Life of William Blake, ‘Pictor Ignotus’

Alexander Gilchrist

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1863
Genre: biography

Scholarly Commentary


Alexander Gilchrist (1828-1861) and DGR became friends in 1861, when Gilchrist asked DGR to help him in editing some of Blake's work for inclusion in Gilchrist's biography. When Gilchrist died toward the end of 1861, his widow Anne and DGR kept on with the project to publish Gilchrist's work. The two volumes finally appeared in 1863.

DGR's part in this work is considerable. He was responsible for the whole of volume 2, which comprises an edition of Blake's selected writings, as well as for the critical materials that make up three chapters in volume 1: chapters 21, 32, and 39. The critical commentaries in the second volume are DGR's, who also chose the selected engravings that are included in the same volume. Finally, both volumes are ornamented throughout with reproductions and facsimiles from Blake's engravings and most of these were chosen by DGR.

The edition that comprises volume 2 has been the object of great scholarly indignation, for DGR persuaded himself that Blake's work was too recondite for the general reader. Like Thomas Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd when they produced their three volumes of Emily Dickinson's verses in the 1890s, DGR made serious interventions into Blake's texts when he thought it necessary to clarify the work and make it more readily accessible. This is a style of editing no longer tolerated by scholars.

The “Blake” that we see through DGR's interventions, however, is an exceedingly interesting creature. This Blake is the emanation, as it were, of DGR. The figure locates an important moment in the reception history of Blake, and of course also deepens our understanding of DGR's ideas about art and poetry both. The special qualities of DGR's Blake come into sharp relief as soon as we set it beside the very different imagination of Blake that impassioned DGR's friend Swinburne. Swinburne's Blake emerges through his great study William Blake. A Critical Essay. (1868). Whereas Swinburne's book—much influenced by Baudelaire—is a brilliant and highly polemical “art for art's sake” manifesto, by far the most important to come out of England, DGR's work is more measured. Swinburne's Blake is a poetical prophet, DGR's a neglected artist and poet in need of cultural promotion.

A second edition of the Gilchrist volumes appeared in 1880. DGR was much involved with this publication as well, and he made significant alterations to the critical and editorial materials that he supplied in the first edition. Both editions were published in London by Macmillan with decoratively stamped covers. These were not designed by DGR, though he was consulted about them.

Textual History: Composition

Not many original manuscripts survive. An interesting one written for the 1880 edition is part of Notebook II in the Duke University Library.

Three fragments held in the library of the Delaware Art Museum illustrate how DGR went about editing Blake. These contain DGR's transcriptions of verses by Blake that DGR was intending to include in his 1880 augmented selection of Blake's verse. The texts, all taken from Blake's manuscript notebook that DGR bought in 1847, were not included in the selection DGR made from that notebook in the 1863 edition of Gilchrist. One fragment contains DGR's completed transcription of the poem he titled “Love and Deceit”, printed in the 1880 edition at II.128 under the heading “Ideas of Good and Evil”. A second fragment has the first and third stanzas of DGR's full three stanza text along with another fragment, and the third fragment has the second stanza of the poem plus another four lines of the Blake poem known as “In a Myrtle Shade”.

Printing History

The two volumes were published twice in DGR's lifetime, and in each case he was involved with the publication. Both editions were published in London by Macmillan, in two volumes. The first edition was in 1863, the second in 1880.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 2p-1863.raw.xml