Magazine article Insight on the News

Sketching God ... from Life

Magazine article Insight on the News

Sketching God ... from Life

Article excerpt

How does one come to terms with William Blake, surely one of the most remarkable prodigies of all time - and one of the most perplexing? Forced to live a life of commercial subservience and drudgery, he nonetheless left us a legacy of provocative poetry and art that still shines with dreamlike brilliance, invoking a magical realm that no other artist has managed to inhabit.

His contemporaries simply could not accommodate his genius or his eccentricities. They consequently abused him, scoffed at him, thought him mad. Indeed, Blake is the classic case of the still-unanswered question: Where does genius end and madness begin? Peter Ackroyd has undertaken to illuminate that question in Blake: A Biography (Knopf, 399 pp) and succeeds superbly.

Blake was born in November 1757 in London, then a filthy and lascivious city, into a family of Dissenters. William did not want to go to school and he didn't. Instead, he turned to books, particularly the Bible and ancient and medieval works. His innate talents emerged early: At age 10 he was an artist; at 12 a poet.

At age 14, Blake was apprenticed for the conventional seven years to the engraver James Basire, agreeing "not to fornicate or marry, not to game or dice, not to haunt Taverns, or Play houses." Basire had undertaken to supply engravings for a volume of sepulchral monuments, and he sent Blake out to draw the tombs in Westminster Abbey. The experience steeped him in the glories of the past - so much so that from then on he virtually worshiped classical antiquity.

Through his apprenticeship, Blake not only became a master engraver but went on to devise new and fresh engraving techniques. Ironically, engraving illustrations for the work of inferior artists enabled him to eke out a simple living for himself and his new wife: At 25, he married Catharine Boucher, a commoner like himself. The marriage was childless but successful as a spiritual union that endured to the end of his life.

Blake set himself up as a commercial engraver and in 1783 published Poetical Sketches, a volume of verse influenced by Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare and John Milton. The publication of Songs of Innocence in 1789 brought forth Blake the mystic, where he combined his poetic genius with his engraving skills.

Though Blake was acquainted with the fashionable artists of his day, and though his work matched and even exceeded theirs, he never rose to their social station. The reasons for his failure to achieve popular success were many. He was essentially childlike, and in his childlike ways he did not acquiesce in social niceties or conventional manners. …

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