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William Blake invented a printing technique known as relief etching and used it to print most of his poetry. He called the technique illuminated printing and the poetry illuminated books. Nearly all of his critics believe that the idea for illuminated books preceded the invention of relief etching, that either the idea of text integrated with images on the same page or Songs of Innocence actually mocked up on paper was the mother of invention. This essay, however, approaching the question of the technique’s origin from the context of other new print technologies of the day, argues that illuminated poetry was the child and not the mother of invention. There were no “illustrated songs” on hand or even in mind needing a technique by which they could be printed in facsimile. Blake’s idea of publishing himself occurs only after the invention of relief etching, once he sees that he could use his new mode for writing as well as images and both in the same space.

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In responding to the popularity of drawings, these new technologies were trying to solve technical problems: how to reproduce the autographic marks on paper of pencil, chalk, pen, brush, and wash in metal where the tools of “sculpsit” (burins, needles, roulettes, stipplers, matoirs, rockers, scrapers, and burnishers) were very different. The difference between illuminated printing and other methods that sought to reproduce the look and feel of drawings is that the brush and pen marks in relief-etching are actually created by pens and brushes using a liquid and not, as in the latter, imitated by lines carefully laid in the shape of the original marks or with tools like roulettes and matoirs. [: Tools of stipple and chalk engraving, showing roulettes and matoirs. Link to the William Blake Archive/About Blake/Essay on Illuminated Printing.] Illuminated pages look like manuscripts and drawings because the inventions were executed as such. Blake had solved the technical problem of reproducing pen and brush marks in metal by behaving like an artist. His marks are authentic and spontaneous; the others are imitations—their autograph carefully crafted illusion.

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