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Peter Otto, ed., William Blake; Nicholas Shrimpton, ed., William Blake: Selected Poems

Alexander S. Gourlay

As one expects of Oxford University Press, these two new selected editions of works by Blake are competently and thoughtfully executed. One also expects critical and editorial conservatism from Oxford; although both editors have freshened the introductions and notes and organized the works in original ways, these editions offer few innovations even in comparison with Bentley’s 1978 two-volume Oxford edition. Indeed, it could be said that in presenting the visual aspects of Blake’s work the new ones are even less adventurous, in that there appear to be fewer supplementary images of Blake’s actual words and designs in the Otto volume, and except for a detail image of a page on the cover, none at all in Shrimpton’s. This apparent regression may be due to the advent of alternative means of promulgating Blake’s work, which have made clear color images of illuminated pages widely available, especially in the sophisticated and fairly inexpensive Princeton/​Blake Trust volumes, single-work facsimile editions, and, even more significantly, in the vast resources of the online William Blake Archive. Given that incorporating monochromatic snippets or even whole pages from illuminated books increases the cost and complexity of publishing, distorts the reader’s experience of the Blakean page, and provides only a small portion of Blake’s visual component, it makes sense for conventional publishers to refer interested readers to the archive or facsimiles rather than trying to convey the full visual aspect of his work in a mostly typographic text. That said, the recent editions of Blake works that combine thorough notes, full-size color images of all pages, and sophisticated transcriptions of the texts are much more satisfactory for most purposes than partially visual editions, and there is reason to wonder whether the world needs another collection that barely acknowledges the visual dimension.

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