The Illuminated Poem

The Illuminated Poem

Reading William Blake as a visual poet

It seems to be agreed upon that words are the building blocks of poems. Even when those words aren’t arranged in a syntactically coherent manner, poems use words and only words to construct their tiny worlds.

Except it would seem one canonical poet disagrees with the limitation of poetry to written language. William Blake, the 18th century Romantic poet best known for his poem “The Tyger,” uses the language of imagery to convey the meaning of his work as much as he uses the English language.

Blake published his poems as illuminated plates with the help of his wife. He began to experiment with relief etching when he was 31, and most of his poems after that were etched within illustrations. Often, the accompanying imagery amplifies or complicates the meaning of the poem.

One potent example is another famous Blake poem, “The Sick Rose.” Upon first gloss, the poem appears to be about a bug infesting a flower. Nothing special, just a vague lamentation of a gardening problem. But the poem goes much deeper when it is read within the context of its illuminated plate, in which we see three flowers portrayed as naked women. The worm, too, appears especially phallic. Suddenly, the poem is not just about infested flowers—it is about a dark, unhealthy form of sexuality of some kind (perhaps the nonconsensual sort). The metaphorical crux of the poem comes through most explicitly in the imagery, which triggers further analysis of the text.

Most of the time, when Blake is taught in schools, only the text of his poems is read. There are editions of his famous works which include the plates, but they are often printed at a very low resolution. Thankfully, with the advent of the internet, we may view Blake’s public domain work in high resolution full color for free.

Now that we have abundant access to the poems as they were written—within imagery—how do we read them differently? Are these illustrations essential to our understanding of the text? Do we consider the drawings to be integral parts of the poem, or just augmentations? 

No other poets that I can think of use imagery in this way. It may be that reading Blake is a unique experience in poetry, one that requires the dual skills of interpreting text and art.  I for one believe that something in the poems is lost to a degree when they are read without their illuminated frames. Are there modern analogues to Blake who use similar visual techniques to trigger a certain literary analysis? Is this a valid poetic form, or was Blake just an outlier?