While this is probably my fourth or fifth close reading of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, I must admit that I have never once managed to get through the entire thing exclusively on the Blake Archive. For this reading assignment I went back into the Alderman stacks for a copy of the Princeton edition of Blake’s illuminated books, knowing from experience that I wouldn’t be satisfied solely with the electronic archive. I think my reservations may have something to do with Eliza’s comment, below: “By transforming each plate of Blake’s books into an individual ‘object,’ … the Archive breaks down the sense of cohesion conveyed through an entire, bound work.” While an archive user can click through all of the plates of any given extant copy of the Marriage, the category “bound illuminated book” serves as only one among many ways to classify Blake’s plates. (As Eliza points out, one can search by terms or images: a search for all objects containing the word or image “eagle” returns a different kind of Blakean corpus altogether.)
This is not to say that I do not find the Archive useful, especially for a work like The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which presents a somewhat complicated bibliographical situation. There are three* different plate orders in the nine extant (complete) copies. Trying to keep plate orders straight in one’s head (or even written down on paper) is difficult when one only has a single book, but it’s remarkably easy to compare my printed facsimile (Copy F, Pierpont Morgan Library) with the plates as ordered in the non-standard copies thanks to the online Archive.
Like Tess, I have always found the metacommentary in Blake’s Marriage striking–I am thinking here of the quotation she points to at the beginning of her post as well as of the “mighty Devil” who writes the sentence “with corroding fires”– the same sentence Blake has written himself with his brush and acid-resistant varnish before applying the corrosive acid to the copper plate. And of course we cannot forget the “Printing house in Hell.” These moments draw the reader/viewer’s attention to the fact that he or she is reading a book printed “in the infernal method by corrosives.” What happens when he or she views that book online? Obviously for most readers of Blake (and even for many very good Blake scholars) rarely will the opportunity to examine Blake’s physical copies present itself. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the electronic interface draws our attention to the digital facsimile’s status as a surrogate: I know it gives me pause and makes me reflect a bit more carefully on the status of the illuminated page (and book) as an object.
*The Blake Archive does not register the variant plate sequence of Copy E [: 1-3, 5-10, 4, 11, 14, 12-13, 16-27, 15]. It was rebound (into the normative sequence) in 1957 by Geoffrey Keynes.