Genius, and other essays/William Blake Poet and Painter

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Genius, and other essays by Edmund Clarence Stedman
William Blake, Poet and Painter

VI

WILLIAM BLAKE, POET AND PAINTER[1]

IF Blake was not a great master, he had in him certain elements that go to the making of one. Often these were beyond his own control. One does not need to be a painter or a poet to see, in his extraordinary work, that he frequently was the servant rather than the master; that he was swept away, like his own Elijah, by the horses and chariot of fire, and that when, like Paul, he reached the third heaven—whether he was in the body or out of it, he could not tell. This was not so at all times. The conception and execution of his "Job" are massive, powerful, sublime, maintained throughout the series. "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" is a wonderful, a fearlessly imaginative, production. But much of his labor with pen or pencil does not show that union of genius with method which declares the master. He does not always sit above the thunder; he is enrapt, whirled, trembling in the electric vortex of a cloud.

What is this, you say, but to be the more inspired? True, no man ever lived who had, at intervals, a more absolute revelation. He was obedient to the heavenly vision; but great masters, obeying it, find it in harmony with their own will and occasion. They have, moreover, the power to discern between false and foolish prophecies—between the monitions from a deity, and those from the limbo of dreams, delusions, and bewildered souls.

Did Blake see the apparitions he claimed to see? Did the heads of Edward and Wallace and the Man that built the Pyramids, rise at his bidding, like the phantoms summoned for Macbeth? I have no doubt of it. Neither, I think, will painters doubt it; for I suspect that they also have such visions,—they who are born with the sense that makes visible to the inward eye the aspect of forms and faces which they have imagined or composed, and with the faculty that retains them until the art of reproduction has done its service. We, who are not painters, at times see visions with our clouded eyes,—one face swiftly blotting out another, as if in mockery at our powerlessness to capture and depict them.

Men like Swedenborg and Blake, sensitive in every fibre and exalted by mysticism, accept as direct revelation the visions which other leaders understand to be the conceptions of their own faculty and utilize in the practice of their art.

One of Blake's masterly elements was individuality. His drawings are so original as to startle us; they seem like pictures from some new-discovered world, and require time for our just appreciation of their unique beauty, weirdness and power.

Another element was faith,—unbounded faith in his religion, his mission, and the way revealed to him. To say that he had faith is to say also that he believed in himself; for his ecstatic piety and reverence and his most glorious visions were the unconscious effluence of his own nature. And that a poet or an artist should have faith is most vital and essential. He cannot be a mere agnostic. The leaders have had various beliefs, but each has held fast to his own. Take the lowest grade of Shakespeare's convictions: he believed in royalty and the divine right of kings. His kings, then, are chiefs indeed, hedged with divinity, and speaking in the kingliest diction of any language or time. If I were asked to name the most grievous thing in modern art, I should say it is the lack of some kind of faith. Doubt, distrust, the question, "What is the use?" make dim the canvas and burden many a lyre. The new faith looks to science and reign of law. Very well: these must breed its inspiration, as in time they will. But the processes of reason are slower than the childlike instincts of an early and poetic age.

Blake had the true gift of expression; he was not merely learned, but inventive, in his methods of drawing, etching, and color. Here, and in his talks concerning art, he showed power and wisdom enough to equip a host of ordinary draughtsmen. He was mad, only in the sense that gave the Clown warrant for saying all Englishmen are mad; only when he left the field in which he was thoroughly grounded, for speculations in which he was self-trained and half-trained. It is useless, however, to wonder what such an one might have been; he was what he was, and as great as he could be. There is no gainsaying his marvellous and instant imagination. He saw not the sunrise, but an innumerable company of the angelic host, crying, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty!" Heaven and Hell are spirits, alike naked and alike clothed with beauty, rushing together in eternal love. Job and his friends are almost pre-Adamite in mould and visage. His daughters are, indeed, they of whom we are told, that there were not found others so fair in all the land. Jehovah himself came within Blake's vision; the dreamer walked, not only with sages and archangels and Titans, but with the very God.

Among his other qualities were a surprisingly delicate fancy, human tenderness and pity, industry and fertility in the extreme. He had ideas of right and government, and was grandly impatient of dulness and of hypocrisy in life or method. Finally, even his faults, and the grotesqueness which repeatedly brings his mark below the highest, add to the fascination that attends the revival and study of this artist. All that I say of his drawings applies in many respects to his rhymed and unrhymed verse. But his special gift was the draughtsman's. It would not be correct to say that he often hesitated with the pen, but never with the pencil, since, whether as an artist or as a maker of songs and "prophetic books," his product was bold and unstinted; but his grotesque errors are found more frequently in his poetry than in his designs, while his most original and exquisite range of verse is far below that attained by him in his works of outline and color.

These are the merest, the most fragmentary impressions of a man whom some have dismissed with a phrase, terming him a sublime madman, and concerning whom others—poets and critics of a subtle and poetic type—have written essay upon essay, or deemed whole volumes too brief for their glowing studies of his genius. If he did not found a school, it may almost be said that a modern school has founded itself upon the new understanding of his modes and purpose. But in copying the external qualities of Blake, it does not follow that his self-elected pupils are animated by his genius, rapture, and undaunted faith.

  1. The Critic, January 15, 1881.