When a mountain is not a molehill

I’m beginning to see the impossibility of exploring the entire mountain of literature on William Blake in full detail within the time span given for my postgraduate research. Is it a mountain? As far as publications about Blake,  G. E. Bentley, Jr., in his William Blake and His Circle (Toronto 2015) lists about 5000 books written on William Blake and around 13000 essays, since Blake’s time (1757-1827) until 2015. These published works include around 3500 publications in 46 different, non-English languages. That’s no molehill. Although I have no idea how many books have been written on Shakespeare, in comparison, it would be a far loftier mountain, guaranteed, of twice the age and far better received over time. Blake literature is growing, but not above Shakespeare.

Even within Blake studies, there are various valleys of like-minded research, streams that nourish and streams that dry up, smooth hill-tops of veneered perspectives on differing points of view, and perhaps some rugged ridges of debate – though I haven’t come across much pointed disagreement in what seems to be a cordial scholarly community. Even where differences exist, supported by Blake’s “Opposition is true Friendship” (MHH 20)  and “Without Contraries is no progression” (MHH 3), the landscape of Blakean literature becomes invigorating through contrast.

Of course, it’s realistic to draw limits on any project. My focus is a specific topic in relation to Blake, not the entire literature on him.

* * *

If I were a mole seeking to burrow into an ideal spot, first I would survey the terrain to orientate myself and find the best place to start digging. After much digging I would have contributed my own small molehill to that terrain. One might imagine as a mole in the field of their discoveries that they are instead a lofty mountain eagle. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Or as Alexander Pope puts it, in An Essay on Criticism (1709):

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

So the solution to not exaggerating molehills as mountains is in more learning. And I suppose the eagle to be sober. Being realistic is an important aspect of scholarship, and it goes both ways – reconciling the errors of both being over-confident and under-confident in one’s learning. Balance is the most effective path. I mention moles and eagles because Blake did, in Thel’s motto:

Does the Eagle know what is in the pit?
Or wilt thou go ask the Mole:
Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod?
Or Love in a golden bowl?
– The Book of Thel (i)

Balance necessitates practical sense, which is an antidote to any stress. A molehill is not a mountain, and that’s a good thing. As for the last two lines of Thel’s motto, the literal answer seems no, you can’t do those things.  But then it gets me thinking analogically

The landscape of literature on Blake is diverse and interesting. It shows there are many ways to understand what Blake wrote. Blake was big on “Sublime Allegory”,1 after all.

The Book of Thel
The front cover of William Blake’s The Book of Thel (1789)

Notes:
MHH – The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
1 – From a letter written to Thomas Butts, 6 July 1803

Which take on Blake?

It’s amazing to explore the range of literature on Blake, all forming part of a larger conversation around his work. There are so many different facets to Blake that have been written about: his poetry, art, political views, theology and mysticism, historical context, views on gender, symbolism, the British mythos, humanism, science, materialism, modernism, his followers, his influence in the Nineteenth Century, comparisons of Blake with Goethe, with Yeats, with other Romanticists and writers, his supposed madness, use of language, way of writing, influence on Twentieth Century popular culture, construction of visionary myth – on and on the list goes. Some of these are directed towards Blake or his work, while others take Blake’s perspective and mix it with another, and others again take Blake into another field altogether. Whatever is done, it seems quite clear there is a density to Blake’s visionary oeuvre which permits a multivalent unfolding into surrounding literature.

An exploration of this literature is what I’ve been doing recently, in preparation for a literature review. Having familiarity with what has been done gives greater ability in constructing something new to add to the established body of literature. In a literature review, the new work is placed in relationship with what has previously been explored, and this relationship is critically examined. This serves to orientate one’s contribution within a greater dialogue of the topic at hand—in my case, William Blake.

Yet as has been mentioned, Blake’s work has many facets and it connects many disciplines. Such is to be expected of any genius in the creation of literature. This diversity contributes both interest and validity to Blake, although I have found one persistent question exists for me in this journey of research: What did Blake want from his work? The answer is already given, quite explicitly, by Blake himself:

“The Nature of my Work is Visionary or Imaginative; it is an Endeavour to Restore what the Ancients call’d the Golden Age.”
– William Blake, “A Vision of the Last Judgment”

To restore a Golden Age. This statement invites yet more questions: What exactly is this Golden Age? Why did Blake endeavour for it? And how did he intend to restore it? Such questions require extensive study. As I continue my journey (and blog it) further aspects of my research on Blake will be revealed along these and other lines.

In whatever way Blake’s statement of purpose measures up to what I am creating in relation to Blake, I would like to think I am somehow fulfilling both the need for scholarship in my work and also a sense of respect towards Blake’s intentions. I would not claim to follow Blake in any kind of discipleship, nor to aid in his purposes, but I do seek to understand him as clearly as possible, whether or not I agree with the result of this. From there, I can at least say I have thoroughly and accurately explored the topic I am researching, and thereby contribute something worthwhile to Blakean studies. This is my aim as I now see it.