"Born in 1757, the son of a London hosier, William Blake - poet, painter, and engraver - possessed one of the most original and fertile creative geniuses of his age. Yet his strange aloofness and claims of supernatural visions caused many in his own time and since to doubt his sanity, and much of his astonishing poetry and visual art remains unfamiliar. Now, Peter Ackroyd gives us a biography of the enigmatic eighteenth-century master, clarifying at last the true nature of Blake's extraordinary life and art." "Ackroyd's narrative traces Blake's progression from his childhood in a Dissenting household, through his apprenticeship as an engraver and his studies at the newly formed Royal Academy Schools, to his full maturity, during which he produced his great masterpieces - Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Jerusalem, and Milton, to name only a few - works that were as neglected during his lifetime as they are celebrated today." "Re-creating time and place as only he can, Ackroyd locates Blake in the complex context of his external world - a cross section of eighteenth-century London inflamed by various forms of radicalism, mysticism, and sexual magic, squarely opposed to the age's prevailing faith in rationalism. But he also shows us the cockney visionary as the creator of his own lavish interior world, a universe filled with angels and spirits. It is in Blake's utterly unique art that these two worlds meet, as Ackroyd reveals in his dazzling interpretations of Blake's poetry and the many paintings and engravings beautifully reproduced in this volume."--Jacket.
I had, therefore, high hopes for his life of Blake, the 18th century visionary being a famous Londoner and a fascinating man.
I was a little disappointed. It's certainly learned and well researched (though it eggregiously overuses the word "vouchsafe"), but seems to skip over a number of important points: for one thing, Ackroyd hints darkly the Blake may have had misogynistic tendencies, but then declares "this isn't the place for a discussion of such things". Well, if a balanced biography isn't, I don't know what is.
Additionally, Ackroyd is somewhat credulous in his desire to portray Blake as a misunderstood genius, rather than a somewhat troubled individual. Serious credence is given to statements that certain people in Blake's circle (including, to an extent, Blake himself) were clairvoyant, whilst on the other hand short shrift is given to far more credible notions: such as that Blake - a man given to regular visions of angels and saints, after all - might have been mentally ill. Blake's behaviour may have been that of a genius, but is equally explainable as that of a flat-out nutcase, which appears to have been the general consensus of the time (and might partly explain Blake's lack of success during his own life).
For an author, Ackroyd also displays a deep knowledge of engraving and coloring, and gives wonderful context to Blake's eccentric illustrations. Blake would have been appalled at the idea of someone reading his poems without the art that accompanied them.
But the best thing about this biography is that Ackroyd takes Blake's supernatural worldview seriously. Blake was a man who insisted all his life on the truth of his visions; he readily admitted that they were the works of his imagination, but he considered them no less real than the natural world for all that. He reported conversations with his dead brother, with Milton, with Michaelangelo, as matter-of-factly as he would a conversation with his living friends and family. To understand Blake, it's critical to accept his way of being in the world without dismissing him as a lunatic, much less a simpleton. He was neither; he got along in the world of his contemporaries just fine (which is not to say he didn't suffer for his eccentricities). A biographer who does not understand this has no chance of understanding Blake. Fortunately, Ackroyd is suited to this difficult task, and so his book is perceptive and convincing.
The work is lavishly illustrated with Blake's engravings and they still have an unworldly feel: it is not surprising that people were bemused. Add to this the fact that Blake insisted that his images were divine presentiments and that he 'saw spirits', and one begins to see the oddity of the man.
Ackroyd's admiration of the man shines through every page and, eventually, won me over, as Blake seems to have been able to gain forgiveness for his rudeness and quick temper towards his friends. He sold very few engravings and books during his life, but there always seemed to be a sponsor handing money to Blake. He was never rich,but he did keep the wolf from the door and in his last years, gained a glimpse of the fame that was to come posthumously.
This is another Peter Ackroyd winner: if like me, you struggle at the start, please keep going; you'll be sorry should you miss out on this fantastic biography.