Book Review – The Cambridge Companion to William Blake
Following the tradition of the Companion to British Romanticism, the Companion to Blake is an excellently edited anthology of articles conforming to the highest academic standards from world authorities of Blake Studies. Although the volume is intended for the Blakean neophyte, its usefulness comes only after the reader has become acquainted with several of Blake’s works and with several articles on Blake criticism. This book is not recommended as an introductory Blake course, unless the reader has sufficient knowledge of Romantic literature.
With essays dealing with several approaches to Blake’s poetry as well as closed readings of Blake’s works, this Companion’s selection of readings seems more robust and relevant to Blake studies than the Romantic Companion seems to general Romanticism studies. The book is divided in two sections. The first section – Perspectives – deals with various approaches to Blake’s literature, while the second section – Blake’s Works – offers closed readings and historical criticism of Blake’s major works.
The first essay, Blake and his Circle, essentially offers a rough biography of Blake and an extremely brief overview of his works. The following essay, Illuminated Printing, offers an interesting narrative of the history and development of Blake’s printing methods – a must-read for any Blake student. The third essay, Blake’s Language in Poetic Form, is a nearly useless essay – from the Romantic perspective – that focuses on the outline and metric of Blake’s poems. While some critics may enjoy looking at the outline and the metric of poems, Romantic poets themselves were against the notions of ‘formal’ metric and syntax to the point that some publicly stated that Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets was wasted on poets who wrote according to metric and rules. The essay titled Blake as a Painter follows up on the first and second essays by offering a history of Blake’s paintings and printing style. The three subsequent essays – Aesthetics of Blake’s Politics in Painting, Blake’s Politics in History, and Blake and Religion, offer possible ways of reading Blake through political and religious criticism. Blake’s Politics in History particularly argues that even though Blake might not have seemed like a man interested in Politics, his poetry shows otherwise. Of course, it can also be argued that Blake was not as interested in politics so much as he was in the condition of man. The final essay of the first section – Blake and Romanticism – is possibly the main piece of the first section. It looks at Blake and attempts to classify him as a Romantic poet, an anti-Romantic poet, and a Human poet, suggesting that Blake’s poetry addresses universal, not just Romantic, concerns. The three final essays offer critical readings on Blake’s Songs, Hell’s Bible, the Prophecies, Blake’s myths, and Jerusalem.
While the first section is essentially a fact-based summary of objective data, the second section offers useful examples of the subjective reading needed to fully understand Blake, and while the approaches themselves are not entirely original, some of the ideas offered are.
Once again, students engaging with this book should have sufficient knowledge of Blake and his works to have already conceived notions of what kind of poet and artist Blake was and is. This book will not only help them expand their views on Blake, but possibly offer alternative views. However, the flaw of the book is one that is shared with the Companion to Romanticism, and possibly with all Companions – it becomes essentially useless to experts of Blake studies.
In the end, the Cambridge Companion to Blake is the ideal volume for someone who has read all of Blake’s poetry and some criticism and is seeking for new ways approaching his literature.