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GIFT BOOKS IN BRIEF : JERUSALEM and SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND OF EXPERIENCE: by William Blake (Princeton University Press: $75 and $59.50 respectively).

December 01, 1991|Lewis Segal

Most readers know William Blake only as a mystical English poet of the late 18th/early 19th Century. However, writing a poem such as "Tyger Tyger, burning bright" was merely the beginning of Blake's creative process. After illustrating and hand-engraving a text, Blake would print it, then richly color the pages for each individual buyer. The unique result evokes the dazzling illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, but with the visionary intensity that Blake brought to verse and painting alike.

As the first volumes in a projected five-part Collected Edition, Princeton has issued facsimiles of Blake's first and last "illuminated books." With its 100 large-format plates and complex philosophical text, "Jerusalem" represents a publishing event: Because it was finished at the very end of his life, Blake colored only one copy; this is the first time a full-color reproduction is available to the general public. In contrast, Blake tried many different approaches with "Songs of Innocence and of Experience"--some stark, others nearly florid. The version chosen here offers delicate transparency of color and elegant border decorations.

Elaborate notes and commentaries distinguish both volumes, and the color printing is exceptional. Compared to these plates, many earlier reproductions look out of focus. However, the edition's standard-book size dwarfs the "Songs": As an appendix demonstrates, there's room for four of Blake's pages on each one of Princeton's.

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