Review: Bentley, William Blake’s Conversations
Book cover  

Gerald E. Bentley, Jr., with a foreword by Mary Lynn Johnson. William Blake’s Conversations: A Compilation, Concordance, and Rhetorical Analysis. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008. lii + 300 pp. [+ 8 pp. illustrations, 1 color]. $119.95/£74.95, hardcover.

Alexander S. Gourlay ( teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

1 Most of the primary material in William Blake’s Conversations will be familiar to those who have studied Gerald E. Bentley’s two editions of Blake Records, Blake Records Supplement, and his 2001 biography, The Stranger from Paradise, but the scholarly alchemy effected by distilling reports of Blake’s spoken words into a compact volume and adding an array of related tools has created something rich, strange, and likely to prove enduringly useful. Because many of the reports come to us from within a generation or two after Blake’s death, they are strongly colored by the late Georgian/early Victorian conception of him: these Blakeish words often seem to reflect the minds of the reporters as much as they reveal the mind of Blake, and as the intervening years and layers of reportage multiply, the share of credible Blake content diminishes. A snippet of Blake’s conversation that was worth retelling or recording is likely to have been one that conformed to, or at least resonated with, the other stories about Blake in circulation at the time. Gathered together in largely unmediated form, these reports constitute a portrait of a fellow we might call Anecdotal Blake, a somewhat different being from the persona we moderns know through his works in ink and paint, Autographic Blake. Ironically, Autographic Blake was not very well known to some of the original constructors of Anecdotal Blake—even to ones who knew Flesh and Blood Blake himself. Those modern readers who are thoroughly acquainted with Autographic Blake may find the shimmery Anecdotal Blake who rises in these pages to be an uncanny and alien creature, but it is intriguing to hear his voice, and like any chatty ghost he may have things to tell us beyond the grave.
  2 The book begins with an insightful foreword by Mary Lynn Johnson, followed by an engaging set of introductory gestures and prolegomena, most of them a few paragraphs long, by Bentley, then the collected “conversations” themselves. This is a very mixed bag that includes any text that plausibly but indirectly records a Blake statement or something like a Blake statement, even words that he probably did not say, such as the seditious utterings reported in the testimony of the soldier who invaded Blake’s garden in Felpham. Presumably the rationale for including this report is that the confrontation definitely did occur and all agree that Blake said something. By contrast, the famous story of naked Blake saying, “Come in, it’s only Adam and Eve, you know!” to Thomas Butts in the summer-house is not here (except at least two mentions as an example of what did not make the cut). Though it is only a little less likely on its face than many of the other anecdotes from the same period, the Adam and Eve story is probably apocryphal from top to bottom, and its omission is well deserved. Yet Bentley casts the net for Blakean “conversations” very broadly, including, for instance, at least one unspoken report of a vision reportedly found in a lost letter from Blake to Butts (see below), a fictive conversation between a Blakean persona and Isaiah and Ezekiel from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (10), and an assertion that Blake’s wife said she didn’t know what Blake meant by The Book of Urizen (13). The entries are arranged in rough chronological order, when possible by year of purported utterance, extending from a retrospective account of Blake’s telling his mother of angels on Peckham Rye in 1767, to 1831, with the last imagined echoes of Blake’s voice, audible at most to Catherine on her deathbed, as she called out “continually to her William, as if he were only in the next room” (81). They are minimally annotated as to source, but most are not otherwise contextualized or qualified. Bentley’s commodious criteria make sense: why omit a potentially illuminating bit of second-order information merely because it was not really a conversation, or because it didn’t actually involve Blake’s saying anything (as in the Urizen story above, which usefully indicates that Blake didn’t talk to Catherine about what some of his works meant), and why clutter the book with inevitably inconclusive assessments of the veracity of the reports?
  3 Bentley’s broad definition of “conversation” has payoffs: if he had been more exclusionary he might, for instance, have omitted the anecdote reported at second or third hand by Oswald Crawfurd about a vision Blake supposedly had (and supposedly “afterwards records” somewhere) during his apprenticeship at Basire’s, “when he was one day … secluded in … Westminster Abbey.” Crawfurd says that Blake reported (apparently in a lost letter to Butts, not in an actual conversation) that he saw “one of his visions”: “the aisles and galleries of the old building (or sanctuary) suddenly filled with a great procession of monks and priests, choristers and censer-bearers” (3). This sounds at first like one more of those early accounts that focus on Blake as a man who saw spirits, and the language is utterly unlike Blake’s, so one might discount it. But in this case there may be a nonverbal echo of such a vision “afterwards record[ed]” by Blake in later life, though it is unlikely that Crawfurd would have known about it. Among the recently discovered designs to Blair’s Grave is an unengraved picture that Flaxman called “The Gambols of Ghosts according with their affections previous to the final Judgment,” representing the nocturnal activities of phantoms in a churchyard. Blake’s scene elaborates upon a passage early in Blair’s poem that describes “light-heeled ghosts and visionary shades” that “perform their mystic rounds” around a “trusty yew” beneath “the wan cold moon.” The rediscovered watercolor design (which is clearly developed from a sketch that is now in the Yale Center for British Art) shows a churchyard occupied by three distinct classes of ghosts performing their “rounds” in their own ways: six “light-heeled” dancers circling the yew, another larger circle of violent quarrelers, victims, and victimizers, and an orderly right-to-left procession of the host composed of pious “visionary shades” bearing tapers, huge tomes, and bread and wine into the church. Blake’s decision to expand the population of Blair’s churchyard in this particular way may have been inspired in part by a thirty-year-old vision of a ghostly parade in Westminster Abbey.
  4 In addition to the snippets of conversation themselves, Bentley includes several conversation-related scholarly tools. The most useful is probably the concordance of the words used in the reported conversations, but interesting as well are the speculative remarks in the introduction on Blake’s pronunciation and the implications of rhymes (xxi-xxxv) and the supporting tables of perfect and imperfect rhymes in the appendices. Throughout the volume Bentley maintains a much lighter scholarly demeanor than one might expect from the author of those magisterial classics, Blake Books and Blake Records—this assemblage is hosted by Conversational Bentley, a manifestation of the generous and genial Flesh and Blood Bentley that the lucky may meet in person. This Bentley is much too polite and good-natured to acknowledge, say, that a plausible thirdhand anecdote might be unreliable—all tales are treasured here, and accorded pretty much the same respect as an entertaining raconteur at dinner. Similarly, the evidence to be found in Blake’s rhymes about the way he probably pronounced words is fascinating but so oblique that it would be difficult to use without extensive qualification. Though there is a danger that some will treat this whole judicious assemblage of somewhat problematic facts as having the same kind of authority as Blake’s own words, the lightheartedly learned tone that prevails should inhibit anyone from taking it all too literally.