William Blake, Painter and Poet/Chapter 3
Blake's removal to Felpham—Intercourse with Hayley—Return to London "Jerusalem"—Connection with Cromek—Illustrations of Blair's "Grave—Illustration of Chaucer's "Canterbury Pilgrims"—Exhibition of his Works and "Descriptive Catalogue."
Blake was now about to make a change in his external environment, which would have been momentous to any artist whose themes had been less exclusively discerned by the inner eye. It is an extraordinary fact, but there is absolutely no evidence that the poet who "made a rural pen" had as yet ever seen the country beyond the immediate neighbourhood of London. It is vain to speculate upon the precise modification which might have been wrought in his genius by rural nurture or foreign travel. Now he was actually to become a denizen of the country for some years. An introduction from Flaxman had made him acquainted with William Hayley, a Sussex squire and scholar, now chiefly remembered as his patron and the biographer of Cowper, but esteemed in his own day as one of the best representatives of English poetry at what seemed the period of its deepest decrepitude, though he is unaccountably omitted in Porson's catalogue of the bards of the epoch. Hayley, having lost his son, a pupil of Flaxman, and his friend Cowper within a week of each other in the spring of 1800, resolved to solace his grief by writing Cowper's life, and suggested that Blake should live near him during the progress of the work to execute the engravings by which it was to be illustrated. In August, 1800, Blake removed from Lambeth to Felpham, near Bognor, on the Sussex coast, where Hayley occupied a marine villa, his own residence at Eastham being let on account of the embarrassment of his affairs. The cottage was not provided by him for Blake, but the rent was paid by Blake himself. The change from Lambeth to a beautiful country of groves, meadows, and cornfields, with sails in the distance,
Half lost in the liquid azure bloom of a crescent of sea,
affected Blake with enthusiastic delight. "Felpham," he wrote to Flaxman, "is a sweet place for study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapours; voices of celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard, and their forms more distinctly seen, and my cottage is also a shadow of their houses." He continues: "I am more famed in Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my brain are studies and chambers with books and pictures of old, which I wrote and painted in ages of eternity before my mortal life; and those works are the delight and study of archangels. Why then should I be anxious about the riches or fame of mortality?" It is clear that, notwithstanding his theories of the deadness of the material creation, Blake valued natural beauty as an instrument for bringing him into more intimate connection with the visionary world. At first the desired effect was fully produced. Blake began to compose, or rather, according to his own account, to take down from supernatural dictation the Jerusalem, the most important in some respects of his mystical writings. Walking by the shore—the very shore where Cary was afterwards to encounter Coleridge—he habitually met Moses and the Prophets, Homer, Dante, and Milton. "All," he said, "majestic shadows, gray but luminous, and superior to the common height." A description so fine, that some may be inclined to deem it something more than a mere fancy. Unfortunately he also fell in with a fairies' funeral, a stumbling-block to the most resolute faith. By and by, however, the dampness of the cottage proved provocative of rheumatism, and, which was much more disastrous, the mental climate proved unsympathetic. Hayley's patronage of so strange a creature as he must have thought Blake does him the highest honour. He appears throughout, not only as a very kind man, but, what is less usual in a literary
From Blake's "America."
The engravings executed by Blake for Hayley during his residence at Felpham were six for the life and letters of Cowper; four original designs for ballads by Hayley, including "Poor Tom," and six engravings after Maria T. Flaxman for Hayley 's Triumphs of Temper. He did some work for Hayley after his return to town—engravings for the Life of Romney, and original designs for Hayley's Ballads on Animals—and corresponded with him in a friendly spirit, but the intimacy gradually died away.
Blake was profoundly influenced by his residence at Felpham in one respect; he became acquainted with opposition, and distinctly realised a power antagonistic to his aspirations. He was thus stung into self-assertion, and became hostile to the artists whose aims and methods he was unable to reconcile with his ideas. The first hints of this attitude appear in the praises he bestows upon the work of his own which chiefly occupied him at Felpham, the Jerusalem. "I may praise it," he says, "since I dare not pretend to be any other than the secretary; the authors are in eternity. I consider it as the grandest poem that this world contains. Allegory addressed to the intellectual powers, while it is altogether hidden from the corporeal understanding, is my definition of the most sublime poetry." Blake's allegory so effectually eludes both the reason and the understanding that Messrs. Ellis and Yeats frankly tell us that it is not for a moment to be supposed that their own elaborate interpretation will convey any idea to the mind unless it is read conjointly with the poem; and if such is the commentary what must the text be? If they are right the confusion is greatly increased by a wrong arrangement, and by the numerous interpolations which Blake subsequently introduced into the poem, which, though nominally issued in 1804, was not, they think, actually completed until about 1820. It suffers from being nearer prose than any of his former books "When this verse was dictated to me," he says, "I considered a monotonous cadence, like that used by Milton, Shakespeare, and all writers of English blank verse, derived from the modern bondage of rhyming, to be a necessary and indispensable part of the verse. But I soon found that in the mouth of a true orator such monotony was not only awkward, but as much a bondage as rhyme itself." What can be said of the ears that could find Shakespeare's and Milton's blank verse monotonous? The truth is that Blake's originally exquisite perception of harmony had waned with his lyrical faculty, and he scoffs at what he is no longer able to produce. Yet the general grandiose effect of Jerusalem is undeniable. Little as we can attach any definite idea to it, it simultaneously awes and soothes like one of the great inarticulate voices of nature, the booming of the billows, or the whisper of the winds in the wood. Occasionally we encounter some beautiful little vignette like this:—
She creates at her will a little moving night and silence,
This seems an illustration of what we have said of the dependence of Blake's poetry upon his pictorial imagination, for it is clearly nothing but a magnificent expansion of the midsummer night idyl of the glowworm shining for her mate, "with her little drop of moonlight," as Beddoes beautifully says.
In artistic merit Jerusalem is fully equal to any of Blake's works. There is less of the grotesque than in the others, and even more of the impressive. Much, however, depends upon the colouring, which varies greatly in different copies. Mr. Gilchrist warns us that it cannot be judged aright if we have not seen the "incomparable" copy in the possession of Lord Crewe. "It is printed in a warm reddish-brown, the exact colour of a very fine photograph; and the broken blending of the deeper lines with the more tender shadows—all sanded over with a sort of golden mist peculiar to Blake's mode of execution—makes still more striking the resemblance to the then undiscovered handling of Nature herself." The general character of the design is excellently described by Gilchrist. "The subjects are vague and mystic as the poem itself. Female figures lie among waves full of reflected stars: a strange human image, with a swan's head and wings, floats on water in a kneeling attitude and drinks; lovers embrace in an open water-lily; an eagle-headed creature sits and contemplates the sun; serpent-women are coiled with serpents; Assyrian-looking, human-visaged bulls are seen yoked to the plough or the chariot; rocks swallow or vomit forth human forms, or appear to amalgamate with them; angels cross each other over wheels of flame; and flames and hurrying figures wreathe and wind among the lines." It may indeed, like Blake's other productions of the kind, be
From Blake's "America"
The subject of Milton, from which one of our illustrations is selected,
Design from "Milton" By W. Blake.
is, in Mr. Swinburne's words, the incarnation and descent into earth and hell of Milton, who represents redemption by inspiration. Something similar, as we have seen, is the idea of Blake's fine mystical book, Tiriel, and the pilgrimage through a lower sphere is also found in the oldest Assyrian poetry. The book, like Jerusalem, is dated 1804, but, like its companion, must have been composed at Felpham. Nothing save actual and present contact with country scenes could have inspired such a passage as this, the crown of all Blake's unrhymed poetry:—
Thou hearest the nightingale begin the song of spring:
Such a passage shows how greatly Blake might have gained as a poet had he been more intimate with external nature. Very splendid lines might be quoted from "Milton," such as "A cloudy heaven mingled with stormy seas in loudest ruin," but they are glowing light upon a black core of obscurity. Mr. Housman's judgment applies to it as to all the works of its class. "They are the sign chiefly of a beautiful nature wasted for lack of equipment in formulating disputatively what grew out of his better work with all the thoughtlessness and glory of a flower."
Several lyrical poems printed in Blake's works may be assigned to this date. Some, such as "The Crystal Cabinet" and "The Mental Traveller," are extremely mystical; others, such as "Mary," are of simply human interest; others, such as "Auguries of Innocence," seem little remote from nonsense. "The Everlasting Gospel" expresses his profoundest ideas with startling crudity. None are wholly unmelodious, but the old bewitching melody has gone from all, unless from the lines introductory to "Milton":—
And did those feet in ancient time
Blake, who had settled at 17, South Molton Street, Oxford Street, was in the meantime dealing with a very different patron from Hayley, Robert Cromek, a "stickit" engraver turned printseller, who tricked if he did not actually defraud him, but who is entitled to the credit of having recognised his genius, and of having brought forward works of his more adapted to attract public notice than anything he had yet done. These were the twelve illustrations to Blair's Grave, full of Blake's peculiar genius and at the same time intelligible to all. They had been executed in 1804 and 1805. Cromek, who afterwards admitted that they were worth sixty guineas, obtained them for twenty from the artist, who had intended to publish them himself. It had been understood that Blake should have engraved them, but Cromek, wisely from his own point of view, but wrongfully as regarded Blake, intrusted the task to Schiavonetti. As a frontispiece, they were accompanied by a portrait of Blake from a drawing by Phillips, also engraved by Schiavonetti, which we have reproduced. Thanks to Cromek's judicious engineering, and the popularity of the poem illustrated, the adventure proved a considerable success. "It is the only volume with Blake's name on the title-page," says Mr. Gilchrist, "which is not scarce." The publication took place in 1808.
Portrait of William Blake. From the engraving by L. Schiavonetti, after T. Phillips, R.A.
We must now return to the illustrations to Blair's Grave, which are not only the most popular of Blake's works, but among his greatest. He showed in general more vigour in dealing with the conceptions of another than with his own, the latter imbibing an element of fanciful grace from the gentle spirit which produced them. Hence The Soul Exploring the Recesses of the Grave, reproduced from Thel, though one of the most poetical of the designs, is one of the least powerful. His rendering of Blair's thoughts is marvellously direct and impressive, whether the passion depicted be joy, as in The Reunion of the Soul and the Body (given here), or horror, as in The Death of the Strong Wicked Man, or an intermediate shade, as in The Soul hovering over the Body. None of these and few of the series, once seen, will easily be forgotten. The most famous, and deservedly so, is the marvellous one, a combination of two designs in America and The Gates of Paradise, where the aged man, impelled by a strong wind, totters towards the portal of the sepulchre, on the summit of which sits the rejuvenated spirit, personified by a strong youth, rejoicing in his deliverance, but dazzled by the as yet unwonted light. In all these designs the element of seemly, yet slightly formal and conventional grace which Blake had learned from Stothard, is very conspicuous. The least successful, as seems to us, is The Last Judgment, where Blake appears as a minor Michael Angelo, but this work as engraved differs widely from his description of the work as exhibited. It may well be believed that the modified version was distinguished by great splendour of colouring.
Other works of this period were two small frescoes exhibited at the Academy in 1808, Christ in the Sepulchre and Jacob's Dream; the "ornamental device" engraved (by Cromek) along with the frontispiece to Malkin's Father's Memoirs of his Child, a graceful and pathetic composition; three illustrations to Shakespeare, one of which, the highly imaginative conception of the appearance of the Ghost to Hamlet, is engraved in Gilchrist's biography; The Babylonian Woman on the Seven-headed Beast (1809) reproduced here; a continuous series of designs produced for Mr. Butts, to be mentioned more fully hereafter; and the pictures displayed along with The Canterbury Pilgrims at its exhibition (1809). We must now devote some attention to Blake's appearance as an æsthetic writer in the Descriptive Catalogue he put forth on this occasion, with which his other principal deliverances on the subject of art may be advantageously grouped.Blake's Descriptive Catalogue and his Appeal to the Public to judge between himself and his rivals in the department of engraving, are a singular mixture of gold and clay. The dignity which characterised his demeanour in life forsakes him as soon as he takes the pen into his hand,
The Reunion of Soul and Body. From Blair's "Grave" illustrated by W. Blake.
The Babylonian Woman on the Seven-headed Beast. From a water-colour drawing by W. Blake. British Museum.
Blake's conception of the sun may be compared with Dante's vision of the angels with the cloud:—
Then lifting up mine eyes, as the tears came,
An earlier acquaintance with Dante would undoubtedly have exerted a great influence upon Blake.
Not the least interesting part of Blake's catalogue is his description of the pictures accompanying his Canterbury Pilgrims, which include the strange patriotic allegories of Nelson guiding Leviathan and Pitt guiding Behemoth, the latter of which is now in the National Gallery; Satan calling up his Legions; The Bard, described by Rossetti as "a gorgeous piece of colour tone"; an idyll, charming in conception whatever it may have been in execution, representing goats nibbling the vine leaves that form the sole drapery of savage maidens; and Arthur's battle of Camlan, whence only three—the strongest, the most beautiful, and the ugliest of champions—escaped with their lives. This picture Seymour Kirkup thought Blake's best, and Allan Cunningham his worst. Kirkup, Mr. Swinburne tells us, remembered to the last "the fury and splendour of energy there contrasted with the serene ardour of simply beautiful courage, the violent life of the design, and the fierce distance of fluctuating battle." Blake's estimate of his powers, as conveyed in his descriptions of his works, certainly does not err on the side of modesty; perhaps he thought with Goethe that "Nur die Lumpen sind bescheiden." It is a more serious matter that the descriptions are crammed with statements far more significant than Blake's visions of a condition of mental disorder, such as that the Greek marbles are copies of the works of the Asiatic patriarchs; that no one painted in oil, except by accident, before Vandyke; that ancient British heroes dwell to this day on Snowdon "in naked simplicity": a species of Welsh Mahatmas, as it would appear. It would have been a judicious emendation if any one had suggested the substitution of "lying spirits" when the artist spoke of himself as "molested by blotting and blurring demons."
More important than these idle extravagances, though extravagant enough, are the annotations on Reynolds's discourses, written a few years afterwards. To read Blake's abuse of this great artist with any patience, one must remember that his expressions require to be translated out of his peculiar dialect into ordinary speech; as when, for example, he says that Correggio is a most effeminate and cruel demon, he only means that he is a bad model for artists to follow. Yet there is a great and serious truth lying at the bottom of Blake's declamation, and his protest against the apparent tendency of Reynolds to inculcate the feasibility of manufacturing genius by study was not uncalled for. What he did not sufficiently remember was that the number of artists capable of what Plato calls divine insanity, must always be very small, and that Reynolds's precepts may be very serviceable for the rank and file of the great army. As his denunciation of Reynolds was partly prompted by personal grievances (not the less real, if the apparent paradox may be excused, for being imaginary), it is the more to his honour to find him breaking out into genuine admiration whenever, in Swedenborg's phrase, the dry rod blossoms as Reynolds affirms a truth. It is also pleasant to receive Samuel Palmer's assurance that Blake's splenetic outbreaks in print astonished those accustomed to his catholicity of criticism in conversation.
Poetis nos lactamur tribus,
Pye, Petro Pindar, parvo Pybus;
Si ulterius ire pergis,
Adde his Sir James Bland Burges.
- Blake is seldom detected in borrowing, but when he tells us that
Milton's shadow fell
Precipitant, loud thundering, into the sea of Time and space,
he is clearly, though perhaps unconsciously, reminiscent of Dyer's
- The same remark is the subject of one of the finest passages of Lucretius:—
Praeterea, magnae legiones quom loca cursu
Camporum complent, belli simulacra cientes,
Fulgur ibi ad cœlum se tollit, totaque circum
Acre renidescit tellus, subterque virum vi
Excitur pedibus sonitus, clamoreque monies
Icti rejectant voces ad sidera mundi;
Et circumvolitant equites, mediosque repente
Tramittunt, valido quaticntes impete, campos;
Et tamen est quidam locus altis montibus, unde
Stare videntur, et in campis consistere fulgur.