On William Blake’s Art by Catalin Ghita – Part I

(excerpts from the forthcoming book Revealer of the Fourfold Secret:

William Blake’s Theory and Practice of Vision)

If one pays attention to the artist’s own phraseology, Blake’s secret of transforming experienced visions into aesthetic ones lies in the artist’s fidelity to the original, as emphasized by Allan Cunningham, in his Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1830): ‘Amongst his friends, he at length ventured to intimate that the designs on which he was engaged, were not from his own mind, but copied from grand works revealed to him in visions; and those who believed that, would readily lend an ear to the assurance that he was commanded to execute his performances by a celestial tongue’ (Bentley, Jr., Blake Records 636-37). In his unpublished Life of Blake (c. 1832), Frederick Tatham adds a significant detail concerning the infallibility of the ‘artistic copy procedure:’ Blake ‘persisted that while he copied the vision (as he called it) upon his plate or canvas, he could not Err; & that error & defect could arise only from the departure or inaccurate delineation of his unsubstantial scene’ (Bentley, Jr., Critical Heritage 217). It is perhaps more important that the consciousness of the artist involved in this type of creative process is automatically transferred to a level which prevents it from erring artistically and spiritually. Despite what Blake believed in regard to his aesthetic fidelity, some questions loom large, and they are raised by a significant number of textual modifications, which evince that the artist is not entirely free from error since his work requires revision.

If one is to credit Nelson Goodman, who considers that any copy theory (in the broadest sense of the word) is made futile by the subject’s inherent re-creation of the image,[1] and that, consequently, one cannot possibly specify what it is that one copies, then the inevitable question is the following: does not the artist who claims to reproduce a painting, an engraving or a manuscript perceived during a visionary experience actually fail to account for his own sensory subjectivity, so that it is not the object proper which is depicted, but rather its personalized version? Thus, Blake may be right if one concedes that there are two different levels of visual perception: a common, ‘vegetative’ one, which is prone to error and in whose case Goodman’s theory holds water, and a superior, privileged one, which is the only one apt to manifest itself during the visionary process, its divine origin rendering it infallible in theory. Blake dwells on this idea in Auguries of Innocence, when he writes: ‘We are led to Believe a Lie / When we see not Thro the Eye’ (E 496), these lines being reproduced almost verbatim in The Everlasting Gospel: ‘And leads you to Believe a Lie / When you see with not thro the Eye’ (E 520).

But sight is not the only factor involved in the visionary production. The difficulty of the problem is increased by the fact that Blake is simultaneously a visual and a verbal artist. Jean H. Hagstrum’s synthetic presentation is perhaps one of the clearest introductions to the topic: ‘Blake’s composite form consists . . . of (1) words [italics in the original] that appear as short-lined lyrics . . .; as long-lined prophetic poems . . . ; and as prose mottoes or aphorisms and of (2) designs [italics in the original] that have these constituent elements: (a) color, (b) border), and (c) picture or scene’ (13).

For the sake of clarity, in the following analysis of Blake’s composite aesthetics I shall employ Nelson Goodman’s terminology regarding the languages of art.[2] Technically, painting and engraving are autographic (they cannot be reproduced, since their alphabet of significance is restricted to an embedded code, which is unique in the case of each and every work of art), whilst literature is allographic (it can be reproduced, since its alphabet of significance is not self-contained). The argument may be refined if one considers, in parallel, Goodman’s distinction between depictions (as pertaining to visual arts) and descriptions (as pertaining to verbal arts): ‘Descriptions are distinguished from depictions not through being more arbitrary but through belonging to articulate rather than to dense schemes; and words are more conventional than pictures only if conventionality is construed in terms of differentiation rather than artificiality’ (230-31). If one cares to extend the theoretical debate, one must say that the articulate conservatism of the descriptions contained in a verbal work of art, which uses an alien alphabet of signification, contrasts the suggestive density of the depictions contained in a visual work of art, which uses a self-contained alphabet of signification. However, in Blake, language itself borrows an essentially pictorial density, in the sense that a poetic text surpasses its ordinary verbal limitations due to its author’s cunning manipulation of syntax, spelling, punctuation, and graphic display, whereas engravings, in their turn, borrow a linguistic conservatism, in the sense that artist’s drawings can be grouped under the auspices of certain mannerisms or invariants of representation.[3] In this case, one may acknowledge the existence of a visual-verbal continuum; hence the aesthetic product is partly autographic, partly allographic.[4] Each and every scholarly edition of Blake’s works makes serious concessions to their allographic dimension, and inevitably subverts their autographic component. In Blake’s case, one cannot speak of a domination of scriptiveness over visual representation, since textual and visual forms alike are magnanimously treated by the artist. The two arts cannot be conceived of as separate, but, rather, as complementary manifestations of a powerful creative self.[5]


[1] Goodman thinks that the putative copy ‘is the object as we look upon or conceive it, a version or construal of the object’ (9).

[2] For more details, see Goodman 113-22 et passim.

[3] Cf. also John B. Pierce’s assertion: ‘the medium of the coppper plate and the mechanism of the printing press offer a degree of fixity, reproducibility, objective autonomy typical of printed texts’ (157).

[4] Consider, for example, Blake’s own testimony to the involvement of the Divine Assistance in the making of Milton, both on scriptural and on pictorial levels, found in his letter to Thomas Butts, dated 6 July 1803, E 729-31, especially 730.

[5] Consider, for instance, the Prophetic Books, whose multiplication is based on the elaborate art of illuminated printing. This method, supposedly revealed by the artist’s deceased brother, Robert, unveils an intricate combination of long portions of texts and corresponding etched designs.

Works Cited

Bentley, G. E., Jr., ed. Blake Records: Documents (1714-1841) Concerning the Life of William Blake (1757-1827) and his Family. 1969. 2nd edition. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2004.

—, ed. William Blake: The Critical Heritage. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. 1965. Ed. David V. Erdman. Commentary Harold Bloom. Newly revised ed. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1982.

—. Complete Writings, with Variant Readings. 1957. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.

—. The Illuminated Blake. Annotated David V. Erdman. London: Oxford UP, 1975.

Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. 1976. 5th ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985.

Hagstrum, Jean H. William Blake: Poet and Painter: An Introduction to the Illuminated Verse. 1964. Chicago and London: The U of Chicago P, 1978.

Pierce, John B. The Wond’rous Art: William Blake and Writing. Madison, Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson UP; London: Associated UP, 2003.