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“BLAKE AND THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY” AT THE 1980 MLA

That the 1980 MLA Special Session on “Blake and the Eighteenth Century” was probably the longest such meeting of the convention does not alone explain the fact that the audience seemed to increase rather than diminish in numbers during the presentation of the four papers and a response. This was an eternity in love indeed with its temporal productions. Leo Damrosch, Jr. spoke first on “Blake and the Recovery of the Lyric,” arguing that Blake “recovers” the lyric through poems “totally committed to meaning in its deepest sense” and that the fullness of this commitment is what separates Blake most decisively from the tentative lyric poetry of the eighteenth century. But at the same time, it is this “total moral commitment to works of art that point beyond themselves” that leads to Blake’s later work and its concern with “the gap between what art claims and what it can perform.” Jim Borck offered an illuminated discussion of “Blake and the Topography of the Human Imagination,” and suggested that “Blake’s interest in London corresponds to other contemporary interests in anatomy texts and cartographic developments during his life.” Blake “must transform the landscape from which his map has been drawn, an external re-mapping which will cause distinctly new interior maps to spring forth”—in particular, the London that Blake “wishes to re-construct is an artistically remapped London based upon anatomical details.” Jim’s illustrations pointed to Vesalius’ Fabrica, an important anatomical text, as a source for the poses of some Blake figures. In “UnLocking Blake’s Crystal CabiNet,” Tom Vogler related some of the significant details and the poetic argument of that poem to Blake’s understanding and detestation of Lockean epistemology and metaphysics. Referring to Barker’s famous Panorama of 1787 and to Bentham’s proposed Panopticon, Tom characterized the speaker of the poem as one who has entered “the tower of observation, or the Lockean stage of self-reflection, in which he can see himself seeing, while we see him seeing himself and describing what he sees.” Here, however, “the power of observation does not unlock the epistemological prison but rather constitutes it and expands it.” The speaker’s attempt to “‘seize the inmost Form’ reveals that there is nothing there that can be seized, perceived, or comprehended by natural vision.” In his remarks on “Classical Line and Romantic Identity,” Morris Eaves argued against the recent tendency to use Blake’s favorite aesthetic opposition—line vs. color—to align him with artistic neoclassicism[e] and eighteenth-century attitudes toward art. For Morris, “Blake—characteristically—reestablishes Enlightenment principles on romantic grounds. In the case of artistic line, he shears off certain conventional associations (of line with reason and nature, for instance), retains others (of line with intellect), and adds still others (of line with imagination). The result is a thoroughly romantic cluster of metaphors.” The Session closed with a response in the spirit of true friendship from Stephen Carr; addressing each of the preceding papers, Steve’s meta-critical effort attended to some characteristic problems of placing Blake within standard categories and sequences of literary history. “Reading Blake forces us to explore, to question, and in begin page 231 | back to top some sense to deconstruct received categories and methods of literary history and criticism . . . consequently a first stage or gesture in approaching this topic is to subject ourselves to a much more rigorous scrutiny than is usually the case.” As the four papers and the response wonderfully demonstrate, we still have much to learn about Blake and the eighteenth century.

A petition urging the MLA to consider the creation of a Blake Discussion Group was signed by forty-three members of the audience. The petition was forwarded to the MLA, where it was promptly rejected.

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