August 12: On this day in 1827 William Blake died, aged sixty-nine. Blake’s last years passed more or less as his others: in such poverty and obscurity that his burial in Bunhill Fields was largely unnoticed and on borrowed money—nineteen shillings for an unmarked grave, the body nine feet down, stacked on top of three others, and eventually followed by four more. Blake was devout to his own impassioned version of Christianity, and put little stock in “that faint Shadow Calld Natural Life.” Death, he said, was “but a removing from one room to the other,” and according to his wife, Catherine, Blake had made his choice of rooms early. “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company,” she told a friend, “as he is always in Paradise.” To Blake, it was “The Imagination which Liveth for Ever” and work that was important. According to those close to him, “one of the very last shillings spent was in sending out for a pencil,” with which he continued to sketch until the end, even taking his weeping wife as subject: “Stay, Kate! Keep just as you are—I will draw your portrait—for you have ever been an angel to me.” Just before he died “His Countenance became fair,” wrote a friend later, “His eyes Brighten’d and He burst out into Singing of the things he saw in Heaven.”
But Blake’s attitude towards decades of poverty and obscurity was not entirely detached. He had come to see himself as an engraver and a painter more than a poet, and he had hopes that an 1808 exhibition of his work would not only make money but vindicate his original style and visionary themes. His advertisement for the sixteen “Paintings in Fresco, Poetical and Historical Inventions” proclaimed that “The ignorant Insults of Individuals will not hinder me from doing my duty to my Art,” and invited “those who have been told that my Works are but an unscientific and irregular Eccentricity, a Madman’s Scrawls … to do me the justice to examine before they decide.” Few attended, no pictures were sold, and the only review of the Exhibition described Blake as an “unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.