friendly interpreter" (49). When Blake reads "Is not one and the same Essence one and the same Identity?" he responds: "Answer Essence is not Identity but from Essence proceeds Identity & from one Essence may proceed many Identities. . . . Surely this is an oversight." However, when he comes to annotate The Wisdom of the Angels concerning the Divine Providence (1790), Blake stops pushing the envelope. Indeed, at times Blake seems to misunderstand Swedenborg, especially on the subject of predestination, on which, as Adams remarks, "Blake misreads Swedenborg, perhaps deliberately" (57). For some reason (much discussed in both Blakean and Swedenborgian circles), Blake had turned against Swedenborg in a short period of time. There are later statements about the Swedish visionary in Blake's poetry and prose, and in at least one picture (the lost Spiritual Preceptor, exhibited in 1809), but we have no further annotations to his works.

Blake had no such problem in judging Bishop Richard Watson's An Apology for the Bible (1796), which he read in 1798. The Apology was addressed to Thomas Paine and attempted to refute the arguments of Part Two of The Age of Reason. The conjunction of Blake, Paine, and Watson is in a way a curious one. Watson was not an arch-reactionary but a latitudinarian, a Whig, and a one-time supporter of the French Revolution. Paine was a Deist who rejected revelation. Nevertheless, Blake saw Watson's Apology as a defense of monarchy and of the established church (which it was), and Paine's Age of Reason as an attack on both (which it was). For Blake, Paine incarnates the fiery principle of revolution, and, as Adams puts it, "goes so far as to claim that the Holy Ghost spoke through Paine. "(73). Blake agrees with Paine that the Old Testament Prophets were poets (a view that had gathered currency as a result of the writings of Bishop Robert Lowth), but regarded the substance of prophecy as figurative or symbolic, agreeing with Paine "that predicting events was not the prophets' purpose" (77). For both, Watson's literal view of prophecy is confounded by the fact "that Jonah's prophecy of Nineveh was wrong" (77). While Watson defends the literal truth of such narratives as God's ordering the slaughter of the Canaanites, Paine denies that God would have ordered this, and Blake regards this divine command as a pretense of the Israelites. In such instances, Blake, in Adams's words "takes a third position" (70). Adams is highly skilled at untangling such threads, while recognizing that Blake's vehemence throughout is directed at Watson, whom Blake regards as a hypocritical time-server.

The furiously adversarial nature of Blake's notes to Francis Bacon's Essays Moral, Economical, and Political (Bacon was to become par of the demonic triad "Bacon & Newton & Locke" in Milton and Jerusalem) exemplifies something curious about Blake's marginalia as we have them. Blake appears to have selected for annotation mainly authors he detested. Of the thirteen volumes extant, only four - the first three mentioned above, and Berkeley's Siris - elicit largely positive remarks. Those on Bacon are remarkably savage. Sometimes it is easy to understand Blake's antipathy, as when Bacon advocates leaving the practice of art to "strangers," while the citizens of a country are "tillers of the ground, free servants; and handicraftsmen of strong and manly arts, as smiths, masons, carpenters, &c: not reckoning professed soldiers" (89). Blake replies: "Bacon calls Intellectual Arts Unmanly Poetry Painting Music are in his opinion Useless & so they are for Kings & Wars & shall in the End Annihilate them"; and when Bacon praises the Roman Triumph as "one of the wisest and noblest institutions that ever was" (88), Blake writes: "what can be worse than this or more foolish[?]." When Bacon calls religion, justice, counsel, and treasure "the four pillars of government" (87), Blake wittily ripostes that these pillars are "of different heights and sizes." As Adams remarks, there are some Baconian remarks that Blake must have agreed with, such as the denunciation of a king "that setteth to sale seats of justice," "a prodigal king," and a king subject to flatterers (85). However, "The fundamental reasons for Blake's disagreements with Bacon," as Adams puts it, "are not often on the surface of his notes, but ... lurk beneath" (83). In the Essays Bacon assumes a world without political or social change and addresses those who would succeed in ruling it. For Blake this is "Good Advice for Satans Kingdom" (83).

Blake was no more charitable to Henry Boyd, a Church of Ireland clergyman who published the second complete English translation of The Divine Comedy in 1798. Blake's notes are not to Boyd's execrable translation, but to his two preliminary essays. A major disagreement is with Boyd's emphasis on a moral role for literature. To this Blake responds: "If Homers merit was only in these Historical combinations & Moral sentiments he would be no better than Clarissa" (101). While Boyd, in Adams's words, thinks "Dante appeals to our natural feelings on which Christian morality is based" (99), Blake asserts, "Nature teaches nothing of Spiritual Life but only of Natural Life" (100). Sometimes, as Adams says, Boyd's insistence upon morally good heroes "irritates Blake ... and leads to a certain amount of hyperbole (100-1). When Boyd claims that some of Shakespeare's heroes gain sympathy because of the wrongs they have suffered, Blake's retort is " the grandest Poetry is Immoral the Grandest characters Wicked. Very Satan. Capanius Othello a murderer. Prometheus. Jupiter. Jehovah, Jesus a wine bibber" (103). Here we are back to the transgressive Jesus of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Another major disagreement is, in the broadest sense, political. When Boyd blames the decline of Rome on "universal toleration," Blake ringingly asks, "What is Liberty without Universal Toleration." Blake does not, however, idealize Dante - he says that "Dante was an Emperors a Caesars Man"(105)," foreshadowing the inscriptions Blake later wrote in his illustrations to The Divine Comedy.

The longest chapter on a single book in Blake's Margins concerns the annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses on Art. Adams has been thinking about this subject for a long time, for while none of the other chapters has appeared in print before, this is a revised and expanded version of an essay first published in 1978. These factors of space and time are appropriate to a subject that Blake treated at considerable length over a period of several years. Blake is bitterly partisan against the man whom he saw as embodying an art establishment from which Blake himself had been excluded. He considers Reynolds a hypocrite (for elevating history painting while making his fortune in portraiture), a scurvy politician (for getting to be the founding President of the Royal Academy), and a bad artist. Blake recognizes that his views spring partly from resentment, but we must also remember that he was an artist, not an art historian. He is not striving for a balanced view of Reynolds. He takes what he can use, and rejects the rest. We read these annotations not to learn about Reynolds, but to learn about Blake, who sometimes finds himself agreeing with the man he elsewhere reviles. When Reynolds says, "Few have been taught to any purpose, who have not been their own teachers, Blake responds "True!" (121). And when Reynolds declares that "A firm and determined outline is one of the characteristics of the great style in painting," Blake says "A Noble Sentence" (125). Both praise Poussin, and both agree that Rubens fails in coloring and outline.

Nevertheless, Blake seizes every chance to disagree. Where Reynolds allows Rubens some positive qualities (invention and richness of composition, among others), Blake allows Rubens nothing. While Reynolds posits a traditional hierarchy of genres, finding room even for flower painting, Blake sees all art aspiring toward sublimity. (Beauty, as Adams notes, is seldom invoked by Blake with respect to paintings, but is subsumed into the sublime). Sometimes where one would think there was agreement, Blake will not credit Reynolds's sincerity, calling him "A Liar" when Reynolds tells how his ignorance of Raphael turned into admiration, and writing a satirical epigram on Reynolds's ending his discourses with the name of Michelangelo (110, 136).

A more general disagreement concerns their different views of form, both in general and with respect to works of art. In Blake's view, Reynolds uses a Lockeian model of the mind to argue for the existence of "ideal beauty" (p. 123), resulting in contradictions that Blake thinks Reynolds cannot resolve. (Of course Blake does not feel obliged to give an argument for his own thoroughgoing idealism here.) In summarizing their differences, Adams brings in the trope of synecdoche. For Blake, Adams says, "a poetic image is always individual."

What remains is to show [he continues] that it is also universal. This Blake does not demonstrate in the annotations. The missing link in his argument is assertion of the logic of metaphor, in this case the synecdoche, where an individual being is identified with some larger thing that it is part of. Blake's notion is that intense vision into a particular thing reveals its metaphorical identity with the larger thing, indeed with all things. Small things as well as supposedly overwhelming (according to Burke) large things are sublime. Looked into, they reveal themselves as infinite. (123).

Here, as so often, Adams makes Blake's thought accessible in non- "Blakean" terms, thereby opening it up to a wider circle of readers.

Blake's fewest annotations to a book he is known to have owned were to Observations on the Deranged Mind, or Insanity (1817) by J. C. Spurzheim. According to Spurzheim and his former teacher Franz Joseph Gall, the founder of the pseudo-science of phrenology, the nature of a person's faculties could be found in the conformation of his or her skull, which they thought followed the physical form of the brain. Blake had enough interest in this to allow a phrenologist, James S. Deville, to take his life mask, and phrenology may also have had an impact on some of Blake's Visionary Heads. However, Blake made only two notes on Spurzheim, one of which is slight. The other, which is of great interest, exists only in a transcription by E. J. Ellis and W. B. Yeats for their Works of William Blake Poetic, Symbolic, and Critical (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1893). It concerns William Cowper, whose poetry and letters Blake admired, and who had died insane in 1800. Blake knew the details of Cowper's derangement as a result of having worked with Cowper's biographer, William Hayley, while engraving the illustrations for Hayley's book. In Blake's vision Cowper comes to him wishing to be always mad and marveling at Blake's "madness": "You retain health & yet are as mad as any of us all. - mad as a refuge from unbelief - from Bacon, Newton, and Locke" (146). Of course this is Aesopian language that affirms Blake's essential sanity in what is believed to be a world of only material objects. Blake, who knew himself to be considered a madman by some of his contemporaries, would have agreed with the pacifist who said: "Our world is rational but not sane."

The author whom Blake is known to have annotated with the greatest sympathy is George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. It's clear that Blake thought Berkeley was going in the right direction, but not far enough. In explaining his notion of the One, Berkeley writes: "It is ... the truer nature of God, to suppose him neither made up of parts, nor to be Himself a part of any whole whatsoever .... Nor is the Supreme Being united to the world as the soul of an animal is to its body" (155). Blake replies in a bit of creative misreading: "Imagination or the Human Eternal Body in Every Man," and "Imagination or the Divine Body in Every Man." When Berkeley employs the beautiful expression "the children of imagination grafted upon sense" for the "phantoms'" that have their origin in natural appearances, his example is "pure space." Blake chooses to correct the philosopher with "The All in Man the Divine Image or Imagination" (156). When Blake annotated Reynolds, he countered the author point by point, but in the Berkeley marginalia, as Adams puts it, "it is sometimes as if Blake was running a discourse oblique to Berkeley's, although alongside it" (158). Blake does not contradict Berkeley but carries the bishop's' arguments, up to a point much like Blake's own, into territories beyond the author's discourse.

The only poet whose work Blake is known to have annotated was William Wordsworth, whose Poems of 1815 and Excursion were loaned to him by Wordsworth's friend Henry Crabb Robinson. Blake's response to Wordsworth was ambivalent. "Blake implies there are two Wordsworths," says Adams, "one visionary and one possessed of the Devil" (175). Where Wordsworth admires "How exquisitely the individual Mind / ... to the external World/ Is fitted," Blake says "You shall not bring me down to believe such fitting & fitted" (167). For Blake the source of all art, including poetry, is the Imagination, which is beyond the senses. Yet in some of Wordsworth's poems Blake found intuitions that matched his own. He was, according to Henry Crabb Robinson, deeply moved by the Immortality Ode, and he considered Wordsworth "the only poet of the age" (161). Yet Blake could not accept Wordsworth's statements about poetry:

"I do not know who wrote these Prefaces," he wrote, "they are very mischievous & direct contrary to Wordsworth's own Practise" (175). Blake is far from the only reader to find the 1815 "Essay Supplementary to the Preface" at odds with and even contrary to Wordsworth's greatest poems. In addition, for Blake, with his hatred of Locke and his tradition, there is a special problem in Wordsworth's use of Hartleian terminology. In the "Essay Supplementary," the Hartleian doctrine of association is as important to the imagination as it is to the fancy, and Blake cannot square this with his response to the Wordsworth poems he likes best. "Blake was impatient enough with all this," writes Adams, to declare, "One Power alone makes a Poet. - Imagination The Divine Vision" (176).

Perhaps the most interesting question about the last book in which Blake wrote comments, Robert John Thornton's The Lord's Prayer (1827), is why Blake ever bothered to read it. Thornton had previously employed Blake to illustrate Ambrose Philips' versions of Virgil's Pastorals. The ensuing wood engravings are now recognized as superb works of art, but they came close to not appearing at all, thanks to Thornton's doubts about their quality. It took a group of Blake's fellow artists to persuade Thornton to publish them. Blake must have resented this, and in addition he must have known that Thornton was politically conservative. It is unlikely, to say the least, that he bought Thornton's book. It may be that Blake's friend John Linnell, who introduced the two, was curious about what Blake would say about it, and gave him a copy. As Adams remarks in the preceding chapter, "It appears that books were now and then lent to acquaintances with the express desire that they annotate them" (160). Blake's response to Thornton's version of the Lord's Prayer and the long-winded exposition that accompanies it is unusually aggressive, even by the standards of Blake's marginalia in general.. Blake's objections are epitomized in his parody of "Dr. Thornton's Tory Translation" (190), beginning: "Our Father Augustus Caesar who art in these thy Substantial Astronomical Telescopic Heavens...." If Linnell expected verbal fireworks, he got them.

A close examination of what Blake wrote in books by other people strongly suggests, as Adams implies, that he did not write them with only himself in mind. It is likely that the books were shown to or borrowed by friends, that the annotated texts were the basis of further discussions, and that they should therefore be considered public as well as private expression. Adams admirably explains what Blake conveys in his marginalia, and though Adams declares that he wrote this book primarily for beginners and students, all readers of Blake's Margins, whatever their previous knowledge of Blake, will come away from it with a richer understanding of his thought.

Morton D. Paley is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include The Continuing City: William Blake's Jerusalem (Oxford, 1983), The Traveller in the Evening: The Last Works of William Blake (Oxford, 2003), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Fine Arts (Oxford, 2008). He has also edited Jerusalem for the Blake Trust (Princeton, 1991).


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