G. E. Bentley, Jr. William Blake: The Critical Heritage. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975. xix + 294 pp. $25.00.
Though the Mortal & Perishing part of the present book be inelegant, expensive, and small, the Real Book, a documentary survey of the reaction to Blake and his works before the publication of Gilchrist’s biography in 1863, will hold a large interest for readers who may wonder what it was like in the old days to encounter Blake without a trot. The details of this survey may at times baffle us, suggesting a playing-out of tidal under-rhythms of attraction and repulsion that have little to do with sophisticated appreciation, but the overall curve seems explicable enough. The brief “high” of Blake’s reputation in the early 1800’s turned to a long, largely ebbing phase as a consequence of the fact that the character of the man was increasingly out of harmony with the character of the times: as Samuel Palmer wrote to Gilchrist in 1855 (part of a long reminiscence about Blake for Gilchrist’s book), “materialism was his abhorrence.” The importance of the profound dyspathy between Blake and the culture of the first half of the nineteenth century cannot be overstressed, for there is no artist of whom it is truer to say that his character is his art—and therefore, his destiny. Some of the pain of looking closely at that destiny is mitigated for us by the enjoyments of Regency and Victorian genius; reactions to Blake during the pre-Gilchrist period come most copiously from persons who hold considerable, in some cases great, interest for us in their own right—as poets, essayists, critics, artists, mountebanks, etc.—a circumstance which compounds the interest of what we are reading and helps to put the whole question of early responses to Blake in a suitably spacious setting.
Further to help us to that end Professor Bentley begins his book with a useful twenty-six-page Introduction that sets forth the history of Blake criticism and Blake studies. The present compilation resembles earlier ones in the Critical Heritage Series in its mixture of general essays on Blake with commentary on specific works. It differs from the other volumes in being about a writer who was also a professional artist, and in that it is necessarily composed more of private statements than of published reviews. A selection of comment on Blake and his work during his lifetime has been made from the fuller materials in Blake Records.1↤ 1 G. E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Records (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969). This includes some long pieces, such as the essays by Malkin and Crabb Robinson, and the now famous reviews in the Examiner (1808) and Antijacobin (1808), as well as numerous brief, even fragmentary, references, in many cases excerpted from longer items in Blake Records. The biographical essays of 1827-31 by Smith, Cunningham, and Tatham are given in full, along with early post-obit articles on Blake in Fraser’s and the London University Magazine (all in Blake Records). A spare, running commentary like that in Blake Records introduces and connects the items.
The new feature of this book is its chronologically ordered final section on the years 1831-63, which cites every commentary on Blake in that period, and even every comment that is now known, some for the first time: 300 items in all. This is a valuable drawing in of the nets, notwithstanding that, with netting so very fine, whitebait are brought up with tuna. The question one might raise about this chapter concerns its title, “The Forgotten Years.” It is my belief, stated already in these pages and elsewhere, that “forgotten” is a misnomer in that it places an emphasis on the number of comments rather than on a consideration of their significance. Many of the (comparatively few) notices of Blake’s work that were taken were important, coming as they did from Emerson, Ruskin, Palgrave, Henry James, Sr., the Pre-Raphaelites, and others of interest to us now. An edition of Blake’s Songs was published for Wilkinson in 1839; pictures by Blake were exhibited with works of other English artists to a mass audience in 1857 and 1862, and commented on in the press. “Forgotten” really does not describe this state of affairs. Nor is it quite accurate to place the turn of the Blake tide at 1863, as Professor Bentley does in a paragraph introductory to this chapter. From the late ‘forties through the early ‘sixties there was a definite increase in interest in Blake, which was marked by (among numerous other indices) the acquisition of many of his works by the British Museum. The immediate burst of attention to Blake supposedly aroused from nil by Gilchrist in fact occurred in at atmosphere in which Blake was somewhat known. Of course, it is proper to emphasize the huge limitations of the mid-Victorians’ knowledge of Blake, with regard both to the number of works available and the number of persons familiar with them, but that should not entitle us to write off as inconsequential the knowledge that did exist. I am conscious of the fineness of this point, and yet, if there is a purpose in retrieving and citing the small documents along with the large, it can only be to refine our picture of the way things actually happened.begin page 90 | ↑ back to top
There is a small misunderstanding in the final section that I am happily able to set right. On page 263 Professor Bentley notes that he has been unable to find “Palgrave’s Official Catalogue” of the 1862 Exhibition, which he states was cited by me in my essay on Blake’s reputation in the Festschrift for Sir Geoffrey Keynes.2↤ 2 “William Blake in the Wilderness: A Closer Look at his Reputation, 1827-63,” in Morton D. Paley and Michael Phillips, eds., William Blake: Essays in Honour of Sir Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. 310-49. The form of my citation makes it clear that I was referring to an article by Palgrave which constitutes a part of the one and only Official Catalogue: it is a three-page essay introducing the watercolor listings entitled, “The British School of Water Colour Painting.” What is remarkable about this short piece by Palgrave is that nearly one page of it is taken up with a comparison of Stothard and Blake. Along with other notices of the Exhibition Blakes it was described in detail and quoted from in my earlier essay, “Pictures at the Exhibitions.”3↤ 3 “Pictures at the Exhibitions,” Blake Newsletter 21, 1973, pp. 6-12.
With the Blake Bibliography (produced jointly with Martin K. Nurmi) in 1964, Blake Records in 1969, the present book on the critical heritage, and the forthcoming revised bibliography to be entitled Blake Books, Professor Bentley has made a most solid and impressive contribution to our knowledge of Blake’s fortunes during his life and after. When distant, these separate books appear as One Book; and even if we look more closely, we may note a certain amount of overlapping, or duplication. Roughly three-quarters of the materials of William Blake: The Critical Heritage have already been published by Bentley in Blake Records; in addition, three-fifths of the Introduction to the present volume are, in its author’s words, “largely adapted from the essay on ‘Blake’s Reputation and Interpreters’ in Blake Books (forthcoming)”; and finally, all—or almost all—of the items in the present book will be cited in Blake Books. To be sure, each of these source books is different and has its own special purpose, that of the volume in hand being to provide an overview for the general student, of early reactions to Blake. But in the light of the considerable duplications mentioned above, one wonders whether this interesting volume on the critical heritage might not have been more indispensible, and at the same time more broadly and accurately reflective of its subject, had its final section on the years 1831-63 been followed by selections from the post-Gilchrist criticism, taking us, perhaps, to the end of the century? It is rather too bad that a book of Blake criticism should end just when things are about to get really lively: it was, after all, in response to the critical challenge posed by Gilchrist’s Life that informed public discussion of Blake’s thought and work suddenly picked up speed and took off.