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Blake’s Appearance in a Textbook on Insanity

From the viewpoint of the unprofessional reader, one of the most fascinating books on insanity is Mad Humanity its Forms Apparent and Obscure by L. Forbes Winslow, which was published in London by C. A. Pearson Ltd. in 1898.

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Winslow, who was born in 1844 and died in 1913, was well qualified with degrees at both Oxford and Cambridge. He had also been lecturer in insanity at Charing Cross Hospital, London, Vice-President of the Medico-Legal Congress, New York, and Chairman of the Psychological Department, and he was founder of the British Hospital for Mental Disorders. In addition to the foregoing book he wrote several others, including Handbook for Attendants of the Insane and Lunacy Law in England. Mad Humanity, which is 451 pages long, is full of details of the medical and legal aspects of insanity, although many of the author’s opinions and conclusions would doubtless carry little authority in the medical climate of our own times. There are also many intriguing anecdotes of madness, and, most arresting of all, a series of photographs illustrating various aspects of insanity, such as “Delusions of Persecution in Monomania”, “Hallucinations of Seeing and Hearing” and “Suicidal Dementia.” These photographs vary from the pitiful to the horrific, with, among the physiognomies shown, expressions of terror, cunning, bewilderment, mistrust, and even a species of sardonic humour.

The whole of Chapter XII—a long one—is devoted to what Winslow describes as “Madness of Genius.” For the author believed that genius was so abnormal as to be a species of neurosis. “Genius,” he wrote, “like every other disposition of the intellectual dynamism, has necessarily its material substratum. This substratum is a semi-morbid state of the brain, a true nervous erethism . . . ” (p. 337).

The main part of the chapter consists of a series of studies of varying length of the alleged madness of certain men of genius, and a very strange collection they make, ranging from such undoubted examples of madness as William Cowper, John Clare and Christopher Smart, through such borderline cases as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey and Percy Bysshe Shelley, to intellectual giants like Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson. In this somewhat motley assortment, William Blake makes an appearance, but when the author’s account of him is read, one’s confidence begins to abate, for surely, even when Blake’s reputation was at its lowest ebb, there can have been no more muddled account of his visionary experiences. Indeed, one is left with the impression that if this is how the author remembered a reading of Gilchrist’s Life of Blake (from which most of the details presumably originated) he would have been a candidate for inclusion in his own book. But it is probably no more than an example of shoddy scholarship, repetition, perhaps, of loose chatter. Nevertheless, the passage was printed in a scholarly book and it probably did Blake’s reputation a certain amount of harm at a time when it was beginning to emerge from the shadows. Here it is, in full:

Hallucinations of Demonomania and Strength

(William Blake, 1757-1827).—An artist of considerable fame, he was also a poet, and his compositions were innumerable, leaving behind him one hundred MSS. for publication. He was regarded by his many admirers as the equal of Shelley or Byron. He suffered from hallucinations, and being invited to Brighton to illustrate his edition of Cowper, he was met on the Downs, in his own imagination, by the spirits of Dante, Virgil, and Homer, whom he describes as coloured shadows and with whom he held high converse, watching the fairies and their funerals, and all the milder and gentler forms of demonolatry. For some years he had sighed for an interview with Satan, whom he had considered to be a grand and splendid spiritual existence, and whom he ultimately alleges he saw as he was going up the stairs of his house, in his mind’s eye, the fiend glaring upon him through the grating of a window, when his wife, conceiving that he was suffering from one of his poetical hallucinations, induced him to execute a portrait of his infernal visitant, and in consequence of this vision he conceived the idea that he had abnormal strength, and, whilst suffering from this delusion, he attacked a soldier, and was tried for high treason. Many of the critics of the time described him as eccentric, another as visionary, a third as an enthusiast, a fourth as a superstitious ghostseer; but that he was mad they had not the slightest doubt. (pp. 371-72)

Wolfson College,

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