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In My Good Books

Many Lives of William Blake

James Fenton
copyright © 2005

Originally published in The Guardian
24 December 2005

One way to approach the life of a great but controversial subject is to ignore the latest biographies and go back to the records themselves. For minor figures this might take a lifetime, but for certain major ones (such as Shakespeare or Mozart) the work has been done for us and there are handy single volumes setting out all the evidence there is. Such "documentary lives" are no doubt compiled with scholars in mind, but I see no reason why they should not, in a few cases, appeal to the general reader.

It is partly a matter of temperament. Readers of this column will already know that I like short lives. I like documents, and I like to be able to see the document whole in order to judge for myself what it is trying, as a whole, to say. So when I saw that a book I needed anyway to consult, Blake Records, had been reprinted by Yale in 2004 in an enlarged edition, I was happy to buy it at £60. You can get it now for less than that on Amazon.

The compiler is G.E.Bentley Jr, and it is the work of 50 years, which began, the author tells us, with what he had expected to be an article on contemporary references to the poet, but which has resulted in a volume of over 900 pages. It gives every reference to Blake and his known family from 1714 to the last in 1841. The genealogical material doesn't interest me. Nor does the astonishing appendix in which Bentley has assembled details of babies christened William Blake in London (1740-1827) - this is for people who think they might have come across an unknown reference to Blake, but are mistaken.

On the other hand, the opening section called "Seven Red Herrings," correcting previous errors, brings one popular legend crashing down. When Blake was living in Hercules Buildings in Lambeth, a visitor was supposed to have found him and his wife sitting naked in the summer-house at the bottom of the garden, reciting passages from Paradise Lost. "Come in!" Blake is supposed to have cried, "It's only Adam and Eve, you know!" If you passionately want Blake to have been a naturist, Bentley may not convince you, but this story was denied by the supposed visitor. The notes cite The Guardian's Charlotte Higgins speaking of it as "Your (and most papers') favourite Blake anecdote."

Likewise, a story of Blake removing his hat and bowing low to a figure in Cheapside, and saying afterwards to a friend, "Oh! That was the Apostle Paul," appears to have been told by Leigh Hunt about Blake and by Southey about Swedenborg. On the other hand, the text of the beautiful song "How sweet I roamed from field to field," appears in the first of the early essays on Blake, by Benjamin Heath Malkin (1806), with the reliable information that Blake wrote it before the age of fourteen.

You can read Malkin's essay in full (along with several other short early lives). At the end we discover that Dorothy and William Wordsworth, some time in the early 1800s, copied out Blake poems from a borrowed copy of Malkin. This, for instance, is where they would have first come across "The Tyger" -- one of those poems which commanded attention from the start, even when most people thought of Blake as a mad artist who had a sideline in poetry. Anyway, a little window opens on the Wordsworths, as they first read, and value, Blake the poet.

There are hundreds of such moments to be found. Here you can read Coleridge's letter of 1818 returning a copy of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience in which he marks the poems according to a system of signs meaning "It gave me great pleasure" and "still greater" and "and greater still" and "in the highest degree." "The little Black Boy" scores the top mark twice over.

Alexander Gilchrist's Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotus (1863), was not, as the current cover would have it, the first biography of Blake ever written, but it was the first at what we would call full length, and the new reprint, in Richard Holmes's series of "Classic Biographies" (Harper Collins, £7.99) is very welcome, especially for its introduction telling us who Gilchrist was, how he died during the composition of the great work, and how his wife took on the task of completing it. He tells us how it was Samuel Palmer who disabused Gilchrist of the idea that Blake was mad, that he was "a man without a mask; his aim was single, his path straight-forwards, and his wants few…" Put Gilchrist alongside Blake Records and you already have an amazing Blake library.

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Read additional archived articles at


Blake Records, Second Edition, Documents (1714-1841) Concerning the Life of William Blake (1757-1827) and his Family; Incorporating Blake Records (1969), Blake Records Supplement (1988) and Extensive Discoveries since 1988. Published for the Paul Mellon Centree for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2004.

Gilchrist on Blake, Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotus by Alexander Gilchrist, edited with an introduction by Richard Holmes. (This is in the Classic Biographies series.)
To complete the literary holdings of an amazing Blake library you need either or preferably both of the following:

The Complete Writings of William Blake, with variant readings, edited by Geoffrey Keynes, Oxford University Press, 1966. (This includes both the fascinating annotations and the letters.)

William Blake, The Complete Poems, edited by Alicia Ostriker, Penguin 1977. (This has useful notes. The text is that established by David V. Erdman.)


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