The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Although many of the Romantic poets displayed a high degree of anxiety concerning the way in which their works were produced and transmitted to an audience, few, if any, fretted quite as much as William Blake did. Being also a highly accomplished engraver and printer, he was certainly the only one of the Romantics to be able to completely move beyond mere fretting. Others may have used their status or wealth to exert their influence upon the production process, but ultimately, they were at the mercy of editors, publishers, and printers and relied on others to turn their visions into published works. Blake, on the other hand, was his own editor, engraver, printer, and publisher. He was able to control to the minutest detail every single aspect of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from conception all the way to the selling of the finished volume. Short of being his own purchaser, Blake achieved the highest possible degree of control over the work’s transmission, and considering that there are only nine known complete copies of the work (twelve total including variants and uncolored prints), even the audience itself was almost handpicked (Ackroyd, 265).
“I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans/ I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create”, he wrote, and create he did (Ackroyd, 113). Spurning the common intaglio method of etching in which indented lines formed designs on plates, Blake invented a novel process of printing in relief in which the designs were actually raised above the surface of the plate. Blake was very proud of this method and staked a great deal of faith and hope in it. “I have invented a method of Printing both Letterpress and Engraving in a style more ornamental, uniform, and grand, than any before discovered, while it produces work at less than one fourth of the expense,” he enthusiastically raved (Bindman, 106).
About his actual method Blake was very secretive and never published it. In fact, not even his closest friends were given the privilege of watching him work on his relief etchings. He does, however, repeatedly allude to this “infernal method”, which he claimed was given to him by his deceased brother Robert in a vision. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a devil wrote with “corroding fire” upon the side of the abyss of the five senses, and Blake says that he would “print in the infernal method, by corrosives . . . melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid” (plates 7 & 14).
Although scholars differ in their opinion of what Blake’s method was and acknowledge that since Blake guarded it very tightly, there is little chance of ever ascertaining the precise details of his technique, much progress has been made to discover the general principle of his relief etchings. In 1947, William Hayter, Joan Miro, and Ruthven Todd made an attempt to discover Blake’s method by experimenting with making relief etchings that would reproduce...