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” (MHH20) and “Without Contraries is no progression” (MHH3),1 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 Thel2
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”,3 after all.
1 – MHH – William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, from Wikisource: en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Marriage_of_Heaven_and_Hell.
2 – From a letter written to Thomas Butts, 6 July 1803. Keynes, Geoffrey, The Letters of William Blake, Macmillan 1956, p. 87, archive.org/stream/lettersofwilliam002199mbp/lettersofwilliam002199mbp_djvu.txt.
3 – The Book of Thel (transcript), from Wikisource: en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Book_of_Thel_%28transcript%29.