Life of William Blake (1880), Volume 2/Prose writings

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Of the prose writings which now follow, the only ones already in print are the Descriptive Catalogue and the Sibylline Leaves. To the former of these, the Public Address, which here succeeds it, forms a fitting and most interesting pendant. It has been compiled from a very confused mass of MS. notes; but its purpose is unmistakeable as having been intended as an accompaniment to the engraving of Chaucer's Pilgrims. Both the Catalogue and Address abound in critical passages on painting and poetry, which must be ranked without reserve among the very best things ever said on either subject. Such inestimable qualities afford quite sufficient ground whereon to claim indulgence for eccentricities which are here and there laughably excessive, but which never fail to have a personal, even where they have no critical, value. As evidence of the writer's many moods, these pieces of prose are much best left unmutilated. Let us, therefore, risk misconstruction in some quarters; there are others where even the whimsical onslaughts on names no less great than those which the writer most highly honoured, and assertions as to this or that component quality of art being everything or nothing as it served the fiery plea in hand, will be discerned as the impatient extremes of a man who had his own work to do, which was of one kind, as he thought, against another, and who mainly did it too, in spite of that injustice without which no extremes might ever have been chargeable against him. And let us remember that, after all, having greatness in him, his practice of art included all great aims, whether they were such as his antagonistic moods railed against or no.

The Vision is almost as much a manifesto of opinion as either the Catalogue or Address. But its work is in a wider field, and one which, where it stretches beyond our own clear view, may not necessarily therefore have been a lost road to Blake himself. Certainly its grandeur and the sudden great things greatly said in it, as in all Blake's prose, constitute it an addition to our opportunities of communing with him, and one which we may prize highly.

The constant decisive words in which Blake alludes, throughout these writings, to the plagiarisms of his contemporaries, are painful to read, and will be wished away; but, still, it will be worth thinking whether their being said, or the need of their being said, is the greater cause for complaint. Justice, looking through surface accomplishments, greater nicety and even greater occasional judiciousness of execution, in the men whom Blake compares with himself, still perceives these words of his to be true. In each style of the art of a period, and more especially in the poetic style, there is often some one central initiatory man, to whom personally, if not to the care of the world, it is important that his creative power should be held to be his own, and that his ideas and slowly perfected materials should not be caught up before he has them ready for his own use. Yet, consciously or unconsciously, such an one's treasures and possessions are, time after time, while he still lives and needs them, sent forth to the world by others in forms from which he cannot perhaps again clearly claim what is his own, but which render the material useless to him henceforward. Hardly wonderful, after all, if for once an impetuous man of this kind is found raising the hue and cry, careless whether people heed him or no. It is no small provocation, be sure, when the gazers hoot you as outstripped in your race, and you know all the time that the man ahead, whom they shout for, is only a flying thief.