Ann Skea is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, Australia)
Perhaps because William Blake tends to have disciples, rather than readers, most reviewers of Peter Ackroyd's new biography, Blake, have spent as much time presenting their own views as in discussing the book. As usual, too, most have treated Ackroyd as they do all those who dare to rewrite the accepted gospels. Yet, for the first time, Ackroyd has given us a comprehensive picture of "English Blake" as the artist and engraver that he primarily was during his own lifetime. And he has shown how the development of Blake's art and poetry was influenced by the work he was obliged to do in order to keep body and soul together.
Ackroyd clearly loves Blake's work. He also tries hard to understand the man himself, the society in which he lived, and the influence that his background, his training, his interests, and his friends and patrons had on his creations. He is a painstaking and knowledgeable biographer, and he has drawn on all the known sources, as well as many new resources, to bring Blake's life and works together. So, Ackroyd's Blake is less the unworldly, mystical, visionary poet who wrote prophetic books, conversed with Biblical figures, and saw angels in the fields of London. He is more the hard-working, prickly, intelligent, opinionated Cockney artisan who, with the constant help and support of his wife, Catherine, yet found time to develop his own philosophical ideas and to write (and sing) and illustrate his poetry.
Here, we not only have the Blake who saw "a World in a grain of Sand/ And Heaven in a Wild Flower", but also the Blake who thanked God he was never sent to school "To be Flogged into following the style of a Fool"; who learned French, Italian, Greek, Latin and Hebrew at the age of forty-five; who declared that the world should have his ironically titled, 'Bible of Hell', "Whether they will or no"; and who, in the light of all extant accounts of his behaviour and temperament, quite possibly did utter statements that could have been interpreted as seditious, even though he was acquitted of the charges brought against him by the irate soldier he had forcibly removed from his garden.
In this realistic biography, Blake's innovative process for printing his writing and his art together (a combination which was essential to his imaginative efforts to "display the infinite" to his fellow beings) is seen to be as much a financial necessity as a stroke of inventive genius. Only by cutting costs could he afford to print and distribute his own books. And, for the first time (as far as I know), Ackroyd gives us the details of the ingredients and methods Blake used to relief-etch his copper plates and to print and individually colour his books.
Ackroyd takes us, in detail, through Blake's life, linking his work, his art, his philosophy and his poetry together as he does so. The facts of Blake's early training - five years of study at Henry Pars' Drawing School from the age of ten; seven years apprenticed to the engraver, James Basir; his acceptance as one of twenty-five students at the Royal Academy Schools to undertake six years of training in the ideals of classical art; and the exhibition of a number of his painting at the Royal Academy - all this confirms Blake as an artist. And yet, so often, university English Departments teach students about Blake's poetry with scarcely a mention of his art at all. Ackroyd's book redresses this imbalance. And, although his extensive knowledge of the London of Blake's lifetime sometimes makes this biography seem like a tourist's guide to Blake's London, this is just part of the careful assembly of information that makes the book an invaluable resource for Blake scholars.
But this is not a book for scholars alone. With its many illustrations and quotations from Blake's work, it is also a very readable introduction to the life and work of a remarkable man.
Copyright (c) Ann Skea, 1996