I have read a lot of Peter Ackroyd's work before. He specialises in this sort of period, he certainly specialises in London, and he writes brilliant fiction such as Hawksmoor and great biographies (such as Dickens, and Wilkie Collins) and other non-fiction. He is exceptionally knowledgeable and sometimes has a tendency to throw every piece of his knowledge at you which can be exhilarating as you wallow in erudition but can also be exhausting.
Blake was a poet and artist who had visions of God and his angels. He was politically radical and yet his poem Jerusalem is sung at right wing establishment events such as the Conservative Party conference and the Women's Institute.
He had issues in his childhood: he seems to have been at war with mother and father and he hated one of his siblings even though his parents mostly tolerated his oddness, buying him art equipment when it became clear he would never follow the family trade, apprenticing him to an engraver, even allowing him to skip school (allegedly because could not get on with authority; he later writes that he despises education; later he was to write "What is the price of Experience do men buy it for a song/ Or wisdom for a dance in the street?" but he recognised that "A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees."). So he seems a bit of a spoiled brat.
He may have had an acquaintance when a young man with Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, art critic and poisoner, who "provided Dickens and Wilde with suggestive plots" (p 33).
Another influence on Blake may have been freemasonry. He was apprenticed opposite Freemason's Hall and at the time that the next-door Freemason's Tavern was being built so he may have mingled with masons. Certainly his art contains masonic symbols. (p 38)
He learned to draw the classical foot which has the "second toe more prominent than the big toe" (p 42)
As an apprentice he was commissioned to make extensive drawings of the interior of Westminster Abbey and its tombs. Ackroyd comments: "His art and poetry are filled with the images of steep steps and ancient doorways, of cloisters and arches and crypts that suggest dissolution and decay but which are also often seen as harbingers of a spiritual world" (p 45). And very Gothic! Blake was born in 1757; English Gothic fiction was born in 1764 with the Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole.
He must also have had some understanding of mediaeval theology or at least the debate about transubstantiation since he wrote: "nothing new occurs in identical existence; Accident ever varies, Substance can never suffer change nor decay".
He read Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson and Milton; he also enjoyed Ossian and Chatterton (both literary forgers supposedly of long lost manuscripts) and Percy's Reliques of English Poetry.
As a young man he was caught up in the 1780 Gordon riots (fictionalised in Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens) and saw Newgate prison attacked, set on fire and the prisoners freed. He was also young during the great period of political radicalism that surrounded the American War of Independence; Blake associated himself with the American 'Sons of Liberty'.
He wore the bonnet rouge to imitate the revolutionaries in Paris. (p 160)
Whilst in Felpham he was charged with sedition following an altercation with a solider; he was eventually acquitted although it is clear that his political views were dodgy given the Napoleonic Wars.
The London of the times was also one of "open sexuality and public licentiousness" (p 76); Blake himself made erotic prints and espoused (thought there is no evidence that he practised) the idea of sharing his wife with others. He seems to have disliked the passivity and softness associated with femaleness but he feared female power and domination. He made drawings of "women with huge erect phalli, old and young men in erotic poses together" (p 8); the latter may suggest homosexuality but again there is no evidence that he ever practised it.
He also drew "hermaphroditic figures with huge phalli, a woman reaching to caress the large penis of a man while masturbating with a dildo, a small boy with an erection as he watches a scene of love-making; there are also sketches of anal penetration, fellatio, defecation and group sexuality." (p 296)
The Swedenborgians emphasised sexual magic (p 136): "'nakedness corresponds to innocence'" (p 158_
One friend called on Blake to find him with his wife in the garden summer-house "reciting passages from Paradise Lost, in character" (p 157) ie as Adam and Eve, naked.
"The Ranters were believed 'to preach stark naked many blasphemies', and the Adamites went naked in order to practise 'promiscuous sexual intercourse'. The Quakers went 'naked for a sign', in accordance with the twentieth chapter of Isaiah ... There was also the contemporary doctrine of Naresim ... which associated the practice of nudity with the liberation of female sexuality." (p 158)
Blake made an engraving showing the famous Portland Vase showing "controversial scenes" ... "It was not clear whether they depicted episodes from the life of Adonis , or the re-enactment of the Eleusinian mysteries" (p 136); he also engraved Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden. (p 136)
His real artistic innovation involved the way he inked plates and also the way he linked text and picture. Most of his prophetic books of poetry were written onto illustrated engraving plates so that he could print them individually; Blake thus created individualised (rarely are two the same) picture books with remarkably small print runs (in some cases there are only two extant copies). Unfortunately, this didn't sell and he was obliged to spend most of his life doing engravings for the books of other people.
He lived in Soho, mostly around Golden Square, and in Lambeth and, for two years, in a cottage in Felpham near Bognor on the South coast.When he returned to Soho he held a one man exhibition: none of the paintings were sold and he received only one, unfavourable review.
He did a commission for William Owen Pughe, a rich bloke who was one of Joanna Southcott's Elders. The picture Blake did, The Ancient Britons, has since been lost. Very Southcottian! (p 305)
In this famous picture a naked Newton sits on a rock. But, because of the way Blake inked the plates before each pressing, there are different versions: in one "Newton seems to be sitting on the sea bed, the waters of materialism around him and above him" and in another he "seems to be sitting in a cave, like that of Plato's in which only the shadows of the ideal world can be seen." (p 199)
On August 18th 1783 between about 21.15 and 21.30, Blake observed the 'great meteor'. "Some observers said that it resembled a spear being hurled across the heavens, and in this period the Perseid meteor showers were known as the 'tears of St Laurence' or his 'fiery tears'." (p 82). This may be related to 'The Tiger':
When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears.
He wrote the first three stanzas, tried alternatives for the fourth (which later became the fifth verse), write what became verses 4 and 6, went back to the 5th finally writing five lines, reordered the lines in this verse so that the final two became the first two and line 2 was deleted and then numbered them all in the current order. (p 146)
"The powerful concentration of the poem radiates ... from Blake's repetition of 'night'/'bright' and all the associated phonemes of 'eye, 'thine', 'aspire', 'fire', and 'tyger' itself." (p 148)
Blake used his poetry to create unique mythology using characters such as Luvah, the "principle of sexual energy" (p 117) In one poem, Los cries out: "I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Mans'"
He was born into a family of dissenters (Ackroyd does not know which precise sort so, true to form, he lists all the likeliest possibilities: Theosophy, Moravians, Muggletonians, Sandemanians, Hutchinsonians, Thraskites or Salmoists, Swedenborgians. Popular prophets of the time included Richard Brothers and Joanna Southcott (I am interested particularly in her because I live in Bedford where the Panacea Society, a cult based on the millenarian beliefs of Southcott, was formed as detailed in Jane Shaw's Octavia, Daughter of God).
He considered that the Greek God Apollo was the equivalent of Satan (p 340) (via Lucifer, son of light, perhaps, or via Apollyon which is Greek for 'the destroyer'?). In Christian iconography, Apollo has sometimes been conflated with Christ.
At one time he said of Jesus that he was wrong to have let himself be crucified.
He dedicated an engraving of The Ghost of Abel to Lord Byron who had written a verse drama portraying Cain as "a type of the Romantic anti-hero who destroys that God has placed upon him and spurns the conventional inheritance of sin." (p 369)
Songs of Innocence
This was sold into a market that had already invented Goody Two Shoes and Mother Goose. It was printed as poems with illustrations and printed by himself using his own press in his own shop, so "no two copies ever contain the poems in the same order" (p 117). Blake himself believed that "Innocence dwells with Wisdom but never with Ignorance".
The Chimney Sweeper
Chimney Sweeper boys were sold onto apprenticeship for seven years starting at between 4 yo and 7 yo. They were from before dawn till midday after which they were turned loose on the streets, many turning to thievery or prostitution in the afternoon. Many died of suffocation, many were crippled, some suffered cancer of the scrotum.
The images engraved around the poem "are of the small chimney sweeps being awoken from their coffins by their saviour". (p 124)
The last line of the poem affirms "the placebos and aphorisms of ignorance". (p 125)
"Tom Dacre may be named after Lady Dacre's almshouses near James Street." (p 125)
"The plight of the chimney sweep becomes the plight of all humankind trapped in their mortal bodies and longing to be free." (p 125)
Songs of Experience
"The disenchanted solitary who observes 'Marks of weakness, marks of woe' is very different from the exultant questioner who asks 'Did he who made the Lamb make thee?' These are not pure lyrics emanating from one voice but dramatisations of different mental states and attitudes." (p 142)
"He originally conceived Songs of Experience as direct satires of Songs of Innocence, poem for poem, but in the process he found more general possibilities of expression." (p 143); he even engraved some of the Songs of Experience on the reverse of the plates he had used to Songs of Innocence (p 143)
The first two lines originally said:
I wander thro each dirty street
Near where the dirty Thames does flowbut he replaced dirty with 'chartered' which "was one of the radical code words of the period that was directed at the oppression of the authorities." (p 162) and he changed 'german forged links' which referred to the "Hessian and Hanoverian mercenaries imported by the King to withstand a French invasion or (more likely) to maintain public order in the event of mob rule like that of the Wilkeite or Gordon Rioters a few years before." (p 161) to 'mind-forg'd manacles'
He wrote some famous lines. As well as Jerusalem he wrote
A Robin Red breast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rageand
To see a 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
This is a wonderful biography which explains the details of Blake's life (although it is a bit short on the hallucinations and the madness) and thoroughly explains the provenance of his poetic and visual art. It is particularly good if you want to follow him around London and it places him firmly in the context of his times (although I would have liked some sort of chronology so that I could have better understood this). It is immensely thorough and at the same time it usually stays well on the right side of readability.
Books by Peter Ackroyd reviewed in this blog:
- The Clerkenwell Tales
- The House of Doctor Dee
- The Lambs of London
- Milton in America
- The Fall of Troy