Anniversary of Blake’s Death and Blake Society Meeting

Today is the anniversary of the death of William Blake, who passed away at the age of 69 in 1827. He and his wife Catherine were living at that time at 3 Fountain Court, London, and though Blake was largely neglected at the time of his death in the previous decade he had begun to make friendships among young artists who would pass on knowledge of his art and poetry. One of those friends, George Richmond, wrote to Samuel Palmer:

My Dr Friend

Lest you should not have heard of the Death of Mr Blake I have written this to inform you – He died on Sunday Night at 6 Oclock in a most glorious manner[.] He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ – Just before he died His Countenance became fair – His eyes brighten’d and He burst out in Singing of the things he Saw in Heaven[.] In truth He Died like a Saint as a person who was standing by Him Observed – He is to be Buryed on Friday at 12 in morng[.] (Cited in G. E. Bentley, Blake Records, p.464)

As is traditional, the Blake Society will meet on the first Sunday after the anniversary of Blake’s death at his grave. This year, the meeting will take place at 12 noon, Sunday 15 August at Bunhill Fields, 38 City Road London EC1Y 1AU. The Bunhill celebration, which dates back to the birth of the Society, is open to all and anyone can participate without notice or election (so attend if you want to read a poem, sing or join other Blake enthusiasts for lunch and conversation).

In addition this year Robin Hatton-Gore will talk about the topography of the area and will triangulate Bunhill Fields with the graveyard of the Wesley Chapel and the Quaker Burial Ground. Robin Hatton-Gore was the gardener in charge of Bunhill Fields for several years and is completing a book on the importance of this area to the Dissenting tradition. More details can be found at http://www.blakesociety.org/2010/03/16/bunhill-fields-2/.

Of the devil’s party – Swinburne and Blake

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the poet and critic, Algernon Charles Swinburne. Born in 1837, he was a close friend of the Rossettis who, with Alexander Gilchrist, did so much to renovate the reputation of William Blake in the nineteenth century.

Having become involved in the biography of Blake written by Gilchrist, eventually published as the Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotus in 1863, Swinburne became so annoyed with the final results that he began work on his own version of Blake’s life and art that appeared in 1868 as William Blake: A Critical Essay.

The Essay was first intended as a commentary on the prophetic books that would serve as a supplement to Gilchrist’s Life, but it was extended between 1863 and 1868 to become an important document of Swinburne’s own aesthetic theory. It begins with a declaration that Blake was “born and baptized into the church of rebels” (8), a recurring theme throughout the essay which is divided into three parts: Blake’s life and designs, and two sections dealing with the lyrical poems and prophetic books. For Swinburne, Blake was knowingly of the devil’s party, combining aestheticism with rebellion:

In a time of critical reason and definite division, he was possessed by a fervour and fury of believe; among sane men who had disproved most things and proved the rest, here was an evident madman who believed a thing, one may say, only insomuch as it was incapable of proof. He lived and worked out of all rule, and yet by law. He had a devil, and its name was Faith. No materialist has such belief in bread and meat as Blake had in the substance underlying appearance which he christened god or spectre, devil or angel as the fit took him: or rather as he saw it one or the other side. His faith was absolute and like a pure fanatic’s: there was no speculation in him. (4)

Swinburne responded positively to Blake’s lyrical talents, being also important as one of the first critics to seriously consider the illuminated prophecies, largely passed over until that point. Thus, for example, of “The Tyger” he writes: “No possible effect of verse can be finer in a brief way than that given in the first and second stanzas of the first part of the poem. It recals [sic] within one’s ear the long relapse of recoiling water and wash of the refluent wave[.]” (119) For Swinburne, then, Blake is a devil motivated by faith to employ the weapon of art in an attack on social, moral and political corruption. As such, Swinburne was an important critic in the nineteenth century for preserving and drawing attention to the acerbic, satirical and intransigent elements of Blake’s verse.

William Blake’s Life & Work

The first  in a series of publications called Zoamorphosis Essential Introductions is now available. This will provide a set of concise, clearly presented guides that draw on the latest research in Blake studies to outline different approaches to Blake’s poetry and art.

William Blake’s Life & Works is a clear and elegant introduction to one of the most remarkable poets and artists ever to have lived and worked in the British Isles. This concise book, first in the Zoamorphosis Essential Introductions series, provides an account of Blake’s biography and his major works that draws upon some of the most recent scholarship on Blake, presenting that material in an accessible fashion.

This is available as an eBook in HTML and PDF formats, with an ePub version for mobile readers due soon. To download a copy go to the Publications page.