Page:Shelley, a poem, with other writings (Thomson, Debell).djvu/123

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105
THE POEMS OF WILLIAM BLAKE.

The poems in this first volume had been written by Blake in the interval, 1768-1777, between the ages of eleven and twenty years.

Never, perhaps, was a book of verse printed more strange to the literature of its period; and one scarcely knows whether to account the novelty more or less wonderful because relative and not absolute, because the novelty of the long dead past come back to life rather than of a new future just born. The spirit of the great Elizabethan age was incarnate once more, speaking through the lips of a pure and modest youth. My silks and fine array might have been written by Shakespeare, by Beaumont and Fletcher, or by Sir Walter Raleigh. Its sweet irregular artless cadences are not more different from the sharp measured metallic ring of the rhymes of the scholars of Pope, than is its natural sentiment from the affected sentimentalities then in the mode. Of all the other eighteenth century writers, I think Thomas Chatterton alone (as in the Dirge in Aella) has anything kindred to it; and Chatterton was archaic consciously and with intent. The Mad Song immediately reminds us of the character assumed by Edgar in Lear (a common character in Shakespeare's time, else Edgar would not have assumed it), and of the old Tom o' Bedlam songs. In the fine specimen of these, preserved by the elder Disraeli in his Curiosities of Literature, three main elements can easily be distinguished; the grotesque but horrible cry of misery wrung from the heart of the poor half-witted, cruelly-treated vagabond; the intentional fooling of the beggar and mountebank, baiting for the charity that is caught with a laugh in its mouth, maddening for his bread; the genuine lunacy of a wild and over-excited imagination,