Rare Item Analysis
by Hannah Johnson, Annie McCausland, and Cody Shreffler
This rare-item is a first edition of the first volume of William Blake’s (1757–1827) poetry to be printed for a wider audience. This edition takes on even more significance because it belonged to Robert Browning (1812–1889). Lawyer W.A. Dow gave Browning this book. Robert and Elizabeth Browning (1806–1861) most likely both read this edition of Songs of Innocence and Experience. This item is located in the Armstrong Browning Library Rare Collection.
Robert Browning’s first edition copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience was printed to include only Blake’s poetry without the accompanying artwork. This is important because it affected the Browning’s understanding of William Blake’s work. Another important factor that most likely shaped the Browning’s perception of Blake is the first full study of Blake in 1863 by Alexander Gilchrist (ABL Brownings’ Lib Cop X BL-C B B636gi 1863 v.1 and v.2). Robert Browning knew of this study, and because it was the first biography on William Blake it would have made up most of his knowledge about Blake. The third point of significance is the relation between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and William Blake’s poetry. There are undeniably similar themes and ideas in their work, and Elizabeth’s related poetry was published years after this copy of Blake’s work was given to Robert.
Alexander Gilchrist’s The Life of William Blake, “Pictor Ignotus” was published in 1863 during the life of Browning and his 19th century contemporaries. There was not much information about the life of Blake available to readers until this study was published. Therefore, Gilchrist’s study shaped most people’s understanding and perception of Blake. Gilchrist gave an accurate description of the details and events of William Blake’s life, but also included a great deal about Blake’s eccentricity. As an artist, Blake was prophetic and visionary. His poetry and visual artwork are meant to go hand in hand. Alexander Gilchrist misrepresented this by describing Blake’s vision and strangeness as if he were a mad man. He also further misrepresented Blake’s work in volume II of his study by printing Songs of Innocence and Experience apart from each poem’s accompanying artwork. Gilchrist included this artwork at the end of the volume, but clearly does not see the significance of Blake’s full work.
Despite Gilchrist’s misrepresentation and misunderstanding of William Blake’s work, he expressed reverence and admiration for Songs of Innocence and Experience. Gilchrist brought Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience into the public eye in a very positive way. When discussing its strengths, he wrote, “For a nobler depth in beauty, with accordant grandeur of sentiment and language, I know no parallel nor hint elsewhere as such a poem as The Little Black Boy… We may read these poems again and again, and they continue fresh as at first. There is something unsating in them, a perfume as of a growing violet, which renews itself as fast as it is inhaled” (Gilchrist 73). Gilchrist clearly appreciated Blake’s writing, and his description and praise for Blake’s work must have helped lead Browning and his contemporaries to a similar respect and appreciation. For a more extensive overview of Gilchrist’s study, there is a summary on Baylor’s 19th Century Research Seminar blog by Anna McKay under the title Alexander Gilchrist’s The Life of William Blake, “Pictor Ignotus.”
This particular item is of especial interest because it would have been the first time that the Brownings would have encountered the works of William Blake. This means that any deviations from the original printings of Songs of Innocence and Experience would have greatly affected Blake’s first reception by a wider audience. One of the first things that was noted about the 1839 edition of Songs of Innocence and Experience is the absence of the original artwork that accompanied the engraved printings of the 1789-1795 copies. These engravings were produced by Blake using a novel printing technique that he developed himself. This makes them quite significant in allowing the audience to perceive the original intent of Blake’s poetry. In Blake’s original printing of “The Little Black Boy,” it is paired with an image of a small white child and a black child next to a man who seems to be God. The white child is depicted standing directly in front of God while the black child is off to the side behind the white child. This image solidifies the very pointed commentary that Blake is making about the inequality of race that existed in Europe during the 18th century. Their absence places a greater burden on the reader to recreate the images in their own mind and emphasizes the importance of the structure for interpretive meaning. Because of this shifted significance, the layout of the 1839 edition was then compared to the original printings by Blake. Blake’s original copy B of the 1789-1795 edition was used for comparison. The 1839 edition was found to be 93% different in arrangement to Blake’s original copy with forty one changes to the poem’s enumeration. Interestingly, nowhere in the 1839 edition are these changes noted. As well, the editor includes an additional poem at the end of the edition called “The Grave” that was absent in Blake’s printings of the work.
After reading through the 1839 edition, a very compelling narrative seemed to emerge from the arrangement of the poetry that could not be easily disregarded. The poems seemed to be progressing through a timeline that begins in childhood, moves through adolescence, and seems to end in middle adulthood. Specifically, the final poems in the sequence of Songs of Experience seem to suggest the struggles of a young woman who meets a tragic end after being expelled from her father’s house in “A Little Girl Lost.” In “The Sick Rose,” a very feminine image, the rose, is violated by “The invisible worm” (2). The original poem, out of this constructed context, seems well described by Laurence Perrine who states:
if the rose can mean love, innocence, humanity, imagination, and life; and if the worm can mean the flesh, jealousy, deceit, concealment, possessiveness, experience, Satan, rationalism death (and more), can the two symbols therefore mean just anything? The answer is No. The rose must always represent something beautiful or desirable or good. The worm must always represent some kind of corrupting agent. Both symbols define an area of meaning, and a viable interpretation must fall within that area.
The editor uses this vague but pointed poem to create these tragic circumstances for the little lost girl and pushes the narrative into “The Grave.” I believe this is to imply that she has died but that through her death have sprung forth “The blossoms of Eternal Life!”(p. 76). Through the experiences of this girl who has never really lived we as an audience have gained something eternal. This could perhaps be the culmination of the insights that the journey through innocence and experience has provided. Perhaps even just this narrative, the birth and death of this self-contained existence pressed against these pages and preserved like a flower just before it wilts could be considered something eternal. In any case, the deliberate construction of this particular edition provokes many new questions and discussions about this series of poems.
William Blake first published Songs of Innocence and Experience in London in 1789. Because of the time period he wrote in, his works include his protests against the economic and social changes that were occurring around him. Throughout his poetry he indirectly fought for personal religious experiences rather than forced institutionalized experiences, against the transition from rural to urban environments, and against social injustice. This particular edition was published in 1839, many years after Blake’s death. Blake saw the migration from rural to urban environments, and he protested against this and its results in many of his poems, including “The Little Black Boy” and “The Chimney Sweeper” poems. Because of this migration, children were forced into hard labor and bought and sold by their parents and masters for money.
Blake influenced the work of many authors, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who read Songs of Innocence and Experience only four years after it had been published. Because of how Elizabeth admired Blake, she included very similar topics in her poems, such as: “The Cry of the Children” and “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point.” These two poems parallel three topics that Blake emphasized in both “The Chimney Sweeper” and “The Little Black Boy”: death, relationship with God and masters, and the detachment from God with regard to race. In “The Cry of the Children,” E.B.B. says, “”True,” say the children, “it may happen / That we die before our time!” These lines highlight the way that the children view death and the innocence of their thoughts because of their naïveté. Similarly, Blake writes, ““And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy, / He’d have God for his father & never want joy.” Just like E.B.B.’s lines, Blake emphasizes how the little boy in the poem doesn’t fully understand death. The children in “The Cry of the Children” are talking about how their friend Alice has died which is similar to Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” from his Songs of Innocence in that the children in both works do not fully comprehend death. These similarities not only highlight the minds of children, but also the controversial topic of child labor that was so prevalent during this time of economic and social shifts.
Another aspect in which E.B.B.’s work parallel Blake’s is the children’s relationship to their masters. Because these children were thrust into hard labor, they began misplacing God with their masters at an early age – something that both Blake and Browning protested. Browning writes, “’But, no!’ say the children, weeping faster, / ‘He is speechless as a stone; / And they tell us, of His image is the master’.” These lines show how the children view their masters as insensitive to the suffering they were enduring and thus parallel Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” from his Songs of Experience. Blake writes, “And because I am happy and dance and sing, / They think they have done me no injury, / And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King, / Who make up a heaven of our misery.” Both Blake and Browning highlight the lack of concern the masters feel for the children, who in return are too young and naïve to differentiate between their masters and God. Because the children combine their masters and God, a sense of detachment is formed as a result.
This sense of detachment is prevalent in both Blake and Brownings’ work, but in E.B.B.’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” she writes, “I am black, I am black; / And yet God made me, they say. / But if He did so, smiling back / He must have cast His work away,” which show the distance the speaker feels from God. Belief in a higher power is important in both “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” and “The Little Black Boy” because it displays how while the speakers believe there is a God, they do not believe He is there for them or willing to let them into Heaven. As Blake writes, “And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair, / And be like him and he will then love me.” The little black boy seems to assume that God is and always will be closer to the white boy, and that he still needs to earn the white boy’s love. Gaining the love of this boy seems even more important to him than God’s love. These lines also parallel Brownings’ lines form “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” in which the female character also shows this sense of distance and detachment from God.
Through this project, we have gained a greater appreciation for just how important the composition of an author’s work can be well beyond the specific text. Our hope is that further discussions can be held on this particular arrangement of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and that this might allow for a clearer understanding of how later writers might have originally grappled with Blake. It would be very interesting to see, if this narrative interpretation suggested by the arrangement of poems particular to this 1839 edition of Songs appears to be consistent enough, just how the work as a whole speaks to itself and what an in-depth analytical breakdown of that narrative might look like. This rare item helps show the influences of the Romantic era that Blake lived in because it shows the ideals of the literary movement and how authors and artists wielded these standards. Blake’s works were both direct and indirect protests against the social changes that were occurring around him. He sought to identify the social injustices within society while emphasizing the importance of personal religious experiences rather than forced institutional experiences. These concepts are important because they shaped the works of the authors during this time period and set the stage for the shift in ideals that would soon appear. Romanticism aimed to highlight emotion and the individual while simultaneously stressing the importance of nature. The movement was a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment which called for valuing reason and logic over faith and religion which is why these authors so diligently fought for the Romantic ideals. This time period was one in which very few technological advancements had been made, so when the Industrial Revolution began, those who valued the Romanticized standards combated against the new ideals to maintain the previous.
One resource that can be used when pursuing projects such as this one is the Brownings’ Correspondence. This database is chock-full of letters and documents that pertain to the Brownings, who had relationships with many famous authors, including William Blake. Another resource would be many of the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning because of how great an influence Blake was in her life and work. With both the Brownings’ Correspondence and the works of E.B.B., the amount of information is seemingly endless and furthers the importance of the time period as well.