In writing a couple of thoughts about William Blake I am engaging in a very minor piece of family heritage. My great-great-great grandfather, Alexander Gilchrist, wrote a biography of Blake, published in 1863. In fact, Alexander died of scarlet fever aged 33, before the book was completed. His wife, Anne, finished the work.
Prompted by an interest in Anne, I was recently drawn to Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Blake. I discovered that his life was sadder, and far funnier, than I had known. The archetype of the struggling artist is a cliché in our time; wander through Soho, Whitechapel or any arts college and you’ll see several dozen who might, in their cups, confess themselves a hidden genius. But the popular vision of the overlooked genius seems to prefer the saintly gazer into eternity, careless of worldly recognition. Not the angry, embittered rationaliser of their own defeat, enervated by disappointment which so many who strive can become. Blake, as Ackroyd observes, was both. He saw his work as of and for eternity yet railed against those who overlooked him, the fashions of the time that prevented any chance of his wider success and recognition. One of the saddest moments in Ackroyd’s book comes when detailing a private journal entry of Blake’s. Having outlined the worldly successes of his peers, Blake concludes ‘I was hid’. At a later time, or as an afterthought, he crosses through was and writes am: I am hid. For a man who was clear enough in his genius to emphatically and publicly compare himself to Michelangelo and Raphael and to declare his verse the greatest since the Iliad, the humiliation of being overlooked, passed over, must have been of hellish intensity. Continue reading