Dismissed in his own day as nothing more than a journeyman engraver with eccentric ideas and wild visions, and as the writer of some unintelligible poetry, William Blake is a titanic figure in modern times, hailed by many as the greatest of the Romantic poets and with a popular appeal that stretches far beyond the confines of art history or literary criticism. Yet he has had to wait until the 1990’s for a biographer who can truly do him justice. Until well into the twentieth century, the general view of Blake’s life was based on Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake, which was published in 1863. Gilchrist had the advantage of talking directly to people who had known Blake, but his picture of the otherworldly artist pursuing his prophetic visions in lonely splendor was a gross distortion of the truth. It was not until David Erdman’s Prophet Against Empire was published in 1954 that the full extent of Blake’s engagement with the political and social issues of his time was realized. Erdman’s book was a critical rather than biographical work, and a major biography that presents the many-sidedness of William Blake, taking into account all his complexity and contradictions, has been long overdue.
What Peter Ackroyd conveys most memorably is not only the gigantic nature of Blake’s artistic and poetic achievement but also the pathos of the man: his insecurity, his neurotic fears, his troubles with authority figures, his mild-mannered passivity, which was counterbalanced by explosions of anger whenever he thought he had been slighted (which was often); his tendency to feel victimized, his resentment at being accused of being mad; and his continually thwarted hopes for worldly success. His friends and acquaintances referred to him as “poor Blake,” so ill- suited did he seem for success in his worldly enterprises. Yet through it all he kept up his heroic, lifelong effort to maintain his belief in his own genius and his destiny, even when the world stubbornly refused to confirm them. Sometimes this led him into grandiloquent claims for his own work; at other times, the only way he could think of to preserve his sense of his own worth was to bluntly demand more money for some piece of hack work. Sometimes, in spite of all his efforts, he sank into despair. It is impossible not to be moved by Peter Ackroyd’s compelling narration of Blake’s story.
William Blake was born, the son of a hosier, in London in 1757. He remained a Londoner all his life, leaving the city only once, for a three-year stay at a cottage on the South Coast. Ackroyd, who is the biographer of another famous Londoner, Charles Dickens, brilliantly re-creates the sounds and sights and smells of England’s capital city and the changes it underwent during Blake’s lifetime. According to Ackroyd, Blake’s art springs from the variety and energy of the city; Blake once referred to himself as “English Blake” but he might equally well be known as “London Blake.” It was a London not seen by his contemporaries, in the sense that Blake, a natural visionary, always saw through the surface realities, the teeming, everyday world of a great city, to the spiritual dimension, what he called “the spiritual fourfold London,” which was its true, essential reality.
Blake always had his eye on eternity, even as a young boy—at the age of four he had a vision of God and not many years later he saw a tree full of angels in the fields at Peckham Rye. He began writing poetry when he was twelve, and his drawing ability was so early manifest that his father decided to apprentice him for seven years to a well-known engraver. Engraving was how he made his living for the remainder of his life, although for the most part Blake viewed this kind of work as daily drudgery; his real interests lay elsewhere, in art and poetry.
One of the few blessings Blake had in life was his marriage, to Catherine Boucher. Catherine was the illiterate daughter of a market gardener, but she proved a loyal and devoted wife to Blake, helping him color his designs and imbibing from him his gift for seeing visions. It is refreshing to find that Ackroyd takes the contemporary evidence of the harmony of the Blakes’ marriage at face value. Unlike some literary critics, he does not try to read tensions into it based on the fact that Blake’s mythology expresses considerable conflict between male and female principles, and a particular horror of what Blake calls the “female will,” which should be understood in a metaphysical rather than literal sense.
Ackroyd is most illuminating when he discusses Blake’s work as an artist rather than as a poet. One salient...
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