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.

I can’t help thinking that King is the kind of writer whom Blake would have despised. You could begin a biography of anyone interesting by saying that they’re important, controversial and full of contradictions. What you’ve got to do with Blake is let his siege of hateful contraries get under your skin: then it will come out in your prose, as it does in that of Yeats and Symons. King can’t even balance his aphorisms: ‘He was a Christian who despised Christianity’ isn’t a bad sentence, but the next one ought to be: ‘He was an extremely private person who longed for society.’ Furthermore, the whole of that opening paragraph speaks in abstractions and generalities: which is to say, in a language that Blake spent his life inveighing against. The point about privacy and society would have come across more strongly, would have been truer to its subject, if it had been formulated particularly, possibly along the lines of: ‘He was as much of a Londoner as Dr Johnson but he jumped at the chance to retreat to a village in Sussex.’ Syntactic symmetry, so fundamental to Blake’s world ‘where Contrarieties are equally True’, is not King’s strong suit: he persistently calls the poet’s most celebrated collection not Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the authorial title, but – asymmetrically – Songs of Innocence and Experience.

One would give a lot for Blake’s annotations to King’s life of Blake. What would he have scribbled in the margin beside the biographer’s bathetic account of one of the texts he illustrated, the Pilgrim’s Progress: ‘Bunyan’s allegorical depiction of Christian’s flight from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City is vividly written ... nothing is left to chance in the portrayal of the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair and the Valley of the Shadow of Death’? Perhaps ‘Enthusiastic Admiration is the first Principle of Knowledge – its last. Now he begins to Degrade, to Deny – to Mock.’ How would he have responded to the news that ‘Wilkes was a bit of a demagogue,’ that the Antique Schools where he studied drawing ‘was a place of high jinks’, and that in his own life ‘the course of first love did not run smooth’? ‘Mocks!’, I think, or possibly ‘3 Farthings!’

What is the end of King’s mechanical style? Nothing but the crassest applications of the life to the work, together with the crudest sub-Freudian speculation. Turn the page from the ‘first love’ remark and its follow-up claim that Blake married his wife Catherine ‘on the rebound’, and there is an attempt to read the life into the lyric ‘The Crystal Cabinet’. In his marriage, we are informed, Blake ‘chose agape over eros’: but such a choice, you know, ‘leads to repression and, eventually, rage’, feelings which are ‘reflected’ in the poem:

The Maiden caught me in the Wild
Where I was dancing merrily.
She put me into her Cabinet
And Lockd me up with a golden Key.

The quotation of this stanza in the context of the poet’s marriage misreads so many things simultaneously that one is almost impressed. It is inconsistent with King’s own argument (is Blake supposed to be ‘dancing merrily’ while ‘on the rebound’?). There is not a shred of evidence to support it as an account of the dynamic of the relationship with Catherine; Symons was probably nearer the mark when he said: ‘No man of genius ever had a better wife.’ Besides, the notion that marriage in the late 18th century was a matter of the man being locked up in a cabinet is perverse, to say the least – especially since the Blake of the Visions of the Daughters of Albion may justifiably be claimed as a sister to Mary Wollstonecraft in the struggle to vindicate the rights of woman. And, most alarmingly in a book that advertises itself as a guide to the poetry as well as the life, it completely misses the point of the poem, which is that the cabinet is by no means a prison: it is a place in which you can see another – and a better – England, another London, another Thames, another pleasant Surrey bower, but in the act of seizing the inmost form of these alternative sites you burst the cabinet and end up like a weeping babe. Like Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ it has more to do with the dangers of imagination than the wiles of women.

The father, James Blake, comes off even worse than the wife. King’s off-the-peg Freudianism especially prizes the Oedipus complex. It would, wouldn’t it? Blake’s cultivation of his brother Robert was, apparently, ‘his most sustained and successful piece of Oedipal insubordination’, a means of ‘displacing his parents – particularly his father’. Aren’t the poems full of oppressive fathers, from Tiriel to Nobodaddy? ‘William’s poems about fathers reflect his own unease with James.’ Again, that easy word ‘reflect’: we don’t have to be deconstructionists doubting whether any text can ‘reflect’ life to baulk at this sense of a direct, unproblematic correspondence between the texts and the author’s life. So what is the dark fact of Blake’s upbringing that precipitated all this Oedipal fury? His father’s response to the fact that he didn’t want to go to school? James took him out of school and taught him at home. The patriarch’s way of dealing with the boy’s professed dislike of corporal punishment? According to an early record, ‘his Father thought it most prudent to withhold from him the liability of receiving punishment.’ It really is very unfortunate for a biographer of King’s temperament that Blake had such an understanding father.

King is perhaps forced into his flights of pseudo-psychological speculation by the paucity of interesting biographical material surrounding Blake. He didn’t go to Paris in the early days of the French Revolution, as Wordsworth did; he didn’t experiment with drugs like Coleridge or escape from a lunatic asylum like Clare; he didn’t die young by drowning or of consumption like Shelley or Keats. Those staple sources for the biographer, the author’s letters, are poor things indeed compared with those of Coleridge, Keats and Byron. The political intrigue is low-key: the incident when a drunken dragoon called Scolfield wandered into William Hayley’s garden at Felpham and ended up accusing Blake of sedition is nothing but a botch-up; it doesn’t have the wonderfully representative quality of the occasion when the government agent snooping on Wordsworth and Coleridge at Nether Stowey overheard a conversation about Spinoza and manufactured a French infiltrator called Spy Nozy.

How, then, should a Life of Blake be written? Peter Ackroyd is having a go at one, and I suspect that what attracts him is Blake’s London, for which King has very little feeling. The poetry is crowded with London voices and London places. I remember my delight as a student when a supervisor remarked that Blake’s father came from Rotherhithe and the poet himself spent the crucial period of the early 1790s in Lambeth, and in view of this I might find it useful to consider the name Urizen in Cockney light: he’s yer Reason, ain’t he? Ackroyd wandering through the chartered streets of the Song of Experience ‘London’ or contemplating the climax of Milton, as it smells ‘the Wild Thyme from Wimbleton’s green – impurpled Hills’ while ‘soft Oothoon / Pants in the Vales of Lambeth’, will be worth waiting for.

But a Blakean Life would not dwell for too long in the external world around the poet, in what he dismissed as the finite and temporal ‘Vegetable Glass of Nature’. It would take the reader into the world of imagination which for Blake was the world of eternity. It would first admit that this world is always an idiosyncratic place and that an imagination as vivid as Blake’s is bound to be pretty weird. Confronted with a typical line from the prophetic books – say, ‘Four Universes round the Mundane Egg remain Chaotic’ – one is inclined to think ‘Silly Willy’. All those Zoas and Emanations are as wacky as the 28 phases of Yeats’s A Vision. But it must then be recognised that ‘silly’, Auden’s rubric in his elegy on Yeats, has several senses, among them the Middle English ‘sely’, with its suggestion of the sacred wisdom of the innocent. If they are taken seriously, the idiosyncrasies of conception and expression in the work of the visionary poet may furnish the mortal reader with a glimpse of an unworldy wisdom that is vouchsafed only to a select group of initiates. A good biography of Blake would try to find a way of showing what it would be like to ‘Repeat the Smaragdine Table of Hermes’ (Jerusalem) without dismissing its content as hogwash.

To suppose that the life of Blake lasted from 1757 to 1827 is to read in the terms of the vegetable glass of nature. To read his life in his own terms, those of imagination and the brotherhood of initiates, we would do better to take him at his word when he says in a letter that he is only the ‘Secretary’ of his works and that ‘the Authors are in Eternity.’ We are dealing here with something more far-reaching than Mrs Yeats’s automatic writing. Blake believed he was but a conduit for the eternal wisdom which had previously been expressed in the prophetic books of the Bible, in the great poets and in the writings of an array of hermetic and Neoplatonic sages. The biographer’s task is thus to give the reader a sense of what it is like to have all that stuff rattling around in one’s head. Because it is immersed in the books that Blake knew and loved and thought that he was re-authoring, Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry is a far better introduction than a book like King’s (‘Blake charged Thomas Butts’s son £26 5s Od per annum for engraving lessons’). Now that Frye is dead, Blake’s best living critic is Harold Bloom.

If Blake’s mental forms had a life before 1757, they also had one after 1827. Arthur Symons saw this: he was interested not only in the figures from the past whom Blake brought back to life, but also in those of the present – Swinburne, Yeats, Nietzsche – in whom Blake returned to life. His account of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell therefore looks before and after, aphoristically taking on both Swedenborg (‘Blake’s attitude towards Christianity might be roughly defined by calling him a heretic of the heresy of Swedenborg’) and Nietzsche (‘it contains, as I have intimated, all Nietzsche’). You finish Symons’s little biography, which is dedicated ‘to Auguste Rodin whose work is the marriage of heaven and hell’, understanding why Blake was a key Fin-de-Siècle poet in successive siècles. And that’s the problem with this new Life: it is meant for readers who are new to Blake, but it signally fails to make Blake new for us, to make a case for him as a poet of the end of our century.

Could this be because Blake is not a poet for our time? He mattered in the 1960s – all that free love – but I detect a falling away. A handful of the lyrics, ‘London’ especially, still stun the student who is exposed to them for the first time, yet it seems to me that it is not Blake’s tygers of wrath but Wordsworth’s horses of instruction which walk to the tune of the 1990s. The two poets are each other’s mighty opposites among the Romantics (as are Byron and Keats), and it is inevitable that their posthumous importance will oscillate. Blake’s wildness was what shaggy men like Ginsberg needed a generation ago, but Wordsworth’s sobriety and steady eye can do more for us now. According to Henry Crabb Robinson, Blake said that reading the prospectus to Wordsworth’s Recluse caused him a bowel complaint which nearly killed him. What upset his stomach was Wordsworth’s insistence that the imagination cannot be autonomous, that the mind must wed itself to external nature. This position is in stark contrast to Blake’s own faith that ‘Mental Things are alone Real,’ and accordingly that ‘Natural Objects always did – now do weaken, deaden – obliterate Imagination in me. Wordsworth must know that what he Writes Valuable is Not to be found in Nature.’ Wordsworth knew no such thing: he knew that idealism was an abyss from which he had to hold himself back. He knew, as we are having to re-learn, that rocks and stones and trees matter.