Life of William Blake (1880), Volume 1/Chapters 10—12

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


BOOKS OF PROPHECY. 1789—90. [ÆT. 32—33.]

In the same year that the Songs of Innocence were published, Blake profited by his new discovery to engrave another illustrated poem. It is in a very different strain; one, however, analogous to that running through nearly all his subsequent writings, or 'Books,' as he called them. The Book of Thel is a strange mystical allegory, full of tender beauty and enigmatic meaning. Thel, youngest of 'the Daughters of the Seraphim' (personification of humanity, I infer), is afflicted with scepticism, with forebodings of life's brevity and nothingness:—

She in paleness sought the secret air
To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day;
Down by the river of Adona her soft voice is heard,
And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew.

As the poem is printed entire in our Second Volume, I will now simply give an Argument of it, by way of indicating its tenor, and to serve as a bridge for the reader across the eddying stream of abstractions which make up this piece of poetic mysticism.


Thel laments her transient life—The Lily of the Valley answers her—Pleads her weakness, yet Heaven's favour—Thel urges her own uselessness—A little cloud descends and taketh shape— Shows how he weds the evening dew and feeds the flowers of earth—Tells of Love and Serviceableness—Thel replies in sorrow still—The Cloud invokes the lowly worm to answer her—Who appears in the form of a helpless child—A clod of clay pities her wailing cry—And shows how in her lowliness she blesses and is blessed—She summons Thel into her house—The grave's gates open—Thel, wandering, listens to the voices of the ground—Hears a sorrowing voice from her own grave-plot—Listens, and flees back.

The fault of the poem is the occasional tendency to vagueness of motive, to an expression of abstract emotions more legitimate for the sister art of music than for poetry, which must be definite, however deep and subtle. The tendency grew in Blake's after writings and overmastered him. But on this occasion the meaning which he is at the pains to define, with the beauty of much of the imagery and of the pervading sentiment, more than counterbalance any excess of the element of the Indefinite, especially when, as in the original, the poem is illumined by its own design, lucidly expository, harmonising with itself and with the verse it illustrates.

The original quarto consists of seven engraved pages, including the title, in size some six inches by four and a quarter. Four are illustrated by vignettes, the other two by ornamental head or tail-piece. The designs—Thel, the virgin sceptic, listening to the lily of the valley in the humble grass; to the golden cloud 'reclining on his airy throne;' to the worm upon her dewy bed; or kneeling over the personified clod of clay, an infant wrapped in lily's leaf; or gazing at the embracing clouds—are of the utmost sweetness; simple, expressive, grand; the colour slight, but pure and tender. The mere ornamental part of the title-page, of which the sky forms the framework, is a study for spontaneous easy grace and unobtrusive beauty. The effect of the whole, poem and design together, is as of a wise, wondrous, spiritual dream' or angel's reverie. The engraving of the letter-press differs from that of the Songs of Innocence, the text (in colour red as before) being relieved by a white ground, which makes the page more legible if less of a picture. I may mention, in corroboration of a previous assertion of Stothard's obligations as a designer to Blake, that the copy of Thel, formerly Stothard's, bears evidence of familiar use on his part, in broken edges, and the marks of a painter's oily fingers. These few and simple designs, while plainly original, show all the feeling and grace of Stothard's early manner, with a tinge of sublimity superadded which was never Stothard's.

In the track of the mystical Book of Thel came in 1790 the still more mystical Marriage of Heaven and Hell, an engraved volume, illustrated in colour, to which I have already alluded as perhaps the most curious and significant, while it is certainly the most daring in conception and gorgeous in illustration of all Blake's works. The title dimly suggests an attempt to sound the depths of the mystery of Evil, to view it in its widest and deepest relations. But further examination shows that to seek any single dominating purpose, save a poetic and artistic one, in the varied and pregnant fragments of which this wonderful book consists, were a mistake. The student of Blake will find in Mr. Swinburne's Critical Essay on Blake all the light that can be thrown by the vivid imagination and subtle insight of a Poet on this as on the later mystic or 'Prophetic Books.'

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell opens with an 'Argument' in irregular unrhymed verse:—

Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burdened air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

Once meek and in a perilous path
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow,
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.

Then the perilous path was planted;
And a river and a spring
On every cliff and tomb;
And on the bleached bones
Red clay brought forth.

Till the villain left the paths of ease
To walk in perilous paths, and drive
The just man into barren climes.

Now the sneaking serpent walks
In mild humility,
And the just man rages in the wilds
Where lions roam.

Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burdened air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

The key-note is more clearly sounded in the following detached sentences:—

Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive, that obeys Reason. Evil is the active, springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

The Voice of the Devil.

All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following errors:—

1. That man has two real existing principles, viz. a Body and a Soul.

2. That Energy, called Evil, is alone from the Body, and that Heaven, called Good, is alone from the Soul.

3. That God will torment man in Eternity for following his energies.

But the following contraries to these are true:—

1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul, for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.

2. Energy is the only Life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.

3. Energy is Eternal Delight.

To this shortly succeeds a series of Proverbs or Aphorisms, called 'Proverbs of Hell.' These we give almost entire.

In seed-time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.

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

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.

The cut worm forgives the plough.

Dip him in the river who loves water.

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

He whose face gives no light shall never become a star.

Eternity is in love with the productions of Time.

The busy bee has no time for sorrow.

The hours of Folly are measured by the clock, but of Wisdom no clock can measure.

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

Bring out number, weight, and measure, in a year of dearth.

The most sublime act is to set another before you.

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

Shame is Pride's cloak.

Excess of sorrow laughs; excess of joy weeps.

The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.

The fox condemns the trap, not himself.

Joys impregnate, sorrows bring forth.

Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.

The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.

The selfish smiling fool and the sullen frowning fool shall be both thought wise, that they may be a rod.

What is now proved was once only imagined.

The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbit, watch the roots; the Lion, the tiger, the horse, the elephant, watch the fruits.

The cistern contains; the fountain overflows.

One thought fills immensity.

Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.

Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth.

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

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

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

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

Expect poison from the standing water.

You never know what is enough, unless you know what is more than enough.

Listen to the fool's reproach; it is a kingly title!

The eyes of fire; the nostrils of air; the mouth of water; the beard of earth.

The weak in courage is strong in cunning.

The apple-tree never asks the beech how he shall grow, nor the lion the horse how he shall take his prey.

The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.

If others had not been foolish, we should be so.

The soul of sweet delight can never be defiled.

When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of genius; lift up thy head!

One law for the lion and ox is oppression.

To create a little flower is the labour of ages.

Damn braces, Bless relaxes.

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

Prayers plough not! Praises reap not!

Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!

As the air to a bird, or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.

The crow wished everything was black, the owl that everything was white.

Exuberance is beauty.

Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of Genius.

Where man is not, Nature is barren.

Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believed.

Enough! or too much.

The remainder of the book consists of five distinct, but kindred prose compositions, not all following consecutively, each entitled a 'Memorable Fancy.' Half dream, half allegory, these wild and strange fragments defy description or interpretation. It would hardly occur, indeed, that they were allegorical, or that interpretation was a thing to be expected or attempted, but for an occasional sentence like the following:—'I, in my hand, brought the skeleton of a body which in the mill was Aristotle's Analytics:' and we are sometimes tempted to exclaim with the angel who conducts the author to the mill: 'Thy phantasy has imposed upon me, and thou oughtest to be ashamed.' Throughout these 'Memorable Fancies,' there is a mingling of the sublime and grotesque better paralleled in art than literature—in that Gothic art with the spirit of which Blake was so deeply penetrated; where corbels of grinning and distorted faces support solemn overarching grandeurs, and quaint monsters lurk in foliaged capital or nook.

In the second 'Memorable Fancy,' of which we give a brief sample or two, he sees Isaiah and Ezekiel in a vision:—

* * * Then I asked: 'Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so make it so?'

He replied, 'All poets believe that it does, and in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything.'

Then Ezekiel said: 'The philosophy of the East taught the first principles of human perception; some nations held one principle for the origin and some another; we of Israel taught that the Poetic Genius (as you now call it) was the first principle, and all the others merely derivative; which was the cause of our despising the priests and philosophers of other countries, and prophesying that all gods would at last be proved to originate in ours, and to be the tributaries of the Poetic Genius. It was this that our great poet, King David, desired so fervently and invoked so pathetically, saying, "By this he conquers enemies, and governs kingdoms;" and we so loved our God, that we cursed in His name all the deities of surrounding nations, and asserted that they had rebelled. From these opinions, the vulgar came to think that all nations would at last be subject to the Jews.'

'This,' said he, 'like all firm persuasions, is come to pass, for all nations believe the Jews' code and worship the Jews' God; and what greater subjection can be?'

I heard this with some wonder, and must confess my own conviction.

* * * * *

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is—infinite.

For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.

A Memorable Fancy.

I was in a printing-house in hell, and saw the method in which knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation.

In the first chamber was a dragon-man, clearing away the rubbish from a cave's mouth; within, a number of dragons were hollowing the cave.

In the second chamber was a viper folding round the rock and the cave, and others adorning it with gold, silver, and precious stones.

In the third chamber was an eagle with wings and feathers of air; he caused the inside of the cave to be infinite. Around, were numbers of eagle-like men, who built palaces in the immense cliffs. In the fourth chamber were lions of flaming fire raging around and melting the metals into living fluids.

In the fifth chamber were unnamed forms, which cast the metals into the expanse.

There they were received by men who occupied the sixth chamber, and took the forms of books, and were ranged in libraries.

The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence, and now seem to live in it in chains, are, in truth, the causes of its life and the sources of all activity, but the chains are the cunning of weak and tame minds which have power to resist energy; according to the proverb, the weak in courage is strong in cunning.

Thus, one portion of being is the Prolific, the other the Devouring. To the devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains, but it is not so; he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole.

But the Prolific would cease to be prolific, unless the devourer, as a sea, received the excess of his delights.

* * * * *

A Memorable Fancy.

An Angel came to me, and said, 'O pitiable, foolish young man! O horrible—O dreadful state! Consider the hot burning dungeon thou art preparing for thyself to all eternity, to which thou art going in such career.' I said, 'Perhaps you will be willing to show me my eternal lot, and we will contemplate together upon it, and see whether your lot or mine is most desirable.'

So he took me through a stable and through a church, and down into the church vault, at the end of which was a mill. Through the mill we went, and came to a cave: down the winding cavern we groped our tedious way till a void, boundless as a nether sky, appeared beneath us, and we held by the roots of trees, and hung over this immensity. But I said, 'If you please, we will commit ourselves to this void and see whether Providence is here also; if you will not, I will!' But he answered, 'Do not presume, O young man; but as we here remain, behold thy lot, which will soon appear when the darkness passes away.'

So I remained with him, sitting in the twisted root of an oak; he was suspended in a fungus which hung with the head downward into the deep.

By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city. Beneath us, at an immense distance, was the sun, black but shining. Round it were fiery tracks, on which revolved vast spiders crawling after their prey, which flew or rather swam in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption; and the air was full of them, and seemed composed of them. These are Devils, and are called Powers of the Air. I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot? he said, 'Between the black and the white spiders.'

But now from between the black and white spiders, a cloud and fire burst and rolled through the deep, blackening all beneath; so that the nether deep grew black as a sea, and rolled with a terrible noise. Beneath us was nothing now to be seen but a black tempest; till, looking east between the clouds and the waves, we saw a cataract of blood mixed with fire, and not many stones' throw from us appeared and sunk again the scaly fold of a monstrous serpent. At last to the east, distant about three degrees, appeared a fiery crest above the waves. Slowly it reared like a ridge of golden rocks, till we discovered two globes of crimson fire, from which the sea fled away in clouds of smoke, and now we saw it was the head of Leviathan. His forehead was divided into streaks of green and purple, like those on a tiger's forehead. Soon we saw his mouth and red gills hang just above the raging foam, tinging the black deep with beams of blood, advancing towards us with all the fury of a spiritual existence.

My friend the Angel climbed up from his station into the mill. I remained alone, and then this appearance was no more; but I found myself sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river by moonlight, hearing a harper who sung to the harp, and his theme was, 'The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.'

But I arose, and sought for the mill, and there I found my Angel; * * * but I by force suddenly caught him in my arms, and flew westerly through the night, till we were elevated above the earth's shadow. Then I flung myself with him directly into the body of the sun. Here I clothed myself in white, and, taking in my hand Swedenborg's volumes, sunk from the glorious clime, and passed all the planets till we came to Saturn. Here I stayed to rest, and then leaped into the void between Saturn and the fixed stars.

* * * * *

Soon we saw seven houses of brick; one we entered; in it were a number of monkeys, baboons, and all of that species, chained by the middle, grinning and snatching at one another, but withheld by the shortness of their chains. However, I saw that they sometimes grew numerous, and then the weak were caught by the strong, and with a grinning aspect devoured, by plucking off first one limb and then another, till the body was left a helpless trunk. This, after grinning and kissing it with seeming fondness, they devoured too; and here and there I saw one savourily picking the flesh off his own tail. As the stench terribly annoyed us both, we went into the mill, and I in my hand brought a skeleton of a body, which in the mill was Aristotle's Analytics. So the Angel said: 'Thy phantasy has imposed upon me, and thou oughtest to be ashamed.' I answered, 'We impose on one another, and it is but lost time to converse with you, whose works are only Analytics.' Swedenborg boasts that what he writes is new; though it is only the contents or index of already published books.

* * * * *

Any man of mechanical talents may, from the writings of Paracelsus or Jacob Behmen, produce ten thousand volumes of equal value with Swedenborg's, and from those of Dante or Shakespeare an infinite number.

But when he has done this, let him not say that he knows better than his master, for he only holds a candle in sunshine.

The power of these wild utterances is enhanced to the utmost by the rich adornments of design and colour in which they are set—design as imaginative as the text, colour which has the lustre of jewels.

A strip of azure sky surmounts, and of land divides, the words of the title-page, leaving on each side scant and baleful trees, little else than stem and spray. Drawn on a tiny scale, lies a corpse, and one bends over it. Flames burst forth below and slant upward across the page, gorgeous with every hue. In their very core two spirits rush together and embrace. These beautiful figures appear to have suggested to Flaxman the delicately executed bas-relief on Collins's monument.

In the second design, to the right of the page, there runs up an almost lifeless tree. A man clinging to the thin stem, and holding by a branch, reaches its only cluster to a woman standing below. Distant are three figures reposing on the ground. At the top of the third, a woman with outspread arms is borne away on flames—

'like a creature native and indued
Unto that element;'

beneath, two figures are rushing away from a female lying on the earth.

In the next, the sun sets over the sea in blood. A spirit, grasping a child, walks on the waves. Another, in the midst of fire, would fain rush to her, but an iron link clinches his ankle to the rock.

The fifth resembles the catastrophe of Phaëton, save that there is but one horse. Spires of flame are already kindling below.

Under the text of the sixth, an accusing demon, with batlike wings, points fiercely to a scroll—a great parchment scroll across his knees. A figure sits on each side recording.

In the next design we have a little island of the sea, where an infant springs to its mother's bosom. From the birth-cleft ground a spirit has half emerged. Below, with outstretched arms and hoary beard, an awful ancient man rushes at you, as it were, out of the page.

At the top of the fourteenth page a spirit, with streaming locks, extends her arms across, pointing hither and thither. She hovers, poised over a corpse, which looks as if 'laid out,' the arms straight by the sides; helpless, uncoffined; flames are rolling onward to consume it.

The ninth design is of an eagle flying and gazing upwards: his talons gripe a long snake trailing and writhing. Both are flecked with gold, and coruscate as from a light within.

The tenth presents a huddled group of solemn figures seated on the ground. The next is a surging of mingled fire, water, and blood, wherein roll the volumes of a huge double-fanged serpent, his crest erect, his jaws wide open.

In the twelfth, the disembodied spirit, luminous and radiant, sits lightly upon its late prison house, gazing upwards whither it is about to soar. It is the same figure as that in Blair's Grave, where you see also the natural body, bent with years, tottering into the dark doorway beneath.

The thirteenth and last design gives Blake's idea of Nebuchadnezzar in the wilderness. Mr. Palmer tells me that he has old German translations of Cicero and Petrarch, in which, among some wild and original designs, almost the very same figure occurs; but that many years had elapsed after making his own design before Blake saw the woodcut.

The designs are highly finished: Blake had worked upon them so much, and illuminated them so richly, that even the letterpress seems as if done by hand. The ever-fluctuating colour, the spectral pigmies rolling, flying, leaping among the letters; the ripe bloom of quiet corners, the living light and bursts of flame, the spires and tongues of fire vibrating with the full prism, make the page seem to move and quiver within its boundaries, and you lay the book down tenderly, as if you had been handling something sentient. A picture has been said to be midway between a thing and a thought; so in these books over which Blake had long brooded, with his brooding of fire, the very paper seems to come to life as you gaze upon it—not with a mortal life, but with a life indestructible, whether for good or evil.

The volume is an octavo, consisting of twenty-four pages; all of them illuminated. In some copies the letters are red, in others a golden brown. The engraved page is about six inches by four. Occasionally a deep margin was left so as to form a quarto. Lord Houghton possesses a fine quarto, Mr. Linnell an octavo copy.

The subjoined outline of Nebuchadnezzar is not copied from the design just spoken of in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but is a facsimile of what was probably the original sketch for this, and is taken from a MS. volume by Blake, of rare interest and value, in the possession of Mr. Rossetti. This book contains, besides rough sketches and rough draughts, afterwards elaborated into finished designs and poems, much that exists in no other form. The kindness of the owner enables me freely to draw from this source.

Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, page 88.png


BOOKSELLER JOHNSON'S. 1791—92, [ÆT. 34—35.]

These were prolific years with Blake, both in poetry and design. In 1791 he even found a publisher, for the first and last time in his life, in Johnson of St. Paul's Churchyard, to whom Fuseli had originally introduced him, and for whom he had already engraved. Johnson in this year—the same in which he published Mary Wollstonecraft's Rights of Women—issued, without Blake's name, and unillustrated, a thin quarto, entitled The French Revolution, a Poem in Seven Books. Book the First. One Shilling. Of the Revolution itself, only the first book, ending with the taking of the Bastille, had as yet been enacted. In due time the remainder followed. Those of Blake's epic already written were never printed, events taking a different turn from the anticipated one.

The French Revolution, though ushered into the world by a regular publisher, was no more successful than the privately printed Poetical Sketches, or the privately engraved Songs of Innocence, in reaching the public, or even in getting noticed by the monthly reviewers. It finds no place in their indices, nor in the catalogue of the Museum Library.

In this year Johnson employed Blake to design and engrave six plates to a series of Tales for Children, in the then prevailing Berquin School, by Johnson's favourite and protégée, Mary Wollstonecraft; tales new and in demand in the autumn of 1791, now unknown to the bookstalls. 'Original stories' they are entitled, 'from real life, with conversations calculated to regulate the affections and form the mind to truth

Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, page 90.png

and goodness.' The designs, naïve and rude, can hardly be pronounced a successful competition with Stothard, though traces of a higher feeling are visible in the graceful female forms—benevolent heroine, or despairing, famishing peasant group. The artist evidently moves in constraint, and the accessories of these domestic scenes are as simply generalised as a child's: result of an inobservant eye for such things. They were not calculated to obtain Blake employment in a capacity in which more versatile hands and prettier designers, such as Burney and Corbould (failing Stothard), were far better fitted to succeed. The book itself never went to a second edition. More designs appear to have been made for the little work than were found available, and some of the best were among the rejected. It may interest the reader to have a sample of him in this comparatively humble department. Possessing most of the original drawings, we therefore give a print from one. There is, however, a terrible extremity of voiceless despair in the upturned face of the principal figure which, perhaps, no hand but that of him who conceived it could accurately reproduce. He also re-engraved for Johnson some designs by Chodowiecki to a book of pinafore precepts, called Elements of Morality, translated from the German of Salzmann by Mary Wollstonecraft;[1] and among casual work engraved a plate for Darwin's Botanic Garden—The Fertilization of Egypt—after Fuseli.

Bookseller Johnson was a favourable specimen of a class of booksellers and men now a tradition: an open-hearted tradesman of the eighteenth century, of strict probity, simple habits, liberal in his dealings, living by his shop and in it, not at a suburban mansion. He was, for nearly forty years, Fuseli's fast and intimate friend, his first and best; the kind patron of Mary Wollstonecraft, and of many another. He encouraged Cowper over The Task, after the first volume of Poems had been received with indifference; and when The Task met its sudden unexpected success, he righteously pressed 1,000l. on the author, although both this and the previous volume had been assigned to him for nothing—as an equivalent, that is, for the bare cost of publication. To Blake, also, Johnson was friendly, and tried to help him as far as he could help so unmarketable a talent.

In Johnson's shop—for booksellers' shops were places of resort then with the literary—Blake was, at this date, in the habit of meeting a remarkable coterie. The bookseller gave, moreover, plain but hospitable weekly dinners at his house, No. 72, St. Paul's Churchyard, in a little quaintly-shaped upstairs-room, with walls not at right angles, where his guests must have been somewhat straitened for space. Hither came Drs. Price and Priestley, and occasionally Blake; hither friendly, irascible Fuseli; hither precise doctrinaire Godwin, whose Political Justice Johnson will, in 1793, publish, giving 700l. for the copyright. Him, the author of the Songs of Innocence got on ill with, and liked worse. Here, too, he met formal stoical Holcroft, playwright, novelist, translator, literary man-of-all-work, who had written verse 'to order' for our old friend The Wits' Magazine. Seven years hence he will be promoted to the Tower, and be tried for high treason with Hardy, Thelwall, and Horne Tooke, and one day will write the best fragment of autobiography in the language: a man of very varied fortunes. Here hard-headed Tom Paine, 'the rebellious needleman:' Mary Wollstonecraft also, who at Johnson's table commenced her ineffectual flirtation with already wedded, cynical Fuseli, their first meeting occurring here in the autumn of 1790. These and others of very 'advanced' political and religious opinions, theoretic republicans and revolutionists, were of the circle. The First Part of The Rights of Man had been launched on an applauding and indignant world, early in 1791; Johnson, whom the MS. had made the author's friend, having prudently declined to publish it though he was Priestley's publisher. A few years hence their host, despite his caution, will, for his liberal sympathies, receive the honour of prosecution from a good old habeas-corpus-suspending Government; and, in 1798, be fined and imprisoned in the King's Bench for selling a copy of Gilbert Wakefield's Reply to the Bishop of Llandaff's Address,—a pamphlet which every other bookseller in town sold, and continued to sell, with impunity. While in prison he still gave his weekly literary dinners—in the Marshal's house instead of his own; Fuseli remaining staunch to his old friend under a cloud.

Blake was himself an ardent member of the New School, a vehement republican and sympathiser with the Revolution, hater and contemner of kings and king-craft. And like most reformers of that era,—when the eighteenth century dry-rot had well-nigh destroyed the substance of the old English Constitution, though the anomalous caput mortuum of it was still extolled as the 'wisest of systems,'—he may have even gone the length of despising the 'Constitution.' Down to his latest days Blake always avowed himself a 'Liberty Boy,' a faithful 'Son of Liberty;' and would jokingly urge in self-defence that the shape of his forehead made him a republican. 'I can't help being one,' he would assure Tory friends, 'any more than you can help being a Tory: your forehead is larger above; mine, on the contrary, over the eyes.' To him, at this date, as to ardent minds everywhere, the French Revolution was the herald of the Millennium, of a new age of light and reason. He courageously donned the famous symbol of liberty and equality—the bonnet-rouge—in open day, and philosophically walked the streets with the same on his head. He is said to have been the only one of the set who had the courage to make that public profession of faith. Brave as a lion at heart was the meek spiritualist. Decorous Godwin, Holcroft, wily Paine, however much they might approve, paused before running the risk of a Church-and-King mob at their heels. All this was while the Revolution, if no longer constitutional, still continued muzzled; before, that is, the Days of Terror, in September '92, and subsequent defiance of kings and of humanity. When the painter heard of these September doings he tore off his white cockade, and assuredly never wore the red cap again. Days of humiliation for English sympathisers and republicans were beginning.

Though at one with Paine, Godwin, Fuseli and the others as to politics, he was a rebel to their theological or anti-theological tenets. Himself a heretic among the orthodox, here among the infidels he was a saint, and staunchly defended Christianity—the spirit of it—against these strangely assorted disputants.

In 1792 the artist proved, as he was wont to relate, the means of saving Paine from the vindictive clutches of exasperated 'friends of order.' Early in that year Paine had published his Second Part of The Rights of Man. A few months later, county and corporation addresses against 'seditious publications' were got up. The Government (Pitt's) answered the agreed signal by issuing a proclamation condemnatory of such publications, and commenced an action for libel against the author of The Rights of Man, which was to come off in September; all this helping the book itself into immense circulation. The 'Friends of Liberty' held their meetings too, in which strong language was used. In September, a French deputation announced to Paine that the Department of Calais had elected him member of the National Convention. Already as an acknowledged cosmopolitan and friend of man, he had been declared a citizen of France by the deceased Assembly. One day in this same month, Paine was giving at Johnson's an idea of the inflammatory eloquence he had poured fourth at a public meeting of the previous night. Blake, who was present, silently inferred from the tenor of his report that those in power, now eager to lay hold of noxious persons, would certainly not let slip such an opportunity. On Paine's rising to leave, Blake laid his hands on the orator's shoulder, saying, 'You must not go home, or you are a dead man!' and hurried him off on his way to France, whither he was now, in any case bound, to take his seat as French legislator. By the time Paine was at Dover, the officers were in his house or, as his biographer Mr. Cheetham designates it, his 'lurking hole in the purlieus of London;' and some twenty minutes after the Custom House officials at Dover had turned over his slender baggage with, as he thought, extra malice, and he had set sail for Calais, an order was received from the Home Office to detain him. England never saw Tom Paine again. New perils awaited him: Reign of Terror and near view of the guillotine—an accidentally open door and a chalk mark on the wrong side of it proving his salvation. But a no less serious one had been narrowly escaped from the English Tories. Those were hanging days! Blake, on this occasion, showed greater sagacity than Paine, whom, indeed, Fuseli affirmed to be more ignorant of the common affairs of life than himself even. Spite of unworldliness and visionary faculty, Blake never wanted for prudence and sagacity in ordinary matters.

Early in this September died Blake's mother, at the age of seventy, and was buried in Bunhill Fields on the 9th. She is a shade to us, alas! in all senses: for of her character, or even her person, no tidings survive. Blake's associates in later years remember to have heard him speak but rarely of either father or mother, amid the frequent allusions to his brother Robert.

At the beginning of the year (February 23rd, 1792) had died the recognised leader of English painters, Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom failing eyesight had for some time debarred from the exercise of his art. He was borne, in funeral pomp, from his house in Leicester Fields to Saint Paul's, amid the regrets of the great world, testified by a mourning train of ninety coaches, and by the laboured panegyric of Burke. Blake used to tell of an interview he had once had with Reynolds, in which our neglected enthusiast found the originator of a sect in art to which his own was so hostile, very pleasant personally, as most found him. 'Well, Mr. Blake,' blandly remarked the President, who, doubtless, had heard strange accounts of his interlocutor's sayings and doings, 'I hear you despise our art of oil-painting.' 'No, Sir Joshua, I don't despise it; but I like fresco better.'

Sir Joshua's style, with its fine taste, its merely earthly graces and charms of colour, light, and shade, was an abomination to the poetic visionary—'The Whore of Babylon' and 'Antichrist,' metaphorically speaking. For, as it has been said, very earnest original artists make ill critics: of feeble sympathy with alien schools of feeling, they can no more be eclectic in criticism than, to any worthy result, in practice. Devout sectaries in art hate and contemn those of opposite artistic faith with truly religious fervour. I have heard of an eminent living painter in the New School, who, on his admiration being challenged for a superlative example of Sir Joshua's graceful, generalizing hand, walked up to it, pronounced an emphatic word of disgust, and turned on his heel: such bigoted mortals are men who paint!

It was hardly in flesh and blood for the unjustly despised author of the Songs of Innocence, who had once, as Allan Cunningham well says, thought, and not perhaps unnaturally, that 'he had but to sing beautiful songs, and draw grand designs, to become great and famous,' and in the midst of his obscurity feeling conscious of endowments of imagination and thought, rarer than those fascinating gifts of preception and expression which so readily won the world's plaudits and homage; it was hardly possible not to feel jealous, and as it were injured, by the startling contrast of such fame and success as Sir Joshua's and Gainsborough's.

Of this mingled soreness and antipathy we have curious evidence in some MS. notes Blake subsequently made in his copy of Sir Joshua's Discourses. Struck by their singularity, one or two of Blake's admirers in later years transcribed these notes. To Mr. Palmer I am indebted, among many other courtesies, for a copy of the first half of them.

'This man was here,' commences the indignant commentator, 'to depress Art: this is the opinion of William Blake. My proofs of this opinion are given in the following notes. Having spent the vigour of my youth and genius under the oppression of Sir Joshua, and his gang of cunning, hired knaves—without employment and, as much as could possibly be without bread,—the reader must expect to read, in all my remarks on these books, nothing but indignation and resentment. While Sir Joshua was rolling in riches, Barry was poor and unemployed, except by his own energy; Mortimer was called a madman, and only portrait-painting was applauded and rewarded by the rich and great. Reynolds and Gainsborough blotted and blurred one against the other, and divided all the English world between them. Fuseli, indignant, almost hid himself. I am hid.'

Always excepting the favoured portrait-painters, these were, indeed, cold days for the unhappy British artist—the historical or poetic artist above all. Times have strangely altered within living memory. The case is now reversed. One can but sympathise with the above touching outburst; and Blake rarely complained aloud of the world's ill usage, extreme as it was: one can but sympathise, I say, even while cherishing the warmest love and admiration for Sir Joshua's and Gainsborough's delightful art. The glow of sunset need not blind us to the pure light of Hesperus. Admiration of a fashionable beauty, with her Watteau-like grace, should not dazzle the eye to exclusion of the nobler grace of Raphael or the Antique.

Of these notes more hereafter.

Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, page 97.png



In 1793, Blake quitted Poland Street, after five years' residence there. The now dingy demirep street, one in which Shelley lodged in 1811, after his expulsion from Oxford, had witnessed the production of the Songs of Innocence and other Poetry and Design of a genus unknown, before or since, to that permanently foggy district. From the neighbourhood of his birth he removed across Westminster Bridge to Lambeth. There he will remain other seven years, and produce no less an amount of strange and original work. Hercules Buildings is the new abode; a row of houses which had sprung up since his boyish rambles.

Within easy reach of the centre of London on one side, the favourite Dulwich strolls of early years were at hand on the other. Hercules Buildings, stretching diagonally between the Kennington Road and Lambeth Palace, was then a street of modest irregular sized houses, from one to three stories high, with fore-courts or little gardens in front, in the suburban style; a street indeed only for half its length, the remainder being a single row, or terrace. No. 13, Blake's, was among the humbler, one-storied houses, on the right hand side as you go from the Bridge to the Palace. It had a wainscoted parlour, pleasant low windows, and a narrow strip of real garden behind, wherein grew a fine vine. A lady who, as a girl, used with her elders to call on the artist here, tells me Blake would on no account prune this vine, having a
Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, facing page 98a.png


Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, facing page 98b.png


theory it was wrong and unnatural to prune vines: and the affranchised tree consequently bore a luxuriant crop of leaves, and plenty of infinitesimal grapes which never ripened. Open garden ground and field, interspersed with a few lines of clean, newly-built houses, lay all about and near; for brick and mortar was spreading even then. At back, Blake looked out over gardens towards Lambeth Palace and the Thames, seen between gaps of Stangate Walk,—Etty's home a few years later. The city and towers of Westminster closed the prospect beyond the river, on whose surface sailing hoys were then plying once or twice a day. Vauxhall Gardens lay half a mile to the left; Dulwich and Peckham hills within view to the south-west. The street has since been partly rebuilt, partly re-named; the whole become now sordid and dirty. At the back of what was Blake's side has arisen a row of ill-drained, one-storied tenements bestriden by the arches of the South Western Railway; while the adjacent main roads, grimy and hopeless looking, stretch out their long arms towards further mile on mile of suburb,—Newington, Kennington, Brixton.

In Hercules Buildings Blake engraved and 'published'—May, 1793, adding at the foot of the title-page Johnson's name to his own—The Gates of Paradise; a singularly beautiful and characteristic volume, pre-eminently marked by significance and simplicity. It is a little foolscap octavo, printed according to his usual method, but not coloured; containing seventeen plates of emblems, accompanied by verse, with a title or motto to each plate. For Children, the title runs, or, as some copies have it. For the Sexes. The Gates of Paradise—'a sort of devout dream, equally wild and lovely,' Allan Cunningham happily terms it. There is little in art which speaks to the mind directly and pregnantly as do these few, simple Designs, emblematic of so much which could never be imprisoned in words, yet of a kind more allied to literature than to art. It is plain, on looking at this little volume alone, from whom Flaxman and Stothard borrowed. Hints of more than one design of theirs might be found in it. And Blake's designs have, I repeat, the look of originals. A shock as of something wholly fresh and new, these typical compositions give us.

The verses at the commencement elucidate, to a certain extent, the intention of the Series, embodying an ever recurrent canon of Blake's Theology:—

Mutual forgiveness of each vice,
Such are the Gates of Paradise,
Against the Accuser's chief desire,
Who walked among the stones of fire,
Jehovah's fingers wrote The Law:
He wept! then rose in zeal and awe,
And in the midst of Sinai's heat,
Hid it beneath His Mercy Seat.
O Christians! Christians! tell me why
You rear it on your altars high?

'What is man?'—the frontispiece significantly inquires.

To the Gates of Paradise their author in some copies added what many another Book of his would have profited by,—the Keys of the Gates, in sundry wild lines of rudest verse, which do not pretend to be poetry, but merely to tag the artist's ideas with rhyme, and are themselves a little obscure, though they do help one to catch the prevailing motives. For which reason they shall here accompany our samples of the 'emblems.' The numbers prefixed to the lines refer them to the plates which they are severally intended to explain.

The Keys of the Gates.

The Caterpillar on the Leaf
Reminds thee of thy Mother's Grief.
1My Eternal Man set in Repose,
The Female from his darkness rose;
And she found me beneath a Tree,
A Mandrake, and in her Veil hid me.
Serpent reasonings us entice,
Of Good and Evil, Virtue, Vice.

2Doubt self-jealous, Wat'ry folly,
Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, facing page 100 (a).png


Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, facing page 100 (b).png Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, facing page 100 (c).png
3 Struggling through Earth's Melancholy.

4 Naked in Air, in Shame and Fear,
5 Blind in Fire, with Shield and Spear,
Two Horrid Reasoning Cloven Fictions,
In Doubt which is Self Contradiction,
A dark Hermaphrodite I stood,—
Rational Truth, Root of Evil and Good.
Round me, flew the flaming sword;
Round her, snowy Whirlwinds roar'd,
Freezing her Veil, the mundane shell.
6I rent the veil where the Dead dwell:
When weary Man enters his Cave,
He meets his Saviour in the Grave.
Some find a Female Garment there.
And some a Male, woven with care,
Lest the Sexual Garments sweet
Should grow a devouring Winding-sheet.
7One Dies! Alas! the living and dead!
One is slain! and one is fled!
8In vainglory hatch'd and nurs'd
By double spectres, self accurs'd
My Son! my Son! thou treatest me
But as I have instructed thee.
9On the shadows of the Moon,
Climbing thro' night's highest noon:
10In Time's Ocean falling, drown'd:
11In Aged Ignorance profound,
Holy and cold, I clipp'd the Wings
Of all Sublunary Things:
12And in depths of icy Dungeons
Closed the Father and the Sons.
13But when once I did descry
The Immortal man that cannot Die,
14Thro' evening shades I haste away
To close the labours of my Day.
15The Door of Death I open found,
And the Worm weaving in the Ground;
16Thou'rt my Mother, from the Womb;
Wife, Sister, Daughter, to the Tomb:
Weaving to Dreams the Sexual Strife,
And weeping over the Web of Life.

In one copy which I have seen, under No. 4 are inscribed the words—

On cloudy doubts and reasoning cares.

Last follows an epilogue, or postscript, which perhaps explains itself, addressed

Truly, my Satan, thou art but a dunce,
And dost not know the garment from the man;
Every harlot was a virgin once,
Nor canst thou ever change Kate into Nan.
Though thou art worshipped by the names divine
Of Jesus and Jehovah, thou art still
The Son of Morn in weary Night's decline.
The lost traveller's dream under the hill.

In this year, by the way, the first volume of a more famous poet, but a much less original volume than Blake's first,—the Descriptive Sketches of Wordsworth, followed by the Evening Walk,—were published by Johnson, of St, Paul's Churchyard. Neither reached a second edition; but by 1807, when the Lyrical Ballads had attracted admirers here and there, they had, according to De Quincey, got out of print, and scarce.

Other engraved volumes, more removed from ordinary sympathy and comprehension than the Gates of Paradise, were issued in the same year: dreamy 'Books of Prophecy' following in the wake of the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. First came Visions of the Daughters of Albion, a folio volume of Designs and rhymless verse, printed in colour.

The eye sees more than the heart knows

is the key-note struck in the first page, to which follows the Argument:—

I loved Theotormon,
And I was not ashamed;
I trembled in my virgin fears,

And I hid in Leutha's vale.
Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, facing page 102 (a).png


Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, facing page 102 (b).png Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, facing page 102 (c).png
10.— HELP! HELP!


I plucked Leutha's flower,

And I rose up from the vale;
But the terrible thunders tore
My virgin mantle in twain.

Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, page 103.png

The poem partakes of the same delicate mystic beauty as Thel, but tends also towards the incoherence of the writings which immediately followed it. Of the former qualities the commencement may be quoted as an instance—

Enslaved, the daughters of Albion weep, a trembling lamentation
Upon their mountains; in their valleys, sighs toward America.

For the soft soul of America,—Oothoon,—wandered in woe
Among the vales of Leutha, seeking flowers to comfort her:
And thus she spoke to the bright marigold of Leutha's vale,—

'Art thou a flower? Art thou a nymph? I see thee now a flower;
'And now a nymph! I dare not pluck thee from thy dewy bed!'

The golden nymph replied, 'Pluck thou my flower, Oothoon the mild,
'Another flower shall spring, because the soul of sweet delight
'Can never pass away,'—She ceased and closed her golden shrine.

Then Oothoon plucked the flower, saying,—'I pluck thee from thy bed,
'Sweet flower, and put thee here to glow between my breasts,
'And thus I turn my face to where my whole soul seeks.'

Over the waves she went, in wing'd exulting swift delight.
And over Theotormon's reign took her impetuous course.

But she is taken in the 'thunders,' or toils of Bromion, who appears the evil spirit of the soil. Theotormon, in jealous fury, chains them—'terror and meekness'—together, back to back, in Bromion's cave, and seats himself sorrowfully by. The lamentations of Oothoon, and her appeals to the incensed divinity, with his replies, form the burthen of the poem. The Daughters of Albion, who are alluded to in the opening lines as enslaved, weeping, and sighing towards America, 'hear her woes and echo back her cries;' a recurring line or refrain, which includes all they have to do.

We subjoin another extract or two:—

Oothoon weeps not: she cannot weap! her tears are locked up!
But she can howl incessant, writhing her soft, snowy limbs.
And calling Theotormon's eagles to prey upon her flesh!

'I call with holy voice! kings of the sounding air!
'Rend away this defiled bosom that I may reflect
'The image of Theotormon on my pure transparent breast!

The eagles at her call descend and rend their bleeding prey.
Theotormon severely smiles; her soul reflects the smile,
As the clear spring mudded with feet of beasts grows pure and smiles.

The Daughters of Albion hear her woes and echo back her sighs.
'Why does my Theotormon sit weeping upon the threshold?
'And Oothoon hovers by his side persuading him in vain!
'I cry, Arise, O Theotormon! for the village dog
'Barks at the breaking day; the nightingale has done lamenting;
'The lark does rustle in the ripe corn; and the Eagle returns
'From nightly prey, and lifts his golden beak to the pure east,
'Shaking the dust from his immortal pinions, to awake
'The sun that sleeps too long! Arise, my Theotormon; I am pure!


'Ask the wild ass why he refuses burdens; and the meek camel
'Why he loves man. Is it because of eye, ear, mouth, or skin,
'Or breathing nostrils? No: for these the wolf and tiger have.
'Ask the blind worm the secrets of the grave; and why her spires
'Love to curl round the bones of death: and ask the ravenous snake
'Where she gets poison; and the winged eagle, why he loves the sun:
'And then tell me the thoughts of man that have been hid of old!

'Silent I hover all the night, and all day could be silent,
'If Theotomion once would turn his loved eyes upon me;
'How can I be defiled, when I reflect thy image pure?
'Sweetest the fruit that the worm feeds on; and the soul prey'd on by woe.
'The new washed lamb ting'd with the village smoke and the bright swan
'By the red earth of our immortal river: I bathe my wings,
'And I am white and pure, to hover round Theotormon's breast.'

Then Theotormon broke his silence, and he answered:—

'Tell me what is the night or day to one o'erflow'd with woe?
'Tell me what is a thought? and of what substance is it made?
'Tell me what is a joy; and in what gardens do joys grow;
'And in what rivers swim the sorrows; and upon what mountains
'Wave shadows of discontent? And in what houses dwell the wretched,
'Drunken with woe forgotten, and shut up from cold despair?
'Tell me where dwell the thoughts forgotten till thou call them forth?

'Tell me where dwell the joys of old, and where the ancient loves?
'And when they will renew again, and the night of oblivion pass?
'That I may traverse times and spaces far remote, and bring
'Comforts into a present sorrow, and a night of pain.'

The poem concludes thus: —

The sea fowl takes the wintry blast for a covering to her limbs.
And the wild snake the pestilence, to adorn him with gems and gold.
And trees, and birds, and beasts, and men, behold their eternal joy.
Arise, you little glancing wings, and sing your infant joy!
Arise, and drink your bliss! For every thing that lives is holy.

Thus every morning wails Oothoon, but Theotormon sits
Upon the margined ocean, conversing with shadows dire.

The Daughters of Albion hear her woes, and echo back her sighs.

The designs to the Visions of the Daughters of Albion are magnificent in energy and portentousness. They are coloured with flat, even tints, not worked up highly. A frontispiece represents Bromion and Oothoon, chained in a cave that opens on the sea; Theotormon sitting near. The title-page is of great beauty; the words are written over rainbow and cloud, from the centre of which emerges an old man in fire, other figures floating round. We give two specimens. One (page 103) illustrates the Argument we have quoted; the other (page 97), an incident in the poem (also quoted), where the eagles of Theotormon rend the flesh of Oothoon.

The other volume of this year's production at Lambeth, entitled America, a Prophecy, is a folio of twenty pages, of still more dithyrambic verse. It is verse hard to fathom; with far too little Nature behind it, or back-bone; a redundance of mere invention,—the fault of all this class of Blake's writings; too much wild tossing about of ideas and words. The very names—Urthona, Enitharmon, Orc, &c. are but Ossian-like shadows, and contrast oddly with those of historic or matter-of-fact personages occasionally mentioned in the poem; whom, notwithstanding the subject in hand, we no longer expect to meet with, after reading the Preludium:—

The shadowy Daughter of Urthona stood before red Orc,
When fourteen suns had faintly journey'd o'er his dark abode:
His food she brought in iron baskets, his drink in cups of iron.
Crown'd with a helmet and dark hair, the nameless female stood.
A quiver with its burning stores, a bow like that of night
When pestilence is shot from heaven,—no other arms she needs,—
Invulnerable though naked, save where clouds roll round her loins
Their awful folds in the dark air. Silent she stood as night:
For never from her iron tongue could voice or sound arise;
But dumb from that dread day when Orc essay'd his fierce embrace.
'Dark virgin!' said the hairy youth, 'thy father stern, ahhorr'd,
'Rivets my tenfold chains, while still on high my spirit soars;
'Sometimes an eagle screaming in the sky; sometimes a lion,
'Stalking upon the mountains; and sometimes a whale, I lash
'The raging, fathomless abyss; anon, a serpent folding
'Around the pillars of Urthona, and round thy dark limbs,
'On the Canadian wilds I fold.'

The poem opens itself thus:—

The Guardian Prince of Albion burns in his nightly tent.
Sullen fires across the Atlantic glow to America's shore.
Piercing the souls of warlike men, who rise in silent night,
Washington, Franklin, Paine, Warren, Gates, Hancock and Green,
Meet on the coast, glowing with blood, from Albion's fiery prince.
Washington spoke: 'Friends of America, look over the Atlantic sea.
'A bended bow is lifted in heaven, and a heavy iron chain
'Descends link by link from Albion's cliffs across the sea to bind
'Brothers and sons of America, till our faces pale and yellow,
'Heads deprest, voices weak, eyes downcast, hands work-bruised,
'Feet bleeding on the sultry sands, and the furrows of the whip,
'Descend to generations that in future times forget.'
The strong voice ceased: for a terrible blast swept over the heaving sea,
The eastern cloud rent. On his cliffs stood Albion's wrathful Prince,—
A dragon form clashing his scales: at midnight he arose,
And flamed red meteors round the land of Albion beneath.
His voice, his locks, his awful shoulders and his glowing eyes,
Appear to the Americans, upon the cloudy night.
Solemn heave the Atlantic waves between the gloomy nations.

One more extract shall suffice:—

The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up.
The bones of death, the covering clay, the sinews shrunk and dried.
Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing! awakening!
Spring,—like redeemed captives when their bonds and bars are burst.
Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field;
Let him look up into the heavens and laugh in the bright air.
Let the enchained soul, shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years,
Rise, and look out!—his chains are loose! his dungeon doors are open!

The poem has no distinctly seizable pretensions to a prophetic character, being, like the rest of Blake's 'Books of Prophecy,' rather a retrospect, in its mystic way, of events already transpired. The American War of Independence is the theme; a portion of history here conducted mainly by vast mythic beings, 'Orc,' the 'Angels of Albion,' the 'Angels of the thirteen states,' &c.; whose movements are throughout accompanied by tremendous elemental commotion—'red clouds and raging fire;' 'black smoke, thunder,' and

Plagues creeping on the burning winds driven by flames of Orc,

through which chaos the merely human agents show small and remote, perplexed and busied in an ant-like way. Strange to conceive a somewhile associate of Paine producing these 'Prophetic ' volumes!

The America now and then occurs coloured, more often plain black, or occasionally blue and white. The designs blend with and surround the verse; the mere grouping of the text, filled in here and there with ornament, often forming, in itself, a picturesque piece of decorative composition. Of the beauty of most of these designs, in their finished state, it would be quite impossible to obtain any notion, without
Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, facing page 108.png


the necessary adjunct of colour. The specimens given in this chapter and elsewhere can at best only show form and arrangement—the groundwork of the pages; the frames as it were in which the verses are set; Blake never intending any copies to go forth to the world until they had been coloured by hand. Facing pages 109 and 110, however, we give facsimiles of two whole pages from the America, exact facsimiles both as regards drawing and writing (though reduced to about half the size of the original), and in a colour as near as possible to that frequently used by Blake for the groundwork, as we said before, of his painted leaves. Similar examples we shall give when we come to other books of the same character,—the Europe, and that yet more remarkable, the Jerusalem.

Whatever may be the literary value of the work, the designs display unquestionable power and beauty. In firmness of outline and refinement of finish, they are exceeded by none from the same hand. We have more especially in view Lord Houghton's superb copy. Turning over the leaves, it is sometimes like an increase of daylight on the retina, so fair and open is the effect of particular pages. The skies of sapphire, or gold, rayed with hues of sunset, against which stand out leaf or blossom, or pendant branch, gay with bright plumaged birds; the strips of emerald sward below, gemmed with flower and lizard and enamelled snake, refresh the eye continually. Some of the illustrations are of a more sombre kind. There is one in which a little corpse, white as snow, lies gleaming on the floor of a green overarching cave, which close inspection proves to be a field of wheat, whose slender interlacing stalks, bowed by the full ear and by a gentle breeze, bend over and inclose the dead infant. The delicate network of stalks (which is carried up one side of the page, the main picture being at the bottom), and the subdued yet vivid green light shed over the whole, produce a lovely decorative effect. Decorative effect is in fact never lost sight of, even when the motive of the design is ghastly or terrible. As for instance at page 13, which represents the different fate of two bodies drowned in the sea—the one, that of a woman, cast up by the purple waves on a rocky shore; an eagle, with outstretched wings, alighting on her bosom, his beak already tearing her flesh: the other, lying at the bottom of the ocean, where snaky loathsome things are twining round it, and open-mouthed fishes gathering greedily to devour. The effect is as of looking through water down into wondrous depths. One design in the volume was an especial favourite of Blake's: that of an old man entering Death's door. It occurs in the Gates of Paradise (Plate 15); in Blair's Grave (1805), and as a distinct engraving. There are also two other subjects repeated subsequently,—in the Grave and the Job. But one more design (we might expatiate on all) shall tempt us to loiter. It heads the last page of the book, and consists of a white-robed, colossal figure, bowed to the earth; about which, as on a huge, snow-covered mass of rock, dwarf shapes are clustered here and there. Enhancing the weird effect of the whole, stand three lightning-scathed oaks, each of which,

"As threatening Heaven with vengeance,
Holds out a withered hand."

An exquisite piece of decorative work occupies the foot of the page.

In all these works the Designer's genius floats loose and rudderless; a phantom ship on a phantom sea. He projects himself into shapeless dreams, instead of into fair definite forms, as already in the Songs of Innocence he had shown that he could do; and hereafter will again in the tasks so happily prescribed by others:—the illustrations to Young, to Blair's Grave, to Job, to Dante. In these amorphous Prophecies are profusely scattered the unhewn materials of poetry and design: sublime hints are sown broad-cast. But alas! whether Blake were definite or indefinite in his conceptions, he was alike ignored. He had not the faculty to make himself popular, even with a far more intelligent public as to Art than any which existed during the reign of George the Third.

Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, facing page 110.png

In 1794, Flaxman returned from his seven years' stay in Italy, with well-stored portfolios, with more than ever classicized taste, and having made at Rome for discerning patrons those designs from Homer, Æschylus and Dante which were afterwards to spread his fame through Europe. He returned to be promoted R.A. at once, and to set up house and studio in Buckingham Street, Fitzroy Square,—then a new scantily-peopled region, lying open to the hills of Hampstead and Highgate. In these premises he continued till his death in 1826. Piroli, a Roman artist, had been engaged to engrave the above-mentioned graceful compositions from the poets. His first set of plates,—those to the Odyssey,—were lost in the voyage to England, and Blake was employed to make engravings in their stead, although Piroli's name still remained on the general title-page (dated 1793); probably as being likelier credentials with the public. Piroli subsequently engraved the Outlines to Æschylus, to the Iliad, 8ic. Blake's engravings are much less telling, at the first glance, than Piroli's. Instead of hard, bold, decisive lines, we have softer lighter ones. But on looking into them we find more of the artist in the one,—as in the beautiful Aphrodite, for instance, a very fine and delicate engraving,—more uniform mechanical effect in the other. Blake's work is like a drawing, with traces as of a pen; Piroli's the orthodox copperplate style. Blake, in fact, at that time, etched a good deal more than do ordinary engravers.

One consistent patron there was, whom it has become time to mention. Without his friendly countenance, even less would have remained to show the world, or a portion of it, what manner of man Blake was. I mean Mr. Thomas Butts, whose long friendship with Blake commenced at this period. For nearly thirty years he continued (with few interruptions) a steady buyer, at moderate prices, of Blake's drawings, temperas, and frescoes; the only large buyer the artist ever had. Occasionally he would take of Blake a drawing a week. He, in this way, often supplied the imaginative man with the bare means of subsistence when no others existed—at all events from his art. All honour to the solitary appreciator and to his zealous constancy! As years rolled by, Mr. Butts' house in Fitzroy Square became a perfect Blake gallery. Fitzroy Square, by the way built in great part by Adelphi Adams, was fashionable in those days. Noblemen were contented to live in its spacious mansions; among other celebrities, General Miranda, the South American hero, abode there.

Mr. Butts was no believer in Blake's 'madness.' Strangers to the man, and they alone, believed in that. Yet he could give piquant account of his protégé's extravagances. One story in particular he was fond of telling, which has been since pretty extensively retailed about town; and though Mr. Linnell, the friend of Blake's later years, regards it with incredulity, Mr. Butts' authority in all that relates to the early and middle period of Blake's life, must be regarded as unimpeachable. At the end of the little garden in Hercules Buildings there was a summer-house. Mr. Butts calling one day found Mr. and Mrs. Blake sitting in this summer-house, freed from 'those troublesome disguises' which have prevailed since the Fall. 'Come in!' cried Blake; 'it's only Adam and Eve, you know!' Husband and wife had been reciting passages from Paradise Lost, in character, and the garden of Hercules Buildings had to represent the Garden of Eden. For my reader here frankly to enter into the full simplicity and naïveté of Blake's character, calls for the exercise of a little imagination on his part. He must go out of himself for a moment, if he would take such eccentricities for what they are worth, and not draw false conclusions. If he or I—close-tethered as we are to the matter-of-fact world—were on a sudden to wander in so bizarre a fashion from the prescriptive proprieties of life, it would be time for our friends to call in a doctor, or apply for a commission de lunatico. But Blake lived in a world of Ideas; Ideas to him were more real than the actual external world. On this matter, as on all others, he had his own peculiar views. He thought that the Gymnosophists of India, the ancient Britons, and others of whom History tells, who went naked, were, in this, wiser than the rest of mankind,—pure and wise,—and that it would be well if the world could be as they. From the speculative idea to the experimental realization of it in his own person, was, for him, but a step; though the prejudices of Society would hardly permit the experiment to be more than temporary and private. Another of Blake's favourite fancies was that he could be, for the time, the historical person into whose character he projected himself: Socrates, Moses, or one of the Prophets. 'I am Socrates,' or 'Moses,' or 'the prophet Isaiah,' he would wildly say; and always his glowing enthusiasm was mirrored in the still depths of his wife's nature. This incident of the garden illustrates forcibly the strength of her husband's influence over her, and the unquestioning manner in which she fell in with all he did or said. When assured by him that she (for the time) was Eve, she would not dream of contradiction—nay, she in a sense believed it. If therefore the anecdote argues madness in one, it argues it in both.

The Blakes do not stand alone, however, in modern history as to eccentric tenets, and even practices, in the article of drapery. Jefferson Hogg, for instance, in his Life of Shelley, tells us of a 'charming and elegant' family in the upper ranks of society, whose acquaintance the poet made about 1813, who had embraced the theory of 'philosophical nakedness.' The parents believing in an impending 'return to nature' and reason, the pristine state of innocence, prepared their children for the coming millennium, by habituating them to run naked about the house, a few hours every day; in which condition they would open the door to welcome Shelley. The mother herself, enthusiastic in the cause,—than whom there was 'never a more innocent or more virtuous lady,'—also rehearsed her part—in private. She would rise betimes, lock herself into her dressing-room, and there for some hours remain, without her clothes, reading and writing, naively assuring her friends afterwards that she 'felt so much the better for it, so innocent during the rest of the day.' Strange dénoûments have happened to other believers in the high physical, moral, and æsthetic advantages of nudity. Hogg tells another story,—of Dr. Franklin; who wrote, on merely sanitary grounds, in favour of morning 'air-baths.' The philosopher, by the daily habit of devoting the early hours to study undressed, had so familiarized himself with the practice of his theory, that the absence of mind natural to philosophers led him into inadvertences. Espying once a friend's maid-servant tripping quickly across the green with a letter in her hand—an important letter he had been eagerly expecting—the philosopher ran out to meet her: at which apparition she fled in terror, screaming. Again, no one ever accused hard-headed, cannie Wilkie even of eccentricity. But he was a curious mixture of simplicity, worldliness, and almost fanatical enthusiasm in the practice of his art. One morning, the raw-boned young Scotchman was discovered by a caller (friend Haydon) drawing from the nude figure before a mirror; a method of study he pronounced 'verra improving,' as well as economical! Blake's vagary, then, we may fairly maintain to be not wholly without parallel on the part of sane men, when carried away by an idea, as at first blush it would seem.

At the period of the enactment of the scene from Milton, Mrs. Blake was, in person, still a presentable Eve. A 'brunette' and 'very pretty' are terms I have picked up as conveying something regarding her appearance in more youthful days. Blake himself would boast what a pretty wife he had She lost her beauty as the seasons sped,—'never saw a woman so much altered,' was the impression of one on meeting her again after a lapse of but seven years; a life of hard work and privation having told heavily upon her in the interim. In spirit, she was, at all times, a true Eve to her Adam; and might with the most literal appropriateness have used to him the words of Milton:

'What thou bid'st
Unargued I obey; so God ordains:
God is thy law, thou mine; to know no more
Is woman's happiest knowledge and her praise.
With thee conversing I forget all time;
All seasons and their change, all please alike.'

To her he never seemed erratic or wild. There had indeed at one time been a struggle of wills, but she had yielded; and his was a kind, if firm rule. Surely never had visionary man so loyal and affectionate a wife!

Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, page 115.png
  1. Notes and Queries, June 19, 1880.