Alexander Gilchrist’s The Life of William Blake, “Pictor Ignotus”  ABL Brownings’ Lib Cop  BL-C B B636gi 1863  v.1 and v. 2

Rare Item Analysis: Alexander Gilchrist’s The Life of William Blake, “Pictor Ignotus”

By Anna McKay

When William Blake died in 1827, only a handful of small efforts were made to illuminate his largely unfamiliar character. Alexander Gilchrist, 1828-1861, was the first to make any extensive foray into Blake’s poetry, art, and personal life. His researched culminated in The Life of William Blake, which remains a prominent biographical resource on the poet. Unfortunately, Gilchrist died prior to finishing his work, causing his wife to undertake its completion along with the help of friends Dante Gabriel and William Rossetti. The biography was published in 1863 in two volumes: one consisting primarily of Blake’s personal history, and one of a collection of Blake’s poems and plates. As none of the contributors were born early enough to know Blake personally, the work reveals how the next generation received Blake’s ideology, character, and art.

Gilchrist shapes his presentation of Blake as though he were bringing a figure from the shadows into the light. The subtitle of the biography, pictor ignotus, is Latin for “unknown artist” and is taken from Robert Browning’s poem of the same name, two lines of which appear as an inscription at the front of the book. Blake etched his own poetry and drawings, and so produced only a limited number of prints—hardly enough reach a public greater than his immediate circle of friends. Consequently, those who were familiar with Blake knew him only for his eccentric reputation; few actually had access to much of his work. Blake intentionally chose not to use conventional printing due to his ideology, but Gilchrest does not appear to understand Blake’s reasoning for this. Gilchrist laments Blake’s publication methods, writing, “But alas! whether Blake were definite or indefinite in his conceptions, he was alike ignored. He had not the faculty to make himself popular” (114). Gilchrist sees Blake’s obscurity not as a choice, but as an ability to reach a greater audience.

Gilchrist does not only misunderstand Blake’s methods, however, but also his content. In chapter twelve Gilchrest ostensibly discusses “The Gates of Paradise,” “Visions of the Daughters of Albion,” and “The America.” In reality, Gilchrist devotes only handful of pages in total to this prophetic poems, and only two full paragraphs to “America,” most of which space discusses not the content, but the images. In his attempt to analyze the poem, Gilchrist writes, “The poem has no distinctly sizeable pretensions to a prophetic character, being, like the rest of Blake’s ‘Books of Prophecy,’ rather a retrospect, in its mystic way, of events already transpired” (110). Even if Gilchrist correctly interpreted Blake’s assertion that a prophet is one who says “If you go on So, the result is So,” he fails to put any honest effort into considering the present prophetic value of the workings of Orc and Urizen, rebellion and authority, energy and reason, in the events of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Even the structure of the poem he misinterprets; rather than viewing the abrupt leaping from image to image an attempt of Hebrew sublimity, a concept that would not have been inaccessible at the time, he describes these leaps as “the fault of all this class of Blake’s writings; too much wild tossing about of ideas and words” (109). If Gilchrist’s perspective is representative of Blake’s reception in the generation succeeding him, then that generation apparently lacked any clear understanding of Blake’s ideas.

Instead of extensive poetic analysis, Gilchrist spent a great deal of words on Blake’s eccentricities. At the close of chapter twelve, the same chapter that professed to be about prophetic poems, Gilchrist devotes over four pages to explaining Blake and wife’s habit of reenacting scenes from Paradise Lost in full costume (or lack thereof) or otherwise going about their home nude. Gilchrist claims not to intend to call Blake mad, being sure to include details of Blake’s reasoning for his actions, but his prolonged attention to this particular habit in a chapter about Blake’s poetry indicates that he at the very least considered such actions more interesting, both to himself and to the public, than Blake’s poetic ideas.

Despite his treatment of Blake’s personality and poetry, Gilchist does express admiration for Blake’s art: “Whatever may be the literary value of the work, the designs display unquestionable power and beauty” (111). The second volume featuring photo lithograph reproductions several plates was the idea of Dante Gabriel and William Rossetti, but there are a few similar reproductions throughout the first volume. All of these are done faithfully except for one plate from “America,” which, interestingly, has been altered such that Blake’s original text has been replaced with the text of the biography. This suggests that Gilchrist, as well as the final publishers of the biography, did not consider the Blake’s writing to be especially essential to the presentation of the art. After all, Gilchrist had few thoughts about “America” itself, however much he appreciated the designs.

Overall, The Life of William Blake is a text that brings Blake into the public eye and preserves a great deal of his poetry as well as details of his personal life, but is also one that fails to treat his poetry and especially his prophecy in full.