William Blake’s Illuminated Songs: Something between a Thing and a Thought
William Blake (1757–1827) has truly been a remarkable phenomenon in the history of Western art and literature. Equally gifted as a poet, painter and a printer, in all, he produced some 1400 designs or engravings for other masters’ books; more than a 1000 prints, watercolours, and tempera pictures on biblical, literary, and historical subjects for his patrons; and almost 400 plates for his own books in a verbal-visual medium he invented himself, which he called ‘illuminated printing’.
Blake came from a middle-class family of London shopkeepers: his father and oldest brother sold men’s clothing; another brother was a gingerbread baker before joining the army. Luckily, his parents recognised their second son’s gifts and encouraged his artistic bent. At ten, he entered drawing school; at fourteen, he began a seven-year apprenticeship in engraving; at twenty-one, he was admitted as a student to the Royal Academy.
Like other great artists, Blake had a profound intuitive grasp of human psychology. His illuminated prints allowed him to express himself in a unique and original way that was referred to by one of his student as ‘something between a thing and a thought’. This sense of ambiguity is central to any reader’s experience of the illuminated books.
Blake’s early illuminated manuscript, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, dated from 1794, will be in the central concern of this article. The creation of the Songs and the classification of the various versions will be discussed in the first chapter, followed by the analysis of the Songs regarding the relationship of the image to the text. It will be shown that the poetic and pictorial narratives are not the same; their stylistic similarities help us to create a unified reading that bridges the gulf between the verbal and the visual. Like the text, which includes different types of voice, the illustrations address both text and audience in different ways. The final chapter will analyse the manuscript’s narrative, a narrative that differs from other versions of the Songs.
Although Blake called his method ‘illuminated printing’, a term that evokes medieval marginal illustrations, the format of the Songs plates is unlike anything he would have seen in the way of medieval manuscripts. By examining copy B of the Songs as a medieval manuscript, I was able to uncover some interesting similarities between this eighteenth-century book and the medieval tradition of illuminated manuscripts. There are over twenty combined versions of the Songs, and a scholar can approach the interrelationship between word and image in Blake’s works in several different methodologies. David Bindman, one of Blake’s most important scholars, took a very interesting approach of analysing Blake’s Songs. In his important research, Bindman chose only one very specific version of the Songs, a ‘key’ version which he studied intensely, and compared other variations of the Songs to this ‘key’ manuscript. The version Bindman chose, The King’s College Copy, shows that Blake spared no expense on it — either of time or materials. The colouring of the plates is particularly rich and here Blake achieved considerable variety in texture and effects of light. One of the most striking features of this copy is the abundance of gold, which appears in varying densities.
Bindman’s approach was of important value to the research of Blake’s Songs. He brought to light a unique version of the Songs that no one could see in over 160 years. The manuscript’s provenance and its richly coloured palates make this copy an interesting case study. However, it is also important to look at each and every version of the books as an independent and original manuscript, and not merely a copy.
In this paper, for the first time, I chose to take a closer look at copy B, of the British Museum, without comparing it to any other version and treating it as an original manuscript — as it is. Just like medieval manuscripts that were sometimes preserved in dozens, hundreds or in some cases even thousands of copy and no two copies of the same manuscript were ever exactly alike. There can be differences in punctuation, choice of words and even mistakes that occurred when a manuscript was copied. As the New Philology suggests, I decided to pay close attention not only to the relationship between the painted images and the poetic text, but also to the version of the Songs in question.
The Songs were hand-made objects individually produced by the author-artist himself. Despite the handwork that went into each copy, the Songs were, nonetheless, printed. Variations in the colouring of the plates ensure that no two copies are quite alike. The rearrangement of the plates differs within each copy, and by doing so, Blake created a new meaning with every manuscript he produced. The technique Blake used and the name he gave to his books do not allow us to treat each version as a copy, but encourages us to experience each manuscript as an original work of art. After determining my method of research, there are still many important questions that remained unanswered: how we are to experience these illuminated pages as Blake gave the same emphasis both to the visual and the verbal content? Should we look at the image first and read the poems after, or should we read first, or is it possible to do both? The relationship between the poems and the images in copy B will be of central concern to this analysis. This paper will leave some questions unanswered, but it will, it is hoped, provide some solutions as well.
Chapter 1: Blake’s Illuminated Songs
The vehicle of Blake’s revolutionary poetic sentiments was what is conventionally referred to as the ‘illuminated books’, the poems that Blake printed using his own invented technique of ‘relief etching’ and made into books. The illuminated books were the form in which the artist brought together the three main realms of his artistic endeavours: poetry, painting, and engraving. Conventional printing techniques for illustrated books involved different people engraving and printing the images, from those setting the individual letters in blocks from which the text would be printed mechanically. Blake appears to have conceived, executed and printed the whole himself.
The technique of the relief-etching method that Blake developed around 1788 has long perplexed scholars. Blake himself left no clear statement of his method, but the broad outlines of the process have been reconstructed by modern researchers. What seems certain is that the technique involved printing from copperplates, as with conventional engraving or etching. But while these intaglio techniques relied on cutting into the copper, and forcing ink into those cut lines, with relief printing it is the raised surfaces which are coated with ink and printed. Instead of cutting into the copper, Blake painted a specially resistant liquid on to the plate, so that when acid was applied to this surface these areas remained raised and could be printed. With the addition of watercoulors, the pictorial qualities of the different versions of the same book could vary a great deal.
Despite the handwork that went into each copy it is important to note that these books were printed. Blake’s invention allowed the dynamic integration of text and design on the same page. This technique enabled the artist to work on a book from start to finish, without the intervention of a professional printer, and it allowed literature and art to be universal, enabling the author-artist to pass on a vision of liberation to the world without the mediation of those hostile to that vision.
The first completely successful use of the new technique Blake invented was in his most popular and enduring work, Songs of Innocence, which appeared in 1789, subsequently joined with Songs of Experience in 1793 and printed together, as a single Songs of Innocence and of Experience from 1794. There are twenty-four or twenty-seven combined Songs, and in this paper the main focus will be on copy B currently in the Print Room of the British Museum.
Due to the substantial amount of different versions of the illuminated books, different copies are identified by letters. The letters do not refer to the chronology or importance of individual copies. Unfortunately it is not possible to refer to the copies by the date of their creation since the date on the title pages of the book remains the same regardless to the actual date the plate was printed. The illuminated books cannot have the name of the collection they are in, since the British Museum, for instance, has three different copies of the Songs.
The classification of the Songs was immensely important to the study of Blake’s manuscripts. The study of different copies helped determine an approximate date of creation, it showed similarities as well as dissimilarities within the manuscript, and allowed to build a relative chronology of the Songs. The main problem with this classification is the word ‘copy’ before the letter that represents various manuscripts. A ‘copy’ suggests many versions of the same, and it also insinuates that somewhere there is an original, much more valuable and important than the copy.
Blake himself referred to his books as illuminated manuscripts, a term that evokes medieval manuscripts in which text and pictures were combined. If we consider the illuminated books as the artist intended, then we should examine them as independent masterpieces and not merely copies of the same plate that was reused again and again. Each and every manuscript contains different systems of representation: poetic or narrative text, the highly individual and distinctive scribal hand that inscribed that text, illuminated and coloured the images. Each system is a unit independent of the others and yet calls attention to them. We must pay close attention not only to the important relationship between painted images and poetic texts, but also to the copies of the manuscript.
Each version of the Songs differs not only by the different colours and rearrangement of the folios, but the meaning of the poems also changed with each manuscript Blake produced. It is not possible to refer to these unique and independent manuscripts as copies, as Blake put much effort into making each version distinct. In order to respect all the previous achievements of the research, it could be suggested to keep the letters that were assign to each book, but instead of ‘copy’, we can refer to the book as manuscript B of Songs, or simply as Songs B. Perhaps this new classification will give rise to a different evaluation of these independent masterpieces and lead to a new kind of research that examines every version as if it was an original manuscript.
In this article, the main focus will be on one of three manuscripts, currently in the British Museum. It is my hope, that this will be the first intensive study of a specific manuscript, which perhaps lead to similar studies of other illuminated manuscripts by William Blake.
Chapter 2: Structure, Style and Design
The following chapter will demonstrate that William Blake’s manuscript was not only carefully compiled to create a series of interrelated narratives, but that the illustrations were meant to be an integral part of that narrative and an aid in establishing overall unity of the manuscript. First this chapter will examine the design of the illustrated portion of the manuscript before going on to consider the manuscript as a whole, the relationship between the pictorial and poetic narratives and the intertextuality and intervisuality of each. (The term ‘intervisuality’ was introduced into medieval studies by Michael Camille as a visual parallel to the intertextuality of literary text. It is used here to refer to images that call to mind other images that are formally similar, but which have different contexts and thus different connotations, as well as images that may have different meanings or connotations in different contexts).
Before turning to the function and meaning of the pictorial narrative, it is necessary to consider briefly the structure and design of the manuscript as a whole. In the study of Blake’s manuscript, as in the study of all manuscripts, codicology is crucial to an understanding of how books work as books and not simply as sets of assembled texts.
Songs of Innocence and of Experience is an illuminated book comprised of fifty-four relief-etched plates when completed. The plates combine poetic verses with illustration, and many plates include textual decoration. The plate order, printing technique and colouring of Songs vary from copy to copy. Songs B was probably completed in 1794. It includes a tailpiece that only appears in three early copies, but excludes the plate “To Tirzah”, which was not made until later on. Most of the plates that make up Songs of Innocence were printed in brown ink, and the plates that make up Songs of Experience colour-printed in orange and black, with orange as the dominant colour, and additional colours sometimes used as well. All the plates are also hand-coloured. In Songs B, sheets measure approximately 190 x 135 mm, and show the stitching holes from the original paper binding. There are thirty leaves in this copy and their size is somewhat irregular.
In all, there are fifty-four relief-etched plates in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. There are twenty-seven plates printed in brown ink in Songs of Innocence. The book starts with a frontispiece followed by the title-page, and an introduction. There are fourteen songs depicted on a single plate, and five songs spreading onto two pages for each song. In way of indicating a continuation onto the next page, Blake placed the first word of the second page on the bottom of the first page.
Songs of Experience is composed of twenty-six plates most of which printed in orange and black ink. The poems were printed in a format which parallels that of Innocence. It begins with a frontispiece, a title-page and an introduction. There are nineteen songs printed on a single plate, and two songs spreading onto two plates. In this book, Blake placed two different songs on a single plate that continue to the next page, unlike in the first book; in addition he also placed three different songs on a single plate. Blake placed three songs, printed in brown ink, and blended them together with the orange and black printed songs that distinguish Songs of Experience from Innocence. It is a subtle change of colour, but the darker shade of brown ink stands out from the light orange ink dominating the rest of the plates. The unity of the poems comprising Innocence and Experience is indicated by page layout as well as by individual titles for the separate poems in the beginning of each page. Blake moved three plates from Innocence to Experience, and by keeping the original colours of the plates and their structure, he informs the reader of his intentions.
Palaeography and Punctuation
The relative absence of manuscript evidence has encouraged the view that Blake composed his poetry and design directly onto his copper plates. Blake’s handwriting on the copper plate is distinctive and clear. Capital letters appear in the title of the song as well as on every line as a means of indicating the beginning of grammatical sentences. Some of the titles are fully capitalised, while in other titles only catchwords are capitalised.
Blake’s process of illuminated printing frequently transforms the punctuation etched on the plates: commas become full stops, semicolons become colons, etc. Blake rarely corrected such accidents of the press. Readers soon find that commas, full stops, semicolons and colons are sometimes used in the text as if interchangeable, and seem to function as pauses rather than as guides to sentence structure. Perhaps by not correcting the accidents of the press, Blake was paying respect to the tradition of illuminated manuscripts, where mistakes by the scribe could occur while copying a manuscript. These differences in variations of the same text, give a new meaning to the content, and by doing so transforming a ‘copy’ to an original artwork.
The Style of the Illustrations
In the combined Songs the parallel between the two series helps to focus attention on the differences: Innocence poems may be linked to their counterparts in Experience by identical or contrasting titles, while visual contrasts reinforce those in the text. The designs of Innocence make more use of flowering, curving lines, protective spaces, exuberant vegetation; in Experience spaces are often defined and fractured by bare branches. The etched images on the Innocence plates are usually delicate and finely detailed: the texture of fleeces, bark, furnishings and leaves are clearly represented, large surfaces are lightened by fine lines or stippling, while distance may be suggested by variations in shading or width of line. The etched images of the Experience plates generally have fewer details and show less concern with texture. The leafless trees are represented in bold outlines, their trunks shaded with a few unbroken patches.
The Narrative Structure of the Illustrations
Blake neither conceived nor executed his drawings as images that simply accompanied the text, rather they are active translations of it and can be understood as forming a narrative distinct from that of the text. As Michael Camille, amongst others, has stressed, even images within manuscripts have an existence apart from the text they accompany, and cannot be understood only in conjunction with them. While the pictorial and textual narrative recounts the same basic story, there are visual devices and formulae used by the artist to convey ideas that cannot express verbally. This is why the drawings must be understood as a form of translation rather than mere illustration.
Formal elements such as composition, pose and particularly gesture are all used to create a visual narrative, and to direct the flow of that narrative. In Songs B, Blake sets a certain atmosphere of an individual’s journey throughout the book. The frontispiece to Songs of Innocence, the frontispiece to Songs of Experience and the tailpiece show the same figure in different phases of his journey. In the frontispiece of the first book, a piper is shown as he steps forward with his left foot, his pipe lowered and his gaze is turned upwards to the naked infant floating, with outstretched arms, above his head. The piper is wearing a blue body suit and there are no shoes on his feet. Behind him sheep graze peacefully. The contrast between the sheep looking down to graze and the piper’s upward glance emphasise his coming to consciousness. Twisting trees are framing the image and setting the green tone to this composition. The image of the piper as shepherd announces the predominantly pastoral mode of Innocence.
The frontispiece of the second book reviles the second step of the journey. The shepherd has changed his blue costume for one in yellow. Advancing with his right foot forward, and not the left foot as before, he no longer holds a pipe, but carries the winged infant on his head. The sheep are still behind the shepherd looking down to graze. The shepherd is looking at us and his gaze appeared to be intense and serious. Viewers tend to interpret figures facing them as looking at or communicating with them, particularly when the figure is at the center of the composition. This composition of the frontispiece prepares us for the urgency of the Experience poems.
The tailpiece of Songs depicts a nude male being carried upwards by six winged infants. The golden background and the formation of a white halo-like light around his head suggest that he arrived at the end of his journey. His hands are in a worshiping position and his head is tuned left, away from the spectator. This tailpiece only appears in three early copies, and without it the shepherd’s journey would not come to its reassuring and comforting end.
In the majority of the Songs illustrations, the direction of the visual narrative is clear and mirrors the content of the poem. Some of the titles correspond directly with the image depicted on the same page, and thus intensify our perception in a verbal as well as visual experience of the content. The complex relationship between the poetic text and the image that relates to it has other important cultural aspects: Christian iconography and secular images that could be recognised by Blake’s contemporaries.
Christian iconography can be found in many of Blake’s illustrations of the Songs. The shepherd, for instance, leading his flock, and eventually being elevated upwards by angels, brings to mind early Christian iconography that portrayed Jesus as the good shepherd. Throughout the Bible the sheep that has gone astray denotes backsliding or disobedience, while the shepherd’s care for his flock represents spiritual guidance. The New Testament may give more emphasis to the self-sacrificing nature of the shepherd, but it also insists on his guiding role. This early Christian iconography appears also in The Lamb and The Shepherd, where the song’s design provides a visual equivalent of divine protection. These representations of the divine protection are present all through Songs of Innocence, and set a specific mood to the entire book. There are other representations as well, that bring to mind biblical scenes, such as the title page of Songs of Innocence and of Experience that reminds us Adam and Eve, having covered their nakedness with fig leaves, depart from Eden.
The images in the Songs were also familiar to Blake’s contemporaries from secular books as well as biblical. For his poems of Innocence, Blake drew upon the rhythms of children’s speech and nursery rhymes. For their graphic accompaniments, he borrowed styles and motifs from children’s books and the picturesque vignette illustrations with which he was familiar as a copy engraver. The title page of Songs of Innocence, where the letters grow into vegetation, thereby overcoming the usual distinctions between text and design, between verbal concept and visual form, offers an outdoor scene of entertainment and education.
Blake has set his illustrated Songs within the context of children’s books by placing on the title-page a stock motif from that genre. A similar arrangement of woman, book, and two children comprises the frontispiece in John Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy, and Pretty Miss Polly, published in 1767.
Although Blake also seats his instructress on a fashionable arch-backed chair, the differences between these two prints are at least as significant as the parallels. Blake has removed the group from the indoor world of the adult and located it on the pastoral green, where the woman shows the book to the children rather than lecturing to them as in Newbery’s book. The same type of introductory scenes, all loosely based on a traditional emblem of education and promising both ‘Instruction and Delight,’ appear in numerous children’s books of the time.
Blake’s Songs bring to mind textual traditions, but they also evoke now largely lost domestic visual world of decoration and design. One important surviving form that may give sense to this visual realm is the embroidered sampler, the common and highly prized exercises in needlework undertaken by girls and women, often framed and used as a kind of decoration themselves.
Blake would undoubtedly have known such works at first hand; any household would have them on display, and the wife of his patron Thomas Butts appears to have embroidered a version of one of his designs. Samplers were an important form of domestic creativity, with hymns or pious poems — from published sources or invented by the individual — placed in the midst of decorative border. The textual part was framed in the middle of the composition, while the decorations were places around it.
The samplers were perhaps a possible inspiration for Blake, but it is evident that he took this inspiration several steps further. Blake used his visual and textual elements on the same page as it appears on the sampler, however the relationship between the word and image in his illuminated prints is immensely more complicated.
The decorative part of the page in Blake’s prints is not there simply in order to fill in the page where the text is absent. Blake blurred the boundaries between word and image and created an entirely new experience of his visions. By blending the visual and the textual aspects of his visions, and not framing the text in a way that separates it from the visual part of the song, Blake made it clear that the poems and the illustrations are equal in their importance. The image does not illustrate the poem, and the poem does not give a verbal expression of the image, they are two parts that together create the whole experience of the artist’s vision.
Chapter 3: The Narrative of Songs B
In Blake’s Songs, the meaning of each gemlike illuminated page expands in relation to its many contexts; each poem, arrested in itself, means even more, and means differently, when read as a text-design unit, and when read with other poems. On the comprehensive title page that transforms two separate books into complementary section of a single work, Blake provided an important framework for interpreting the Songs as a whole. At the bottom two figures are shown while flames sweep over their heads. Above the flames the explanatory subtitle, “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul,” affirms the importance of perspective in both volumes; in each series, the spiritual state of each speaker, or singer, colours his or her perception.
The relationship between Innocence and Experience, as contrary aspects of the human condition and as cycles of songs, is one not of static contrasts but of many kinds of shifting tensions. The distinctions between states are especially clear in contrasting poems with identical titles, or those with sharply opposed titles. Borderline characters under the pressure of transition, either barely clinging to innocent fantasies or fighting their way out of experiential delusions, reveal varying degrees of involvement in one state or the other.
In 1789, when Blake published Songs of Innocence, he was no thirty-two-year-old naïf who took childlike joy in a nursery world, nor did he become, when he published Songs of Experience in 1794, a thirty-six-year-old cynic obsessed with suffering and oppression. To be innocent is not always to be ignorant of the facts that girls and boys get lost, or have to live in an orphanages or on the street, or are sold as slaves or chimney sweeps. The possibility of change and even of corruption always impinges: spring and summer die into winter, children should go indoors at nightfall, and shepherds are needed because there are wolves. Yet the primal state of innocence is a clear vision of the way life ought to be and indeed can be.
The Introduction to Innocence offers an exemplary response to the whole volume of seemingly simple songs. The voice that introduces Experience is that of an Ancient Bard who “Present, Past and Future sees.” From this prophet’s-eye perspective — which encompasses both Innocence and Experience not only from above but from within, as lived and breathed by the various singers — the fallen condition need not be permanent. However for the singers of Experience this state is so dark and self-enclosed that there appears no way out: the dominant images of the dark forests, sick flowers, threatening beasts, prematurely blighted and embittered children, the black and bloody city, and the poisonous dead Tree of Mystery that grows in the human brain. Yet here and there salutary bursts of energy break out in the cries of the oppressed. The rearrangement of the pages, placement of three songs from Innocence in the gloomy Experience, allows the reader a beam of light and hope within despair.
Songs B begins at the threshold of a fallen world, with Adam and Eve departs from heaven, but the entire book also shows a journey that ends with the tailpiece giving the reader a sense of redemption and hope. This complex literary and visual experience takes the reader on a journey. The first book inspires the reader and shows him a wonderful world, a Genesis-like beginning that we all should aspire for, and the second book challenges our faith and shows us how difficult the journey can be. In Songs B the tailpiece assures us of a possibility of redemption and salvation, and in many ways this illuminated manuscript echoes biblical books with the same purpose.
The relationship between text and image has always been a great fascination of mine. The intertextuality and intervisuality in medieval and early modern illuminated manuscripts were my main research interest for as long as I can remember. While looking at Blake’s illuminated manuscripts, I discovered that these complicated relationships between the poems and the images, were now taken by Blake to a new level. Not only that Blake employed all his three major talents, as a poet, printmaker and artist to create his new experience, he also invented an entirely new way of expression. The illuminated prints allow us to get a glimpse into the artist’s vision. Poetry and paintings could not express his vision separately. Only by combining the two arts together, he could create a unified, intense and new experience of his visions. No ordinary way of expression could fit his visions, therefore the only way for him to make sure his vision would be transformed as he imagined it, was to invent a new method of communication. This method, that allows text and illustration fit harmoniously on a single plate and reproduced for as many versions as the artist wished, was an important revolution within the medium of print-making.
The new technique Blake invented, allowed the artist express himself without external supervision. It gave him a full control over his book from start until finish, and the end result looked nothing like any of the illuminated manuscripts seen before. Although the plates Blake used reproduced the same imprint, the artist made sure that no two of his versions looked alike. The order of the pages was never the same, and the colouring of the plates kept on changing each time a new book was made.
By taking a closer look at the codicology of this manuscript of Songs, I was able to see some interesting aspects that in my opinion deserve a further investigation. The gatherings of several songs onto a single plate, division of a single song onto two plates, full capitalisation or partial capitalisation of the titles, and the indication that Blake used in order to indicate the continuation of the song onto the next page, all these could be found only by taking a closer look and examination of the manuscript as a whole. The stylistic changes in Blake’s rearrangement of the folios, showed an interesting aspect of this manuscript. Three pages printed in brown ink, that characterised the poems of the first book, were placed together with the plates printed with orange and black ink that characterised the second book. Blake did not print these three songs in a different ink he wanted the reader to notice the subtle change in the pages. He allowed the viewer to figure out that these plates were moved on purpose from one book to the other, in order to create a new meaning. This arrangement gives the reader an opportunity to ponder on the original meaning, and on the new meaning that was created due to this rearrangement. This unusual way of expression was as original as it was sophisticated.
The narrative of the illustrations in this manuscript also consists of many layers of meaning. The illustrations of the Songs, apart from translating and intensifying the poems, also form a distinct narrative of their own. This narrative relate to the cultural world of the reader, both religious and secular. Many of the illustrations of the first book bear early Christian iconography. The good shepherd is represented in several illustrations of the first book. Other biblical images come to mind when looking at different illustrations of the poems, and these images provide the reader with an additional layer of meaning, if he is familiar with the additional meanings of these images. Secular narratives are also present in the Songs. Blake set his illustrations within the context of children’s books, with scenes loosely based on a traditional emblem of education that promised both to ‘Instruct and Delight’. Perhaps Blake’s pages also brought to mind samplers, now largely lost domestic visual world of decoration and design, and in so exposing yet another layer of meaning that these illustrations produced.
The narrative of the Songs as a whole reveals a complex world which is dominated by opposing aspects of the human soul. The reader’s journey begins in a pastoral world, which shows a clear vision of the way life ought to be. The state of innocence is not concealing the dangers and the sorrows of this world, and it does not idealize it. The journey continues into the gloomy world of Experience where the dominant images are of dark and diseased world. In his Songs Blake chose to address the important issues of his time, and by printing his books on his own, he managed to translate his visions onto a tangible object that still interests and intrigues scholars today.
In this article I tried to open a new discussion of Blake’s Songs, and perhaps other illuminated prints as well, in a way that sees these manuscripts as original and unique works of art. By taking a closer look at these prints, the fascinating and complex relationship between word and image is revealed. It is my intention to investigate these relationships in my studies, and it is my hope that this paper will be the first in the series of these investigations.
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