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William Blake. Annotations to Richard Watson. An Apology for the Bible in a Series of Letters Addressed to Thomas Paine. 8th ed. 1797. Edited with an Introduction by G. Ingli James. Cardiff: University College Cardiff Press, 1984. Pp. vii + .
Among the most striking and eloquent of his annotations to other writers are Blake’s comments on Bishop Watson’s An Apology for the Bible, itself a reply to the second part of Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason. Many Blake scholars have found it useful to cite portions of these vivid, often angry annotations, resounding as they do with the voice of honest indignation, and frequently anticipating issues present in Blake’s later prophetic books. These annotations have, of course, been available in the great editions of Keynes, Bentley, and Erdman, but G. Ingli James’s new edition of the annotations presents them for the first time in facsimile, and with a typographic transcription that follows the actual disposition of Blake’s words.
James’s edition, published in the Regency Reprint series by University College Cardiff Press, begins with a learned, lucid, engagingly written introduction, in which James points out that a facsimile of the annotations “makes visually evident the expressive vigour of Blake’s comments.” James goes on to give us some back-ground information about Watson and his career as Bishop of Llandaff, and about Blake’s intellectual relationship to both Watson and Paine; James also distinguishes carefully not only between Watson’s “Whiggish liberalism” begin page 117 | and the radicalism of Blake and Paine, but also between the views of Blake and Paine themselves. The only drawback to the introduction is its terseness—it takes up a mere seven pages, including footnotes. One would welcome fuller elaboration on a number of James’s observations about the historical and religious context of Watson’s book and Blake’s annotations to it.
The facsimile itself reproduces Watson’s book in its entirety, including unannotated pages. Both Watson’s text and Blake’s comments are clear, though more along the lines of a good photocopy than of a photograph. It is only fair to say, however, that examination of the original in the Huntington Library makes one sympathize with the photographer, for the pages, made of poor quality paper, are dirty and splotched, and Blake’s ink has faded considerably. The clarity of some of Blake’s pencil annotations, probably faint to begin with, has not been enhanced by the passage of nearly two centuries. It is therefore understandable that the pencil jottings are sometimes harder to read than the writing in ink, but even so, a surprising number of the pencil annotations are quite legible. Still, the slight thickening of lines in the facsimile results in some letters, particularly Blake’s “e,” being much harder to recognize than they are in the original. Similarly, it is more difficult to make out deleted words in the facsimile, thus calling into question the ability of the photographic reproduction truly to allow, in James’s words, “readers to decide for themselves about problematic punctuation marks, capitals, deletions and so on. . . .” In many instances, this might be possible, but for the most problematic words, one must still turn to the original.
James’s transcription of the annotations, which follows the facsimile, avoids any “improvement” on Blake’s punctuation, and observes the exact arrangement of Blake’s own writing on the page. The transcription is extremely helpful whenever Blake’s hand, or the effects of time and dirt, pose difficulties. Moreover, like the facsimile, the transcription enables us to see exactly where Blake’s comments begin and end, thus avoiding the specious links between annotation and text that can result from placing the annotations directly beneath excerpts from Watson, as is commonly done.
My only complaint about the layout of the transcription is the presence of large white spaces, instead of Watson’s printed words, in the central area of the transcription pages, so that the annotations seem to hover about a phantom text. A more convenient arrangement would include relevant pages of Watson’s text, thus preventing the constant back-and-forth flipping through pages that readers must engage in so as to connect the transcriptions with specific passages in Watson. It would also help if James marked insertions as well as deletions; on p. 9 of the original, for instance, Blake adds the word “peculiar,” with a distinct caret beneath it, to the space between two other words, yet the transcription includes the word with no indication of its being an insertion.
The main strength of the entire edition lies in the notes accompanying the transcription. James’s sixty-seven footnotes constitute a kind of running commentary that clarifies obscure allusions, draws parallels between the annotations and passages elsewhere in Blake, and demonstrates a thorough grasp of Blake criticism, which James skillfully applies to a number of issues raised in Blake’s comments. James scrupulously explains his reasoning in those instances where his transcriptions differ from those of Keynes, Bentley or Erdman, and he meticulously refers us to previous scholarship on the annotations. He concisely sets forth his own interpretations, and draws our attention to such noteworthy things as the extent to which Blake, in his eagerness to defend Paine, comes uncharacteristically close to religious orthodoxy in the annotations. No less admirable are the light touches of ironic wit that enliven James’s footnotes. The edition’s final pages present us with a reproduction of the conclusion to the second part of Paine’s The Age of Reason.
All in all, the Blake scholar, for whom the facsimile is plainly intended, will find here a helpful tool and an editorial treatment that reflects good judgment and good taste. Introduction, facsimile, transcription and footnotes alike can help us achieve a more accurate, intimate understanding of Blake’s mental fight with the Bishop of Llandaff.