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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...

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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 point he emphasizes several times is how Blake’s art so often seems to radiate a kind of spiritual light. This is first discernible in two pen sketches, “The Complaint of Job” and “The Death of Ezekiel’s Wife,” which were completed in the mid-1780’s. Ackroyd notes their “extraordinary luminescence” and comments that “The light within Blake’s paintings and watercolors is often the most immediately noticeable characteristic; it represents the light of understanding, the light of eternity suffused through material reality.” This recalls the comment of another Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, that the subtle yellows that make up many of the backgrounds in the designs to Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794) seem almost to reflect the light of heaven itself. These effects cannot usually be seen in reproductions.

This sense of light as a kind of spiritual revelation was something Blake discovered as an artist before he incorporated it into his poetic myth. Ackroyd notes its occurrence once more in the engravings Blake made to illustrate “The Grave,” by Robert Blair. These relief etchings were executed entirely in white line (that is, white against a black background), which tends to create the effect that “there is a light to be found in all things,” an effect that was not understood or appreciated by Robert Cromek, who had commissioned the etchings, but who removed Blake from the project when he saw the results. It was not the first time that Blake’s work was not in keeping with contemporary tastes.

According to Ackroyd, a similar impression of light is made by two series of Blake’s later works: the woodcuts illustrating Virgil, and the engravings Blake made in illustration of the Book of Job. In the former, Ackroyd notes that fields and streams seem to be illuminated by the sun, and yet the scene depicted is lit by moonlight only. As a result, “there must be some other source of brightness here, since Blake well understood the spiritual dimension of light.” In the latter, one of Blake’s last works, there is a “radiant brightness . . . an extraordinary silver light that comes from a very fine distribution of highlights and burnishing as well as the delicacy of the engraved lines.”

This information is enlightening (if that word may be used in this context), but Ackroyd does not always give the same detailed attention to Blake’s poetry that he does to Blake’s art. When he does so his comments are rewarding, in spite of the fact that he offers mostly conventional interpretations. Yet those readers who admire Blake’s epic poetry, or prophecies, may find Ackroyd’s discussions of them lacking in completeness. This applies in particular to the masterwork Milton: A Poem (1804-1808), in which Blake seeks to correct what he sees as the mistakes made by John Milton, the great epic poet in whose footsteps Blake sought to follow. It contains some of Blake’s finest poetry, and Ackroyd might profitably have devoted more space to elucidating it. The poem also has biographical interest: The long episode known as the Bard’s Song, for example, might have been used to throw light on the troubled relationship between Blake and his patron, William Hayley.

Ackroyd gives a slightly more detailed account of Blake’s last major epic poem, Jerusalem: The Emancipation of the Great Albion (1804-1820), although his comment that it is the most accessible of Blake’s prophecies may surprise the reader who has attempted to read that tough book. (Milton is usually thought to be easily the more accessible of the two.)

In the context of the whole biography, however, these are small criticisms indeed. As are the errors that have crept in, of which there seem to be three. First, regarding the Gordon Riots of 1780, in which mobs rampaged through London for several days protesting the easing of restrictions on Catholics, Ackroyd states that the rioters passed within a few yards of Blake’s own home on Broad Street. This is not so. There were two Broad Streets in London, one in the city, leading to Holborn and St. Paul’s Cathedral, the other a good half mile away in Westminster. The rioters surged down the former; Blake lived in the latter.

Second, Ackroyd states that one of Blake’s engravings was included in The Conjurer’s Magazinein 1792. Yet G. R. Bentley, Jr., Blake’s bibliographer, has pointed out that there is no plate signed by Blake in any issues of this magazine, or its successor, The Astrologer’s Magazine. The error weakens only very slightly the case Ackroyd makes for Blake being aware of contemporary ideas about the efficacy of magic. The real question is what credence Blake gave to a magical view of the universe. The majority of Blake scholars, at least in the United States, usually argue that Blake’s worldview does not make room for magic. Ackroyd begs to differ, and the examples he produces offer a challenge to the conventional view.

Third, in Ackroyd’s discussion of the influence of the German seer Jacob Boehme on Blake—which is important and accurately described—he states that Boehme was an influential figure during all the religious disputes among the radical sects in England in the mid-sixteenth century, but these disputes date from the mid-seventeenth century.

Blake: A Biography may well become the standard biography of Blake for many years to come. Nevertheless, there is another work on the way. Aileen Ward, the biographer of John Keats, has been working on a biography of Blake for more than ten years, and the results of her research are eagerly awaited. She has already published an article in which she makes a persuasive case for the date of birth of Blake’s favorite brother Robert to have been 1761, not 1767. The latter date has been accepted by scholars for nearly thirty years, and Ackroyd follows this convention. Ward’s findings may have been published too late for Ackroyd to make use of, but it is intriguing to think that there may still be more “Minute Particulars” about the life of that self-described “Mental Prince,” William Blake, for the future biographer to tease out.

Sources for Further Study

The Economist. CCCXXXVII, November 11, 1995, p. 4.

London Review of Books. XVIII, February 22, 1996, p. 16.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 19, 1996, p. 4.

New Statesman and Society. VIII, September 8, 1995, p. 36.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, April 14, 1996, p. 5.

The Observer. September 3, 1995, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, February 26, 1996, p. 90.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 20, 1995, p. 3.

The Wall Street Journal. April 9, 1996, p. A16.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, May 12, 1996, p. 1.