Peter Ackroyd's 1995 "Blake: A Biography," is a good, but not a great biography of the late 18th-early 19th century poet, prophet, painter, and genius, William Blake. Ackroyd's prose is fluid and easy to follow, but the structuring of the book, while it does mostly follow the pattern of Blake's life, is somewhat inconsistent. There are chapters in which Ackroyd does nothing but profile one poem (do we really need a biographer's interpretation of "The Tyger"?), which detracts from the progress of his narrative. Also, there are points in the course of the book where Ackroyd seems a little too condescending to his subject, which imposes a distance between biographer, subject, and reader - my own preference is for the biographer to bring the reader into the subject's life.
One thing that Ackroyd is good at is allowing Blake and his contemporaries to speak for themselves on a number of topics - revealing a depth of ambivalence towards, for example, Blake's lifelong experience of visions, Blake's business acumen (or lack thereof), his hardheaded independence, and so on. Henry Fuseli, John Flaxman, John Linnell, and of course, William Hayley, to whom Blake owed his three year sojourn at Felpham - all are quoted extensively, revealing the social network in which Blake moved. Ackroyd is at his best when he is examining Blake's movements in life, from engraver's apprentice, to art student, through his life of engraving, and in outlining what he was doing to support himself while he produced his illuminated masterpieces.
Ackroyd falters, though, when he tries to play the intentional fallacy game - attempting to explain Blake's nearly-inexplicable works of poetic and prophetic genius by way of the events of his life. Certainly, Blake is one artist who invites such interpretations, with the fact that he attributed his method of illuminated printing to a conversation with his dead brother, Robert, and the fact that Blake incorporates figures from his own life in his works. However, while Ackroyd acknowledges that biographical interpretations are far too simplistic for Blake's works, he does it anyway. I would have much preferred Ackroyd to stick to the conditions and circumstances in which Blake worked and lived and produced his works, than his half-handed attempts at literary and artistic criticism.
The sheer number of illustrations - three sets of portraits, and samples of Blake's works (commercial and non) - are worthy of praise and show a discernment in selection. However, none are noted or labeled anywhere in the text, which makes for somewhat confusing reading. And there are some works which are mentioned once which are represented in Ackroyd's seleciton of illustrations; while others mentioned several times go completely undepicted.
On the whole though, this is an interesting biography - I found myself reading through a lot of it quite voraciously - but I think this is more a testament to the inherent fascination which William Blake's life provides on its own, than the manner in which Ackroyd presents it. Is the book worth reading? Absolutely. For the Blake novice, it provides an entrancing glimpse which should certainly lead many readers into an enjoyment and appreciation for Blake's work. For the most part, Ackroyd does justice to Blake in presenting him as a working man - like anyone - who struggled and failed to make a name for himself in his own time, but whose genius has outlasted the fame of nearly all of his own artistic contemporaries.