An ‘Immortal Hand’
Romantic-era poet William Blake has left fingerprints all over contemporary pop culture.
Poet and artist William Blake created some of the most indelible work of the Romantic era. But for more than two centuries, his works posed a technical challenge. Literary critics claimed Blake’s writing, and art historians, his illustrations—with neither camp able to do justice to the full body of his work.
Two decades ago, the William Blake Archive—sponsored by the University with the Library of Congress and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—set out to take advantage of the possibilities of digital media. For the first time, the archive fully brought together Blake's writings and illustrations, as he had originally produced them.
The archive—co-edited by Morris Eaves, a professor of English and the Robert L. Turner Professor of Humanities at Rochester—now holds almost 7,000 images from 45 of the world's research libraries and museums, and a transformative redesign, launched in December, makes the site more accessible than ever before.
The redesigned archive was nominated for an international Digital Humanities Award in the category of Best Digital Humanities Tool. It complements the leading academic journal for Blake studies, Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, which is also coedited by Eaves and marks the 50th anniversary of its founding this year.
Interweaving the journal and the archive allows scholars to move seamlessly between the two. “It’s not as if they’re two different entities, and we think that’s unprecedented,” says Eaves. “There are many journals devoted to Romantic writers, and there are several digital projects related to those writers—but they don’t have anything to do with each other. I think we’re the only ones in that position.”
But you don't need to consult the archive or the journal to feel Blake's influence, which pervades popular culture through music, literature, television, and film.
A new solution to an old problem—and a beautiful one, at that
Blake Archive cofounder and coeditor Morris Eaves, a professor of English and the Richard L. Turner Professor of Humanities, says the archive’s redesign was long in coming—and that it’s been worth the wait.
Interview by Kathleen McGarvey
What’s new in the redesigned Blake Archive?
The original site began to take shape in the early 1990s. And the old archive didn’t only look like 1996; it really did function like 1996, but with a lot of things added to it—like a car with improvements that still functioned pretty much like the old car.
We knew that there was a potential for creating this much sleeker piece of software. Now it’s very flashy. We wanted to maintain all the functions we already had, but we wanted them to work in better ways. And we wanted to add one of the things we lacked from the beginning: very efficient, easy navigation across the site.
There are two really remarkable things about the new site. One is a deep comparison function that lets you compare works that are alike, or that are akin to each other, in various ways.
The other was always present in the archive, but it’s been the least understood feature of the site: the ability to search for the contents of an image. For two decades, we’ve been compiling excruciatingly detailed textual descriptions of each image. Now they’re the basis for an image search that really works. If you want to find all of the images with an angel with feathered wings who appear alongside little boys with dogs, you can do that—and you can do it fast.
LISTEN TO: "The Fly," read by Eric Loy.
Loy is a PhD candidate in the Department of English. He serves as the project coordinator for the William Blake Archive. His team carries out transcriptions that eventually become encoded, and go onto the archive website.
How has the archive helped to set a standard for digital humanities?
There’s a fundamental problem in the digital humanities, which we’ve known about from the beginning: what eventually will happen to whatever project you undertake is almost entirely unknown. That sharply differentiates work in the digital humanities from work in the traditional humanities, where what you’re going to do is write a book, or publish in a journal, or publish a collection.
In the digital humanities, things change so fast. Our first years of planning began in 1993 and coincided with the first years of the World Wide Web as we know it. We had no idea what the future of the project was. We just blindly walked down this path because we thought Blake needed it—he needed this kind of synthesized place where people could see the full range of his work.
Like many of the early projects in the digital humanities, we weren’t thinking up new problems—we were creating what we thought could be new solutions to old problems. And the old problem, in this case, was that Blake’s work was hard to know fully because it was so dispersed across collections around the world and because it was directed into two basic channels: English departments and art and art history departments. And those disciplines have different ways of dealing with their subjects.
LISTEN TO: "London," read by Eric Loy.
How did scholars handle Blake before digitization?
Art historians were fairly busy with Blake over the last 100 years, creating catalogs and a few books. And literary scholars were busy creating commentaries and basic tools like bibliographies, and also catalogs of their own and editions of Blake’s texts.
But the twain seldom met, and the limitations of print were really serious because you simply couldn’t reproduce enough of Blake’s work to give anybody more than just a hint of what it all amounted to in the end. And even if you did that, you would do it in a form that would be so mediocre that it would be good for reference, but it wouldn’t be sufficient to use as the basis for real scholarship.
So we set our aim as a synthesis, in one place, of all of Blake’s work, drawing from all of the major collections, and a lot of the minor collections, in the world. Our aim was to collect all of Blake’s work. We thought it was a fairly impossible goal, but that we’d just aim there anyway.
LISTEN TO: "The Nurse's Song," read by Joey Kingsley.
Kingsley is a PhD candidate in the Department of English. She recently joined the staff of the William Blake Archive, and serves as a copy editor for the various letters written by Blake.
Is the archive changing Blake scholarship?
All the major Blake collections in the world now are contributors to the archive. Our basic task these days is to go to collections that may only have one or two Blake objects, but they can be very important objects.
Recent critical works often credit the Blake Archive with changing the nature of research on Blake. And we’ve also established—because we go back so far, to 1996—the gold standard for what has sometimes been called micro-editing: editing at a very precise, scholarly level, both pictures and text. We stand in the same position as, say, a traditional scholarly editor who would be editing Shakespeare or editing Milton.
LISTEN TO: "The Lamb," read by Joey Kingsley.
What’s distinctive about how the archive works?
It’s a major collaborative enterprise of the sort that’s never existed in English departments before, because there’s usually no real reason for this kind of teamwork. The closest thing, historically, is traditional editorial projects, which usually have some element of collaboration. If you’re setting out to do an edition of the collected works of Shakespeare, you’re unlikely to attack that as a single scholar.
Our students, especially graduate students, are part of a research team for the archive. The Rochester team meets weekly to talk about our particular task, which is to deal with Blake’s texts in any form: manuscripts, inscriptions on engravings, letters, marginalia, and so on. And annually everyone meets at Chapel Hill for what we call “Blake Camp,” where we discuss the problems that can’t be solved at a distance. Graduate students typically work alone; they rarely get to do this kind of collaborative work.
Prints from top:
Print made by William Blake, 1757–1827, British, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Plate 42, "The Tyger" (Bentley 42), 1794, Color-printed relief etching with watercolor on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
Print made by William Blake, 1757–1827, British, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Plate 33, Experience Title Page (Bentley 29), 1794, Color-printed relief etching with pen and ink and watercolor on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
Print made by William Blake, 1757–1827, British, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Plate 2, Innocence Title Page (Bentley 3), 1789, Relief etching printed in green with pen and ink and watercolor on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
Print made by William Blake, 1757–1827, British, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Plate 37, "Nurse's Song" (Bentley 38), 1794, Color-printed relief etching with pen and ink and watercolor on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.