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Review: Songs of Innocence and of Experience

Philip Hunter reviews a CD-ROM edition of one of William Blake's most famous works.

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience [London 1794 & 1826],
Octavo Edition, 2003 - isbn 1-891788-89-2

A number of works of literature in the past were published in expensive and idiosyncratic formats, highly illustrated and occasionally coloured by hand. And sometimes the editions of these works vary substantially one from the other. Some were never in printed editions at all, but remain in manuscript. These items are difficult and enormously expensive to reproduce in print, and the cost of the process limits the size of the audience willing (or able) to pay for the reproduction edition.

photo (31KB): open book view (Blake CD)

Digitisation of the original items is an obvious solution to the problem of reproducing for sale useful versions of these works of literature, and there are several companies who now specialise in making these books and manuscripts available to the public in CD-ROM format. Octavo [1] is one of the leading publishers of these fine art editions - they come in two varieties: the standard Octavo editions, which are suitable for use by students, and the Research editions (where these are desirable), which contain higher resolution images, suitable for researchers who might otherwise find it difficult to get such detailed and sustained access to these works. The stated rationale for the Octavo editions is to provide inexpensive access to rare materials of interest to students, educators, scholars, bibliophiles, and also a general readership. The editions also (to some extent) allow the user to experience books as they were originally presented.

The edition contains, all within a single Adobe Acrobat PDF file, a table of contents, a commentary by Stuart Curran, (Vartan Gregorian Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, a specialist in Blake and the Romantics), information about the binding and contents (particularly important in this case, since the contents have been moved about since their original creation by Blake), the provenance of the volumes, transcriptions of the text, and images of two versions of the book: Songs of Innocence and of Experience Copy C, London, 1794, and Copy Z, London, 1826 (both of which belong to the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection in the Library of Congress); plus some ephemera - a Manuscript Index and Proof Sheets; and, most interestingly, a section comparing the 1794 and 1826 Plates. It was digitally imaged at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C, using Apple Macs. Octavo used a number of industry standard pieces of software, including Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, Microsoft Word, as well as Adobe Acrobat version 5.0. The text about the edition helpfully explains how the individual sections can be printed out by selecting the appropriate page sequences (the transcription for example runs from pages 19 through to 77).

Some background information on Blake for those unfamiliar with his work: Blake became an artist and engraver during ‘England’s great age of art, when Sir Josua Reynolds presided over the Royal Academy, and luminaries such as Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney, and Thomas Lawrence successfully courted patronage from a wealthy upper class’. photo (51KB): page from Blake's Songs of Innocence and of ExperienceBlake however remained relatively obscure, intent on following his own path. He took lessons at Henry Pars’ Drawing School in the Strand, and at the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to James Basire, engraver for the London Society of Antiquaries, for seven years. He was admitted to the Royal Academy in 1779, and earned his living as a book illustrator - his main source of income for most of his life. In 1782 Blake married the illiterate daughter of a market-gardener, Catherine Boucher, to whom he was devoted.

The year after Blake’s marriage, he published a volume of verse by the standard booksellers route, Poetical Sketches. However it made little impact, and it may be that this caused Blake to consider producing and printing his own work. On the other hand, as Curran suggests, ‘perhaps… it was… that, with nothing to warrant financial success, no sensible publisher would have been prepared to wager his business on so unlikely a prospect’. And, by way of explanation of the highly idiosyncratic nature of Blake’s illuminated books, Curran observes that:

wholly in charge of his own production, from etching and inking his copperplates to hand-coloring the pages, Blake did not have to subscribe to the terms of production or the kinds of schedules we normally associate with a publishing house. His works could be produced individually or in small multiples over a period of decades, at times in response to specific commissions. Necessity probably dictated the method that Blake came to use. Unable to afford a commercial etching press and even at times hard put to undertake the expense of the essential copperplates, Blake developed a method that was fundamentally the opposite of customary etching, allowing him, using a varnish resistant to acid, to transfer his texts onto a heated copperplate from a specially coated paper, then add his designs and, after printing onto paper, superimpose coloring. This innovation required great skill but it also allowed Blake extraordinary flexibility in rendering his final product.

25 copies of the original (and separate) Songs of Innocence survive, but only ten of these are complete. photo detail from title page (28KB): Songs of Innocence and of Experience)Eleven of them have watermarks which show that they were completed well after the combined Songs were created. The joint work survives in some thirty complete or near complete copies - however only twenty-four of these were produced in Blake’s lifetime. The Songs of Innocence and of Experience were the most popular (if that is the word) of Blake’s illuminated books in his own day, and his reputation from his lifetime until our own day rests to a very large extent on these works. They remain (unlike other Blake works), both accessible and often read. Curran quotes Blake’s title page which describes the combined Songs as “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul,” emphasising the contrasting natures of the two parts, but Blake evidently conceived this contrast ‘as far more complex than a strict bifurcation of the sequences suggests. In later copies, he shifted four poems from their original position among the Songs of Innocence to the Songs of Experience (and even then, not always uniformly)’. So this makes an edition (such as this one) which allows comparison between early and late copies, of particular interest. The two editions chosen for comparison represent one of the earliest and one of the latest copies of the work, and differ greatly in appearance.

How easy is this edition to use? screenshot (65KB): Curran article with hotlinksIn terms of the organisation of the material and the quality of the digitisation, it cannot be faulted. The introductory essay is excellent, and the other materials are extremely useful. The introductory essay is hyperlinked to the examples and comparisons, so that the user can move back and forth within the file - a page from the text is reproduced here showing these links. However opening a single large Acrobat file (about 112mb) requires a fairly modern machine if the user is not to have to wait a substantial amount of time for individual pages to load. I haven’t seen earlier versions of the Octavo interface which used multiple files, and cannot compare the usability directly. I can say that there was no problem using this CD on an 800mhz PC with 128mb of RAM. The single Acrobat file could be copied to the hard-disk in cases where the read access rate from a CD player is slow.

How does this CD compare with access to materials available from the William Blake Archive [2] on the Web? The William Blake Archive is now a large library, and this CD is the equivalent of one or two volumes from such a library. However, the existence of libraries (digital or otherwise) does not discourage interest in ownership of or access to volumes which can be consulted elsewhere (and Blake is fortunate to have such a resource available - few other authors have anything as good). You can imagine the access problems with large scale graphics over standard dialup. Within a university setting in which high bandwidth access to the Internet is standard and reliable, where the student requires access to a large number of Blake’s works, there might be many reasons to prefer to go to the William Blake Archive. There are excellent facilities for comparison there too. For those however with requirements less focussed on an upcoming dissertation or Ph.D thesis, this edition contains everything needed to appreciate the Songs, and is a pleasure to use. It is a useful critical edition in itself, and the Curran essay contains pointers for the student wishing to pursue study of the book further.


  1. Octavo is based at 134 Linden Street, Oakland California, and can be found on the Web at: http://www.octavo.com
  2. The William Blake Archive: http://www.blakearchive.org/

Author Details

Philip Hunter
Research Officer

Email: p.j.hunter@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: http://homes.ukoln.ac.uk/~lispjh/

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Article Title:“Songs of Innocence and of Experience”
Author: Philip Hunter
Publication Date: 30-July-2003
Publication: Ariadne Issue 36
Originating URL: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue36/hunter-rvw/