Life of William Blake (1880), Volume 2/Essay on Blake by James Smetham
ESSAY ON BLAKE,
BY JAMES SMETHAM.
ESSAY ON BLAKE,
BY JAMES SMETHAM.
Reprinted from the London Quarterly Review, January 1869.
For a reference to the author of this essay see the Supplementary Chapter to the Life of Blake, Vol. I. pp. 428-9.
The omitted portions are extracts or summaries from the foregoing "Life of Blake," as a review of which the essay originally appeared.
The great landscape-painter, Linnell—whose portraits were, some of them, as choice as Holbein's—in the year 1827 painted a portrait of William Blake, the great idealist, and an engraving of it is here before us as we write. A friend looking at it observed that it was "like a landscape." It was a happy observation. The forehead resembles a corrugated mountain-side worn with tumbling streams "blanching and billowing in the hollows of it;" the face is twisted into "as many lines as the new map with the augmentation of the Indies:" it is a grand face, ably anatomised, full of energy and vitality; and out of these labyrinthine lines there gazes an eye which seems to behold things more than mortal. At the exhibition of National Portraits at South Kensington, there was a portrait of the same man by Thomas Phillips; but very different in treatment [see Frontispieces to Vols. I. and II]. The skin covers the bones and sinews more calmly; the attitude is eager, wistful, and prompt. Comparing the two so fine and so various portraits, you are able adequately to conceive the man, and in both you feel that this awful eye, far-gazing, subduing the unseen to itself, was the most wonderful feature of the countenance. It is the countenance of a man whose grave is not to be recognised at this day, while Linnell lives on in venerable age, producing his glorious representations of the phenomena of nature as she appears out of doors; and, we believe, enjoying a large success which he would merit, if for nothing else, as the reward of his kindness to William Blake. * * *
If we wished by a single question to sound the depths of a man's mind and capacity for the judgment of works of pure imagination, we know of none we should be so content to put as this one, "What think you of William Blake?" He is one of those crucial tests which, at once, manifest the whole man of art and criticism. He is a stumbling-block to all pretenders, to all conventional learnedness, to all merely technical excellence. Many a notorious painter, whose canvases gather crowds and realise hundreds of pounds, might be, as it were, detected and shelved by the touch of this "officer in plain clothes." In him there is an utter freedom from pretence. Mr. Thackeray with all his minute perception of human weaknesses and meannesses could not have affixed upon this son of nature any, the smallest, accusation of what he has called "snobbishness." As soon might we charge the west wind, or the rising harvest moon, or the grey-plumed nightingale with affectation, as affix the stigma upon this simple, wondering, child-man, who wanders in russet by "the shores of old romance," or walks with "death and morning on the silver horns," in careless and familiar converse with the angel of the heights. You may almost gather so much if you look on this engraving alone. Say if that upright head, sturdy as Hogarth's, sensitive as Charles Lamb's, dreamy and gentle as Coleridge's, could ever have harboured a thought either malignant or mean? It is a recommendation to the biography. He must have a dull soul indeed, who, having seen that face, does not long to know who and what the man was who bore it; and it shall be our endeavour, in our humble way, to act as a guide to the solution of the inquiry. But before we give some account of "who," we must be permitted to offer some preliminary reflections, enabling us better to understand "what" he was.
No question in art or literature has been more discussed and with less decisiveness than that of the relations of subject-matter to style or form, and on the view taken by the critic of the comparative value of these relations will depend the degree of respect and admiration with which he will regard the products of Blake's genius. To those who look on the flaming inner soul of invention as being of far more importance than the grosser integuments which harbour and defend it, giving it visibility and motion to the eye, Blake will stand on one of the highest summits of excellence and fame. To those who, having less imagination and feeling, are only able to comprehend thought when it is fully and perfectly elaborated in outward expression, he must ever seem obscure, and comparatively unlovely. There can be no doubt that the true ideal is that which unites in equal strength the forming and all-energising imagination, and the solid body of external truth by which it is to manifest itself to the eye and mind. There are moments when the sincere devotee of Blake is disposed to claim for him a place as great as that occupied by Michael Angelo; when, carried away by the ravishment of his fiery wheels, the thought is lost beyond the confines of sense, and he seems "in the spirit to speak mysteries." In more sober hours, when it is evident that we are fixed, for the present, in a system of embodiment which soul informs, but does not blur, or weaken, or obscure, we are compelled to wish that to his mighty faculty of conception Blake had added that scientific apprehensiveness which, when so conjoined, never fails to issue in an absolute and permanent greatness. But, having granted thus much, let us not spoil one of the most original and charming of the many joys to be found "in stray gifts to be claimed by whoever shall find" along the meads of art, by hankering after what will not be found, or quarrelling with what we cannot mend. Before we can come to a true initiation into, and an abiding enjoyment of, the domains of representative art, we must have a keen, clear, settled, and contented view of its limitations. Far less of the fruitlessness of discontent enters into poetry and literature than into the subject of painting and sculpture. One would think that the reason of this was obvious; yet it is lost sight of continually. Our experience has shown us that there are few who receive from works of a plastic kind a tithe of their power to please, because of their narrow, uncatholic, querulous condition of mind, arising from a false standard and unwarrantable expectations. They will not be at the pains to recollect the wide chasm of difference between a medium in which only that need be told which can be told with truth, and one in which all must be told, either truthfully or untruthfully: they will not reflect that the visible phenomena of nature are endless; that absolute perfection requires the presence of the whole series of those phenomena, and that nothing less can produce on the eye the full effect of nature; that the conditions on which representations are made are subject to such an infinity of accidents, that it would take a regiment rather than a single man to catch the mere blush and bloom of any one aspect of nature at any one time. They forget that life is short; health, variable; opportunity, mutable; means, precarious; memory, feeble; days, dark; "models," impracticable; pigments, dull; and media, disappointing.
Let us implore the visitor of gallery and studio to reflect for a while on these inexorable limitations and distinctions, and to endeavour rather to extract pleasure out of what is absolutely there, than to repine over the lack of sufficiencies which, probably, if demanded, would be found as incompatible with the subject treated as to paint the creaking of a gibbet, or the shriek of a steam-whistle. For our own part, with any such persons we should hesitate until this investigation has been comprehensively and satisfactorily made, to draw forth, on a winter evening, and in the sober quiet of the study, where alone such an action should be performed, that plain, grand, and solemn volume which is called Illustrations of the Book of Job, invented and engraved by William Blake. * * * And yet our inward thought on the subject is that in the whole range of graphic art there is no epic more stately, no intellectual beauty more keen and thrilling, no thinking much more celestial and profound.
The history and career of the designer of this noble poem are as interesting as his work, * * * He was a dreamy child and fond of rambling into the country, to Blackheath, Norwood, and Dulwich. His faculties and proclivities were soon enough seen, and in startling forms. He not only imagined, but said that he actually saw angels nestling in a tree, and walking among the haymakers in a field.
In these country rambles, we have one of the germs of his peculiar character and genius. Human powers and opportunities act and re-act on each other. The fledgling bird has, enfolded in its bosom, the passion for flight and for song, and realises by foretaste, one might think, as the winds rock its nest, the music of the woods and the rapture of the illimitable air. So there are premonitory stirrings, as sweet and inexpressible, in the breast of the heaven-made child of genius. They are its surest sign. Talent grows insensibly, steadily and discreetly. Genius usually has, in early years, a joyous restlessness, a keen, insatiable relish of life; an eye soon touched with the 'fine frenzy,' and glancing everywhere. It is—
'Nursed by the waterfall
That ever sounds and shines,
A pillar of white light upon the wall
Of purple cliffs aloof descried.'
Young Blake's vision of angels, when analysed, would probably occur in some such way as the following:—It was in no green-topped, suburban tree that he saw the heavenly visitants. We must rather suppose him returning, after the oxygen of the Surrey hill winds had exalted his nerves, among the orchards of some vale into which the last rays of the sun shine with their setting splendours. Here he pauses, leans over a gate, looks at a large, blossom-loaded tree, in which the threads of sunlight are entangled like gossamers which "twinkle into green and gold." A zephyr stirs the cloud of sun-stricken bloom, where white, commingled with sparkling red, flushes over leaves of emerald. Tears of boyish delight "rise from his heart, and gather to his eyes," as he gazes on it. The rays which kindle the blossoms turn his gathered tears to prisms, through which snow-white and ruby blooms, shaken along with the leaf-emeralds, quiver and dance. The impressible brain, already filled with thoughts of the "might of stars and angels," kindles suddenly into a dream-like, creative energy, and the sunny orchard becomes a Mahanaim, even to his outward eye.
So it must have been with that other similar incident. He rambles among hayfields, where white-robed girls, graceful as those whom Mulready has represented in the hay-making scene in Mr. Baring's gallery, are raking the fragrant fallen grass, and singing as they move. There are times when men not particularly imaginative, looking on the bloom of girlhood, and softened by the music of youthful voices, come very near to the illusion by which the imagination raises "a mortal to the skies," or draws "an angel down." Blake, under the enchantment of boyhood and beauty, only took the short remaining stride, and fancy became sufficiently veracious fact. * * *
It was one of the happy circumstances of Blake's career that his parents did not attempt to throw hindrances in the way of his becoming an artist: most men observe with considerable anxiety any traces of special inclination to the pursuit of art shown by their children, because of the great uncertainty which, no doubt, attaches to the calling. A few words may here be worth setting down on this head. Times have greatly altered in this, as in so many other particulars, since Blake's day. The whole field and apparatus of design have been enlarged. In the year 1767 there was nothing like the variety of occupation for the painter which there is now. In those days the artist, like the poet, had little chance of success unless he were taken by the hand and "patronised," in the old sense of the word. As the likelihood of being thus noticed depended greatly on accident, it was a dangerous risk for a lad to run when he resolved on throwing his life into the pursuit of painting or sculpture. Reynolds was so fortunate as to obtain high patronage early in life, and was of a constitution of mind able to use, without abusing, his opportunities. Wilkie, when only twenty years of age, gained the life-long friendship and support of Sir George Beaumont and Lord Mulgrave. He, too, had that admiration for grand society, and that placid and humble temper, which promoted the stability of such aids to success. Jackson was found on a tailor's shop-board by the same kindly and noble Lord Mulgrave, and was allowed 200l. a year to enable him to study, until it became evident such good fortune was ruining him, and the annuity was mercifully withdrawn. No doubt many young painters have been "taken up" by eminent patrons, who have never made their way in life. Patronage will not qualify a painter, though the want of it may prevent the highest abilities from being fairly developed. It is questionable whether even the best early patronage would have enabled Blake to succeed in any high degree. We shall see, as we proceed, that the inherent qualities of his mind—the marked and settled characteristics of his work, chosen and cultivated with a strength of conviction which no opinion of others, no baits of fortune, no perception of self-interest, could have shaken or disturbed—these, as well as the quality of his temper, were such that he never could have been largely appreciated during his own life. In so far as he becomes more and more recognised, it will be through a medium of interpretation, partly literary, partly artistic, which will enable thoughtful and refined minds to read his works as they read the classics in the dead languages. The lapse of a century has altered all the external conditions of art. There is no longer a need for patronage, in the ancient sense of the the word. No painter has to take his turn in Lord Chesterfield's ante-room—pictured for us by E. M. Ward—with the yawning parson, who comes to dedicate his volume of sermons; the widow who wants a place in the charity school for her son; the wooden-legged, overlooked, sea-captain, who indignantly lugs out his turnip of a chronometer; the insolent, red-coated man of the turf, who peers through an eye-glass, fixed on the end of his jockey whip, at the frowning and impatient Samuel Johnson, in snuff-colour, who is perhaps even now chewing the bitter cud of that notable sentence which begins, "Is not a patron my Lord," and ends with the words "encumbers him with help." It is comparatively rarely that an English noble buys the more precious work of the pencil. The men to whom the painter addresses himself with hope are the wealthy merchant, the successful tradesman, the tasteful lawyer, the physician in good practice. While he pushes himself up to the higher levels, most young men of any invention and skill can keep poverty at arm's length by designing on wood for Punch, or Judy, or the Illustrated News, or the Cornhill Magazine, or the Good Words, or one of that legion of periodicals, weekly and monthly, which bristle with clever woodcuts, and in which, as in an open tilting-yard, young squires of the pencil may win their spurs. Even when the power of invention is not present in a high degree, there is much work of a prosaic kind required, in doing which a fair living may be obtained by a diligent young man of average ability, not to speak of the exceedingly valuable practice afforded by this kind of labour. It seems not unlikely that this field will enlarge. Society is meeting its modern abridgments of time for reading by a rational employment of the arts of illustration—the photograph and the wood engraving. We learn in a glance, nowadays, more than our forefathers learned in a page of print; yet if William Blake had lived in these days of ample opportunity his works would have been equally at a discount. He dealt with the abiding, the abstract—with the eternal, and not the fleeting, aspects of passing life. What the Book of Job is to the Cornhill Magazine, that was the mind of Blake to 'the spirit of the age.'
* * * The influence of Blake's solitary Gothic studies during his apprenticeship to Basire is traceable all through his career. While the antique is the finest school for the study of the structure of the human form in its Adamic strength and beauty, the religious sculpture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is the noblest material of study for the spiritual powers of form. The faces, though not often realising much delicacy of modelling, have far more expression than in the Greek statues. There is a mingling of ascetic severity, with contemplative repose which transfuses itself into the beholder's mind, and gains upon him stealthily but surely, till he 'forgets himself to marble.' These monuments cannot be separated from the piles of wonderful architecture to which they belong. The niche in which a figure of bishop or king is placed is a portion of a great whole. It is usually adapted to its own position and lighting—a most important fact in monumental sculpture. There is a fine passage in Rogers's Italy describing the monument by Michael Angelo, where a warrior sits musing in gigantic repose under the shadow of his helmet, which casts so deep a gloom over the upper part of his face that, to the imagination of the beholder, the soul looks out of the frowning shade, and 'like a basilisk, it fascinates and is intolerable.' A cast of the same statue may be seen at the Crystal Palace, but not with the same circumstantial advantages. The ghostly fascination of that glooming shadow is gone, though much remains. The power which the statuary of one of our old cathedrals may acquire over the mind is inconceivable, unless we do as Blake did during this advantageous sojourn in the Abbey, so replenished with the most august memories and images. The verger's voice must cease to echo among the soaring shafts of the nave, the last vibration of the organ must die among the groinings of the roof. An absolute solitude must settle along the marble tombs and into the shadowy recesses. There must be no sounds but those faint, ceaseless, unearthly whispers of which every large cathedral is full—sighs, as it were, of the weary centuries, more stilly and enchaining than utter silence. Some definite object must be before us to hold the mind above the airy fancies of such a loneliness; some brass to be copied; some Templar to sketch and measure in his chain-mail (which the younger Stothard sketched so deliciously), as he lies stark along the dark, time-gnawn marble, or crouching in the panel of a crumbling tomb; or archives to search, and worm-eaten parchments to unroll, among earthy odours. It is after months of such experience as this that we begin to realise the dreadful beauty, the high majesty, of Gothic shrines and their clinging soul of imagination—the soul of many, not of one—of the ages, not of years. Mr. Gilchrist thinks it just possible that Blake may have seen the secret re-opening of the coffin which revealed the face of Edward I., and the 'yellow eyelids fallen,' which dropped so sternly over his angry eyes at Carlisle. In Blake's angels and women and, indeed, in most of his figures, we may see the abiding influence of these mediaeval studies in that element of patriarchal quietude which sits meditating among the wildest storms of action.
The style of Basire laid the foundation of Blake's own practice as an engraver. It was dry and solid, and fitted for the realisation of strong and abstract pictorial thinking *** In order to a right view of Blake's organisation, we must from the first bear in mind that he was a poetic thinker, who held in his hands two instruments of utterance—and 'with such a pencil, such a pen,' few mortals were ever gifted. The combination of high literary power with high pictorial power is one of the rarest endowments, and it is only among the loftiest order of minds—the Michael Angelos, the Leonardos, and the Raffaelles—that its presence is eminently distinguishable, though by them held in check.
The superb original strength of faculty to which the instrument is an accident, and which is able to work in any field, seems to be among Heaven's rarest gifts.
Of Blake's conditions and limitations as a general thinker we shall have afterwards to speak. Thought with him leaned largely to the side of imagery rather than to the side of organised philosophy; and we shall have to be on our guard, while reading the record of his views and opinions, against the dogmatism which was more frequently based on exalted fancies than on the rock of abiding reason and truth. He never dreamed of questioning the correctness of his impressions. To him all thought came with the clearness and veracity of vision. The conceptive faculty, working with a perception of outward facts singularly narrow and imperfect, projected every idea boldly into the sphere of the actual. What he thought, he saw, to all intents and purposes; and it was this sudden and sharp crystallisation of inward notions into outward and visible signs which produced the impression on many beholders, that reason was unseated—a surmise which his biographer regards so seriously as to devote a chapter to the consideration of the question 'Mad or not mad?' If we say on this point at once that, without attempting definitions and distinctions, and while holding his substantial genius in the highest esteem, having long studied both his character and his works, we cannot but, on the whole, lean to the opinion that, somewhere in the wonderful compound of flesh and spirit—somewhere in those recesses where the one runs into the other—he was 'slightly touched,' we shall save ourselves the necessity of attempting to defend certain phases of his work, while maintaining an unqualified admiration for the mass and manner of his thoughts.
Blake's reply to 'Old Moser's' recommendation to study Le Brun and Rubens rather than Michael Angelo and Raffaelle gives us an insight into his temper and the strong combative modes of expression which, delivered in quiet tones, for the most part characterised him through life. 'These things that you call finished are not even begun; how then can they be finished? The man who does not know the beginning cannot know the end of art.' And the view he here took of pictorial appliances explains most of the theory which embraces his highest excellences and his greatest defects. The living model artificially posed, to his sensitive fancy 'smelt of mortality.' 'Practice and opportunity,' he said, 'very soon teach the language of art. Its spirit and poetry centred in the imagination alone never can be taught; and these make the artist.' And again, a still more frank and, to some minds, fatal confession, made in old age, was this: 'Natural objects always did and do weaken, deaden, and obliterate imagination in me.' And yet, lest this should tend to lower the reader's interest in the faculty of the painter, let us indulge ourselves by quoting the motto selected for this biography, to show the magnificent way in which he 'lights his torch at Nature's funeral pile:'—'I assert for myself that I do not behold the outward creation, and that, to me, it is hindrance and not action. "What," it will be questioned, "when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire, somewhat like a guinea?" "Oh no, no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty! " I question not my corporeal eye, any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it and not with it.'
One is reminded, here, of the more solemn adjudication of the relative claims of mystery and understanding given by St. Paul to the Corinthian Church. He does not deny the validity of the mystery, yet expresses the strong views of a man of practical power. 'I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.' We confess that we can never glance at the wild mysteries of Thel and Urizen and Jerusalem without a frequent recurrence of this somewhat depreciatory phrase, 'ten thousand words in an unknown tongue;' and while acknowledging that 'howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries,' being strongly disposed to advance our sling-stone of 'five' against the Goliath of 'ten thousand.' It seems to us, also, that there is something misleading in the vague use of the words 'practice and opportunity.' The value of the old phrase 'practice makes perfect,' depends on what we mean by practice; as we take it, it means the doing again and again of the same kind of thing till we do it rightly; and opportunity is here to be understood as the presentation of appropriate and available means. Form, colour, light and shade, and composition, are the dictionary, the syntax, and the prosody of painting. The thought, the central idea of the picture, corresponds to its realisation, as thinking in words does to grammar. If dictionaries are of no use, and grammar has no relation to thought, then the details of the human or any other form have no relation to painting. Indeed, to deny this is to create a ridiculous paradox, which one may readily illustrate from the works of Blake himself. What his inner eye may see in the rising sun it is not for us to determine, but he has drawn most pathetically in the drama of Job both rising and retreating suns. It is true that he has not made them about the size of 'a guinea,' rather their arc spans the gloomy horizon like a rainbow; but it is the segment of a circle—why did he not draw it square or pyramidal? In order to draw at all he was obliged to conform at least to one fact of nature; and, so far as he followed her at all, she did not 'put him out,' as Fuseli affirmed that nature did for him likewise. The case in which he has carried realistic idealism to its utmost verge is perhaps in the strange design called 'The Ghost of a Flea;' but examine the features of the ghost, and say if, for material, he is not indebted first to the baser and more truculent lines of the human skull and nose, and eye and hair, and then to those insect-like elements which he had observed in the plated beetle and the curious fly. The solemn boundaries of form become ridiculous when they wander without enclosing some expressive fact visible to the eye either in heaven above or in earth beneath, and the question only remains, How much of this array of fact is needful adequately to convey the given idea? Jan Van Huysum would here pronounce a judgment entirely at the opposite pole from that of William Blake; and there is no surer mark of the true connoisseur than to be able to put himself 'en rapport' with the designer, and to judge at once his aim and the degree in which it has been realised. It would introduce a dangerous axiom to say that, in proportion to the grandeur and unearthliness of a thought, the aid of common facts is less needed; it entirely depends on what idea and what facts are in question. As applied to the human form, and to the highest idealisations of it yet known, and never to be surpassed, it would repay the reader who can see the collections of Michael Angelo's drawings at Oxford, to observe with what grand reverence and timidity that learned pencil dwelt on the most minute expressions of detail, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot; and it was this abundant learning which enabled the far-stretching soul of the mighty Florentine to avoid and to eliminate, amongst a hundred details, all those lines and forms which would not accord with the brooding and colossal majesty of his prophets, the frowning eagerness of his sibyls, the cosmic strength of the first father, or the waving beauty of the mother of us all. A leading principle in Blake's design was that 'a good and firm outline' is its main requisite. The claims of colour versus drawing, are not very fully opened out by his practice. Most of his works were of a kind that singularly divided these elements. Such of his productions as are most delightful in colour are comparatively rude and heavy in outline—and where his line is most sharp and masterly, the element of colour is nearly or altogether absent. His colour, again, was not so much an imitative as a purely decorative agent. The question as to whether the highest qualities of colour are compatible with the highest qualities of form, seems to us to be not so much a matter of abstract possibility as of actual and personal practice. Tintoretto proposed to unite the 'terrible manner' and grand drawing of Michael Angelo to the colour of Titian. There seems no reason in the nature of these two elements why they should not be united in the highest perfection; whether any genius will arise who will succeed in doing this remains to be seen. Colour is to drawing what music is to rhythmic words. It is not under every set of conditions that music can be 'married to immortal verse' with success. Much depends upon the auditory—much on the apprehension of the musician. There are delights of the eye in colour alone which fully correspond to the delights of melody alone. We may see in so common an object as an old garden-wall and in the compass of a dozen moss-grown or lichen-stained bricks, with the irregular, intervening mortar-lines, such hues and harmonies as will, for a while, give to the trained eye the same delight as a happy air of music gives to the instructed ear. No two red bricks are alike. Some deepen into rich and mottled purples, others kindle into ruddy orange, or subside into greys of the loveliest gradation. These accidental combinations of time-stain and emerald moss-growth with the cloudy hues of the irregular, brick wall, are sufficient of themselves to satisfy an eye open to perceive and understand them. In painting we may observe all manner of pleasant sophistries, which it is a fine holiday amusement to disentangle—arising from these subtle and indefinable relations of the pleasures of colour to the pleasures of form. How often we receive—especially among the smaller and more sketchy examples of landscape art, the most bewitching impressions from this sophistical play of the elements into each other. Translate some of the sketches labelled 'Evening' or 'Solitude,' into black and white, and their glory would sink into a compost of rude forms, gloomy and incorrect, quite incapable of existing alone. Add the daring tints—the sombre greens, the purples, clouded with fluent ultramarine, the red bands of fire seen between dark tree stems, the amber seas of air, or 'that green light which lingers in the West'—and you are so far imposed upon that you do not dream of questioning the legality of the magic which, by its very intensification of mutual and interchangeable errors, produces on the mind the same sensation wrought on it when beholding the splendid shows of the landscape itself. We are far from believing that the rule and square of mere literal truth can be rigidly applied to human reproductions of nature. The difficulty of analysing the great equations and compensatory powers of art will ever make it an interesting subject of pursuit to the human race. It is a sea whose horizon fades—
'For ever and for ever as we move.'
Even when colour is used in the engraver's sense of black and white alone, these comminglings, as mystic as twilight, retain their power over the eye and fancy. Opposite to page 320, vol. i. of Blake's Life, there are three woodcuts which fully illustrate our meaning. They were done to ornament the Pastorals of Virgil, edited by Dr. Thornton, and are of a degree of rudeness apparently verging on incapacity. Yet we would venture to ask any competent judge whether an effect in a high degree poetic is not produced by the total sentiment of the design. To our eye they seem to contain a germ of that grandeur and sense of awe and power of landscape which, in some of his works, John Linnell has carried out so finely, where dawn-lights dream over tranquil folds, or evening slowly leaves the valley flock to the peace of night. And so we have these three grand, but uncouth, blocks printed before us—in one of which the shepherd is eloquent among the ewes and sucking lambs—another where a traveller walks solemnly on among the hills, alone—while in a third 'the young moon with the old moon in her arms,' rises over fallen ranks of wheat. Thought cannot fathom the secret of their power, and yet the power is there.
Blake's reverence for 'a firm and determinate outline' misled him chiefly where his works are intended to be elaborately shaded. The importance of right outline to all noble drawing cannot be over-estimated. It must never be forgotten, however, that outline only represents the surface of objects in their extreme confines right and left, above and below, nor that the eye recognises the intermediate spaces with all their projection and depression as clearly as it sees the limit which is called outline.
To take a simple illustration of this. The outline of an egg, with its lovely tapering lines, is primarily needful to record the image of an egg on paper or canvas. If Flaxman draws the egg from which Castor and Pollux issued, the oval boundary is sufficient. It is accepted as a type of the egg, just as the flat figures of his designs from Homer or Hesiod are accepted as the types of men. But the case is altered if the relief of the whole has to be given by shading. An egg all outline in the midst of a shaded design would look as flat as a small oval kite. To produce its proportion of resemblance the outline must be filled with its pale moon-shine gradations up to the central 'high light,' by means of which the surface appears to swell forward to the eye. These gradations and shaded forms must be in their true place as much as the bounding line, or it will not yield the correct impression. If we apply this rule to each single feature of the human face and figure, we shall see that, while the firm and decided outline must be given correctly, it is only a hundredth part of the truth. Each point of the surface of the body, if turned sufficiently, would become outline, and indeed there is no portion of the exposed superficies which may not be called outline in this sense. It is owing to a one-sided view of the question of drawing, then, that we have to search among the often uncouth and broken shading in the plates of Blake, for that powerful and accurate outline which we are sure, almost universally, to find.* * *
It was a fortunate circumstance for Blake, in a professional sense, that he had no children. In many cases, the necessities of a family rouse and develop the resources of the parent mind and discover means of support where none appeared. This would have been impossible with such a nature as Blake's. He might have drudged and slaved at prosaic work with the graver, and so have been prevented from finding his own sphere as an inventor, but he could not have made his works a whit more acceptable to the general taste. He needed no spur; his powers were always awake, always on the stretch; and we have, probably, from his hand all that could ever have been obtained under the most favourable circumstances. Many a man is depressed by poverty and anxiety below the level of his secret capacities. It was not so here. The last touches of his steady graving tool are as cool and strong in the latest of his works as in the earliest. It was not in the power of neglect, or pain, or sickness, or age, or infirmity, to quench a vital force so native and so fervent.* * *
Blake engraved from Stothard and others for the magazines; mortified, sometimes, to see that his own designs had been the foundation, so he said, of the subject he engraved; indeed, Fuseli himself acknowledged that 'Blake was good to steal from.' We may understand the force of this saying, if we only look at a design of early date by Blake, called 'Plague,' engraved in the volume we are reviewing. An inexorable, severe grandeur pervades the general lines; an inexplicable woe, as of Samaria in the deadly siege, when Joram, wandering on the walls, was obliged to listen to the appeal of the cannibal mother, hangs over it; a sense of tragic culmination, the stroke of doom irreversible, comes through the windows of the eyes, as they take in the straight black lines of the pall and bier, the mother falling from her husband's embrace with her dying child; one fair corpse scarcely earthed over in the foreground, and the black funereal reek of a distant fire, which consumes we know not what difficult horror. It is enough to fire the imagination of the greatest historical painter. And yet the manner is so dry, so common, even so uninteresting, and so unlikely to find its way to 'every drawing room-table,' that a man of accomplishments and appreciative powers, but without the 'vision and the faculty divine,' would be sorely tempted to 'convey' the thinking to his own canvas, and array it in forms more attractive to the taste, without being haunted by the fear of his theft being speedily recognised.
When he was a little over thirty years of age Blake collected and published one of his sweetest and most original works, The Songs of Innocence, engraving the poem in a singular way with delightful designs on copper. These plates, a remnant of which we have had the good fortune to see, are somewhat like rude, deep-cut casts in copper, from engraved wood blocks. They were drawn on the copper with some thick liquid, impervious to acid; the plate was then immersed in aquafortis, and 'bitten' away, so that the design remained in relief. These he printed with his own hand, in various tones of brown, blue, and grey, tinting them afterwards by hand into a sort of rainbow-coloured, innocent page, in which the thrilling music of the verse, and the gentle bedazzlement of the lines and colours so intermingle, that the mind hangs in a pleasant uncertainty as to whether it is a picture that is singing, or a song which has newly budded and blossomed into colour and form. All is what the title imports; and though they have been, of late years, frequently quoted, and lose half their sweetness away from the embowering leaves and tendrils which clasp them, running gaily in and out among the lines, we cannot but gratify ourselves and our readers with one light peal of the fairy bells: —
'Sweet dreams form a shade
O'er my lovely infant's head,
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams,
By happy, silent, moony beams.
'Sweet sleep, with soft down
Weave thy brows an infant crown!
Sweet sleep, angel mild,
Hover o'er my happy child!
'Sweet smiles, in the night
Hover over my delight!
Sweet smiles, mother's smile,
All the livelong night beguile!
'Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
Chase not slumber from thine eyes!
Sweet moan, sweeter smile
All the dovelike moans beguile!
'Sleep, sleep, happy child!
All creation slept and smiled.
Sleep, sleep, happy sleep!
While o'er thee doth mother weep.
'Sweet babe, in thy face
Holy image I can trace;
Sweet babe, once like thee
Thy Maker lay, and wept for me!'
There is one design given in this book, which affects the eye wonderfully, where huge intertwisted trunks writhe up one side of the page, while on the other springs, apparently, Jack's immortal laddered beanstalk, aiming at heaven; between the two, on the blank white sky, hang mystical verses, and below is a little vision of millennial rest. Naked children sport with the lion and ride the lioness in playful domination, while secure humanity sleeps at ease among them.
Yet Blake had a difficult and repulsive phase in his character. It seems a pity that men so amiable and tender, so attractive to one's desire for fellowship, should prove, on close contact, to have a side of their nature so adamantine and full of self-assertion and resistance, that they are driven at last to dwell in the small circle of friends who have the forbearance to excuse their peculiarities, and the wit to interpret their moods and minds:—
'Nor is it possible to thought
A greater than itself to know.'
In this sphinx-like and musical couplet, Blake himself hits ' the true basis of the reason why men whose genius is at once so sweet, so strong, and so unusual, are largely overlooked during life, and are difficult of exposition when the fluctuations and caprices of life no longer interfere to prevent a fair estimate of their powers and performances.
After these exquisite poems, which come nearest to the universal heart, Blake struck off, on his own strange wings, into regions where we will not attempt to follow him. Those who wish to see what may be said for the scope and design of the series of Blake's illustrated mysteries may consult Mr. Swinburne's inquiries into, and eloquent comments on, them. For our own part, their chief value seems to us to consist in fragments of astonishing pictorial invention which they contain, hints and indications of which are given in facsimile in these profusely illustrated volumes. There can be no question that the first impression produced by them is, that they are the production of a madman of superb genius; and this impression is so strong that few people would be persuaded to do more than glance at what would confirm their judgment. Here is one of those firm questions which the man whose mind is unbalanced will ask with unflinching eye. He is talking familiarly to Isaiah. 'Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so, make it so?' What an entangling preliminary question before he ventures to slip the leash of some 'subjective' horror. 'I was in a printing-house in hell.' What a nonchalant, passing introduction to a subject. 'My friend the angel climbed up from his station into the mill.' Here is the easy way in which he treats principalities and powers. '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."' Here is a man, not exactly a fool, who 'rushes in where angels fear to tread,' and snaps his finger in their faces. There is no wonder if ordinary civilians found such a 'customer' to be difficult to get on with. And yet an unconquerable indifference to his transcendental philosophy does not in the least interfere with our veneration of the artist, as such. We hold that the 'creative' and the 'critical' faculties are seldom found in close and powerful alliance and that, often, in proportion to the intensity and energy of the former, is the dormancy, if not the incapacity, of the latter. In the procession of his own labours, the artist unconsciously selects or rejects. He is conscious that deep, down in the laws of thought, his justification is to be found, but he has neither time nor inclination to become a pearl diver, when the riches of the
Haunted for ever by the Eternal mind,'
come and pour themselves, unsought, at his feet. A life of analysis and reconstruction he leaves to others, and he is the happiest painter or singer who leaves the philosophies
'On Argive heights divinely sung,'
to the Argives; that is to say, so far as any practical intermeddling with them is concerned. Even if he be capable of entering the region, he acts most wisely who follows Mr. Ruskin's short advice to a painter, 'Fit yourself for the best company and keep out of it.' As to any serious consideration of Blake's vocation to teach aught of morals; of theology, or non-theology; of Christian Atheism, or Atheistic Christianity; we, with 'the volume of the Book,' which 'is written,' in our hands—'calmly, but firmly and finally,' on a general glance at the tone and tenor of these portentous scrolls of Thel and Urizen, these Marriages of Heaven and Hell, which would look blasphemous if we did not tenderly recollect by whom they were written, refuse any serious further investigation of their claims, and must dismiss them, not scornfully, though it may be sorrowfully. We regard them rather as we regard the gentle or exalted incoherences of a dear friend's delirium; for our theory of the mental structure of Blake renders them as harmless to us as his gentle Songs of Innocence: but on this ground we dismiss them—repeating the words before applied to them, only with no anger or disdain—that they are 'Ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.' But not shelving nor ignoring the illuminated pages themselves; their inventive power remains, and they may be regarded as a repository of winged and fiery imagery which will be useful to us in our attempts to realise things invisible, in so far as the elements of matter may bridge over for our conceptive faculties the gulfs between the seen and unseen; and in so far as they may be made to illustrate phases of thought to which they were not, in the first instance, intended to apply. There are many such designs, and we are thankful to see the woodcuts in Chapter XII. given as specimens of what we mean. Take them one by one, suppose no further relation than each has to its significant title, and we are wholly satisfied. We will not say how often, and with what fine effect, one of these rude but noble squares enters before the inner eye, and allies itself with the current stream of thought.
'Alas!'—that is the simple title of one of them,—a boy chasing winged loves, which he kills with his catching; need we move farther to seek our goal of meaning? 'What is Man?' That caterpillar, huge and spectral, crawling over the oak leaf under which the baby-faced chrysalis lies, expecting its life and its wings—to be 'crushed before the moth' in due time. Can we not find our own sufficient application of such a wondrous image. 'I want! I want!' Here is 'the globe's last verge' which both Dryden and Blake contrived (but with very different faculties and success) to see; where, according to Dryden, we may behold 'the ocean leaning on the sky.' Here Blake, on this hint, boldly heaves his ladder to the hollow bosom of 'our rolling neighbour,' the crescent moon, and begins to climb, fearless as Blondin, and cross the star-sown abyss to satisfy his 'want.' So with each of these precious little bold and grand designs—the last of which is almost appalling. A white, unearthly figure with a wand—a figure neither large nor small, for it is of no size to the judgment and imagination—cowers and stares beneath the root of a forest oak; a huge worm winds round before her feet, and the inscription is 'I have said to the worm, Thou art my mother and my sister.' Surely, any one who ever sat awestruck over the Book of Job, and heard the 'deep sad music of humanity' coming on the long-drawn gust of time from those lands of Uz, would feel that here was one worthy and sufficient interpretation of the idea of the verse, and of those other kindred upbreathings from the grave, and wailings of the haunted 'house appointed for all living,' of which the early chapters of the Book of Job are full.
Laying aside these works as philosophies or preachings, and returning upon them as strange pictures intended for the informing of the imagination through the eye, it is impossible to put into words the delight and restless wonder they excite. We invite the reader to turn to page 109 vol. i. and the opposite page, which is a fac-simile of one of Blake's leaves from America, reduced—but by an unerring 'photolithographic' process—to half the size, and printed as nearly as possible in the colour used as a groundwork for his handtinting—so that we are looking, in fact, at an autograph. Study carefully the design on the upper part of the left-hand page. By a sheer breadth of black, sharply contrasted with the white page, there is, by some inexplicable magic, conveyed the impression of a space in the upper skies, where—coming we know and care not whence, and hasting we know not whither—is a wild swan, bridled and mounted by an elf, into whose history and significance we shall never trouble ourselves to inquire. But we appeal to the intelligent observer whether that design does not kindle the page into a silver light, and hasten the spirits into a breezy swiftness of enjoyment, and strike the harp of memory within him, making him, perhaps, recall the fine image, in the 'Palace of Art'—
'For as the wild swan wings to where the sky
Dipt down to sea and sands.'
Besides these books and 'prophecies,' Blake made many designs of a separate or serial kind, and found in Mr. Butts a kind, steadfast, and appreciative patron. For nearly thirty years the modest, simple-living Blake found a constant resource in this worthy friend's patronage. It is a beautiful picture of his typical life of Arcadian simplicity and sufficiency to see this plain liver and high thinker taking his weekly design to sell for a very moderate price, and returning to dream, and draw, and engrave in his own humble home. Out of this simple life issued, in 1794, the Songs of Experience. Flaxman used to exclaim, 'Sir, his poems are as grand as his pictures;' and Wordsworth 'read them with delight.' Yet words do not tell the half of Blake's poems—do not reveal half the man. Some pieces will bear separation from the rainbow pages on which they originally appeared; others, and most of them, lose half their thrill and motion when enchained in the printer's 'forme.' -'When the brown poem and rough ground-lines of the design were stamped on the rough paper by the rude press, then his lyrical fingers, playing with the prisms of water-colour, washed and touched all over them in a way not to be described—poem and picture twined fondly round each other, in a bath of colour and light, refusing to be separated. So that he who is to understand Blake must be admitted to the penetralia where such sights are to be seen. Not that he had any special aim at exceptional seclusion. 'Come in' he would say, 'it is only Adam and Eve,' as in an anecdote narrated at length by Mr. Gilchrist, which adds another proof of our theory that a veil of innocent unreason spread its haze over one side of his nature. Surely by this time the little poem which begins—
'Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,'
and which Charles Lamb called 'glorious,' is pretty well known, as also the song beginning—
'Piping down the valleys wild.'
The exceeding delicacy and sweetness of some separate verses in his poems convey that sense of enchantment which Scott describes as coming over him at any recurrence of the stanza
'The dews of summer night did fall,
The moon, sweet regent of the sky,
Silvered the walls of Cumnor Hall,
And many an oak that grew thereby.'
It is hard to say in what this happy quality consists. To our own mind there is something of it in a song by Bulwer in the Last Days of Pompeii, beginning,
'By the cool banks where soft Cephisus flows,
A voice sailed trembling down the waves of air.'
To which Blake's 'Song to the Muses,' might have given the key-note:—
'Whether on Ida's shady brow,
There is this ineffable charm of scenery and sound in these lines from 'Night':—
'Farewell, green fields and happy grove,
Where flocks have ta'en delight;
Where lambs have nibbled, silent move
The feet of angels bright;
Unseen, they pour blessing,
And joy without ceasing,
On each bud and blossom,
And each sleeping bosom.
'They look in every thoughtless nest,
Where birds are covered warm;
They visit caves of every beast,
To keep them all from harm:
If they see any weeping
That should have been sleeping,
They pour sleep on their head,
And sit down by their bed.'
The same simple and tender mood of soul that originated such child-melodies as 'Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,' which brings tears down the cheeks of the ruggedest sailor, and has touched the secret fount of tears in many an unconfessing heart, handled this 'rural pen' and 'stained that water clear' and wrote that happy song—
'Every child shall joy to hear.'
'He who mocks the infant's faith
Shall be mock'd in age and death.'
There is so much pleasure in copying out some of these fragments that we are tempted to linger a little longer over them. The silver Shakespearean song of 'Take, O take those lips away!' has always sounded like a honey-laden breeze of Hymettus. There is the same nameless spell in these words of Blake, rolled sweetly on each other as the rose-leaves curl toward the heart of the rose:—
'Never seek to tell thy love,
Love that never told can be,
For the gentle wind doth move
Here are two stanzas, not so remarkable for their pure melody, but containing a wonderfully felicitous image:—
'Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau,
Mock on, mock on; 'tis all in vain;
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
'And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back, they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel's paths they shine.'
In a motto prefixed to the 'Auguries of Innocence,' he expresses that power which is given to genuine imagination, and which so distinctively separates it from the rest of the faculties, or rather enables it both to use, and master, and transcend them all—the power
'To see a world in a grain of sand.
And a heaven in a wild flower.
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand.
And eternity in an hour.'
But our material swells beyond expectation, and we must Return to Blake's history. * * * While the designs to The Grave were in execution, Blake got hold of a magnificent subject, of which Cromek had the wit to feel the value.
Out of the whole range of modern literature no more picturesque, ample, or central theme could be discovered than the Canterbury Pilgrimage of Chaucer. A fine passage from the hand of the discoverer of this admirable subject, in what seems to us the best prose document remaining from his pen, shows the dignity of the conception. [See p. 143.]
The Canterbury Pilgrimage of Blake is, we regret to say, on the whole, a failure, in our judgment, as to execution. The conception and composition are stately and strong. It might be taken from an early fresco in some 'Campo Santo.' But the horses, which he says 'he has varied according to their riders,' are so variously like what the Trojan horse might be, and so liable to be thought like what the less epic rocking-horse usually is—there is such a portraitlike grim stare on all the faces—such a grotesque and improbable quality about the 'Wife of Bath,' who is something between a jewelled Hindoo idol and the ugly Madonna of a wayside shrine—that we cannot help feeling how, in spite of a hundred redeeming virtues of strength and grandeur, all the effort in the world would fail to recommend it to the general eye. Yet, as a quaint, 'most ancient,' and delightful ornament for a dim oaken staircase, we recommend its purchase to all who can by any means procure a copy of it.
Blake's designs from Blair's poem, The Grave, were dedicated to the Queen of England as
'What I have borne on solemn wing
From the vast regions of the grave.
These words are truthful enough.
As the book is more readily to be seen than any other of Blake's works, we will not here speak of them in extenso; but we cannot help feeling, as we write, the wave of that 'solemn wing,' nor seeing, far stretching into the dimness of oblivion, the sights which Blake unveiled in those 'vast regions of the grave.' 'Kings and counsellors of the earth, which built desolate places for themselves; and princes that had gold, and filled their houses with silver,' lying side by side, with awful, open gaze, in the dusky silence, waiting for the trumpet of final awaking. Infancy, youth, manhood, and age, trooping hurriedly downward into the bleak darkness and 'monumental caves of death.' The huge, Herculean struggle of 'the wicked strong man' against the victorious impalpable 'shadow with the keys;' the sweet 'soul hovering over the body;' the pictured realisation of Burns's tender wish—a family found at last—
'No wanderer lost—
A family in heaven;"
above all, that elevating vision—worthy of the Sistine roof—where Age, 'a-leaning on his crutch,' is driven by the last stress of the furious tempest of life into the Gate of Death; but where, overhead, 'young and lusty as the eagle,' the new-born, immortal, worshipping man of the skies kneels in the radiance of the supernal sun of eternity. This book was, indeed, a fit overture to that still greater oratorio of Job, with which, as if accompanied by a mighty Miltonic organ, the master virtually concluded his pictured lays.
It is to the thoughtful, self-denying kindness of the venerable John Linnell that we owe the production of the Illustration of the Book of Job. Will it be believed that Blake was nearly seventy years old when this marvellous series of designs was commenced? Before being permitted to handle its solemn pages, every spectator ought to be forewarned and instructed that these designs are the latest products of a hand growing stiff with age, and verging on immortality; and should approach them with something of the reverence with which the young ought to 'rise up before the grey hairs. It is true that the drawings for the series were made when he was in the vigour of life. But every line of these plates was cut directly by the patient, wrinkled hand. He was poor, though contented, at this period of life. He had struggled through years of shameful and Bœotian neglect into the valley of age and dechne. Even his patron, Mr. Butts, was alienated from him. The Royal Academy had given him a grant of £25 out of its funds, showing that want was endeavouring to stare him out of countenance. At this juncture John Linnell stepped forward and gave the commission, at his own risk, for the execution of these designs from the Book of Job. In pleasant little instalments of from £2 to £3 per week was the simple and frugal Old Master paid, while, day by day, the sharp graver cut these immortal lines.
At this time he was like a simple stoic philosopher, surrounded, in his one room in Fountain Court, Strand (how very strange a place for such a work!—one would have thought them rather to have been graven among the mountains and Druidic cairns), by a little band of loving disciples, some of whom are amongst us at this day—two at least well known to fame—George Richmond, the eminent portrait-painter, and Samuel Palmer, whose profoundly poetic water-colour landscapes are still to be seen, year by year, on the walls of 'The Old Water-Colour Society.' No profits were realised by the engravings-—their sale hardly covering expenses. The price of Paradise Lost will occur to the literary reader as he sighs over the last sentence; but, regardless of mere money, success, the old man ploughed over his last fields as the sun of life stood red in the horizon, and the vale darkened beneath his feet. The 'long patience' of this stalwart son of toil and imagination endured to the end, and saw no earthly reward. The thin, enduring furrows of these 'inventions,' traced by the ploughshare of his graver, have borne fruit since then; but not for him, nor for her he left behind.
We must not attempt a full description of these inventions. Let us again say, that the style of their execution is of that intense, primeval, severe, and unaffected kind most suited to reproduce scenes of the early world; but bare and dry, and as if centuries had eaten into their substance, and left them as the torrent streams are left among the barren heights. If, with this explanation, the engravings (reduced in the second volume of this biography, but exact facsimiles of the things themselves) should greatly disappoint the observer, let him pass by them, and go forward to something more congenial. Their Runic power and pathos is not for him. Each design has a border, which is a sort of outlined commentary, in harmony with the subject, and often allusive to it. It opens with a family picture of the patriarch, his wife, and children, gathered under a vast tree—the parents sitting, the sons and daughters kneeling in worship; the 'homestead' is seen beyond close-packed flocks of sheep. Some rams of the flock and lambs of the fold lie in the foreground, while the great sun sets and the crescent moon rises over heights stormy and barren. In the next, the vine and fig-tree of home—angel-guarded—overshades the luxurious ease of family love; but above this tender vision is one more awful. The Ancient of Days (who is to be read by the instructed eye in his cramped grandeur rather as an unlettered symbol of Divinity, than as a representation) sits upon His throne, closed in by clouds and bowing cherubim, while Satan presents his malignant plea. It is granted; and in the succeeding scenes he works his fiery will. The darkening page seems to crackle with sulphurous and sudden flame; the strong pillars tremble, and lurch, and fall, crushing the lovely and the strong under their ruins. The rampant, rejoicing demon dances on the cornices, and flaps his dragon wings in glee; while, in the margin, strange glints of issuing claws and eating fires crawl upward. Then the Messengers are seen precipitating themselves one by one on the astonished eye of the patriarch and his wife. In the border, Satan walks majestically on the circle of the earth, and round and below him the lightning shivers, 'the all-dreaded thunder-stone' explodes, and the billowing waves of fire still curl and creep threateningly. Nevertheless, we see, farther on, the patient man—still with his attendant angels (so like the angels of Fra Angelico!)—relieving the poor as before; but the landscape is bereaved and desolate, and over the sharp stern ridges of the hills the sky encloses another heavenly conclave. The Father of Heaven and His shrinking hosts watch how Lucifer, in his wrath, gathers in his hand the bottles of heaven into one pliant orifice, from which he sprinkles plagues and pains on the head of Job. The outline comment shows us the now manifest dragons of the pit, with sombre eyes, among thorns and piercing swords of flame, which are soon to strike through his bones and flesh.
And again we see the faithful servant of God laid low. There is no vision in the upper air—all is cold and vaporous gloom. The bellying cloud becomes a reservoir of agony, wielded like a huge wine-skin of wrath, and poured, as before, on the overthrown form upon the ground. The sea blackens, and the mighty rims of the setting sun seem to depart in protest. The scathed hills and scattered ruins against which the now predominant Adversary rears himself, are abandoned by all blessing, while his unholy feet trample the righteous man into the dust. There is a series of symbols of lament in the border—a broken crook, a restless, complaining grasshopper, the toad and the shard, the thistle and the wounding thorn. Then come the friends, with uplifted hands and sorrowful eyes; while some strange, darting horizon-light, like a northern aurora, cuts out into gloomy relief the black mountain, which rises beyond a city desolate as Tadmor in the wilderness. The patriarch, sitting on his dunghill, in the following design, spreads upward his pleading, appealing, protesting hands, while the friends bow beside the dishevelled wife, and speak never a word. Light is withdrawn; clouds steam from the rock; and below, in the border, the dull fungus spreads its tent where evil dews drip on berries of poison. Still following down the darkening steps of grief, we behold the 'terror by night'—described by Eliphaz—transacted in vision over a crouching group of the bereaved pair and their friends. The hair of his head stands up, while an apparition, dignified and ominous, walks, arrayed with white nimbus and fire-darting cloud. Then, again, Job kneels, and the six scornful hands of his friends are levelled against his expanded Neptunian breast like spears, as he proclaims his integrity; and worse than this, the fearful hissing whisper of the over-tempted wife of his bosom rises to his ear, bidding him to curse God and die.
That is not the extremest depth of his woe. All hell seems to hurtle over his couch in the succeeding design; jointed lightnings splinter amidst a lurid gloom; demons throng the chamber, and shake their chains by the bed; innumerable tongues of fire search through and through what should be the place of rest; while the arch-enemy—now transformed into a voluminous incubus, serpent-wreathed, presses down in thunderous imminence upon his very soul, as foul and fiendish arms grasp the limbs of Job, longing to hurry him away. The border is now all fire, which wavers and soars triumphantly, as over a sacked city. Our memory recalls a fine MS. stanza, by a friend, which expresses the sentiment of this dark picture:—
'My bones are filled with feverish fire,
My tongue hath nigh forgot to speak,
My couch is like a burning pyre,
My heart throbs wildly e'er it break.
O God, my God, to Thee I pray,
Help me—no other help I know;
I am full of tossings to and fro
Until the dawning of the day.'
But now a calm falls on the scene of sorrow. Heads are uplifted. Elihu, the son of Barachel the Buzite, speaks, and the vast stars shine around his head out of the black pall of night. All eyes rest on him, except those of the despairing wife.
'There is a listening fear in their regard'
as he speaks, saying, 'When He giveth quietness, who then can make trouble?' A lovely marginal illustration shows, as it were, the beginning of a new hope. From the prostrate figure of the saint, on whose bosom hope seems to lie dead, there is a gradual lifting-up of little angel-thoughts which, rising higher and higher, at last disappear on their way to the throne of God. There follows a subject of amazing grandeur—God speaks out of the incumbent wreaths of the whirlwind; and in the outer space there are sketchings that seem to represent the very roots of creation, while its boiling energies appear to overflow above. Now the elder sons of God sing together with clapping wings among the studded stars; the Almighty spreads His arms of command, and the coursers of the morning leap forth; the silent-rushing dragons of the night issue into its purple hollows, and, as it were, hidden in 'a vacant interlunar cave,' Job and his friends behold and meditate on these things. And again on other wonders: Behemoth tramps the earth; Leviathan wallows in the deep. Then, farther on, 'Satan falls as lightning from heaven;' the shadows flee; the sweet returns of the Divine favour brighten on the head of Job, while they flash condemnation on the heads of his sceptical friends. Still farther, the altar of grateful sacrifice sends its pyramid of flame into the heaven of heavens.
In the border of this invention are drawn, curiously enough, a palette and pencils and a graver. We never see this without surmising some personal allusion in it, and thinking of George Herbert's poem of The Flower—
'Who would have thought my shrivelled heart
How sweet and grave is the next chapter of the story.
Dappled lights break over the newly-fruited fig-tree; corn waves in the morning wind. Subdued, but with more than his old dignity, the restored patriarch unresentfully and thankfully receives from 'every one a piece of money.'
Time flows on, and in future years we look on him once again. In 'a chamber of imagery,' frescoed round with reminiscences of the long past 'days of darkness,' Job sits. Three daughters, more lovely than those he had lost, clasp his knees, while he, with longer waving beard, and an aspect of deeper eld, recounts—his arms wide floating in grateful joy—the story of his trial and his deliverance.
In the last scene of all, a full-voiced pæan rises. Under the aged oak, where we saw the former family gathered in prayer, we now see, standing in the exultation of praise, a group of sons more strong and active, of daughters more beautiful and sweet. The psalm swells on the evening air; resonant harp keeps time with warbling lute; the uplifted silver trumpets peal; the pastoral reed soothes the close-crowding, white-fleeced flocks; a crescent rises as of yore; while the sun, darting its rays to the zenith, sinks over the hills of God, who blesses 'the latter end of Job more than the beginning.'
If we might have our wish, we would select some accessible but far removed, quiet vale where Corinthian capitals could never intrude. Here we would have built a strong, enduring, greystone simple building of one long chamber, lighted from above. This chamber should be divided into niches. In each niche, and of the size of life, there should be done in fresco, in low tones of simple, deep colour, one of these grand designs, inlaid in a broad gold flat, which should be incised in deep brown lines with the sub-signification of Blake's Marginalia. * * * At the inner end of this hall of power there should be a marble statue of Blake,
'His looks commercing with the skies,
His rapt soul sitting in his eyes.'
He should be standing on a rock, its solid strength overlapped by pale, marmoreal flames, while below his feet twined gently the 'Serpent of Eternity.' * * *
We shall attempt no final summary of Blake's powers and position as an artist. To pay some small tribute to his memory from whom, for many years, we have received such unbounded delight and instruction, has been a growing wish; and, in our humble measure, we have been able, now, to carry it into effect.
He stands, and must always stand, eminently alone. The fountain of thought and knowledge to others, he could never be the head of a school. What is best in him is wholly inimitable. 'The fire of God was in him.' And as, all through his works, this subtle element plays and penetrates, so in all he did and said, the ethereal force flamed outward, warming all who knew how to use it aright, scorching or scathing all who come impertinently near to it. He can never be popular in the ordinary sense of the word, write we never so many songs in his praise, simply because the region in which he lived was remote from the common concerns of life, and still more by reason of the truth of the 'mystic sentence' uttered by his own lips, and once before cited in these pages—
'Nor is it possible to thought
A greater than itself to know.'