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Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Lamb, etc., being selections from the Remains of Henry Crabb Robinson/Diary Account of Blake

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DIARY ACCOUNT OF
BLAKE

I. 1811. July 24th . . . Late to C. Lamb's. Found a very large party there. Southey had been with Blake & admired both his designs & his poetic talents at the same time that he held him for a decided madman. Blake, he says, spoke of his visions with the diffidence that is usual with such people & did not seem to expect that he shd. be believed. He shewed S[outhey] a perfectly mad poem called Jerusalem. Oxford Street is in Jerusalem.

II. 1812. May 24 ... I read W[ordsworth] some of Blake's poems; he was pleased with some of them & considered B[lake] as having the elements of poetry a thousand times more than either Byron or Scott, but Scott he thinks superior to Campbell. I was for carrying down the descent to Rogers but W. wd. not allow it. R[ogers] has an effeminate mind, but he has not the obscure writing of C[ampbell]. . . .

III. 1815. Jan. 30. Flaxman was very chatty and pleasant. He related some curious anecdotes of Sharp the engraver, who seems the ready dupe of any and every religious fanatic & impostor who offers himself. . . . Sharp, tho' deceived by Brothers, became a warm partisan of Joanna Southcott. He endeavoured to make a convert of Blake the engraver, but as Fl. judiciously observed, such men as B[lake] are not fond of playing the 2d. fiddle. Hence B[lake] himself a seer of visions & a dreamer of dreams would not do homage to a rival claimant of the privilege of prophecy. B[lake] told F[laxman] that he had had a violent dispute with the Angels on some subject and had driven them away. . . . Excessive pride equally denoted Blake & Barry [another seer of visions].

IV. 1825. Dec 10. Dined with Aders. A very remarkable & interesting evening. The party Blake the painter and Linnell,[1] also a painter & engraver to dinner—In the Eveng. came Miss Denman & Miss Flaxman.


BLAKE

I will put down as they occur to me without method all I can recollect of the conversation of this remarkable man—Shall I call him Artist or Genius—or Mystic or Madman? Probably he is all. He has a most interesting appearance. He is now old, pale with a Socratic countenance and an expression of great sweetness but bordering on weakness except when his features are animated by expression & then he has an air of inspiration about him. The conversation was on art & on poetry & on religion, but it was my object & I was successful in drawing him out & in so getting from him an avowal of his peculiar sentiments. I was aware before of the nature of his impressions or I shd. at times have been at a loss to understand him. He was shewn soon after he entered the room some compositions of Mrs. Aders' which he cordially praised And he brought with him an engraving of his Canterbury pilgrims for Aders. One of the figures resembled one in one of Aders' pictures. 'They say I stole it from this picture, but I did it 20 years before I knew of the picture. However in my youth I was always studying this kind of painting. No wonder there is a resemblance.' In this he seemed to explain humanly what he had done, but he at another time spoke of his paintings as being what he had seen in his visions. And when he said my visions, it was in the ordinary unemphatic tone in which we speak of trivial matters that every one understands & cares nothing about. In the same tone he said repeatedly the 'Spirit told me.' I took occasion to say—You use the same word as Socrates used. What resemblance do you suppose is there between your Spirit & the Spirit of Socrates?[2] The same as between our countenances. He paused & added—'I was Socrates.' And then as if correcting himself, A sort of brother. I must have had conversations with him. So I had with Jesus Christ. I have an obscure recollection of having been with both of them—It was before this, that I had suggested on very obvious philosophical grounds the impossibility of supposing an immortal being created, an eternity a parte post, witht. an eternity a parte ante. This is an obvious truth I have been many (perhaps 30) years fully aware of. His eye brightened on my saying this And he eagerly concurred. To be sure it is impossible. We are all coexistent with God, Members of the Divine body. We are all partakers of the divine nature." In this by the bye Bl[ake] has but adopted an ancient Greek idea, Qy. of Plato. As connected with this idea I shall mention here (tho' it formed part of our talk walking homeward) that on my asking in what light he viewed the great question concerning the Divinity of Jesus Christ, He said—He is the only God—But then he added—'And so am I & so are you.' Now he had just before (and that occasioned my question) been speaking of the errors of Jesus Christ. He was wrong in suffering himself to be crucified. He should not have attacked the govt. He had no business with such matters. On my enquiring how he reconciled this with the sanctity and divine qualities of Jesus, he said 'He was not then become the father'—Connecting as well as one can these fragmentary sentences it would be hard to fix Blake's station between Christianity, Platonism and Spinozism. Yet he professes to be very hostile to Plato & reproaches Wordsworth with being not a Xn. but a Platonist.

It is one of the subtle remarks of Hume on certain religious speculations that the tendency of them is to make men indifferent to what ever takes place by destroying all ideas of good & evil. I took occasion to apply this remark to something Blake said. 'If so,' I said, 'There is no use in discipline or education, no difference betn. good & evil.' He hastily broke in on me—'There is no use in education. I hold it wrong. It is the great sin. It is eating of the tree of the Knowledge of good & evil. That was the fault of Plato—he knew of nothing but of the Virtues and Vices And good & evil. There is nothing in all that. Everything is good in God's eyes.' On my putting the obvious question, 'Is there nothing absolutely evil in what men do'—'I am no judge of that. Perhaps not in God's Eyes.' Tho' on this & other occasions he spoke as if he denied altogether the existence of evil, And as if we had nothing to do with right and wrong—It being sufficient to consider all things as alike the work of God (I interposed with the German word of objectivity which he approved of) Yet at other times he spoke of error as being in heaven. I asked abt. the moral character of Dante in writing his Vision. Was he pure? "Pure" said Blake—'Do you think there is any purity in God's eyes. The angels in heaven are no more so than we." "He chargeth his Angels with folly." He afterwards extended this to the Supreme Being, he is liable to error too. Did he not repent him that he had made Nineveh. It is easier to repeat the personal remarks of Blake than these metaphysical speculation[s] so nearly allied to the most opposite systems. He spoke with seeming complacency of himself—Said he acted by command. The spirit said to him 'Blake, be an artist & nothing else. In this there is felicity"—His eye glistend while he spoke of devoting himself solely to divine art. Art is inspiration, When Michael Angelo or Raphael or Mr. Flaxman does any of his fine things, he does them in the spirit. Bl. said 'I shd. be sorry if I had any earthly fame for whatever natural glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory. I wish to do nothing for profit. I wish to live for art. I want nothing whatever. I am quite happy.'

Among the unintelligible sentiments which he was continually expressing is his distinction between the natural & the spiritual world. The natural world must be consumed. Incidentally Swedenborg was spoken of. He was a divine teacher—he has done much & will do much good. He has corrected many errors of Popery & also of Luther & Calvin. Yet he also said that Swedenborg was wrong in endeavouring to explain to the rational faculty what the reason cannot comprehend. He should have left that. As B[lake] mentioned Swedenb[org] & Dante together, I wished to know whether he considered their visions of the same kind. As far as I cd. collect he does. Dante he said was the greater poet. He had political objects. Yet this, tho' wrong, does not appear in Blake's mind to affect the truth of the vision. Strangely inconsistent with this was the language of Bl[ake] about Wordsworth. W[ordsworth] he thinks is no Xn. but a Platonist—he askd me—Does he believe in the Scriptures. On my answering in the affirmative he said he had been much pained by readg. the introduction to the Excursion. It brought on a fit of illness. The passage was produced & read

Jehovah,—with his thunder & the choir
Of shouting angels, & the empyreal thrones—
I pass them unalarmed.

This pass them unalarmed greatly offendd Blake. Does 'Mr. Wordsw[orth] think his mind can surpass Jehovah? I tried to twist this passage into a sense correspondg with Blake's own theories but failed. And Words[worth] was finally set down as a pagan. But still with great praise as the greatest poet of the page. [Cf. Appendix, pp. 159 et seq.']

Jacob Boehmen was spoken of as a divinely inspired Man. Bl[ake] praised too the figures in Law's transln. as being very beautiful. Mich. Angelo cod. not have done better.—Tho' he spoke of his happiness he spoke of past sufferings & of sufferings as necessary—"There is suffering in Heaven for where there is the capacity of enjoyment, there is the capacity of pain."

I have been interrupd by a call from Talfourd in writing this account. And I can not now recollect any distinct remarks, but as Bl[ake] has invited me to go & see him I shall possibly have an opportunity again of noting what he says And I may be able hereafter to throw connection, if not system, into what I have written above. I feel great admiration & respect for him. He is certainly a most amiable man. A good creature & of his poetical & pictorial genius there is no doubt I believe in the minds of judges. Wordsworth & Lamb like his poems & the Aders his paintings.


A few other detached thoughts occur to me.

Bacon, Locke & Newton are the three great teachers of Atheism & of Satan's doctrine.

Everything is Atheism which assumes the reality of the Natural & Unspiritual world.

Irving He is a highly gifted man. He is a sent man, but they who are sent sometimes go further than they ought.

Dante saw Devils where I see none. I see only good. I saw nothing but good in Calvin's house—better than in Luther's; he had harlots.

Swedenborg. Parts of his scheme are dangerous. His sexual religion is dangerous.

I do not believe that the world is round. I believe it is quite flat. I objected the circumnavign—We were called to dinner at the moment & I lost the reply.[3]

The Sun. I have conversed with the Spiritual Sun. I saw him on Primrose-hill. He said 'Do you take me for the Greek Apollo?' 'No I said that (& Bl[ake] pointed to the sky) that is the Greek Apollo. He is Satan.[4]

"I know now what is true by internal conviction. A doctrine is told me. My heart says it must be true." I corroborated this by remarking on the impossibility of the Unlearned man judging of what are called the external evidences of religion, in which he heartily concurred.


I regret that I have been unable to do more than set down these seeming idle & rambling sentences. The tone & manner are incommunicable. There is a natural sweetness & gentility abt. Blake which are delightful & when he is not referring to his Visions he talks sensibly & acutely. His friend Linnel seems a great admirer. Perhaps the best thing he said was his comparison of moral with natural evil. Who shall say what God thinks evil. That is a wise tale of the Mahometans Of the Angel of the Lord that murdered the infant (alluding to the Hermit of Parnell, I suppose). Is not every infant that dies of disease in effect murdered by an angel? 17th Decr. For the sake of connection I will here insert a minute of a short call I this morning made on Blake. He dwells in Fountain Court in the Strand. I found him in a small room which seems to be both a working room & a bed-room. Nothing could exceed the squalid air both of the apartment & his dress, but in spight of dirt, I might say filth, an air of natural gentility is diffused over him[,] & his wife, notwithstanding the same offensive character of her dress & appearance, has a good expression of countenance. So that I shall have a pleasure in calling on & conversing with these worthy people. But I fear I shall not make any progress in ascertaining his opinions & feelings. That there being really no system or connection in his mind, all his future conversation will be but varieties of wildness & incongruity. I found [him] at work on Dante. The book (Cary) & his sketches both before him. He shewed me his designs, of which I have nothing to say but that they evince a power of grouping & of throwing grace & interest over conceptions most monstrous & disgusting, which I shd. not have anticipated.

Our conversation began abt Dante. 'He was an Atheist, a mere politician busied abt this world as Milton was, till in his old age he returned back to God whom he had had in his childhood.'

I tried to get out from B[lake] that he meant this charge only in a higher sense And not using the word Atheism in its popular meaning. But he would not allow this. Tho' when he in like manner charged Locke with Atheism & I remarked that L[ocke] wrote on the evidences of Xnity & lived a virtuous life, he had nothg. to reply to me nor reiterated the charge of wilful deception. I admitted that Locke's doctrine leads to Atheism[5] & this seemed to satisfy him. From this subject we passed over to that of good & evil on which he repeated his former assertions more decidedly. He allowed indeed that there is error, mistake &c. And if these be evil—then there is evil but these are only negations. Nor would he admit that any education should be attempted except that of cultivation of the imagination & fine arts.—'What are called the vices in the natural world are the highest sublimities in the spiritual world.' When I asked whether if he had been a father he would not have grieved if his child had become vicious or a great criminal. He ansd. 'I must not regard when I am endeavouring to think rightly my own any more than other people's weaknesses. And when I again remarked that this doctrine put an end to all exertion or even wish to change anything, he made no reply.—

We spoke of the Devil & I observed that when a child I thought the Manichaean doctrine or that of two principles, a rational one. He assented to this & in confirmation asserted that he did not believe in the omnipotence of God. The language of the Bible on that subject is only poetical or allegorical. Yet soon after he denied that the natural world is anything. It is all nothing & Satan's empire is the empire of nothing. He reverted soon to his favourite expression 'my visions.' I saw Milton in Imagination And he told me to beware of being misled by his Paradise Lost In particular he wished me to shew the falsehood of his doctrine that the pleasures of sex arose from the fall. The fall could not produce any pleasure. I answered the fall produced a state of evil in which there was a mixture of good or pleasure. And in that sense the fall may be said to produce the pleasure. But he replied that the fall produced only generation & death. And then he went off upon a rambling state[-ment?] of a Union of sexes in Man as in God, an Androgynous state in which I could not follow him—As he spoke of Milton's appearing to him, I asked whether he resembled the prints of him.[6] He answered: 'All. Of what age did he appear to be—Various ages. Sometimes a very old man—he spoke of M[ilton] as being at one time a sort of classical Atheist, And of Dante as being now with God. Of the faculty of Vision he spoke as One he has had from early infancy. He thinks all men partake of it, but it is lost by not being cultivated And he eagerly assented to a remark I made that All men have all Acuities to a greater or less degree.—I am to renew my visits & to read Wordsworth to him of Whom he seems to entertain a high idea.

17th. Made a visit to Blake of which I have written fully in a preceding page. . . .

Saty. 24. A call on Blake. My 3d, Interview. I read him Wordsworth's incomparable Ode which he heartily enjoyed. The same half crazy crotchets abt. the two worlds, the eternal repetition of which must in time become tiresome. Again he repeated today 'I fear Wordsworth loves Nature & Nature is the work of the Devil. The Devil is in us, as far as we are Nature. On my enquiring whether the Devil wd. not be destroyed by God, as being of less power, he denied that God has any power—Asserted that the Devil is eternally created not by God but by God's permission. And when I object[ed] that permission implies power to prevent, he did not seem to understand me. It was remarked that the parts of Wordsworth's Ode which he most enjoyed were the most obscure & those I the least like & comprehend.

Jan. 6, 1826. A call on Blake. I hardly feel it worth while to write down his conversation. It is so much a repetition of his former talk. He was very cordial today. I had procured him two subscriptns for his Job from Geo Procter & Basil Montagu. I paid £1 on each. This probably put him in spirits, more than he was aware of—he spoke of his being richer than ever in havg learnd to know me, & he told Mrs A[ders] he & I were nearly of an opinion. Yet I have practised no deception intentionally unless silence be so. He renewed his complaints, blended with his admiration of Wordsworth. The oddest thing he said was that he had been commandd to do certain things that is to write abt Milton And that he was applauded for refusing. He struggled with the Angels & was victor—his wife joined in the conversation.


Feb. 18 . . . Called on Blake, an amusing chat with him but still no novelty. The same round of extravagant & mad doctrines which I shall not now repeat but merely notice their application. He gave me, copied out by himself, Wordsworth's preface to his Excursion. At the end he has added this note. [Cf Appendix, pp. 159 et seq.'] "Solomon when he married Pharaoh's daughter & became a convert to the Heathen mythology talked exactly in this way of Jehovah as a very inferior object of man's contemplations, he also passed him by unalarmed & was permitted. Jehovah dropped a tear & followed him by his spirit into the abstract void. It is called the Divine Mercy. Satan dwells in it, but mercy does not dwell in him."

Of Wordsw[orth] he talked as before. Some of his writings proceed from the Holy Ghost, but then others are the work of the Devil. However I found on this subject Blake's language more in conformity with Orthodox Xtns. than before. He talked of the being under the direction of Self & Reason as the creature of Man & opposed to God's grace—And warmly declared that all he knew was in the Bible, but then he understands by the Bible the spiritual sense. For as to the natural sense, that Voltaire was commissioned by God to expose. I have had much intercourse with Voltaire and he said to me I blasphemed the Son of Man & it shall be forgiven me. But they (the enemies of V[oltaire] blasphemed the Holy Ghost in me And it shall not be forgiven them. I asked in what language Voltaire spoke. He gave an ingenious answer. 'To my sensations it was English. It was like the touch of a musical key. He touched it probably French, but to my ear it became English! I spoke again of the form of the persons who appear to him. Asked why he did not draw them. 'It is not worth while. There are so many, the labour wd be too great. Besides there would be no Use—As to Shakesp[eare] he is exactly like the old Engraving, Which is called a bad one. I think it very good.

I enquired abt his writings. I have written more than Voltaire or Rousseau—6 or 7 Epic poems as long as Homer, & 20 Tragedies as long as Macbeth. He shewed me his Version (for so it may be called) of Genesis, 'As understood by a Christian Visionary." in which in a style resembling the Bible, The spirit is given. He read a passage at random. It was striking. He will not print any more. 'I write,' he says, 'when commanded by the spirits and the moment I have written I see the words fly abt the room in all directions. It is then published & the Spirits can read. My M.S.S. [are] of no further use. I have been tempted to burn my M.S.S. but my wife won't let me.' 'She is right' said I. 'You have written these, not from yourself but by a higher order. The M.S.S. are theirs, not your property. You cannot tell what purpose they may answer unforeseen to you. He liked this & said he wd not destroy them. His philosophy he repeated—Denying Causation, asserting everything to be the work of God or the Devil. That there is a constant falling off from God, Angels becoming Devils. Every man has a Devil in him And the conflict is eternal between a Man's self & God[7] &c &c &c &c. He told me my copy of his Songs wd. be five Guineas & was pleased by my manner of receiving this information. He spoke of his horror of Money—Of his turning pale when money had been offered him &c[8] &c &c.

June 13. Called early on Blake. He was as wild as ever with no great novelty except that he confessed a practical notion which wd. do him more injury than any other I have heard from him. He says that from the Bible he has learned that Eine Gemeinschaft der Frauen statt finden sollte. When I objected that Ehestand seems to be a divine institution he referred to the Bible—'that from the beginning it was not so.' He talked as usual of the spirits, asserted that he had committed many murders, that reason is the only evil or sin; & that careless gay people are better than those who think &c &c &c.

1827. Friday, Feb. 2. Götzenberg[er] the young painter from Germany called on me & I accompanied him to Blake. We looked over Blake's Dante. Gotzenberger seemed highly gratified by the designs & Mrs Aders says G. considers B. as the first & Flaxman as the second man he has seen in England. The conversation was slight I was interpreter between them & nothing remarkable was said by Blake. He was interested apparently by Gotzenberger.

  1. [Reminiscences, 1825, add:] "Linnell . . . professed to take a deep interest in Blake & his works, whether of a perfectly disinterested character may be doubtful, as will hereafter appear."
  2. [Reminiscences, 1825, add:] "He smiled, & for once it seemed to me as if he had a feeling of vanity gratified."
  3. [Reminiscences, 1825, add:] "But objections were seldom of any use. The wildest of his assertions was made with the veriest indifference of tone as if altogether insignificant. It respected the natural and spiritual worlds. By way of example of the difference between them, he said: You never saw the Spiritual Sun. I have," etc.
  4. [Reminiscences, 1825, add:] "Not everythg. was thus absurd & there were glimpses & flashes of truth and beauty as when he cped. moral with physical evil."
  5. [Reminiscences, 1825, add:] "of the French school."
  6. [Reminiscences, 1825, read:] "As he spoke of frequently seeing Milton, I ventured to ask, half ashamed at the time, wh. of the 3 or 4 portraits in Hollis's Memoirs (Vols, in 4to) is the most like. He answered, 'They are all like at different ages. I have seen him as a youth & as an old man with a long flowing beard. He came lately as an old man. He said he came to ask a favour of me. He sd. he had committed an error in his Par. Lost wh. he wanted me to correct in a poem or picture; but I declined. I said I had my own duties to perform. . . .'"
  7. [In the Reminiscences this reads:] "Every man has a devil in himself & the conflict between his Self & God is perpetually carrying on."
  8. [The Reminiscences add:] "And this was certainly unfeigned."