Silly Willy

Jonathan Bate

  • William Blake: His Life by James King
    Weidenfeld, 263 pp, £25.00, March 1991, ISBN 0 297 81160 6

To write well about William Blake you need to be enthusiastic, aphoristic and contrary. It also helps to be slightly mad. You need to begin your book with a paragraph like this:

When Blake spoke the first word of the 19th century there was no one to hear it, and now that his message, the message of emancipation from reality through the ‘shaping spirit of imagination’, has penetrated the world, and is slowly remaking it, few are conscious of the first utterer, in modern times, of the message with which all are familiar. Thought today, wherever it is most individual, owes either force or direction to Nietzsche, and thus we see, on our topmost towers, the Philistine armed and winged, and without the love or fear of God or man in his heart, doing battle in Nietzsche’s name against the ideas of Nietzsche. No one can think and escape Nietzsche; but Nietzsche has come after Blake, and will pass before Blake passes.

That is Arthur Symons, who had all the qualifications, writing in 1907, in the wake of the Fin-de-Siècle rediscovery of Blake which was so important for Yeats. ‘No one can think and escape Nietzsche’ is just the sort of thing: ‘how profound!’ and ‘what nonsense!’ we think at one and the same time, just as we do when we read Blake’s own annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses or Swedenborg’s Wisdom of Angels.

What you shouldn’t do is begin your biography with a paragraph like this:

William Blake, poet and artist, is one of the most important and controversial figures in English cultural history. Above all, he was a man of enormous contradictions, whose intense, unique vision led him to create his own philosophy and mythology. He was a Christian who despised Christianity. He was an extremely private person who retreated from society. But he was tortured by his rejection of the world: he wanted fame – and yet he did not want to be tainted with success.

This is James King, who despite having already written the life of another mad poet, William Cowper, is ploddingly rational. The only occasion on which the two poets met was about twenty years after Cowper died, when he came to Blake in a dream. According to some marginalia in the latter’s copy of Spurzheim’s Observations on the Deranged Manifestations of the Mind, or Insanity, the visitant said:

O that I were insane always. I will never rest. Can you not make me truly insane? I will never rest till I am so. O that in the bosom of God I was hid. You retain health and yet are as mad as any of us all – over us all – mad as a refuge from unbelief – from Bacon, Newton and Locke.

King quotes this passage when he is writing about Blake’s relationship with William Hayley, patron to both poets and biographer of the older one, but when he comes to Blake’s later years he flounders around with terms like ‘paranoia’ and ‘inner turmoil’, never coming to grips with either the pathos or the glory that underlie the dream-Cowper’s plea.

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