Classic review: Blake
Peter Ackroyd's biography of William Blake is essential reading for anyone hoping to understand the last great English religious poet to date.
[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on April 23, 1996.] Within the city he termed "Infinite London," there is a set of upstairs rooms that provide a bare glimpse of the River Thames. In those simple rooms, the nobly impoverished William Blake spent the last seven years of a life he had devoted to rendering his intense spiritual vision into a unique marriage of poetry and art.Skip to next paragraph
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As the English themselves put it colloquially, Blake was a "one off." In other words, there has never been an artist quite like him. His life was as original as his art, and indeed his art is a record – a kind of transmuted abstract imprint of the fundamentally Christian but highly Blakean brand of self-crafted religion that he lived.
The story of Blake's life begins in the house of a London tradesman where the four-year-old Blake first claimed to have seen God. The tale continues through the years of struggle to establish his reputation as a print-maker and poet, and ends in those upstairs rooms near the Thames. The story has been told before, and its outward contours are unremarkable. But this spring, a new biography captures the essence of Blake's mental and spiritual experience and retells the story of his life in a particularly forceful, creative way.
Peter Ackroyd's Blake contains numerous beautifully reproduced plates of Blake's prints. And its focus on decoding the enigma of Blake's many intriguing spiritual experiences (among them, Blake claimed to see and converse with angels) makes "Blake" essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the last great English religious poet to date.
Biographer and novelist Peter Ackroyd has come up trumps before. He won the Whitbread Prize for Biography for his life of T.S. Eliot and published a well-regarded biography of Charles Dickens. And Ackroyd's familiarity with the London of Blake's time (1757-1827) adds a wonderful depth to this recent volume.
The third child of dissenters from the established church, Blake was blessed, or burdened, from childhood with the ability of seeing what he was convinced were divine phenomena. In that era, such claims were not as unusual as they would seem today.
"I know that this is a world of Imagination and Vision. I see everything I paint in this world but everybody does not see alike," Blake would observe as an adult.
At 9, when he was walking in South London, he said he saw a tree spangled with angels. And he was once beaten by his mother for claiming to have conversed with the prophet Ezekiel whom he encountered under a tree.
What makes "Blake" such powerful reading is the manner in which Ackroyd confronts the difficulty for the modern mind of interpreting Blake's particular brand of spirituality, thereby illuminating why and how Blake's visions were the wellspring of his art.
"Reach for my things," was Blake's command for his art materials to his loyal wife, Catherine, when the visionary sense descended, Ackroyd tells us. And Blake's renowned hand-colored prints illustrating sacred subjects (Milton, Jerusalem, The Divine Comedy) were his attempt to render on paper the quality of what had visited him in thought.
For Blake, as the poet of London (he never left English soil and lived the vast majority of his life within a two-mile radius of where he was born), "The fields from Islington to Marylebone/ To Primrose Hill and St. John's Wood/ Were builded over with pillars of gold/ And there Jerusalem's pillars stood." This is a scene Ackroyd believes that Blake, in some sense, literally beheld. "He saw, literally saw, Eternity there," Ackroyd claims.