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D. G. Gillham. William Blake. British Authors: Introductory Critical Series. General Ed., Robin Mayhead. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973. Pp. 216. Cloth, $12.95; paper, $4.95.
D. G. Gillham is a horse of instruction. He is quite a good horse. He approaches Blake cautiously, sensibly, step by step, appearing to take nothing for granted. Ruminant, judicial, he works his way through the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, concentrating on the ethical implications of each Song, and of the two sets together. His stated assumptions, that the Songs form “an artistic whole,” that their speakers “demonstrate a range of human potentialities,” and that one can read them without reference to “background,” or Blake’s other works, or the biography and personality of the poet, run from the obvious to the acceptable. Gillham’s readings are essentially those of his earlier work, Blake’s Contrary States (Cambridge 1966), with most of the critical infighting omitted. A tone of sweet reasonableness prevails, and the method does elicit valuable insights about the characters of Blake’s speakers, as well as some good generalizations about the Contraries—for example, a fine appreciation of the erotic elements in Innocence. But what of Gillham’s nervousness about the social implications of Experience? What can one make, for example, of a reading of “The Voice of the Ancient Bard” which transforms William Blake into Edmund Burke, asserting that the poem shows us the folly of revolutionaries and the necessity of building on foundations of past tradition? What of a reading of “A Little Girl Lost” which explains Ona and her father excellently, but insists that the “future age” will be no better off than this one, and that Blake was certainly not advocating free love for persons caught in the state of Experience?
By the time Gillham comes to the conclusion that Innocence is a “touchstone” and “ideal measure” but that “most of us spend the greater part of our lives meeting our obligations in the deliberate and laboured ways of Experience, performing duties and following programmes that purposely exclude the possibility of much spontaneous goodness or imaginative wisdom,” he is about three-fourths through the book. A bit later, he adds that the glad grace of innocent virtue is “the sort of thing we can aim at in our more deliberate programmes of conduct.” Flashes of it may come as a compensation, or reward, for begin page 137 | good responsible behavior in this world. Perhaps this sounds more like William Wordsworth than William Blake?
None of Blake’s later lyric work, from “Auguries of Innocence” to “And did those feet,” from “Mock on, mock on” to “The Everlasting Gospel,” receives mention in this volume. Chapter Seven, entitled “Blake’s Longer Works,” tells us not to worry about the poet’s sources, then turns to the “unusual,” “decidedly strange” and “eccentric” matters of the Natural Religion series, Tiriel (“unsatisfactory”), a backflash at Poetical Sketches (“some of the shorter pieces are beautiful and some show originality”), The French Revolution (“Moving . . . though written in a heightened, apocalyptic manner”), America and Europe (“abstract” and “mysterious”). As for The Book of Urizen, The Book of Los, The Book of Ahania, Vala, Milton and Jerusalem, these are lumped together as “the more abstruse prophetic books,” and they all “fail” because Blake stopped grounding his vision “on the real circumstances of life.” These real circumstances, he explains, are the ones Wordsworth had the good poetic sense to stick close to, while other Romantic poets took laboured flight into realms of unreality.
Gillham’s resumé of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, at the end of this chapter, deals adequately and seriously with the moral contraries, though one would never guess, from the sobriety of his exposition, that the work (here called a “poem”) is funny, or that its beautiful exuberance was, and is, an incitement to mental revolution, the artist’s cry “Du müss dein leben ändern.” He does not mention anything so gross as the idea of practical politics in the Marriage (e.g. “The Song of Liberty”), or so outré as the idea of cleansing the doors of perception in order to see the infinite. Having quoted Frye on the risen body with the mystified shrug of a commonsense person, he reassures us that the Marriage does not involve “escape into a realm beyond the normal.”
The final two chapters, on Thel and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, are full and fine, and Gillham’s interpretation of Thel as an amusing allegory on the follies of amateur metaphysics, should provoke controversy. Whether or not the author expects those who have required his candle-in-sunshine readings of the Songs of Innocence to follow him here, I cannot say.
The experienced Blake scholar will not need to be told that Blake’s poetry differs throughout, in some breathtaking ways, from most of what we read; and he will know how to stitch Gillham’s little patch of analysis into the total fabric of his understanding. However, this book is not aimed at Blake scholars. It is (see Mayhead’s “General Preface” to the series) for the general reader and the student, throughout Britain, the Commonwealth, the English-speaking world, and even the non-English speaking world. In brief, as the Preface hints, it is for people who want to pass Examinations. One does not assume that these people adore literature, or recognize their friends. It seems to me interesting that a man who, by his own admission, does not understand most of the major works of a