Visions, visions burning bright

His true home was eternity, but he was still the inhabitant of a tangible, mundane city. Karl Miller Blake by Peter Ackroyd, Sinclair- Stevenson, pounds 20
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T he citizens of Sheffield, having been stroked by their New Age vicar, are thought to be in need of mass counselling. William Blake is unlikely to be blamed for this, but he has often been thought ancestrally responsible for such developments as the hugs and kisses, light shows and youthful congregations of charismatic church-going, and, indeed, for the new permissiveness, by and large, of the Anglican hierarchy. The Blake that many people know, or know of, is the liberator, the advocate of sexual freedom, the opponent of priests who want to punish our joys and desires. The Blake that Peter Ackroyd wants us to know is a Londoner, a Cockney visionary, and a religious rather than a political or sexual radical; no joiner of congregations or clubs.

Ackroyd's fiction and biography are a celebration of Blake's native city, specialising as they do in its history, its hidden lore, its magic, its "great artists", its common people and their music and music halls. So he opens his arms to "London Blake" as he calls him. Blake spent most of his life within the square mile or so enclosed by Oxford Street, Holborn and the Strand, while crossing the river for a spell at 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth. In the garden there, Mr and Mrs Blake read Paradise Lost in costume, unmolested by neighbours. In his study there, as elsewhere, he was visited by spirits: "the roof of my study opened; he ascended into heaven; he stood in the sun, and beckoning to me, moved the universe. An angel of evil could not have done that - it was the archangel Gabriel." There was also a season of outright exile - to Sussex, within hearing of the roar of the sea.

His true home was eternity, but he was nonetheless the inhabitant of an actual and tangible "mundane" city, with its inns, pleasure gardens and assembly halls, its Swedenborgian New Church and the Jacobean canal and water supply of its New River, its signs and handbills, its sights and sayings, its crowds and its individuals, its man with a plate of pickled cucumber on his head. Ackroyd deals wonderfully, and relevantly, with all this information. "Blake tends instinctively towards those great London forms, spectacle and melodrama, and is often preoccupied with the movements of crowds and assemblies." Ackroyd likes to use the word "great". And the words "ancient" and "mystery". He uses the word "secular" as if he doesn't much like the sound of it.

He has often been preoccupied with a dark past containing sorcerers and murderers, and here, too, there is plenty of talk of alchemists, astrologers, antinomians, cabbalists, sexual magicians, mesmerists, magnetisters, prophets. Blake counts, in this context, as "one of those extraordinary Londoners who, self-taught, reach out towards the past and seek the truths of ancient knowledge", and his Prophetic Books count as the least he might have been expected to produce in the circumstances. Like Blake, Ackroyd is the dowser and diviner of an ancient past, and he is a chauvinist here on its behalf and on behalf of London the Great, "awash" at this time "with mysticism and millenarian yearnings". The deluge was lost on the observant James Boswell, who was in town at the time (and who seems never to have heard of Blake). "As a man is", of course, "so he sees." Blake's saying suggests that he would not have been surprised to learn that Boswell saw very few mystics.

Ackroyd's approach helps to explain how Blake came to devote himself to composing and illuminating voluminously prophetic books of verse. How much it has to say about his best poems, which tend to be youthful and short, is a different story. It is the poetry which, for many readers, makes him great, and there are moments when such readers might feel this is a book about the wrong Blake.

Ackroyd pays sustained attention to Blake's practice as an engraver and illuminator. "He worked at literature and art at the same time, keeping the manuscript beside him and adding to it, at intervals, while the graver continued its task almost without intermission." This is a contemporary witness to the intentness of Blake's ambidextrous craft, carefully described by Ackroyd. His admiration for the pictures - with their excess of musculature and of morose antique hero - and for the poetry of the Prophetic Books, can sometimes, however, get out of hand. He likes to say of some effect or passage of Blake's, verbal or visual, that it is "powerful", and at one point quotes a passage about the creation of the "fallen" material world, beginning: "Till his brain in a rock, & his Heart/ In a fleshy slough formed four rivers/ Obscuring the immense Orb of fire/ Flowing down into night ..." "This is powerful poetry," he says. But is it? There then ensues a passage in which he is bewildering about Blake's being bewildering. You're left asking yourself how it can be powerful of Blake not to make sense.

This brings one to the vision thing. The power Ackroyd praises in Blake is that of an art based on religious conviction, and Ackroyd comes across as someone with a feeling for religion and an appetite for vision and the greatness it confers. Spiritual energy is referred to frequently. I suggest he takes this ghostly stuff too much for granted - though I accept that, when Blake speaks of spiritual energy, he can remove from you the power of objection.

Ackroyd's feeling for religion shows itself when he writes about the 18th-century poet William Cowper, who feared that he was damned. He makes the point that religious enthusiasm was deemed to be madness in the 18th century, with Blake himself qualifying for the category in many people's eyes. Cowper is still thought to have suffered from religious mania, but Ackroyd believes he succumbed to his delusions because he wasn't religious enough: because he "had not trusted his own capacity for religious reawakening". He says that he believes, with Blake, that the madness imputed to people in the later 18th century could consist of a refusal to accept the scientific outlook of Bacon, Newton and Locke. Blake disliked all three.

Blake is seen here as "the last great religious poet in England". It is striking to be told this by the biographer of TS Eliot, the Eliot who declared that Blake was not traditional enough, and that his "gift of hallucinated vision" needed to be controlled by a respect for common sense and scientific objectivity. Ackroyd's book makes clear how intensely traditional was Blake's innovative art. It also sheds light on one in particular of the several paradoxes of his religion. He believed in an invisible world which eclipsed the visible one; he might have said, with his friend the painter Fuseli, that "nature puts me out", that nature turns me off. But he also believed that the minute particulars of the visible world are holy, that everything that lives is holy and that human beings, those inhabitants of the fallen world of the visible, are divine. This was one of the contraries by which he progessed.

Ackroyd enjoyably admires the greatness of his William Blake, but is aware of the extent to which he can also be seen as the victim of his anxieties and isolation. His reward was laid up in heaven rather than the Royal Academy. His life was a tissue of worldly rebuffs. But he was sure that the angels were already conducting seminars on his work. One of the high points of the book is its analysis of the "Tiger" poem. Another is its appealing account of the 16th-century surgeon and magician, Paracelsus. And a third is its account of the sufferings of exploited labour. Having mentioned the London street sayings of the time, Ackroyd points to the moving and bitterly ironic part played by one of them in Blake's Songs of Innocence, where the chimney sweeper is cheered up with the words, "Hush, Tom! never mind it."

Blake was tried, in Sussex, for sedition, after a tussle with a soldier. The barrister who defended him, successfully, was Samuel Rose, who died soon afterwards of consumption. "Farewell, Sweet Rose!" wrote Blake. But he had also written, years before, the lyric, "O Rose, thou art sick", with its invisible, destructive worm. The coincidence isn't noted here, or anywhere else I can recall. It's enough to make you believe in prophecy.