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

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(a) 1810

I WAS amusing myself this Spring by writing an account of the insane poet & painter engraver, Blake Perthes of Hamburg had written to me asking me to send him an article for a new German Magazine entitled Vaterländische Annalen wh. he was abt to set up. And Dr. Malkin having in the memoirs of his son given an acct of this extraordinary genius with Specimens of his poems, I resolved out of these to compile a paper. And this I did, & the paper was translated by Dr. Julius, who many years afterwards introduced himself to me as my translator. It appears in the single number of the 2d. vol. of the Vaterländische Annalen. For it was at this time that Buonaparte united Hamburg to the French Empire, on wh. Perthes manfully gave up the Magazine, saying, as he had no longer a Vaterland, there cd. be no Vaterländische Annalen. But before I drew up this paper, I went to see a Gallery of Blake's paintings, wh. were exhibited by his brother, a hosier in Carnaby Market; the entrance was 2/6, catalogue included.[1] I was deeply interested by the Catalogue as well as by the pictures. I took 4, telling the brother I hoped he wd. let me come in again. He said, 'Oh! as often as you please.' I dare say such a thing had never happened before or did afterwards.[2] I afterwards became acquainted with Blake & will postpone till hereafter what I have to relate of this extraordinary character, whose life has since been written very inadequately by Allan Cunningham in his Lives of the English artists. . .

(b) 1825-1827

IT was at the latter end of the year 1825 that I put in writing my recollections of this remarkable man. The larger portion are under the date of the 10th of Decr.[3] He died in the year 1827. I have therefore now revised what I wrote on the 10th of Decr. & afterwards, & without any attempt to reduce to order or make consistent the wild & strange, strange rhapsodies uttered by this insane man of genius, thinking it better to put down what I find as it occurs, tho' I am aware of the objection that may justly be made to the recording the ravings of insanity in which it may be said there can be found no principle, as there is no ascertainable law of mental association wh. is obeyed; & from wh. therefore nothing can be learned.

This would be perfectly true of mere madness, but does not apply to that form of insanity or lunacy called Monomania, & may be disregarded in a case like the present in which the subject of the remark was unquestionably what a German wd. call a "Verunglückter Genie" whose theosophic dreams bear a close resemblance to those of Swedenborg; whose genius as an artist was praised by no less men than Flaxman & Fuseli, & whose poems were thought worthy republication by the biographer of Swedenborg, Wilkinson, & of which Wordsworth said, after reading a number. "They were the "Songs of Innocence & Experience," showing the two opposite states of the human soul." There is no doubt this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron or Walter Scott!—

The German painter Götzenberger, (a man indeed who ought not to be named after the others as an authority for my writing abt Blake) said on his returning to Germany about the time at which I am now arrived, "I saw in England many men of talents, but only 3 men of Genius, Coleridge, Flaxman & Blake, & of these Blake was the greatest." I do not mean to intimate my assent to this opinion, nor to do more than supply such materials as my intercourse with him furnishes to an uncritical narrative, to wh. I shall confine myself. I have written a few sentences in these reminiscences already, those of the year 1810. I had not then begun the regular journal which I afterwards kept. I will therefore go over the ground again & introduce these recollections of 1825 by a reference to the slight knowledge I had of him before, & what occasioned my taking an interest in him, not caring to repeat what Cunningham has recorded of him in the volume of his Lives of the British Painters, &c &c. except thus much. It appears that he was born [on 28th November 1757]. Dr. Malkin our Bury Grammar School Head Master published in the year 1806 a memoir of a very precocious child who died [blank in MS.] years old, & he prefixed to the Memoir an engraving of a portrait of him by Blake, & in the vol. he gave an acct. of Blake as a painter & poet & printed some specimens of his poems, viz. The Tiger & ballads & mystical lyrical poems, all of a wild character, & M[alkin] gave an account of visions wh. Blake related to his acquaintance. I knew that Flaxman thought highly of him, & tho' he did not venture to extol him as a genuine Seer, yet he did not join in the ordinary derision of him as a madman. Without having seen him, yet I had already conceived a high opinion of him, & thought he wd. furnish matter for a paper interesting to Germans. And therefore when Fred. Perthes the patriotic publisher at Hamburg wrote to me in 1810, requesting me to give him an article for his Patriotische Annalen, I thought I cd. do no better than send him a paper on Blake[4] . . .

Lamb was delighted with the Catalogue, especially with the description of a painting afterwards engraved, & connected with wh. is an anecdote that unexplained wd. reflect discredit on a most amiable & excellent man, but wh. Flaxman considered to have been the wilful act of Stod[d]art. It was after the friends of Blake had circulated a subscription paper for an engraving of his Canterbury Pilgrims that Stod[d]art was made a party to an engraving of a painting of the same subject by himself Stoddart's work is well-known: Blake's is known by very few. Lamb preferred it greatly to Stoddart's & declared that Blake's description was the finest criticism he had ever read of Chaucer's poem.

In this Catalogue, Blake writes of himself in the most outrageous language, says "This artist defies all competition in colouring," that none can beat him, for none can beat the Holy Ghost; that he & Raphael & Michael Angelo were under the divine influence, while Corregio & Titian worshipped a lascivious & therefore cruel devil, Rubens a proud devil &c. He declared, speaking of colour, Titian's men to be of leather & his women of chalk, & ascribed his own perfection in colouring to the advantage he enjoyed in seeing daily the primitive men walking in their native nakedness in the mountains of Wales.—There were about 30 oil paintings, the colouring excessively dark & high, the veins black & the colour of the primitive men very like that of the red Indians. In his estimation they wd. probably be the primitive men. Many of his designs were unconscious imitations. This appears also in his published works,—the designs to Blair's Grave, wh. Fuseli & Schiavonetti highly extolled, & in his designs to illustrate Job published after his death for the benefit of his widow.

To this Catalogue & to the printed poems, the small pamphlet wh. appeared in 1783, the edition put forth by Wilkinson, 'The Songs of Innocence,' other works &c already mentioned, to wh. I have to add the first two books of Young's Night Thoughts, & Allan Cumberland's Life of him, I now refer, & will confine myself to the memorandums I took of his conversation. I . . . for the first time dined in his company at the Aders'. . . .[5] He was then 68 years of age. He had a broad, pale fece, a large full eye with a benignant expression; at the same time a look of languor except when excited, & then he had an air of inspiration, but not such as without a previous acquaintance with him, or attending to what he said, would suggest the notion that he was insane. There was nothing wild about his look & though very ready to be drawn out to the assertion of his favourite ideas, yet with no warmth as if he wanted to make proselytes. Indeed one of the peculiar features of his scheme as far as it was consistent was indifference & a very extraordinary degree of tolerance & satisfaction with what had taken place, a sort of pious & humble optimism, not the scornful optimism of Candide. But at the same time that he was very ready to praise he seemed incapable of envy, as he was of discontent. He warmly praised some composition of Mrs Aders[6] . . . .


On the 17th I called on him in his house in Fountains Court in the Strand. The interview was a short one, & what I saw was more remarkable than what I heard. He was at work engraving in a small bedroom, light & looking out on a mean yard—everythg. in the room squalid, & indicating poverty except himself. And there was a natural gentility about, & an insensibility to the seeming poverty which quite removed the impression. Besides, his linen was clean, his hand white & his air quite unembarrassed when he begged me to sit down, as if he were in a palace. There was but one chair in the room besides that on wh. he sat. On my putting my hand to it, I found that it would have fallen to pieces if I had lifted it. So, as if I had been a Sybarite, I said with a smile, 'Will you let me indulge myself?' And I sat on the bed and near him. And during my short stay there was nothing in him that betrayed that he was aware of what to other persons might have been even offensive, not in his person, but in all about him.

His wife I saw at this time, & she seemed to be the very woman to make him happy. She had been formed by him. Indeed otherwise she cd. not have lived with him. Notwithstanding her dress, wh. was poor & dirty, she had a good expression in her countenance—& with a dark eye, had remains of beauty in her youth. She had that virtue of virtues in a wife, an implicit reverence of her husband. It is quite certain that she believed in all his visions, & on one occasion, not this day, speaking of his visions she said, 'You know dear, the first time you saw God was when you were 4 years old. And he put his head to the window & set you ascreaming.' In a word, she was formed on the Miltonic model, & like the first wife, Eve, worshipped God in her husband, he being to her what God was to him. Vide Milton's Par. Lost, passim.


He was making designs or engraving, I forget which—Cary's Dante was before [him]. He shewed me some of his designs from Dante of which I do not presume to speak. They were too much above me. But Götzenberger, whom I afterwds. took to see them expressed the highest admiration of them. They are in the hands of Linnell, the painter, & it has been suggested, are reserved by him for publication when Blake may have become an object of interest to a greater number than he can be at this age[7] . . .


1826. On the 24th I called a second time on him, & on this occasion it was that I read to him Wordsworth's Ode on the supposed pre-existent state, & the subject of W.'s religious character was discussed when we met on the 18th of Feb. & the 12th of May. I will here bring together W. Blake's declaratns. concerning W. & set down his marginalia in the 8vo. edit A.D. 1815. Vol. 1. I had been in the habit when reading this marvellous Ode to friends, to omit one or two passages, especially that beginning

But there's a tree, of many one

lest I shd. be rendered ridiculous, being unable to explain precisely what I admired—not that I acknowledged this to be a fair test. But with Blake I cd. fear nothing of the kind, & it was this very Stanza wh. threw him almost into an hysterical rapture. His delight in W.'s poetry was intense. Nor did it seem less notwithstanding by the reproaches he continually cast on W. for his imputed worship of nature, wh. in the mind of Blake constituted Atheism.28.2.52.

The combn. of the warmest praise with imputations which from another wd. assume the most serious character & the liberty he took to interpret as he pleased, rendered it as difficult to be offended as to reason with him. The eloquent descriptions of Nature in W.'s poems were conclusive proof of atheism, for whoever believes in Nature said B. disbelieves in God. For Nature is the work of the Devil. On my obtaining from him the declaration that the Bible was the work of God, I referred to the commencement of Genesis "In the beginning God created the Heaven & the Earth." But I gained nothing by this, for I was triumphantly told that this God was not Jehovah, but the Elohim, & the doctrine of the Gnostics repeated with sufficient consistency to silence one so unlearned as myself.[8] .

I lent him the 8vo. ed. of 2 vols, of W.'s poems wh. he had in his possession at the time of his death. They were sent me then. I did not recognise the pencil notes he made in them to be his for some time, & was on the point of rubbing them out, under that impression when I made the discovery. The following are found in the 5th Vol.:— In the fly-leaf under the words Poems referring to the Period of Childhood.29.2.52.

"I see in Wordsw. the natural man rising up agst the spiritual man continually & then he is no poet, but a heathen philosopher at Enmity agst. all true poetry or inspiration." Under the first poem

3 "And I cd. wish my days to be
 Bound each to each by natural piety"

he had written "There is no such thing as natural piety because the natural man is at enmity with God." p. 43 under the verses to H. C. six years old. "This is all in the highest degree imaginative & equal to any poet, but not superior. I cannot think that real poets have any competition. None are greatest in the Kingdom of God. It is so in Poetry." page 44 "On the influence of natural objects." at the bottom of the page: "Natural objects always did & now do weaken, deaden & obliterate Imagination in me. W. must know that what he writes valuable is not to be found in Nature. Read Michael Angelo's Sonnet, Vol. 2, p. 1 79."—that is the one beginning

"No mortal object did these eyes behold
 When first they met the placid light of thine."

It is remarkable that Blake whose judgements were in most points so very singular, on one subject closely connected with W.'s poetical reputation should have taken a very commonplace view. Over the heading of the "Essay supplementary to the Preface" at the end of the vol. he wrote "I do not know who wrote these Prefaces: they are very mischievous & direct contrary to W.'s own practice" (p. 341). This is not the defence of his own style in opposition to what is called Poetic Diction, but a sort of historic vindication of the unpopular poets. On Macpherson, p. 364. W. wrote with the severity with wh. all great writers have written of him. Blake's comment below was:—"I believe both Macpherson & Chatterton, that what they say is ancient is so." & in the following page: "I own myself an admirer of Ossian equally with any other poet whatever, Rowley & Chatterton also." And at the end of this Essay he wrote "It appears to me as if the last paragraph beginning "Is it the result of the whole" & it [?] was written by another hand & mind from the rest of these Prefaces: they are the opinions of [blank in MS.] landscape painter. Imagination is the divine vision not of the World, nor of Man, nor from Man as he is a natural man, but only as he is a spiritual Man. Imagination has nothing to do with Memory."1.3.52.

In the No: of the Gents. Magazine for last Jan. [1852] there is a letter by Cromek to Blake, printed in order to convict B[lake] of selfishness. It cannot possibly be substantially true. I may elsewhere notice it.

It was, I believe on the 7th of December that I saw him last I had just heard of the death of Flaxman, a man whom he professed to admire, & was curious how he wd. receive the intelligence. It was as I expected. He had been ill during the summer, & he said with a smile, 'I thought I shd. have gone first.' He then said, 'I cannot think of death as more than the going out of one room into another.' And Flaxman was no longer thought of. He relapsed into his ordinary train of thinking. Indeed I had by this time learned that there was nothing to be gained by frequent intercourse, & therefore it was that after this interview I was not anxious to be frequent in my visits. This day he said, 'Men are born with an Angel & a Devil.' This he himself interpreted as Soul & Body. And as I have long since said of the strange sayings of a man who enjoys a high reputation "It is more in the language than the thoughts that the singularity is to be looked for." And this day he spoke of the Old Testament as if it were the Evil Element. "Christ, he said, took much after his Mother & in so far he was one of the worst of men." On my asking him for an instance, he referred to his turning the money changers out of the temple—he had no right to do that. He digressed into a condemnation of those who sit in judgment on others. "I have never known a very bad man who had not somethg. very good abt him." Speaking of the Atonement in the ordinary Calvinistic sense, he said "It is a horrible doctrine; if another pay your debt, I do not forgive it." I have no account of any other call, but this is probably an omission. I took Götzenberger to see him & he met the Masqueriers in my Chambers. Masquerier was not the man to meet him. He could not humour B. nor understand the peculiar sense in wh. B. was to be recd.

1827. My journal of this year contains nothing abt Blake.[9] But in Jan. 1828 Barron Field & myself called on Mrs. Blake. The poor old lady was more affected than I expected she would be at the sight of me. She spoke of her husband as dying like an Angel. She informed us that she was going to live with Linnell as his housekeeper, & we understood that she would live with him. And he, as it were, to farm her services & take all she had. The Engravings of Job were his already. Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims were hers. I took 2 copies; one I gave to C. Lamb. Barron Field took a proof.

Mrs. Blake died within a few years. And since Blake's death Linnell has not found the market. I took for granted he would seek for Blake's works. Wilkinson printed a small edition of his poems including the "Songs of Innocence & Experience" a few years ago. And Monkton Milne talks of printing an edition. I have a few coloured engravings, but B[lake] is still an object of interest exclusively to men of imaginative taste & psychological curiosity. I doubt much whether these Memoirs will be of any use to this small class. 1.3.52.

I have been reading since the life of Blake by Allan Cunningham Vol. 11, p. 143 of his Lives of the Painters. It recognises perhaps more of Blake's merit than might have been expected of a Scotch realist. 22.3.52.

  1. [Reminiscences, 1825, read:] "This catalogue I possess, and it is a very curious exposure of the state of the artist's mind. I wished to send it to Germany and to give a copy to Lamb and others, so I took four. . . ."
  2. [See page 20 for Lamb's opinion of this catalogue.]
  3. ^ [See ante, pp. 1—7.]
  4. [See Extract {a), p. 17.]
  5. [See ante, pp. 1–2.]
  6. [See ante, pp. 2—7.]
  7. [See ante, pp. 8-9.]
  8. [See ante, pp. 15-16.]
  9. [But see ante, p. 13, under Feb. 2, 1827.]