Critical Overview

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Blake's friends and circle of disciples published articles in praise of Blake during his lifetime and after his death. These tributes served as the sources and inspiration for the 1863 biography of Blake by Alexander and Anne Gilchrist. Their The Life of William Blake was received with enthusiasm by mid-Victorian poets such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Robert Browning, and Algernon Charles Swinburne. The enthusiasm fired the poet William Butler Yeats, who wrote the essay "William Blake and the Imagination" in 1887 and edited an edition of Blake's poetry in 1893.

In the nearly two hundred years since Blake's death, the manner in which the poet has been regarded both has and has not changed. While Blake lived, his admirers and his detractors did not much disagree on the nature of his genius and the meaning or the quality of his work. It was over the merit of the work and whether Blake's genius was alloyed with madness that there was disagreement. The opposing factions simply differed in their valuations of Blake's work and his thought. Most were dismissive, regarding Blake primarily as a fine engraver. Some people, such as John Giles (quoted in Heims), one of Blake's young disciples, cherished Blake's work and saw him as a prophet who "had seen God … and had talked with angels."

Robert Southey (quoted in Heims), appointed the poet laureate of England in 1813, called Blake "a man of great, but undoubtedly insane genius." In 1830, the poet and man of letters Allan Cunningham wrote in Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (quoted in Heims) that Blake was "a loveable, minor eccentric: unworldly, self-taught and self-deluded." Blake's champion Henry Crabbe Robinson (quoted in Heims) did not sound a very different note when he called Blake "a Religious Dreamer" in 1811, but he made his comments approvingly. John Linnell (quoted in Heims), a painter and carver who was both a disciple and a patron of Blake's, wrote of Blake in 1818,

I soon encountered Blake[']s peculiarities, and [was] somewhat taken aback by the boldness of some of his assertions. I never saw anything the least like madness…. I generally met with a sufficiently rational explanation in the most really friendly & conciliatory tone.

Perhaps the ambiguity of attitude toward Blake is best expressed by another of his younger contemporaries, the art historian and scholar Seymour Kirkup, who met Blake and later wrote, "His high qualities I did not prize at that time; besides, I thought him mad. I do not think so now."

Essentially the same understanding of Blake exists in the early twenty-first century as existed in his time. Blake is recognized as a mystic, a visionary, an advocate of liberty, and an opponent of repression. The only difference is that the balance between regard and disdain for his work has shifted. Blake's work has been accepted into the canon of great literature and valued by such respected academic critics and scholars as Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, and G. E. Bentley, Jr. David Erdman, in the preface to his monumental edition of Blake's written work, calls Blake "one of the greatest of English poets, and certainly one of the most original, and most relevant to us now."

As if to confirm Erdman's judgment, Blake studies are thriving in academic settings, and his work has been included in the repertoires of such popular and counterculture icons as the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, the rock musician Jim Morrison, and the writer, singer, and social activist Ed Sanders. Ginsberg released an album of himself singing his own settings of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and the Fugs, the 1960s underground rock band founded by Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg, recorded their version of Blake's "Ah, Sun-flower." The American composer William Bolcom premiered his grand symphonic choral setting of Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1985.

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