Hired to Depress: A Digital Scholarly Edition of William Blake's Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses

Twentieth-century reputation

John Sampson brought scholarly expertise to the editing of Blake's poetry in 1905, but a full and accurate edition of Blake's writings was still wanting. The challenge was taken up by Geoffrey Keynes, who more than any other individual shaped the public perception of Blake in the twentieth century. In 1921 Keynes published a detailed bibliography of Blake's writings, engraved book illustrations, and texts about him, followed four years later by a complete edition. Keynes continued to produce editions and scholarly essays devoted to Blake until his death in 1982. He was the key figure in founding in 1949 the William Blake Trust, which sponsored publication of facsimiles of the illuminated books (1951–76) and a second series of more affordable reproductions with scholarly introductions (1991–5).
Joseph Wicksteed's commentary on the Job engravings (1910) set a new standard for the study of Blake's pictorial art; S. Foster Damon's William Blake: his Philosophy and Symbols (1924) made a similar but more extensive contribution to the study of Blake's ideas and poetry, thereby initiating the critical appreciation of Blake in the United States. His reputation continued to develop in America through the inter-war years, assisted by major collectors (particularly Henry Huntington and Lessing Rosenwald) and a comprehensive exhibition of his works in Philadelphia in 1939; but it was not until 1947, with the publication of Northrop Frye's Fearful Symmetry, that Blake's reputation as a poet began an exponential ascent. By setting Blake within a tradition of poetry extending from the Bible to Virgil, Spenser to Milton, Frye's book, more than any other single study, established Blake as a defining presence in the pantheon of English Romantic poetry, the equal of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Seven years later, David Erdman's Blake: Prophet Against Empire: a Poet's Interpretation of the History of his Own Time, constructed an alternative foundation for the scholarly understanding of Blake in the second half of the century. Whereas Frye's perspective tended to emphasize a unifying system in Blake's work, nascent at the beginning and fleshed out in the later (and now fully appreciated) epics, Erdman perceived an evolution in response to shifting events in a revolutionary age. Frye's Blake rose above history; Erdman's Blake was fully engaged in time.


By the last two decades of the century, Erdman's view became dominant, as a host of scholars set Blake within various historical and cultural contexts, ranging from printmaking to radical protestant and political groups. Others argued for Blake as a prophet of twentieth-century intellectual fashions, finding him a Marxist, Freudian, or deconstructionist avant la lettre. The illuminated books, with their complex interactions between words and pictures, remained at the centre of critical debate, but every document, visual and verbal, received attention. During this same period, all requisite scholarly tools were produced: editions true to Blake's unconventional spelling and punctuation; a concordance to his writings; an exhaustive bibliography; complete catalogues of his paintings, drawings, and prints; several biographies; a journal-of-record devoted to its eponymous hero; and, by the century's final decade, an electronic archive on the internet. ‘Blake’ signified an academic industry as much as a man.
Blake's influence on the arts and on popular culture forms an important part of his twentieth-century legacy. In 1916 Charles Hubert Parry set to music the ‘Jerusalem’ lyric from Milton; it soon became one of the most sung hymns in the Church of England. The dramatic postures in Blake's Job designs led Keynes to conceive of the ballet Job, which d├ębuted in 1931 with music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, stage and costume designs by Gwendolen Raverat, and choreography by Ninette de Valois. Except for his profound effect on Yeats, Blake was not a major influence on twentieth-century British poetry. In America, however, the important poets Theodore Roethke and Allen Ginsberg, and the author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, considered themselves inspired by Blake. His impact on the visual arts was similarly limited, but intensely felt in the 1920s by a group of young printmakers, including Graham Sutherland.

By mid-century Blake had become one of the cultural icons of the English-speaking world. The British Museum, the British Library, and the Tate Gallery housed important collections of his works, as did the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, and several major institutions in the United States, including the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, the Yale University Center for British Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Single drawings and letters fetched at auction more than Blake made in his lifetime; copies of his illuminated books sold for over £1 million. ‘The Tyger’ from Songs of Experience became the most anthologized text in the language, The Ancient of Days one of the most widely recognized images. The installation of Jacob Epstein's bust of Blake in Westminster Abbey in 1957 signalled Blake's acceptance by the establishment; in the next decade he became a hero to a youthful counter-culture. ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’ (Blake, 35) and other energetic outbursts in Blake's writings became rallying cries for those advocating political, sensual, and intellectual liberation.

Blake's reputation reached international proportions by the end of the century. Translations of his poetry were complemented by exhibitions of his art in Germany, Italy, Japan, Israel, and Spain. In his homeland, a single sculptural response epitomized Blake's stature. Eduardo Paolozzi's monumental bronze of Isaac Newton, installed in the forecourt of the new British Library in 1995, copies Blake's Newton colour print of 1795. Britain entered a new millennium with the image of its greatest scientist, placed at the entry to its greatest repository of knowledge, shaped by the vision of William Blake.

Essick, Robert N.. “Blake, William (1757–1827).” Robert N. Essick. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oct. 2005. 26 Feb. 2016 <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/2585>.

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