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David W. Lindsay, ed. Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience. The Critics Debate Series. General editor, Michael Scott. Basingstoke: Macmillan and Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities, 1989. 92 pp. £18.50 cloth/ £4.95 paper; $29.95/ $8.50.

Robert F. Gleckner and Mark L. Greenberg, eds. Approaches to Teaching Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Approaches to Teaching World Literature 21. Series editor Joseph Gibaldi. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1989. $32.00 cloth/ $17.50 paper.

David Lindsay’s book is part of a series the aim of which is to introduce students to “a variety of critical approaches to specific texts.” He pursues that aim with lucidity, impartiality, and method. The book is divided into two halves: the first is a survey of critical approaches; the second, called “Appraisal,” in fact “traces the evolution of Songs of Innocence and Experience [sic] in the context of Blake’s other writings and gives closer attention to eight poems.”

The survey first defines the text, discussing the different editions. It goes begin page 102 | back to top on to look at literary and artistic antecedents of the Songs, bringing in (according to the brief) the ways in which knowledge of these has modified critics’ responses. The fact of the Songs being an illuminated text is then broached, and we encounter important interpretations of visual motifs, including some from such critics as Keynes, Erdman, and Mitchell. The ideas of the dramatic lyric, and of an occasionally ironic use of the represented speaker, are introduced, and then Lindsay adopts the useful ruse of using “The Chimney Sweeper” as a peg on which to hang typical reactions to Blake, because it exemplifies so many of the complexities of the Songs, both in its strategies and in its allusions. The discussion then moves on to the relationship between the Songs and Blake’s “system,” glancing at the opposed implications of Frye and Hirsch. It also looks at paired poems (“Counterparts”), at speakers in Experience, and at the symbolism of flowers.

The second part, “Appraisal,” has much less to do with “the critics”: hardly anything, in fact. It is Lindsay’s learned and astute introduction to the Songs, looking at eight poems chiefly in the light of Blake’s other work. The readings are tactful, and responsive to many different contexts, although the allusions to Blake’s prophetic books suffer from a brevity imposed by the format of the series. In this respect they share their suffering with some previous sections of the book. There are occasions when one wonders if a student will be able easily to digest the various buffet of critical approaches so briskly served up. But this is not always a problem, chiefly because of Lindsay’s wise decision to be selective in his choice of songs. This will be a useful book to students who do not succumb to the temptation to make it a substitute for wider reading, not least because it suggests the value of many different approaches to so subtle and rich an author. It may, however, be a pity that the approaches of Hazard Adams and David Wagenknecht do not receive a mention here.

Gleckner and Greenberg’s book is aimed at teachers rather than students, and this aim does control most of the essays in it. As well as providing instances of approaches to Blake, then, they are very much the records of instructors on how they go about teaching the Songs in the class. I found this emphasis of the book fascinating and helpful. W. J. T. Mitchell is useful on ways of talking about the “composite text,” as one would expect. David Simpson, in “Teaching Ideology in Songs” follows almost precisely my own way of raising questions about “The Chimney Sweeper,” referring to Erdman, “false consciousness,” Glen, Raine, and the “corporeal” soot from Swedenborg. Joseph Viscomi recounts a most interesting method he uses of asking classes to copy designs from Blake plates. This has at least the merit of focusing attention on the facts of a given design (an important consideration in itself) as well as on the materiality of Blake’s production methods. But most of the approaches treated here could yield something of value to most teachers. The editors have included an extraordinarily full reasoned bibliography to the essays.

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