Victor N. Paananen. William Blake. Boston: Twayne Publishers/G. K. Hall & Co., 1977. Pp. 171. $7.95.
A reviewer must pity the author of a Twayne volume—the restrictions of which apparently make the writing of an intelligent and meaningful book on Blake difficult. I must assume that Victor Paananen has done his best, having accepted willingly the limitations of the Twayne format. Unfortunately, however, the final result is a near disaster that is redeemed from absolute failure only by Paananen’s understanding that he is not writing about a mythological poet but a prophet who tried to dramatize mental strife and not to create another rattletrap pantheon of bloated gods and goddesses. The Twayne Blake, however, cannot be taken seriously as a contribution to the study of Blake. It is, in fact, not even a good introduction and fares poorly when compared to Max Plowman’s fifty-year old critique, which, by the way, is not listed in the selected bibliography; nor are Swinburne, Yeats, Symons, Wicksteed, or Percival. The usual Twayne restriction on the number of entries in selected bibliographies will not explain Paananen’s astounding omissions, especially considering some of the items included. But “we” (Paananen’s favorite personal pronoun, which makes him sound repeatedly like Charles Lindbergh in Paris), does not compliment the dead, since, “we” may suppose, they have no influence on the careers of the living. begin page 206 | It would be possible to list at random fifty articles of more worth than the Twayne Blake, half of which might well have been included either in the bibliography or in the notes. But with Yeats, Wicksteed, and Percival missing (from the notes, too), what else can be said.
In his preface Paananen suggests that serious Blake scholarship makes it possible for “a book like this one [to be] written with fewer trepidations.” Fewer trepidations than what? (Aside from regretting the incomplete comparison, I still wonder why. I should imagine it would be the other way around, that is, since it was decided to publish the book at all.) He assures the reader that “Specialized work can now be carried forward confidently” because of that serious scholarship about which he speaks. Very nice, very nice, but Twayne and Paananen should have helped. Needless to say, they did not. The reader is also informed that “Because of Blake’s reputation for obscurity,” Paananen will make “extensive use of quotation [he overdoes it] both to explicate the lines [there is very little true explication] and to demonstrate that Blake can speak very well for himself.” Believe it or not, Paananen actually does write that “Blake can speak very well for himself.” Aside from the silliness of such a remark, which even a Twayne book ought to avoid, Paananen calls attention to one of the book’s greatest weaknesses. Not serious scholarship itself, the Twayne Blake does a poor job of introducing Blake, especially to the neophyte reader, the only kind of reader for whom a Twayne book has any value. The author must explain and illuminate, not just quote. His description of Blake’s method of illuminated printing, for example, is incomplete, incorrect, and unclear. It is certainly of no use to anyone as an explanation. The reader gets the impression that Blake and Blake’s ideas have literally sprung from nowhere. He is given some names, but no relations are established. The discussion of “outline” is a case in point. There is no mention of Michelangelo or Raphael. In fact, they are nowhere mentioned in the book. Neither are a host of others who contributed to Blake’s intellectual milieu.
The Twayne Blake begins with a skimpy and wholly inadequate biographical survey. This is followed by a chapter on There is No Natural Religion, All Religions are One, and The Book of Urizen. The discussion of the three Religion plates could easily have been omitted, since Paananen does not really explain them. The rest of the chapter is pedestrian at best and fundamentally out of place. The third chapter on the Poetical Sketches is a shallow pastiche of quotations and superficial comments, but chapters four and five on The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The French Revolution, and America are even worse. Europe is ignored as are Blake’s illustrations for his own work as well as that of others.
Paananen’s commentary interlaced by inexcusable gobs of quotation is distantly descriptive at best. The reader gets little or no insight into Blake’s work or how his mind works. The book’s four pages (a chapter!) on the Visions of the Daughters of Albion are superficial and chapter seven on The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Thel and Tiriel fails in every respect to illuminate these poems. In trying unsuccessfully to cover as much as he can, Paananen covers little. The book is poorly organized and disjointed. The reader is never permitted to get hold of anything on which to build even the foundations of an understanding of what Blake is about. The piecemeal chronology, which Paananen violates at just those times when he should not, is carried over to the chapter on The Four Zoas. Instead of giving his reader a coherent introduction to The Four Zoas as a whole, he resorts to snippets (most of his chapters are snippets) on each of the nine nights. Like the following chapter on the “Manuscript Poems” (another pastiche of quotation), the chapter on The Four Zoas is a superficial narrative concerned in turn with Blake’s narrative, which Paananen tells us rightly and early in the book is not the fundamental structure of a Blake “epic.” Would to God he had organized his book with this understanding in the forefront of his mind. The chapters on Milton and Jerusalem are not worthy of serious discussion, and the “Conclusion” might have served as the beginning of a truly well oriented introductory chapter, which the book sorely needs.
In his preface, Paananen somewhat pompously suggests that “Blake scholars will no doubt dispute many of my [sic] readings of individual poems and passages—many of the readings are indeed new—but they will recognize that I am writing about the same William Blake that the scholarship of the last fifty years has identified for us.” Not only is there nothing new to dispute (absolutely nothing), “we” wonder why only fifty years and where is the evidence that even that has been adequately researched by the author. The absurdity of Paananen’s opinion of his book is underscored by the book itself. The errors in interpretation and over-simplifications that abound in it do not require a scholar’s refutation.
Paananen’s heart is, I suppose, in the right place. He likes Blake and he appreciates the integrity of Blake’s work as a whole. Furthermore, he says he understands that both the individual poem and the individual plate each have an independent as well as an interdependent being, although he seems not to have organized his material with this idea in mind. Also, he stresses rightly Blake’s radical politics and biblical evangelicalism, at least in general. But the book does not particularize. It does not go deep. It is not well-written, well-organized, or truly helpful as an introduction to Blake. And, finally, it is certainly not a contribution to Blake studies. It will, I believe, serve no purpose at all.