University of Virginia Library

The Dating of Blake's Script

Blake's handwriting, of which we have large samples over a period of 43 years, exhibits some gradual modifications over the decades but would not be easy to arrange in a close chronological series from appearances alone. Milton scholars count themselves fortunate to have found one precisely datable change in their author's handwriting, his discarding the


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Grecian for the Italian e in the course of the writing of Lycidas. No similar conscious or unconscious change of a letter-style has yet been found in the manuscripts of Blake.

Blake's public script, however, is another matter. The lettering of his Illuminated Books and of his etched or engraved inscriptions differs from his handwriting not only in appearance but in the fact that it is a product of deliberate art and comprises several deliberately chosen varieties and changes of style. For formal inscriptions Blake early learned both a flowing engraver's cursive script and a simple upright roman letter. In his first experiments in Illuminated Printing he employed both of these plus a more efficient italic script, print-like and only slightly cursive. This simple italic became the staple of his subsequent text style, varied more or less subtly on different occasions and sometimes combined with the simple roman.

In the period 1790-1795 he tried several interesting modifications of his standard alphabet. Several variant letter-forms, various flagged h's, an f with an extra serif at the top, and certain contrived variants in the descenders, can be seen to spring up, flourish, and then suffer gradual neglect. But nearly every one of these reappears from time to time as a graceful variant in later texts. Its presence or absence in an undated plate is extremely difficult to assess as evidence of period, although it may be useful to distinguish certain trends.

One striking exception, however, is found in a letter-form that Blake invented in about 1791, employed with unwavering consistency for fourteen years, and then as suddenly and with ruthless consistency discarded. This is an italic small g with its serif or topknot on the left side instead of the right. The conventional g may be seen throughout the Songs of Innocence (1789), alternating occasionally with a sort of manuscript g that has no proper serif; the left-turned g appears throughout the Songs of Experience (dated 1794 but etched, there is now reason to see, 1791-94), except for those songs originally etched among those of Innocence. The date of adoption can be narrowed by noting the overlap of Thel and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Thel, dated 1789 but containing (as others have observed) a Motto and a concluding plate that seem late additions, uses the conventional and manuscript g's — except in the Motto and last plate, where the new g takes over. The Marriage is dated 1790 by internal and marginal evidence on its third plate but was the product of several years. The old g rules up through Plate 5 and in Plates 11-13 and 21-24; the new g in 6-10, 14-20, and in the "Song of Liberty" (25-27). This overlap narrows the date of change to late 1790 or early 1791. Every serifed g thereafter points leftward, even in inscriptions made for Cumberland or Hayley, including the inscription "June 18, 1805 . . . Bridge Street" in the plates for Hayley's Ballads. After that date Blake not only abandoned the leftward g but corrected it in reissues! In the 1807 reissue of these Ballads the date is not changed, but the g in "Bridge Street" has a new rightward serif.


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Blake's Gates of Paradise, etched "For Children" in 1793, with leftward g's, was reissued many years later with some further etching, during which the g's were given new, right-facing serifs, opposite visible remnants of the old. In late issues of Songs of Experience, for example in the Rosenwald and Fitzwilliam copies, which may be seen in facsimile and microfilm, when Blake retouched the lettering he added new serifs beside the old. Even the g in the large title of "The Tyger" has two large serifs like horns. Going over the text of "The Angel" in gold, he put two golden serifs on each g, this time respecting both serifs — perhaps absently, perhaps with some amusement at his own device.

Blake thus, for whatever reason, left us a distinctive chronological zone marked by two precise termini. After two years of searching I have found no exceptions in any of his work the dating of which is founded on more than conjecture. There are a few single plates with conventional g's which have traditionally — but more or less arbitrarily — been assigned to the middle period (1791-1805). Some of these are rather obviously mis-assigned. The etched "A Divine Image", a rejected Song of Experience, has been collected after the Songs as an "additional poem" and dated 1794 but purely as a convenience. It fits much more plausibly ahead of the published Songs of Experience, as a trial Song etched in 1790 but supplanted by the subtler "The Human Image" before the final collection was assembled. (See Robert F. Gleckner, "William Blake and the Human Abstract," PMLA, lxxvi (1961), 373-379, for a reasoned plea for an early date in the absence of "real evidence to the contrary.")

A more difficult exception is "To Tirzah" (with conventional g's) which has always been recognized as a late addition to the Songs of Experience but given a variety of conjectural dates. In his text Keynes puts it "Probably . . . about 1801" (p. 220); but in the Census (p. 55) four copies of Songs containing "To Tirzah" (F,I,J,K) are assigned to 1795-98 and four (L,M,N,O) to 1799-1801. Moving the dates of these eight copies after June 1805 will play hob with the Census table of copies A to CC, but it is time to realize that this is only a table of convenience resting largely on impressionistic evidence and, in its few points of apparent data, full of self-contradiction. Copy L is said to be inscribed with "the initials JS, dated 1799," but the initials (a kind of doodle at the bottom of the page) and the "date" (at the top) are in pencil; moreover the date is written "1799-", the hyphen indicating that this is an owner's or bookseller's suggested terminus ab quo. Copy O has an ink inscription "Mrs. Flaxman April 1817" yet is assigned to 1800 because the order of arrangement of the songs "suggests a date of about" that year — an argument resting upon circles within circles. Actually copies P (on "1802" paper) and Q (on paper dated 1802 and 1804) are the first "To Tirzah" copies with tangible termini ab quo: their dates could easily be after 1805.

I believe the only other exception is the inscription on "Albion rose". Sir Geoffrey may be right in supposing that the color-printed copies, in


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which the inscription is not visible, were made in about 1794. But the conventional g in "Giving" plus the symbolism in "the dance of eternal death" (which belongs in the Milton period) now put the inscription after 1805, for the symbolism rules out 1790.

Certainly none of these apparent exceptions bears any weight of evidence against the rule of g. As for Milton and Jerusalem, unfortunately the title pages, dated "1804", contain no lower-case g's. The plates of text, however, employ exclusively the conventional post-1805 g and I think cannot safely be dated earlier. This at least rules out the whimsical hypothesis I once entertained that certain curiously different plates inserted in the two later copies of Milton might be relics of a very early version. At least they cannot have been inscribed very early.

Postscript: In the British Museum there are proofs of Plates 5 and 53 back to back on one leaf, both similarly colored in a variety of opaque and translucent colors including blue, yellow, and red. Just possibly these are not proofs but two pages of a lost copy. J53 is of course headed "Chap: 3", but J5 is rather close in subject and may once have been the second page of that chapter.

The facsimile of the Rinder copy proves faithful to the original, now examined through the courtesy of its owner. But the caret and insert on Pl. 61 are visible; and besides the "1°" on 28, two other incised numerals can be read—a "7" (of "37"?) on 39[35] and a "1" (of "100"?) on 100. Added blacking of borders prevents discovery of other numerals that may have been on the plates. Folio numbers show some erasure and change, this time in Chap. 1 (15, 16, 17 may have been 16, 17, 18; 19 is changed; 21 may have been 15 or 18; 11 was first in the 20's). Elsewhere only 97 is over erasure, probably 98.

A real surprise comes in the watermarks, for the distribution given above (note 8) proves mistaken. Blake could have delivered Chap. 2 to Linnell in 1819—its dated leaves are ff. 29, 40, 42, 47, 49 (1818) —but not the present Chap. 1, which has 1819 paper in f. 19 and 1820 paper in ff. 11 and 16, besides the expected 1818 in ff. 3, 7, 22, 24, 25. (Note that 11, 16, and 19 are among those with changed folios: all possibly inserted as replacements in a delivered copy if not in a copy held for better pages.) Dates in the last chapters are as expected, though later than those in the British Museum copy: Chap. 3—f. 59 (1819), ff. 51, 60, 66, 68, 72, 73 (1820); Chap. 4—ff. 84, 88, 91, 93 (1820).

I have now examined the separate print of Plate 51 which is in Sir Geoffrey Keynes' collection and can see that the names said to be printed in "white line" were added after the printing of the plate but not in white ink; they were cut into the thick ink on the paper with a sharp tool.