William Blake Works for the Future

“I labour upwards into futurity.”

— William Blake?, 1796

SOURCE: Blake: Complete Writings, edited by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 262.

This inscription appears under the heading "Legends in a Small Book of Designs", written 1796, and is identified as associated with Urizen, pl. 12.

In his notes (p. 986-7) Keynes explains:

These legends were inscribed by Blake beneath the colour-printed monotypes forming copies of the so-called Large and Small Book of Designs. The examples of these books now in the British Museum Print Room do not have the legends, which are found only on the prints, now dispersed, derived from other copies (see the Census of Illuminated Books, 1951).

Erdman tells a different story:

[Inscriptions on Separate Illuminated Pages]

Inscriptions beneath color-printed pages from the illuminated works, as indicated. The "books" into which they were once gathered are sometimes called the "Small Book of Designs" and the "Large Book of Designs". See Bentley, Blake Books, pp 269, 356-358.

"Teach these Souls to Fly" and "O flames of furious desire" and "I labour upwards . . . " on Urizen 2, 3, and 5 respectively are not in Blake's hand yet often quoted.

SOURCE: Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by David V. Erdman, commentary by Harold Bloom. Newly revised edition (1982). Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1988. See p. 890.

As I have explained elsewhere, my mental map of Blake is based on the Keynes edition. So when I failed to find this quote in the Blake Digital Text Project archive, I pulled out my badly battered, taped-together copy of Keynes and thumbed through it from the beginning until I found the quote. Erdman indexes the quote, which is partially cited only in the notes, because the inscription was not in Blake's hand. Who then wrote it? It surely epitomizes Blake's orientation. I've been quoting this line for decades, and never suspected its authorship was in doubt. But I would not have had the quote either way had I relied merely on web sites. There are advantages to having been brought up on print culture. Though Blake's corpus is especially suited to hypertext/hypermedia treatment, information can still get lost, and researchers in our digital age are in too much of a hurry to double-check print sources.

My most used online Blake resource is the eE on-line Blake Concordance. Here you can find 29 references to futurity including 5 textual notes. Among these there are two references to labour.

From the Poetical Sketches, KE3-6.41; E438:

Then Brutus spoke, inspir'd; our fathers sit
Attentive on the melancholy shore:--
Hear ye the voice of Brutus--"The flowing waves
"Of time come rolling o'er my breast," he said;
"And my heart labours with futurity:
"Our sons shall rule the empire of the sea.

From The Four Zoas, [Nt 6], 72.12; E349:

Endless had been his travel but the Divine hand him led t746
For infinite the distance & obscurd by Combustions dire
By rocky masses frowning in the abysses revolving erratic
Round Lakes of fire in the dark deep the ruins of Urizens world
Oft would he sit in a dark rift & regulate his books
Or sleep such sleep as spirits eternal wearied in his dark
Tearful & sorrowful state. then rise look out & ponder
His dismal voyage eyeing the next sphere tho far remote
Then darting into the Abyss of night his venturous limbs
Thro lightnings thunders earthquakes & concussions fires & floods
Stemming his downward fall labouring up against futurity
Creating many a Vortex fixing many a Science in the deep
And thence throwing his venturous limbs into the Vast unknown
Swift Swift from Chaos to chaos from void to void a road immense

Ralph Dumain
11-12 July 2006

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