In December, the Ashmolean Museum opened the exhibition William Blake: Apprentice and Master, which displays an impressive selection of Blake’s most famous works until March. Tying in with this exhibition, the Ashmolean and Blackwell’s Bookshop have collaborated to create the Inspired by Blake festival, which runs from 18-31 January and presents an impressive range of extremely varied events, from printmaking workshops to a rap performance, all related to Blake’s versatile art. On Friday the 23rd, the Ashmolean hosted Blake scholar Saree Makdisi from UCLA for a public lecture called ‘Reading in the Spirit of Blake.’ The lecture was connected to Professor Makdisi’s book Reading William Blake, which is forthcoming this March.
In his lecture, which was attended by an impressively heterogeneous audience, Makdisi emphasised the relationship between words and images in Blake’s works: the distinction between the two forms of art is at times difficult to make, as words and images flow into each other and cannot be considered separately. This assertion does make one wonder whether the title of Makdisi’s lecture was appropriate: when text and image merge into each other, viewing becomes as important as reading.
The lecture was an excellent introduction to Blake, especially for people who have only a little knowledge of the artist and the way in which he produced his works. Makdisi focused on those works that are also on display in the Ashmolean exhibition, further informing that part of the audience which had just come down from the exhibition about what they had just seen. Unfortunately, since the lecture was scheduled to end after the regular opening hours of the Ashmolean, it was not possible for a visitor to go and have a look at the works straight after the talk, the newly gained knowledge still at the front of one’s mind.
Makdisi’s lecture became particularly interesting when he explained to the audience how one can teach Blake to students, when each version of his collections of poems is different. Referring to the Blake Archive Online, he explained that he no longer sets his students a printed version of Blake to read, but instead lets them compare different editions of Blake’s works online, thus freeing them from the limitations of the book, as Blake himself seems to have attempted.
After the lecture, Makdisi took plenty of time for questions, showing patience with the almost unavoidable pedant who hogs the floor with a short narrative ending in a question mark followed by further questions. It was during this question and answer session that the connections to being ‘inspired’ by Blake were actually made: whereas Makdisi had focused solely on Blake’s own work, the questions led him to some interesting explanations regarding the connection of Blake’s work to children and the influence Blake seemingly did not have on his contemporaries or on Surrealists. The most important point to take away from this lecture, however, again referred to Blake’s work itself: Makdisi expressed a strong disagreement with any claims concerning how to read Blake. Meaning lies in the action of reading Blake, an action which should not be prescribed.