This long pursuit, p.27
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       This Long Pursuit, p.27

           Richard Holmes

  This was the time of radical disturbances in university campuses right across Europe, as well as the Vietnam and Civil Rights protests in America. Very quickly we all seemed to be reading Blake’s Preface to Milton. This contains the great radical hymn now known as ‘Jerusalem’, with which we identified; although in England, paradoxically, it was also sung at the patriotic Last Night of the Proms amidst much flag-waving, and still is:

  I will not cease from Mental fight

  Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,

  Till we have built Jerusalem

  In England’s green and pleasant land.

  We also found at the start of the Preface a thrilling exhortation that seemed to speak to us with extraordinary force and immediacy: ‘Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court & the University, who would, if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War.’

  Later this passage was used to set the theme and temper of Theodore Roszak’s influential The Making of a Counter Culture (1969). Penguin produced a popular anthology inspired by Blake: Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain (1969), while Allen Ginsberg began hypnotically chanting Blake at huge public readings, sometimes accompanied by what appeared to me (at the Royal Festival Hall, at any rate) to be a small, droning, portable harmonium.

  In those days we didn’t tackle Milton itself, which seemed a strange production, one of the so-called ‘Prophetic Books’, long and labyrinthine, and apparently requiring beforehand a total immersion in Northrop Frye’s equally labyrinthine study of Blake’s symbolism, Fearful Symmetry (1947). But we did find and celebrate Blake’s two great explosive revolutionary chants from the Songs of Experience (1794), ‘The Tyger’ and ‘London’.

  The first seemed an invocation of pure Energy (with unsettling hints of the atom bomb):

  In what distant deeps or skies

  Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

  On what wings dare he aspire?

  What the hand dare seize the fire?

  The second seemed like a piece of furious contemporary street protest. The following year I found myself discussing it with two young GIs as we stood together on the top platform of the leaning tower of Pisa, in Italy. They were on European leave, but were expecting to fly back to Vietnam sometime in the near future. Our encounter led to a brief and totally unexpected meeting of minds – and hearts – which I have never forgotten. Looking down at the ornate Pisan baptistery, we quoted Blake to each other:

  How the chimney-sweeper’s cry

  Every black’ning church appals;

  And the hapless soldier’s sigh

  Runs in blood down palace walls.

  All this seems a long time ago. The poem ‘London’ is now carved for tourists into the pavement on the south side of Westminster Bridge. Anyone can walk into the new British Library (past Eduardo Paolozzi’s great bronze Newton) and find Blake’s ‘Rossetti Notebook’ on display under the quiet lamps, and read a digital projection of the original version of ‘The Tyger’, with its many haunting manuscript variations:

  In the well of sanguine woe

  In what clay and in what mould

  Were thy eyes of fury rolled …

  My Blake, the radical visionary poet of the 1960s, seems almost old-fashioned now. I realise how many other Blakes there have been, both before and since. They include the bardic mystic popularised by the poets Swinburne (1868) and Yeats (1893); the Marxist protester championed by the scientist Jacob Bronowski (1944); the inspired London dreamer summoned up by the biographers Mona Wilson (1927) and especially Peter Ackroyd (1995); the great psychological mythmaker analysed by the critics Northrop Frye (1947) and Harold Bloom (1963); the agitator and revolutionary of the political historians E.P. Thompson and David Erdmann (Prophet Against Empire, 1974); and the man of ‘minute particulars’ slowly and meticulously assembled by the inexhaustible scholar-researcher G.E. Bentley Jnr, author of two editions of Blake Records (1969, 1988) and a monumental compilation-biography, aimed to subdue ‘the factual Laocoon’ of the life, A Stranger in Paradise (2001).

  Added to these, we can find Blake as the protagonist of innumerable Freudian, Swedenborgian, Neoplatonist, Zen Buddhist and more recently excellent refreshing feminist studies (Woman Reading William Blake, 2007, including essays by Germaine Greer, Tracy Chevalier and Helen Bruder). Nor can we overlook the author of Why Mrs Blake Cried (2006), Marsha Schuchard, with her detailed explorations (and illustrations) of Blake’s supposed excursions into ecstatic tantric sex.

  Yet there is a sense in which the first popular Blake emerged 150 years ago, in the 1860s, as a radical engraver and illustrator, or Pictor Ignotus. This was the subtitle – ‘The Unknown Painter’ – of the great Victorian biography by Alexander Gilchrist, first published in 1863, that saved Blake from almost total obscurity.

  It has to be remembered that when William Blake died in London in 1827, he was already a forgotten man. He had been living in two-room lodgings in Fountain Court, in the Middle Temple, off Fleet Street. His engraved and hand-painted Songs of Innocence and of Experience had sold fewer than twenty copies in thirty years. His ‘Prophetic Books’ had disappeared almost without trace. A single mysterious poem – ‘The Tyger’ – had reached the anthologies. As a poet – once read in manuscript by Coleridge, Wordsworth and Charles Lamb – he was virtually unknown outside a small circle of disciples, a group of young men who pointedly called themselves ‘The Ancients’. Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate, magnanimously dismissed him as ‘a man of great, but undoubtedly insane genius’.

  As an artist, Blake’s reputation was little better. He was chiefly remembered as a one-time commercial engraver and illustrator of grimly improving texts: Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, Robert Blair’s The Grave, the dark Biblical drama of The Book of Job, and Dante’s Inferno, still unfinished at the time of his death. In 1830 he was given a short and gently patronising entry in Alan Cunningham’s Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters. The illuminations to The Songs of Innocence and The Book of Job were mildly admired. ‘The Tyger’ was reprinted as an example of fascinating eccentricity.

  Cunningham damned him with faint praise. Blake was a lovable minor eccentric: unworldly, self-taught and self-deluded. He produced work that was ‘unmeaning, mystical and extravagant’. He was a man ‘overmastered’ by his own imagination. He confused ‘the spiritual for the corporeal vision’. But for the stabilising influence of his faithful – but ‘illiterate’ – wife Kate, William Blake would be remembered simply as ‘a madman’.

  Three years later, in March 1833, the Monthly Magazine wittily celebrated his lunacies: ‘Blake was an embodied sublimity. He held converse with Michael Angelo, yea with Moses; not in dreams, but in the placid still hour of the night – alone, awake – with such powers as he possessed in their full vigour … He chatted with Cleopatra, and the Black Prince sat to him for a portrait. He revelled in the past; the gates of the spiritual world were unbarred at his behest, and the great ones of bygone ages, clothed in the flesh they wore on earth, visited his studio.’

  Blake was diagnosed as a sufferer of extreme and persistent visual hallucinations, a man who ‘painted from spectres’, and had lost his grasp on reality: ‘His may be deemed the most extraordinary case of spectral illusion that has hitherto occurred. Is it possible that neither Sir Walter Scott nor Sir David Brewster – the authors of Demonology and Witchcraft and Natural Magic – ever heard of Blake?’

  This article had great success, and was reprinted by the smart Parisian magazine La Revue Britannique the following year. The translation was a little hurried, and opened with the assertion that not only was the ‘spectral’ William Blake still alive, but that he was incarcerated in an asylum: ‘The two most celebrated inmates of the madhouse of Bedlam in London are the arsonist Martin, estranged elder brother of the painter John Martin, and William Blake – nicknamed “The Seer”.’

  Twenty years af
ter his death, ‘mad’ Blake’s reputation was barely taken seriously at all. A large manuscript collection of his work was offered for private sale by a keeper at the British Museum in 1847. It consisted of a foolscap quarto sketchbook of fifty-eight leaves, packed with Blake’s unpublished poems and drawings. It would now be considered priceless, but then it was sold for ten shillings and sixpence.

  The purchaser was Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Vague plans to publish it by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood were mooted, and Dante’s brother, the critic William Rossetti, expressed an interest. But on examination it was put reluctantly aside as too difficult and obscure to interest the public. A whole generation had now elapsed, the surviving ‘Ancients’ were indeed growing old, and the memory of ‘mad’ Blake was dwindling to nothing. It is possible that the author of ‘The Tyger’ might have been entirely lost.

  Then, thirteen years later, on 1 November 1860, Rossetti wrote to his friend the poet William Allingham with surprising news: ‘A man (one Gilchrist, who lives next door to Carlyle) wrote to me the other day, saying he was writing a Life of Blake, and wanted to see my manuscript by that genius. Was there not some talk of your doing something by way of publishing its contents? I know William thought of doing so, but fancy it might wait long for his efforts … I have not engaged myself in any way to the said Gilchrist on the subject, though I have told him he can see it here if he will give me a day’s notice.’

  When ‘the said Gilchrist’ finally visited in March 1861, Rossetti was surprised to encounter a long-haired, dreamy, moon-faced young man who looked rather as if he had stepped out of one of his own Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Alexander Gilchrist was thirty-two, a writer and art critic, who announced quietly that he had been working on a life of William Blake for the last six years. Indeed, he had already signed a contract with the publisher Macmillan. He did not think Blake was mad; in fact he thought he was a genius. He was going to transform his reputation, however long it took him, and whatever it cost him.


  Who was Blake’s unexpected champion? Born in 1828, the year after Blake’s death, Alexander Gilchrist was the son of a Unitarian minister, and had trained as a barrister in the Middle Temple. Restless in his profession, bookish and not physically strong, but with great determination and independence of mind, he sought freedom in magazine journalism and freelance art criticism. From 1849, when he was just twenty-one, he began to write regularly for the Eclectic Review, and quickly made his name as a critic and reviewer. He was known for his fresh eye, his lively prose style, his meticulous background research, and his highly unorthodox views. He was also a young critic in search of a cause.

  In 1850 he had produced an outstanding article on the derided and controversial artist William Etty (1787–1849). Etty had once been renowned as an exuberant painter of Romantic nudes, both male and female, and erotic scenes from classical history and mythology, such as King Candaules shews his Wife by stealth to Gyges, as she goes to Bed (1830) and Venus and her Satellites (1835). He had been admired by Regency critics, but Victorian taste and propriety had turned against him, rather as they had earlier turned against Thomas Lawrence, though for different reasons. Where Lawrence’s portraits were now considered flashy, Etty’s nudes were dismissed as seedy. His paintings were scoffingly referred to in Academy circles as ‘Etty’s bumboats’. Gilchrist accepted a speculative commission from a provincial publisher, David Bogue, to write a full-length biography. He undertook to re-establish Etty’s tarnished reputation, and turn back the tide of priggish mockery and misunderstanding.

  On the strength of the £100 commission Alexander married his twenty-three-year-old sweetheart Anne Burrows in February 1851. They spent part of their honeymoon researching Etty’s life in York, where the painter had lived and worked. They interviewed his friends, and examined his nude studies and historical pictures, now mostly housed in private collections. This unorthodox nuptial expedition greatly appealed to Anne, who was free-thinking in her views, and impatient with the conventions of her respectable Highgate upbringing. She too hoped one day to write.

  Their first child was born in December 1851, and the large Etty biography was published in 1855, when Gilchrist was still only twenty-seven. The book, which was studiously written and safely deprived of all illustrations (apparently Bogue lost his nerve at the last moment), caused only a mild scandal in York. But in London it drew wholly unexpected praise from the sixty-year-old doyen of biographical writing, Thomas Carlyle. It was written, the Sage announced, ‘in a vigorous, sympathetic, vivacious spirit’, and gave the ‘delineation, actual and intelligible, of a man extremely well-worth knowing’. This rare mark of approval from the author of On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841) confirmed Gilchrist in his new vocation as biographer.

  After several visits to Chelsea, Gilchrist established himself as Carlyle’s confidant and to some extent his biographical protégé. The Sage had recently published his influential Life of John Sterling (1851), which by sympathetically recounting the career of an apparent failure, indeed a kind of anti-hero, gave the whole genre a fresh impulse. It was a time when biography was about to enter a new golden age, with John Forster’s Oliver Goldsmith (1848, revised 1854), Mrs Gaskell’s Charlotte Brontë (1857), Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859), G.H. Lewes’s Goethe (1855) and Frederick Martin’s John Clare (1866).

  Carlyle noticed that Gilchrist’s dreamy appearance was deceptive: the young lawyer had a capacity for relentless archival research, an almost forensic gift for tracking down rare books and documents. Carlyle was working, with many groans, on his multi-volume Life of Frederick the Great, and soon found Gilchrist bringing him numerous rare bibliographic finds. ‘Beyond doubt you are one of the successfullest hunters up of Old Books now living,’ beamed Carlyle, ‘and one of the politest of obliging men!’

  The studious Gilchrist also took unexpected delight in pursuing his open-air researches. With Anne he went for long walks in Kent, Dorset and the Lake District. With Carlyle he wandered after midnight about the back streets of Westminster, Soho, Lambeth or the City. He had an eye (not unlike the young Dickens) for old houses, forgotten buildings, crooked corners and disappearing communities. Faced with some old church, said Anne, he would ‘scan every stone’ until it yielded up its ‘quota of history’. Over long evenings of black tea and tobacco, Carlyle encouraged him to talk, speculate and seek a daring new subject for his pen. A warm, if slightly wary, friendship also grew up between Anne and the older Jane Carlyle.

  The subject of William Blake had probably been in Gilchrist’s mind for more than a decade. As a young law student of the Middle Temple, he had heard rumours of Blake as the eccentric erstwhile occupant of Fountain Court, which he passed through every day on the way to his legal chambers. He wrote a highly characteristic evocation of this place, its sacred Blakean associations overlaid by mid-Victorian vulgarity, that eventually appeared in Chapter 31 of his biography:

  Fountain Court, unknown by name, perhaps, to many who yet often pass it on their way through a great London artery, is a court lying a little out of the Strand, between it and the river, and approached by a dark narrow opening, or inclined plane, at the corner of Simpson’s Tavern, and nearly opposite Exeter Hall. At one corner of the court, nearest the Strand, stands the Coal Hole Tavern, once the haunt of Edmund Kean and his ‘Wolf Club’ of claquers, still in Blake’s time a resort of the Thespian race; not then promoted to the less admirable notoriety it has, in our days, enjoyed. Now the shrill tinkle of a dilapidated piano, accompaniment to a series of tawdry poses plastiques, wakes the nocturnal echoes, making night hideous in the quiet court where the poet and visionary once lived and designed the Inventions of Job.

  Initially, being primarily an art critic, Gilchrist knew little of the poetry. It was a copy of Blake’s illustrations to the Book of Job, found at the back of a London printshop, that first caught his eye. He never lost his sense of their astonishing power, and it was Blake’s visual imagination which always remained f
or Gilchrist the key to his genius. In the summer of 1855 he decided to write to one of the surviving Ancients, the painter Samuel Palmer, by then aged fifty.

  On 23 August 1855 Gilchrist received a long and engaging reply, which he later reprinted entire in Chapter 33 of his biography. While praising Blake’s artistic integrity, Palmer carefully dispelled the notion of his madness, and replaced it with the figure of a gentle, almost Christ-like sage: ‘He was a man without a mask; his aim was single, his path straight-forwards, and his wants few … His voice and manner were quiet, yet all awake with intellect … He was gentle and affectionate, loving to be with little children, and to talk about them. “That is heaven,” he said to a friend, leading him to a window, and pointing to a group of them at play.’

  At the same time Palmer hinted at a prophet from the Old Testament, rather than the New: a formidable Blake who could be highly ‘expressive’ and emotional, ‘quivering with feeling’, capable of deep anger, and with a flashing glance that could be ‘terrible’ towards his enemies – ‘Cunning and falsehood quailed under it.’ He summed up these contradictions with a painterly example from the Italian Renaissance: ‘His ideal home was with Fra Angelico: a little later he might have been a reformer, but after the fashion of Savonarola.’ Gilchrist was captivated, and he and Palmer became fast friends.

  A year later, in 1856, the Gilchrist family moved in next to the Carlyles at number 6 Cheyne Row. The pursuit of Blake’s trail through London galleries, local museums, antique bookshops and private collections now began in earnest. Gilchrist purchased Blake prints, and borrowed what he could not buy. Anne started her own collection of Blake’s watercolours. Together they tracked down Blake’s various lodgings and workshops north and south of the river, in Soho and Lambeth, and meticulously researched his three-year sojourn at Felpham, by the sea in Sussex.

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