Eyes of a Child Language of a Saint; the Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake. by G E Bentley (Yale, Pounds 25). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

Article excerpt

Byline: Richard Edmonds

Any prolonged discussion of that complex subject, the soul, is likely to make most people leave the room. Mysticism is so wide open to misinterpretation, not to mention ridicule, that those who follow that particular path are likely to be dubbed fools or madmen.

Certainly, William Blake, who communed with angels (or so he said) and came back after his death for cosy information chats with Mrs Blake, seems to have been of the opinion that moral rejuvenation can only be achieved by a conscious loosening of the soul from its earthly prison, the body.

Blake saw the world through the eyes of a child and described it in the language of a saint.

William Wordsworth, to whom Blake is connected and who shared similar ideals, also believed in the return through simplicity to the soul's deeper powers.

William Blake was born in London around 1757, where his father - an Irishman - ran a small hosiery business. He taught himself drawing and linked it through his own efforts to an appreciation of poetry.

In a fascinating book, G E Bentley indicates that Blake was not without a sense of humour and that everything was by no means dull proselytizing. The young Blake had a social life and visited the salons of the literati where he came up with a curious manuscript called An Island in the Moon (circa 1784).

It was a form of clever satire that included just about everything from the specious poetry of Thomas Chatterton to the fashion for balloon hats favoured by women.

The characters in Blake's tract had quixotic names such as 'Etruscan Column the Antiquarian', 'Quid the Cynic', and 'Inflammable Gas, the Wind-finder', a character who 'would like to see all parsons hanged'.

If these things did anything they affected Blake's thinking in later years when his distrust and loathing of the corruption he felt sprang from the church coloured his poetry - to my mind, some of the finest in the language (and who has not sung in their time Blake's powerful hymn: And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time Walk Upon England's Mountains Green without being aware that Blake is actually questioning the presence of Christ in Glastonbury?).

Early parallels are curious. John Keats lost his younger brother Tom to tuberculosis, the scourge of earlier centuries. And Blake, in a similar way saw his brother, Robert, carried off by the same disease.

Blake had a vision claiming that he saw Robert's 'released spirit ascend Heavenward through the ceiling, clapping its hands for joy'. Robert's spirit, so he said, stayed near him for the rest of his life advising and comforting.

The tapestry of this particular life is vast and Bentley certainly does it more than justice since it is covered meticulously in a book of 446 pages.

All his life Blake communed with the spirits. As an instance of personal joy it transcended the official spirituality of the church where to talk with the spirits was something that could only be done if you were licensed by the vicar. …