William Blake, Painter and Poet/Chapter 2

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William Blake, Painter and Poet by Richard Garnett
Chapter 2
This work includes an index

CHAPTER II

Blake's Technical Method's—"Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience"—Life in Poland Street and in Lambeth—Mystical Poetry and Art.

It was during his residence in Poland Street that Blake first appeared in that mingled character of poet and painter which marks him off so conspicuously from other painters and other poets. Painting has often been made the handmaid of poetry; it was Blake's idea, without infringing upon this relationship, to make poetry no less the handmaid of painting by employing his verse, engraved and beautified with colour, to enhance the artistic value of his designs, as well as to provide them with the needful basis of subject. The same principle may probably be recognised in those Oriental scrolls where the graceful labour of the scribe is as distinctly a work of art as the illustration of the miniaturist; but of these Blake can have known nothing. Necessity was with him the mother of invention. Since the appearance of Poetical Sketches he had written much that he desired to publish—but how to pay for printing? So severely had he suffered by his unfortunate commercial adventure that when at length, as he firmly believed, the new process by which his song and his design could be facsimiled together was revealed by his brother's spirit in a dream, a half-crown was the only coin his wife and he possessed between them in the world. One shilling and tenpence of this was laid out in providing the necessary materials.

The technical method to which Blake now resorted is thus described by Mr. Gilchrist: "It was quite an original one. It consisted of a species of engraving in relief, both words and designs. The verse was written and the designs and marginal embellishments outlined on the copper with an impervious liquid, probably the ordinary stopping-out varnish of engravers. Then all the white parts or lights, the remainder of the plate that is, were eaten away with aquafortis or other acid, so that the outline of letter and design was left prominent, as in stereotype. From these plates he printed off in any tint, yellow, brown, blue, required to be the prevailing or ground colour in his facsimiles; red he used for the letterpress. The page was then coloured up by hand in imitation of the original drawing with more or less variety of detail in the local hues. He ground and mixed his water-colours himself on a piece of statuary marble, after a method of his own, with common carpenter's glue diluted. The colours he used were few and simple: indigo, cobalt, gamboge, vermilion, Frankfort-black freely, ultramarine rarely, chrome not at all. These he applied with a camel's-hair brush, not with a sable, which he disliked. He taught Mrs. Blake to take off the impressions with care and delicacy, which such plates signally needed; and also to help in tinting them from his drawings with right artistic feeling; in all of which tasks she, to her honour, much delighted. The size of the plates was small, for the sake of economising copper, something under five inches by three. The number of engraved pages in the Songs of Innocence alone was twenty-seven. They were done up in boards by Mrs. Blake's hand, forming a small octavo; so that the poet and his wife did everything in making the book, writing, designing, printing, engraving, everything except manufacturing the paper; the very ink, or colour rather, they did make. Never before, surely, was a man so literally the author of his own book."

The total effect of this process is tersely expressed by Mr. Rossetti, "The art is made to permeate the poetry." It resulted in the publication of Songs of Innocence in 1789, two years after its discovery or revelation. Other productions, of that weird and symbolic character in which Blake came more and more to delight, followed in quick succession. These will claim copious notice, but for the present we may pass on to Songs of Experience, produced in 1794, so much of a companion volume to Songs of Innocence that the two are usually found within the same cover. Neither attracted much attention at the time. Charles Lamb says: "I have heard of his poems, but have never seen them." He is, however, acquainted with "Tiger, tiger," which he pronounces "glorious." The price of the two sets when issued together was from thirty shillings to two guineas—an illustration of the material service which Art can render

William Blake, painter and poet (page 20 facing) detail a.png William Blake, painter and poet (page 20 facing) detail b.png
From Blake's "Songs of Innocence." From Blake's "Songs of Innocence."
to Poetry when it is considered that, published simply as poems, they would in that age have found no purchasers at eighteenpence. This price was nevertheless absurdly below their real value, and was enhanced even during the artist's lifetime. It came to be five guineas, and late in his life friends, from the munificent Sir Thomas Lawrence downwards, would commission sets tinted by himself at from ten to twenty guineas as a veiled chanty.

Of the poems and illustrations in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience Gilchrist justly declares that their warp and woof are formed in one texture, and that to treat of them separately is like pulling up a daisy by the roots out of the green sward in which it springs. One essential characteristic inspires them both, and may be defined as childish fearlessness, the innocent courage of the infant who puts his hand upon the serpent and the cockatrice. Any one but Blake would have feared to publish designs and verses apparently so verging upon the trivial, and which indeed would have been trivial—and worse, affected—if the emanation of almost any other brain, or the execution of almost any other hand. Being his, their sincerity is beyond question, and they are a valuable psychological document as establishing the possibility of a man of genius and passion reaching thirty with the simplicity of a child. Hardly anything else in literature or art, unless some thought in Shakespeare, so powerfully conveys the impression of a pure elemental force, something absolutely spontaneous, innocent of all contact with and all influence from the refinements of culture. They certainly are not as a rule powerful, and contrast forcibly with the lurid and gigantic conceptions which if we did not remember that the same Dante depicted The Tower of Famine and Matilda gathering Flowers, we could scarcely believe to have proceeded from the same mind. Their impressiveness proceeds from a different source; their primitive innocence and simplicity, and the rebuke which they seem to administer to artifice and refinement. Even great artists and inspired poets, suddenly confronted with such pure unassuming nature, may be supposed to feel as the disciples must have felt when the Master set the little child among them. No more characteristic examples could have been given than "The Lamb" and "Infant Joy " from Songs of Innocence, and "The Fly" and "The Tiger" from Songs of Experience selected for reproduction here from an uncoloured copy in the library of the British Museum. There is frequently a great difference in the colouring of the copies. That in the Museum Print Room is in full rich colour, while others are very lightly and delicately tinted.

It is of course much easier to convey an idea of the merits of Blake's


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From a coloured copy of the "Songs of Innocence and Experience." British Museum.


verse than of his painting, for the former loses nothing by transcription, and the latter everything. The merit of the latter, too, is a variable quantity, depending much upon the execution of the coloured plates. The uncoloured are but phantoms of Blake's ideas. The general characteristics of his art in these books may be described as caressing tenderness and gentle grace, evinced in elegant human figures, frequently drooping like willows or recumbent like river deities, and in sinuous stems and delicate sprays, often as profuse as delicate. The foliated ornament in "On Another's Sorrow," for instance, seems like a living thing, and would almost speak without the aid of the accompanying verse. The figures usually are too small to impress by themselves, and rather seem subsidiary parts of the general design than the dominant factors. They mingle with the inanimate nature portrayed, as one note of a multitudinous concert blends with another. Yet "The Little Girl Found" tells its story by itself powerfully enough; and the innocent Bacchanalianism of the chorus in the "Laughing Song" is conveyed with truly Lyæan spirit and energy.

The prevalent cheerfulness of the Songs of Innocence is of course modified in Songs of Experience. The keynote of the former is admirably struck in the introductory poem:—


Piping down the valleys wild,
 Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
 And he laughing said to me.

"Pipe a song about a Lamb!"
 So I piped with merry cheer.
"Piper, pipe that song again."
 So I piped; he wept to hear.

"Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;
 Sing thy songs of happy cheer!"
So I sang the same again.
 While he wept with joy to hear.

"Piper, sit thee down and write
 In a book, that all may read."
So he vanished from my sight;
 And I plucked a hollow reed.

And I made a rural pen,
 And I stained the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
 Every child may joy to hear.

This incarnate enigma among men could manifestly be as transparent as crystal when he knew exactly what he wished to say—a remark which may not be useless to the student of his mystical and prophetical writings. The character of Songs of Experience, published in 1794, when


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Frontispiece of Mary Wollstonecraft's "Stories."


he had attained the age so often fatal to men of genius, is conveyed more symbolically, yet intelligibly, in "The Angel":—

I dreamt a dream! What can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen
Guarded by an Angel mild:
Witless woe was ne'er beguiled!

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From Blake's "Songs of Experience." From Blake's "Songs of Experience."

And I wept both night and day,
And he wiped my tears away;
And I wept both day and night,
And hid from him my heart's delight.

So he took his wings and fled;
Then the man blushed very red.
I dried my tears and armed my tears
With ten thousand shields and spears.

Soon my Angel came again;
I was armed, he came in vain;
For the time of youth was fled.
And gray hairs were on my head.

Generally speaking, the Songs of Experience may be said to answer to their title. They exhibit an awakening of thought and an occupation with metaphysical problems alien to the Songs of Innocence. Such a stanza as this shows that Blake's mind had been busy:—

Nought loves another as itself
 Nor venerates another so;
Nor is it possible to thought
 A greater than itself to know.

These ideas, however, are always conveyed, as in the remainder of the poem quoted, through the medium of a concrete fact represented by the poet. Perhaps the finest example of this fusion of imagination and thought is this stanza of the most striking and best known of all the poems, "The Tiger":—

When the stars threw down their spears
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see:
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

An evident, though probably unconscious, reminiscence of "When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy," and like it for that extreme closeness to the inmost essence of things which the author of the Book of Job enjoyed in virtue of the primitive simplicity of his age and environment, and Blake through a childlike temperament little short of preternatural in an age like ours. It may be added, that although the pieces in Songs of Innocence and Songs
alt=Or if we wish a fourth, it is a friend— But friends how mortal! dangerous the desire. Take Phoebus to yourselves, ye basking bards! Inebriate at fair fortune's fountain-head; And reeling through the wilderness of joy; * Where sense runs savage broke from reason's chain, And sings false peace, till smother'd by the pall. My fortune is unlike; unlike my song; Unlike the DEITY my song invokes. I to day's soft-eyed sister pay my court, Endymion's rival! and her aid implore; Now first implored in succour to the muse. Thou who didst lately borrow Cynthia's form, And modestly forego thine own! O thou Who didst thyself, at midnight hours, inspire! Say, why not Cynthia patroness of song? As thou her crescent, she thy character Assumes; still more a goddess by the change. Are there demurring wits, who dare dispute This revolution in the world inspired? Ye train pierian! to the lunar sphere, In silent hour address your ardent call For aid immortal less her brother's right. She, with the spheres harmonious, nightly leads The mazy dance, and hears their matchless strain; A strain for gods, denied to mortal ear. Transmit it heard, thou silver queen of heaven! What title or what name endears thee most? Cynthia! Cyllene! Phoebe!—or dost hear With higher gust fair P—d of the skies?

Page of Young's "Night Thoughts" Illustrated by W. Blake.

of Experience are of very unequal degrees of poetical merit, none want the infallible mark of inspired poetry—spontaneous, inimitable melody.

Both the simplicity and the melody, however, are absent from the remarkable works with which Blake had been occupying himself during the interval between the publication of the two series of his songs, which, with their successors, have given him a peculiar and unique reputation in their own weird way, but could not by themselves have given him the reputation of a poet. Blake's plain prose, as we shall see, is much more effective. In a strictly artistic point of view, nevertheless, these compositions reveal higher capacities than would have been inferred from the idyllic beauty of the pictorial accompaniments of Songs of Innocence and Experience. Before discussing these it will be convenient to relate the chief circumstances of Blake's life during the period of their production, and up to the remarkable episode of his migration to Felpham. They were not memorable or striking, but one of them had considerable influence upon his development. In 1791 he was employed by Johnson, the Liberal publisher of St. Paul's Churchyard, and as such a minor light of his time, to illustrate Mary Wollstonecraft's Tales for Children with six plates, both designed and engraved by him, one of which accompanies this essay. They are much in the manner of Stothard. This commission brought Blake as a guest to Johnson's house, where he became acquainted with a republican coterie—Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin, Paine, Holcroft, Fuseli—with whose political opinions he harmonised well, though totally dissimilar in temperament from all of them, except Fuseli, who gave him several tokens of interest and friendship. These acquaintanceships, and the excitement of the times, led Blake to indite, and, which is more extraordinary, Johnson to publish, the first of an intended series of seven poetical books on the French Revolution. This, Gilchrist tells us, was a thin quarto, without illustrations, published without Blake's name, and priced at a shilling. Gilchrist probably derived this information from a catalogue, for he carefully avoids claiming to have seen the book, which seems to have also escaped the researches of all Blake's other biographers. It must be feared that it is entirely lost. Gilchrist must, however, have known something more of it if his assertion that the other six books were actually written but not printed, "events taking a different turn from the anticipated one," is based upon anything besides conjecture.


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In 1793 Blake removed from Poland Street to Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, then a row of suburban cottages with little gardens. Here he


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engraved his friend Flaxman's designs for the Odyssey, to replace plates engraved by Piroli and lost in the voyage from Italy, whence Flaxman had returned after seven years' absence. In 1795 he designed three illustrations for Stanley's translation of Burger's "Lenore," and in 1796 executed a much more important work, 537 drawings for an edition of Young's Night Thoughts projected by a publisher named Edwards. Forty-three were engraved and published in 1797, but the undertaking was carried no further for want of encouragement, and the designs, after remaining long in the publisher's family, eventually came into the hands of Mr. Bain of the Haymarket, who is still the possessor. The most important are described by Mr. Frederic Shields in the appendix to the second volume of Gilchrist's biography. Mr. Shields' descriptions are so fascinating[1] that from them alone one would be inclined to rate the drawings very high: but Mr. Gilchrist thinks these ill adapted for the special purpose of book illustration which they were destined to subserve, and reminds us that the absence of colour is a grave loss. Blake is said to have been paid only a guinea a plate for the forty-three engravings, on which he worked for a year. The Lambeth period, however, seems not to have been an unprosperous one, for he had many pupils. Several curious anecdotes of it were related after his death on the alleged authority of Mrs. Blake, but their truth seems doubtful. It is certain that during this period he met with the most constant of his patrons, Mr. Thomas Butts, who for nearly thirty years continued a steady buyer of his drawings, and but for whom he would probably have fallen into absolute distress.

It is now time to speak of the literary works—"pictured poesy," like the woven poesy of The Witch of Atlas—produced during this period. In 1789, the year of publication of the Songs of Innocence, the series opens with Thel. In 1790 comes The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; in 1793, The Gates of Paradise, The Vision of the Daughters of Albion, and America; in 1794, Europe, A Prophecy, and Urizen; in 1795, The Song of Los, and The Book of Ahaniah. In 1797 Blake seems to have written, or to have begun to write, the mystical poem ultimately entitled Vala, never published by him, and more than fifty years after his death found in Linnell's possession in such a state of confusion that it took Messrs. Ellis and Yeats days to arrange the MS., which they fondly deem to be now in proper order. It is printed in the third volume of their work on Blake. Tiriel is undated, but would seem to be nearly contemporary with Thel.

The Gates of Paradise constitutes an exception to the general spirit of the works of this period, the accompanying text, though mystical enough, being lyrical and not epical. The seventeen beautiful designs, emblematical of the incidents necessarily associated with human nature, are well described by Allan Cunningham as "a sort of devout dream, equally wild and lovely."

The merits of this remarkable series of works will always be a matter of controversy. "Whether," as Blake himself says, "whether this is Jerusalem or Babylon, we know not." It must be so, for they are purely subjective, there is no objective criterion; they admit of comparison with nothing, and can be tested by no recognised rules. In the whole compass of human creation there is perhaps hardly anything so distinctively an emanation of the mind that gave it birth. Visions they undoubtedly are, and, as Messrs. Ellis and Yeats well say, they are manifestly not the production of a pretender to visionary powers. Whatever Blake has here put down, pictorially or poetically, is evidently a record of something actually discerned by the inner eye. This, however, leaves the question of their value still open. To the pictorial part, indeed, almost all are agreed in attaching a certain value, though the warmth of appreciation is widely graduated. But literary estimation is not only discrepant but hostile; some deem them revelation, others rhapsody. The one thing certain is the general tendency towards Pantheism which Mr. Swinburne has made the theme of an elaborate essay. To us they seem an exemplification of the truth that no man can serve two masters. Blake had great gifts, both as poet and artist, and he aspired not only to employ both, but to combine both in the same work. At first this was practicable, but soon the artistic faculty grew while the poetical dwindled. Not only did the visible speech of painting become more important to him than the viewless accents of verse, but his poetry became infected with the artistic method. He allowed a latitude to his language which he ought to have reserved for his form and colour, and became as hieroglyphic in a speech where hieroglyphs are illegitimate as in one where they are permissible. This is proved by the fact that the decline in the purity of poetical form and in the perspicuity of poetical language proceed pari passu. Thel, the earliest, is also both the most luminous and the most musical of these pieces. Could Blake have schooled himself to have written such blank verse as he had already produced in Edward the Third and Samson, Thel would have been a very fine poem. Even as it is its lax, rambling semi-prose is full of delicate modulations:


The daughters of the Seraphim led round their sunny flocks,
All but the youngest; she in paleness sought the secret air
To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day.
Down by the river of Adera her soft voice is heard,
And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew.


In every succeeding production, however, there is less of metrical beauty, and thought and expression grow continually more and more amorphous. Blake may not improbably have been influenced by Ossian, whose supposed poems were popular in his day, and from whom some of his proper names, such as Usthona, seem to have been adopted. Many then deemed that Ossian had demonstrated form to be a mere accident of poetry instead of, as in truth it is, an indissoluble portion of its essence. There is certainly a strong family resemblance between Blake's shadowy conceptions and Ossian's misty sublimities. On the other hand, he may be credited with having made a distinguished disciple in Walt Whitman, who would not, we think, have written as he did if Blake had never existed. What was pardonable in one so utterly devoid of the sentiment of beautiful form as Whitman, was less so in one so exquisitely gifted as Blake. Both derive some advantages from their laxity, especially the poet of Democracy, but both suffer from the inability of poetry, divorced from metrical form, to take a serious hold upon the memory. One reads and admires, and by and by the sensation is of the passage of a great procession of horsemen and footmen and banners, but no distinct impression of a single countenance.

The general effect of these strange works upon the average mind is correctly expressed by Gilchrist, when he says, speaking of Europe: "It is hard to trace out any distinct subject, any plan or purpose, or to determine whether it mainly relates to the past, the present, or things to come. And yet its incoherence has a grandeur about it as of the utterance of a man whose eyes are fixed on strange and awful sights, invisible to bystanders." What, then, did Blake suppose himself to behold? Messrs. Ellis and Yeats have devoted an entire volume of their three-volume work on Blake to the exposition of his visions. Their comment is often highly suggestive, but it is seldom convincing. When the right interpretation of a symbol has been found, it is usually self-evident. Not so with their explanations, which appear neither demonstrably wrong nor demonstrably right. Not that Blake talked aimless nonsense; we are conscious of a general drift of thought in some particular direction which seems to us to offer a general affinity to the thought of the ancient Gnostics. It would be interesting if some competent person would endeavour to determine whether the resemblance goes any deeper than externals. Blake certainly knew nothing of the Gnostics at first hand, nor is it probable that he could have gained any knowledge of them from the mystical writers he did study, Behmen and Swedenborg. But similar tendencies will frequently incarnate themselves in individuals at widely remote periods of the world's history without evidence of direct filiation. Even so exceptional a personage as Blake cannot be considered apart from his age, and his age, among its other aspects, was one of mesmerism and illuminism. The superficial resemblance of his writings to those of the Gnostics is certainly remarkable. Both embody their imaginations in concrete forms; both construct elaborate cosmogonies and obscure myths; both create hierarchies of principalities and powers, and equip their spiritual potentates with sonorous appellations; both disparage matter and its Demiurgus. "I fear," said Blake to Robinson, "that Wordsworth loves nature, and nature is the work of the devil. The devil is in us as far as we are nature." The chief visible difference, that the Gnostics' philosophy tends to asceticism, and Blake's to enjoyment, may perhaps be explained by the consideration that he was a poet, and that they were philosophers and divines. Perhaps the best preparation for any student of Blake who might wish to investigate this subject further would be to read the article in the Dictionary of Christian Biography upon the Pistis Sophia, the only Gnostic book that has come down to us, and one which Blake would have delighted in illustrating. The Gnostic belief in the all-importance of the

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TITLE PAGE FROM THE BOOK OF THEL.

transcendent knowledge which comes of immediate perception reappears in him with singular intensity. "Men are admitted into heaven," he says, "not because they have curbed and governed their passions, or have no passions, but because they have cultivated their understandings. The fool shall not enter into heaven, let him be ever so holy." Nothing in Blake, perhaps, is so Gnostic as the strange poem, The Everlasting Gospel, first published by Mr. Rossetti, though many things in it would have shocked the Gnostics.

The strictly literary criticism of Blake's mystical books may be almost confined to the Book of Thel, for this alone possesses sufficient symmetry to allow a judgment to be formed upon it as a whole. The others are like quagmires occasionally gay with brilliant flowers; but Thel, though its purpose may be obscure, is at all events coherent, with a beginning and an end. Thel, "youngest daughter of the Seraphim," roves through the lower world lamenting the mortality of beautiful things, including her own. All things with which she discourses offer her consolation, but to no purpose. At last she enters the realm of Death himself.


The eternal gates' terrific porter lifted the northern bar;
Thel entered in and saw the secrets of the land unknown.
She saw the couches of the dead, and where the fibrous root
Of every heart on earth infixes deep its restless twists:
A land of sorrows and of tears, where never a smile was seen.

She wandered in the land of clouds, through valleys dark listening
Dolours and lamentations; waiting oft beside a dewy grave
She stood in silence, listening to the voices of the ground,
Till to her own grave-plot she came, and there she sat down,
And heard this voice of sorrow breathed from the hollow pit.


The effect of the voice of sorrow upon Thel is answerable to that of the spider upon little Miss Muffet. This abrupt conclusion injures the effect of a piece which otherwise may be compared to a strain of soothing music, suggestive of many things, but giving definite expression to none. Messrs. Ellis and Yeats, however, have no difficulty in assigning a meaning. Thel, according to them, is "the pure spiritual essence," her grief is the dread of incarnation, and her ultimate flight is a return "to the land of pure unembodied innocence from whence she came." Yet her forsaking this land is represented as her own act, and it is difficult to see how she could have "led round her sunny flocks" in it if she had not been embodied while she inhabited it. At the same time, if Messrs. Ellis and Yeats are right, no interpretation of Blake can be disproved by any inconsistency that it may seem to involve. "The surface," they say, "is perpetually, as it were, giving way before one, and revealing another surface below it, and that again dissolves when we try to


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Design from the "Book of Urizen." By W. Blake.


study it. The making of religions melts into the making of the earth, and that fades away into some allegory of the rising and the setting of the sun. It is all like a great cloud full of stars and shapes, through which the eye seeks a boundary in vain." Mr. Yeats, putting his interpretation of Blake's symbolism more tersely into the preface to his excellent edition of the Poetical Works, describes it as shadowing forth the endless conflict between the Imagination Imagination and the Reason, which, we may add, the Gnostics would have expressed as the strife between the Supreme Deity and the god of this world, the very phrase which Mr. Yeats himself uses in describing Urizen, Blake's Evil Genius, "the maker of dead law and blind negation," contrasted as the Gnostics would have contrasted him with Los, the deity of the living world. Blake, therefore, has points of contact with the representatives of the French Revolution on one side, and with Coleridge on the other. Mr. Yeats's interpretation is in itself coherent and plausible, but the question whether it can be fairly deduced from Blake himself is one on which few are entitled to pronounce, and the causes of Blake's obscurity are not so visible as its consequences. To us, as already said, much of it appears to arise from his imperfect discrimination between the provinces of speech and of painting. His discourse frequently seems a hieroglyphic which would have been more intelligible if it could have been expressed in the manner proper to hieroglyphics by pictorial representation. As Mr. Smetham says of some of the designs, "Thought cannot fathom the secret of their power, and yet the power is there." It seems evident that the poem, when a complete lyric, generally preceded the picture in Blake's mind, and that the latter must usually be taken as a gloss, in which he seeks to illustrate by means of visible representation what he was conscious of having left obscure by verbal expression. The exquisite song of the Sunflower, for example, certainly existed before the very slight accompanying illustration.


Ah Sunflower, weary of time,
Who counted the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done.

Where the youth, pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves and aspire
Where my sunflower wishes to go.


The first of these stanzas is perfectly clear: the second requires no interpretation to a poetical mind, but will not bear construing strictly, and its comprehension is certainly assisted by the slight fugitive design lightly traced around the border. Generally the pictorial illustration of Blake's thought is much more elaborate, but in Songs of Innocence and Experience it almost always seems to have grown out of the poem. In the less inspired Prophetical Books, on the other hand, the pictorial representation, even when present only to the artist's mind, seems to have frequently suggested or modified the text. An example may be adduced from The Book of Thel.

Why an ear, a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in?

Blake had noted the external likeness of the convolutions of the ear to the convolutions of a whirlpool; therefore the ear shall be described as actually being what it superficially resembles, and because the whirlpool sucks in ships, the ear shall suck in creations. It must also be remembered that Blake's belief that his works were given him by inspiration prevented his revising them, and that they were stereotyped by the method of their publication. No considerable productions of the human mind, it is probable, so nearly approach the character of absolutely extemporaneous utterances.

Before passing from the literary to the artistic expression of Blake's genius in these books, something must be said of the remarkable appendix to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell entitled Proverbs of Hell. These are a number of aphoristic sayings, impregnated with Blake's peculiarities of thought and expression, but for the most part so shrewd and pithy as to demonstrate the author's sanity, at least at this time of his life. The following are some of the more striking:—


Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.

All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.

If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.

The fox condemns the trap, not himself.

The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow

The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion.

He who has suffered you to impose on him, knows you.

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

One law for the lion and ox is oppression.

The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest.


These are not the scintillations of reason which may occasionally illumine the chaos of a madman's brain, but bespeak a core of good sense quite inconsistent with general mental disturbance, though sufficiently compatible with delusion on particular subjects. With incomparable art, Shakespeare has imparted a touch of wildness to Hamlet's shrewdest sayings; but Blake speaks rather as Polonius would have spoken if it had been possible for Polonius to speak in tropes.

From the difficult subject of the interpretation of Blake's mystical designs we pass with satisfaction to the artistic qualities of the designs themselves. On this point there is an approximation to unanimity. To some the sublime, to others the grotesque, may seem to preponderate, but all will allow them to be among the most remarkable and original series of conceptions that ever emanated from a mortal brain. To whatever exceptions they may be liable, it enlarges one's apprehension of the compass of human faculties to know that human faculties have been adequate to their production. They may be ranked with the most imaginative passages of Paradise Lost, and of Byron's Cain as an endeavour of the mind to project itself beyond the visible and tangible, and to create for itself new worlds of grandeur and of gloom in height and abyss and interstellar space. Wonderful indeed is the range of imagination displayed, even though we cannot shut our eyes to some palpable repetitions. In the opinion, however, of even so sympathetic a critic as Dr. Wilkinson, Blake deserves censure for having degenerated into mere monstrosity. "Of the worst aspect of Blake's genius," he says, "it is painful to speak. In his Prophecies of America, his Visions of the Daughters of Albion, and a host of unpublished drawings, earth-born might has banished the heavenlier elements of art, and exists combined with all that is monstrous and diabolical. The effect of these delineations is greatly heightened by the antiquity which is engraven on the faces of those who do and suffer in them. We have the impression that we are looking down into the hells of the ancient people, the Anakim, the Nephilim, and the Rephaim. Their human forms are gigantic petrifactions, from which the fires of lust and intense selfish passion have long dissipated what was animal and vital, leaving stony limbs and countenances expressive of despair and stupid cruelty." We, on the other hand, should rather criticise Blake for having failed to be as appalling as he meant to be. His power, as it seems to us, consisted rather in the vivid imagination than in the actual rendering of scenes of awe and horror. Far inferior artists have produced more thrilling effects of this sort with much simpler means. It would be wrong to say that his visions appear unreal, but they do appear at a remove from reality, a world seen through a glass darkly, its phantasm rather than its portrait. This, however, only applies to the inventions of Blake's own brain, which, if we may judge by the moderate development of the back head in Deville's cast, lacked the force of the animal propensities requisite for the portrayal of cruelty and horror. He could render the conceptions of others with startling force—witness the impressive delineation reproduced by us of the Architect of the Universe at work with his compasses; and the simple pencil outline of Nebuchadnezzar in Mr. Rossetti's book, engraved by Gilchrist, where the human quadruped creeps away with an expression of overwhelming and horror-stricken dismay. This power of interpretation was to find yet finer expression in the illustration of the Book of Job.

Blake's technical defects are indicated by Messrs. Ellis and Yeats as consisting mainly in imperfect treatment of the human form from want of anatomical knowledge. He had always disliked that close study of the life which alone could have made him an able draughtsman; it "obliterated" him, he said, and had resolved to quarrel with almost all the artists from whom he might have learned. It must be remembered in his excuse that consummate colouring and consummate draughtsmanship are seldom found associated. Those who may feel disappointed with the reproductions of Blake's mystical designs must also remember that these are but shadows of the artist's thought, which needed for its full effect the application of colour by his own hand. "Much," says Dante Rossetti, "which seems unaccountably rugged and incomplete is softened by the sweet, liquid, rainbow tints of the coloured copies into mysterious brilliancy." The effect thus obtained may perhaps be best shown by Mr. Gilchrist's eloquent description of the illuminated drawings in Lord Crewe's copy of America. "Turning over the leaves, it is sometimes like an increase of daylight in the retina, so fair and open is the effect of particular pages. The skies of sapphire, or gold, rayed with hues of sunset, against which stand out leaf or blossom, or pendent branch, gay with bright-plumaged birds; the strips of emerald sward below, gemmed with flower and lizard, and enamelled
William Blake, painter and poet (page 39).png

The Ancient of Days setting a Compass to the Earth. From a water-colour drawing by W. Blake. British Museum.

snake, refresh the eye continually. Some of the illustrations are of a more sombre kind. There is one in which a little corpse, white as snow, lies gleaming on the floor of a green over-arching cave, which close inspection proves to be a field of wheat, whose slender interlacing stalks, bowed by the full ear and by a gentle breeze, bend over the dead infant. The delicate network of stalks, which is carried up one side of the page, the main picture being at the bottom, and the subdued yet vivid green light shed over the whole, produce a lovely decorative effect. Decorative effect is, in fact, never lost sight of, even where the motive of the design is ghastly or terrible." Whatever the imperfections of Blake's peculiar sphere, it was his sphere, and probably the only department of art in which he could have obtained greatness even if his technical accomplishment had been as complete as it was the reverse. When painting on more orthodox lines he is often surprisingly tame and conventional. How remote he was from the inane when he could revel in his own conceptions may, notwithstanding the tremendous disadvantages inherent in reproduction, be judged from the illustrations to his mystical books selected for this monograph, the frontispiece and Plate IV. of Thel, and the two subjects from America.
  1. As for example "Man lies by a rock-bound shore, his thoughts flying forth from him in likeness of delicate airy figures driven by the wind to perish in the endless sea as soon as born." In the absence of the drawings themselves such descriptions affect us like the projects for unwritten stories in Hawthorne's American Note Book.