4. A Bibliographical Note
References to Blake in the first half of the nineteenth century are astonishingly few. Those listed in the Nurmi-Bentley Blake Bibliography typically portray Blake as a “madman” who excelled as an artist but faltered as a poet. A reference, hitherto unnoticed — “The Poetry of Sacred and Legendary Art”*↤ *Reviewing a book of the same title by Mrs. [Anna Brownell Murphy] Jameson (1848). Immensely popular, this book went through many editions until it was edited and enlarged by Estelle M. Hurll, Sacred and Legendary Art by Anna Jameson, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1895). —anon. rev., Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, LXV (Feb. 1849), 183 — at once reveals the reigning attitude of the early nineteenth century toward Blake and suggests the direction that subsequent criticism was to take. The reviewer comments, “There is greatness in the simplicity of Blake’s angels: ‘The morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.’”[e] Apparently this remark was inspired by Mrs. Jameson’s statement: “The most original, and, in truth, the only new and original version of the Scripture idea of angels which I met with, is that of William Blake, a poet painter, somewhat mad as we are told, if indeed his manners were not rather ‘the telescope of truth,’ a sort of poetical clairvoyance, bringing the unearthly nearer to him than to others. His adoring angels float rather than fly, and, with their half-liquid draperies, seem to dissolve into light and love: and his rejoicing angels — behold them — sending up their voices with the morning stars, that ‘singing in their glory move’” (I, 80; the quotation is from Lycidas, 1. 180).
The context in which the reviewer’s remark appears is perhaps of special significance. Blake is mentioned among those artists who skillfully combine poetry with painting, using the former to enliven and begin page 14 | illumine the latter; among those artists who, working with the sublimest materials, prove that Christian art may rival, indeed surpass, that of the ancients. Still more important is the fact that the reviewer points to Blake in a passage discussing the emergence of a new Christian art imbued with an iconoclastic spirit.