Back in August 2013 I took a few books with me for a two-week vacation up north, before returning to start a novel. I took the time to makes necessary preliminaries to become reasonably cognizant with certain knowledges outside the bookworm’s usual interests. So at night, after coming back from one of the many river beaches around me, high up in lost vales, and eating a great barbecue, I’d sit down taking notes from Jonathon Keats’ Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age, which seemed like the ideal book to read considering I intended to write about an art forger. But during the day, stretched on riverbanks, I enjoyed myself with Eugénio de Andrade’s poems and Alexander Gilchrist’s The Life of William Blake. The poetry, albeit good, did not have a lasting importance; but Gilchrist, over the coming months, unexpectedly penetrated my novel as I saw the possibilities in my two protagonists, scourges of modern painting and almost fanatical proponents of the Old Masters, taking Blake as a role-model, the epitome of the Artist before the Impressionists inflicted upon the world the evils of Modernism. So when one of them starts hallucinating conversations with classic painters in the final part, obviously Blake had to show up for a brief chat.
I never planned this. When I read Gilchrist I had recently finished The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, which had baffled me the farther away I moved from his conventional poetry into the hermetic Prophetic Books. Although they left me in a nebulous state I pledged myself to read up on Blake, therefore I compiled essays and autobiographies. It made sense to start at the beginning so I read the first major biography, penned by Gilchrist (and completed by his wife, Anne, a Walt Whitman scholar) in 1863. Prior to him Blake appeared in other people’s memoirs, as a passing topic, but no one had ever attempted a systematic study of his life before. Blake has as much substance as Socrates, he mainly exists insofar as a bunch of people claim he did, because he left behind very little in terms of non-poetical writing: a few letters, marginalia, a notebook and an exhibition catalogue constitute the totality of himself in his own words. Beyond them we just have other people’s impressions to go by and stitch a semblance of existence. Gilchrist took up the challenge and created a work of reference scholars still use to this day. He had the benefit of actually interviewing people who met and socialized with Blake; that however doesn’t mean modern exegesis hasn’t superseded certain opinions and interpretations; too much reliance on others made him at times credulous and distorted Blake’s views, especially regarding his radical, unorthodox religious beliefs that didn’t sit well with some of Gilchrist’s sources. We Blake fans also had to abdicate of some great anecdotes: it saddens me to report that Will and Kate did not prance around naked in their London apartment back garden, under a giant tree, nor did they invite visitors to shed their garments to Adam-and-Eve with them. Gilchrist’s book also deserves gratitude for having started to dismantle the 18th and 19th centuries’ consensus on Blake’s madness, showing instead a remarkable, lively, kind artist with an original sensibility. Besides that, Gilchrist wrote in that elegant Victorian style that made a list of groceries into a small literary artifact, and one can enjoy it as literature in its own right.
G. E. Bentley Jr. writes an opposite style, paying no attention to beauty and nice turn of phrases, always concise and to the point, but his 2001 biography, The Stranger from Paradise, constituted an even of the same magnitude. This book represents the culmination of a lifetime of research. In 1969 Bentley published the Blake Records, collecting every source about him; in 1988 he updated it with a supplement; he had a vast knowledge of the scholarship, and so this book remains the most up-to-date biography. It doesn’t radically change Gilchrist’s presentation of the poet and engraver, it adds to it, corrects a few mistakes, dispels some myths, but the same extraordinary individual shines through his prose. He especially rewards the reader in the minor details: who doesn’t like to know that Blake, a small man, measured 5’5’’ (making him exactly 10 cm shorter than me), had fiery red hair (perhaps the reason why some wackos tried to prove he was Irish), had blue or grey eyes, and that by 1815 his eyesight already required spectacles to draw and engrave?
The Stranger from Paradise can captivate even those who don’t understand or like most of his poetry. Like Bentley writes, “There are many who love the man not only beyond his powerful designs and exquisite poetry but in spite of them. There is little evidence that his youthful disciples understood or even read his poetry, but they came to the House of the Interpreter as to a shrine; the artist Samuel Palmer used to kiss the bell-pull when he came to Blake’s ‘enchanted rooms.’” Like me, befuddled readers can enjoy his life because of its uniqueness and humanity.
Blake was born in London in 1557, to James and Catherine Blake, owners of a haberdashery shop a few minutes from St. James church where they baptized the baby. Built by Sir Christopher Wren after the 1667 fire, the priest bathed Blake in a baptismal basin carved by sculptor Grinling Gibbons with an ominous design representing The Tree of Life with Eve offering Adam the apple. We don’t know a lot about the household: his mother was a widow when she married James, who got by supplying the local parish’s workhouse and school of industry with goods. Besides the shop they had two stories to themselves, which teemed with Blake’s older and younger siblings. Perhaps they let rooms to lodgers. Blake’s father passed away in 1884, leaving the shop to James, Blake’s older brother. Blake’s mother, who passed away in 1890, encouraged him to make drawings to which he added his own verses and which she hung up in her bedroom. Besides these pleasures he also enjoyed a good ramble to London’s outskirts, when fields of pasture still surrounded it, where he saw some of his earliest visions.
The parents raised their children in the “Dissenting tradition of private devotion and private Bible reading rather than public catechism and public worship.” The Dissenters constituted a series of sects that spun off from the Anglican Church circa the 17th century. Wary of the ways of the world, or the Beast, Blake did not attend public school since Dissenters mistrusted education outside their sect, and Blake forever criticised official schooling, although not the joy of learning and self-improvement. He likely learned reading and writing from his mother (although he retained deficiencies throughout his life, as his unpredictable spelling shows). Although no records indicate which creed or church they belonged to, the Blakes believed all truths existed in the Bible and that “the proper interpreter of that truth is the individual conscience, not the priest or the church.” Extreme Dissent received the name of Enthusiasm, I think synonymous with fanaticism; although Bentley doesn’t suggest it, etymologically enthused means “filled by God,” a good name for someone who considered the spiritual world more real than the material world. Acquaintances of Blake tell us that he considered Atonement a “horrible doctrine,” did not think God omnipotent, judged Jesus Christ wrong for allowing to be crucified, said that each man was God, and since he didn’t the world held no real power over the individual, “henceforth every man may converse with God & be a King & Priest in his own house.” Regarding the Bible itself he said: “The Gospel is Forgiveness of Sins & has No Moral Precepts[;] these belong to Plato & Seneca & Nero.” Blake lived by most of these beliefs throughout his life, always minding his own business and not intruding on others’. He also rejected the world, its vanities and believed in visions and miracles. He did not vote nor attend churches. Following the Dissenting tradition, he believed pious gathering made any place holy rather than a church making a gathering holy; intention altered a place’s purpose; what was holy stemmed from the individual and circumvented official mandates. Bentley links this to the Conventicle Act of 1664, which restricted the gathering of new Dissenting sects. To bypass this interference the sectarians started meeting at public alehouses, in backrooms where they held religious ceremonies, with ale and a warm fire, singing and debating like you couldn’t in cold, sad-looking churches.
Blake started having his famous visions during childhood: he saw God looking through at the age of 4, which scared the child to tears; sighted Prophet Ezekiel in a ramble outside London; and around the age of 8 or 10 he marvelled at “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” This tasked his parents, who beat him for telling lies. But for him reporting his visions constituted an ordinary events, like meeting a mailman and, apparently he didn’t understand how weird that made him look to others; just about everyone who crossed paths with him left anecdotes of his bizarre conversations about angels and spirits. In his letters Blake himself relates that when his favourite brother, Robert, passed away his spirit continued to communicate with him; in fact he revealed to Blake in a dream the technique that allowed him to create his Illuminated Books.
But more about that tomorrow.