The Letters of William Blake/Life of Blake
THE LIFE OF
WILLIAM BLAKE was born on the 20th of November 1757, at 28 Broad Street, Carnaby Market, London, a house now inhabited by Mr. Russell, apothecary; he was the second of five children. His father, James Blake, was a hosier of respectable trade and easy habits, and seems to have been a man well-to-do, of moderate desires, moderate enjoyments, and of substantial worth: his disposition was gentle, and, by all accounts, his temper amiable, and was, by his son's description, a lenient and affectionate father, always more ready to encourage than to chide. Catherine Blake, his wife, and the mother of the artist, has been represented as being possessed of all those endearing sympathies so peculiar to maternal tenderness. The eldest son, John, was the favourite of his father and mother; and, as frequently in life, the object least worthy is most cherished, so he, a dissolute, disreputable youth, carried away the principal of his parent's attachment, leaving the four others, William, James, Catherine, and Robert, to share the interest between them. William often remonstrated, and was as often told to be quiet, and that he would by and by beg his bread at John's door; but, as is sometimes proved to parents' sorrow, their pet will not be petted into honour nor their darling into any other admiration than their own. John was apprenticed to a gingerbread baker, with an enormous premium, served his apprenticeship with reluctance, became abandoned and miserable, and literally, contrary to his parents' presage, sought bread at the door of William. He lived a few reckless days, enlisted as a soldier, and died. James continued the business at the death of his father and mother, and having a saving, somniferous mind, lived a yard and a half life, pestered his brother, the artist, with timid sentences of bread and cheese advice, got together a little annuity, upon which he supported his only sister, and, vegetating to a moderate age, died about three years before his brother William. Robert, the youngest son, was the affectionate companion of William; they sympathised in their pursuits and sentiments; like plants, planted side by side by a stream, they grew together and entwined the luxuriant tendrils of their expanding minds. They associated and excelled together, and, like all true lovers, delighted in and enhanced each other's beauties.
"For they were nursed upon the self-same hill,
Robert was of amiable and docile temper, and of a tender and affectionate mind, and like many of those who appear born for early death, his short life was but as the narrow porch to his eternal lot: he died of consumption at twenty-four years of age. Miss Catherine, the only daughter, is still living, having survived nearly all her relations.
William, the artist, appears to have possessed from a child that daring, impetuous, and vigorous temper which was in latter life so singularly characteristic both of him and his sublime inventions. Although easily persuaded, he despised restraints and rules, so much that his father dared not send him to school. Like the Arabian horse, he is said to have so hated a blow that his father thought it most prudent to withhold from him the liability of receiving punishment. He picked up his education as well as he could. His talent for drawing manifesting itself as spontaneously as it was premature, he was always sketching; and, after having drawn nearly everything around him with considerable ability, he was sent to draw with Pars, a drawing master in the Strand, at ten years of age. He used also at this time to frequent Langford's, the auctioneer, where he saw pictures and bought prints from Raphael, Michael Angelo, Albert Durer, Julio Romano, and others of the great designers of the Cinquecento, and refused to buy any others, however celebrated. Langford favoured him by knocking down the lots he bought so quickly, that he obtained them at a rate suited to the pocket savings of a lad. Langford called him his little connoisseur. Even at this time he met with that opposition and ridicule from his contemporaries (many of whom have since become men of note) that harassed him afterwards: they laughed at his predilection for these great masters. His love for art increasing, and the time of life having arrived when it was deemed necessary to place him under some tutor, a painter of eminence was proposed, and necessary applications were made; but from the huge premium required, he requested, with his characteristic generosity, that his father would not on any account spend so much money on him, as he thought it would be an injustice to his brothers and sisters. He therefore himself proposed engraving as being less expensive, and sufficiently eligible for his future avocations. Of Basire, therefore, for a premium of fifty guineas, he learnt the art of modern engraving. The trammels of this art, which he never till his very last days overcame, he spent money and time to learn, and had it not been for the circumstance of his having frequent quarrels with his fellow apprentices, concerning matters of intellectual argument, he would perhaps never have handled the pencil, and would consequently have been doomed for ever to furrow upon a copper plate monotonous and regular lines, placed at even distances, without genius and without form. These quarrels existing between the three boys, Basire thought he could not do better than to send Blake out drawing; as he was about to engrave a work for the Antiquarian Society, he sent him, therefore, to Westminster Abbey. "There he found a treasure which he knew how to value. He saw the simple and plain road to the style of art at which he aimed, unentangled in the intricate mazes of modern practice. The monuments of kings and queens in Westminster Abbey, which surround the Chapel of Edward the Confessor, particularly that of Henry the Third, the beautiful monument and figure of Queen Eleanor, Queen Philippa, and Edward the Third, King Richard the Second and his Queen, were among his first studies; the heads he considered as portraits, and all the ornaments appeared as miracles of art." (See Malkin's life of his child, in which there is a short sketch of Blake, written during his lifetime.) If all his drawings were enumerated from Westminster Abbey, as well as many other churches in and about London, the multitude would no doubt astonish the calculator, for his interest was highly excited and his industry equally inexhaustible. These things he drew beautifully; ever attentive to the delicacies and timorous lineaments of the Gothic handling, he felt and portrayed their beauties so well that his master considered him an acquisition of no mean capacity. An incident showing the suddenness of his temper is related. The Westminster boys were then permitted to roam and loiter about the Abbey at their leisure, and, among their jokes, they chose to interrupt the careful and young student, whose riveted attention and absorbed thought became an object of their mischievous envy. One of them is said, after having already tormented him, to have got upon some pinnacle on a level with his scaffold in order better to annoy him. In the impetuosity of his anger, worn out with interruption, he knocked him off and precipitated him to the ground, upon which he fell with terrific violence. The young draughtsman made a complaint to the Dean, who kindly ordered that the door should be closed upon them, and they have never since been allowed to extend their tether to the interior of the Abbey. Blake pursued his task, and his absorption gathered to itself impressions that were never forgotten. His imagination ever after wandered as in a cloister, or clothing itself in the dark stole of mural sanctity, it dwelt amidst the Druid terrors. His mind being simplified by Gothic forms, and his fancy imbued with the livid twilight of past days, it chose for its quaint company such sublime but antiquated associates as the fearful Merlin, Arthur and the knights of his Round Table, the just and wise Alfred, King John, and every other hero of English history and romance. These indigenous abstractions for many of the following years occupied his hand, and ever after tinctured his thoughts and perceptions. The backgrounds of his pictures nearly always exhibited Druidical stones and other symbols of English antiquity. Albion was the hero of his pictures, prints, and poems. He appeared to be the human abstract of his mystical thoughts. He recounted his deeds, he exhausted the incidents of his history, and when he had accomplished this "he then imagined new." He made him a spiritual essence; representing the country of Britain under this one personification, he has made him the hero of nearly all his works. He has connected Albion with Jerusalem, and Jerusalem with other mysterious images of his own fancy, in such a manner as will be difficult to unravel, but not entirely impossible, it is imagined, after reading the remainder of his writings, which will absorb time and pains, much indeed of both, for his pen was quite as active in his indefatigable hand as was his graver or his pencil; he used all with equal temerity and complete originality.
Between the age of twelve and twenty he wrote several poems, afterward published by the advice and with the assistance of Flaxman, Mrs. Matthews, and others of his friends. They are succinct, original, fanciful, and fiery; but, as a general criticism, it may be said that they are more rude than refined, more clumsy than delicate. Two of them are equal to Ben Jonson.
"How sweet I roamed from field to field,
"Love and harmony combine,
Then she sits and feeds her young:
The others, although well for a lad, are but moderate. His blank verse is prose cut in slices, and his prose inelegant, but replete with imagery. The following is a specimen:
"Who is this with unerring step doth tempt the wilds, where only nature's foot hath trod. Tis Contemplation, daughter of Grey Morning. Majestical she steppeth, and with her pure quill on every flower writeth Wisdom's name. Now lowly bending, whispers in mine ear: O man, how great, how little art thou. O man, slave for each moment, Lord of eternity, Seest thou where mirth sits on the painted cheek; doth it not seem ashamed and grow immoderate to brave it out? O what a humble garb true joy puts on. Those who want happiness must stoop to find it: it is a flower that grows in every vale. Vain, foolish man that roams on lofty rocks! where, because his garments are swollen with wind, he fancies he is grown into a giant."
The aphorism on happiness is worthy of his after days; he seems at this time to have sighed after something invisible, for he complains in these words: "I am wrapped in mortality, my flesh is a prison, and my bones the bars of death."
About this time Blake took to painting, and his success in it being a matter of opinion, it will require some care to give a fair account. Oil painting was recommended to him as the only medium through which breadth, force, and sufficient rapidity could be obtained. He made several attempts, and found himself quite unequal to the management of it. His great objections were that the picture, after it was painted, sunk so much that it ceased to retain the brilliancy and luxury that he intended, and also that no definite line, no positive end to the form could, even with the greatest of his ingenuity, be obtained: all his lines dwindled and his clearness melted. From these circumstances it harassed him; he grew impatient and rebellious, and flung it aside, tired with ill success and tormented with doubts. He then attacked it with all the indignation he could collect, and finally relinquished it to men, if not of less minds, of less ambition. He had Michael Angelo on his side, without doubt, and a great many of the old genuine painters. Desiring that his colours should be as pure and as permanent as precious stones, he could not with oil obtain his end. The writer of this being a sculptor, he has not had the opportunity of collecting materials for Mr. Blake's defence, but he has no doubt that his hatred to oil as a vehicle was produced by some great defect in it, as he has also no doubt, in spite of what cavillers have irritated Blake to say, that he possessed too much sound sense and judgment to be absolutely wrong, although he might in his violence have said more than he could prove. Blake seemed intended for the fifteenth century, when real energy of mind gained the appropriate rapidity of hand, and when the vehicle, if not such as he invented, was in much better command for sublime compositions; there might have been some variation in the vehicle that was enough to make all the difference, and that vehicle might have been such an one as he would not have complained of. The author has seen pictures of Blake's in the possession of Wm. Butts, Esq., Fitzroy Square, that have appeared exactly like the old cabinet pictures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, where he has touched the lights with white composed of whiting and glue, of which material he laid the ground of his panel. Two of these pictures are of the most sublime composition and artistic workmanship; they are not drawings on canvas, as some of his others, but they are superlative specimens of genuine painter-like handling and force, and are little inferior in depth, tone, and colour to any modern oil picture in the country.
During these paroxysms of indignation he is said to have come in contact with Sir Joshua Reynolds, but it is very odd that the man whose pictures were already cracked and split, and likely to be much more so, from the insufficiency or the misuse of his vehicle, turned his deaf side to his remarks; nay, he is said to have been quite angry with him for scrutinising so tender a subject. Sir Joshua Reynolds was indeed a clever painter, but he was too fond of the comforts of life to give even an hour a day for any other experiments but those which would enable him to paint with greater celerity. Sir Joshua made experiments, they say. No doubt he did. Well, then, the least that can be said is, that he began at the wrong end, like any other blunderer, and concluded in making his colours so bad that many of his pictures now possess no other quality than those which they still would have had if they had been always divested of colour: bold handling, fine judgment, able delineation of form, and great knowledge of nature. Some of his pictures were coloured once, but are not coloured now, for they have cracked and split and flown worse than those of any other painter extant. Was he, then, the man to sneer at what might have been an improvement if it had been tried by more than one. It is irritating to hear a sick man curse the salve of his sore place. Very singular it is to know that many of the best painters do not paint with the oil vehicle, or, if they do, in a very small quantity. Fuseli painted with very little oil, but then oil painters consider Fuseli no colourist. What is colouring? It is a most vague term, and is generally used in a still more vague manner. Blake wrote thus upon it:
"The eye that can prefer the colouring of Titian and Corregio and Rubens ought to be modest, and doubt its own powers. Connoisseurs talk as if Raphael and Michael Angelo have never seen the colouring of Titian and Corregio; they ought to know that Corregio was born two years before Michael Angelo, and Titian but four years after: both Raphael and Michael Angelo knew the Venetian, and contemned and rejected all he did with the utmost disdain, as that which is fabricated for the purpose of destroying art. The eyes of stupid cunning will never be pleased with the work any more than the look of self-devoting genius. The quarrel of the Florentine with the Venetian is not because he does not understand drawing, but because he does not understand colouring. How should he, when he does not know how to draw a hand or foot, know how to colour it? Colouring does not depend on where the colours are put, but on where the lights and darks are put, and all depends on form or outline, on where that is put; where that is wrong the colouring never can be right."
Fuseli was expected to paint his Witches with the carnations of Flora and Venus, and the author of the cavern depths of the Sistine Chapel is deemed unworthy to hold the palette or to use the brush. Because Fuseli coloured a witch like a witch, and Michael Angelo coloured a prophet like a prophet, these men are called no colourists. That the greatest men should colour worst is an enigma perfectly inexplicable; but after apologising for the digression, if the reader should want any more light upon this obscure subject, he must ask the picture dealers or their fry: it will of them be learnt that nobody can colour well but those that can draw ill, in an equivalent ratio. Blake painted on panel or canvas covered with three or four layers of whitening and carpenter's glue, as he said the nature of gum was to crack; for as he used several layers of colour to produce his depths, the coats necessarily in the deepest parts became so thick that they were likely to peel off. Washing his pictures over with glue, in the manner of a varnish, he fixed the colours, and at last varnished with a white hard varnish of his own making. It must, however, be confessed that his pictures mostly are not very deep, but they have an unrivalled tender brilliancy. He took infinite pains with them, coloured them very highly, and certainly, without prejudice, either for or against, has produced as fine works as any ancient painter. He can be excelled by none where he is successful. Like his thoughts, his paintings seem to be inspired by fairies, and his colours look as if they were the bloom dropped from the brilliant wings of the spirits of the prism. This may appear too much to be said of the mad Blake, as he was called by those too grovelling and too ignorant to discern his merits. Mr. Butts' collection is enough in all conscience to prove this, and more, and whoever does not perceive the beauties of this splendid collection ought indeed to find fault with modesty and censure with a blush.
In his twenty-fourth year he fell in love with a young woman, who by his own account and according to his own knowledge was no trifler. He wanted to marry her, but she refused, and was as obstinate as she was unkind. He became ill, and went to Kew, near Richmond, for a change of air and renovation of health and spirits, and as far as is possible to know lodged at the house of a market gardener whose name was Boutcher. The Boutchers appear to have been a respectable and industrious family. He was relating to the daughter, a girl named Catherine, the lamentable story of Polly Wood, his implacable lass, upon which Catherine expressed her deep sympathy, it is supposed, in such a tender and affectionate manner, that it quite won him. He immediately said, with the suddenness peculiar to him, "Do you pity me?" "Yes, indeed I do," answered she. "Then I love you," said he again. Such was their courtship. He was impressed by her tenderness of mind, and her answer indicated her previous feeling for him: for she has often said that upon her mother's asking her who among her acquaintances she could fancy for a husband, she replied that she had not yet seen the man, and she has further been heard to say that when she first came into the room in which Blake sat, she instantly recognised (like Britomart in Merlin's wondrous glass) her future partner, and was so near fainting that she left his presence until she had recovered. After this interview, Blake left the house, having recruited his health and spirits, and having determined to take Catherine Boutcher to wife. He returned to his lodgings and worked incessantly that he might be able to accomplish this end, at the same time resolving that he would not see her until he succeeded. This interval, which she felt dolefully long, was one whole year, at the expiration of which, with the approbation and consent of his parents, he married this interesting, beautiful, and affectionate girl. Nimble with joy and warm with the glow of youth, this bride was presented to her noble bridegroom. The morning of their married life was bright as the noon of their devoted love, the noon as clear as the serene evening of their mutual equanimity. Although not handsome, he must have had a noble countenance, full of expression and animation; his hair was of a yellow brown, and curled with the utmost crispness and luxuriance; his locks, instead of falling down, stood up like a curling flame, and looked at a distance like radiations, which with his fiery eye and expansive forehead, his dignified and cheerful physiognomy, must have made his appearance truly prepossessing. After his marriage he took lodgings in Green Street, Leicester Square.
It is now necessary to mention somewhat concerning the fanciful representations that Blake asserted were presented to his mind's eye. Difficult as this subject is, it cannot be omitted without a sacrifice to the memory of this great man. He always asserted that he had the power of bringing his imaginations before his mind's eye, so completely organised, and so perfectly formed and evident, that he persisted that while he copied the vision (as he called it) upon his plate or canvas, he could not err, and that error and defect could only arise from the departure or inaccurate delineation of this unsubstantial scene. He said that he was the companion of spirits, who taught, rebuked, argued, and advised with all the familiarity of personal course. What appears more odd still, was the power he contended he had of calling up any personage of past days, to delineate their forms and features, and to converse upon the topic most incidental to the days of their own existence. How far this is probable must be a question left either to the credulity or the faith of each person. It is fair, however, to say that what Blake produced from these characters, in delineating them, was often so curiously original, and yet so finely expressed, that it was difficult, if prejudices were cast away, to disbelieve totally this power. It is well known to all inquiring men that Blake was not the only individual who enjoyed this peculiar gift. A great and learned German, Emanuel Swedenborg, whose writings, as well as being so peculiar, are so interesting, saw visions of eternity, a full account of which he gives in his voluminous writings. After having applied himself, in early life, to the minutest studies of philosophy, mathematics, mechanics, and every skilful and theoretical occupation, after having been employed by his country in the most conspicuous and responsible offices, he suddenly (being as suddenly called by a vision) devoted his life to the most abstruse theological discussions and dilations, which, after having developed in vision, he wrote. Such things, indeed, are they, that unquestionably could not be invented by one ever so ingenious (vide Life of Swedenborg). Swedenborg was not a madman, nor does he appear to have been considered so by his contemporaries. His tenets after his death propagated, and, like all religious creeds, soon formed a sect, which sect has at some periods been very numerous. Flaxman belonged to them, as have many other as judicious men. Although it would not be irrelevant, it would be tedious to narrate Swedenborg's opinions, or rather Swedenborg's visions, for he asserted that he only gave a detail and history of what he saw and heard. All that is necessary to prove now is, that other men, other sensible men, such as scarcely could be designated as mad or stupid, did see into an immaterial life denied to most. All that is proposed here, further, is that it is a possible thing, that it does not require either a madman to see or an idiot to believe that such things are. Blake asserted, from a boy, that he did see them; even when a child, his mother beat him for running in and saying that he saw the prophet Ezekiel under a tree in the fields. In this incredulous age it is requisite, before this possibility is admitted, even as a doubt or question, that it should be said that he who inefficiently attempts to defend this power, never has been accustomed to see them, although he has known others besides Blake, on whose veracity and sanity he could equally well rely, who have been thus favoured. The Cock Lane ghost story, the old women's tales, and the young bravo who defies the ghost in the tap-room, that he shudders at in his walk home, are foolishly mixed up with Blake's visions. They are totally different; they are mental abstractions, that are not necessarily accompanied with fear, such as ghosts and apparitions, which either appear to be, or are, seen by the mortal eyes, which circumstance alone horrifies. These visions of Blake seem to have been more like peopled imaginations and personified thoughts; they only horrified where they represented any scene in which horrors were depicted, as a picture or a poem. Richard Brothers has been classed as one possessing this power, but he was really a decided madman; he asserted that he was nephew to God the Father, and in a mad-house he died, as well indeed he might. Brothers is only classed with Swedenborg in order to ridicule Swedenborg and bring him into contempt. Blake and Brothers, therefore, must not be placed together.
Again, in reference to the authenticity of Blake's visions, let anyone contemplate the designs in this book. Are they not only new in their method and manner, but actually new in their class and origin? Do they look like the localities of common circumstances, or of lower worlds? The combinations are chimerical, the forms unusual, the inventions abstract; the poem not only abstruse, but absolutely, according to common rules of criticism, as near ridiculous as it is completely heterogeneous. With all that is incomprehensible in the poem, with all that might by some be termed ridiculous in the plan, the designs are possessed of some of the most sublime ideas, some of the most lofty thoughts, some of the most noble conceptions possible to the mind of man. You may doubt, however, the means, and you may criticise the peculiarity of the notions, but you cannot but admire, nay, "wonder at with great admiration," these expressive, these sublime, these awful diagrams of an eternal phantasy. Michael Angelo, Julio Romano, or any other great man, never surpassed Plates 25, 35, 37, 46, 51, 76, 94, and many of the stupendous and awful scenes with which this laborious work is so thickly ornamented.
"Visions of glory, spare my aching sight;
Even supposing the poetry to be the mere vehicle or a mere alloy for the sake of producing or combining these wonderful thoughts, it should at all events be looked upon with some respect.
But to return to the biography. Blake continued to apply himself, as heretofore, to the art he so dearly loved and so implicitly followed. He removed to a house in Poland Street, Oxford Street, where he lived some years. He then changed his residence to Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, at which place he wrote and designed some of his largest and most important works. It was here that Flaxman used to come and see him, and sit drinking tea in the garden under the shadow of the grape vine which Mrs. Blake had very carefully trained. Mr. and Mrs. Flaxman were highly delighted with Blake's Arcadian arbour, as well indeed they might, for they all sat with ripe fruit hanging in rich clusters around their heads. These two great men had known each other from boyhood. Flaxman was a cheerful, lively young man, was very good company, and sang beautifully, having an excellent and musical voice, as well as almost all of the qualities requisite for good fellowship and innocent convivial mirth. This house and garden was adjoining the old Astley's Theatre, and an anecdote showing his courage, as well as his utter detestation of human slavery, is too interesting and characteristic to remain untold. Blake was standing at one of his windows, which looked into Astley's premises (the man who established the theatre still called by his name), and saw a boy hobbling along with a log to his foot, such an one as is put on a horse or ass to prevent their straying. Blake called his wife and asked her for what reason that log could be placed upon the boy's foot. She answered that it must be for a punishment for some inadvertency. Blake's blood boiled, and his indignation surpassed his forbearance. He sallied forth, and demanded in no very quiescent terms that the boy should be loosed, and that no Englishman should be subjected to those miseries, which he thought were inexcusable even towards a slave. After having succeeded in obtaining the boy's release in some way or other, he returned home. Astley by this time, having heard of Blake's interference, came to his house and demanded, in an equally peremptory manner, by what authority he dare come athwart his method of jurisdiction. To which Blake replied with such warmth, that blows were very nearly the consequence. The debate lasted long, but, like all wise men whose anger is unavoidably raised, they ended in mutual forgiveness and mutual respect. Astley saw that his punishment was too degrading, and admired Blake for his humane sensibility, and Blake desisted from wrath when Astley was pacified. As this is an example truly worthy of imitation to all those whose anger is either excited by indignation or called forth by defence, it may not be out of place to say, if all quarrels were thus settled, the time would shortly come when the lion would lie down with the lamb, and the little child would lead them.
Blake resided in Hercules Buildings in a pretty, clean house of eight or ten rooms, and at first kept a servant, but finding (as Mrs. Blake declared, and as everyone else knows) the more service the more inconvenience, she, like all sensible women who are possessed of industry and health, and only moderate means, relinquished this incessant tax upon domestic comfort, did all the work herself, kept the house clean and herself tidy, besides printing all Blake's numerous engravings, which was a task alone sufficient for any industrious woman. But, however, as there is no state, or scheme, or plan without its accompanying evil, Blake had reason to regret his having left no one in possession of his house during his and Mrs. Blake's absence, for one day, paying some friendly visit, some thieves entered it and carried away plate to the value of £60 and clothes to the amount of £40 more. Some persons may say, Had poor Blake ever in his whole life £60 worth of plate to lose? Had poor half-starved Blake ever a suit of clothes beyond the tatters on his back? Yes!!! he enjoyed in the early part of his life not only comforts but necessaries, and in the latter part of his life, be it said, in vindication of a Divine Providence, that never forsakes the devout and excellent, he always possessed such external and substantial means of solace and happiness that, together with his own contented disposition and Mrs. Blake's excellent management, left him even in person, although far from gross, round and comfortable, and at one time nearly what may be called portly. By way of contradiction to the report of Blake's poverty, be it known that he could even find money enough to lend; for when a certain free-thinking speculator, the author of many elaborate philosophical treatises, said that his children had not a dinner, Blake lent him £40, nearly all he had at that time by him, and had the mortification upon calling upon him on the following Sunday, to find that his wife, who was a dressy and what is called a pretty woman, had squandered some large portion of the money upon her worthless sides. She had the audacity to ask Mrs. Blake's opinion of a very gorgeous dress, purchased the day following Blake's compassionate gift: for there is little doubt so great a difficulty as the payment of a debt never was attempted by such careless ones as those. Such people are a prey upon the assiduous, and a heavy drag to the never-failing industry of the active man, whose sagacity is wealth, whose energy is gain, and whose labours are ever blessed with the abundance they deserve. Industry and frugality accompany each other through lands fat with plenty, and meadows fed with the streams of exuberance; they enjoy and praise, are satisfied and rejoice. Idleness and extravagance prowl through the deserts of want, and where it should happen they find a repast, in unthankfulness and ignorance they gorge and gormandise; they then loiter during the interval of their sloth until their wants have again returned, and their ungrateful entrails are demanding more. Emptiness is indeed their curse, and repletion the utmost paradise of their vacant thoughts.
Another anecdote may be given to shew that Blake could not have suffered much from absolute want. About this time he taught drawing, and was engaged for that purpose by some families of high rank; which, by the bye, he could not have found very profitable, for after his lesson he got into conversation with his pupils, and was found so entertaining and pleasant, possessing such novel thoughts and such eccentric notions, together with such jocose hilarity and amiable demeanour, that he frequently found himself asked to stay to dinner, and spend the evening in the same interesting and lively manner in which he had consumed the morning. Thus he stopped whole days from his work at home; but nevertheless he continued teaching, until a remarkable effort and kind flirt of fortune brought this mode of livelihood to an inevitable close. He was recommended, and nearly obtained an appointment, to teach drawing to the Royal Family. Blake stood aghast: not, indeed, from any republican humours, not from any disaffection to his superiors, but because he would have been drawn into a class of society superior to his previous pursuits and habits; he would have been expected to have lived in comparative respectability, not to say splendour—a mode of life, as he thought, derogatory to the simplicity of his designs and deportment. He had again, as about oil painting, Michael Angelo on his side, who, though rich, preferred living as a poor man, the habits of whom, it must be confessed, are the most conducive and congenial to study and application.
His friends ridiculed and blamed him by turns, but Blake found an excuse by resigning all his other pupils, and continued to suffice himself upon his frugality, to find plenty in what others have called want, and wealth in the efforts of his own mind. Another anecdote for the same purpose. His friend Hayley, as will afterwards be more fully shown, begged him to take to painting miniatures, which he could do, and had before done so beautifully. He painted and he pleased; his connection increased without much effort, and he obtained sufficient to occupy the whole of his time. But, sighing after his fancies and visionary pursuits, he rebelled and fled fifty miles away for refuge from the lace caps and powdered wigs of his priggish sitters, and resumed his quaint dreams and immeasurable phantasies, never more to forsake them for pelf and portraiture.
A beautiful story may be related in which Blake's means as well as his sympathetic nature may be further established. A young man passed his house daily whose avocations seemed to lead him backward and forward to some place of study, carrying a portfolio under his arm. He looked interesting and eager, but sickly. After some time Blake sent Mrs. Blake to call the young man in; he came and told them that he was studying the arts. Blake from this took a high interest in him, and gave him every instruction possible; but, alas! there was a worm lying at the root, whose bite, however, Blake was raised up to assuage. The young man shortly after fell sick, and was laid upon his bed; his illness was long and his sufferings were great, during which time Mrs. Blake or Blake never omitted visiting him daily and administering medicine, money, or wine, and every other requisite until death relieved their adopted of all earthly care and pain. Every attention, every parental tenderness was exhibited by the charitable pair. Blake could not, therefore, have been poor, or at all events he could not possibly be in starvation, to have been able to have rendered such timely and such benevolent assistance to others. Besides, it is a fact known to the writer, that Mrs. Blake's frugality always kept a guinea or sovereign for any emergency, of which Blake never knew, even to the day of his death. This she did for years, and when a man has always got a sovereign in his pocket, and owes nothing, he is in this land of debt decidedly otherwise than poor.
Through the medium of Flaxman he was introduced to Hayley, who, being much interested, requested him to come down to Felpham, in Sussex, to a cottage near his residence, to engrave plates from his poems, and also to assist him in gathering his materials for the life of Cowper, afterwards published. During his stay of three years he was thus occupied, and also in making life-sized circular portraits of all the great poets for the library of Felpham House; but in consequence of Hayley's acquaintances being so desirous to possess miniatures by him (as before mentioned) he left for No. 3 Fountain Court (a house belonging to his wife's brother), the lodging in which he lived during the whole of his latter days, and in which he died. Blake had in this house two good-sized rooms and kitchens. He fixed upon these lodgings as being more congenial to his habits, as he was very much accustomed to get out of his bed in the night to write for hours, and return to bed for the rest of the night after having committed to paper pages and pages of his mysterious phantasies. He wrote much and often, and he sometimes thought that if he wrote less he must necessarily do more graving and painting, and he has debarred himself of his pen for a month or more; but upon comparison has found by no means so much work accomplished, and the little that was done by no means so vigorous.
He was a subject of much mental temptation and mental suffering, and required sometimes much soothing. He has frequently had recourse to the following stratagem to calm the turbulence of his thoughts. His wife being to him a very patient woman, he fancied that while she looked on at him as he worked, her sitting quite still by his side, doing nothing, soothed his impetuous mind; and he has many a time, when a strong desire presented itself to overcome any difficulty in his plates or drawings, in the middle of the night risen, and requested her to get up with him and sit by his side, in which she as cheerfully acquiesced.
When roused or annoyed he was possessed of a violent temper; but in his passions there was some method, for while he was engraving a large portrait of Lavater, not being able to obtain what he wanted, he threw the plate completely across the room. Upon his relating this he was asked whether he did not injure it, to which he replied with his usual fun: "Oh! I took good care of that!" He was a subject often of much internal perturbation and over-anxiety, for he has spoilt as much work (which every artist knows is not only easy, but common) by over-labour as would take some a whole life of ordinary industry to accomplish. Mrs. Blake has been heard to say that she never saw him, except when in conversation or reading, with his hands idle; he scarcely ever mused upon what he had done. Some men muse and call it thinking, but Blake was a hard worker; his thought was only for action, as a man plans a house, or a general consults his map and arranges his forces for a battle. His mental acquirements were incredible; he had read almost everything in whatsoever language, which language he always taught himself. His conversation, therefore, was highly interesting, and never could one converse on any subject with him, but they would gain something quite as new as noble from his eccentric and elastic mind. It is a remarkable fact that among the volumes bequeathed by Mrs. Blake to the author of this sketch, the most thumbed from use are his Bible and those books in other languages. He was very fond of Ovid, especially the Fasti. He read Dante when he was past sixty, although before he never knew a word of Italian, and he drew from it a hundred such designs as have never been done by any Englishman at any period or by any foreigner since the fifteenth century, and then his only competitor was Michael Angelo.
It now becomes, from the brevity of the present manuscript, the painful duty of the biographer to traverse to the period to which Blake's own lines are immediately applicable. His pilgrimage was nearly at an end, and of such he thus spoke:
"But when once I did descry
It has been supposed his excessive labour without the exercise he used formerly to take (having relinquished the habit of taking very long walks) brought on the complaint which afterwards consumed him. In his youth he and his wife would start in the morning early, and walk out twenty miles and dine at some pretty and sequestered inn, and would return the same day home, having travelled forty miles. Mrs. Blake would do this without excessive fatigue. Blake has been known to walk fifty miles in the day, but being told by some physicians that such long walks were injurious, he discontinued them, and went so far to the other extreme that it has been said he remained in the house so long that [it] was considered far from extraordinary his days were shortened. About a year before he died, he was seized with a species of ague (as it was then termed), of which he was alternately better and worse. He was at times very ill, but rallied and all had hopes of him; indeed, such was his energy that even then, though sometimes confined to his bed, he sat up drawing his most stupendous works. In August he gradually grew worse and required much more of his wife's attention; indeed, he was decaying fast. His patience, during his agonies of pain, is described to have been exemplary.Life, however, like a dying flame, flashed once more, gave one more burst of animation, during which he was cheerful, and free from the tortures of his approaching end; he thought he was better, and, as he was sure to do, asked to look at the work over which he was occupied when seized with his last attack. It was a coloured print of the Ancient of Days striking the first circle of the Earth, done
THE ANCIENT OF DAYS STRIKING THE FIRST CIRCLE
OF THE EARTH
expressly by commission for the writer of this. After he had worked upon it he exclaimed: "There, I have done all I can! It is the best I have ever finished. I hope Mr. Tatham will like it." He threw it suddenly down and said: "Kate, you have been a good wife; I will draw your portrait." She sat near his bed, and he made a drawing which, though not a likeness, is finely touched and expressed. He then threw that down, after having drawn for an hour, and began to sing Hallelujahs and songs of joy and triumph which Mrs. Blake described as being truly sublime in music and in verse; he sang loudly and with true ecstatic energy, and seemed so happy that he had finished his course, that he had run his race, and that he was shortly to arrive at the goal, to receive the prize of his high and eternal calling. After having answered a few questions concerning his wife's means of living after his decease, and after having spoken of the writer of this as a likely person to become the manager of her affairs, his
blue above, deep blue and black below; gold is also used. The subject is taken from Paradise Lost, book vii. ll. 225-31:
"He took the golden Compasses, prepar'd
No taught hymns, no psalms got by rote from any hypocritical sty of cant, no sickly sanctified buffoonery, but the pure and clear stream of divine fervour, enlivened by firm faith and unrelenting hope. "By the rivers he had sat down and wept: he had hung his harp upon the willow: for how should he sing the Lord's song in a strange land"; but he is now on the borders of his promise, he is tuning his strings, he is waking up his lyre, he is lifting up the throat as the lark in the clouds of morn. He is rising, he is on the wing: sing, ye sons of morning: for the vapours of night are flown, and the dews of darkness are passed away.
"There entertain him, all the saints above,
William Blake in stature was short, but well made, and very well proportioned; so much so that West, the great history painter, admired much the form of his limbs; he had a large head and wide shoulders. Elasticity and promptitude of action were the characteristics of his contour. His motions were rapid and energetic, betokening a mind filled with elevated enthusiasm; his forehead was very high and prominent over the frontals; his eye most unusually large and glassy, with which he appeared to look into some other world. The best and only likeness of this glowing feature that can be produced is Shakespeare's description of the eye of the inspired poet in his Midsummer Night's Dream:
"The poet's eye with a fine frenzy rolling—
In youth he surprised everyone with his vigour and activity. In age he impressed all with his unfading ardour and unabated energy. His beautiful grey locks hung upon his shoulders; and dressing as he always did in latter years in black, he looked, even in person, although without any effort towards eccentricity, to be of no ordinary character. In youth, he was nimble; in old age, venerable. His disposition was cheerful and lively, and was never depressed by any cares but those springing out of his art. He was the attached friend of all who knew him, and a favourite with everyone but those who oppressed him, and against such his noble and impetuous spirit boiled, and fell upon the aggressor like a water-spout from the troubled deep. Yet, like Moses, he was one of the meekest of men. His patience was almost incredible: he could be the lamb; he could plod as a camel; he could roar as a lion. He was everything but subtle; the serpent had no share in his nature; secrecy was unknown to him. He would relate those things of himself that others make it their utmost endeavour to conceal. He was possessed of a peculiar obstinacy, that always bristled up when he was either unnecessarily opposed or invited out to show like a lion or a bear. Many anecdotes could be related in which there is sufficient evidence to prove that many of his eccentric speeches were thrown forth more as a piece of sarcasm upon the inquirer than from his real opinion. If he thought a question were put merely for a desire to learn, no man could give advice more reasonably and more kindly; but if that same question were put for idle curiosity, he retaliated by such an eccentric answer as left the inquirer more afield than ever. He then made an enigma of a plain question: hence arose many vague reports of his oddities. He was particularly so upon religion. His writings abounded with these sallies of independent opinion. He detested priestcraft and religious cant. He wrote much upon controversial subjects, and, like all controversies, these writings are inspired by doubt and made up of vain conceits and whimsical extravagances. A bad cause requires a long book. Generally advocating one in which there is a flaw, the greatest controversialists are the greatest doubters. They are trembling needles between extreme points. Irritated by hypocrisy and the unequivocal yielding of weak and interested men, he said and wrote unwarrantable arguments; but unalloyed and unencumbered by opposition, he was in all essential points orthodox in his belief. But he put forth ramifications of doubt, that by his vigorous and creative mind were watered into the empty enormities of extravagant and rebellious thoughts.
He was intimate with a great many of the most learned and eminent men of his time, whom he generally met at Johnson's, the bookseller of St. Paul's Churchyard. It was there he met Tom Paine, and was the cause of his escaping to America, when the Government were seeking for him for the punishment of his seditious and refractory writings. Blake advised him immediately to fly, for he said: "If you are not now sought, I am sure you soon will be." Paine took the hint directly, and found he had just escaped in time. In one of his conversations, Paine said that religion was a law and a tie to all able minds. Blake, on the other hand, said what he was always asserting, that the religion of Jesus was a perfect law of liberty. Fuseli was very intimate with Blake, and Blake was more fond of Fuseli than any other man on earth. Blake certainly loved him, and at least Fuseli admired Blake and learned from him, as he himself confessed, a great deal. Fuseli and Flaxman both said that Blake was the greatest man in the country, and that there would come a time when his works would be invaluable. Before Fuseli knew Blake, he used to fill his pictures with all sorts of fashionable ornaments and tawdry embellishments. Blake's simplicity imbued the minds of all who knew him; his life was a pattern, and has been spoken of as such from the pulpit. His abstraction from the world, his power of self-denial, his detestation of hypocrisy and gain, his hatred of gold and the things that perish, rendered him indeed well able to have exclaimed:
"In innocency I have washed my hands."
His poetry (and he has written a great deal) was mostly unintelligible, but not so much so as the works written in the manner of the present one. Generally speaking, he seems to have published those most mysterious. That which could be discerned was filled [with] imagery and fine epithet. What but admiration can be expressed of such poetry as this:
"I wander thro' each chartered street,
In every cry of every man,
How the chimney sweepers cry,
But most through midnight streets I hear
"Tiger, Tiger, burning bright
A beautiful stanza selected from the following work:
"The Rhine was red with human blood,
"For a tear is an intellectual thing,
It may be well said of such poetry as this, such thrilling lines as these, that they are "Thoughts that breathe and words that burn." There is another, very tender:
"Little lamb, who made thee?
"Sweet babe, in thy face
These quotations are from the Songs of Innocence and Experience, engraved on type plates, which work the author of this is now in possession of, by the kindness of Mr. Blake, who bequeathed them to him, as well as all of his works that remained unsold at his death, being writings, paintings, and a very great number of copperplates, of whom impressions may be obtained.Catherine Blake, the buttress of her husband's hopes, the stay to his thoughts, the admirer of his genius, the companion of his solitude and the solace of his days, was now left without the protecting hand of the most affectionate of husbands. She grieved much, but she had a hopeful and a
trustful mind in the providence of her Maker. She endured with almost unexampled fortitude this afflicting dispensation of Almighty Power. No children to soothe, scarcely a relation to console, no one with whom she had ever been accustomed to assimilate, she thus stood with every outward mark of widowhood. Her heaviness was great and her trial excessive; but she was indeed a tower standing in a desert plain. She had in the cellars of her faith an army of courageous defenders, who, had she been ever so encamped against, should, must, and would have prevailed, through Him who is of the widow the protector and to the fatherless a friend. Always, like a true wife, leaning on her husband for advice and for all spiritual strength, her shaft broken and her prop dismembered, she had been forlorn, she had been withered, she had drooped, nay she had fallen, but for the guard of her faithful Saviour and her pitiful Redeemer. So let it tell against the day of fear, so let it tell against the hour of bereavement that your Saviour holds the salver for your tender tears. Hear this, oh wife, cherishing your sickly partner, dreading the hour of separation and division! Hear this, ye children, looking at your only parent sinking into dust! God is a husband to the widow and a father to those whose parents are departed to His heavenly bosom. A cry is heard, a voice of joy is sounding in the streets. The bereaved widow has found a husband and the fatherless family a trustworthy friend: touch not their little ones, trample not upon their borders, break not down their hedges, for their friend is a strong foe and their defender a mighty man. She suffered the remains of her dear husband to leave the house and went through the awful day of separation with a fortitude nearly unprecedented and a courage by no means to be expected. She who afterwards fretted herself, pining like Rachel for her little ones, into a grave ere long to be inhabited by that temple of obedience, those hands of unwearied labour, and those limbs of constant exercise, set out herself the refreshments of the funeral, saw with her own eye the last offices of concealment, and parted with him with a smile.
The widow losing her husband so constantly in her company, so continually by her side, was no common circumstance in her days. She who during a marriage of more than forty years never parted with him, save for a period that would make altogether about five weeks, who soothed and in return was cherished, who waited upon and in return was protected, found this trial too great to be endured as a trivial calamity; it consumed her body, although she maintained her mind. Such a husband as he was a treasure, that sweeping the house with the utmost industry would not again restore. It was hidden, it was lost—until it shall be again found, set in a precious and eternal ore, to be worn upon the fair neck of a descending Church, bedecked and jewelled for her wedding with the Lamb.
Such was she at his death, and however needless this history may render it to inquire what she was during his life, it is now a pleasure to record the intrinsic worth of such a character. Was she a woman dressed in all the frippery of fashion? No! She was clean, but in the plainest attire. Was she an idle drab that brings nought but ruin and disgrace? No! Nor was she the medium between all these things. She was the hard-working burden-bearer to her industrious husband. She fetched with a free will and brought with the spirit of a willing mind the materials with which he was to build up the fabric of his immortal thoughts. She even laboured upon his works, those parts of them where powers of drawing and form were not necessary, which from her excellent idea of colouring was of no small use in the completion of his laborious designs. This she did to a much greater extent than is usually credited.
After the death of her husband she resided for some time with the author of this, whose domestic arrangements were entirely undertaken by her, until such changes took place that rendered it impossible for her strength to continue in this voluntary office of sincere affection and regard. She then returned to the lodging in which she had lived previously to this act of maternal loveliness, in which she continued until she was decayed by fretting and devoured with the silent worm of grief, which, not from any distrust of the providence of her heavenly protector, but from that pathetic clinging to the stem of her existence, wasted her, and she withered only from holding fast to those dead branches which were her former life and shadow. Ever since his death her stomach had proved restless and painful, and on the morning of the 17th of October last she was attacked with cramp and spasms, and after having exhibited great patience and endured great pain for twenty-four hours, on the following morning, at half-past seven o'clock, being the 18th of October 1831, she yielded up the ghost, having survived her husband only four years. Her age not being known but by calculation, sixty-five years were placed upon her coffin.
She was buried, according to her own directions, at Bunhill Fields, with the same funeral decorations as her husband, which also was her desire, and was followed to her grave by two whom she dearly loved, nay almost idolised, whose welfare was interwoven with the chords of her life and whose well-being was her only solace, her only motive for exertion, her only joy. The news of any success to them was a ray of sun in the dark twilight of her life. Their cares were hers, their sorrows were her own. To them she was as the fondest mother, as the most affectionate sister, and as the best of friends. These had the satisfaction of putting into her trembling hands the last cup of moisture she applied to her dying lips, and to them she bequeathed her all. But as the affectionate remembrances would call forth as many pages as can now be afforded in words, some future and more lengthened praises must exhibit that gratitude which nothing but a whole book could expiate.
Four other friends, being Mr. Bird, painter, Mr. Denham, sculptor, Mr. and Mrs. Richmond, followed with them the remains of this irradiated saint.
- Gilchrist gives the date correctly as the 28th November. The late Dr. Garnett wrote in his monograph on Blake (Seeley & Co., 1895, p. 7, n.): "November 20 has been stated as the date, but the above is shown to be correct by the horoscope drawn for November 28, 7.45 p.m., in Urania or the Astrologer's Chronicle. 1825, published therefore in Blake's lifetime, and undoubtedly derived from Varley."
- A Father's Memoirs of his Child, by Benj. Heath Malkin, Esq. (London, 1806), contains, at pp. xviii-xli, an account of Blake's "early education in art, derived from his own lips."
- Cp. Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion, 1804, passim.
- Poetical Sketches, by W. B., London: Printed in the year MDCCLXXXIII.
- Poetical Sketches, p. 10. Malkin, who quotes this song, says it was written before the age of fourteen.
- Ibid, p. 12.
- Poetical Sketches, p. 63.
- Ibid, p. 64.
- A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures Poetical and Historical Inventions, painted by William Blake, 1809; preface.
- Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion, 1804. The present Life being bound up with a coloured example of this work.
- In 1787.
- In 1793.
- In 1800.
- See note 1, p. 85
- On his return from Felpham, in 1803, Blake took rooms at 17 South Molton Street; and it was not until some years later (1821) that he removed to 3 Fountain Court, Strand. See p. 227.
- For children, The Gates of Paradise, 1793. Published by W. Blake: ll. 41-44.
- See plate, which is taken from the actual example (now in the Whitworth Institute, Manchester), done for Tatham on the present occasion. The original is printed in yellow, from a plate executed in Blake's own peculiar method of relief-etching, and coloured by hand. The colouring is vivid, but carefully put on—red, yellow, and deep blue above, deep blue and black below; gold is also used. The subject is taken from Paradise Lost, book vii. ll. 225-31:
"He took the golden Compasses, prepar'd
In God's Eternal store, to circumscribe
This Universe, and all created things:
One foot he center'd, and the other turn'd
Round through the vast profunditie obscure;
And said, thus farr extend, thus farr thy bounds,
This be thy just Circumference, O World."
- From Songs of Experience. 1794
- From Songs of Experience, 1794.
- Jerusalem, 1804: p. 27.
- Jerusalem, p. 52.
- Songs of Innocence, 1789.
- Songs of Innocence.