Home » Blog

Teaching Romanticism VI: William Blake

by Daniel Cook

As part of this ongoing series on Teaching Romanticism we will consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys. I thought it would be particularly useful to hear about which texts educators use and in what context, whether they place certain poems or prose works against those of other writers, or use contemporary or modern theoretical texts, or something else entirely. For this strand of blog posts I invite academics across the world to share their advice and tips on any aspect that interests them about teaching Romanticism. Many thanks to all of those who answered my call through NASSR-L and elsewhere (lightly edited samples are reproduced below with permission of the authors). Please do feel free to contact me with advice on future subjects or, indeed, with further thoughts on teaching William Blake, about which much more could be said, evidently. We will be considering a range of writers, canonical and non-canonical alike, in the coming months.

Professor Richard C. Sha, American University
Teaching Blake means getting students comfortable with being baffled. I show them to be in good company, by starting with Morris Eaves’s wonderful essay on “The Blake’s We Want and Don’t”. In that essay, Eaves, one of Blake’s most gifted readers, admits that he often does not have the foggiest idea of what is going on. More importantly, he asks us to consider what our methodological choices really mean. For me, that is the crux of why teaching Blake matters. I teach “The Book of Thel”, “America”, “Europe”, “Visions of the Daughters of Albion”, and “Jerusalem”.

the-red-dragon-and-the-woman-clothed-with-the-sun-1805I begin the course with various interpretative problems. What is the body in Blake and what does it do and why does it have such importance? Why does Blake at once lend himself to deconstruction, and then what do we do with his insistence on incarnation? What are Blake’s gender attitudes, and how do we know? Here, Helen Bruder’s thesis that Blake realizes the costs of his gender attitudes proves most helpful. What is the self in Blake, and what is self annihilation? We work through issues of the visual and the verbal, and how they complement and frustrate each other. I then ask them to add their problems: what makes it so difficult to read Blake, and why might that difficulty be productive? Students raise such issues as who is speaking, and why does Blake make even that unclear, or grapple with punctuation, or simply wonder what is going on in this plate.

I end the course by thinking about the answers that Blake critics have offered. We think about the materiality of his texts, and what kinds of questions that materiality can answer. We consider how deconstruction seems the method invented for Blake, but also the ways in which Blake defies deconstruction (as in his turn to incarnation). We also think about historical method, and ask how do we choose contexts, and what particular contexts can do. Finally, I raise the issue of aesthetics, and we consider what sensuous embodiment does for Blake. Here, W. J. T. Mitchell’s piece on “Chaosaesthetics” and his idea of a headless allegory in Blake has been extremely helpful. Their final project, a long paper, asks them to tackle one of their most difficult problems in reading Blake, and in the final exam session, I have them present for ten minutes about what they discovered. I have found the real challenge is to help students think about how Blake’s difficulty is worth it.

Professor Małgorzata Łuczyńska-Hołdys, University of Warsaw
I’m lucky to be able to teach Blake not only alongside other Romantic poets in a standard course on Romanticism, but I have a regular semester course on Blake, “William Blake: Word and Vision” at my Institute. The approach is more or less chronological – we start with early texts like “Auguries of Innocence”, Songs of Innocence and of Experience and “The Book of Thel”, and then gradually we work our way through “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, “The Visions of the Daughters of Albion”, “The First Book of Urizen” and excerpts from “The Four Zoas” and “Jerusalem”. Each text is accompanied with Blake’s designs.

William_Blake,_painter_and_poet_(page_33_facing)As far as additional critical texts are concerned, my students read Nelson Hilton’s “Blake’s early works” and Joseph’s Viscomi’s “Illuminated Printing” (The Cambridge Companion to William Blake) as well as “Blake’s Symbolism” — a chapter from B. Nesfield-Cookson’s William Blake: Prophet of the Universal Brotherhood (Crucible, 1987) — as introductory texts for the course; for the class on “Thel” –  Harriet Kramer Linkin’s “The Function of Dialogue in The Book of Thel”, Colby Quarterly 23:2 (1987) and Helen Bruder’s “The Sins of the Fathers: Patriarchal Criticism and The Book of Thel” from her book William Blake and the Daughters of Albion (St. Martin’s Press, 1997) – here the perspective is first of all feminist. Joseph Viscomi’s “The Evolution of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”(Huntington Library Quarterly 58.3-4 [1997]) is assigned for “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. The text my students usually enjoy best, “The Visions of the Daughters of Albion”, I like to accompany with “Gender, Environment, and Imperialism in William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion” by Kevin Hutchings in Romantic Circles. For the “First Book of Urizen” I assign G. H. Gilpin’s “William Blake and the world’s body of science”, Studies in Romanticism (2004). Next, we discuss Blake’s idea of the Zoas and the psychological vision of his universe; we end our course with final plates of “Jerusalem”, preceded by a discussion on Blake’s concepts of forgiveness of sins, states versus individuals and self-annihilation.

When I teach Blake in my Romantic Poets course, as a rule we read chosen songs – “The Lamb”, “The Tyger”, “The Divine Image”, “The Human Abstract”, and “The Garden of Love”, followed by other songs that frequently stimulate vivid discussion – “The Clod and the Pebble”, “The Sick Rose”, “The Poison Tree”. Next, we move on to “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, and the reception is usually enthusiastic. As an experiment, I’ve tried to introduce “The Mental Traveller”, but the students found the poem baffling. My experience is that students respond to Blake’s texts with involvement and curiosity; his attitude to religion, gender and ecology (in this precise order) is what they find modern, intellectually stimulating and provocative.

Professor Stephen Behrendt, University of Nebraska
Much of my teaching is with non-English-major undergraduates with little formal preparation or experience in British literary history, which significantly impacts how I can approach British texts – poetic texts in particular. I can usually expect that students have at least encountered Blake’s lyrics (most often “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”), so here’s an account of how I typically explore “The Tyger” with them.

EPSON scanner imageWe spend time, first, with The Blake Archive, where we compare various copies of some of the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience and when I explain some of the details of Blake’s physical production process. We also look at the two title pages and frontispieces, as well as at the combined title page for Songs of Innocence and of Experience. I try to get students to talk about what they “see” in the visual texts of those pages, which leads them naturally, and usually without prompting, to ideas about visual space, openness, interiors and exteriors, and visual exuberance and spareness (as with the lettering on the tile pages). Gradually, perhaps with a look at the perceived differences in tone and imaginative state that emerge in paired poems like the two Nurse’s Songs, we arrive at a sense of the essence of those two contrary states, Innocence and Experience.

Next we look at “The Lamb”, where I emphasize the visual and rhetorical symmetry of poem and illumination. The verbal text’s two stanzas are a neatly balanced question-and-answer pair whose size and shape on the page essentially mirror one another, while the visual text (although it is relatively “heavy” on the right) exhibits a comparable symmetry that is inscribed by the interwoven treetops at the plate’s upper edge. The speaker’s question (stanza one) prompts an answer (stanza two). Never mind that there is something of a theological or doctrinal problem here:  Christian doctrine does not usually associate direct “creation” with the Son of God (Jesus, “Lamb of God”). But the “innocent” speaker is apparently unaware of this discrepancy and offers the “pat” answer that stanza two provides.

Then we turn to “The Tyger”, whose opening and closing stanzas emphasize “symmetry” – despite the poem’s visual text being decidedly asymmetric. I tend to have students look at the visual text first, to set this interesting contradiction in motion for them. We also note how different (stark, bare, “weighty”) is that tree on the right, and how stark and “empty”, too, is the whole visual setting. I encourage students to explore the intuitive “feeling” that these two pates generate – totally aside from the verbal texts they contain – and to consider whether these responses agree (or not) with what their earlier suggestions about the nature of Innocence and Experience.

wolfsheeepWith the verbal text, I have them read the first several stanzas aloud, and we talk about the fact that while “The Lamb” balances nicely between question and answer, “The Tyger” seems to be all question(s). Moreover, while the first questions are complete interrogative sentences, the questions rapidly devolve into mere phrases, as if the questions are coming to the speaker faster and faster – so fast that mere grammar cannot keep pace. And then the penultimate stanza, where we instinctively expect, finally, an “answer”, offers instead that quizzical question about whether the lamb’s maker also made the tyger. What do we think of people who answer a question with another question, I ask? And, further, what if the person who asked the question(s) in the first place is the one who answers them with that additional question. Is this deliberate “misdirection” on the speaker’s part? Or something else? Confusion? Belligerence? Incapacity (or lack of knowledge) attempting to put on a brave – or confrontational – face? I let my students fuss and fret about these matters, because they have been taught that reading literature (poetry in particular) is a matter of searching for “answers” (“What do we need to know?” which means “What will be on the test?”).

tyger-detail-2Students always object, however, that the image of the tiger at the foot of the page is silly, and I encourage them to ridicule it. Surely if the poem is about all that “other stuff” and is somehow radical and political, then the image is incongruous at best, and downright silly at worst. Unless Blake is signaling to us not to think of a “zoo tiger” but rather of something else. I show my students some of Blake’s other pictures, including some accurate representational images of persons and objects so that they appreciate that he was fully capable of drawing a “real” tiger had he wished to do so. We tell our students, often, that writers use words ironically, to signal a meaning other than the superficially apparent one(s). If poets can do that with words, why don’t we consider that visual artists can perhaps do the same with images. Perhaps, I suggest, there’s something like that going on with Blake’s stuffed-animal tyger.

But there’s also the matter of the two apparently identical stanzas (but are not, quite) that open and close the poem. Once we’ve talked about what Blake might have meant by the tyger burning bright in the forests of the night (if we aren’t satisfied with simply a four-pawed animal incendiary device), we can make a few forays into contemporary history and culture and consider whether revolution, radical thinking, political (and social) uppityness, and the like might themselves have been “incendiary” at the time. And that leads to considerations like the restorative nature of prairie fires (called “controlled burns” on the Great Plains where I live), and the other restorative flames known among Christians as those of Purgatory, the necessary cleansing that readied the sinner for admission to heaven. Suddenly, the negatively coded and apparently destructive flames are defused and placed in a more positive – and certainly less dichotomous – perspective. And that, in turn, begins to answer the question about the Tyger’s (and the Lamb’s) maker.

Tigers 21Considering the new import of the “tyger” and all that it stands for, we revisit those framing stanzas to explore whether the change from “could” (first stanza) to “dare” (final stanza) signals a shift on the speaker’s part from initial awe at the power and authority of that maker who framed the tyger’s fearful symmetry to an emerging awe, instead, at the sheer power and energy not of the creator but rather of the creature. And then we consider the instability of the terms “frame”, “fearful” and “symmetry”. “Framed”, as in “created” (as the “Creator” – who also “framed” the Lamb?), but also as in “put a frame around”, “enclosed”, and “restricted” or “limited”. How “dare” any creator seek to bind the infinite, to enclose the flames of whatever it is that is burning in the forests of “the night” (of ignorance? tyranny? systems thinking?)? Students soon begin to feel this shift in tone. Then we tackle “Fearful”, which likewise points in more than one direction: “frightened”, but also “fear-inducing”. And then the final paradox: “symmetry” – a word to be found alike in neoclassical aesthetics and early Romantic-era political and intellectual discourse (including Christian discourse) and a word that seems ever more out of place in and on a printed and illuminated page that is in every respect so insistently asymmetrical.

I am probably not suggesting anything here that others have not tried with their students. But what I’ve outlined is a useful way to reveal how complex – on so many levels – are poems that on first reading seem really quite “simple” and straightforward. That’s useful, not just with Blake and other Romantic-era writers but also with verbal and visual artists from all times eras all places. One final note on complicating matters. When I have access to the internet in my classroom we not only look at multiple copies of Blake’s poems, but we can look at other images too. I google James Gillray and bring up some of Gillray’s many caricatures of George III, where the old king is often shown in profile. Sometimes the students see it immediately: Gillray’s profile of George III is immediately comparable to the face of Blake’s tyger. Might this be? Blake does something of the sort in “America: A Prophecy”, after all, fusing George III and the “Dragon” of the St. George myth in a verbal-visual work dating from the same time as the plate for “The Tyger”. And suppose we say that the tyger does suggest George III? In terms of a map, the tyger faces west, the direction in which lie the colonies, lost to England’s attempt to stifle the colonists’ revolution for liberty and equality. Might this be George III still looking at what has been lost while his back is turned (there’s an irony that goes all the way back to the Fall in Eden) toward the east, toward France, where another republican revolution is already in progress against which Britain is again pursuing a war? It does give students something to think about…

Dr Stephanie Codsi, University of Bristol
Like Professor Stephen Behrendt, I also teach British Romantic literature to foreign students. I have Erasmus students, who come from Germany, Italy, and France. Although my university gave assurance that it would keep lobbying for the best possible outcome for EU students and staff, the news about Brexit will no doubt affect funding and morale. In fact, Britain’s very departure from the EU has given rise, in my seminars, to discussions about eighteenth-century borders, national isolationism, and political relationships between Britain and Europe; and also to considering the ambivalent representation of European culture in Romantic period writing. Anti-European sentiment often infiltrated the politics and literature of the eighteenth-century (e.g. Hogarth’s Beer Street (1751)); Blake, far from nationalistic in the political or racial sense of the word, also wanted to restore a sense Britishness, namely, integrity to British art by ridding it of the ‘Greek & Latin’ models (E95). His poem, ‘To English Connoisseurs’ and other satiric verses and epigrams demonstrates these views: ‘Rubens thinks Tables Chairs & Stools are Grand’ (E513). At the same time, Blake sympathised with the revolutionary fervour from across the channel even as he never had the opportunity to visit Europe. Many of the canonical Romantics travelled to Europe, feeling an attraction to its art, landscape, and culture. It is this ambivalent engagement with Europe that makes Romanticism particularly interesting to teach to Erasmus students, and even though Blake did not write explicitly about Europe, his earlier work such as The French Revolution (1791) and Europe (1794) show his interest in the continent. I was excited about teaching Romanticism to students from Europe, not least because Romanticism – and Blake, in particular – was my area of research, but because I wanted to see how the students would engage with British Romanticism differently from their British peers. In this entry, I am going to say a bit about why teaching Blake to foreign students is particularly illuminating; and briefly discuss some of the features that we have focused on in Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

I find that The Blake Archive is an indispensable tool for teaching: it helps to place Blake’s work as a poet and artist in context, and the different forms of text and design in relation to each other. This is especially true for the Illuminated Printing, and for contrasting the poems in Innocence and Experience. Since English is a foreign language for these students, their way into the poetry is usually through the designs. Hence, their perception begins from the art, which they see as an elucidation of the poetry, rather than the other way around. Can one ‘experience’ the poetry separately from the art, I ask them? Or does the difficulty of such just draw attention to the multidimensional nature of Blake’s work? They understand that the poetry’s meaning is amplified with its accompanying visual facet, but sometimes they find the designs to be a distraction. I therefore encourage my students to read the poetry transcript as well as looking at the Illuminated Printing in the Archive. Reading more than once, and in different formats, allows the students to appreciate the multi-layered quality of Blake, and the nature of ‘experience’ itself; can one read with ‘new eyes’, or does the very process of re-reading tell us something about experience?

The Erasmus students appreciate the aural quality of these ‘songs’ by reading them aloud in seminars. The rhyming structure and words are usually very simple and memorable, allowing an easier and more fluid reading. The rhythm and metre also changes according to foreign accents and stress on words, so the negotiation of sounds involves a deeper enrichment of the English tongue. In some cases, mispronunciation creates an alternative word: in ‘The Ecchoing Green’, an Italian student read the line, ‘Old John with white hair’ as ‘Old John with wheat hair’. The word change from ‘white’ to ‘wheat’, though obviously incorrect, highlighted the rural element of the poem. Studying and reading poetry in a foreign language is a challenge, but it can also open up playful possibilities of interpretation; for example, we read the line ‘God & Priest & King/ who make up a Heaven of our misery,’ and I asked students to discuss the meaning of ‘make up’. There was some confusion: how did ‘make up’ differ from the meaning of ‘make’? To their understanding, ‘make up’ meant cosmetics. Such an interpretation opened up the possibility that the word could suggest a sort of superficiality or masking of heaven (Blake may have been aware of this connotation: the first reference to ‘make up’ as cosmetics is in 1652 (OED)). At the same time, with the use of a dictionary and its selection of likely meanings, students learned that the phrasal verb cleverly conflates connotations of ‘make’, ‘invent’, and ‘compensate’. Hence, the very difficulties that foreign students face with the English language tends to draw attention to the varied interpretations of words. As a teacher, I am all too aware that my role involves explaining complex ideas in a clear way. This is especially true for foreign students, and also, particularly relevant to the Songs which create layers of meaning through an apparent simplicity of form and diction.

In terms of theme, I have found that the subject of priesthood and religious oppression in the Songs was particularly conducive to lively discussion of context and culture. In our discussion of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, ‘A Little Boy Lost’, and ‘Holy Thursday’, Italian students discussed the tradition of church-going amongst their own parents’ generation, and how the younger generation (like the child in ‘A Little Boy Lost’) were more likely to question the authority of the church: ‘One who sets reason up for judge/ Of our most holy Mystery.’ This younger generation was also especially suited to the discussion of the child and their natural tendency to ask questions. How might this be applied to a seminar discussion between student and teacher, I ask – particularly foreign students? How do they feel about asking questions about things they don’t understand? Are they ever likely to disagree with or challenge the teacher’s authority? Placing these Blakean themes in personal and contemporary contexts helped the students to engage with the relevance of the poetry.

We sometimes look at an excerpt from Blake’s Europe:
Shadows of men in fleeting bands upon the winds:
Divide the heavens of Europe
Till Albions Angel smitten with his own plagues fled with his band
The cloud bears hard on Albions shore:
Fill’d with immortal demons of futurity:

To me, this scene is prophetic of Britain’s self-imposed alienation from Europe; it perfectly captures the ominous dread of disunion. I ask them what they think Blake means by division in the line ‘Divide the heavens of Europe’, and what ‘plagues’ and ‘futurity’ might denote. Although this passage is tricky for foreign students, they see the overall tone and language as suggestive of empire and war.

Teaching Blake to Erasmus students illuminates the poetic, aural and visual quality of Blake’s Songs. In some cases, students read the poems in their own language first, before reading in English. This helps them with confidence, but there is always the risk that they might rely on the translation and its secondary interpretation of the text. The question, thus, of comprehending when in states of innocence and experience are particularly relevant to foreign students of English literature.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Categories

%d bloggers like this: