John Beer. William Blake. Windsor, Berkshire, England: Profile Books, 1982. 52 pp. £1.50.
The concept is admirable: a fifty-page booklet on Blake and his works, something more than a textbook introduction and less than a major study. John Beer’s William Blake fits the outward description but does not provide the essential information needed by the newcomer to Blake. He does chart Blake’s intellectual life well, making clear the links to Swedenborg and Thomas Taylor. His perceptive reading of “London” is enhanced by the contrast to an Isaac Watts poem for children which begins: “Whene’er I take my Walks abroad, / How many Poor I see?” Other comparisons to Watts are interesting but inappropriate for a general reader.
After a generation of warnings that Blake’s poems cannot be experienced fully without the illustrations, I have often felt that the words are now being overlooked in favor of the pictures, but Beer totally ignores Blake as an artist-engraver. No mention is made of the designs that are fused to the poems. Perhaps the author was restricted by the format of a “Writers and Their Work” series, which shows once again that Blake does not submit to categorization without a severe distortion of his work.
Attempting to describe The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem briefly is a challenge Blake himself never took up—with good reason. In a book such as this, the task should be to intrigue the reader and provide a few landmarks begin page 152 | by which to explore the terra incognita of the epics. Although Urizen is characterized deftly, everyone else gets short shrift. All that is said about Los is that in Jerusalem, “Los is now the hero.” The balance of creative and destructive forces in Blake’s works needs fuller exposition.
The bibliography is problematic since Blake’s works are given without indication of the number of editions he printed or the variation in plate arrangement, a fact that should not be left out even for a neophyte. The list of critical works is fairly complete but indifferently annotated.
In 1799 the Reverend Dr. Trusler insulted Blake by suggesting that the artist needed someone to “elucidate” his ideas. Blake rejoined: “That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care.” As teachers of Blake we are on perilous ground unless our own instruction is calculated to “rouze the faculties [of our students] to act.” In bringing a class beyond The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (and back again) it does help to set up some guideposts and do some unabashed elucidating, but I do not believe the day should be spent in endless distinctions between shadows and spectres. Blake’s picture-poems work magic if they are experienced visually and aurally. For those who need explanation without oversimplification I still recommend Albert Roe’s chapter on “Blake’s Symbolism” in The Illustrations to the Divine Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953). After that, as they say on the shores of Lake Udan Adan, you are on your own.