An Early Appreciation of William Blake
No. 19, Vol. V.
AN EARLY APPRECIATION OF
ON 29th September, 1809, closed that unique exhibition at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square, which is known to all admirers of William Blake by the Descriptive Catalogue and by some, alas! not all, of the pictures therein shown. Among the few who went and wondered was the diarist, Henry Crabb Robinson, who purchased no fewer than four copies of the Descriptive Catalogue, one of which he presented to Charles Lamb, thereby evoking that famous praise of Blake as Chaucerian, painter and critic, which must have sounded oddly in the ears of that unmystical generation.
As a pioneer in Blake criticism Crabb Robinson has never received his due; Gilchrist resents his suggestion that Blake was not entirely sane, others have repeated the reproach; and no one has thought to clear his memory in that respect by reprinting that forgotten paper which he wrote in the winter of 1809-10 to introduce Blake to the notice of German students—a paper based on a first-hand study of all the pictures, poems and engravings on which he could lay his hands, and on such personal information as he could glean from friends. He did not meet the poet-painter until many years later, so that his narrative, by far the earliest long account of Blake and his work, is uncoloured by personal feeling. When in the year 1863 Gilchrist introduced William Blake, Pictor Ignotus, to the general public, he began his book with a lament over the 'scanty recognition' accorded to Blake as poet and artist. The notices in Cunningham's 'Lives of British Artists ' and Leslie's 'Handbook for Young Painters' are alone mentioned by name, and Biographical Dictionaries are said to pass by his name 'with inaccurate dispatch, as having had some connexion with the Arts.' Yet a closer study of the facts will reveal a surprising amount of contemporary interest in William Blake. Malkin's 'A Father's Memoirs of his Child' (1805) is the only serious biographical notice published during his lifetime—the only one, at least, hitherto regarded. But at his death friendly notices appeared in the 'Gentleman's Magazine,' the 'New Monthly Magazine,' and elsewhere, the first-named being, in part at least, worthy of the quotation it has not yet received. At p. 377 of vol. ii, 1827, we read:—
'Aug. 13 [12th] Aged 68 , Mr. William Blake, an excellent, but eccentric artist.' After a list of his works, including the 'eight beautiful plates in the "Novelist's Magazine," the 'Gates of Paradise,' 'Songs of Experience,' ['Songs of Innocence' are omitted], 'America,' 'Europe,' the 'Night Thoughts,' Hayley's 'Ballads,' the 'Grave,' with the designs to which 'few persons of taste are unacquainted'; the 'Descriptive Catalogue,' the 'Canterbury Pilgrimage' and 'Job,' comes this interesting passage. 'Blake has been allowed to exist in a penury which most artists—being necessarily of a sensitive temperament—would deem intolerable. Pent, with his affectionate wife, in a close back-room in one of the Strand courts, his bed in one corner, his meagre dinner in another, a rickety table holding his copperplates in progress, his colours, books (among which his Bible, a Sessi Velutello's Dante, and Mr. Carey's (sic) translation, were at the top), his large drawings, sketches, and MSS.;—his ancles frightfully swelled, his chest disordered, old age striding on, his wants increased, but not his miserable means and appliances: even yet was his eye undimmed, the fire of his imagination unquenched, and the preternatural, never-resting activity of his mind unflagging. He had not merely a calmly resigned, but a cheerful and mirthful countenance; in short, he was a living commentary on Jeremy Taylor's beautiful chapter on Contentedness. He took no thought for his life, what he should eat, or what he should drink; nor yet for his body, what he should put on; but had a fearless confidence in that Providence which had given him the vast range of the world for his recreation and delight. He was active in mind and body, passing from one occupation to another, without an intervening minute of repose. Of an ardent, affectionate, and grateful temper, he was simple in manner and address, and displayed an inbred courteousness of the most agreeable character. At the age of sixty-six he commenced the study of Italian, for the sake of reading Dante in the original, which he accomplished!
William Blake died as he had lived, piously cheerful! talking calmly, and finally resigning himself to his eternal rest, like an infant to its sleep. His effects are nothing, except some pictures, copper-plates, and his principal work, a series of a hundred large Designs from Dante. His widow is left in a very forlorn condition, Mr. Blake himself having latterly been much indebted for succour and consolation to his friend, Mr. Linnell, the painter. We have no doubt but her cause will be taken up by the distributors of those funds which are raised for the relief of distressed artists, and also by the benevolence of private individuals.'
The year after Blake's death appeared J. T. Smith's very interesting and important Memoir, appended to the second volume of his 'Life of Nollekens,' and in 1830 the biography by Alan Cunningham, the greater part of which was translated into German in the third volume of 'Zeitgenossen,' published at Leipsic in the same year, which also refers to the paper in the 'Vaterlandisches Museum,' but knows no other authority; while in the first volume of Nagler's 'Künstler-Lexicon' (1835) over three large octavo pages are devoted to Blake, more, in fact, than to Bellini, homage which might satisfy the most exacting worshipper. This outburst of German interest, hitherto, I believe, unnoticed in England, is without doubt due to the article by Henry Crabb Robinson, who is referred to by Gilchrist as 'a gentleman whom, so long ago as 1809, we beheld a solitary visitor to the abortive exhibition in Broad Street, and in 1810, writing an account of the memorable man for the Patriotische Annalen of good Dr. Perthes of Hamburgh' (ch. xxxv). Obviously Gilchrist had never seen the paper, and knew of it only from the reference in Crabb Robinson's own 'Reminiscences,' which were shown him in MS. Like the author himself he misquotes the title of the magazine, and this has probably hindered recent students from following up the matter. Crabb Robinson's published account is as follows:
I amused myself this spring [of 1810] by writing an account of the insane poet, painter and engraver, Blake. Perthes of Hamburgh had written to me asking me to send him an article for a new German magazine, entitled 'Vaterlandische Annalen,' which he was about to set up. Dr. Malkin having in the memoirs of his son given an account of Blake's extraordinary genius, with specimens of his poems, I resolved out of these materials to compile a paper. This I did, and it was translated into German by Dr. Julius, who many years afterwards introduced himself to me as my translator. The article appears in the single number of the second volume of the 'Vaterlandische Annalen,' For it was at this time that Buonaparte united Hamburgh to the French Empire, on which Perthes manfully gave up the magazine, saying, as he had no longer a 'Vaterland,' there could be no 'Vaterlandische Annalen,' But before I drew up this paper I went to see a gallery of Blake's paintings, which were exhibited by his brother, a hosier in Carnaby Market. The entrance fee was 2s. 6d., catalogue included. I was deeply interested by the catalogue as well as the pictures. I took four copies, telling the brother I hoped he would let me come again. He said 'Oh, as often as you please.' Afterwards I became acquainted with Blake, but will postpone what I have to relate of this extraordinary character.
The relation was put at the disposal of Mr. Gilchrist, and is familiar to all students of Blake in the 'Life,' or in Crabb Robinson's own 'Diary' and 'Reminiscences.'
Crabb Robinson, as we have seen, knew Malkin's work, but his criticism is essentially at first-hand, based on a warm personal interest in the artist's work, but untempered by that sympathy which personal contact with Blake generally produced. Interested by the reference in Gilchrist, I sought at the British Museum for the 'Patriotische Annalen'—whose real title is the 'Vaterlandisches Museum'—and found the translation published in February, 1810, to be the last article in the last of the six numbers of that short-lived publication. Careful examination of all Crabb Robinson's miscellaneous papers at Dr. Williams' Library, Gordon Square, led not, alas, to the discovery of any part of the original MS.—the complete copy must, of course, have been sent to Germany in 1809—but to that of various notes on the subject, including copies of sixteen of Blake's poems, extracts from the 'Europe' and 'America' a fragment of unpublished prose, and a note of the address of the Exhibition of 1809, all of which must be discussed in their proper place.
The German version of Crabb Robinson's paper, which adds one or two small facts to our knowledge of Blake, proved to be of considerable interest, and as the original MS. was missing, the one course open was the retranslation of the paper in the 'Vaterlandisches Museum.' I cannot hope always to have caught the precise shade of the author's meaning, but Crabb Robinson himself approved of the German translation, behind which one constantly feels the presence of an English original. As far as possible, I have modelled my phrases on Crabb Robinson's own in the various passages which he devotes to Blake in the 'Reminiscences.' One word of warning may be given to the reader. A comparison of the paper here given with the 'Reminiscences' will show how much more favourable in spite of occasional outbursts against his sanity was the author's opinion of Blake when he came to know him in 1825; had his early paper ever been reprinted, the censure would doubtless have been modified in accordance with his better knowledge of the poet-artist. As has been truly said by Messrs. Ellis and Yeats (who likewise appear never to have seen the 'Vaterlandisches Museum'), Crabb Robinson's 'Reminiscences' were 'written by a man who thought [Blake] mad before he saw him, and never altogether got rid of the idea.'
It is of considerable interest, therefore, to find an account of Blake published fifteen years before he had met the artist by the very man whose later description, based on personal knowledge, has been justly called 'the best and most vivid portrait of him that has been left us from his own day.' (Ellis and Yeats, I, p. 150.) And herewith we pass to
Artist, Poet, and Religious Mystic.
Of all the conditions which arouse the interest of the psychologist, none assuredly is more attractive than the union of genius and madness in single remarkable minds, which, while on the one hand they compel our admiration by their great mental powers, yet on the other move our pity by their claims to supernatural gifts. Of such is the whole race of ecstatics, mystics, seers of visions and dreamers of dreams, and to their list we have now to add another name, that of William Blake.
This extraordinary man, who is at this moment living in London, although more than fifty years of age, is only now beginning to emerge from the obscurity in which the singular bent of his talents and the eccentricity of his personal character have confined him. We know too little of his history to claim to give a complete account of his life, and can do no more than claim to have our information on very recent authority. It must suffice to know by way of introduction that he was born in London of parents of moderate means, and early gave himself up to his own guidance, or rather, misguidance. In his tenth year he went to a drawing school, in his fourteenth (as apprentice) to an engraver of the name of Basire, well known by his plates to Stuart's 'Athens' and his engraving of West's 'Orestes and Pylades.' Even as a boy, Blake was distinguished by the singularity of his taste. Possessed with a veritable passion for Gothic architecture, he passed whole days in drawing the monuments in Westminster Abbey. In addition he collected engravings, especially after Raphael and Michael Angelo, and idolised Albert Dürer and Heemskerk.
Although he afterwards worked as a student at the Royal Academy, he had already shown his bent to an art so original that, isolated from his fellow-students, he was far removed from all regular or ordinary occupation. His name is nevertheless to be found under some very commonplace plates to children's books; but while he cherished artistic visions utterly opposed to the taste of connoisseurs, and regarded more recent methods in drawing and engraving as sins against art, he preferred, in his phrase, to be a martyr for his religion—i.e., his art—to debasing his talents by a weak submission to the prevailing fashion of art in an age of artistic degradation. Moreover, as his religious convictions had brought on him the credit of being an absolute lunatic, it is hardly to be wondered at that, while professional connoisseurs know nothing of him, his very well-wishers cannot forbear betraying their compassion, even while they show their admiration. One attempt at introducing him to the great British public has indeed succeeded, his illustrations to Blair's 'Grave,' a religious poem very popular among the serious, which connoisseurs find remarkable alike for its beauties and defects, blaming its want of taste and delicacy, while admiring the imaginative powers of the poet. Blake, although properly speaking an engraver, was not commissioned to engrave his own drawings, the execution being entrusted, for reasons which we shall soon hear, to Schiavonetti, who executed his task with great neatness, but with such an admixture of dots and lines as must have aroused the indignation of the artist. This work, which besides the twelve drawings contains an excellent portrait of Blake and the original text, costs two and a half guineas. It is preceded by some remarks of Fuseli's, which we insert as a proof of the merits of our artist, since we cannot give an actual reproduction of his work. After mentioning the utility of such a series of moral designs in an age so frivolous as ours, before which the allegories of antiquity faint and fail, Fuseli continues, 'the author of the moral series before us has endeavoured to wake sensibility by touching our sympathies with nearer, less ambiguous, and less ludicrous imagery, than that which mythology, Gothic superstition, or symbols as far-fetched as inadequate, could supply,' [and so on, quoting the rest of the kind but clumsy preface of the admirer who found Blake 'damned good to steal from.' Crabb Robinson continues:—] One can see this is no 'damning with feigned praise,'for the faults indicated by Fuseli are only too apparent. In fact, of all the artists who ever lived, even of those perverted spirits described by Goethe in his entertaining 'Sammler und die Seinigen' ('Propyläen,' B.2. St. 2) under the title of poetisers, phantom-hunters and the like, none so completely betrays himself as our artist. We shall return to these drawings later, and will now proceed to speak of the little book on which we have specially drawn, a book, besides, which is one of the most curious ever published.
The illustrations to the 'Grave,' though only perhaps admired by the few, were by these few loudly and extravagantly praised. Blake, who had become known by their praises, now resolved to come forward. Only last year he opened an exhibition of his frescoes, proclaiming that he had rediscovered the lost art of fresco. He demanded of those who had considered his works the slovenly daubs of a madman, destitute alike of technical skill and harmony of proportion, to examine them now with greater attention. 'They will find' he adds, 'that if Italy is enriched and made great by Raphael, if Michael Angelo is its supreme glory, if art is the glory of the nation, if genius and inspiration are the great origin and bond of society, the distinction my works have obtained from those who best understand such things calls for my exhibition as the greatest of duties to my country.' [I cannot find this passage in any known work of Blake's, yet it bears the stamp of authenticity, and by good fortune I am enabled to give it in Blake's own words, not in a translation of Crabb Robinson only, as the latter has copied the above sentence, together with a doubtful date, which as we shall see must be that of May 15, 1809—a day memorable for the opening of the Exhibition in Golden Square—on the back of a letter preserved among his papers in Dr. Williams' Library. Just above it is written, and crossed out, part of a sentence, apparently from the same source, 'There cannot be more than three great painters or poets in any age or count[ry].' The probable origin of the passages must be given later.] At the same time he published a 'Descriptive Catalogue' of these fresco pictures, out of which we propose to give only a few unconnected passages. The original consists of a veritable olio of fragmentary utterances on art and religion, without plan or arrangement, and the artist's idiosyncracies will in this way be most clearly shown. The vehemence with which, throughout the book, he declaims against oil painting and the artists of the Venetian and Flemish schools is part of the fixed ideas of the author. [The quotations are here given from the text of the ' Descriptive Catalogue,' and not merely retranslated from Crabb Robinson.] His preface begins with the following words [which again do not occur in the 'Descriptive Catalogue' as we know it]:—'The eye which prefers the colouring of Rubens and Titian to that of Raphael and Michael Angelo should be modest and mistrust its own judgement,' but as he proceeds with his descriptions his wrath against false schools of painting waxes, and in holy zeal he proclaims that the hated artists are evil spirits, and later art the offspring of hell. Chiaroscuro he plainly calls 'an infernal machine in the hand of Venetian and Flemish demons.' The following will make it appear that these expressions are not merely theoretical phrases. Correggio he calls 'a soft, effeminate, and consequently most cruel demon.' Rubens is 'a most outrageous demon.' [It is hardly necessary to give the whole of Crabb Robinson's quotations from a work now so familiar. Suffice it to say that he does justice, both in his own words and in his quotations from the Catalogue, to Blake's doctrine of the 'great and golden rule of art, a fine and determinate outline.' Passing on, we come to another point on which Mr. Crabb Robinson's unpublished papers throw a new light; he continues:] He does not conceal the ground of this preference [for Raphael and Michael Angelo], and the following passage, while it reveals the artist's views on the technique of his art, contains a truth which cannot be denied, and which underlies his whole doctrine. 'The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art' [and so on down to the end of the text to No. XV. of the 'Descriptive Catalogue']. This passage is sufficient to explain why our artist was not permitted to engrave his own designs [for Blair's 'Grave']. In the same spirit he proclaims the guilt of the recent distinction between a painting and a drawing. 'If losing and obliterating the outline constitutes a picture, Mr. B. will never be so foolish as to do one…. There is no difference between Raphael's Cartoons and his Frescoes or Pictures, except that the Frescos or Pictures are more highly finished.' He denies Titian, Rubens and Correggio all merit in colouring, and says, 'their men are like leather and their women like chalk.' In his own principal picture his naked forms are almost crimson. They are Ancient Britons, of whom he says, 'the flush of health in flesh, exposed to the open air, nourished by the spirits of forests and floods, in that ancient happy period which history has recorded, cannot be like the sickly daubs of Titian or Rubens. As to modern man, stripped from his load of clothing, he is like a dead corpse.'
We now pass from the technique of his art to the meaning and poetical portions in which the peculiarities of our artist are still more clearly seen. His greatest enjoyment consists in giving bodily form to spiritual beings. Thus in the 'Grave' he has represented the re-union of soul and body, and to both he has given equal clearness of form and outline. In one of his best drawings, the 'Death of the Strong Wicked Man,' the body lies in the death agony, and a broken vessel, whose contents are escaping, indicates the moment of death, while the soul, veiled in flame, rises from the pillow. The soul is a copy of the body, yet in altered guise, and flies from the window with a well-rendered expression of horror. In other engravings the soul appears hovering over the body, which it leaves unwillingly; in others we have the Re-union of both at the Resurrection and so forth. These are about the most offensive of his inventions.
In his Catalogue we find still further vindication of the reproaches brought against his earlier work. 'Shall painting be confined to the sordid drudgery of facsimile representations of merely mortal and perishing substances, and not be, as poetry and music are, elevated into its own proper sphere of invention and visionary conception?' He then alleges that the statues of the Greek gods are so many bodily representations of spiritual beings. 'A Spirit and a Vision are not, as the modern philosophy asserts, a cloudy vapour or a nothing; they are organised and minutely articulated beyond all that the mortal and perishing nature can produce. Spirits are organised men.'
In a certain sense every imaginative artist must maintain the same, but it will always remain doubtful in what sense our artist uses these expressions. For in his own description of his allegorical picture of Pitt guiding Behemoth, and Nelson Leviathan (pictures which the present writer, although he has seen them, dares not describe) he says, 'these pictures are similar to those Apotheoses of Persian, Hindoo, and Egyptian antiquity, which are still preserved on rude monuments.' [Other quotations follow from the 'Descriptive Catalogue'—Crabb Robinson resumes:] As this belief of our artist's in the intercourse which, like Swedenborg, he enjoys with the spiritual world has more than anything else injured his reputation, we subjoin another remarkable passage from his Catalogue. His greatest and most perfect work is entitled 'The Ancient Britons.' It is founded on that strange survival of Welsh bardic lore which Owen gives thus under the name of Triads:
That returned, and the most strong another: with them also returnedThe most ugly; and no other beside returned from the bloody field.
The most strong they melted before and dissolved in his presence;The most ugly they fled with outcries and contortions of their limbs.
The picture represents these three beings fighting with the Romans; but we prefer to let the artist speak of his own works. [Crabb Robinson proceeds to quote the 'yet darker commentary on this dark passage,' the long account of the picture in the 'Descriptive Catalogue' which need not be quoted here. On the other hand, the Triads are not quoted in the 'Descriptive Catalogue' but are quoted in the above form in what is described by Gilchrist, who gives only a fragment of the document, as 'a curious waif, bearing a record of this exhibition… a printed programme, dated in Blake's autograph, May 15, 1809, and directed to Ozias Humphrey; containing one page of print preceded by an elaborate title-page.' I have been unable to trace a copy of this work, or to find it reprinted entire, but I feel little doubt that the very interesting prose passage quoted from the letter on which Crabb Robinson has scribbled quotations from 'Europe' and 'America' etc., the address of Blake's Exhibition in Golden Square, and the date May (?) 15th, 1809, are all derived from this programme. This date is very indistinct, and might be intended for August 15th, but the occurrence on the programme of the date May 15th and of the Triads is proof that the true reading is May, virtually also proof that the prose passages on page 240 come from the same source. A complete copy of the leaflet must therefore have fallen into the hands of Crabb Robinson, and as Gilchrist did not reprint it entire, the quotations add something to our knowledge of a characteristic document. Blake's reference to 'the distinction my works have obtained from those who best understand such things' is probably an allusion to the complimentary expressions of Fuseli and others in the preface to Blair's 'Grave,' to which we therefore indirectly owe the 'Descriptive Catalogue.'
Elsewhere he says that Adam and Noah were Druids, and that he himself is an inhabitant of Eden. Blake's religious convictions appear to be those of an orthodox Christian; nevertheless, passages concerning earlier mythologies occur which might cast a doubt on it. These passages are to be found in his Public Address on the subject of this picture of Chaucer's Pilgrims, certainly the most detailed and accurate of his works since, kept within limits by his subject, he could not run riot in his imagination. [Blake's saying concerning Chaucer's Pilgrims, that 'every one is an antique statue,' with the instances he gives, 'some of whose names and titles are altered by time, but the characters themselves for ever remain unaltered,' are then quoted. Crabb Robinson continues.] These passages could be explained as the diatribes of a fervid monotheist against polytheism; yet, as our author elsewhere says, 'The antiquities of every nation under the Heaven are no less sacred than those of the Jews,' his system remains more allied to the stoical endurance of Antiquity than to the essential austerity of Christianity.
These are the wildest and most extravagant passages of the book, which lead to the consideration with which we began this account. No one can deny that, as even amid these aberrations gleams of reason and intelligence shine out, so a host of expressions occur among them which one would expect from a German rather than an Englishman. The Protestant author of 'Herzensergiessungen eines Kunstliebenden Klosterbruders' [by W. G. Wachenroder, edited by Tieck, Berlin, 1797] created the character of a Catholic in whom Religion and love of Art were perfectly united, and this identical person, singularly enough, has turned up in Protestant England. Yet Blake does not belong by birth to the established church, but to a dissenting sect; although we do not believe that he goes regularly to any Christian church. He was invited to join the Swedenborgians under Proud, but declined, notwithstanding his high opinion of Swedenborg, of whom he says: 'The works of this visionary are well worth the attention of Painters and Poets; they are foundations for grand things. The reason they have not been more attended to is because corporal demons have gained a predominance.' Our author lives, like Swedenborg, in communion with the angels. He told a friend, from whose mouth we have the story, that once when he was carrying home a picture which he had done for a lady of rank, and was wanting to rest in an inn, the angel Gabriel touched him on the shoulder and said, 'Blake, wherefore art thou here? Go to, thou shouldst not be tired.' He arose and went on unwearied. This very conviction of supernatural suggestion makes him deaf to the voice of the connoisseur, since to any reproach directed against his works he makes answer, why it cannot in the nature of things be a failure. 'I know that it is as it should be, since it adequately reproduces what I saw in a vision, and must therefore be beautiful.'
It is needless to enumerate all Blake's performances. The most famous we have already mentioned, and the rest are either allegorical or works of the pen. We must, however, mention one other of his works before ceasing to discuss him as an artist. This is a most remarkable edition of the first four books of Young's 'Night Thoughts,' which appeared in 1797, and is no longer to be bought, so excessively rare has it become. In this edition the text is in the middle of the page; above and below it are engravings by Blake after his own drawings. They are of very unequal merit; sometimes the inventions of the artist rival those of the poet, but often they are only preposterous translations of them, by reason of the unfortunate idea peculiar to Blake, that whatsoever the fancy of the spiritual eye may discern must also be as clearly penetrable to the bodily eye. So Young is literally translated, and his thought turned into a picture. Thus for example the artist represents in a drawing Death treading crowns under foot, the sun reaching down his hand, and the like. Yet these drawings are frequently exquisite. We hear that the publisher has not yet issued a quarter of the drawings delivered to him by the artist [only 43 out of a total of 537 were in fact issued], and has refused to sell the drawings, although a handsome sum was offered him for them.
We have now to introduce our artist as poet, so as to be able to give some examples of his work in this branch of art, since he himself has published nothing in the proper sense of the word. The poems breathe the same spirit and are distinguished by the same peculiarities as his drawings and prose criticisms. As early as 1783 a little volume was printed with the title of Poetical Sketches, by W. B. No printer's name is given on the title-page, and in the preface it states that the poems were composed between his thirteenth and twentieth years. They are of very unequal merit. The metre is usually so loose and careless as to betray a total ignorance of the art, whereby the larger part of the poems are rendered singularly rough and unattractive. On the other hand, there is a wildness and loftiness of imagination in certain dramatic fragments which testifies to genuine poetical feeling. An example may serve as a measure of the inspiration of the poet at this period.
To the Muses.
Whether on Ida's shady brow,
Or in the chambers of the East,
The Chambers of the Sun, that now
From ancient melody have ceased;
Whether in heaven ye wander fair,
Or the green corners of the Earth,
Or the blue regions of the air.
Where the melodious winds have birth;
Whether on christal rocks ye rove,
Beneath the bosom of the sea,
Wand'ring in many a coral grove;
Fair Nine, forsaking Poetry!
How have you left the ancient love,
That bards of old enjoyed in you?
The languid strings do scarcely move,
The sound is forced, the notes are few.
A still more remarkable little book of poems by our author exists, which is only to be met with in the hands of collectors. It is a duodecimo entitled 'Songs of Innocence and Experience, shewing the two contrary states of the human soul. The Author and printer W. Blake.' The letters appear to be etched, and the book is printed in yellow. Round and between the lines are all sorts of engravings; sometimes they resemble the monstrous hieroglyphs of the Egyptians, sometimes they represent not ungraceful arabesques. Wherever an empty space is left after the printing a picture is inserted. These miniature pictures are of the most vivid colours, and often grotesque, so that the book presents a most singular appearance. It is not easy to form a comprehensive opinion of the text, since the poems deserve the highest praise and the gravest censure. Some are childlike songs of great beauty and simplicity; these are the Songs of Innocence, many of which, nevertheless, are excessively childish.
The Songs of Experience, on the other hand, are metaphysical riddles and mystical allegories. Among them are poetic pictures of the highest beauty and sublimity; and again there are poetical fancies which can scarcely be understood even by the initiated. As we wish to make the knowledge of our author as complete as possible, we will give an example of either kind. The book has an Introduction from which we here insert the first and the two last stanzas (the fourth and fifth).
Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:
'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.
We can only give one more example of these joyous and delicious songs, that called 'Holy Thursday,' which describes the procession of children from all the charity schools to St. Paul's Cathedral which always takes place on this day. [''Twas on a Holy Thursday' is then quoted in full. Before giving Crabb Robinson's concluding remarks, it may be well to say a word of the German translations of Blake's poems which follow the originals in Crabb Robinson's paper. In most cases the original metre is preserved, and their power and charm is quite remarkable. I shall, therefore, quote the first stanzas of the Introduction and Holy Thursday, and a verse or two of 'Tiger, Tiger,' as translated by Dr. Lange:]
Pfeifend ging ich durch das Thai,
Pfeifend Lieder ohne Zahl;
Sah ein Kind von Luft getragen,
Hört' es lächelnd zu mir sagen,
'Pfeifer, setz dich bin und schreib,
Dass dein Lied im Sinne bleib.'
So erklangs vor meinem Ohr,
Und ich schnitt ein hohles Rohr,
Schnitzte eine Feder dran,
Macht' aus Wasser Dinte dann,
Schrieb die Lieder hin zur Stund,
Dass sie sing der Kinder Mund.
Es war am griinen Donnerstag, man sahe die Kinder ziehn,
Sauber gewaschen, paarweis', gekleidet in roth und in blau und in grtin.
Graukopfige Zuchtmeister mit schneeweissen Ruthen voran,
In St. Paul's hohen Dom wie der Themse Fluthen strCmen sie dann.
Tiger, Tiger, Flammenpracht,
In den Wäldren düstrer Nacht!
Sprich, wess Gottes Aug 'und Hand,
Dich so furchtbar schön verband?
Welche Stärke, welche Kunst,
Wob so sinnreich Herzensbrunst?
Als dein Herz den Puls empfand
Welch' ein Fuss? und welche Hand?
Aus den Sternen flog der Speer,
Thränend ward der Himmel Meer:
Schaut' er lächelnd da auf dich?
Der das lamm schuf, schuf er dich?
[It is well to read these poems together since, as Crabb Robinson justly says, we cannot better set forth the many-sided gifts of our poet than by following up this singularly delicate and simple poem, Holy Thursday, with this truly inspired and original description of the Tiger.]
Of the allegorical poems we prefer to give one which we think we understand, rather than one which is to us wholly incomprehensible. The following Song of Experience probably represents man after the loss of his innocence, as, bound by the commandment and the priests its servants, he looks back longing to his earlier state, where before was no commandment, no duty, and nought save love and voluntary sacrifice.
The Garden of Love.
I went to the garden of love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
Besides these songs two other works of Blake's Poetry and Painting have come under our notice, of which, however, we must confess our inability to give a sufficient account. These are two quarto volumes which appeared in 1794, printed and adorned like the Songs, under the titles of Europe, a Prophecy, and America, a Prophecy.
The very 'Prophecies of Bakis' are not obscurer. 'America' appears in part to give a poetical account of the Revolution, since it contains the names of several party leaders. The actors in it are a species of guardian angels. We give only a short example, nor can we decide whether it is intended to be in prose or verse.
On these vast shady hills between America's and Albion's shore,
Now barred out by the Atlantic Sea: called Atlantean hills,
Because from their bright summits you may pass to the golden world,
An ancient palace, archetype of mighty empiries,
Rears its immortal summit, built in the forests of God,
By Ariston the King of Heaven for his stolen bride.
The obscurity of these lines in such a poem by such a man will be willingly overlooked.
'Europe' is a similar mysterious and incomprehensible rhapsody, which probably contains the artist's political visions of the future, but is wholly inexplicable. It appears to be in verse, and these are the first four lines:—
I wrap my turban of thick clouds around my laboring head,
And fold the sheety waters as a mantle round my limbs;
Yet the red Sun and Moon,
And all the overflowing stars rain down prolific pains.
[This passage and the preceding are written by Crabb Robinson on the same old letter that contains the prose passages already referred to. Transcripts of Holy Thursday and the Introduction do not exist among the Crabb Robinson papers, but the other poems quoted in this paper exist in his autograph, together with copies of fourteen of Blake's other poems drawn from the Poetical Sketches and the Songs, the Dedication from Blair's Grave, and the Poison Tree.]
These Prophecies, like the Songs, appear never to have come within the ken of the wider public.
We have now given an account of all the works of this extrordinary man that have come under our notice. We have been lengthy, but our object is to draw the attention of Germany to a man in whom all the elements of greatness are unquestionably to be found, even though those elements are disproportionately mingled. Closer research than was permitted us would perhaps shew that as an artist Blake will never produce consummate and immortal work, as a poet flawless poems; but this assuredly cannot lessen the interest which all men, Germans in a higher degree even than Englishmen, must take in the contemplation of such a character. We will only recall the phrase of a thoughtful writer, that those faces are the most attractive in which nature has set something of greatness which she has yet left unfinished; the same may hold good of the soul.
Note.—This paper was written some years before I came across Mr. Sampson's edition of the 'Poems of William Blake,' in which several of Dr. Julius' versions are quoted from the 'Vaterlandisches Museum' with the praise they deserve. The publication is, however, ascribed to the year 1806; this must be a mistake for 1811, the date on the British Museum copy, as we know from Crabb Robinson's 'Diary' that the paper in which they occur was written in 1810.
- Lamb's copy, as Mr. Lucas tells us, was afterwards bound up with Elia's 'Confessions of a Drunkard,' Southey's 'Wat Tyler,' and the 'Poems' of Rochester and Lady Winchelsea. A strange company truly, but characteristic of the owner and his hap-hazard library.
- This is the only reference to the paper to be found in Gilchrist; reference is, however, made to Dr. Julius' translation of the poems therein given by Mr. Sampson in his recent Oxford edition of Blake's works, but not to Crabb Robinson's paper itself. The same applies to other recent works on Blake.
- The above passage is taken from the Diary as published. The quotations from Crabb Robinson's own MSS. are printed in full for the first time by Mr. Arthur Symons in his 'William Blake.'
- Cf. the first entry on Blake in Crabb Robinson's 'Reminiscences,' 'shall I call Blake artist, genius, mystic, or madman? Probably he is all.'
- Crabb Robinson must have obtained these facts from the brief but valuable account of Blake in the preface to Malkin's 'Father's Memoirs of his Child,' published in 1805.
- This may allude to his own works 'For Children: the Gates of Paradise,' or to his recently recovered 'History of England' (both 1793), or to Mary Wollstonecraft|'s 'Tales for Children' (1791).
- That it did so we have the publisher Cromek's word; see the letter addressed by him to Blake on the subject of the engravings in 'Gilchrist,' chapter xxii. Blake's view of the dot and line school may be found in the third chapter of Gilchrist. 'What is called the English style of engraving, such as proceeded from the toilettes of Woollett and Strange (for theirs were Fribble's toilettes) can never produce character and expression…. Engraving is drawing on copper and nothing else.'
- I must apologise for the pun in the above phrase, but the original, 'Kein Verdammen durch verstelltes Lob,' is in inverted commas, suggesting a quotation, and Pope's phrase would infallibly suggest itself to Crabb Robinson in this connexion.
- 'Sinne' is the word in both clauses of the original sentence.
- This sentence is interesting, as confirming Mr. Seymour Kirkup's judgment, who called it the finest of his works, as against Southey's, who in the 'Doctor' called it 'one of his worst pictures, which is saying much.' (Gilchrist I, pp. 276-7.) Swinburne tells us that Mr. Kirkup never forgot 'the fury and splendour of energy these contrasted with the serene ardour of simply beautiful courage, the violent life of the designer, and the fierce distance of fluctuating battle.'
- 'Descriptive Catalogue,' text to No. v.
- This fact, as well as the statement that Blake was definitely invited to join the Swedenborgians, appears not to be recorded elsewhere, though several writers state that Swedenborgian doctrines were freely discussed in the home of Blake's father.
- Joseph Proud (1745-1826), minister of the New Church.
- 'Descriptive Catalogue,' text to No. VIII.
- This story has not, as far as I am aware, been told elsewhere.
- This fact is not mentioned by Gilchrist or apparently by later authorities.
- This is also noted by Crabb Robinson on one of the loose sheets on which he has copied sixteen of Blake's poems. These include examples from the 'Poetical Sketches,' from the 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' and the 'Dedication of Blair's Grave.'
- 'America' in point of fact appeared in 1793.