Martin K. Nurmi. William Blake. London: Hutchinson University Library, 1975. Pp. 175, 8 illus. $1.95, paper.
Those who have long since despaired of keeping a body count in Blake studies will be cheered by the appearance of a Blake volume in Hutchinson’s series for students and general readers. The focal point is Blake’s poetry, however, abstracted from his art (“it has not been possible to give much attention to his art”), and for that reason alone will probably cause consternation among Blake camps of whatever critical persuasion. But this is a book for beginners, and should be greeted accordingly, with all due allowance for puns (“a Woman of Experience”) and topicality (“Blake was not a male chauvinist”).
The overview in this respect is very good, with an introductory chapter enticing beginners with visions of good things to come (“as we shall see later”) and a biographical summary that gives much Blake in brief compass. Successive chapters then lead through the early verse—stressing the metrics in Poetical Sketches, then the philosophical countersystem in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell—gradually snaking through Blake’s more complicated mythic structures. While the seasoned Blakean may scoff from the trenches at the redundancy inherent in this method, it seems to fit the needs of new recruits.
Of course the method risks the oversimplification of Cliff’s Notes, but there is little of that here, except in a statement about The Four Zoas being “one of the very greatest works of literature” (p. 26)—alas not demonstrated in the introductory chapter in which it appears nor in the ultimate chapter where the poem is discussed in detail and the aid of both Erdman and Frye is invoked. Or in the discussion of “The Tyger,” plateless, where after four pages of possibilities we are given a series of questions asserted to be logically unanswerable—with no suggestion that logic is not the only way to answer them. Or in the discussion of The Marriage, where the student and begin page 55 | general reader meet Blakean irony without being sure about the difference between the satire of “Island in the Moon” and the irony here or later—the name seems the same, but sometimes refers to techniques like parody, now to theme, later to mode of perception, a multisensory device where the plate shows one thing and the poem another, and finally to “mythic irony” (p. 100). But this is to quibble.
Given the restrictions under which the labor was performed, its real strength appears in the masterful explanation of Urizen, where the action is made to appear truly dramatic and the subject made clearly the mind of Man. Sometimes the explanation of other plots comes cluttered with roll calls of commentators which seem superfluous since their names appear in the notes anyway. The real weakness, however, is the lack of a clear-cut conclusion to match the introductory chapters. The student and general reader are taken to Jerusalem and left suspended there—hanging by the thumbs as it were. Having been led from Poetical Sketches to this loftiest of heights, it would be nice to look back at the trackless wastes behind us and ahead. The “Suggestions for Further Reading” seem sparse enough, the “Criticism” list very heavy on collections of essays at the expense of individual studies. And the index tells us something about the current state of Blake studies when it lists Franklin P. Adams (FPA) but not Hazard S.