English 738T, Spring 2015
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William Blake’s reorientation of textual space in The Book of Urizen

Posted by Kayla Harr 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.

See "Reli-gion" at the bottom of the left column.

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.

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2 Responses

  • Ruth says:

    Your post made me think of our first conversation about Blake and hacking the book. Before, we discussed how books can be hacked and what counted as ‘hacking’. I think discussing how the text and the images work together to create the alternate, storyworld of Blake would be another access point of discussing the kind of hacking we did at the beginning of the semester.
    In Adam Komisuruk’s article he describes the ‘flicker’ of the eye between the text and the image. He mainly focuses on anomalies, glitches, found on the page that stick out and therefore make the reader keep going back to them. However, I think what he describes is similar to the way you discuss your approach to plate 15. I think part of the shuttling/flickering that happens when reading Blake is between the text and the image. Even more so, perhaps, in the editions we had in class where the text was in two places, in the front as Blake’s prints and in the back typed out. I constantly moved my eyes from the printed text to the front where the images were and even on the page from the text to the image.
    I think that kind of interaction opens up different spaces in the text that could be accessed and ‘hacked’. By space, I mean the blank space between text and image and the moments between glances, like Komisaruk describes, it creates a lot of ‘in-between’ moments of reading and looking at the images. Consciously tracking those movements and ascribing their purpose and reason would be a different way to hack Blake’s book. The reader would no longer be just a passive viewer of the storyworld, but they would be slightly more active in understanding how the image is being produced in their mind so that ‘reading’ becomes a way of hacking a text as long as the reader is aware of the spaces they are navigating.

  • Collin Lam says:

    I think plate 15 that you have shown offers a great example of Blake’s obvious attempts to disrupt the text, but, more specifically, his desire to interrupt consciousness. The placement of the image forces the reader to break their reading mid-strophe. And yet, Blake uses images throughout his work to enhance the written text or represent something not expressed in the text. This textual/imagistic disruption functions sort of like discrepant supplementarity. The image and text may be inconsistent, but they only work in conjunction with each other. I like to think that that moment of interruption by the image or text, depending on how you look at it, mimics Blake’s overall theme; his great distrust of a singular perspective or continuity. If it does, then it certainly begs the question whether his form mimics his content, or if his content mimics his form. I’m sure he would argue neither, but they form each other.

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