The English poet William Blake (1757-1827) is usually taught merely for his poetry. But Blake, says Debbie Lee, was more of an artist than a poet. In fact, it is possible that he started with his visual creations, then composed verse to accompany them. Blake’s earliest training was in art. It was only later that he tried poetry, then gradually melded poetry and engraving to develop his strange and complex visions and mythology.
Lee, a professor of English at Washington State University, believes that it is essential for students to understand Blake’s technology, his engraving and printing, if they are to truly understand his poetry. And how better to understand that technology than to practice it?
Soon after Lee got approval to teach a class combining Blake’s words and images, she learned that Fine Arts had just hired a new printmaker, Kevin Haas. Lee contacted him, and thus began their collaboration.
Lee begins the class with a weeklong discussion of what the relationship between word and image means. Today’s visually oriented students take naturally to this relationship, says Lee, primarily because of the Internet.
“The Internet combines text and image,” she says. “That’s how they read. Their reading process includes thinking about the relationship between text and image.”
A class later in the semester entailed group reports. Much more than the expected “he-said-she-said” summary of the criticism, the students gave sophisticated and perceptive analyses, weaving together the images and words of various works by Blake. Kristina Black and Caitlin Sullivan discussed Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Albion being Blake’s vision of a lost and mystical English past. Richard Lassiter, Bill Pratt, and Jamie Wilson discussed The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake’s vigorous attack on the conventional and self-righteous in society.
Well into the semester, having gained a solid grasp of Blake’s visions, the students spend two Saturdays making their own prints, under the tutelage of Haas, in the manner of Blake.
Rather than using Blake’s method of acid etching on copper, which is both expensive and dangerous, Haas teaches the students to engrave on Plexiglas. After printing, they color their prints with watercolor, just as Blake did.
“The Nature of my Work,” wrote Blake, “is Visionary or Imaginative.” Understanding his Vision and Imagination is difficult. His images and metaphors shift and transform. In fact, he declares, “That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care.” By studying his complete process, Lee believes, students rise well beyond the explicit toward a grasp of Blake’s often challenging, often bizarre, always rewarding vision.