The Marriage of Heaven and Hell strikes me as a particularly apt vehicle for our exploration of the Blake Archive, given its parallels to the Archive itself. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, for example, displays a variety of forms and influences: poetry and prose, engraving and watercolor, Milton and Swedenborg, to name just a few. The Archive, in turn – which includes photographic reproductions of Blake’s plates along with editorial commentary – represents a similar blending of materials usually divided between facsimile and critical editions. (We touched on the distinction between these two types of work in our most recent class.) This proves particularly helpful to new students of Blake’s work: in contrast to the usual text-only anthology, the Archive exposes them to Blake’s combination of visual and literary material. The progressive organization of the Archive’s editorial material also allows users – new or more advanced – to access the criticism at the level of detail most helpful to them. New users might prefer the brief introduction included on the Work Index page; more advanced students, the editors’ notes and illustration descriptions on the Object View page; and still more advanced scholars, the detailed study of various sections of each plate provided by the Inote Java applet (accessed, in my case, through the Virtual Lightbox).
As Lingerr has already noted, the comparative features of the Blake Archive also make it an impressive resource for scholars of Blake’s works. In addition to studying the many fraught comparisons portrayed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – between reason and passion, poetry and prophecy, angel and devil – users of the Archive can review the similarities and differences among the various copies of the text. By gathering the many copies of Blake’s work into one digital collection, the Archive’s creators make possible a level of assessment that would be challenging – if not impossible – in real life. Viewing the textual B and C copies of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, for example, would require transatlantic travel; thanks to the “Compare” feature on the Blake Archive, users can now contrast the same two works without getting up from their desks. (I do acknowledge, though, that they type and level of comparison that can be performed on these digital works does not match that that can be done with the actual, textual works in hand.) The search features, too, allow users to compare terminology and illustration across a variety of Blake’s works, studying, for example, 120 depictions of eagles across 58 different texts.
This is not to suggest that there are no downsides to the Blake Archive. For all of its careful research, detailed photographs, and convenience of access, the Archive – like many digital records – does lose something in the translation of book to screen. By transforming each plate of Blake’s books into an individual “object,” for example, the Archive breaks down the sense of cohesion conveyed through an entire, bound work. The fact that each copy listed in the Work Index does not contain all the work’s plates provides additional confusion, particularly for new users. Matthew Kirschenbaum acknowledges this in his 1998 article, “Managing the Blake Archive,” explaining that the Archive may pose some challenges for the casual user, as ease-of-use must sometimes be sacrificed for scholarly value. Just as one’s perception of reality in Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell rests on one’s acceptance of orthodox religion (Is Reason a blessing or a curse? Are we sitting in a Hell of black and white spiders or a Heaven of harpers and pleasant river banks?) so the user’s appreciation of the Blake Archive will likely depend on his own expectations of and familiarity with the original material.