The William Blake Blog

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.