The complete poems, p.1
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           William Blake
The Complete Poems





  WILLIAM BLAKE was born in Broad Street in 1757, the son of a London hosier. Having attended Henry Parr’s drawing school in the Strand, he was in 1772 apprenticed to Henry Basire, engraver to the Society of Antiquaries, and later was admitted as a student to the Royal Academy, where he exhibited in 1780. He married Catherine Boucher in 1782 and in 1783 published Poetical Sketches. The first of his ‘illuminated books’ was Songs of Innocence (1789), which, like The Book of Thel (published in the same year), has as its main themes the celebration of innocence and its inviolability.

  Blake sets out his ideas more fully in his chief prose work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1791), which proclaims his lifelong belief in the moral primacy of the imagination. But in Songs of Experience (1794) he recognizes the power of repression, and in a series of short narrative poems he looks for mankind’s redemption from oppression through a resurgence of imaginative life. By 1797 he was ready for epic; Vala was never finished, but in Milton and Jerusalem he presents his renewed vision of reconciliation among the warring fragments of humanity. Other striking poems of his middle years are the lyrics of the Pickering Manuscript, and The Everlasting Gospel, but in the last years of his life he expressed himself in drawing rather than poetry.

  Little of Blake’s work was published on conventional form. He combined his vocations as poet and graphic artist to produce books that are visually stunning. He also designed illustrations of works by other poets and devised his own technique for producing large watercolour illustrations and colour-printed drawings. Blake died in 1827, ‘an Old Man feeble & tottering but not in Spirit & Life not in the Real Man The Imagination which Liveth for Ever’.

  ALICIA OSTRIKER is Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA.


  The Complete Poems

  Edited by




  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Group (USA), Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

  Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia

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  Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published 1977

  Reprinted with revised Further Reading 2004


  Editorial material copyright © Alicia Ostriker, 1997, 2004

  Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject

  to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,

  re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s

  prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in

  which it is published and without a similar condition including this

  condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser


  William Blake is the rebel par excellence of English poetry, who sets his face against convention and restriction of every sort, glorifies untrammelled inspiration and defends the artist’s liberty, in matters of literary format as well as in his religious, political and social ideas. Almost none of his work was published in conventional printed form. Pursuing his vocations as poet and graphic artist simultaneously, he printed most of it himself, with text (in his own orthography) and illustrations commonly intertwined, by a method of etching he invented for the purpose. Copies of individual works often vary, not only in the character of the water-colour timings he gave them, but also in the order of the plates and in words or lines which appear in some copies but are deleted in others. Blake’s spelling, punctuation and grammar obey his individual temperament. Many of his poems, including some major ones, exist only in much-revised manuscript form.

  No conventionally type-set edition of Blake’s poetry can compete, either in beauty or in clarity, with the original illuminated books produced by the poet; neither can it suggest the full complexity of the texts in manuscript. Given these limitations, however, the intention of this edition is to reproduce the work with as much fidelity as possible to the forms in which he wrote it. ‘Improvement makes strait roads; but the crooked roads without Improvement are roads of Genius,’ Blake remarked. Intrigued readers may be lured onward to the originals, or to the many excellent facsimile editions of them which fortunately exist today.

  Spelling, grammar, punctuation. Most readers will not be troubled by Blake’s often archaic or eccentric spelling, his frequent use of capitalization for emphasis, his predilection for the rapid ‘&’ as opposed to the conventional ‘and’, and his sometimes crude grammar. These peculiarities have usually been accepted by Blake’s editors and readers alike as quirky but charming. A greater stumbling-block is Blake’s punctuation, which is at all times idiosyncratic, and at some times, particularly in the manuscript poems, virtually non-existent. Most standard editions of Blake have supplied a conventional punctuation, but to alter in this matter is clearly to distort. I have therefore followed the procedure of David V. Erdman in The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, retaining the poet’s punctuation and non-punctuation intact. As a rule, any punctuation mark may be taken simply as a sign for a greater or lesser pause in the flow of language, rather than as an indicator of grammatical relationships. With a little relaxation and practice, the reader will find that this is less difficult than it appears at first, and finally that it may create a sense of freedom and buoyancy, and an openness of syntactic construction, which bring considerable aesthetic and intellectual pleasure.

  Revisions. In the presentation of textual variations, emendations, revisions, etc., a distinction is made between Blake’s manuscript poems and his finished work. For poems which Blake published (or had published or printed for him) in any form, and which we may thus suppose to be finished, the relatively few variations which exist are presented in the Notes. For poems which exist only in manuscript form, this material is incorporated in the text through italics and brackets, reproducing as far as possible the condition of the texts in their ‘workshop’ state, with successive stages of revision evident as one reads along. The assumption here is that unfinished poems should not be presented to the eye as if they were finished, and vice versa; and that the reader will benefit from an opportunity to sense Blake’s verse both as working process and as completed product. In this respect, the innovative and successful procedure of Geoffrey Keynes’s Nonesuch and Oxford editions of the Complete Writings is followed with gratitude.

  Texts. The texts on which the present edition is based are those of David V. Erdman, The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Doubleday, 1970. This volume should be consulted for complete detail in regard to Blake’s revisions, and for full discussion of textual complexities. There are some changes, particularly in punctuation. The marks ‘!’, ‘?’, ‘:’ and ‘;’ are often difficult to distinguish in Blake’s calligraphy. Erdman commonly transcribes ‘!’ where I find a colon or semi-colon. Blake’s full stops and commas are also difficult to tell apart, and he is rather skimpy about the latter. Thus in works where both ‘.’ and ‘,’ appear, they are retained (but the readings so
metimes disagree with Erdman’s). In works where ‘.’ alone appears, and is evidently doing service for both conventional ‘.’ and conventional ‘,’ in the original, the present text follows what normal grammar and syntax would require. Another change is that Night VII [b] of The Four Zoas, which Erdman believes was ‘supplanted by VII [a]’, is here placed within the text rather than as an appendix, following the argument made by several scholars that Blake never definitively rejected this portion of the manuscript. A final alteration is that the Songs of Experience, which Blake printed in 1794, are here placed just after the Songs of Innocence (1789), for the reader’s convenience.

  Notes and Dictionary of Proper Names. The Notes attempt to clarify what is difficult in Blake’s poetry, and to indicate where passages from the Bible, Milton and other sources seem necessary to explain a text or enrich our understanding of its implications. The Dictionary of Proper Names defines recurrent terms in Blake’s symbolic systems.

  To express my gratitude to the multitude of Blake scholars who have shaped my comprehension of his poetry would be impossible. I have at each step walked particularly in the tracks of Geoffrey Keynes, David Erdman, G. E. Bentley, Jr, S. Foster Damon, Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom and W. H. Stevenson, and have gained knowledge and insight from many other commentators. I owe special thanks to Professor Erdman for assistance with texts and guidance through the labyrinths of the Notebook; to Morton Paley for advice on Jerusalem; and to James McGowan for the use of unpublished research on Poetical Sketches.


  Material marked [thus] indicates editorial interpolation.

  Material marked [thus] indicates a word, phrase or passage deleted, erased or emended in the manuscript.

  Material marked [thus/ and so] indicates successive deletions within a passage, followed by a final accepted version.

  Material marked [thus (this) and so] indicates a deletion within a passage that was afterwards itself deleted.

  ? preceding a word indicates an uncertain reading.

  Table of Dates


  William Blake born on 28 November at 28 Broad St, London, to James Blake, a hosier, and Catherine Blake. Older brother James was born 1753; other siblings were John (b. 1760), Richard (b. 1762, died in infancy), Catherine Elizabeth (b. 1764), Robert (1767).


  Sees his first vision, a tree filled with angels on Peckham Rye, at the age of eight or ten; his father threatens to thrash him for lying, but his mother intercedes.


  Begins to attend Henry Parrs’s drawing school in the Strand.


  Apprenticed to the engraver Henry Basire.


  After arguments with other apprentices, sent to do drawings in Westminster Abbey for Basire.


  Beginning of the American War of Independence.


  Apprenticeship ended. Admitted as a student in the Royal Academy, under G. M. Moser. Friendship with fellow artists George Cumberland, John Flaxman, Thomas Stothard.


  Exhibits at Royal Academy. Witnesses Gordon No-Popery riots and the burning of Newgate Prison. Engraving plates for bookseller Joseph Johnson.


  Marries Catherine Boucher (b. 1762).


  Poetical Sketches printed for Blake by Flaxman and Rev. A. S. Mathew, but not publicly distributed.


  Father’s death; partnership with James Parker in a print-shop at 27 Broad St.


  Dissolves partnership, moves to 28 Poland St.


  Death of Robert Blake, whose spirit Blake sees rise through the ceiling ‘clapping its hands for joy’. Friendship with painter Henry Fuseli.


  All Religions are One and There is No Natural Religion printed.


  Tiriel written. Thel and Songs of Innocence engraved. William and Catherine attend first London meeting of Swedenborgian New Church. Outbreak of French Revolution.


  Marriage of Heaven and Hell probably begun.


  French Revolution proofs printed for Joseph Johnson. Begins engravings for John Stedman’s anti-slavery Narrative of a five years’ expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (pub. 1796). Bill to abolish the slave trade rejected in Commons. Visions of the Daughters of Albion probably begun. William and Catherine move to 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth.


  Invasion of France stopped at Valmy. ‘A Song of Liberty’ written.


  Execution of Louis XVI. Britain declares war against France. America and Visions engraved.


  Songs of Innocence and of Experience issued in a combined volume. Europe and Book of Urizen engraved.


  Song of Los, Book of Ahania and Book of Los engraved.


  Engravings for Young’s Night Thoughts; the work was not well received.


  Vala begun. Illustrations and dedicatory poem for Gray’s poems.


  Wordsworth and Coleridge publish Lyrical Ballads.


  William Hayley, on Flaxman’s recommendation, commissions engravings from Blake. Thomas Butts becomes Blake’s friend and patron. 16 September, William and Catherine move to Hayley’s cottage in Felpham, Sussex.


  Felpham residence, work on engravings and miniatures for Hayley, increasing dissatisfaction on Blake’s part. Vala continued, Milton begun.


  Peace of Amiens.


  10 May, renewal of war with France. 12 August, Blake ejects the dragoon Schofield from his garden, and is charged with sedition. Returns to London, takes rooms at 17 South Molton St.


  10 January, sedition trial; Blake acquitted. Milton completed. Jerusalem probably begun.


  Publisher Robert Cromek commissions designs for Blair’s Grave from Blake, but afterwards gives the engraving work to Schiavonetti.


  Stothard exhibits Canterbury Pilgrims painting; Blake believes the idea stolen from him.


  Blair’s Grave published, Blake’s designs attacked by Hunt in The Examiner.


  Blake’s exhibition of his paintings, accompanied by the Descriptive Catalogue, proves a failure. The Examiner calls him an ‘unfortunate lunatic’. Years of increased obscurity follow, although Flaxman and Butts continue to befriend Blake.


  Engraving Flaxman’s designs for Hesiod.


  Napoleonic wars end. Blake engraving Wedgwood china designs.


  L’Allegro and Il Penseroso designs.


  Probable date of ‘Everlasting Gospel’ fragments in Notebook. Water-colours of Job commissioned by Butts. Friendship with the young artist John Linnell. Linnell and a group of others, calling themselves ‘The Ancients’, will become Blake’s admirers and supporters in his last years.


  Jerusalem engraved. Woodcuts for Thornton’s Virgil.


  The Ghost of Abel engraved.


  Friendship with Samuel Palmer. Linnell commissions Dante designs.


  The diarist Crabb Robinson visits Blake and records his conversation.


  12 April, writes to Cumberland: ‘I have been very near the Gates of Death & have returned very weak & an Old Man feeble & tottering but not in Spirit & Life not in the Real Man The Imagination which Liveth for Ever.’ 12 August, Blake dies.

  Further Reading


  Geoffrey Keynes (ed.), The Complete Writings of William Blake, Oxford University Press, 1966.

  Geoffrey Keynes (ed.), The Letters of William Blake, with Re
lated Documents, 1968; 3rd edn, Oxford University Press, 1980.

  David V. Erdman (ed.), The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Doubleday, New York, 1970. Commentary by Harold Bloom. Rev. edn, University of California Press, 1982.

  W. H. S. Stevenson (ed.), The Poems of William Blake, Longman, 1971. Text by Erdman. Fully annotated.

  David Bindman, assisted by Deirdre Tooney, Complete Graphic Works of William Blake, Putnam, 1978.


  Among the many facsimile editions of Blake’s illuminated writings, of particular excellence and value are the series done by W. Muir, printed by the Blake Press at Edmonton in the 1880s, and those printed for the William Blake Trust by the Trianon Press, London, during the 1950s through to the 1970s. Each volume of the latter contains a bibliographical note by Geoffrey Keynes. The Illuminated Blake, annotated by David V. Erdman, Doubleday, 1974, presents Blake’s complete illuminated works in black and white, with commentary, in a single volume. Most recently, Princeton University Press has published, under the general editorship of David Bindman, The Illuminated Books of William Blake, under the titles Jerusalem, Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Early Illuminated Books, The Continental Prophecies, Milton, a Poem and The Urizen Books. Each volume includes colour reproductions of the original plates, transcriptions of the text, and plate-by-plate commentaries.

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