The Stranger From Paradise

The Stranger From Paradise

A Biography of William Blake

Book - 2001
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This fascinating and generously illustrated biography of William Blake, the great English artist, poet, and mystic, encompasses virtually everything that is known of his life and times. Often invoking the words of Blake's own contemporaries, G. E. Bentley describes the struggles of Blake's youth, his gradual embrace of the power of the spirit and visionary art and literature, and the serenity he achieved in his old age.
Publisher: New Haven, CT : Yale University Press, 2001
ISBN: 9780300089394
0300089392
Characteristics: xxvii, 532 p.,[72] p. of plates : ill. ; 25 cm

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dennismmiller
Jun 07, 2017

It has become a cliche to refer to artists (even the most pedestrian) as "visionaries". In the case of William Blake, however, it is no poetic exaggeration - he literally saw angels in the streets and conversed with fairies in his study. As GE Bentley describes it in his sprawling biography, the reality of Blake's visions formed the primary basis for his understanding of art, religion, and the world, with the spiritual freedom of the imagination contrasted to the rational slavery of matter, the state, and organized religion. Blake's faithfulness to this internal vision, however opaque it might be to others, led one of his friends, the poet Allan Cunningham, to confess that "what he meant by them even his wife declared she could not tell, though she was sure they had a meaning, and a fine one..." and caused the portraitist John Hoppner to dismiss his work as "like the conceits of a drunken fellow or a madman". The verdict of history has tended to balance the two, echoing Robert Southey's view that "the highest genius alone could have conceived it, and only madness have dared attempt the execution."

A marginal figure during his lifetime, the material for a biography of Blake is somewhat threadbare, primarily consisting of diary entries and letters dealing with matters that seemed important at the time but assuming much and neglecting much that seems essential now. Bentley's lack of organization, leaping quickly between analysis and anecdote, risks losing the narrative in the labyrinth of the London publishing industry circa 1800, but also lends his biography a feverish quality of half-hallucinatory (or perhaps heightened) reality which complements Blake's own "wildness and Enthusiasm".

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