The Electronic Labyrinth

William Blake and the Illuminated Book

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite. This I shall do by printing in the infernal method by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

In the late 1780s, William Blake revived the Illuminated Manuscript. Blake, an engraver by trade and prophet by vocation, believed that the Printed Book was an example of the way in which the "the Satanic Mills" of the industrial revolution had denigrated art into a mass commodity. For his own politically satiric and poetically visionary works, he developed the Illuminated Book as means of fusing the visual and the literary into a form which--according to Blake--would cleanse the "doors of perception," that is the senses and their relationship to the imagination, and awaken Man from the "sleep of reason."

Exactly how Blake produced his Illuminated Books remains unclear. However, we know that each page was produced by deeply etching copper plates, possibly (as the quotation above suggests) with the aid of corrosive acids, with both text and elaborate pictorial designs. These plates would then be used to make prints either by a form of colour-printing with an opaque medium or by using a single coloured ink. In the latter case, the print would then be illuminated by hand using water-colours. Each of his Illuminated Books was thus a unique work of art and a radical break with not only traditional book printing but the traditional means of presenting poetic and philosophical discourse.

Each page of an Illuminated Book presents a section of richly e/al-lusive text (Blake developed an elaborate private mythology to critique eighteenth century society) surrounded by allegorical images, the Tree of Life, the frowning face of Urizen, the flames of Orc. These images exist in a kind of dialectical relationship with the text, not simply illustrating the narrative, but embellishing it, adding another dimension that secures it from any reductively literal reading.

The utter originality of these publications, together with their time-consuming mode of production and Blake's often abstruse poetic style, ensured their almost complete obscurity. Only nine copies of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, for example, are known to exist.

Blake's attempt to adjust the formal properties of the book to accord with his own aesthetic principles, to in effect use the very medium of publication as a form of political subversion, remains salutary. The Illuminated Books, from The Songs of Innocence to the monumental Milton and Jerusalem, strive toward a kind of polyphonic, almost cinematic melding of the written and the visual which anticipate many of the possibilities of multi-media hypertexts.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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