The Blake Digital Text Project
Nelson Hilton, University of Georgia
About the author...
1. The Digital
Text, the Online Concordance, and Annotations
The electronic text offers links from individual poems to detailed bibliographies and to annotations and interpretations for each stanza. We can see this in "The Tyger" (in Songs of Experience), a poem which a 1992 analysis of over 400 literary anthologies reports as the most widely anthologized poem in the language (Harmon, 1077). Clicking on any stanza will open its annotations.
An important part
of Blake's writing includes his own vigorous and provocative annotations
which he made in reading the works of others. In fixed, hard copy
editions of Blake's work, it is difficult to provide enough of the collateral
material to make Blake's comments fully understandable to the reader.
While the Erdman edition attempts to include enough context to situate
each particular comment, the excerpts are perforce limited and local.
The plan of the Project is to provide full text and collateral material
for the relevant works so that the reader can branch from an annotation
to the larger context. Adding material relevant to Blake's life and surroundings
is another future goal of the Project.
availability of Blake's text in electronic form enables another enhancement
to the text, an online searchable concordance. The one previous concordance
to Blake reproduces computer generated output
of more than thirty years ago. That effort lists only words, and not all
words at that, as it omits those which occur very frequently and supplies
only the whole line in which the word occurs, regardless of the word's position
in the line. The Project's Concordance offers greatly enhanced search capabilities,
including search for strings as well as words, wild cards, optional case
sensitivity, and links to surrounding context. Still under development are
KWIC-alignment of search results and Boolean searching. The digitizing of
the Erdman text has also made possible its rearrangement so that concordance
results are returned in a roughly chronological sequence.
For an artist who
argues that his "Every word and every letter is studied and put into its
fit place" (Jerusalem pl. 3), the ability to cross-reference instantly
Blake's entire oeuvre can open new insights. We begin to see that
verbal artists think not just in words, but with them through their
associated links. For Blake, who etched his own words, we will have in
time the ability to cross-reference his various material renderings or
calligraphy of particular words and explore ways in which he toys even
with single letters to play with signification (to make worship,
for instance, read warship in a context which supports either meaning
[Jerusalem, pl. 21]). The
web environment facilitates exploration of these relationships and possibilities
2. Visual and
The Project's electronic
edition also makes possible the incorporation of audio into our experience
of Songs, a capability appropriate for the work of an artist who
composed his own melodies and whose work has frequently been set to music.
From a pedagogical point of view, the musical interpretations are desirable
for the ease with which they make obvious almost instantly the reality
of different yet convincing interpretations. The musical interpretations
also illustrate dramatically that reading itself is as much a matter of
effective performance as the determination of some final truth.
with "The Lamb," or "The Tyger" the presence of audio is signaled by the
image of the piper in the upper right; clicking here opens a list of versions
available as streaming audio. The "i-icons" open information concerning
the source of the material (which has generously been made freely available
by the artists). The growing collection of audio interpretations is promising
because these interpretations allow for new comparisons and readings of
the poems and because they prompt renewed individual or group engagement
with the text.
3. Hypertext and
The different sequences of poems with their radically different juxtapositions can create very different readings. Before the advent of hypertext, appreciation of this intrinsic aspect of Songs was hampered by the usual decision of editors to follow a particular order which Blake favored very late in his life for the last six copies of his work. The limitation of this practice is evident when one figures that this order represents less than fifteen percent of the total number of copies of Innocence. The very few printed editions which supply information on alternative sequences do so in a cryptic fashion too time-consuming for most readers to decode and apply.
The Songs hypertext obviates this difficulty by making the various sequence-links from a particular poem readily visible and instantly accessible. Arrows in upper corners of frames on either side of a particular poem toggle a list of links to the poems which precede or follow according to their respective copies. Consider, for instance, "The Lamb" in Songs of Innocence and its right-hand frame. Clicking on the arrow [>] in the upper corner opens a list of all the poems which follow on this in different copies. Copies of Songs of Innocence are identified using the lowercase letters a through u, copies of Songs of Innocence and of Experience are referenced in UPPERCASE A through AA, with the exception of the late, similarly sequenced copies (UWXYZAA) which are identified collectively as @. For specific information regarding these various copies, the viewer should consult the descriptions of G. E. Bentley, Jr.
the case of "The Lamb," one can see that while it is in fact followed
most often by "The Little Black Boy" (in the conventionally accepted order),
there are many other possibilities as well. In fact, it is followed
more often by "The Blossom" in Songs of Innocence (copies identified
in lowercase). Considering "The
Lamb" and its left-hand frame, we may click on the arrow [<] to
see a list of poems which precede it in various copies and note that "The
Lamb" and "The Blossom" are linked together in nearly two-thirds of the
copies of Songs of Innocence.
These considerations are not entirely pedantic. The "Introduction" to Innocence lays out a concern with individual and cultural progression from unarticulated sound to words to writing which builds on the preceding title page's depiction of the "scene of instruction." The poem which most often follows the "Introduction," "The Shepherd," could also be thought of as part of the front matter or introductory sequence if it is seen to serve as a veiled condemnation of the "lean and flashy songs" of his age (as in Blake's earlier "To the Muses"). Reading the design together with the text, we may well wonder if the saccharine "sweet lot" which delight the sheep herd is dismissed by the truly inspired guide as "How sweet"!
These plates might be seen as serving to introduce a collection which depicts a series of stages or vignettes in the coming-to-consciousness of language / the symbolic order / art. However, if we accept the conventional ordering of the poems, our interpretation is thrown off by the position of the poem "Infant Joy" (which in the usual order comes third from the end). "Infant Joy" depicts ground zero of language instruction as the mother speaks both parts of her dialogue with her two-day-old (i.e., unbaptized, so unnamed) infant (etymologically in-fans, "not speaking"). We can reconcile this discrepancy by considering an alternative ordering of the poems. When we consider all the sequences leading from "The Shepherd," we find that "Infant Joy" does occupy our posited opening position just as often (eleven times) as it does the terminal one.
The point is not to argue that one sequence is better than another. However, comparing possible orderings is illuminating to a student's understanding of Blake's work, and one ordering may be pedagogically more useful than another.
As it stands, the Project offers a portal to Blake's visionary world via its Web-based presentation. In this environment, multidimensional features of Blake's endeavor become accessible, aspects which could before be appreciated only through great effort with disparate resources. Perhaps the crucial lesson of all the earlier effort to study the relation of text to design, to imagine various musical interpretations, to consider the effect of different sequences has been the realization, at last, of the central role that the reader plays in the construction of Blake's meaning. Our search of texts for some definitive answer (etymologically, what one "swears" in reply) ends with the discovery of our own response-ability. Such insight is too much needed to be shelved away in libraries.
Blake Digital Text Project: http://www.english.uga.edu/wblake