William Blake. Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Andrew Lincoln. Princeton: The William Blake Trust/Princeton University Press, 1991. 209 pp. $59.50.
This is the second volume (after Jerusalem) of a projected collected edition of Blake’s illuminated books, under the aegis of the Blake Trust and the general editorship of David Bindman. Both for itself and as part of this larger project, it is a welcome work.
Part of the pleasure of this lovely volume results from Andrew Lincoln’s intelligent introduction and commentary. The Introduction conveys a lot of technical and contextual information in readable English; and the fact that the footnotes are on the page (rather than being gathered at the back) is an advantage, especially in a volume that readers will wish to handle carefully and conserve for long life. And the commentaries at the back—which describe and discuss both the text and the plates—are helpful without pretending to be definitive.
But the greatest pleasure by far is the color reproduction itself. This volume reproduces the King’s College, Cambridge, copy, which has been called “Blake’s own” copy, and is certainly one of the most beautiful and finely finished copies we have. Each of the 54 plates not only has all the usual attractions of Blake’s hand-colored Songs, but here he also surrounded each plate with a delicate water color border that in each case bears thematically on the content of the plate itself. Several of these borders are extremely complex in design and richly colored, as in the case of the combined title-page, which is wreathed in thorns and flames and half-animate leaf-life. Others (like those for “The Blossom” of Innocence and “London” of Experience) are restrained and monochromatic, as if to suggest that in such strong encounters with the life and death of the spirit, further “decoration” could only detract.
It is pleasant to know that this copy was for 55 years owned by the novelist E. M. Forster; literary history does not often offer such appropriate convergences. The book was given to Forster in 1903 by his aunt Laura May Forster, who inherited it from her father, who received it in turn from John Jebb, Bishop of Limerick, who bought it from Catherine Blake in 1830, three years after William Blake’s death. It was Forster who willed it to King’s College, Cambridge, where it has remained one of their great treasures, much talked of among Blake scholars but never before available to a wide audience.
At $59.50 it will be hard to require students to purchase this edition of the Songs, even for an advanced Blake seminar; but every college library should own at least two copies, as any student at all interested in Blake’s composite art will want to study it carefully, and every teacher of romantic poetry will want to keep it on reserve. It will be especially useful as a tool for teaching how Blake varied his copies, both