Henry Summerfield. A Guide to the Books of William Blake for Innocent and Experienced Readers. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1998; New York: distributed in North America by Oxford University Press. Pp. 874. £14.99/$29.95, paperback.
In the preface to A Guide to the Books of William Blake for Innocent and Experienced Readers, Henry Summerfield describes his “primary purpose” as “provid[ing] for the serious reader of poetry, for the student, and for the scholar who is not a Blake specialist, a bridge between an initial joy in poems of exquisite and poignant beauty and a larger engagement, at once aesthetic and intellectual, with the lifework of a great author and artist” (11). Toward this end Summerfield provides much of the apparatus for an edition of Blake’s poems, but without the poems themselves. As such, the book is perhaps best considered as a companion to the two volumes to which it is keyed, David Erdman’s edition of The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake and Erdman’s The Illuminated Blake. Especially in Part II of his book, Summerfield clearly expects his own reader also to be reading Erdman at the same time. Indeed, without some edition of Blake’s poetry and illuminations at hand, much of Summerfield’s book makes little sense.
Part I of Summerfield’s Guide, “The Books of William Blake: An Introduction,” is intended for those less initiated “innocent” readers, and it can be read profitably without necessarily having an edition of Blake’s work at hand. This section is intended to provide the new reader of Blake with an overview of the poet’s life and the development of his work. Nine of the twelve chapters summarize Blake’s books, grouping them together in ways intended to suggest the chronological development in Blake’s career. After the “Biographical Outline” of chapter 1, chapter 2, entitled “Rationalism Rejected,” covers Poetical Sketches, All Religions Are One, There Is No Natural Religion, Tiriel, Songs of Innocence, and The Book of Thel. Chapter 3, “In Praise of Energy,” covers The French Revolution and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, followed in chapter 4, “The Lustre Fades,” by discussions of Visions of the Daughters of Albion, For Children: The Gates of Paradise, and Songs of Experience. Chapter 5, “The Myth of History,” covers America, Europe, and The Song of Los, and chapter 6, “The Myth of Creation,” the books of Urizen, Ahania, and Los. After discussions of “Blake’s Conversion,” focusing on Blake’s Felpham period under the patronage of William Hayley (chapter 7), and “Blake’s System” (chapter 8), Summerfield’s chapter 9, “An Incomplete Structure,” summarizes The Four Zoas and The Pickering Manuscript. Chapter 10, “Heroic Narrative,” is devoted to Milton, chapter 11, “The Forgiveness of Sins,” to Jerusalem, For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise, and The Ghost of Abel. Chapter 12, “Masterpiece of a New Kind,” discusses Illustrations of the Book of Job. There is no discussion of the broadsheet On Homers Poetry [and] On Virgil or Laocoön.
The summaries in these chapters, in many cases virtual paraphrases of the poems, are better for the shorter books than for Blake’s longer epics. For all of the books, he provides useful frames of reference primarily from the Bible, the classics, and Milton, along with some brief comments on historical and philosophical contexts, and the summaries proceed more or less plate by plate, sometimes verse paragraph by verse paragraph. While this approach works fairly well for the shorter books, it is rather less successful for the longer books, especially in the discussion of The Four Zoas. Part of the problem is that Summerfield is so interested begin page 131 | in presenting what appears to be an objective summary that his discussions finally have no guiding perspective. The closest Summerfield comes in the book to making an argument is in his chapter on “Blake’s Conversion,” in which he presents the arguments of “those who hold that Blake has fixed beliefs and those who consider that his philosophy mutates through distinct phases” (155). This is an important distinction, and Summerfield clearly is of the latter party, as his discussions of the later poems demonstrate, but even here he is reluctant to assert his own perspective.
This is not to say that there are no opinions offered. Indeed, Summerfield often makes remarks quite critical of Blake’s work, but without much discussion of the basis for these remarks. For example, Summerfield acknowledges the “greatness” of “The Tyger,” but then remarks (without explanation) that it “has a feeble illustration” that is “aesthetically unsuccessful” (95). In the summary of the fate of Urizen and Ahania in Night 3 of The Four Zoas, he adds parenthetically, “The account of their fate, marred by poverty of vocabulary and slackness of rhythm, is stylistically the weakest passage in this Night” (197), but he offers no further explanation or example to support this judgment to the “innocent” readers to whom this section of the book is addressed. Of Milton he tells these same innocent readers, “Unfortunately Blake, overanxious to elaborate his system, piles on schematic correspondences in a way that becomes bizarre” (253), and “Blake’s Milton has significant defects: uneven diction, disconcerting transitions, and formidable obscurity” (264). I am not trying to claim that Zoas, or Milton, or any of Blake’s poems or illuminations, for that matter, is above criticism. My point is that Summerfield seems to have little appreciation for the difficulty of Blake’s work, and he does little to encourage new readers of Blake to engage that difficulty as anything other than a defect. Many readers of Blake’s work find his “formidable obscurity” less a defect than a challenge to which the reader must rise. We return to Blake again and again precisely because his schematic correspondences strike us as bizarre and rouse our faculties to act. In contrast to his negative remarks, Summerfield’s highest praise goes to Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job, a book in which Blake’s textual input is minimal, and which Summerfield describes as “unique among the books of his maturity for its near perfection and easy approachability” (298).
His Guide’s “secondary purpose,” Summerfield says, is “to constitute a record of how Blake’s works came to be understood and to show how successive interpretations, while they can be irritatingly or amusingly contradictory, often complement each other bringing out the richness of the poetry” (11). Indeed, Summerfield’s long “Part II: Notes on Criticism” is a useful and handy work of bibliographic compression covering the period 1910-1984. In this sort of compression it resembles somewhat the essays in Frank Jordan’s The English Romantic Poets: A Review of Research and Criticism (MLA 1985), which includes Mary Lynn Johnson’s great chapter on Blake, but the format is completely different. Where Johnson’s chapter on Blake is organized by “General Remarks,” “Aids to Research,” “Editions, Facsimiles, and Reproductions,” “Bibliographic Resources,” “Criticism” (divided into “General Studies” and “Studies of Individual Works”), and “Trends and Prospects,” Summerfield makes almost no comment on the different versions or editions of Blake’s work, and focuses only on criticism. His discussions follow Blake’s career in roughly chronological order, with a chapter dedicated to each of Blake’s books discussed in Part I. All chapters follow the same pattern: an overview of critical comments on important interpretive issues of the book in question, followed by brief discussions of potentially problematic specific lines or passages in that book, followed by an overview of critical commentary on the individual illuminations for the book. General studies of Blake’s work, such as Frye’s Fearful Symmetry, are not discussed in and of themselves, but instead are excerpted for brief remarks on particular issues or lines.
However, if Summerfield’s goal is to “show how successive interpretations, while they can be irritatingly or amusingly contradictory, often complement each other bringing begin page 132 | out the richness of the poetry,” this section falls short. He does record a host of critical remarks and interpretations of Blake’s work, but he provides very little in the way of showing how these readings complement each other in order to bring out the richness of the poetry. The introductory material in these chapters is generally sound and informative, and the notes on particular lines offer various interpretations of the passages, usually without taking sides (although he does occasionally describe a given interpretation as “persuasive”). The introductory remarks on Jerusalem, for example, focus on the problems of structure (including a brief paragraph on the two versions of chapter 2) and theme before focusing on more particular concerns such as the furnaces of Los, fibers of materiality, wheel imagery, number symbolism, and Albion’s cities and children (including Bath, Jerusalem, and Reuben). The particular notes draw from Wicksteed, Sloss and Wallis, Frye, Ostriker, Raine, Hilton, Stevenson, and lots of others, but Summerfield offers only the briefest of comments on the basis or implications of their critical disagreements.
In his notes on specific lines and passages, Summerfield clearly assumes that his reader is actually reading Blake’s poems with Summerfield’s Guide on the side. He provides minimal context for his notes, sometimes quoting a line, phrase, or word, but more often than not giving only plate and line numbers before listing the various interpretations. This approach makes the book by itself very difficult to read, and the same goes for his discussion of the illuminations. In these remarks Summerfield assumes that his reader is also looking at Erdman’s The Illuminated Blake. He provides no general description of the illuminations, but instead records opinions on the various aspects of the illumination in question. For example, his remarks on the design of America plate 10 begin, “Though the turn of Orc’s head and his gesture with his hands are similar to those of Urizen in pl. 8, in most other respects the two designs are antithetical” (453); this is true enough, but neither in the rest of these remarks, nor in the remarks on Urizen in pl. 8, does Summerfield describe the turn of the head or the hand gestures or those “other respects.” (For those of us without The Illuminated Blake in immediate reach, the design on plate 10 depicts a young, beardless man, presumably Orc, crouching among flames, his head turned to his right, arms outspread, left foot forward.) Unless the reader has memorized Blake’s various illuminations, or is also looking at them (along with a text of the poem), Summerfield’s remarks on them are not really much help.
Nevertheless, if one does happen to be reading Blake’s poetry and following along in The Illuminated Blake, Summerfield’s Guide makes some useful connections, and brings to the reader several critical perspectives to compare to his or her own. Indeed, the Guide could be useful as a recommended text for classes devoted to Blake. The biographical sketch, discussions of Blake’s “conversion” and system, and the more detailed critical notes on the poems would helpfully supplement the material in Erdman’s edition. Part II of Summerfield’s book is successful as a quick guide to critical resources for students of Blake (including their teachers and other scholars) who are deep enough into their research to want to gather various perspectives about particular lines of poetry, or particular aspects of the illuminations. I am not sure, however, that his summaries of the books in Part I would do much to encourage readers at any level to read the poems.