The Life of William Blake

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9781143539817: The Life of William Blake
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Of William Blake, William Wordsworth said, "There is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott." Blake was, after all, known to report on his "conversations" with such dead notables as the great Milton. He felt no constraint in sharing the bold content of his vivid imagination. "Once [he] was walking down Cheapside with a friend," Alexander Gilchrist writes. "Suddenly he took off his hat and bowed low. 'What did you do that for?' 'Oh! that was the Apostle Paul.'" This full-length study of the visionary artist and poet, first published in 1863, is credited with bringing to light not only the unique genius of William Blake, but his body of work.

When Gilchrist wrote this critical biography, the world was largely ignorant of William Blake (1757-1827). Most of his works--visual and poetic--were "never published at all ... [and] Blake's poems were ... not even printed in his life-time; simply engraved by his own laborious hand." The first-edition printing of Songs of Innocence and Experience, for example, consisted of slightly more than 20 copies. Nevertheless, Blake was not spared the ironic fate of so many posthumously honored artists. At the time of Gilchrist's writing, "Blake drawings, Blake prints fetch prices which would have solaced a life of penury, had their producer received them."

Of course, it's no surprise that The Life of William Blake is drenched in the style peculiar to the late 19th century, as if proclaimed in an echo chamber where lofty and pious tones vie with the sentimental. Still, who isn't drawn into the central tragedy of Blake's life? He had the capacity to become a great public and religious poet, but instead turned in upon himself, gaining neither reputation nor a following. Blake was simply not of his time, "partly by choice; partly from the necessities of imperfect education."

Although in paperback, this volume suggests antiquity--the type fonts are reminiscent of those used in the dusty, old tomes found in Grandma's attic. Chapter titles reflect the 19th-century sensibility ("A Boy's Poems," "Struggle and Sorrow," "Mad or Not Mad?"). The 39 chapters also reveal Gilchrist's exhaustive study of Blake's life. His report of Blake's first vision at the age of 8 reveals the 19th-century tone: "Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars." Unabridged and illustrated with 40 black-and-white photographs of Blake's engravings, this first critical biography will interest the Blake scholar wishing to add a more period feel to his or her body of research (100 years separate Gilchrist from his subject), as well as the Blake fan in the mood for a courtly and doting guide. --Hollis Giammatteo

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