I am doing a book about William Blake. Most of the book was written by dead people. I am prefacing their observations with my own observations, wherein I observe what I think they're observing and why I think they're observing the way they do and I explain how they knew Billy B., or (more commonly) how they came to know of him, and I venture generalisations about the fate of the Blake Question (visionary, madman, or darn-tootin' ironist?*) throughout the nineteenth century. It's meant to be (so say the publishers) a run of the dark satanic mill reference book, this book, but to me it's a biographies' biography, festooned and metatextualated to its back teeth.
Here are some things (they make good Christmas presents):
1. In 1824, Bernard Barton wrote to Charles Lamb to ask if he had written Blake’s 'The Chimney Sweeper', which Lamb had contributed to an anthology for chimney sweepers. Try to find a book like that in Borders these days. They just don't do anthologies for chimney sweepers the way they used to.
2. In Algernon Charles Swinburne's exposition of Blake's sexual libertarianism, he insists that there is "no prurience of porcine appetite for rotten apples ... [in this] sensual doctrine". If my surname were Swineburne, I'd watch where I put the word "porcine".
3. George Bernard Shaw calls Blake "an avowed Diabolonian". "Diabolonian" means "Satanist", but it's hard to take seriously a word that sounds so much like "abalone". I'm wondering if this was Shaw's point. (Probably not, for the record.)
* They don't tend to notice the irony in the nineteenth century. Their Blake's either stark bollocky (naked in the back garden with Mrs B.) mad or the clairvoyant's clairvoyant. Later on, when the Victorians start getting all art-for-art's-sake-ish, they coopt him as the patron saint of a cult of beauty, which seems to miss all sorts of points. But fair enough. It takes a lot of mental energy to wear velveteen knickerbockers.