Ackroyd's Blake: tears for immortality


dTC "Blake: A Biography," by Peter Ackroyd. Alfred A. Knopf. 399 pages. $35.

The great English poet William Blake lived out his life, as biographer Peter Ackroyd writes, ""in a world which distrusted and despised him." Blake produced not only superlative poetry but engravings and paintings, which made him, along with Turner, one of the great artists of his time. There is ample room now, two centuries after Blake wrote such poems as ""The Tyger" and ""London," for a dozen new biographies.

Peter Ackroyd is England's most imaginative biographer. In his ""Dickens" he even pictures himself pursuing his subject down rainy London streets, determined to wrest answers to questions denied him by his research. Mr. Ackroyd is unique in refusing to allow biography shelter under the form of the bloated 19th-century family saga; if his ""Dickens" is somewhat of a tome, the Blake is crisp and taut, less than 400 pages long.

Yet Blake, sexual outlaw, political revolutionary and religious visionary, seems a not altogether comfortable fit for Mr. Ackroyd. At times Mr. Ackroyd takes a snobbish class stance toward his subject, calling Blake ""a lower middle-class tradesman," with the ""stubborn obstinacy" of his class, ""as much a Cockney as an Englishman."

Mr. Ackroyd's own obviously much more conservative political sensibility leads him to insist that Blake's acquaintance with such radical thinkers as Mary Wollstonecraft and Tom Paine was superficial, although the spirit of Paine suffuses the poetry.

Mr. Ackroyd mistakenly concludes that Blake cannot be seen as a political revolutionary because his religious views were different from those of radicals like Paine; he even has trouble with the ironically mocking last line of ""The Chimney Sweeper": ""So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm," because he cannot enter into Blake's uncompromisingly radical stance. At a loss, Mr. Ackroyd calls Blake a believer in the ""individual," surely the last refuge of a biographer uncomfortable with the politics of his subject. His evidence is that Blake never bothered to vote!

Ill at ease with so daring a poet, Mr. Ackroyd devotes most of this biography to Blake the artist. In fascinating detail we learn how he accomplished his engravings, inventing relief etching, his own medium. Both black and white and color prints grace this volume.

Mr. Ackroyd's other great strength is in his evocation of 18th and early 19th-century London. We observe the public licentiousness, the crowded streets, the suffering of the child chimney sweepers. We follow Blake on long walks down the streets of his neighborhood, into print shops where as a child he charmed dealers into selling him prints of such artists as Duerer. We witness the appearance of new shops, a fish warehouse selling oysters, a new Irish linen establishment, all within the environs of Blake's shabby and cramped dwelling places.

Eschewing suspense, Mr. Ackroyd repeatedly flashes forward to the end, so that we know as we read that Blake's travail will endure for a lifetime. As an engraver, Mr. Ackroyd writes, Blake ""labored for his bread, eccentric, dirty and obscure." Blake's heartbreaking fate, his greatness never to be acknowledged during his lifetime, is always with us until the end when Mr. Ackroyd gracefully bids him farewell.

The biographer writes of Blake's "vision" that it "had not faded in his pilgrimage of seventy years, and it has not faded yet." It is an exquisite close to this quirky volume, as, at the last, the recalcitrant biographer is finally won over by his immortal subject. Mr. Ackroyd's homage, matching Blake's long travail, achieves a final catharsis, bringing the reader to tears.

Joan Mellen has written 13 books. Her biographies include "Kay Boyle: Author of Herself," and "Hellman and Hammett," to be published in June by HarperCollins.

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