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An Emendation in “The Chimney Sweeper” of Innocence

A curious variant in the text of “The Chimney Sweeper” (Songs 12) in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Copy AA (Fitzwilliam Museum), appears to have gone unremarked in spite of the wide distribution of transparencies of this copy by EP Microform. Blake’s etched text of line 20 of the poem reads, “He’d have God for his father & never want joy”; in Copy AA, however, the contraction “He’d” has been replaced by the word “But.” Though I have not examined the original, the EP transparency appears to reproduce the plate accurately.

The transparency shows no evidence of erasure, but the inking of the plate was uneven; in consequence, letters are obscured by overinking and by underinking. The large area washes further reduce legibility. Someone appears begin page 17 | back to top to have strengthened some letters with pen and ink of the same orange-red color used in printing, but the result is not equal to the legibility of strengthened pages in late copies such as Copy Z (Rosenwald). The original contraction, “He’d,” has printed very poorly, but vestiges of the word are still visible beneath the word “But,” which has been supplied in the same orange-red ink.11 That the variant in AA is not a change in the plate is certain, for the posthumous Copy b (Harvard) has the usual reading. See the Albion Facsimile edition (Albion Facsimiles #1) (London and New York: 1947), n.p. This (as well as all other facsimiles of Harvard’s b) should, however, be used with caution; see below. The upper right serif of the “H” can be seen protruding from the upper lobe of the “B,” the printed crossbar of the “e” is visible in the written “u,” and most of the ascender of the “d” is evident to the right of the written “t,” which has been formed along the curved bowl of the “d.”

There are only a few textual alterations like this one elsewhere in the Songs; most other known instances of textual change attributable to Blake provide plausible readings, and most are improvements on the etched text. An emendation that is mechanically similar to the one in AA has been adopted by both David V. Erdman and G. E. Bentley, Jr. in their editions of Blake’s writings. This change (from “sung” to “sang”) in line 5 of “The Clod & the Pebble” (Songs 32), in Copy Z, has been accepted in spite of the fact that it appears in only that copy, and could have been accidental; Copy Z was finished at about the same time as AA and in a similar style.22 In addition to the variant in “The Clod and the Pebble” mentioned in the text, four other Songs are emended in one or more copies: “A Cradle Song” (Songs 17), emended substantially in Copy J; “Night” (Songs 21), in Copy Q of Innocence (Erdman and Bentley differ slightly as to which words are changed); and “The Tyger” (Songs 42), in Copy P. Bentley also mentions an obviously inadvertent textual change in “On Another’s Sorrow” (Songs 27), in Copy L of Innocence: the word “tear” in line 31 printed faintly and was covered by a painted leaf. Erdman’s textual notes seem to imply that “The Blossom” (Songs 11) has been emended “in all copies issued by Blake.” His assertion that the text of “posthumous copies” reads “thy” rather than “my” in line 6 is based on one of the unaccountably retouched facsimiles of Harvard’s Copy b, in which “my” has been altered to “thy.” That Copy b itself contains the usual reading has been demonstrated by Mary Ellen Reisner in “Folcroft Facsimile of the Songs,” Blake Newsletter 40 (Spring 1977), 130. See Erdman, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, newly rev. ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California, 1982), and Bentley, William Blake’s Writings, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978). But the emendation in Copy AA should not be accorded the same degree of respect, for it is a patent corruption. By itself line 20 of “The Chimney Sweeper” as emended in AA is not obviously wrong, but in context it leaves the Angel’s promise incomplete and makes the sweeps’ happy awakening particularly abrupt:

And the Angel told Tom if he’d be a good boy,
But have God for his father & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.

Although this variant is not particularly meaningful in itself, it could well be authorial, and probably originated in Blake’s workshop. The plate appears to have printed so poorly that it is unlikely that it would have been issued without any retouching of the text, and all strengthening (both accurate and inaccurate) appears to have been done with the same ink and in the same style. Whoever did it was certainly not paying close attention to the syntactic or printed evidence on the page; it is hard to imagine an owner of the book who would be sufficiently

Detail of Songs 12, Copy AA.   Reproduced by permission of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
officious to go to the trouble of carefully matching the ink but sufficiently obtuse to make such an implausible emendation. Because the word seems to have been added so casually, and because the ink used matches the printing ink so closely (indeed, it could be a diluted form of the printing ink), the emendation should probably be attributed to one of the Blakes or, as Erdman has suggested in correspondence, to an anonymous assistant in the workshop. The task of retouching the text was no doubt tedious, and it is likely that someone, working absentmindedly, relied on an imperfect memory of the line rather than thoughtful consideration of the evidence in making the unhelpful emendation.33 In correspondence Erdman cites two instances in which retouching has similarly corrupted the text of Jerusalem, Copy B, on plates 17 and 18. These are mentioned in his textual notes, p. 809. Copy B of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell contains another instance of sloppy retouching on plate 25: the word “chariots” is crudely written as “charots.”

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