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.

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    Blake: A Biography
    By Peter Ackroyd
    Alfred A. Knopf
    399 pp., $35
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[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.

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.

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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.

As a sophisticated modern intellect, however, Ackroyd allows his conclusions about the source and meaning of Blake's visions to remain, in the end, enticingly ambiguous.

Ackroyd believes that Blake's experiences were a combination of the genuinely divine and the imagined. Foremost for Ackroyd was the fact that Blake was so immersed and impressed by the imagery of the Bible as a young boy that it seemed to materialize around him. "A powerful visual sense, when aligned with vigorous creative abilities, can in certain people provoke or create exceptionally clear images, which have a hallucinatory reality," Ackroyd says.

"Yet [the visions] were real," he continues later, "and the child who returned from communion with angels or with Ezekiel knew he had been blessed with a second sight." And later: "[Blake] saw them in front of him, neither real nor unreal." These kinds of shifts in interpretation are not irresponsible; rather, they show the reader that Ackroyd is open-minded and honest in his appraisal of the difficulty of coming to any pat conclusion about Blake's visionary faculty.

Blake himself was a sufficiently rational, hard-working, and ordinary person to be able to process his experiences as, at least in part, coming from his imagination. "My Abstract folly hurries me often away while I am at work, carrying me over Mountains and Valleys which are not Real, in a land of Abstractions...."

But one has to appreciate that what Blake meant by imagination was different from our modern connotation: Imagination, in the Blakean sense, was a superior faculty to our five senses, more in tune with reality, rather than less.

As Blake explained: "A Spirit and a Vision are not, as the modern philosophy supposes, a cloudy vapour or a nothing; they are organized and minutely articulated beyond all that the mortal and perishing nature can produce. He who does not imagine in stronger and better lineaments, and in stronger and better light than his perishing mortal eye can see does not imagine at all."

This sense allowed Blake to become an artist and poet, not of the natural world, but of a spiritual realm that was Biblical in inspiration, though with a large measure of Blake's unique perspective tossed in. For example, Blake could not and would not depict natural landscape in his art. He excelled at depicting the human form in what he believed to be an exalted or spiritualized state - images he derived from his visionary experience. "The truth is," Ackroyd writes, "that he could only really depict the 'human form divine' which in its various aspects was at the centre of his own cosmology."

The themes and content of Blake's art reflect his spiritual preoccupation. As Ackroyd says of the springs of Blake's career: "The artistic world he had begun to create was of prophets and bards, of biblical and mythical figures from a sublime past who have the power of revelation and who generally stand alone against the world."

Blake paid dearly in his professional life for these spiritual preoccupations. Even in an era when seeing angels was not considered unusual, Blake's intense involvement with the things of the spirit made him a pariah among his more worldly colleagues, who thought he was probably mad. As a result, Blake was frequently excluded from professional advancement, which made his financial state precarious.

In those upper rooms that provided a glimpse of the Thames, the elderly Blake was described by the young artist Samuel Palmer: "His clothes were threadbare, and his grey trousers had worn black and shiny in front, like a mechanic's."

But even on his deathbed, Blake's visionary faculty did not fail. Before he passed away, "He burst out into Singing of the things he saw in Heaven," according to a letter written by a friend who was there. It was then, perhaps, that Blake knew what he truly meant when he wrote: "Imagination is Eternity" – and knew that the reality of all he had envisioned transcended mortal life.

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