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William Blake’s Water-Colour Designs for Gray’s Poems—A Commemorative Catalogue. With an introduction and commentary by Geoffrey Keynes Kt. London: Trianon Press for the William Blake Trust, 1971. Pp. xx + 72. Illustrated. $7.50 + $1 postage from the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn.
1971-72 were vintage years for the study of Blake’s illustrations to the poems of Gray. Previous to that, very little had been seen of this major series of designs and still less written about them.1↤ 1 For reproductions prior to 1971, see Robert Essick, A Finding List of Reproductions of Blake’s Art, Blake Newsletter, 5 (1971), 69-72. For a detailed history of the illustrations and the literature about them, see Irene Tayler, Blake’s Illustrations to the Poems of Gray, pp. 3-25. In 1971, however, appeared Irene Tayler’s fine study2↤ 2 Reviewed by Thomas H. Helmstadter, Blake Newsletter, 4 (1971), 140-42; see also my review in Criticism, 14 (1972), 93-96. ; the illustrations themselves were published in a magnificent facsimile by the Trianon Press for the William Blake Trust; and an exhibition of originals and facsimiles opened at the Tate Gallery. The following spring this exhibition, for which the publication at hand is the catalogue, was mounted at the Yale University Art Gallery in collaboration with the Paul Mellon Center for British Art and British Studies. Although modestly described by its author as “an introductory handbook,” this catalogue is in itself a major contribution to the interpretation of its subject.
What inevitably strikes one first is the wealth of illustrations in the catalogue. Sixteen designs (eighteen, counting the front and back covers) are reproduced full-page in color and one in monochrome, and at the back of the book all 116 are given, four to a page, in reduced monochrome. Also reproduced full-page are Flaxman’s pencil drawing of Blake and the titlepage of the 1790 edition of Gray which Blake used. There is a useful “Concordance of Blake’s handwritten titles” which correlates Blake’s titles, the lines from Gray illustrated (as Blake transcribed them), Blake’s manuscript numbers, the page numbers of the 1790 edition, and the design numbers. (As Blake numbered his designs for each poem as a separate sequence, his manuscript numbers necessarily differ from the design numbers for the entire series.) This is a very welcome tool for anyone who wishes to study the series at length.begin page 34 |
In addition to providing a succinct introduction, Sir Geoffrey Keynes has written a commentary, some thirty pages in length, which is at the same time inobtrusive and rich with insight. When viewed as a whole, the designs have one aspect which bulks surprisingly large: their social satire. One expects to find this element in illustrations for “The Bard” and the “Elegy,” but it is interesting to find it, for example, in “A Long Story.” The pictures that accompany this frothy poem end, as Sir Geoffrey points out, “with a satirical picture of how polite society receives the serious artist” (p. 51); and the designs for “The Progress of Poesy” undermine Gray’s celebration of the flight of the Muse to Albion’s shore in order, as Keynes says, “to express Blake’s view of the effect of political tyranny on the state of poetry in England” (p. 55). This dimension of social commentary may also be seen in Blake’s renditions of the “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” and the “Ode for Music.” In some of these pictures Blake, who believed that education, at least in its institutional sense, was “the great wrong,” seems to suggest that all is not well at Eton and Cambridge. The public school boys engage in picayune activities that do everything but prepare them for the rigors of Experience; even the poet-figure of “Ode for Music” (design 97) is shown walking away from the Gothic spire and waning Beulah-moon of the background, to pass under the barren limbs of two desolate trees, hardly the “brown o’er-arching groves” of Gray’s line.
The Keynes commentary is also valuable in making use of Gray’s own published notes to the poems and in pointing out instances where Blake has changed Gray’s wording, used non-consecutive lines, or even illustrated a sequence of pages different from that of Gray’s text. Also, some interesting remarks are made about parallels between the figures in these designs and in some of Blake’s other works, as, for example, in the commentary on design 77 (The Serpent who girds the Earth). This catalogue, rich in both word and image, deserves a place in the library of every student of Blake.