Using the William Blake Archive in Teaching Poetry

Josephine A. McQuail

Professor of English

Tennessee Technological University

It is surely one of the biggest ironies in literary history that a poet stubbornly opposed to technological progress in his own reproduction of his texts is featured in one of the most advanced online archives on the Worldwide WEB. I am of course referring to William Blake and the William Blake Archive ( ), which has been devoted to his works by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) at the University of Virginia. The Archive has made available most of Blake's illuminated books, some of them in numerous copies, In addition, Standard Generalized Markup Language tagging allows one to search both text and the content of illustrations, and to call up editorial annotations of an image independently or in conjunction with a search using Inote, JAVA-based software developed at IATH. The Blake archive is of a wonderful resource, but it does have some limitations. What does it offer, and where is it wanting?

Blake is a difficult poet to teach, not only because of the density of his poetry, but because of the proliferation of copies that he printed himself (175 known copies of 18 books), often introducing variation into the text, the image, or even the pagination of copies! How does one "read" one of Blake's books, then: which copy does one choose, what order should the pages be in? The Archive could help with this textual problem, and it is now easy to find out the different orderings given by Blake to plates, or pages of copies in the Archive (if not other copies) by clicking on About This Edition. The Archive is a wonderful way to broadcast to students that Blake HAS often printed several different versions of his book, which is more difficult to do when one has ONE required facsimile edition that students use for the course. With the online archive, students can see from this selection of some of Blake's illuminated books that he most often did several printings of them and that they differ significantly. The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the volume Blake printed in the largest number, is represented by several printings (see Some books are underepresented, however; for instance, Blake’s masterpiece, Jerusalem, is still not on the archive in an illuminated edition.

What does the ability to view Blake online do to our notion of the book and the "aura" of the printed originals? Is it any different to see Blake's work as a series of electronic images rather than pages in a book or a series of illuminated pages? Of course, viewing his work in online images is preferable to reading only typographical renditions of his poetry, which is what some teachers and students have had to make do with. But is this online archive a possible substitute for the scholar considering the production and provenance of Blake's books? Probably not; for one certainly misses out on the feel for the physical process of Blake's printmaking in viewing electronic images, yet, as the archive’s RLG Diginews article points out (see below), the "value, rarity, and extreme fragility" of the originals, as well as their dispersal in libraries, museums, and private collections across continents, makes examining them increasingly difficult. The online images have some advantages, as well: using Inote, one can zoom in on an image or feature of Blake's plates; and the ability to search for images throughout editions on the archive is unprecedented (see ). The ability to search for words or phrases extends from the online’s archive to Erdman’s The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake and its Concordance ( ).

How do these electronic images compare to other facsimiles attempted of Blake? After all, some facsimiles, like the Dover editions, are notoriously poor. Others, like the Trianon press edition of Blake's The [First] Book of Urizen were forced to choose a version of Blake's original that was an illuminated printing (colors applied with watercolor after intaglio printing) rather than a color printed copy (colors applied directly on the copper plate and printed). The experience is akin to seeing a slide of a work of art, rather than the actual physical object. Some of the Blake facsimiles (especially the Trianon) strove to capture the aura of the original with special cases, paper and binding used for their editions. This is of course lacking with the electronic images. The experience of the artifact of the book is, as with other computer textual applications, different. However, at least the reader sees Blake's poems in conjunction with his images on the Blake Archive!

But the archive’s attempt to facsimile Blake was as painstaking as anything the Trianon Press undertook after World War II, working with the Blake Trust to preserve his illuminated books in facsimile so that another such devastating war or other disaster would not threaten to wipe out Blake’s legacy. The Trianon Press had master colorists analyze the colors of the original and make stencils which were applied to a monochrome outline to approach the way Blake worked with his illuminated prints (printed in monochrome and colored with watercolor); as many as 30 stencils had to be applied to color plates of the Urizen facsimile. The editors and staff of the William Blake Archive describe in their article "The Persistence of Vision: Images and Imaging at the William Blake Archive"in RLG Digital News ( how painstaking this process is, claiming that it yields, though, "images . . . more accurate in color, detail, and scale than the finest commercially published photomechanical reproductions.

In addition to the selection of Blake's illuminated books, the archive features a selected bibliography of criticism, David Erdman’s notes and typographical text of The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. It also contains a bibliography of art historical works on Blake. These will also help to make that famously inaccessible British romantic poet into one of the most accessible poets electronically. Could this influence Blake's reputation and place in the Romantic canon? Perhaps it could. Students definitely find it easier to make discoveries about Blake with the Blake archive, and it provides global access to materials formerly available to only specialized scholars. It will revolutionize the reading of Blake, though perhaps at a cost.

However, the Blake archive is a perfect venue for encouraging student interaction with a text, whether in the traditional classroom or in an online class. Some of the ways I have used the archive have called for students to explore it on their own and write about their experience; I have also taken a computer and monitor directly into the classroom to show students the way the poems’ illuminations can give clues to interpreting the poems. For instance, there are the un-Romantic straight lines in the illustration to "Holy Thursday" of Innocence ( ) which imply an ironic reading of the poem. "To Tirzah" is a poem that points Blake in a direction beyond Innocence and of Experience. It was added later to Experience than the other poems in the volume; students also must see the image in order to get a hint at the meaning of the poem ( ): a figure on the right side of the page has the tag "It is Raised a Spiritual Body" on it, and to the spiritual is the direction Blake seems to recommend at the end of the volume. The title page of The Book of Thel with its illustration of human figures in flowers, the male embracing the female, brings in the heated sexuality which the text of the poem implies ( ). One can show them these images in class, or ask students to go to them in a computer lab; a more interactive assignment would be to ask them to work individually or in groups (both can be done in an online class) and find illustrations in certain volumes that give clues to Blake’s meanings, or illustrations that don’t seem to fit the poem (like that to "Holy Thursday," op cit., or "The Tyger") and call for an interpretation.

Other projects could include having students compare different copies of an illuminated book and determine how the different plate orders (of poems in the Songs or images in other books) or variants in text affect interpretation. Another assigment is to call for a comparison between texts and images in a couple of illuminated books. Or how about simply getting students to report on various aspects of the Blake Archive? One thing that may be as difficult to study on the archive as with texts is any discussion of metrics or rhyme: there are no critical works on the archive that would help students do this. Still, these other kinds of tasks could get students involved in the type of active learning that fires their enthusiasm, in a way more difficult to achieve when a teacher merely "models" enthusiasm.