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Sarah Haggarty and Jon Mee, William Blake: Songs of Innocence and of Experience: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism

Alexander S. Gourlay

The subtitle of this overview of critical responses to Songs raises the questions, “Essential for what?” and “Essential to whom?” The book is not really right for beginners trying to understand the Songs, since the poems themselves are barely mentioned, much less explicated; it isn’t comprehensive enough to help scholars establish that what they want to say has not already been said; and it is a poor substitute for reading the critics it treats, because for the most part it characterizes and analyzes rather than epitomizes their approaches. Its two authors both write clearly and well, and they usually explain concepts and terms that would not be familiar to undergraduates, but the efficiently allusive prose is still likely to be over the heads of many of those seeking help reading Blake criticism. Thus the optimal audience for this book is small—perhaps panicky doctoral candidates preparing to cram for comprehensive exams or junior professors who have just been told that next semester’s lecture course on romanticism will become an advanced seminar on the Songs. Several of my undergraduate students recently found the book in the library and used bits of it as if it were a typical reader’s guide to the poems. In general they benefited from their exposure to it, especially in that it helped them to identify influential criticism to read without having to slog through the vast swamps of undifferentiated twaddle that turn up in a computer-assisted scholarly search.

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