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Michael Phillips’s Vision of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: A Review Essay

By Walton Wood

Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Ed. Michael Phillips. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2011. 183 pages, with 52 color plates. Paperback, $25.00.

Any conscientious reader of Blake will recognize the great emphasis that he places on books as books—not just as purveyors of language, but also as creative material objects. Blake hand-crafted his illuminated books, from designing to printing to finishing, and books sometimes play prominent narrative roles in many of his longer, complex works. Due to the difficulty of reading the illuminated prints, however, many of his readers (even the professional ones) frequently resort to typographical transcripts of Blake’s poetry as a means of removing the books’ intrusive visual aspects—the illuminations, and the graphic materiality of Blake’s own copperplate handwriting—and thereby opting instead for the “invisible” medium of typographical print. These are concerns that the Santa Cruz Blake Study Group raises when they ask “What Type of Blake?” Although their article concerns itself specifically with David Erdman’s The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, the Study Group raises issues that are equally valid for any typeset edition of Blake’s poetry, and this includes Michael Phillips’s transcript of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell copy B. Thus, this review essay embraces the inescapable context of Erdman’s industry-standard edition (which Phillips even invites by invoking Erdman’s judgment that editing the Marriage is like traversing “a swamp filled with gators”) as well as the Santa Cruz group’s concerns around the distortion inherent in typographical transcription, as a means of evaluating Phillips’s edition and gaining some insight into its editorial workings.

The edition contains the standard apparatuses—tables of contents and images, a nice bibliography, and a detailed checklist of Marriage copies. The editor’s introduction is about 47 full pages, and is followed by 11 pages of endnotes. Phillips grounds his introduction and commentary in a historical-materialist approach, emphasizing the cultural conditions surrounding the composition and reception of the Marriage as well as Blake’s own means of production. This includes a great deal of information on Blake’s literary and graphic sources as well as bibliographic analysis of copy B, all based in the cultural and political climate of the 1790s.

Phillips particularly emphasizes the satirical aspect of the Marriage as a spiritual successor to Blake’s manuscript An Island in the Moon, characterizing it as a text meant to be read largely in the context of Blake’s familiarity with the ideas and followers of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Phillips begins his introduction with Blake’s early life and career, his contact with Swedenborg’s writings and participation in the New Jerusalem Church, and finally the shift that came when Blake entered Joseph Johnson’s circle and disavowed Swedenborgianism. From there, Phillips moves into the design of the Marriage and its difference from the writings and ideas of the other self-proclaimed end-time prophets that populated the streets of ’90’s London. From there, Phillips transitions into a discussion of the social milieu of spiritual and political turmoil and the suppression of seditious publications, both of which hit particularly close to home for Blake due to his radical attitude and his innovative printing process. Phillips provides a condensed discussion of the debate surrounding Blake’s compositional process and the dating of individual copies of the Marriage—did Blake work in a spontaneous or methodical manner? are his writings consequently meticulously unified or frustratingly fragmented?—and then closes his introduction with concise histories of each copy of the Marriage.

This prefatory material is followed by a typographical transcript of the Marriage text (discussed below). After this come the color facsimile plates. Naturally, first is the complete copy B, an uncolored printing that includes, as a unique and ad hoc frontispiece, Blake’s design titled Our End is Come. Phillips also includes a selection of plates from other copies, which are provided for comparison and as impetus for the reader to explore the book’s development. This eclectic selection of supplemental material includes proofs of plates 21-24, from copy K; the rearranged plates 12-15 of copy G; copy M, which consists solely of “A Song of Liberty” (plates 25-27); and a facsimile of plate 13 as it appears in every other copy of the Marriage. (The careful reader will note that this entails two facsimiles of copy G’s plate 13.)

Phillips’s commentary follows after these color plates and runs about 67 pages. In it, he performs the standard tasks of paraphrasing the text, describing the designs, and interpreting both. As noted, he regards the Marriage as fundamentally satirical, a successor to An Island in the Moon, and thus as primarily and intentionally derivative in nature. In this vein, Phillips draws a parallel between the process of relief etching that produced the book itself and Blake’s acidic, corrosive writing directed toward such high-profile targets as Swedenborg, the New Jerusalem Church, and Aristotle. In contrast to these negative sources, Phillips also points out Blake’s apparent borrowings from his positive sources: the Bible, Milton, and Joseph Priestly, as well as lesser lights like Thomas Chatterton and Isaac Cruikshank. (Phillips’s own critical sources include S. Foster Damon, W.J.T. Mitchell, David Erdman, Max Plowman, Geoffrey Keynes, Morris Eaves, and Martin K. Nurmi, among others.) The commentary includes some images that may have informed Blake’s designs, and it also reproduces, in monochrome, illuminations and interlinear designs for easy reference. Phillips tends to treat these graphic features of Blake’s book as either illustrations corresponding to the text (as static cross-sections or snapshots of a larger, continuous process) or as punctuation, emphasizing important words in the verbal text.

The whole book, not just the facsimile plates, is printed on glossy heavy stock paper, which gives it a very clean appearance and a satisfying weight. The spine is stiff, but the paper is flexible, so the text and designs are easily visible when the book is opened. Phillips’s introduction and commentary, as well as the typographical transcription of Marriage‘s text, is printed in a pleasant serif font that is very easy on the eyes. The facsimile plates are actual-size full bleeds, with visible but unobtrusive plate and figure numbers for each. The typeset pages are offset from their corresponding facsimile plates—for example, plate 2 is printed on the recto side of its page, and the facsimile of plate 2 is printed on the verso of its own page—which makes it easy to compare the transcription and facsimile of an odd-numbered plate, but proportionately more difficult to compare those of an even-numbered plate. This situation emblematizes how, in this edition, the visual and the verbal are out of joint with one another, and this strange relationship is the most interesting aspect of Phillips’s presentation of the Marriage.

The typographical transcript of Blake’s text is a mixed bag. Anyone who scrutinizes the facsimiles might feel inclined to argue with Phillips’s transcription of Blake’s punctuation. This is (according to Alexander Gourlay’s own review of Phillips’s edition) because Phillips takes his cues from Erdman, and Erdman based his edition’s punctuation for the Marriage on all available copies of the poem. Given Phillips’s heavy focus on an individual copy, it’s certainly disappointing that he chose an idealized version of Blake’s punctuation culled from all copies, rather than engaging with the marks as they appear in copy B.

This problem of punctuation indicates a major sticking point for Phillips: the visual aspect of the text. On the one hand, his transcript often attempts to preserve the text’s spatiality to the very best of its ability, a sharp contrast to Erdman’s prose normalization of the Marriage. On the other hand, not only does this transcription tactic necessarily falter in regard to line length, the preservation of negative visual space amongst the text is selective. For example, Phillips retains the empty space on plate 6 where Blake revised “the Devil who” to ”  he    who”, but on plate 20 moves the line “Opposition is True Friendship” up from the bottom of the page and prints it in title-case (an arbitrarily increased emphasis that seems contra to the partially obfuscated text in the facsimile).

Setting these graphic concerns aside for a moment (and only so that we can return to them through another, more provocative route), Phillips’s transcript strives to preserve every verbal element on every page, from the text of the frontispiece to the catchwords at the bottoms of pages, and even the spelling of “charots” on plate 26. (Blake corrected this to “chariots” in other copies; Erdman does not mention this variant in his own textual notes.) The most interesting result of this approach is that it transcribes not just the obvious language content, but the potential language content as well. This occurs on plate 6, where Phillips identifies the graphic design at the foot of the plate as an illustration of the narrative events: the narrator witnesses a devil inscribing text into the side of a cliff, and Phillips interprets and transcribes the illumination at the foot of the page as depicting the word, “HOW”. Phillips places his verbal transcription of this textual graphic on the same line as the text proper, which—especially in light of how this edition plays fast and loose with spatiality, not to mention that the devil’s writing, as a narrative event, doesn’t resolve until the following plate—can be rather jarring to unsuspecting readers, not to mention readers who have read the Marriage many times over. Where did this “HOW” come from? How did it get here?

Figure 1: Detail from plate 6, and Phillips’s transcript

Examining other facsimile editions (listed in my works cited) of other versions of the Marriage, with their accompanying typographical translations, suggests that this decision is unconventional, to say the least. It is not, however, completely without precedent. The Santa Cruz Blake Study Group’s most salient typographical concern is that transcribing Blake’s poetry necessarily suppresses the visual materiality of Blake’s written word—how the autographic poetry is a graphic image in addition to verbal text. Inverting the Santa Cruz group’s emphasis on the graphic potential of Blake’s writing, Phillips shows how the graphic design also has verbal potential, but nonetheless underscores the Study Group’s point that all editorial decisions set the reader up to reproduce that editor’s own interpretation and preclude the “difficult pleasures” (328) of reading Blake’s books and making one’s own meaning.

Although Phillips points out how Blake encourages his readers to constantly question the apparent meaning and value of what they read, his own solution to this challenge relies heavily on historical memory rather than on the readerly imagination’s creative engagement with the Marriage. Moreover, Phillips also subtly works against such a possibility in another fashion: the systematic subordination of the graphic facsimiles to the typographical transcripts. The facsimile plates are not listed in the table of contents, though they’re listed comprehensively in the table of images, which occupies the verso of the same page. Since the color plates are full bleeds, they are very visible before the reader even opens the book, not to mention that it’s not uncommon to see plates without page numbers—except when those plates are a book’s raison d’être, as in an edition touting a never-before-reproduced version of the Marriage. Instead, the table of contents lists only the typographical contents, omitting the facsimiles in favor of emphasizing the editorial material, which would normally be considered supplementary. The facsimiles, which go farther toward re-presenting the embodied illuminated book, become marginalized through omission from the edition’s summary of its own contents. (According to Gourlay, the hardcover version of Phillips’s book even attempts to simulate copy B’s external appearance, thereby compounding the intensity of this textual schizophrenia.)

In these ways, Phillips’s edition enacts not only the concerns voiced by the Santa Cruz group, but also the Marriage‘s own dialectic between the Prolific and the Devouring (plate 16): the typographical devours the visual, subsisting on it while subordinating it. This dialectic seems to be a transformation of the other two-term interrelationships described in the book—Good and Evil, Active and Passive, Reason and Energy, Body and Soul—but tracing the significance of these connections would extend this review beyond its scope and risk becoming the Devouring, which comes at the expense of other readers’ unique interactions with the Marriage and their potential for becoming Prolific through their own creative interpretations.

I will, however, venture one relevant interpretation that involves Phillips’s take on the second-to-last Memorable Fancy (plates 17-20). A good portion of this section involves the narrator and his Angel hanging over the void, and Phillips, true to character, reads this as satirizing Swedenborg. This idea is not terribly far-fetched, since “Swedenborg is the Angel sitting at the Tomb” on plate 3. According to Phillips, Blake once again undercuts his erstwhile spiritual guide, this time through the Angel’s bodily orientation as he sits suspended upside-down. Plate 18, however, unequivocally describes only the Angel’s seat, a giant fungus, as hanging “with the head downward”. The neuter article refers to the fungus, so there’s no mention of the Angel’s head or its orientation, and the illumination on plate 20 seems to show the Angel and the narrator both sitting upright. This demonstrates how Phillips’s commentary—like his typographical transcription—expresses spatial complications, and as we’ve seen, this is a significant emergent feature of his edition. Just as Phillips’s transcript suppresses graphic space, his critical stance likewise discourages an examination of narrative spatiality as one of the poem’s aesthetic aspects and as a site of poetic value.

On the other hand, the journey that the narrator shares with his Angel can be diagrammed as such:

Figure 2: Narrative map of plates 17-20

The Angel follows a very linear path, whereas the narrator makes discontinuous jumps and moves through embedded and nonlinear spaces. This is clear when the narrative course is mapped and made visual—an emergent aspect of the poem that, as we have seen, Phillips consistently resists or suppresses in multiple ways, thereby discouraging even the possibility of reading of this Memorable Fancy, and the Marriage as a whole, in such a way.

Michel Foucault, in his discussion of René Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images, describes the relationship between the visual and the verbal: “The very thing that is both seen and read is hushed in vision, hidden in the reading” (25). For Foucault, the visual and verbal cannot co-exist simultaneously, and the reader necessarily establishes a hierarchical relation between the two. This seems particularly true regarding Blake’s books, whether it’s the visual and verbal nature of written language or the primacy of either the visual (illuminations elaborated by the poetic text) or the verbal (the poetic text illustrated by Blake’s illuminations). Blake’s illuminated works challenge readers—a category that includes their editors—to find a symmetry between these two textual valences without subordinating one to the other.

Phillips’s edition does not manage this balancing act very well, as it focuses more on creating a specific reading experience rather than on presenting the book for the reader’s own exploration. On the other hand, the facsimiles and the wealth of bibliographic and historical information do provide an excellent foundation for informed imaginings. It’s a mixed bag, to be sure, but it all comes in a sturdy and visually striking little book, and under a modest price. Phillips and Oxford clearly brought their best intentions to the endeavor of transforming Blake’s “swamp filled with gators” into a moonlit riverbank. In some ways, this edition of the Marriage succeeds, but in others, it offers the reader a pool of standing water that breeds more reptiles of the mind.

Works Cited

Blake, William.  The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake.  Ed. David V. Erdman. Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Books, 1988. Print.

—. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Boissia, Clairvaux, Jura, France: Trianon Press, 1960. Print.

Blake, William, and Geoffrey Keynes. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. London: Oxford University Press, 1975. Print.

Blake, William, and Max Plowman. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1927. Print.

Blake, William, Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. The Early Illuminated Books. Princeton, N.J: William Blake Trust/Princeton University Press, 1993. Print.

Foucault, Michel. This is Not A Pipe. Trans. James Harkness. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983. Print.

Gourlay, Alexander. Rev. of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, by William Blake, ed. Michael Phillips. Notes and Queries 54.2 (2012): 606-7. Oxford Journals. Web. 5 May 2013.

Santa Cruz Blake Study Group. “What Type of Blake?” Essential Articles for the Study of William Blake, 1970-1984. Ed. Nelson Hilton, Archon Books, 1986. 301-333. Print.

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