On Liking Billy Blake


by Brian Doyle, author of Billy Blake's Trial

"I have been writing this essay about Blake's trial for more than a year now. I have been taking notes for it for five years. Over the course of those years I have asked myself, many times, why I'm doing this. A careful account of the trial for the sedition of the poet and printer William Blake, in the year 1804, on a fitfully wet day in January, in a wooden room by the sea--Why? Because this essay is my way of befriending and comprehending Billy Blake, whom I greatly admire in absentia. Why do I admire Blake so? Because he told the truth, because he shoved an insolent leering soldier down the road and stuffed him through a doorway, because he saw angels and saints and talked openly about his visions. Because he published his work himself. Because he was a tender and difficult and solicitous friend. Because, when he knew he was going to die, he lay in his bed singing softly. Because he wasn't satisfied with extant mythology and so built a vast, grand impenetrable one of his own. Because he single-handedly rescued the ampersand from oblivion. Because, even though he claimed much of his work was dictated whole to him by angels and prophets, he edited heavily. because he and his wife used to sit naked in their garden and recite passages from Paradise Lost. Because, when he was asked to recite his poems at parties, he got up and removed his coat and sang his lyrics aloud while dancing around the room, which is why he was subsequently not invited to parties anymore. Because he taught his wife, a grocer's daughter, to read. Because he took great care to leave no debt at his death. Because in the ringing fury of his lines, there is also great mercy. Because, even when he was sick unto death, he engraved a little business card for his old friend George Cumberland. Because he could not stop painting and died with his pencil in his hand. Because he bought a new pencil two days before he died. Because the very last thing he draw was his wife's face. It is this last detail that catches my heart."

Brian Doyle, "Billy Blake's Trial"