A little known fact about William Blake is that his poems in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience were published in a painted form. As the article William Blake and the Music of the Songs explains:

One of the characteristics of Blake’s work that makes it so interesting—and so challenging to study—is its use of diverse media. Since Blake believed that “Painting, as well as poetry and music, exists and exults in immortal thoughts,” [2] it is appropriate that he used each of these “sister arts” to express his artistic vision, pursuing, as he put it in a letter to George Cumberland, the vocations of “Poet Painter & Musician as the Inspiration comes” (qtd. in Bentley, Blake Records 95). [3] And yet, literary scholarship has not always attended to Blake’s multi-media mode of practice. During the first half of the twentieth century, indeed, readers commonly considered only Blake’s written words when interpreting his poetry, and whole books of academic criticism were written containing hardly a reference to the visual and verbal designs that are such crucial parts of the illuminated writing. [4] But in the past thirty years or so, following the guidance of critics like David V. Erdman, W. J. T. Mitchell, and the editors of the William Blake Archive, Blake scholars have come to insist that the poetry must be read in its original engraved and painted form rather than in the barren typescript versions still presented in many literary anthologies.

I'm hoping someone here could explain why most publishers made the decision to only publish the text of the poems and ignore the artwork associated with those poems.

  • 3
    I would assume it comes down to economics--printing an illustrated book is much harder and more expensive than printing a book with only text in it. Hopefully someone with more knowledge about the publishing industry can expand on this, if it is indeed the cause.
    – Torisuda
    Feb 2, 2018 at 5:12
  • "published in a painted form" - do you mean they were published only as paintings, or as illustrated manuscripts, or as text with accompanying paintings?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 2, 2018 at 10:57
  • @Rand al'Thor: the text was in the paintings. For example.
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 3, 2018 at 16:41

1 Answer 1


This almost certainly has to do with the technology of printing, and the economics of publishing.

There are currently many modern editions of Blake's illuminated works, and they contain much detail and many colors. To the best of my knowledge, the printing technology for mass reproduction of complex color images wasn't readily available:

Alois Senefelder, the inventor of lithography, introduced the subject of colored lithography in his 1818 Vollstaendiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerey (A Complete Course of Lithography), where he told of his plans to print using colour and explained the colours he wished to be able to print someday.

Although Senefelder recorded plans for chromolithography, printers in other countries, such as France and England, were also trying to find a new way to print in colour. Godefroy Engelmann of Mulhouse in France was awarded a patent on chromolithography in July 1837.
Chromolithography (wiki)

By contrast, the final Blake illustrations dates are:

The Book of Job (1823-1826)
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress (1824-1827, unfinished)
Dante, The Divine Comedy (1825-1827, unfinished)

Any process for mass reproduction of detailed, colored images prior to mechanized color lithography would have been extremely labor intensive and expensive.

Blake did reproduce and sell his artwork, but he was using an older process known as intaglio (etching):

Although Blake has become most famous for his relief etching, his commercial work largely consisted of intaglio engraving, the standard process of engraving in the 18th century in which the artist incised an image into the copper plate, a complex and laborious process, with plates taking months or years to complete, but as Blake's contemporary, John Boydell, realised, such engraving offered a "missing link with commerce", enabling artists to connect with a mass audience and became an immensely important activity by the end of the 18th century.

Although etching did allow Blake to mass produce his art, the output would would have been trivial compared to industrial printing, analogous to a modern printmaker who numbers their runs in the hundreds.

Blake's poetry would have been interesting to an audience far broader than those who could afford hand made reproductions, or even color lithography, prior to the twentieth century, so there would have been a strong business case for printing the text only.

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