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Pierre Boutang. William Blake. Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 1970.

The publication of Pierre Boutang’s William Blake by the Editions de l’Herne in 1970 indicated a renewed interest in Blake on the part of French critics and readers. Since Pierre Berger’s monumental thesis (William Blake, Mysticisme et Poésie, 1907), this is the first book in the French language which promised to be a substantial critical appraisal of Blake’s works. Thus, it is not surprising that the book was received with such an outburst of passion (see the translations of some articles from Le Monde in the Winter 1971 issue of the Blake Newsletter). Following Pierre Leyris (the author of one of the articles), my main purpose here is to warn the reader against the numerous aberrations in Boutang’s book. This work would perhaps have been tolerable in England or in the United States; but given the state of infancy of Blake criticism in France, this book might deprive a prospective Blake reader of the enthusiasm that the reading of Blake should arouse.

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Boutang’s tone and attitude are truly appalling throughout his book. He repeatedly launches vehement attacks against previous translators (including André Gide and Madeleine Cazamian, without naming the latter). He presents himself as Blake’s rightful Messiah who has come to deliver French readers of Blake from the evil of the aforementioned translators. He thus proceeds to re-translate a certain number of poems (the shorter ones), providing us with tedious justifications for his choice of one word over another. This leads to a considerable reduction of the purely critical portion of the book. If I were to adopt Boutang’s polemical attitude, I could say that this reduction is all the better since, in the critical section, his complete misreading of Blake becomes unbearable.

We have, first, to put up with irritating phrases such as “the secret of this poem. . . . ” One of the most blatant misreadings of Blake appears in Boutang’s comments on the beginning of Milton: “It is strange that Blake, hyperbolic in his affirmation of human unity in the divine, so ambivalent (and restive!) toward the mystery of the singular election of the Jews, has built his demented and unbearable myth of the election of Albion, his deification of the English people as the original, genuine Jews” (p. 57). This, of course, refers to the opening lines of Milton:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green & pleasant Land.
Boutang defines Blake’s position as some sort of “spiritual nationalism.” Pierre Leyris has already pointed out this unforgivable error, but I wish to stress it as a devastating example of literal reading. Even a beginning Blake student knows that the above lines do not, by any means, contain a strain of vulgar jingoism. One has to be aware of Blake’s particular use of tradition. The equation of Jerusalem and England stems from the sole fact that Blake happens to be English by birth. On the superficial level, it is as simple as that. Further, Blake states again and again that Jerusalem has to be built where one stands, or to use popular terminology, here and now. But if, like Boutang, one insists that Blake’s Jerusalem is a native land, let me say that it is the native land of Imagination, not any specific geographical location. Likewise, the Bible for Blake does not relate the story of a precise people back there in the past; its world is present to us as we read it.

As for “the deification of the English people,” Blake’s treatment of Orc and revolution should sufficiently convey Blake’s distrust of anything happening on a national level. The word “deification” itself is very inappropriate, as it implies a static beatification, whereas for Blake, the struggle to release the divinity in man, i.e. Imagination, never ceases. Likewise, every word in Boutang’s assertion could be easily refuted. I insist on this passage because it clearly reveals the basic weakness of Boutang’s criticism.

It would be pointless to go on with the list of Boutang’s misreadings; I shall only focus for a moment on his treatment of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The translations themselves are far too abstract. Then, Boutang commits the dreadful error of identifying the first person used in these poems with Blake himself. This shows an ignorance of Blake’s subtle use of perspective (or point of view) in these poems, an element which is essential to their meaning. Besides, Boutang considers them as an independent unit, whereas they should be related to the total frame of Blake’s works for a full understanding of them. For example, the consideration of “To Tirzah” leads Boutang to accuse Blake of “puritanism.” This overlooks the role of the senses in what Blake calls “the Intellectual Battle,” to say the least.

But somehow, Boutang manages to end his book with this rather astonishing assertion: “And I began to love Blake, not only his poetry, and to constitute my own vision of him—a vision that is both personal and true; how do I know that it is true? By the fact that it has transformed me along the way: the false does not transform you.” (p. 264).

He succeeds indeed in building up his own “vision” of Blake, but whether or not it is still Blake’s vision is another matter.

French students of Blake have an urgent need for competent and sensitive studies of Blake. Francis Léaud has started the drive, but his book, although a good one, constitutes but an introduction to Blake’s universe.

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