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Blake's Poetry and Designs [Norton Critical Edition, 2nd ed.]

by William Blake, John E. Grant (Editor), Mary Lynn Johnson (Editor)

Other authors: Stephen C. Behrendt (Contributor), Harold Bloom (Contributor), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Contributor), Vincent Arthur De Luca (Contributor), Morris Eaves (Contributor)15 more, Northrop Frye (Contributor), Allen Ginsberg (Contributor), Nelson Hilton (Contributor), Robert Hunt (Contributor), Saree Makdisi (Contributor), Jon Mee (Contributor), W. J. T. Mitchell (Contributor), Martin K. Nurmi (Contributor), Alicia Ostriker (Contributor), Samuel Palmer (Contributor), Henry Crabb Robinson (Contributor), John Thomas Smith (Contributor), Frederick Tatham (Contributor), Joseph Viscomi (Contributor), Julia Wright (Contributor)

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In addition to a broad selection of the poems, the volume includes over 100 images (16 in color), emphasizing the centrality of pictorial representations to Blake's verse. Biographical context is provided through dozens of excerpts from Blake's notebook, letters, marginalia, and other writings."Criticism" offers twenty wide-ranging commentaries by writers from Blake's contemporaries to present-day critics, among them Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Northrop Frye, Allen Ginsberg, Morris Eaves, Harold Bloom, Alicia Ostriker, John Mee, Saree Makdisi, and Julia Wright.A section on Textual Technicalities, a Chronology of Blake's life and work, a Selected Bibliography, and an Index of Titles and First Lines are also included.… (more)

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A Personal Response; not a Scholarly or Critical Review

Reading William Blake can be a life’s work. It could have been my life work. I took another alternative. But if heaven be (as someone suggested recently) an opportunity to experience some of the alternative lives that we could have lived but didn’t, one of the first ones I shall opt for will be a lifetime becoming a Blakean. My model will be my mentor from graduate school: Professor John E. Grant. His scholarship was obviously his joy; it was also his mission; it was his vision; and it was a source of his life values (for example, back in 1965, before it became a national craze, he was already engaging in peaceful protests of the War in Vietnam, spreading flowers along the way, or at least supporting those who did).

I had discovered Blake’s poetry on my own, and had a nodding acquaintance with his fourfold vision. My doctoral studies were already headed in another direction altogether, when, just for my own personal pleasure and enlightenment, I decided to audit Professor Grant’s course in British Romantic poetry. I was hooked. From that point on, I enrolled in every seminar he conducted. And, from that point on, I led two lives: in one, making A’s in statistics, teaching eighth graders and supervising those who did, and analyzing adolescents’ responses to poetry; in the other, finding pleasure in scholarship, writing and ()under Grant's mentorship) eventually publishing papers on Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job, the last few plates of his Jerusalem, John Keats’ neglected longer poem Lamia, and the like. Regrettably, my professional vocation never again left me time to lead two such full lives, but from time to time I did have the privilege of teaching my own course in the British Romantic poets. Ultimately, however, I could not spare the time even for that. I spent long hours, usually seven days a week, doing the work I had prepared myself to do – and, for the most part, enjoying it immensely. When I had time for myself, usually around midnight, I unwound by writing poems – just for myself, for my own satisfaction and spiritual nourishment. But often, to their astonishment, even in those days I found opportunities to share with teachers, school administrators, fellow department chairs and deans, my personal favorite among Blake’s riches:

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau,
Mock on, mock on: ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

In retirement, I kept telling myself, I will at last have time to return to this passion of my youth. Ah, what I had not counted on was the phenomenon called “ageing.” My physical and mental health has put rather narrow restrictions on my energy as well as my intellectual capacity. Time for reading and writing has had to be curtailed – and apportioned among several tasks and interests: family stories, the history of my profession, personal memoirs, and sometime around midnight my own poetry. A Blakean I was not to be – not in any legitimate sense of the word.

But there is another sort of Blakean: one who cherishes certain poems and passages, reciting them over and over, reflecting on their multiple meanings; one who from time to time saturates himself in Blake’s illuminations (especially Blake Trust editions in the rare book room of a university library, or the grand William Blake Archive on the internet – www.blakearchive.org); one who explores Blake’s biography, his world view, his relation to world religions, at leisure. In all three of those senses, I am a true Blakean. I suspect that there are many, many of us scattered around the world. Experiencing Blake’s illuminations, reflecting on his vision, is one way I achieve what John Keats called “heaven’s bourne” in these my “silver years.”

So many facsimiles are available these days, some of them good reproductions at very reasonable prices or on open shelves of a good library or readily available on the internet. I often have a printed copy at my side, but the Orion edition of Songs of Innocence and of Experience is one of seven or eight books always at my fingertips. When I want to enjoy just the texts of any of Blake’s well-known poems, I still go back to the Modern Library edition, edited by Northurp Frye (1953), the copy I used when I was Professor Grant’s student. Just fitting in the palm of one’s hand, it suffices well. It has only excerpts from The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem, but then one wants illuminated copies of those anyway. It does have Poetical Sketches (the early, letterpress work that’s much better than most folks allow), Songs (of course), a generous sampling of unpublished works from the Rosetti and Pickering mss., all the “minor” prophecies, most of the “later” works, and several significant letters and sets of marginalia.

But in between those two sources -- the facsimiles and Frye – is Blake’s Poetry and Designs, selected and edited by Mary Linn Johnson and John E Grant (2nd edition, Norton Critical Edition, 2008). It focuses on the designs in extraordinarily helpful ways, especially alongside an authentic facsimile on the internet; furthermore, it provides scholarly and critical paraphernalia more than adequate for careful reading, indeed in many instances, superior to “standard” works like David Erdman’s Complete Poetry and Prose (Doubleday, 1965) and Sir Geoffrey Keynes’ Complete Writings (Oxford UP, 1966). Oh, yes, It has a lot of good stuff packed in its 628 pages; hence, regrettably, the type face is small for these ageing eyes. But what a treasure: a few pages of Blake each day, not exactly as he meant to be read, but more eagerly, more respectfully that he was often read in his lifetime.

The selections in this edition include all the illuminated works, a number of other works and notebook poems, excerpts from “later” works, letters and marginalia – not to mention sixteen striking color plates, eighty-six black and white images, and even maps of Blake’s Britain and the Holy Land. As if that were not enough to keep one occupied for a lifetime, there are over a hundred pages devoted to twenty critical essays, ranging from 1809 to 2003. The first appeared as an unsigned review of “Mr Blake’s Exhibition,” reflecting a contemporary’s disgust: “the ebullitions of a distempered brain” “a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity, the wild effusionsn of a distempered brain.” Coleridge ranks the Songs, giving his equivalent of a AAA to “Little Black Boy.” The memories of Samuel Palmer, Blake’s young admirer, conclude, “He ennobled poverty, and, by his conversation and the influence of his genius, made two small rooms in Fountain Court more attractive than the threshold of princes.” Modern comments begin with Allen Ginsberg and Northrup Frye; the last one, by V.A. de Luca, pays tribute and careful attention to the sublimity of Blake’s “wall of words”: “For Blake Presence is available, and the transcendental subject exists; these are in fact the cornerstones of his faith.” Amen.

But wait. I’m about to leave out what is perhaps the most helpful aspect of this text, its distinct and distinguished contribution to the enlightened reading of Blake: Johnson and Grant’s footnotes, introductory headnotes, and the delightful, but also helpful three-page introduction. Whether you are reading Blake for the first or the fiftieth time, they “welcome you to a great adventure.” But they also warn you of what’s ahead: “[Blake] writes soaring lyrics and crude jibes, obscure rants and startling punch lines. He can be inspirational, outrageous, inscrutable, funny, raunchy, offensive, and just plain weird – all in one passage.” Indeed.

To describe their editorial work, I’m going to use as highest praise some words that, in these days, have usually taken on negative connotations. Fastidious. Meticulous. Painstaking. In many, many instances they have anticipated questions that rise in the reader’s mind, and like a good friend whispering a cue when one is needed, they answer one’s questions before they are asked. In detail, but inconspicuously. Just one brief example. Looking at the plate for “Infant Joy,” I knew that it was not always colored the brilliant scarlet shown in the plate, but I couldn’t remember what the alternatives had been. Here’s a sentence from Johnson and Grant’s note: “In five versions of Songs (and two versions of Innocence alone), the protective flame-shaped blossom and the drooping bud are colored blue.” Well, I certainly would not have remembered all that. So there. And notice their subtle hint to the reader: the blossom is “protective” and “flame-shaped” and the bud is “drooping.” Just a hint, mind you, but also just right.

Johnson and Grant’s introductory essays to all of Blake’s illuminated works – they alone – would make a superb introduction to and commentary on these works: succinct, informative, clear, detailed but not overwhelming. They are descriptive, not critical nor interpretive; they introduce the theme (or vision), explore the background and printing history, mention alternate editions, define critical vocabulary, and provide a helpful bibliography of analytical and critical publications.

I always begin a reading or study of Blake’s prophetic works with the Book of Thel. After all, it apparently was the first one “printed”; it is certainly the simplest, most understandable one, though it too is enigmatic; it is the first to use the irregular septenary line, in which the prophecies would all be written; its designs are delicate, usually illustrative of text, but twice extra-narrative. Except on the title page, they are less intertwined with the text than in later prophecies. Let me give you a few sentences from Johnson and Grant’s introduction as an example of their specificity, exactness, and interpretive reticence:

This early work . . . revolves around a troubled inquirer whose questions are never resolved. In all but two copies, the book opens with “Thel’s Motto,” a stark undecorated set of riddles about knowing and asking; in two late copies the motto concludes the work. (p48)

The Lilly (a virgin), the Cloud (a lover), and the Clod of Clay (a matron, mother of the infant Worm) assure the melancholy shepherdess that there is abundant meaning and purpose in all life, at all levels of sentience. Her meditations on death, worms, and decay recall the “graveyard poetry” of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts [and other works] – all of which Blake was later to illustrate. (p48)

In the end, her shrieking and running away have been interpreted as fear of entering mortal existence, or as a deficiency in her will and desire, or as a refusal to move into the net stage of earthly life. The unanswered questions of her motto and the final design that intervenes between her flight home and “The End” of her story leave open the possibility that in her terror she has at last found out something from her own experience, that none of her fellow creatures could tell her. (p58)

What I find so admirable (almost incredibly so) are the succinctness and clarity with which Johnson and Grant indicate the nature of the work, place it in Blake’s life work, comment on the design and the differences among copies, summarize important interpretive approaches, and suggest (but only suggest) evidence of other possibilities. A concluding paragraph lists (by my count, fifteen) other “sources of interest.” Thus, these brief (one- or two-page) introductions give readers new to the poetry just what they need, and no more. On the other hand, they move scholars, both neophyte and experienced, several steps along the way toward thorough and fresh readings.

And, by the way, just in case you’re curious, the last of five black-and-white images accompanying the text of this poem shows “the reined serpent and its [carefree] young riders.” It comes between the last lines of the poem and “The End.” It definitely moves us beyond the text, which ends,

The Virgin started from her seat, & with a shriek.
Fled back unhindered till she came into the vales of Har. (p54)

Johnson and Grant’s footnotes have identified Har from other works (“old Har and his wife, Heva, live[d] idly in pleasant gardens,” “king of a formerly paradisal state and the ancestor of a degenerate race”) and inform us that the same design also appears in the prophecy America.

These editorial tools are always scholarly, objective, and unobtrusive. To me, however, remembering Grant as such a kindly, wise, witty mentor, they often seem to have a warm, personal tone. For example, the introductory headnote to Jerusalem provides the reader some down-to-earth, common-sense advice on confronting Blake’s “wall of words”: “There are many ways to enter the poem but no royal road to understanding it. Our advice is simply to start with whichever thread of meaning first catches your eye, follow that lead as far as it takes you; pick up the next loose end you make sense to you at any given moment. If one knot is too stubborn to unravel after a reasonable effort, drop it, skip around a bit until something else intrigues you; keep following the glint of that golden string just ahead, winding as you go – and the walls will start opening before you.”

Of course, what they are saying is simply their elaboration of Blake’s own headnote to chapter four of Jerusalem, addressed “To the Christians”:

I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball:
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,
Built in Jerusalem’s wall.

In this critical edition, Johnson and Grant provide us just the help we need to keep winding the golden string. If we are fortunate, it will lead us in “at Heaven’s gate,” or at least lift us momentarily into “heaven’s bourne.” ( )
1 vote bfrank | Jun 4, 2011 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
William Blakeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Grant, John E.Editormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Johnson, Mary LynnEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Behrendt, Stephen C.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bloom, HaroldContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Coleridge, Samuel TaylorContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
De Luca, Vincent ArthurContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Eaves, MorrisContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Frye, NorthropContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ginsberg, AllenContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hilton, NelsonContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hunt, RobertContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Makdisi, SareeContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mee, JonContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mitchell, W. J. T.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Nurmi, Martin K.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ostriker, AliciaContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Palmer, SamuelContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Robinson, Henry CrabbContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Smith, John ThomasContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Tatham, FrederickContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Viscomi, JosephContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wright, JuliaContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed

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This is the second edition of the Norton Critical Edition of Blake's Poetry and Designs. It's contents are signficatly different from the first edition, please do not combine.
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In addition to a broad selection of the poems, the volume includes over 100 images (16 in color), emphasizing the centrality of pictorial representations to Blake's verse. Biographical context is provided through dozens of excerpts from Blake's notebook, letters, marginalia, and other writings."Criticism" offers twenty wide-ranging commentaries by writers from Blake's contemporaries to present-day critics, among them Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Northrop Frye, Allen Ginsberg, Morris Eaves, Harold Bloom, Alicia Ostriker, John Mee, Saree Makdisi, and Julia Wright.A section on Textual Technicalities, a Chronology of Blake's life and work, a Selected Bibliography, and an Index of Titles and First Lines are also included.

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