William Blake’s reorientation of textual space in The Book of UrizenPosted by on Friday, May 8th, 2015 at 7:19 pm
In our discussion on The Book of Urizen, I called attention to figures’ eyes and gazes in Blake’s images, which were represented differently in various copies of the work. Further to that discussion, I’ve continued thinking about perspective in Blake, both that of the figures illustrated and of the reader. In particular, I am interested in how the engravings in The Book of Urizen govern the reader’s experience of space through the relationship between text and image. In Blake’s illuminated works, the boundary between text and image on plates that contain both cannot be clearly defined. Insofar as the text is not only decorated with designs in margins and between lines but is itself represented artistically rather than uniformly, I believe we can view the text as an extension of the image, and that such a conclusion bears significant implications for the representation and analysis of space in Blake’s works.
As language, Blake’s text communicates with the reader beyond the image, but the lettering itself remains a visual component of the image as a whole, and can communicate through visual as well as linguistic means, as when words are split visually, adding an additional visual inflection to their meaning. One such manipulation occurs in the word “Reli-gion” on Plate 25, an example that not only splits the word, but reverses the momentum of the reader’s progress through the text by directing the eye up and to the left to complete the word. Such movement, I believe, is particularly significant in that it defies the practice of reading text and forces the reader to visually interact with the plate in a process more akin to that which is applied to an image, in which the details of the image dictate the movement of the eye, in contrast to the predetermined and consistent path a reader usually takes through lines of text.
Just as the text exists as part of the image, Blake’s illustrations govern readers’ experience of the text. The page is endowed with a sense of space that expands or contracts based on the integration of text and image. In Plate 9, for example, the image represents a figure that seems constricted by the edges of the plate and the swirling material surface that surrounds him, and the arms locked around the face emphasize a sense of enclosure and tension. Similarly, the text that appears at the top of the plate is bordered on all sides, with heavy ornamental lines creating a parallel constriction in the reader’s visual navigation of the text. Further, the lines that frame the text originate in the material that surrounds the figure in the image. At the bottom right of the text panel, it appears that the texture of the image background transforms into the lines that both form and frame the text. The shift in color and texture as the material background of the image becomes the line of the text occurs without a break in the line, emphasizing continuity between text and image. Additional crossings of the visual border between image and text occur in Plate 18, where there is no distinction between the background of the image and that of the text, such that the text simply seems to hang in the sky above the figure represented, and Plate 22, in which the lines that ornament and divide the text spiral beyond the text panel, leaking into the world of the image.
It is possible to examine any plate of The Book of Urizen and find image-text interactions that would contribute to this discussion. To close my current analysis and gesture toward greater conclusions about how the reader’s experience of space in The Book of Urizen is altered through the integration or mutual assimilation of text and image, I’ll turn to Plate 15. This plate bears a wealth of illustrations among its lines of texts, modeling the means by which Blake tells a story with language and image together, narrating through text in one moment and speaking through pictures in the next. In a mirroring of Blake’s practice of inserting images between lines of text, the plate as a whole represents two sets of text divided by an image, with the image not only complementing the text but contributing to the narrative and determining the reader’s experience of the plate and its contents, both visual and textual.
When I approach Plate 15, the illustrated lines guide me to understand that the text is split into two columns. However, because I assume the text’s dominance, I expect to first read the left column, moving from the top to the bottom of the plate, and then to resume at the top of the plate with the right column. Thus, I essentially ignore the image in the middle of the plate, relegating it to the role of a decoration that I will examine after experiencing the plate’s primary communicative material, which I assume to be the text. Instead, Blake treats the image as part of the ongoing narrative, not an element of the plate to be skimmed over but one that forms an integral part of the reader’s progression through the plate and directs that progression. Therefore, the columns of text are not continuous from top to bottom; the left column must be read up to the border of the image, then the right column to the same border. The image is encountered as a whole between the top and bottom panels of text before reading can resume with the bottom left column, such that the eye must travel diagonally across the breadth of the image before reaching the next section of text. While my assumptions as a reader may differ from others’, I believe the split between reader expectation and the reality of Blake’s plates that is observable in Plate 15 is indicative of the comprehensive reorientation of textual space that Blake achieves in The Book of Urizen. Blake’s readers may attempt to examine the textual and visual elements separately, but his representation ensures that the reader must encounter text and image as one, entering into a spatial experience that challenges definitions of the book, literature, narration, and art.