|Many Lives of William
copyright © 2005
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