Auguries of Innocence – Looking at Words

June 6, 2023

On Monday 22 May the Blake Society attended Swedenborg House to launch Ruskin Arts Publications’ new visual edition of ‘Auguries of Innocence’, collating Cambridge School of Art graphic design students’ letterpress interpretations of Blake’s poem. Below is an edited version of a speech, given on the night, by Sibylle Erle, Chair of the Blake Society.

When Nick Jeeves asked me to write and say something about Blake, my favourite artist, and ‘Auguries of Innocence’, a text I knew but had never worked on, I was delighted but also terrified because I didn’t know where to start.

‘Auguries of Innocence’ is a manuscript poem. It’s a fair copy, it includes all of Blake’s revisions and corrections; it has no pictures. It consists of 66 couplets as well as one quatrain:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

What I love about Blake is that he makes me think and pushes me to think harder. Blake said that he wanted to ‘build’ his own ‘system’ so as ‘not to be enslaved by another mans’.

Blake’s early lyrical works, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, are short and accessible, and simple in their use of language and application of poetic form, in the sense that children can enjoy them. Blake’s Songs are beautiful to look at, because they were published in illuminated printing. Each plate teems with life. There are little figures, next to insects, birds and flowers. 

Blake’s unique artistic style and autographic method combine text and image in intriguing ways. His creative process suggests a busy mind, continuously  experimenting, before combining text and image as one – through one printing process – on one plate. 

Blake’s artistic process is suggestive in that it speaks of artistic unity, while creating a wholesome aesthetic effect: a moment of complete communication. We can take it in – just like that: One look, one impression. 

What terrified me about Nick’s invitation was that I had to ask myself: what happens, if we strip away the images? 

What do we lose? 

We can only speculate about what ‘Auguries of Innocence’ would have turned out to be; had Blake decided to transfer the work onto copperplates. The possibility of an alternative – etched and illuminated ‘Auguries of Innocence’ pushes the idea of reception into the foreground. I have to admit that the idea of ‘Auguries of Innocence’ in illuminated printing haunts me. I will never know what it would have looked like. 

Let’s assume that pictures are a distraction. So, if they are, then we might consider that they direct our attention away from the words – from all those extended metaphors and unusual paradoxes. 

Looking at ‘Auguries of Innocence’ defamiliarised ‘Blake’ for me. Writing for Nick meant that I had to consider the possibility that a poem in manuscript might allow me to better appreciate the power of Blake’s language.

Apart from reading and enjoying poetry, we can analyse and dissect its poetic language. 

We can count the syllables, determine the metre and describe the rhyme scheme. Are there any alliterations? We might say something about the mood, the tone, the use of metaphors, similes and personification. We can think about punctuation and how it organises written language. Understanding punctuation and syntax can help with spotting caesuras and enjambement. Punctuation introduces breaks and breathing into a poem. Punctuation makes us behave in certain ways: it paces us when we read a poem out aloud. Full stops tell you when you are allowed to stop and catch your breath. 

When I looked at ‘Auguries of Innocence’ I found one full stop. Only one. At this full stop the poem and its relentless flow of rhyming couplets and piling of imagery – grinds to a halt. This full stop does not appear in the Erdman edition. Nobody, as far as I know, has written about it. 

The couplets of ‘Auguries of Innocence’ are incredible. They appear to be collected wisdoms but are terse, aphoristic statements, crafted with great care and minute attention to detail. Their purpose it to provoke. 

This project, the printed incarnation of ‘Auguries of Innocence’, I think, testifies to Blake’s attempts to engage his audience and allows for the power of Blake’s poetic language to speak for itself. 

The invitation is to look closely at the words and to wonder what this work is rather than what it might have been. The ‘might’ is intangible and it should not be hallucinated. The invitation is to look closely at the beautifully printed textures of the words and their arrangements on paper. 

What will you find?

Copies of ‘Auguries of Innocence – First Experiences with Letterpress’ are available from Blurb.

Print (left) by Emily White, photo (right) by Becky Chilcott.

Print by Leigh-Anna Frith

Photo by Elizabeth Fraser