William Blake. The Everlasting Gospel/L’évangile éternel, trans. by Joëlle Abitbol [text and French translation]. Paris: Editions Vrac, 1981. 45 pp., illus.
Blake’s The Everlasting Gospel exists in manuscript form scattered through the pages of the Notebook in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, and in part in the Rosenbach MS; it is usually dated c. 1818. A full treatment of the work and the bibliographical and interpretational problems it raises can be found in Randel Helms’s essay The Genesis of “The Everlasting Gospel” in Blake Studies, 9 (1980), 122-60.
Joëlle Abitbol and Samuel Tastet’s edition prints the text and Mme. Abitbol’s French translation in parallel; it constitutes “Volume I” of a series entitled Double Same/Double Mème. Despite the inscription of the verso of the title-page, “c Editions G. Keynes—1957,” the text used adheres to the conjecturally chronological arrangement printed by Bentley; but its adherence is limited: Abitbol and Tastet eschew Blake’s capitalization and a fair begin page 129 | proportion of his punctuation, and the passages used are selected according to no obvious procedure (there is no mention of the fact that the text is selective). The text takes seven of the eleven or twelve sections and rearranges them according to no immediately apparent plan, labeling them I-VII; in Keynes’s nomenclature, the order of the edition is: Supplementary passage 2, Supplementary passage l, i, a,d,e,b,f; in Bentley’s nomenclature (following the Rosenbach MS and attempting a chronological realignment), the order is b,c,d,e,j,f,i,l. In any case, there are three sections missing, including the short prose passage at the beginning, and one of the two “Was Jesus Humble?” passages (p. 52 in the Notebook).
The text and illustrations are printed in an unattractive ochre-colored ink, and italics are used for quotations; the French text is aligned to the right-hand margin, which makes reading difficult. The translation does not attempt to reproduce Blake’s irregular four-foot iambic line, and so loses the headlong momentum of the invective of the poem; it also does not attempt the paired rhymes of the original, although rhyming couplets seem to occasionally slip into the French translation as if by chance (e.g., lines 3-4, 5-6 of the first section). The final two-line section is particularly inadequately translated: “Je suis certain que Jésus ne ferait pas cela, / A un Anglais ou à un Juif” distorts the meaning of “I am sure this Jesus will not do, / Either for Englishman or Jew”—the addition of “cela” loses the idiomatic sense of the line and introduces all sorts of new (and unwanted) meanings.
The editors of this text include a quotation from Revelation 14:6, “and I saw another angel fly in the midst of Heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth . . . ”; this may be the source of Blake’s title for what is admittedly a very fragmentary and obscure work, but it need not necessarily be so, and has no further referential connection with the poem. Its inclusion adds nothing more than an additional disruptive perspective.
Blake’s pen and watercolor drawing The Blasphemer (Tate Gallery 5195; Butlin 446, dated c. 1800) is reproduced on the cover of the publication; on the back it is reproduced in reverse (probably to highlight the title of the series), an unattractive proceeding under any circumstances; coarse-grained ochre reproductions of details from the watercolor appear inside the text, again with a laterally-reversed copy of the image on the facing page. The Blasphemer is usually taken to represent the stoning to death of the Israelite woman’s son who blasphemed the name of the Lord, Leviticus 24:23 (Butlin 446), although William Rossetti retitled it The Stoning of Achan, after Joshua 7:1, 18-25; the relationship of this subject (or these subjects) to the text in question is problematical if not dubious—Blake’s poem is a headlong invective against a particularly milk-and-water conception of Christ, and the stoning of a tied, tensed figure by fierce-eyed elders bears little relation to this. Among the bibliographical data of the edition, “Gravure de couverture de William Blake” is translated as “Design cover of William Blake”—as if attempting to establish a connection.
This is a most unattractive edition of a Blake work, and also a wasted opportunity; such publication of a single work draws the attention to a fragment of Blake’s oeuvre which it inevitably loses when buried amid the bulk of a complete edition, and it is a pity that the work could not have been done with greater care and greater accuracy and attention to detail.