Blake by Peter Ackroyd

Alfred A. Knopf 1996 399 pp. 35.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


To Peter Ackroyd, "it can truly be said that he is the last great religious poet in England." To most of his contemporaries, he was "a harmless tradesman with some strange ideas." World-historical visionary, or harmless lunatic, William Blake and his "poetic productions" have established a gulf between admirers and detractors as wide as the divide between the material and divine worlds that formed the subject of his work.

The challenge to any biographer of Blake is to captivate the reader while narrating a profoundly mundane life that left little documentary evidence. In this Peter Ackroyd succeeds brilliantly.

William Blake was born in 1757, the son of a hosier. He was the third child of four, and lacked any formal education. He was apprenticed to an engraver, married Catherine Boucher in 1782, created 580 commercial engravings, lived most of his life in poverty, and, having only once left the city of London, died in obscurity in 1827. Along the way, "he was trying to do no less than change the entire nature of human perception."

Blake was neither a poet nor a painter, but an engraver who created works that combined both images and words: "It is as if he could not see words without images, and images without words; in that sense he returns to a much earlier sense of language as imagery, and can once again partake of the sacredness of representation."

The power of his work comes from its visionary quality. Blake saw his first visions in childhood, and continued to have them throughout his adult life, prompting some to call him mad. His wife, Catherine, said, "I have very little of Mr. Blake's company; he is always in Paradise."

Ackroyd argues his visions were a type of eidetic imagery that "are not memories, or afterimages, or daydreams, but real sensory perceptions." These visions inspired his writing: "he wrote only when commanded to do so by his angels, 'and the moment I have written I see the words fly about the room in all directions'."

His most famous work is perhaps Songs of Innocence and Experience, yet the truly important contributions to Western culture are his "prophecies": The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem. The theme unifying all these works was that "when 'Spiritual Perception' is denied or downgraded, ... society itself becomes the prey to generalising and commercial forces that destroy the knowledge of true art." In pursuing this theme, "it is yet another example of his clairvoyant understanding of his age that he is able to draw the connection between art, industrial economics and what would become the 'consumer societies' of modern civilisation in an analysis that was not otherwise formulated until the present century."

Blake's prophecies are notoriously difficult. Yet, "much of the prophetic symbolism can actually be understood without undue difficulty, but it requires in the reader a reawakening of what is essentially a clear and simple vision. He is a 'difficult' poet only if we decide to make him so." Mr. Ackroyd is an optimist.

Supported by sympathetic patrons, "for much of his life he remained self-enclosed, withdrawn, self-willed, secretive, distant, detached from ordinary affairs." His pugnacious personality alienated many around him, but not his wife, Catherine.

"He called her 'beloved', and there were separated for only two or three weeks over a period of forty-five years. ... It is a story of the utmost devotion, virtually without parallel in the history of English letters, and it can be fairly said that without Catherine Blake none of the great works of her husband would have appeared."

Blake is thought by some scholars to be part of the Romantic school of poetry, that of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others, a perception Ackroyd is at pains to correct.

"Blake was in no sense a 'Romantic' artist, like those of the next generation, who despised trade and who tended to withdraw from the urban turmoil of finance and competition; he was a lower-middle-class tradesman, a mystic intimately involved in the world of commerce and craft. In that sense he remained much closer to the people whom he wished to address in his work, and in that lifelong career of arduous labour perhaps there is something grander and more heroic than the lucubrations of the Lakeside poets."

Beset by financial difficulties throughout his life, Blake's professional career seemed doomed by a combination of staggering bad luck and a dilatoriness that contrasted with his mule-like work ethic. He had a clear sense of his artistic greatness, and this perceived arrogance was his enemy.

"Blake's life is in that sense a parable of the artist who avoids the market place, where all others come to buy and sell; he preserved himself inviolate, but his freedom became a form of solitude. He worked for himself, and he listened only to himself; in the process he lost any ability to judge his own work. He had the capacity to become a great public and religious poet, but instead, he turned in upon himself and gained neither influence nor reputation."

Blake's financial problems never left him. At one point late in life "he was commissioned to engrave from Flaxman's drawings almost two hundred pieces of crockery from the factory of Josiah Wedgwood. It was for a 'sample book' used by the salesmen, and the great author of Eternity was obliged to illustrate egg cups, tureens, candlesticks and coffee pots."

While painting egg cups, this man was writing, "what it will be Questiond When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty."

This absorbing, balanced, erudite, and comprehensive biography of London's most brilliant engraver should be read by anyone interested in poetry, painting, engraving, religion, or epistemology. In addition to a stunningly detailed portrait of Blake, readers will carry away an indelible image of Blake's London by one of its greatest living students: novelist, critic, and biographer Peter Ackroyd.