Blake and the Production of Meaning

  • Robert N. Essick


Opening acts of self-situating have become a cliché of modern literary criticism.1 Yet I feel compelled to indulge briefly in that mode, given the perspectives of the authors appearing in this volume and of the participants in the conference from which it emerged. My colleagues in both contexts are literary scholars and art historians; their relationship to Blake’s works is determined in many respects by those professional roles. Although I have from time to time masqueraded as both an art historian and a literary critic, I relate myself to Blake primarily as a collector of prints and drawings.2 Since my presence here at least hints at a social or institutional anomaly, I have taken the anomalous — in its etymological sense of ‘difference’ — as my theme. I want to explore the ways different cultural and institutional contexts create different perspectives on Blake which in turn produce not just different interpretations, but different conceptions of the grounds and constituents of meaning — or at least what constitutes meaning’s next-of-kin, significance.3 I will pursue this issue in light of two recent — and I believe extremely important — books about Blake, but I also want to delve into some differences within Blake’s canon of pictures and texts. My final goal will be to call to the bar one of Blake’s fundamental principles: the unity of conception and execution.


Graphie Medium Colour Printing Graphie Execution Tonal Process English Professor 
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  1. 1.
    For a recent and philosophically clever study of this manoeuvre, see Stanley Stewart, ‘A Critique of Pure “Situating”’, New Literary History 25 (1994) pp. 1–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 3.
    E. D. Hirsch, Jr, has constructed a distinction between ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ similar (but not strictly identical) to my point here. While Hirsch discriminates a stable, ‘original’ or even ‘anachronistic’ meaning from ‘meaning-as-related-to-something-else’ or ‘meaningfulness’, I merely wish to indicate a difference between value-neutral meaning and the imputation of value to that meaning which makes it (or the object representing that meaning) significant. See Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967) pp. 62–7, 140–4; The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) pp. 79–81.Google Scholar
  3. 9.
    See for example Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990).Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    Mitchell, ‘Representation’, in Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990) p. 21.Google Scholar
  5. 15.
    For Blake’s sense of gender implications in graphic processes, see Essick (1991). For a good overview of the development of tonal graphic techniques in eighteenth-century Britain, see Richard T. Godfrey, Printmaking in Britain (Oxford: Phaidon, 1978) pp. 41–65.Google Scholar
  6. 22.
    For reproductions and information about the 25 large prints Haughton executed after Fuseli between 1803 and 1813, see D. H. Weinglass, Prints and Engraved Illustrations By and After Henry Fuseli: A Catalogue Raisonné (London: Scolar Press, 1994) listing on p. 381.Google Scholar
  7. 24.
    Barrell, rev. of Ronald Paulson, Hogarth, London Review of Books 16, no. 7 (7 April 1994) p. 18.Google Scholar
  8. 25.
    For aesthetic ‘aura’, a valorized supplement brought to works of art, see Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969) p. 221. Jacques Derrida’s fullest exploration of his concept of the supplement within all semiotic acts appears in Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974) esp. pp. 141–64. For a briefer explanation, see Derrida, ‘Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’, in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) esp. pp. 289–90.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1999

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  • Robert N. Essick

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