The acrostic HEAR in Blake’s “London,” bracketed by the word “hear” in its illuminated holograph (see below), invites consideration as a consciously encoded game element, previously detected but not much explored, so far as I know. Below in two forms are papers on the topic. The first is reprinted with permission from The Explicator, and the second is closely adapted from a conference paper that I read in Nashville in 2003. Fuller credits occur preceding each paper.
From The Explicator, “Blake’s LONDON,” Roy Neil Graves, Vol. 63, No. 3, 131-35, Spring 2005. Reprinted with permission of the Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation. Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 18th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036-1802. www.heldref.org. Copyright © 2005.
In Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), William Blake’s “London” appears in the authorized form above, inside an illuminated frame. (Note 1) As editors of The LongmanAnthology 2004 ed.) point out, this text embeds an acrostic form of the word HEAR (stanza 3), echoed and bracketed by “hear” at the close of lines 8 and 13. (Note 2) Because this confluence of hear/HEAR/hear has the look of formal craftsmanship, it begs us to broach a study of its implications.
My own conclusion is that Blake’s whole acrostic letterstring—and not just the emphatic HEAR—may well be an authorized coterie feature that skews his text toward game by adding a hidden vertical dimension, a third level of meaning overlaid on the other two authorized elements that we’re used to considering—the textual verses and their contextualizing frame. While Blake’s ostensible sobriety might seem to rule out playfulness, his pervasive obscurantism makes it easy to imagine that arcane latencies might color—and cloud—any one of his texts.
A dark social commentary, “London” is by consensus one of Blake’s strongest poems, with an illumination that—as many have remarked—seems generally less bleak than the poem itself. Prominent at the top of the frame illustration are a stooped, bearded figure being led by a consoling child along a claustrophobic (but sky-lighted) cobbled street.
In the text proper, HEAR stands in an intuitively climactic position. While the mood of “hear” in lines 8 and 13 is indicative, HEAR in the acrostic feels imperative, calling for our attention. As a pun on HERE, the word might also be, in effect, an X that “marks the spot.”
Examination shows that the echoic repetition hear/HEAR/hear epitomizes a key rhetorical technique in the poem, which gains much of its force from linked echoic forms including syntactic parallels, reiterated diction, and witty phonic doublets. For example, the verses repeat five other substantive words besides HEAR: charter’d; cry (thrice); mark/Marks; street/streets; and Infants. Linked forms also include the doublets each and every, face and mind, and ban and Marriage. The end rhymes, too, are inevitably phonic echoes. Notably, hear cooperates in two pairs of rhymes—hear/fear and hear/tear.
Assonance and alliteration predictably create other kinds of echoism, as do three other features: (a) syntactic parallelism (see, e.g., lines 5-7, 10); (b) linked pairs of compound verbs (for example, wander and mark, Blasts and blights); and (c) adjective-plus-noun phrases including mind-forg’d manacles, blackning Church, new-born Infants, and Marriage hearse (an oxymoronic pairing). Other ironic phonic linkages include Man/manacles and hear/hearse. Further, the play on “pall” in appalls resonates with hearse, whereas “pall” links phonically with Palace and plagues. Even sweepers cry hides “weepers.”
Thus the word HEAR, once we ourselves hear it, invites us to be attentive to Blake’s phonic repetitions and his emphasis on aural technique.
Indeed, Blake crafts many of his textual details to be heard. Stanza 2, for example, reiterates cry and uses words with auditory insinuations such as voice and ban—the last having several meanings that all imply a hearing. Further, having “manacles” that are heard effectively suggests metallic clanks and even anvil clangs from the poet’s cerebral forge. Stanza 3, where HEAR is a frontispiece, focuses not just on blood-strewn walls but also on “cry” and “sigh.”In addition, the final stanza highlights a “curse” that echo through city streets, “blast[ing]” the sound of an infant’s distress. Meanwhile, subtler noises insinuate themselves as the “marriage hearse” moves down cobbled streets while the quiet Thames, a background foil to city strife, washes along.
Minimally, then, Blake’s acrostic HEAR proves integral and congruent in a carefully crafted phonic texture that includes echoic reiterations, wordplay, and imagery of sound. If the poem is Blake’s sermon on the city, then HEAR appears to be a primary rhetorical gesture with a substantive message: “Don’t turn a deaf ear!” Ironically, the word occurs as an aspect of sprezzatura (or suppressed design) that is unheard rather than overtly asserted.
As a further way of probing into this provocative “third dimension” of Blake’s text, I propose that we examine the full vertical acrostic in “London” as a potential alphabetic/phonic codeline appealing both to eye and ear. I recognize that such an indeterminate and creatively interactive approach to textual elements may blur the lines between authorial intention and reader-response—and between poetry and game. Readers surely will concede, however, that Blake’s poems, even when read more conventionally, are often encumbered with enigmatic private meanings and offshoot insinuations that encourage subjective responses.
The explorations below catalog some sample phonic latencies in Blake’s acrostic letterstring, construed separately as down and up codelines:
I N A M I I I T H E A R B H B A [down]
In A.M. I eyed her baby. In a mother, baby.
I named Har [Blake’s character, a senile infant] “baby.”
Aye (A...) gnome [i.e., goblin; aphorism], I therapia bay (...be).
In amity here (In a meter...; In a miter...), be happy.
I—in a Mightier Baby [that is, Christ?].
In a maid, her baby [that is, Mary?]. Enemy eyes [I + I = I’s] their baby [that is, at The Nativity?].
I name Three [= III; that is, The Trinity?], th’ ear be happy.
A B H B R A E H T I I I M A N I [up]
A babe or a Timon [that is, a misanthrope], I.
A baby red eye many.
Happy, buried, I’m aye nigh.
Happy parody (...parity; ...period) eye many.
Full readings of the down/up “hairpin” codeline include what might be assertions of faith:
I N A M I I I T H E A R B H B A A B H B R A E H T I I I M A N I
Eye gnome: I either be happy, a babe, or a Timon [that is, a misanthrope], aye.
I, an emitter, be happy, a Babe or a Timon I.
In amity, hear “Be happy aye.” “Aye be happy,” read I to [= II = two] many.
Aye in a Mightier Baby [that is, Christ], I be happy. Ready man, I.
Notably, a TIIIMAN might be an aging skeptic, a type modeled on Timon of Athens, a misanthrope. As “Experience,” a Timon is an apt foil to a “Baby”—with both types appearing in Blake’s illumination of “London.” Acrostic forms of baby (including BHBA) occur near “Infants” in line 15. And the acrostic form MIIIT, occurring near “Infants” in line 6, suggests amity, empty, mighty, might, and mite. Some of these options sound vaguely relevant.
Without a clear set of precedents for the private acrostic game that may be at work here, a reader/player (if I may broach the term) starts from the most insistent forms—whole elements such as IN, A.M., IT, THE, HEAR, EAR, B.A., and MAN—and proceeds toward puzzling out meanings that are more subjective.
For a reader who deduces some kind of encryption game here, questions of authorization and intentionality arise. Did Blake work out full “readings” in his head for his acrostic letterstring(s)? Did he merely salt a trail to lead the reader on a goose chase toward various serendipitous outcomes? Neither the text itself nor literary history answers such questions.
Aptness and wit are, of course, two of the usual tests for evaluating the outcomes of literary interpretations, including those I suggest here. In many poems, the limits of meaning are set by the mutual interaction of the ingenuity of the reader with that of the author who crafted the verses. Here, the more flexibly we “read” the acrostic letterstring after making the assumption that it may in fact be crafted as a code, the more “meanings” the codeline will seem to generate—partly because the English alphabet is itself a highly flexible symbol system, with variable phonic significations. In addition to readings in which letters have the sounds of letters (so that T = “tea” and B + H = “beach” or even “bitch”), Roman numeral readings are possible (as in II = “two,” above). In the codeline here, the sequence III (after NAM) might symbolize The Trinity. Other pictographic potentialities—and dialectic variations—emerge as confounding considerations.
As we proceed to examine the potentials of the acrostic letterstring in “London,” the openendedness of the code may seem surprisingly familiar: Blake’s texts often do not tell us exactly where we should direct our interpretations or when we should stop seeking “hidden” meanings.
Potentially meaningful in “London,” at least, is the fact that “Runs in blood down[...]” (12) punningly intersects a codeline that runs down—in the poet’s own reddish-colored ink—while aligning an upward phonic form of “red” (as RAEHT). Playfully, eider (code IIITHEAR) hides in the down code. Whether these represent instances of Blake’s wit or of our own creative fabrication is, again, an open question for modern readers.
In addition to TIIIMAN-BHBA, mentioned above, two other topically relevant pairs in the acrostic letterstrings seem to me to underscore motific dichotomies already established in the poem and its illumination: MAN-BHBA and MIIITHEAR-BHBA. Further, miter and enemy in the code play against “blackning Church” (10). “Enemy” (INAMI) also resonates with “raid” (RAEHT) in the codeline and with “Soldiers” in the text (11). “In A.M.” in the first stanza (acrostic 1-4) plays against “midnight” in the last (line 13). And, as noted earlier, HEAR interacts with “cry” (thrice), “ban[n],” “curse,” and various other textual details.
My own conclusion, then, is that Blake toyed with his marginal alphabetic codeline in “London” to allow it to house a complex of teasing meanings, thereby adding an authorized (and heretofore lost) dimension that interacts symbiotically with the other two more insistently apparent aspects, the verses and their illustrated frame. Because readers have previously struggled to deduce the author’s tone and meaning by studying his text in the context of its scenic frame, this acrostic embedding has the effect of making an already diffuse situation exponentially more so.
Finally, it seems unlikely to me that the acrostic wit Blake cultivates in “London” is a nonce instance in his oeuvre of this kind of formal manipulation. Perhaps his motive was purely private and essentially serious, some kind of mystical assertion of his own faith.
—ROY NEIL GRAVES, University of Tennessee at Martin
1. See. for example, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, introduction and commentary by Sir Geoffrey Keynes (New York: The Orion Press, in association with The Trianon Press, Paris, 1967), plate 46. The book is a reproduction in the original size of William Blake’s illuminated book. Keynes’s transcription of the poem is identical to the one here [that is, the one printed as a headnote in The Explicator with this essay] except that he renders Blake’s terminal periods in lines 5, 6, 7, and 10 as commas. Because small details may be significant, careful readers may want to study Blake’s own hand-lettered text and the variants of his illuminated frame illustration.
2. See The Longman Anthology of British Literature, ed. David Damrosch et al., 2nd compact ed., vol. B (New York: Pearson, 2004) 1, note 3.
“Toward Cracking the Acrostic Code in Blake’s ‘London’”
A paper presented by Roy Neil Graves
in Nashville at Trevecca Nazarene University on 22 February 2003
at the annual gathering of the Tennessee Philological Association
(Note: Here I’ve incorporated certain elements originally resented in handout form and have made other minor adjustments
in order to adapt the text to this medium of presentation.)
As editors note in the 1999 edition of The Longman British Anthology, William Blake’s “London” hides the emphatic word HEAR in its lefthand vertical acrostic. Above, preceding the reprinted article from The Explicator, you see the poem as it appears in the Experience section of Blake’s combined 1794 volume, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. You can see that the emphatic acrostic is bracketed by the word “hear” in the text. My own academic focus since 1977 on coterie gameplaying in literature leads me to try to explore its implications.
Blake, as you know, can be obscure and devious. His works often encode arcane personal meanings and perverse ironies. He also uses visual frames to interact with his verse statements, expanding and transforming them. Thus reading his poems is always a special kind of struggle, a skirmish waged on several fronts at once. Blake is also a recognized punster who likes wordplay. Critics, for example, hear puns in the names Los (in The Four Zoas) on “loss” and in Urizen on “Your reason.” Los is also a reverse anagram of “SOL,” the sun. Many other examples are more convoluted. The general point is that we know Blake liked to play with words, with their sounds, spellings, and reverses.
I suspect that you may resist finding game elements in “London.” First of all, a poem that’s so grim and serious surely can’t be playful. Too, acrostics seem particularly demeaning. (We recall those trite poems from third grade that spell out MOTHER or CHRISTMAS.) Minimally we’ll need to suspend disbelief and put all our simmering pots of received opinion on the back burner.
My proposal here is that Blake’s whole acrostic letterstring—and not just his emphatic four-letter word—may well be an authorized coterie feature that skews his text toward game by adding a hidden vertical dimension, a third interactive level of meaning. If so, his acrostic code is like another dimension of meaning overlaid on the other two elements that we’re used to considering—the verses and their pictorial frames.
I propose, further, that the example in Blake’s “London” may be a tip-of-the-iceburg paradigm of coterie embeddings that alters not just this one text but, in fact, many of his poems and perhaps the whole canon. More study is called for, and you can reach your own conclusions.
“London” has been endlessly interpreted, and our job here isn’t to add to conventional readings of it. We’ll also not spend much time on Blake’s life. (To be honest, nothing I’ve learned about his associates or work habits seems closely relevant.) Still, we need to lay some groundwork.
Scholars think Blake composed the Experience poems in 1792 or 1793, when he was about 35 and going through (to quote The Norton Anthology) “a troubled time at home.” “London” is by consensus one of his strongest poems, a dark social comment that sketches city life in late 18th-century England. The “I” persona reports in present tense on the general misery of the people he encounters on a nighttime sweep through the city’s “charter’d streets.” His trip seems at once real and emblematic. The Londoners he sees, hears (yes, hears), and records are infants, young women, and men—chimney-sweepers, harlots, and soldiers. “Marriage” seems tainted by disease and death, and Church and Crown are the twin, faceless antagonists of a citizenry that includes newborns.
Blake’s frame illustrations always merit attention, especially because they can seem so unconnected to their texts, more like counterpoint than illustration, always adding an overlay of implication.
Most everyone agrees that Blake’s illumination of “London,” in its extant variants of hand coloration, seems much less bleak than the verse text. (One version of the illumination occurs at the top of this link.) At the top, on what may be a “midnight street,” a boy leads a hobbling old man who does show “marks of weakness and woe.”
Dark atmospheric symbols include a closed door, a stone wall, rough stone cobbles, and angled shadows. But the red-brown colors are warm, the green costume looks vital, and the two children are not blighted. The child guide at the top seems “engaged” and comforting. The bearded man, a familiar figure in Blake iconography, might be the “wanderer” of the first line, here being taken on a guided tour.
Alien to a bleak cityscape are not only the warm colors, fire, and helpful child, but also a bottom foreground of knolls, defined by a wavy figure that may be a snake or worm. One extant copy gives this beast a plumed tail. These details have been read and reread, sometimes verging on what some critcs call the “ideographic fallacy.” A commonsense interpretation might parse the two youths as positive figures depicting innocence, childlike faith, and connection to nature. By offering hope in the darkness, the frame invites us to revisit it but offers more ambiguity than clarification.
Examining Blake’s arrangement of the verses of “London,” we note that HEAR stands in an intuitively climactic position. Maybe, we think, Blake is using the word to get our attention, overtly or subliminally.
While the hears of the verses are indicative, HEAR in the acrostic feels imperative. Since H-E-A-R puns on H-E-R-E, the word seems partly like a kind of X that “marks the spot.” Examining the wording of the poem, we see further that the echoic repetition of “hear” epitomizes a composition technique that the whole text relies on. For the poem achieves much of its rhetorical force from various kinds of linked and echoic forms, including syntactic parallelism, reiterated diction, and sometimes witty phonic doublets.
Let me quickly catalog some of these repetitive elements in order to show that the three-way repetition of HEAR is fully representative of the poet’s more overt rhetorical strategy.
First, in the poem text we hear at least five other words repeated besides HEAR, including “charter’d,” “cry,” and variant forms of “mark,” “street,” and “infant.”
Linked forms in the horizontal verses also include three pairs of doublets: “each” and “every”; “face” and “mind”; and “ban” and “marriage.”
End-rhymes, of course, are also phonic echoes. Notably, two pairs of rhymes reiterate HEAR—hear/fear and hear/tear. Assonance and alliteration predictably create other kinds of echoism, and so do three other features: First, linked pairs of compound verbs (such as “wander and mark,” “blasts and blights); second, syntactic parallelism; and, third, a heavy pile-up of some ten separate adjective-plus-noun phrases including “mind-forg’d manacles,” “blackning church,” “new-born infants,” and “Marriage hearse.”
Other kinds of phonic echoes show ironic linkages. Noteworthy pairs of examples include 1) “hear” and “hearse” and 2) “man” and “manacles.” Further, the play on “pall” in “appall” resonates with another end-word, “hearse,” while “pall” also links phonically with “Palace” and “plagues.” Even the phrase “sweepers cry” hides “weepers.”
It’s easy to argue, then, that the word “HEAR,” once we ourselves have heard it, serves to make us notice Blake’s phonic repetitions and his emphasis on that aural technique.
Blake’s word HEAR also invites us to examine the importance of auditory imagery in vivifying his scene. (Again, to save time I’ll squeeze this point.) When we call Blake a visionary, the epithet is apt to underscore what the eye can take in. Certainly some imagery in “London” does appeal to sight, but much is crafted to be heard. Stanza 2, for example, reiterates “cry” and uses words with auditory implications such as “voice” and “ban”—the last having several meanings that all imply a hearing.
Further, having manacles in the poem “Heard” effectively suggests metallic clanks and even anvil clangs from the poet’s cerebral “forge.” Stanza 3, where the acrostic HEAR occurs, focuses not just on blood-strewn walls but also on the “cries” and “sighs” of dying soldiers. And the final stanza features “curses” that echo through city streets, “blasting” the sound of infants’ cries.
More subtle sounds come from the “marriage hearse” moving along cobbled streets and from the quiet Thames in the background, a natural foil in the poem.
Minimally, then, Blake’s acrostic HEAR seems integral and congruent in an elaborately crafted phonic texture that includes at least three separate elements: echoic reiterations, wordplay, and imagery of sound.
If the poem is Blake’s sermon on the city, then HEAR, I propose, is its primary rhetorical gesture—ironically an aspect of sprezzatura or suppressed design, unheard rather than overt.
Having made a New Critical case for the organic relevance of HEAR in the poet’s rhetorical texture, I could (and maybe should) could stop here. But my long experience with literate coterie gameplaying prompts me to proceed to explore briefly the full vertical acrostic in “London” as a extended alphabetic/phonic code that appeals both to eye and ear.
I’ve catalogued some representative samples on the handout, each suggestive rather than dogmatic.[See below, following the text of the paper.]
I admit at the front that the game is not only indeterminate but is also creative and interactive. The boundaries of Blake’s inventiveness and crafty intentions are admittedly blurry. I also readily admit that language itself is playful, generating its own encoded meanings in something of the way that modern Tennessee license plates insistently do. (My brother was chagrined when he got tags for his new Mercedes that read F-A-K. The reverse of the name of the fieldhouse at UTM—it’s called Elam Center—is RET NEC MALE, awfully close to “red-neck male.”) This inherency in language for encoding playful “meanings” allows a gamy poet to manipulate it, rather much the way that the inherent iambic nature of English allows poets to craft iambic verse.
Anyhow, let’s imagine that poets once played alphabetic and phonic games with the lefthand vertical letterstring in their poems and that there was some sort of masonic transmission of this tradition into Blake’s age. Such gamy elements are practically self-concealing, as many masonic practices are, and, except for overt elements such as “exactly spelled” words in the code, the poet can essentially retain deniability.
In the Renaissance, as I’ve said, such coy formal elements reflected one form of the ideal principle of sprezzatura or “suppressed design,” that is, “the skill of doing the hard thing artfully and keeping the difficulty hidden.” (My critics have said that by stretching the Italian term I misuse it, but I don’t believe that I do.)
As moderns positioned outside the coterie traditions, we now work in reverse, speculatively trying to recreate what has been lost to public view.
For the sake of the game, then, let’s imagine that Blake authorized not just HEAR but indeed the full alphabetic acrostic of “London” as a letterstring that encodes ambiguous meanings, and that the lettercode that can be “played” by any consumer who knows where to look. I call that consumer, rather awkwardly, a reader/player.
Let’s imagine, further, that the acrostic code works not only DOWN but also UP, in reverse, as well as in a DOWN/UP form that I’ve come to call the HAIRPIN code. (There’s another hairpin, the UP/DOWN form, but we have to stop somewhere.)
Seeking out WHOLE WORDS in the code
One way of starting to explore the code is first to look for “whole” words. Here, in the down code, you see that six or seven words occur:
IN A.M. IT THE HEAR (of course) B.A.
You’ll also notice that in the upward string, the word MAN occurs in lines 4-2 as an upward acrostic just after “Man,” capitalized, occurs in line 5 .
Seeking out PHONIC CLUSTERS in the code
Reading acrostic codelines, one next searches out potentially meaningful phonic clusters. These elements typically generate ambiguous alternatives that may be key elements in possible decodings. Examples on the handout [recreated below] include phonically-spelled forms of the words enemy, name, mite, mother/ miter/meter, therapia [L.], happy (HBA), and—most notable in the Blake lexicon—baby (BHBA).
In the upward code you also see “bitch”(BH); babe or baby (BHB); red or write (RAEHT); bright or buried, or even parody ( BRAEHT); RAE-H = rich; and demon or Timon (TIIIMAN)
Now, TIMON is most intriguing to me because it denotes a type, an aging skeptic, modeled on Timon of Athens, a misanthrope. If a Baby is a type of innocence, Timon offers a type of Experience. We begin to sniff possible authorization.
As poem turns into gameboard, reader/players deduce playful keywords and start to seek out tangential cross-commentary. We’ve already done this with H-E-A-R.
Looking at some other emerging words in the code, we see that two acrostic forms of “baby” near the end occurs contiguously to “Infant[’]s” in line 15).
Another form of “Infant” (in line 6) occurs near the downward acrostic play on “mite” (MIIIT). A play on “eider” (code IIITHEAR) appears, suitably, as a down reading.
If we turn our thoughts back to the text, we note that the phrase “Runs in blood down...” (line 12) might interact punningly with a codeline that runs down, in the poet’s own reddish-colored ink, while aligning an upward phonic form of “red” (as RAEHT).
Two interesting dichotomies, especially, catch our eyes and ears, since they seem to underscore patterns in the verses and the illuminated plate of “London.” These two are MAN-BHBA and MIIITHEAR-BHBA. The pseudo-Scottish spelling of “Mither” prompts us to note a potential “Hiberia” in the up code (HBRAEH), along with the usual “ayes” encoded by A or I.
Further, the terms miter, bitch, and enemy in the code seem to play against “blackning Church.” ENEMY (code INAMI) also plays against RAID in the code (code RAEHT, up) and “Soldier[’]s” in line 11 of the text. “In A.M.” (in the up acrostic, lines 1-4) at the start plays against “midnight” (line 13) toward the end. HEAR, as we’ve said, plays against “cry” (thrice), “ban[n],” “curse,” and so on.
Perhaps the memorable word “chartered” even made Blake think of a checkerboard on a map, a street grid charted like a framework for an acrostic. (In some cases elsewhere I’ve found whole texts set up as acrostic alphabetic lettergrids.)
Given the limits of time, I’d like to proceed to look at a few “full” versions of the code readings, shown in the recreated handout below.
My favorites are three I’ve highlighted on the handout below:
“In A.M., I either be happy, a babe, or a Timon [i.e., a misanthrope], aye [or I].”
“I, an amateur be—hobby, a Babe or a Timon aye.”
“I, an emitter, be happy, a Babe or a Timon I.”
My experience with phonic acrostic codelines in literature written before Blake’s time leads me to deduce that the player’s goal is to find the “best” reading—the most apt. Finding such a message, one can assume that the author is likely to have toyed with it first.
I’ve evolved many other more arcane ways of reading acrostic codelines—including Roman numerals, alphabetic signatures, letter-for-number substitutions (such as B for numeral 8), and so on. The fact is that almost every alphabetic character letter can become a full word—for example, AYE, BAY, SEA, DAY, HE, IF, JAY, EDGE and so on. Experience with the game is the best teacher.
I lack the time here to explore the acrostic elements in earlier ms. versions of “London,” but I have examined them as I prepared this paper. Blake’s workbooks sources suggest that “London” evolved in three or four stages. A main point to note is that the draft version in the Rosetti ms. includes a simpler form of “baby” (as BB) than the finished text does.
Were there time, I’d adduce other possibilities of allusive meanings in the codeline, including a reference to Har, the senile infant in his poem Tiriel. One reading of the down code here is “I named Har ‘Baby’.”
In one known instance Blake punned on the name of an art publisher named Hoare by calling him a “trembling Hare who sits at his weakly paper On which he usd to dance & sport & caperr.” This instance of punning at least helps us to imagine Blake as a writer who might go to lengths to cultivate puns in his texts.
Potentials in OTHER POEMS by Blake
A final segment of this paper offers a series of acrostic letterstrings from several other well-known poems by William Blake. These occur last on the handout [reprinted below]. I leave these mainly for your perusal later, and I leave the decision to you about whether any or all of the suggested readings might be authorized. My own deduction is that Blake probably was manipulating his alphabetic codelines so that, subjectively at least, they encrypted meanings. My favorites on your handout include references to “a queued bait” in “The Chimney Sweeper” and the encoded comment in “the Divine Image”: “Tariff I’ve paid to’ ply wit.”
The plays on W.B. as a signature in “The Little Black Boy” are also especially appealing, as is the game in “The Lamb” about the camel, hinging on the fact that the lefthand acrostic edge of the poem has two humps. Perusing these and linking them to the letterstring code in “London,” I deduce that the meanings in the acrostic codelines, if they are authorized, are unlikely to be tightly connected with either the meaning of the verses or of the illustration—but that they might have made some sense to Blake. My favorite readings, and thus (I think) the likely ones that Blake might have had in mind, are set in boldface on the handout [see below].
Minimally, I suggest, Blake thought in acrostic terms, mostly working with playful phonic spellings rather than precise lexical forms. (A correctly spelled form tends to give the game away to outsiders, as it may be doing here, at last, and to a modern audience.) I personally suspect that Blake might have played the game mainly for himself. But who knows? I deduce, finally, that his meanings are not tightly tied to those in the poems where they occur. In that sense they are like the add-on drawings, functioning almost as a separate and artful entity.
In Night II, one of Blake’s line runs, “And many said We see no Visions in the darksom air.” That may be our most comfortable approach to take. But, in Blake’s case especially, his arcane interests and tendency toward private meanings and wordplay allow us to entertain the idea that more always lies in wait to be studied. Knowing already that his pictures add perplexing frames of meaning to his poems, we may not find it hard to accept the idea that acrostic mini-texts may interlace his illustrated poems with yet a third authorized element, another cloudy skrim to try to pierce in our progress toward demystifying his works.
The handout sheets below approximate those used to illustrate this paper when I presented it in 2003.
Handout to accompany the paper
“Toward Cracking the Acrostic Code in Blake’s ‘London’”
Roy Neil Graves, Professor, The University of Tennessee <http://www.utm.edu/staff/ngraves>
Tennessee Philological Association, Trevecca Nazarene University, Nashville, Tennessee 22 February 2003