June 15th, 2008

Books!

Fascinating ...

The figure of William Blake is one of those iconic influences in my life, both as an English Major (of course) and as a participant in various "mystic currents" over the decades. I don't think I ever got as obsessed about his work as some acquaintances of mine have, but his work was always something of a touchstone, among a dozen or so others.

In reading Peter Ackroyd's Blake: A Biography, however, I came to realize that I really had only been approaching Blake's work from a poetic stance, and while I was certainly aware of his artistic work, it never quite figured as closely in my perceptions of him, and I likewise had only a vague concept of the details of his life.

Frankly, I was rather impressed by this book in the amount of detail that the author was able to bring to the biography of Blake, some 200 years down the road. Now, I'd not read (to my recall) any of the previous biographical works on him, so I can't speak to how much this book is indebted to those sources, but it is almost dauntingly researched, citing something like 350 titles in its bibliography. The research effort was, though, well-spent, as this book is a smoothly flowing telling of the tale of Blake's life, with enough detail to bring the age into really remarkable narrative clarity.

As alluded to above, I had never much connected to Blake's art, figuring that his engraving business was a "day job" ala Wallace Stevens being an insurance executive (who also wrote "important" poetry). In the story here, however, Blake seems to have put much of his identity and self-worth into his art, inventing new ways of taking his visions into the metal plates, and constantly re-working his publications. In some sense, the poetry was simply the "filler" for his art, and he brashly considered himself on a par with the greats of the ages (to be perfectly honest, while I can appreciate Blake's art, the vast majority of it "does nothing for me").

Blake worked in near-obscurity for most of his life, partially due to the nature of his work, and partially due to his off-putting personality. He had a string of patrons who he was constantly "falling out" with ... had be been more sociable, he might well have found the success he so desired. At least by the end of his life, a new generation of writers and artists began directing attention to him, so he was hardly "unappreciated" when he died.

One thing I found of great interest in this was that Blake was, early on, running in the same circles as the likes of Thomas Paine. The great revolutionary writer was 20 years his senior, but it appears that they knew each other through mutual connections. How telling that two lights like Blake and Paine, men whose visions opened up much of what we see as the "modern" world, were expounding those concepts at the same time as Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab at-Tamimi' was creating "Wahhabism" (and the House of Saud) in Arabia, a dark-age scourge that is driving so many of today's headlines!

If you have an interest in seeing Blake, the man, the artist, and even the tragic figure (or, as many of his associates referred to him, "poor Blake"), this would be an excellent resource. If it has a weakness, it's in the handling of Blake's writing, but there is so much out there on that subject, that one can easily excuse Ackroyd for his placing focus on other aspects.

Blake: A Biography appears to be out of print, so you're at the mercy of the new/used vendors, "good" copies of this are available for a bit over a buck (before shipping), with better-preserved copies (odd for a book only a decade or so old) costing quite a bit more. I found this book quite an engaging read, so would recommend it to anybody with an interest in William Blake.


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