During his lifetime Blake won some recognition as an engraver and
artist, while his poetry remained virtually unknown to the general public.
He never sought a publisher but with his illuminated manuscripts
practiced the communicative arts of the high middle ages. He used a
rudimentary form of printing of his own invention. He laboriously made
each print into an individual work of art. The technique was certainly not
designed to achieve a large readership.
Nevertheless his poems did circulate among the small artistic
community of England. Coleridge had met him and rated the 'Songs of
Innocence', placing "The Little Black Boy" first. Crabb Robinson, a
journalist interested in art and artists, attempted to bring Wordsworth
and Blake together. He did not succeed, but Wordsworth did see some
of Blake's work. He pronounced Blake mad, but found his madness
more interesting than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.
Mona Wilson: "As a lyrical Poet [Blake] was acclaimed by Lamb and
Landor, by Wordsworth and Coleridge. But the writer of the symbolic
books was alone from first to last." Blake's contemporaries rather
uniformly failed to comprehend his larger works. His patron, William
Hayley, a leading arbiter of taste, made a serious attempt to discourage
Blake as a poet and to channel his creativity entirely into the graphic
arts. This won Hayley the name of 'spiritual enemy' in Blake's poetry.
Blake never found a purchaser for 'Jerusalem' his last and greatest
Blake's works might have been lost to us except for the small group of
young artists who gathered around him in his last years. They included
John Linnell, George Richmond, Edward Calvert, and Samuel Palmer.
These young men admired Blake as an artist and as a man, and at least
some of them adopted his spiritual values. They referred to him as the
Interpreter. Linnell treated him like a father, and it was into Linnell's hands
that Blake entrusted his manuscript, 'The Four Zoas', shortly before his
Thirty six years after Blake's death an enthusiastic admirer named
Alexander Gilchrist rescued him from obscurity with an authoritative
biography. Gilchrist died before finishing his book; his widow completed
the project with the assistance of William Rossetti. The Gilchrist
biography, originally published in 1863, reflects the materialistic
insensitivity of the Victorian age, but within those limits it gives a detailed
and sympathetic treatment of Blake's life. Gilchrist interviewed many of
Blake's friends and acquaintances,and his biography will always serve
as the primary source for Blake's life.
( 'With his usual quaint irony Blake told his friend Thomas Butts that
Hayley " is as much averse to my poetry as he is to a Chapter in the Bible.")