Readers today make a mistake when they assume William Blake’s contemporaries considered him mad because of his incomprehensible poetry; in fact nobody but a few selected friends knew about or read such puzzling creations like The Book of Los, The Four Zoas or Jerusalem. After Songs of Experience, Blake’s last foray into what we could call conventional poetry, which received so-so reviews at the time, his writing until the end of his life became a private affair. Although Blake once entertained the notion of making large prints and improving his finances via publishing, he always lacked the money to become a true entrepreneur; he never printed and distributed in the thousands; he printed, with almost artisanal means, in his apartment, usually in small quantities, I mean in the few dozens. They are not just rare, each Illuminated Book is a unique specimen: since existing technology forced him to retouch and finish each copy individually, no two identical copies exist, which explains why the Web contains so many reproductions whose tones and hues never match.
Actually Blake’s contemporaries deemed him mad mainly because of the engravings he made for others, whenever he had the opportunity to pick up his graver. Bentley points out the irony that the life of one of history’s greatest designers coincided with the Golden Age of book illustration. In Blake’s time the book industry became obsessed with reissuing classics and moderns with pictures: the Greeks, Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, and the great propeller of the trend, the Bible. In fact bound illustrations sans text became common for the Bible because any publisher wanting to use the King James version had to pay fees to the Crown. But for all the bustle regarding illustrations, London ignored Blake’s talents and he died in near poverty, unable to secure steady work after some initial popular years.
Bentley provides a comprehensive list of his commissions from 1773 to 1827, and in his early years Blake made plates for Orlando Furioso, Don Quixote, Erasmus Darwin’s poetry, Mary Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life, John Gay's Fables, lots of medical and scientific textbooks, and Edward Young's Night-Thoughts, one of his most popular forays into commercial work. He owed a considerable part of this work to the intervention of friends like John Stothard, George Cumberland and John Flaxman, all of them former classmates in the Royal Academy. At times these artists didn’t seem to do anything but entice patrons to offer Blake a job. Blake realized his style did not sit well with then current taste, which made him progressively bitter and reclusive. Certain of his designing gifts, Blake one day jotted down in a book by his bête noire, the artist Joshua Reynolds, “The Enquiry in England is not whether a Man has Talents & Genius, But whether he is Passive & Polite & a Virtuous Ass: & obedient to Noblemens Opinions in Art & Science. If he is; he is a Good Man: If not he must be Starved.”
What a man with Blake’s unusual sensibilities needed was a patron who supported him in order for him to create without worrying about the demands of the material world. What a dream! In fact Blake had patrons, some excellent, some intrusive. Bentley singles out Thomas Butts as an example of the former. An accountant in a government office, Blake met him in 1799 and remained friends with this “white collar Maecenas,” lavishing him with praise in his letters. Butts and his wife liked his designs, more than his poetry, and paid him in advance for prints, a deal that suited a man like Blake always in need of cash. Blake particularly liked him because Butts let him create original work, which is what Blake preferred, instead of engraving after the designs of others. Up until Blake’s death Butts continued to buy stuff from him, sometimes he was his only client and what stood between the poet and penury. “In the annals of honourable patronage,” writes Bentley, “few men have been responsible for evoking so many great works of as Thomas Butts. Without his enlightened generosity, most of Blake’s great Bible illustration might never have seen the light of day, and Blake would almost certainly have been reduced perilously close to abject poverty.”
A good-intentioned patron who become a thorn in Blake’s life was the popular poet William Hayley. A few years back Flaxman had written him a letter asking him to finance Blake’s trip to Italy to study classic art. This was common procedure at the time, a rich artist helping out a younger artist who showed potential but lacked the financial means to achieve his potential. At the time nothing came out of Flaxman’s request, but in 1800 Blake moved to Felpham, a small town by the sea in Sussex, 63 miles from London, to work with Hayley on illustrating his biography of the poet William Cowper. Blake admired his poetry and even talked with his spirit. At first excited about the change and the prospect of having a patron, Blake soon became wary of what he saw as Hayley’s attempts at changing his style in order to make it more commercial. During the three years in Felpham he struggled “to do the dictates of our Angels,” to be true to himself, to follow his spiritual needs rather than material. Bliss turned into sadness. In a letter around this to another patron more to his liking, the Reverend Joseph Thomas, he complained, “I find on all hands great objection to my doing any thing but the meer drudgery of business & intimations that if I do not confine myself to this I shall not live.” One can see why he preferred Butts and mocked Hayley in his poetry: Butts admired Blake’s imagination, which was the lynchpin of his worldview, whereas men like Hayley tolerated his dark fancies because of the technique. If only he could be persuaded to put aside his bizarre, nightmarish visions and adopt a gentler, sweeter touch!
The Felpham years came to an abrupt, almost tragic end in 1803. Blake spent much of his life in mad King George’s England at war with America or France, punctuated by short-lived peace treaties and much anxiety over invasions. For a man like him, an outspoken enemy of the monarchy and a “Son of Liberty,” every revolution bore the promise of a better, fairer era, but also fostered repression around him, like the Two Acts of 1795, which sought to restrict freedom to spread seditious thoughts. In 1801 France and England signed the Treaty of Amiens, and Blake rejoiced over peace. But in 1803 hostilities resumed and the British army prepared itself for a possible invasion across the Channel. In August 1803 troops stopped at Felpham. For him the army was an institution like the Church, full of deceit and lies, doing the devil’s work and responsible for wickedness. Blake abhorred soldiers, and according to legend when he saw one in his garden without permission he blew a fuse: “I desired him as politely as was possible to go out of the Garden, he made an impertinent answer[.] I insisted on his leaving the Garden[;] he refused[.] I still persisted in desiring his departure[;] he threatened to knock out my Eyes with many abominable imprecations and with some contempt for my Person[;] it affronted my foolish Pride[.] I therefore took him by the Elbows & pushed him before me till I had got him out [of the garden.]” In revenge the soldier accused Blake of uttering seditious remarks and he had to defend himself in court. Hayley served as a character witness, a good card in a small town case, and he had to borrow money for bond. In the first session the judge held the guilty verdict, and Blake returned to London in order to hire a lawyer to appeal. Although in the second session the court acquitted him, he saw in this another reason to avoid the world and retreat into loneliness. “Blake’s escape from the perils of the Beast and the courts of justice was due not to his truth and integrity but to the loyalty and support of his Felpham patron from which he was just divorcing himself. Without the legal defence of his attorney Samuel Rose and the character witness of his patron William Hayley, Blake’s trial at Chichester might well have had the same result as the trial at Petworth: Guilty of Sedition. Loyalty to the duties of the spirit seemed to be sedition to the world.” By 1804 he had settled back in London, disappointed with Hayley (who nevertheless was of paramount importance in saving Blake from jail), believing himself abandoned by his former friends, and almost incapable of finding work. It may just be that Blake was totally unsuited to live in the real world. But he was also a stubborn, inflexible, even proud man who did what he wanted without qualms of fear of consequences. Admirable qualities, they however can make life difficult if what you want to do is so distant from what your contemporaries think and want. Bentley suggests he possibly suffered from what we now call manic-depression: he had mood-swings, had outbursts of anger and was unpredictable and impetuous in his behaviour.
Of course his entire mythology focuses on the freedom of the individual and the perils of mental confinement:
“They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up,
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle...
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased...” (Visions of the Daughters of Albion)
“I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Mans[.]
I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.” (Jerusalem)
“Let the Human Organs be kept in their perfect Integrity
At will Contracting into Worms or expanding into Gods...” (Jerusalem)
For Blake the “Bosom of God” was the “Human Imagination,” and only “the incapability of intellect” was “Ugly.” Unlike his contemporaries, seduced by the Enlightenment, he saw beyond the mere sensory perceptions (“The tree which moves some to tears to joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way...”) and proclaimed the unlimited potential of the human mind:
“To see the world in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower[,]
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour” (“Auguries of Innocence”)
As you may imagine, this is not an artist who would give in to the demands of others. So his return to London coincided with a difficult period when he was becoming more radical and learning to give up the seductions of the world for the sake of spiritual contentment. Even so here and there signs showed that Blake was becoming, if not popular, at least better known to whoever wished to understand him. In 1806 Benjamin Malkin published A Father’s Memoirs of His Child, which included long passages on his acquaintance Blake. “This,” says Bentley, “is the first substantial account of Blake, and indeed it exceeds the bulk of everything which had previously been printed about him.” Thanks to the book many people discovered Blake’s poetry for the first time. But reviews were not encouraging. The British Critic wrote that “Mr. Blake has successfully heightened the ‘modern nonsense,’” whereas The Monthly Review considered him to be “chiefly inspired by divine Nonsensia.” And The Monthly Magazine said that his poetry “does not rise above mediocrity.” Be that as it may, Thomas Philips drew his portrait in 1807, and he carried out some of his best engravings during this time for Robert Blair’s The Grave and Chaucer’s Pilgrims. He got work from friends like Butts, Flaxman and sometimes Hayley. He also got involved with a swindler called R.H. Cromek, who made money off The Grave and paid him a pittance.
In 1809 he used his brother’s shop to exhibit his Canterbury Pilgrims, his final attempt at self-promotion before he retreated from the world. Although nowadays His work from this period is considered some of the best he did, Blake’s peers had other impressions. A nasty little man called Robert Hunt, writing for The Examiner, sets the tune for much of how the century would interpret him: “If beside the stupid and mad-brained political project of their rulers, the sane part of the people of England resquired [sic] fresh proof of the alarming increase of the effects of insanity, they will be too well convinced from its having lately spread into the hitherto sober of Art... When the ebullitions of a distempered brain are mistaken for the sallies of genius by those whose works have exhibited the soundest thinking in art, the malady has indeed attained a pernicious height, and it becomes a duty to endeavour to arrest its progress. Such is the case with the productions and admirers of WILLIAM BLAKE, an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement, and, consequently, of whom no public notice would have been taken, if he was not forced on the public admiration by many esteemed amateurs and professors as a genius in some respect original and legitimate.” The diatribe gets worse; but it hardly uncommon. William Beckford claimed that “The Tyger” “seems to have [been] stolen... from the walls of Bedlam.” As another negative reviewer wrote in 1812, Blake’s work was “too sublime for our admiration.” Consensus dictated that he was insane. Even his admirers couldn’t praise him without using the M word. For Charles Lamb Blake was a “mad Wordsworth;” and William Wordsworth, an ardent admirer of Songs of Innocence, also judged him batty but at least “considered Blake as having the elements of poetry – a thousand times than either Byron or Scott.” Samuel Coleridge considered him “a man of Genius – and I apprehend, a Swedenborgian – certainly, a mystic emphatically... I am in the very mire of common-place common-sense compared with Mr. Blake, apo- or rather ana-calyptic Poet, and Painter!” It is known that both poets met and talked, but no records exist.
Bentley argues that the attacks Blake received for the 1809 exhibition prompted him to retreat from public and to give up hopes of public success. Between 1810 and 1818 he practically disappeared and some presumed him to be dead. In fact he was living very frugally with Katherine, barely finding and surviving mainly on commissions Butts gave him. The pronouncements on his madness and his bitterness at failure inform much of his writings at the time. Like most people considered mad he turned the accusation topsy-turvy and claimed to be saner than the others, so sane he was perceived mad. For him Bedlam was full of such people as him, diagnosed incorrectly because of their unusual sensibilities. “Cowper came to me and said, ‘Oh! That I were insane, always... Oh! That in the bosom of God I was hid. You retain health, and yet are mad as any of us all – over us all – mad as a refuge from unbelief – from Bacon, Newton and Locke.’” This period also saw him compose his final Prophetic Books, Jerusalem and Milton, concerned with release through Imagination. In Jerusalem the poet defend that “Imagination is the real & eternal World of Which this Vegetable Universe is but a faint shadow.” For a man in Blake’s situation, this belief constituted the only possible consolation.
Around this time, though, he also starts finding private admirers like Wordsworth and Coleridge and a circle of young painters like Samuel Palmer and John Linnell. In 1816 he got an entry in A Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland. And artists going through London stopped by to visit him. By 1818 Coleridge was writing letters to friends calling Blake a genius. This didn’t do much to improve his finances – in 1821 he had to sell his collection of old prints – but at least he started feeling beloved and understood. By 1818 his young admirers became named the Ancients, in mockery of their youth, and called his abode the House of the Interpreter, after John Bunyan’s novel. Samuel Palmer thought of him what I do, one of the sanest men that ever lived. “I remember William Blake, in the quiet consistency of his daily life, as one of the sanest, if not the most thoroughly sane man I have ever known.” People who knew him personally, who didn’t judge his character from his bewildering art, were always at pains to dispel the accusation of insanity. He was particularly beloved by the Linnell children, who decades after meeting him still remembered the man who sat them on his knee to sing them songs and who played games with them. This only makes it more tragic that he never had children of his own.
Much of what we know about Blake comes from the people who socialized him in his final decade. Most of them left accounts of him, some credible, others distorted, others too reverential. Crabb Robinson, a man studying the connection between genius and madness, saw Blake as a suitable case-study and wrote down several meetings with him. Although he saw the poet with kindness, Robinson left amusing descriptions of typical conversations with Blake, full of stuff about angels and spirits and other dimensions. At first entertained by their novelty, Robinson fears Blake could be a bit of a bore because he seldom changed subjects when visitors stopped by. “The same half crazy crotchets about the two worlds – the eternal repetition of which must in time become tiresome.” But Robinson also reveals many interesting details: for instance Blake wished to destroy his manuscripts and only changed his mind at the instance of Kate. From him we also learn that for Blake Death was but “a removing from one room to another,” which coincides with the descriptions of Blake’s serenity and fearlessness in his final hours.
Thanks to his final admirers we also know much about Blake’s literary tastes and opinions. About Wordsworth he said, “I fear Wordsworth loves Nature – and Nature is the work of the Devil – The Devil is in us, as far as we are Natue…” Also: “It was remarked that the parts of Wordsworth’s ode which he most enjoyed were the most obscure & those I least like & comprehend[.]” For him Dante was “a mere politician” although a great poet. When he made engraving for the Paradise he did not include Beatrice because she represented the Church; like Blake, he made Dante approach Christ without the help of organized church. This is the amazing insight that makes reading Bentley’s biography so rewarding.
William Blake died in 1827. In bed he spent an hour sketching Kate, his faithful companion and helpmate for almost 50 years, no doubt one of the longest marriages in the history of writers. While he still had strength, he continued to draw and engrave; and when he felt the end coming he welcomed death with songs and poetry. According to all accounts he died a happy man.
Kate was practically a pauper and for some time lived with John Linnell, whom she borrowed money from him to pay the funeral at Bunhill Fields. Linnell also tried to get the Royal Academy to give her a lifetime stipend but the proposal was rejected. Afterwards Kate went to live with Frederick Tatham, one of the Ancients, and finally moved to a baker’s shop. She died in 1831 and left all of Blake’s writings to Tatham, who continued to sell them for more than 30 years. The Notebook, which contains so much information about the visionary poet, ended up in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s hands. A final tragedy waited his papers: Tatham, a somewhat unstable man, came under the influence of a sect called the Irvingites; under their teachings he came to believe Blake to have been an agent of the devil and so he destroyed many of his papers and possessions. This was the Beast’s final action against a man who spent all his time living in the City of Imagination. None of that matters now for he’s surely there at last.