William Blake belongs to the mid eighteenth century England and is posited among the older generation of the Romantic period in English Literature. During his lifetime his work was never recognized or appreciated, as a result of which he failed to earn a comfortable living from his art, he lived and died poor. But like a true artist, he never compromised what he believed to be the best kind of art. Unlike the general perception about the Romantic obsession with nature and imagination, Blake was never confined to either of these two ideas in his poetic oeuvre. He often incorporated ideas that were at that time labelled as impossible and eccentric, and thereby rejected; but to the modern reader his works would appear compelling if engaged with in sufficient degree of gravity.
One of the most striking aspects (striking because it was uncommon in his time) of Blake’s work was his accommodation of the reader for a completion of the artistic process. Though he did not spell out this idea in so many terms anywhere, it can be garnered from his works that he wished to eliminate the figure of the poet/artist as a tyrant who thrusts his own truth onto his readers as the absolute truth. He was one of the champions of the co-existence of many truths. According to Blake, the poet is only an initiator of a process where he presents his meaning through a medium. The object now called ‘a completed piece of art’ is not yet complete for Blake. This object for Blake is a subject, which in turn engages with the reader, initiating a process which would lead to the formation of the reader’s own meaning. It is only now, for Blake, that the artistic process is complete.
Blake employed a markedly distinct physical medium for his art; it was not captured by the banal black print on mundane white paper but lived colourful lives on illuminated plates. The method of making books by way of illuminated plates was a very elaborate one, which Blake learned during his apprenticeship with James Basire, an engraver. The surface of the copper plate was first covered with acid-resistant material called ‘ground’. Onto this film of ground, the design including calligraphic writing and sketch artistry was traced with a needle, revealing the traced portion from under the acid-resistant ground. This plate was then exposed to the acid which bit into the traced design on the copper plate. There was another, alternative way that Blake used to make his illuminated plates. First, the artistic sketches and the text were etched onto copper plates with acid-resistant ink and then, immersed into acid so that the parts of the plate that were not written on would corrode away. In both cases, when taken o
ut of the acid, the corroded parts of the plate were chiselled off and the remnant of the plate was then ready to be impressed on paper. These impressions on paper were then hand-coloured using water colours and the individual pages resulting at this step were stitched together to make up one book.
Blake was not just a writer or just a printer; he was a book-maker in the true sense of the term. He found the conventional method of printing, prevalent during his time, a “mechanical reproduction” and not a work of art. He carried out all the aspects of making a book, from the conception of the idea of the poem until the very presentation of it on a physical medium and selling them to the small readership he had during his lifetime, all by himself. In other words, each individual page was worked upon personally by Blake himself.
A question may arise at this point: why did Blake undergo such pains for his artistic productions which didn’t do much to alleviate his poverty? There is a mystic touch in the answer to this question. It is claimed that this technique of production was revealed to Blake by his dead brother Robert Blake in a dream. We cannot, of course, obtain tangible proof that this was the inspiration for the birth of this method. The truth of the matter will have to be left to the dreamer himself. What we can gauge and trace, however, are the implications that Blake’s method of production had.
Blake adopted simplistic language (as in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience) to accommodate readers who were only barely literate and not educated in the classical literatures. His illuminated plates were a product of an age when painting and writing were considered two distinct and mutually exclusive art forms, and writing was unarguably the superior of the two. The picture and the text on Blake’s plates were not primary or secondary in relation to each other, but were both equal contributors in the complete artistic process. Blake’s use of the picture, along with the simplistic language, was an accommodation of the large population that was illiterate.
There were political implications to Blake’s production method. With the time and effort involved in Blake’s method, few copies of his works could be produced in short periods, which meant that the number of ‘copies’ of Blake’s texts in circulation was lesser than the number of copies of texts printed by the conventional method. This closed circulation and small readership meant that there would be lesser censorship due to lack of accessibility. Politically subversive material would thus be better accommodated in Blake’s method of production as against the other kind of printing.
The conventional (and commercial) method of printing during Blake’s time was by placing laterally inverted metal letters in the order of the text intended for printing and stamping them on the paper. With this method, any number of prints could be made for a one-time production. But the letters were dismantled from their order after the required number of prints was made. At this point if a text had to undergo a reprint, the letters on each of the pages had to be rearranged in that on the laterally inverted metallic letters. Blake’s method had an upper hand in the need of a reprint. The implements required for the printing, once made, were always present for reuse, and the patterns of the copper plates could be re-impressed without the time or effort undergone for the first set of prints.
The Argument in Blake’s The Marriage of heaven and Hell is a good example of the deconstruction of discursive thinking. Blake’s argument proves nothing. By discarding the once-now-then-finally trajectory of presenting data, and baffling the reader by engaging familiar vocabulary and themes in an unfamiliar manner, he is pointing out that our mind has become accustomed to a certain kind of thinking: the rational argument. Blake does not say that this kind of thinking is wrong, but is emphasizing the fact that we are indeed captive to it, and thereby are ignorant to other kinds of thinking. He is attacking the assumption that language can capture “truth” that can be validated by and through the generations.
Blake believed that the image or form of perception is the content of knowledge. Therefore, each individual’s ‘knowledge’ would be different from another’s, informed by his/her own perception. Imagination is the term used by Blake to denote man as an acting and perceiving being. Therefore, there are as many realities as there are men; reality/truth is as much in the eyes of the beholder as beauty is said to be. For Blake, language is a performance and being only arbitrarily related to the thing that it represents, is metaphorical. The meaning of the metaphor depends on what meaning the reader wants to read into it, which ability, in turn, is restricted to the reader’s historical situation. In Blake’s attack against language’s capability to capture “truth” is enveloped the attack against the political implications of the preference and consolidation of one kind of meaning over other equally true meanings. This consolidation of meaning not only implies a consolidation of political power with those who endorse t
hat meaning but also invests them with the power to construct a culture around the accepted and reigning meaning of the metaphor that language is.
Blake’s printing method was a subversion of the mainstream method of writing which employs the method of making marks on blanks. For him the illuminated plate was not a blank on which marks were made to capture his meaning and thereby enable the communication of that meaning to his readers. He, instead, made blanks on the marked (illuminated) plate, ensuring that no particular meaning is fixed and the infinite possibility of putting to use the imagination of the reader to evolve his/her own meaning. Blake through his works does not imply the futility of language or of communication by showcasing the “mind-forged manacles” that are produced in the process. He is only pointing out that we have forged these manacles by employing only one kind of meaning for thinking, which is an inhibition to the highest capability of man – Imagination. Blake, by creating blanks on the mark, by positing the picture alongside the text, by using simple language, and by living up to his art at the cost of keeping himself poor is ar
tistically rebelling against the meaning-dictator figure of the poet and appealing to his audiences to quit their state as a mere meaning-receptacle.