BLAKE AND THE NOVELISTS
A recurring fascination in the reading of Blake is to wonder how some of his statements and exhortations would feel if lived out in a real life—one’s own, for example. Many of the novelists who have used Blake have explored this question, from a variety of perspectives. Joyce Cary in The Horse’s Mouth gave us one version of the artist as hero, living out his own interpretation of Blake. Colin Wilson’s The Glass Cage made its hero a Blake critic, but an oddly reclusive one, who appears a little ambivalent in his lived responses to the poet, and is now writing about Whitehead.
Both these novels are well known, but readers of Blake may not know the next two novels, which sparked this note. The first is R. F. Nelson’s Blake’s Progress (Toronto: Laser Books, 1975), which starts as a rather engaging biography of Blake, beginning with his marriage. It reveals that Kate remained a virgin for many years, was responsible for most of Blake’s successful commercial engravings, and was generally invaluable. It also tells us that Blake’s poetry is not really poetic fiction at all, but that the prophecies are full of names and images “taken from William’s adventures as a time-voyageur through the alternate worlds, used to comment on the current political and social scene” (pp. 108-09). The book is fun, up to a point, but very literal at heart; Blake becomes a hero, but at the expense of his poetry, which becomes simply a fancy kind of space travel reporting.
The second book is very different. It is by a writer often labeled as a writer of science fiction, but in this case he bypasses science and technology completely. J. G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979) is a tale about a young man called, simply, Blake. He is a not very successful creature of the twentieth century, and no explicit attempt is made to relate him to our William, except the name—and the story. One might begin a description by suggesting that it explores what it would be like to experience some of Blake’s central metaphors, or that it is a kind of narrative version of “Auguries of Innocence” and “To my Friend Butts I write.” In its progress, it almost convinces the reader that “vices in this world may well be metaphors for virtues in the next,” offers vivid intuitions of what the vortices described in Plate 15 of Milton might feel like, and puts into narrative play Blake’s musings about identity and identification. By omitting all reference to Blake’s life and writings, Ballard has written a tour de force that in some ways gets closer to the heart of Blake’s vision than the more explicitly Blakean novels. [My thanks to Roberto Cucci and Barbara Heppner for drawing my attention to the last two novels.]