Hired to Depress: A Digital Scholarly Edition of William Blake's Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses

Nineteenth-century reputation

The mythologizing of Blake's life began with the (embellished?) descriptions of his final days written by friends who considered him a sage. A different characterization emerged in obituaries: Blake was ‘one of those ingenious persons … whose eccentricities were still more remarkable than their professional abilities’ (Literary Chronicle, 1 Sept 1827, in Bentley, Records, 351). J. T. Smith's reasonably straightforward memoir of 1828 was followed two years later by Allan Cunningham's more dramatic account of Visionary Blake, a compound of genius and madness. For the next three decades, Blake was remembered primarily as a psychological curiosity, his poetry unknown beyond Songs of Innocence and of Experience (first published in letterpress in 1839), his designs little known beyond the illustrations to Blair's Grave.

Alexander Gilchrist's Life of William Blake (1863) soon belied its subtitle, ‘Pictor ignotus’, by bringing the man and his work to the attention of a far larger audience than he had previously commanded. Although he rarely indicates his sources, Gilchrist includes information learned from people who had known Blake. Gilchrist died two years before publication; his widow saw the biography through the final stages of its production, assisted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his brother William Michael, whose catalogue of Blake's art appeared in the second volume of the work. Arguably the most important book ever published on Blake, Gilchrist's biography sets Blake within his intellectual and social milieu, but presents him as a secular saint—a perspective influenced by Thomas Carlyle's theories of the artist as hero. Growing interest in Blake led to the first exhibition devoted to his art at the Burlington Fine Arts Club (London) in 1876.

Algernon Charles Swinburne, also a Blake enthusiast in the Gilchrist/Rossetti circle, published the first book-length study of Blake's poetry in 1868. A heterodox and revolutionary Blake emerges in Swinburne's critique, one that includes high praise for The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. While even Swinburne could do little more with Blake's later poetry than extract brief passages for comment, Edwin John Ellis and William Butler Yeats plunged headlong into the apparent chaos. Unfortunately, their three-volume edition and study of 1893 is marred by poor scholarship, a Procrustean notion of mystic symbolism, and a belief that Blake was Irish.

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