1862 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Blake

Thomas Arnold, in A Manual of English Literature (1862; 1885) 451-52.



William Blake (1757-1828), poet, painter, and visionary was one of the most remarkable men of his time, and if it is considered what that time was, and what Blake was, the peculiar nature of his work in two different arts will be recognised as one of the most singular phenomena. He was a romanticist long before the romantic movement; he began the "return to nature" ten years before Cowper; and he was steeped in the poetry of the Elizabethans when Charles Lamb was yet a child. It is natural that the reputation of a man who anticipated with such extraordinary accuracy the prevalent literary tendencies of two succeeding generations should have grown with time, and Blake has now a hundred readers where in his own lifetime he had one. It is one of the greatest defects of Mr. F. T. Palgrave's Golden Treasury, that it does not recognise Blake in any way. Mr. Palgrave has, however, done his best to atone for the omission by the space accorded to Blake in a later collection of English poetry for children, and full justice to him in Ward's English Poets. Mr. Swinburne has also written a dithyrambic volume in his praise, and one of the best of modern biographies is the Life of William Blake by Alexander Gilchrist — himself a scholarly and distinguished writer — whose premature death was a loss to English letters. Blake's best lyrical poetry is to be found in his Songs of Innocence and Experience. They are often marred by slight technical imperfections; the labour of the file is wanting. The rhyme is sometimes hackneyed, sometimes nonexistent; but these slight faults do not affect the exquisite beauty, — most often fresh and almost child-like, sometimes grave and even austere, — of the thoughts expressed. At its best the exquisite lyrical gift of Blake is hardly to be surpassed out of Shakspeare.