The Letters of William Blake edited by Geoffrey Keynes.[e] Rupert Hart-Davis (second edition, 1968)
It is always regrettable when a standard text goes out of print, though no doubt it is a sign of the times that publishers do not like to keep books on their shelves unless they are also moving off briskly. The new edition of Blake’s letters is therefore welcome. It is also a sign of the times that this edition, which has been entirely reset, is in somewhat reduced print, a smaller format, and an increased price (from 50/- to 75/-), though “in real terms”, as they say, this is perhaps no increase at all. These are small criticisms, however; the first edition was so amply spacious that it has been possible to shrink it without producing an unduly cramped page or minute text.
The dust-jacket makes a point of announcing that new material has been incorporated into the second edition. When one comes to look for these new discoveries, they turn out to comprise two receipts given to John Linnell, and the entries from Linnell’s personal cash accounts between March 1822 and September 1836, where they refer to Blake or his works; and one real letter,*↤ * Correction (June 1969): Sir Geoffrey Keynes wishes to point out that the second edition of Blake’s Letters contains four letters not included in the first edition, and not one.... In addition to the brief letter to Mrs. Aders, there are two complete letters to Hayley and one to Linnell.[e] dated 29 December 1826, in which Blake apologises to Mrs. Aders for not responding to an invitation, on account of his serious illness - writing in a blend of respectful anxiety not to give offence, with considerable (and surely justified) fear for his own welfare. It is a pity that Mr. Keynes did not amend his index to refer to this additional letter.
These are, then, interesting but not really major additions to the whole. It is a blessing that the original numbering of the letters has been retained, the additions being numbered 114a, 122a, 136a and 140a, so that any critic henceforth can continue to refer to the old numbering without fear of confusion - a sin (if one may use the word in Blakean circles) - an error of which Mr. Keynes has not always been innocent, as for example in his labelling of the copies in the Census in a completely different way from the Bibliography.
It is always a problem, and an unanswerable one, to know how Blake’s texts should be punctuated when they are reproduced. Mr. Keynes, as before, has retained Blake’s spellings and capitals, but has added punctuation. On the whole one cannot quarrel with the restrained amount of punctuation he has added, though it is a pity that, inevitably, one cannot now be sure when one is faced by a point that Blake meant to stand out. And, since the punctuation is editorial, it is a little strange that Mr. Keynes has retained the clumsy excess of inverted commas in the poem sent to Thomas Butts on 22 November 1802.**↤ ** Correction (June 1969): The inverted commas in the poem sent to Butts are not editorial, but form part of Blake’s original letter.[e]
These are still minor complaints. The critics of the earlier edition were not slow to remark that, though Mr. Keynes had produced an excellent edition, its usefulness was doubtful since most of the material was available anyway in his own Nonesuch edition of the complete works. This is still true. The O. U. P. successor to the Nonesuch edition does not contain the letters begin page 72 | ↑ back to top to Blake, nor the minor items such as receipts; but with a small extension it could easily have been made to do so. The major advantage to researchers of this collection of the letters is the fifty-page Register at the end, which gives the bibliographical details, including information about where the letters are to be found. It is an irony of commerce that, to have this information to hand, the researcher must pay his 75/ - or $6.95, more than enough to put the whole of Blake’s text in his hands.