Blake’s art and Dante Rossetti

Today is the anniversary of the death of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, probably the most famous of the Pre-Raphaelites and one of the leading figures in the renovation of William Blake’s reputation during the Victorian era.

Rossetti became interested in Blake after reading Allan Cunningham’s biography on Blake in The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1830), and in 1847 purchased Blake’s Notebook (sometimes called the Rossetti Manuscript) from William Palmer, brother of the artist Samuel who had known Blake in the engraver’s final years. Along with his wombats, this was probably the most famous purchase that Rossetti ever made.

Like Blake, Rosetti was both painter and poet and appears, like Algernon Swinburne, to have also been fascinated with the Romantic’s reputation as a rebel. Blake’s attacks on artists such as Titian, Rembrandt and Joshua Reynolds appear to have partly inspired Rossetti’s own rebellion as part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and in 1849 he wrote a short poem to Blake:

To the memory of William Blake, a Painter and Poet, whose greatness may be named even here since it was equalled by his goodness, this tablet is now erected – years after his death, at the age of sixty-eight, on August 12th, 1827, in poverty and neglect, by one who honours his life and works.

ALL beauty to pourtray
Therein his duty lay
And still through toilsome strife
Duty to him was life –
Most thankful still that duty
Lay in the paths of beauty.

This sentimental verse has found few admirers since, and some critics have remarked just how much it binds Blake into what Robert Essick calls “a heaven of Victorian sensibility”. Meeting Swinburne and then Alexander Gilchrist in the 1850s, Rossetti made the Notebook available to them and also began work with Gilchrist editing what was to become the most important early biography on Blake – Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotus. As well as providing descriptions of various illustrations, with his brother, William Michael, he also edited Blake’s writings for the second volume of the Life and provided a series of introductions, or “Headnotes”.

In his descriptions of the designs, Rossetti emphasised the Gothic elements of Blake’s work, and his version of Blake’s poetry was heavily edited: this was partly guided by the desire to make Blake more readable for the Victorian public, a policy of freely rewriting Blake which drew criticism from contemporaries, most notably Richard Herne Shepherd. The Rossettis, as with Gilchrist and Swinburne, had an important role to play in reviving the reputation of Blake for a Victorian public, although Dante Gabriel was as guilty as Swinburne for also encouraging a view of aspects of Blake’s art as only accessible to an aesthetic elite.

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 Morris and the Art of the Book

After my somewhat relentless focus on contemporary figures who demonstrate the influence of William Blake’s art and/or poetry, the anniversary of the birth of William Morris provides me with an opportunity to explore a different vein. Over the past couple of years, I have found myself increasingly interested in Blake’s Victorian followers, not merely content to leave that field to friends (such as Shirley Dent) who have done a much better job than myself. Indeed, I’m gearing myself up to do some work on Algernon Swinburne, who wrote an exceptional study of Blake in the 1860s.

Morris – artist, designer, writer, socialist – cannot really be said to be one of Blake’s followers, and the fact that while he was often associated with many movements but rarely fully part of them (whether the Socialist League, which he founded but then broke with, or the Pre-Raphaelites), is actually one of the things I like about Morris, and an attitude of independence which I think he shares with Blake.

Obviously his friendship with the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brought him into contact with the circle around Alexander Gilchrist that was renovating Blake’s reputation in the second half of the nineteenth century. Morris had little to do – at least in any explicit sense – with this renovation, but Blake’s combination of image and text in the sphere of design had an important effect on Morris’s work (as, indeed, was the case with other designers such as Walter Crane and Charles Rennie Mackintosh). Morris’s relations with W. B. Yeats, another leading exponent of Blake’s art at the turn of the century, has also been noted by academics such as Margaret Rudd and Morton Seiden.

It was with the founding of the Kelmscott Press in 1891 in which something special can be seen of Blake’s line of the art of the book. The 1896 edition of Chaucer, which Morris produced with Burne-Jones, is rightly considered a masterpiece, and it is not my intention in the slightest to diminish the extraordinary effects of works such as this by making any claims that “Blake got there first” (a claim that would, in any case, look ridiculous compared to those marvellous precursors which also affected Morris such as medieval illuminated manuscripts). Rather, like Blake, Morris conceived of the book as a complete work of art, one in which the matter of printing and all elements of production were instrumental in achieving its status as an object of beauty.

Morris’s politics are also equally fascinating to me. His interest in socialism is, of course, well-documented and extremely important, but the 1880s and 1890s was also a period when anarchism often appeared to be the vibrant and truly international movement, and Morris befriended Peter Kropotkin when the Russian anarchist settled near London in the 1880s. Similarly, Engels was rather disgusted at that time by what he saw as Morris’s uncritical support of anarchists in the Socialist League at a period when animosity between Marxists and anarchists was building up after the failure of the First International. Morris was much more consistent and dedicated in his political activity than Blake, but I have always taken pleasure in the fact that old, staid, conservative Albion every so often produces such artists who have such revolutionary fire in their belly.