THE STRANGER FROM PARADISE: A Biography of William Blake

G. E. Bentley, Jr., Author Yale Univ. $39.95 (512p) ISBN 978-0-300-08939-4

When Blake died in 1827, just short of 70, young George Richmond, a future Royal Academician, closed the artist's eyes "to keep the vision in." A writer, engraver, printmaker and painter, Blake, who could be seen as the ecstatic, English Michelangelo—his depictions of the human body pulsed with physical energy—was largely neglected in his lifetime. While he celebrated religion in his work, his idiosyncratic approach was considered subversive, and he sold little of his work. Still, he lived serenely, if in poverty, with his devoted wife, Catherine, except for the turbulent year of his unwarranted trial (and acquittal) for seditious language—Blake's only public episode. Privately, his life was a continuing drama. He was consumed by communicating with spirits, whose portraits he often drew; others sometimes sat with him, unseeing, in his shabby rooms. Bentley, University of Toronto's emeritus professor of English, a Blake scholar for 50 years and the author of several books about Blake, affectionately and authoritatively renders the life of the artist, who's now considered less madman than visionary. Many know Blake's great anthem, "Jerusalem," the poem "The Tyger" and the striking etching "The Ancient of Days." Via Blake's writings and drawings, records of his intimates and thorough treatments of artworks such as the Visionary Heads, Bentley evokes something of the whole man—an eccentric genius who saw the world as a product of personal imagination. Few in his time agreed with the understanding minister who explained that if Blake was cracked, "his is a crack that lets in the Light." With 120 b&w and 50 magnificent color illustrations and more evident research than Peter Ackroyd's biography of 1995, the book is a great bargain. (July)

Forecast:The sweeping Blake exhibition that recently appeared at New York's Metropolitan Museum has helped renew interest in Blake; expect a large readership.

Reviewed on: 06/25/2001
Release date: 06/01/2001
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Paperback - 532 pages - 978-0-300-10030-3
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