Shelley, a poem, with other writings relating to Shelley, to which is added an essay on the poems of William Blake/The Poems of William Blake
THE POEMS OF WILLIAM BLAKE.
"I assert for myself that I do not behold the outward creation, and that to me it is hindrance, and not action.… 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."
"The angel who presided at my birth
Said: Little creature, formed of joy and mirth,
Go, love without the help of anything on earth."
BEFORE the publication of these volumes I knew but one of Blake's poems, that on the Human Form, or Divine Image, quoted by James John Garth Wilkinson in his great work. The wisdom and the celestial simplicity of this little piece prepared one to love the author and all that he had done; yet the selections from his poems and other writings were a revelation far richer than my hopes. Not only are these selections most beautiful in themselves; they are also of great national interest as filling up a void in the cycle of our poetic literature. I had long felt, and probably many others had felt, that much of the poetry of the present and the last age must have had an antecedent less remote in time than the Elizabethan works, and less remote in resemblance than the works of Cowper and Burns. Yet, since Macaulay's essay on Byron appeared, Cowper and Burns—and in general these two only—had been continually named as the heralds of that resurrection of her poetry which makes glorious for England the crescent quarter of the nineteenth century. A third herald of that resurrection was undoubtedly William Blake; and although he was scarcely listened to at all, while his colleagues held in attention the whole kingdom, the fact may at length be recognised that by him, even more clearly than by them, was anticipated and announced both the event now already past and the event still in process of evolution.
If it be objected that one who was scarcely listened to at all could not exercise much influence, the reply is that we are concerned not with the influence, but with the accuracy and period of the presage. It is written that mankind did not heed Noah, or heeded only to mock, during the six-score years in which he foretold the Flood and built the Ark ready for it; if the Flood really came as he foretold, it attested the truth of his inspiration; but no one now would think that his prophecies were instrumental in accomplishing their own fulfilment, although this opinion must have been general among those who were being submerged. Or we may answer, applying a metaphor which has been with good reason much used, that the mountain-peaks which in any district first reflect the rays of the dawn exercise little or no influence on the dawn's development, even in relation to the country around them; they cast some glimmer of light into obscure valleys below (whose obscurity, on the other hand, their shadows make trebly deep when the sun is sinking), they prophesy very early of the coming noontide, we may judge as to their positions and altitudes by the periods of their reflection; but the dawn would grow and become noon, and the noon would sink and become night just the same if they were not there. So the Spirit of the Ages, the Zeitgeist is developed universally and independently by its own mysterious laws throughout mankind; and the eminent men from whom it first radiates the expression of what we call a new aspect (the continuous imperceptible increments of change having accumulated to an amount of change which we can clearly perceive, and which even our gross standards are fine enough to measure), the illustrious prototypes of an age, really cast but a faint reflex upon those beneath them; and while pre-eminently interesting in biography, are of small account in history except as prominent indices of growth and progress and decay, as early effects not efficient causes. They help us to read clearly the advance of time; but this advance they do not cause any more than the gnomon of a sundial causes the procession of the hours which it indicates, or a tidal-rock the swelling of the seas whose oncoming is signalled in white foam around it and in shadowed waters over it.
The message of Cowper has been heard (it was not a very great announcement, and he uttered it neatly and distinctly and honestly), has been laid to heart by the many for whom it was sufficient, and is now in due season passing out of mind with the fulfilment of its purpose. Very little of his poetry can be expected to survive our century. Burns will live with the language; but it must be remembered that his poetry is not blossom and promise; it is consummate fruition, it points to the past more than to the future; it is the genial life, the heroism, the history, the song of his whole people for ages, gathered up and sublimated in and by one supreme man. This King of Scotland happened to come in the guise of a herald to England, but none the less was he a king, the last and greatest of a glorious line; and no other majesty than his own was behind the messenger. Shakespeare made perfect the English drama, and there has arisen no English drama since; Burns made perfect Scottish song, and there has arisen no Scottish song since; when the genius of a nation has attained (human) perfection in any one form and mode, it leaves to ambitious mediocrity all future rivalry with that monumental perfection, itself seeking to become perfect in some new form or mode.
Blake's first volume of poetry was printed (one cannot add published} in 1783, about the same time as the first volume of Cowper and a little before that of Burns; Crabbe's first popular poem, The Village, was printed in the same year. Seventeen years afterwards Hayley was in high repute, and Blake went to live near him to engrave illustrations for some of his works. The Lyrical Ballads of Coleridge and Wordsworth did not appear until 1798, the Lay of the Last Minstrel until 1805. Byron was born in 1788, Shelley in 1792, Keats in 1796. The poems in this first volume had been written by Blake in the interval, 1768-1777, between the ages of eleven and twenty years.
Never, perhaps, was a book of verse printed more strange to the literature of its period; and one scarcely knows whether to account the novelty more or less wonderful because relative and not absolute, because the novelty of the long dead past come back to life rather than of a new future just born. The spirit of the great Elizabethan age was incarnate once more, speaking through the lips of a pure and modest youth. My silks and fine array might have been written by Shakespeare, by Beaumont and Fletcher, or by Sir Walter Raleigh. Its sweet irregular artless cadences are not more different from the sharp measured metallic ring of the rhymes of the scholars of Pope, than is its natural sentiment from the affected sentimentalities then in the mode. Of all the other eighteenth century writers, I think Thomas Chatterton alone (as in the Dirge in Aella) has anything kindred to it; and Chatterton was archaic consciously and with intent. The Mad Song immediately reminds us of the character assumed by Edgar in Lear (a common character in Shakespeare's time, else Edgar would not have assumed it), and of the old Tom o' Bedlam songs. In the fine specimen of these, preserved by the elder Disraeli in his Curiosities of Literature, three main elements can easily be distinguished; the grotesque but horrible cry of misery wrung from the heart of the poor half-witted, cruelly-treated vagabond; the intentional fooling of the beggar and mountebank, baiting for the charity that is caught with a laugh in its mouth, maddening for his bread; the genuine lunacy of a wild and over-excited imagination, ungoverned so long that it is now quite ungovernable. The first gives us such lines as these—
In the lovely lofts of Bedlam,
In stubble soft and dainty;
Brave bracelets strong,
Sweet whips ding-dong,
And a wholesome hunger plenty.
The second such as these—
Of thirty bare years have I
Twice twenty been enragéd;
And of forty been
Three times fifteen
In durance soundly cagéd.
With a heart of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander;
With a burning spear,
And a horse of air,
To the wilderness I wander.
I know more than Apollo;
For oft when he lies sleeping,
I behold the stars
At mutual wars,
And the rounded welkin weeping.
As Tom o' Bedlams did not wander the country when Blake wrote, the elements of vagabondage and mountebankism are not in his piece. But as an expression of lunacy—the government of reason overthrown, and wild imagination making the anarchy more anarchic by its reign of terror—it is thoroughly of the old Elizabethan strain. Here is a stanza which Edgar might have sung in the storm by the hovel on the heath—
Like a fiend in a cloud,
With howling woe
After night I do crowd,
And with night will go;
I turn my back to the East
Whence comforts have increased;
For light doth seize my brain
With frantic pain.
Mark the appalling power of the verb crowd, revealing as by a lightning-flash the ruins of sane personality, haunted and multitudinous, literally beside itself. Not one poet in twenty would have dared to use the word thus, and yet (although a careless reader might think it brought in merely for the sake of the rhyme) it was the very word to use. The address To the Muses, sweet, calm, and masterly, as if the matured utterance of a conviction well pondered and of no recent date, yet written by a mere boy, embodies the essence of all that Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley many years afterwards taught and sang in vindication of Pre-Drydenism.
The poems in blank verse, To the Evening Star, To Spring, and To Summer, are perhaps even more wonderful than those in rhyme, considering the age of the writer and the epoch of our literature in which they were produced. With the exception of the Ode to Evening, I do not remember any blank verse of the century at all similar to them in tone. And the Ode of Collins, fine as it is, suffers greatly in the comparison with them; for it does not reach their noble breadth of conception and execution, and it is not quite free from then current affectations. These pieces are not perfect in art, but they are perfect in the spirit of their art; they have certain laxities and redundancies of rhythm, and are here and there awkward in diction, but such youthful sweet errors rather grace than spoil "that large utterance of the early gods." They have the grandeur of lofty simplicity, not of laboured pomp; a grandeur like that which invests our imaginations of the patriarchs; by a well, beneath a palm tree, stands one who wears but a linen turban and a simple flowing robe, and who but watches browsing sheep and camels drinking, yet no modern monarch, however gorgeously arrayed and brilliantly surrounded, can compare with him in majesty.
The Selections from the first volume printed by Blake include extracts from a dramatic work, Edward the Third. It was an attempt to revive the great English Historical Drama; an attempt which failed, and of which all repetitions are pretty sure to fail: the English Historical Drama flourished in a period whose history was itself dramatic, and such a period is not likely to revolve again on our England. But one piece from this drama I must quote at length, and it is hardly rash to prophesy that this same piece will be quoted at length for many generations to come in all worthy books of specimens of the choicest British poetry. The time is the eve of Cressy, the scene is the camp of Edward: a Minstrel sings:—
O Sons of Trojan Brutus, clothed in war,
Whose voices are the thunder of the field,
Your ancestors came from the fires of Troy
(Like lions roused by lightning from their dens,
Whose eyes do glare against the stormy fires),
Heated with war, filled with the blood of Greeks,
With helmets hewn, and shields covered with gore;
In navies black, broken with wind and tide.
Of Albion; they kissed the rocky shore:
"Be thou our mother and our nurse," they said,
"Our children's mother; and thou shalt be our grave,
The sepulchre of ancient Troy, from whence
Shall rise cities, and thrones, and awful powers."
Our fathers swarm from the ships. Giant voices
Are heard from out the hills; the enormous sons
Of Ocean run from rocks and caves; wild men,
Naked, and roaring like lions, hurling rocks,
And wielding knotty clubs, like oaks entangled,
Thick as a forest ready for the axe.
Our fathers move in firm array to battle;
The savage monsters rush like roaring fire,
Like as a forest roars with crackling flames
When the red lightning borne by furious storm
Lights on some woody shore, and the parched heavens
Rain fire into the molten raging sea.
Our fathers, sweating, lean on their spears and view
The mighty dead: giant bodies streaming blood,
Dread visages frowning in silent death.
Then Brutus speaks, inspired; our fathers sit
Attentive on the melancholy shore.
Hear ye the voice of Brutus: "The flowing waves
Of Time come rolling o'er my breast," he said,
"And my heart labours with futurity.
Our sons shall rule the empire of the sea,
Their mighty wings shall stretch from East to West;
Their nest is in the sea, but they shall roam
Like eagles for their prey. * *
"Our sons shall rise from thrones in joy, each one
Buckling his armour on; Morning shall be
Prevented by the gleaming of their swords,
And Evening hear their songs of victory.
"Freedom shall stand upon the cliffs of Albion,
Casting her blue eyes over the green ocean;
Or, towering, stand upon the roaring waves,
Stretching her mighty spear o'er distant lands,
While with her eagle wings she covereth
Fair Albion's shore and all her families."
This is the song of the Minstrel as given in the Selections. I have the highest esteem for the taste and judgment of Mr. Dante G. Rossetti, and the whole reading public owes him no common debt of gratitude for his work in the second volume as well as for the Supplementary Chapter in the first. It is probable, it is almost certain, that he has published quite as much of Blake's poetry and prose as it was prudent to publish experimentally after the neglect of eighty years. But if the above interlineal points mark omissions, the omitted passages should be re-instated in the next edition; the whole of this Song, as it stands in Blake's earliest volume or in manuscript, should be given at any rate in an Appendix if not in the body of the work. For this Chant belongs to the whole British people; it is one of the most precious among the most precious heirlooms bequeathed to us by our forefathers; it is a national jewel of such magnificence that no one man, however honest and skilful, can be trusted to cut it and set it in accordance with his private opinion.
We English are surely a strange people. Pictures beyond price are bequeathed to us, and our first step towards disposing of them satisfactorily is to bury them away where they cannot be seen. A Song is chanted for us which should thrill and swell every native heart with patriotic pride, a Song great with the grandeur of our national life and history for three millenniums of legends and annals and journals, a Song heroic as Cressy, sublime as Trafalgar; and for fourscore years we leave it to that oblivion of oblivions which has never had any remembrance. The poet lives forty years after giving this glorious Song to his people, devotedly loyal to his highest inspirations, pure, poor, obscure; and when he dies, it is here and there casually remarked that a clever madman has at length reached the sanity of the grave. Again forty years come and go ere a few admirers worthy of him they admire can venture with much diffidence (surely but too well-founded!) to bespeak the favour of his people for this Song, in which he has added a great and burning light to their illustrations the most splendid, and for other songs in which he has given them the seed whose harvest is likely to be the wealth and spiritual subsistence of generations yet unborn.
When Blake wrote this, however young in years, he was undoubtedly mature; as Keats when he wrote Hyperion, as Shelley when he wrote Adonais or The Triumph of Life. We shall all soon know it by heart, and cherish it in our hearts, with the speeches of Henry at Agincourt and the Scots wha hae of Burns, with Campbell's Mariners of England and Robert Browning's Home Thoughts from the Sea; and then we shall feel and know that for us, it is perfect beyond criticism, except the criticism of reverent interpretation. It is Titanic, and it cleaves to its Mother Earth like a Titan, like a mountain, like a broad oak-tree; and the grandeur of its strength is the grandeur of a gnarled oak whose vigorous life bursts through all conventional symmetries, the grandeur of a mountain which the central fires have heaved into lines enormous and savagely irregular.
Many years afterwards, in 1789, when Blake was thirty-two, the Songs of Innocence appeared; and we learn from them the strange fact that he who was mature in his childhood and youth became in his manhood a little child. A little child, pure in soul as the serenest light of the morning, happy and innocent as a lamb leaping in the meadows, singing all its joy in the sweetest voice with that exquisite infantine lisp which thrills the adult heart with yearning tenderness. The Introduction, The Lamb, The Chimney Sweeper, the Laughing Song, A Cradle Song, Holy Thursday, Infant Joy, The Divine Image; what holy and tender, and beautiful babe-lullabyes, babe joy-songs, are these! The ideal Virgin Mother might have sung them to her infant; lambs, and doves, and flowers might comprehend them; they are alone in our language, which they glorify by revealing its unsuspected treasures of heavenly innocence and purity. I transcribe one of the shortest of them, Infant Joy; a sudden throb of maternal rapture which we should have thought inarticulate—expressible only by kisses and caresses and wordless cradle-crooning—marvellously caught up and rendered into Song.
"I have no name,
I am but two days old."
What shall I call thee?
"I happy am,
Joy is my name."
Sweet joy befall thee.
Sweet joy, but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile,
I sing the while,
Sweet joy befall thee.
Five years later come the Songs of Experience, and the singer is an older child, and even a youth, but not yet a man. The experience is that of a sensitive and thoughtful boy, troubled by the first perceptions of evil where he has believed all good, thinking the whole world cruel and false since some playmate-friend has turned unkind, seeing life all desolate and blank since some coveted object has disappointed in the possession; in short, through very lack of experience, generalising one untoward event into a theory of life that seems more bitterly hopeless than grey-haired cynical pessimism. Even the Garden of Love, The Human Abstract, The Two Songs, To Tirzah, and Christian Forbearance (one of the keenest arrows of Beelzebub shot straight back with wounding scorn at the evil archer), are not in thought and experience beyond the capacity of meditative boyhood. The Tiger is a magnificent expression of boyish wonder and admiring terror. The Crystal Cabinet is a fairy dream of early youth; The Golden Net is a fine dream of adolescence. Perhaps in only three more of his briefer poems do we find Blake mature (it must be borne in mind that his second maturity unfolded itself in pictures rather than songs); Broken Love, Auguries of Innocence, and the Letter in verse, dated from Felpham, to his friend, Mr. Butts. These are mature as to their conception, as to the amount and quality of experience and thought involved in them, but occasionally very immature in execution. There is, indeed, one piece of twenty lines mature in every respect, although written so late as 1807: I mean the verses to Queen Charlotte with his illustrations of Blair's Grave:—
The door of death is made of gold,
That mortal eyes cannot behold;
But when the mortal eyes are closed,
And cold and pale the limbs reposed,
The soul awakes, and wondering sees
In her mild hand the golden keys.
The grave is Heaven's golden gate,
And rich and poor around it wait:
O Shepherdess of England's Fold,
Behold this gate of pearl and gold!
To dedicate to England's Queen
The visions that my soul hath seen,
And by her kind permission bring
What I have borne on solemn wing
From the vast regions of the grave,
Before her throne my wings I wave,
Bowing before my sovereign's feet;
The Grave produced these blossoms sweet,
In mild repose from earthly strife,
The blossoms of eternal life!
And here are a few more lines almost as majestically mature as one of his Inventions for the Books of Job:—
Jesus sat in Moses' chair;
They brought the trembling woman there:
Moses commands she be stoned to death;
What was the sound of Jesus' breath?
He laid his hands on Moses' law:
The ancient heavens in silent awe,
Writ with curses from pole to pole,
All away began to roll:
"To be good only, is to be
A God, or else a Pharisee."
The man who wrote this might well proclaim: "I touch the heavens as an instrument to glorify the Lord."
Broken Love needs no comment here: Mr. W. M. Rossetti has done the best that could be done by the most subtle and patient sympathy to interpret it. I subjoin half-a-dozen lines from the Auguries of Innocence:
A Robin red-breast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage;
A dove-house full of doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell through all its regions;
A skylark wounded on the wing
Doth make a cherub cease to sing.
It has been objected (strangely enough, in Macmillans Magazine) to such couplets as these, that they express a truth with such exaggerated emphasis as wholly to distort it, as to make it virtually an untruth. No objection could be more unwise, for it is the result of reading the author's intention precisely backwards. His object was not to expand a small fact into a universal truth, but to concentrate the full essence of a universal truth into a small fact. He was intent on making great laws portable, not little events insupportable.—"Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered."—"But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment."—"For verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you."—"But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea."—These texts from the mouth of one of the sublimest of mystics realise the very same object in the very same manner. The sharply cut symbol leaves a distinct and enduring impression, where the abstract dogma would have perhaps made no impression at all. Briefly, in almost every couplet of this poem, Blake has attempted what all profound poets and thinkers have ever most earnestly attempted; to seize a rude but striking image of some sovereign truth, and to stamp it with roughest vigour on the commonest metal for universal circulation. To such attempts we owe all the best proverbs in the world; the abounding small currency of our intellectual commerce, more invaluably essential to our ordinary daily business than nuggets of gold, than rubies, and pearls, and diamonds.
As to the longer poems produced after the Songs of Experience—Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Europe, Jerusalem, Ahania, Urizen, etc.—the Selections given by Mr. Gilchrist are not sufficient to enable one to form a settled opinion. This may be said; that a careful study of the whole of them, in the order of the years in which they were written, would probably reveal that they are much less wild and incoherent than even Mr. Gilchrist supposed. Every man living in seclusion and developing an intense interior life gradually comes to give a quite peculiar significance to certain words, and phrases, and emblems. Metaphors which to the common bookwrights and journalists are mere handy counters, symbols almost as abstract and unrelated in thought to the things they represent as are the x and y and z used in solving an algebraic problem, are for him burdened with rich and various freights of spiritual experience; they are ships in which he has sailed over uncharted seas to unmapped shores, with which he has struggled through wild tempests and been tranced in divine calms, in which he has returned with treasures from all the zones; and he loves them as the sailor loves his ship. His writings must thus appear, to any one reading them for the first time, very obscure, and often very ludicrous: the strange reader sees a battered old hull, where the writer sees a marvellous circumnavigation. But we ought not to be kept from studying these writings by any apparent obscurity and ludicrousness, if we have found in the easily comprehended vernacular writings of the same man (as in Blake's we certainly have found) sincerity and wisdom and beauty. Nor is it probable that even the most mysterious works of Blake would prove more difficult to genuine lovers of poetry than many works of the highest renown prove to nine-tenths of the reading public.
Sie haben dich, heiliger Hafis,
Die mystische Zunge genannt;
Und haben, die Wortgelehrten,
Den Werth des Worts nicht erkannt.
For many intelligent persons Carlyle at his best is almost or quite as unintelligible as if he were using an unknown language; and the same may be asserted of Shelley and Robert Browning. (I do not select lofty old names, because in their cases the decisions of authoritative judges accumulating throughout centuries over-awe our common jurymen into verdicts wise without understanding; so that a dullard can speak securely of the sublimity of Milton, for example, although we are pretty certain that he never got through the first book of the Paradise Lost, and that he would find himself in a Slough of Despond when twenty lines deep in the opening passage of Samson Agonistes.} Indeed, I doubt whether it would be an exaggeration to assert that, for a very large majority of those who are accounted educated and intelligent people, poetry in itself is essentially an unknown tongue. They admire and remember a verse or a passage for its wit, its cleverness, its wisdom, its clear and brief statement of some fact, its sentiment, its applicability to some circumstance of their own life, its mention of some classic name, its allusion to some historical event; in short, for its associations and not for its poetry per se. Yet assuredly there are still men in England with an infallible sense for poetry, however disguised and however far removed from ordinary associations; men who know Shakespeare in despite of the commentators, and understand Browning in contempt of the critics, and laugh quietly at the current censures and raptures of the Reviews: and these men would scarcely consider it a waste of time to search into the meaning of the darkest oracles of William Blake.
I wish to add a few words on the relations subsisting between our author and succeeding English poets. In his early maturity, as a re-incarnation of the mighty Elizabethan spirit, the first fruit of a constructive after a destructive period, his affinity to the great poets who flourished a few years before his death (he died in 1827) will be readily understood. Thus in the Minstrel's Song, before quoted, we at once discern that the rhythm is of the same strain as the largest utterance of Marlowe and Webster and Shakespeare precedent, and as the noblest modern exemplar the blank verse of Hyperion subsequent. It is not, however, in this early maturity, but in his second childhood and boyhood and youth, when he was withdrawn from common life into mysticism, when moonlight was his sunlight, and water was his wine, and the roses red as blood were become all white as snow, in the Songs of Innocence, the Songs Of Experience, and the Auguries of Innocence (always Innocence, mark, not Virtue} that the seeds may be traced of much which is now half consciously struggling towards organic perfection, and which in two or three generations may be crowned with foliage and blossoms and fruit as the Tree of Life for one epoch.
The essence of this poetry is mysticism, and the essence of this mysticism is simplicity. The two meanings in which this last word is commonly used—the one reverential, the other kindly contemptuous—are severally appropriate to the most wise and the least wise manifestations of this spirit of mysticism. It sees, and is continually rapturous with seeing, everywhere correspondence, kindred, identity, not only in the things and creatures of earth, but in all things and creatures and beings of hell and earth and heaven, up to the one father (or interiorly to the one soul) of all. It thus ignores or pays little heed to the countless complexities and distinctions of our modern civilisation and science, a knowledge of which is generally esteemed the most useful information and most valuable learning. For it "there is no great and no small;" in the large type of planets and nations, in the minute letters of dewdrops and worms, the same eternal laws are written, and merely as a matter of convenience to the reader is this or that print preferable to the other. And the whole universe being the volume of the Scriptures of the living word of God, this above all is to be heeded that man should not dwell contented on the lovely language and illustrations, but should live beyond these in the sphere of the realities which they signify. It is passionately and profoundly religious, contemplating and treating every subject religiously, in all its excursions and discursions issuing from the soul to return to the soul, alone, from the alone, to the alone; and thus it is by no means strict in its theology, being Swedenborgian in one man and Pantheistic in another, while in the East it has readily assimilated Buddhism and Brahminism and Mohammedanism. Its supreme tendency is to remain or to become again childlike, its supreme aspiration is not virtue, but innocence or guilelessness: so that we may say with truth of those whom it possesses, that the longer they live the younger they grow, as if "passing out to God by the gate of birth, not death."
These few hints may serve as points of departure for some slender lines of relation between William Blake the Second and the principal subsequent poets. It must be borne in mind that the object here is not a survey of the full circle of the powers of any of these poets; they may be very great or very small in various other respects, while very small or very great in respect of this mystical simplicity. The heads of Da Vinci and Titian and Rembrandt, the bodies of Correggio and Rubens, would all count for nothing were we instituting a comparison between the old masters simply as painters of the sky.
Wordsworth ever aspired towards this simplicity, but the ponderous pedantry of his nature soon dragged him down again when he had managed to reach it. He was a good, conscientious, awkward pedagogue, who, charmed by the charms of childhood, endeavoured himself to play the child. Were it not rather too wicked, I could draw from Æsop another excellent illustration. He was not wrong when he proclaimed himself eminently a teacher; 'tis a pity that six days of the seven his teaching was of the Sunday-school sort.
Coleridge had much of this simplicity. In the Ancient Mariner it is supreme; in Christabel it does not lack, but already shows signs of getting maudlin; afterwards, Lay Sermons with Schelling and the Noetic Pentad almost or quite extinguished it. He was conscious of the loss, as witness the lines in his great Ode—
Scott, a thoroughly objective genius, lived and wrote altogether out of the sphere of this simplicity. He had a simplicity of his own, the simplicity of truthfulness and power in his "magnificent and masculine grasp of men and things." Expansive not intensive, he developed no interior life but diffused himself over the exterior life. His poetry is of action, not of thought; he is as a mighty and valiant soldier, whom we seek on the field of battle, not in the school of the prophets.
Byron had it not at all. He is great, exceedingly great; but great as the expression of intense life and of such thought only as is the mere tool and weapon of life, never great as the expression of thought above and beneath life commanding and sustaining it. He had just ideality enough to shed a poetic glow upon powers and passions all essentially commonplace but very uncommonly vigorous, overflowing with the energy of daemonic possession—an energy most mysterious, but in itself most impatient of mysticism.
Keats, who shall dare to judge? I doubt not that everything pure and beautiful would have had its season in him who, dying at twenty-four, wrote Hyperion a few years after Endymion. But this plastic genius would have proceeded in triumphant transmigrations through all fairest forms ere it could have found eternal tranquillity in the soul of all form. Had he been spared, all analogies, I think, point to this end. Shelley possessed, or rather was possessed by, this simplicity to the uttermost. Although he and Keats were twin-brothers, Greeks of the race of the gods, their works do not resemble but complement each other. The very childlike lisp which we remarked in Blake is often observable in the voice of Shelley, consummate singer as he was. The lisp is, however, not always that of a child; it is on several occasions that of a missionary seeking to translate old thoughts from his rich and exact native tongue into the dialect poor and barbarous of his hearers. He (while doing also very different work of his own) carries on the work begun by Blake, sinking its foundations into a deeper past, and uplifting its towers into a loftier future. Both Shelley and Keats are still so far beyond the range of our English criticism that they would not have been mentioned thus cursorily here had it been possible to omit them.
Tennyson has no more of this simplicity than had Byron: his chief youthful fault was such a young ladyish affectation as could not exist together with it. But he is fully aware of its value, and woos it like a lover, in vain, as Byron wooed it in the latter parts of Childe Harold and in Manfred. Perhaps each of them should be credited with one great exception, in addition to a few short lyrics; Tennyson with the Lotus Eaters, Byron with the Dream. Scarcely any other artist in verse of the same rank has ever lived on such scanty revenues of thought (both pure, and applied or mixed) as Tennyson. While it cannot be pretended that he is a great sculptor, he is certainly an exquisite carver of luxuries in ivory; but we must be content to admire the caskets, for there are no jewels inside. His meditation at the best is that of a good leading-article; he is a pensioner on the thought of his age. He is continually petty with that littleness of the second degree which makes a man brag aloud in avoiding some well-known littleness of the first degree. His nerves are so weak that any largish event—a Crimean War, or a Volunteer Movement—sets him off in hysterics. Nothing gives one a keener insight into the want of robustness in the educated English intellect of the age, than the fact that nine-tenths of our best known literary men look upon him as a profound philosopher. When wax-flowers are oracular oaks, Dodona may be discovered in the Isle of Wight, but hardly until then. Mr. Matthew Arnold's definition of "distilled thought in distilled words" was surely suggested by the processes and productions of a fashionable perfumer? A great school of the poets is dying out: it will die decently, elegantly, in the full odour of respectability, with our Laureate.
Robert Browning, a really great thinker, a true and splendid genius, though his vigorous and restless talents often overpower and run away with his genius so that some of his creations are left but half redeemed from Chaos, has this simplicity in abundant measure. In the best poems of his last two works, Men and Women and Dramatis Personæ, its light burns so clear and steadfast through the hurrying clouds of his language (Tennyson's style is the polished reflector of a lamp) that one can only wonder that people in general have not yet recognised it. I cannot recommend a finer study of a man possessed by the spirit of which I am writing than the sketch of Lazarus in Browning's Epistle of Karshish, an Arab Physician.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, also, had much of it, yet never succeeded in giving it fair expression. The long study of her sick-bed (and her constant chafing against the common estimate of the talents and genius of her sex) overcharged her works with allusions and thoughts relating to books, and made her style rugged with pedantry. She was often intoxicated, too, with her own vehemence. Aurora Leigh sets out determined to walk the world with the great Shakespearean stride, whence desperate entanglement of feminine draperies and blinding swirls of dust. The sonnets entitled From the Portuguese, reveal better her inmost simple nature.
Emerson stands closest of all in relation to Blake, his verse as well as his essays and lectures being little else than the expression of this mystical simplicity. Were he gifted with the singing voice we should not have to look to the future for its supreme bard. But whenever he has sung a few clear sweet notes, his voice breaks, and he has to recite and speak what he would fain chant. His studies, also, have somewhat injured his style with technicology, making him in his own despite look at Nature through the old church and school windows, often when he should be with her in the rustic air. In some of his shorter poems, however, and in the snatches of Orphic Song prefixed to some of his essays (as Compensation, Art, History, Heroism), any one with ears to hear may catch pregnant hints of what poetry possessed by this inspiration can accomplish, and therefore will accomplish; for no pure inspiration having once come down among men ever withdraws its influence until it has attained (humanly) perfect embodiment.
In eighty years the influence of this spirit has swelled from the Songs of Innocence to the poems of Emerson—a rapid increase of the tide in literature. Other signs of its increase meet us everywhere in the best books of verse published during the last few years. And perchance the increase has been even more rapid than the most of us have opportunity to learn, for we are informed by Mr. Rossetti that James John Garth Wilkinson has not only edited a collection of Blake's Poems, but has himself produced a volume of poems entitled Improvisations of the Spirit, bearing a strong family likeness to those of Blake; and it may be that Wilkinson has the singing voice which Emerson has not. It would be a boon to the public, at any rate, to make these two volumes easily accessible.
Emerson and Garth Wilkinson, the former undoubtedly the supreme thinker of America, the latter as undoubtedly second to none in England, are surely in themselves sufficient attestation to the truth and depth of the genius of their forerunner, William Blake.
He came to the desert of London town,
Grey miles long;
He wandered up and he wandered down,
Singing a quiet song.
He came to the desert of London town,
Mirk miles broad;
He wandered up and he wandered down,
Ever alone with God.
There were thousands and thousands of human kind
In this desert of brick and stone:
But some were deaf and some were blind,
And he was there alone.
At length the good hour came; he died,
As he had lived, alone:
He was not missed from the desert wide,
Perhaps he was found at the Throne.
- Life of William Blake, "Pictor Ignotus," with selections from his poems and other writings. By the late Alexander Gilchrist, author of the "Life of William Etty." Illustrated from Blake's own works, in fac-simile, by W. J. Linton, and in photolithography, with a few of Blake's original plates. In 2 vols. London: Macmillan and Co., 1863.
I give the full title, in recommending the work to all good readers. The first volume contains the Life and a noble supplementary chapter by Mr. D. G. Rossetti; the second volume contains the Selections, admirably edited by Mr. D. G. Rossetti, with the assistance of Mr. W. M. Rossetti. There is magnificent prose as well as poetry in the selections, and the engravings in themselves are worth more than most books.
- Prevented, I need hardly say, is used here in the old sense of anticipated.
- Let the reader try to breathe like a child, and let the auditors of the breath decide whether he succeeds or no. There is indeed in adult breath such a peopling of multitudinous thoughts, such a tramp of hardness and troubles, as does not cede to the attempt to act the infantine even for a moment." (Dr. J. J. Garth Wilkinson: The Human Body and its Connexion with Man, p. 98, note.) What is true of common breathing, is true more conspicuously of breathing idealised and harmonised, of the breathing of song in which psychical have superseded the physical rhythms. The adult cannot sing like a child; but Blake in these Songs does so: he did not act the infantine, for he was infantine, by a regeneration as real while as mysterious as ever purest saint experienced in the religious life. And this regeneration, so far as we can learn, was effected without the throes of agony and doubt and despair which the saints all pass through in being born again.
I am merely writing a few remarks on the poet, not sketching the life and character of the man; but I may be allowed to call the attention of readers to this wonderful life and character. Blake was always poor in world's wealth, always rich in spiritual wealth, happy and contented and assured, living with God. As to his soul's salvation, I do not believe that he ever gave it a thought; any more than a child thinks of the question whether its loving parents will continue to feed and clothe and cherish it. He had none of the feverish raptures and hypochondriac remorses which even in the best of those who are commonly called saints excite a certain contemptuous pity in the midst of our love and admiration: he was a thoroughly healthy and happy religious soul, whose happiness was thoroughly unselfish and noble. As to the "Christian Evidences," as they are termed, of which the mass of good people are so enamoured, in trying to argue themselves and others into a sort of belief in a sort (and such a sort!) of deity; he would have no more dreamed of appealing to them than he would have tried elaborately to argue himself into belief in the existence of the sun. "I feel the warmth, I see the light and see by the light: what do you want to argue about? You may call it sun, moon, comet, star, or Will-o'-the-wisp, if so it pleases you; all I know and care for is this, that day by day it warms and lights me." Such would have been the sum of his reply to any questioner; for he was emphatically a seer, and had the disdain of all seers for the pretentions of the gropers and guessers who are blind. Like Swedenborg, he always relates things heard and seen; more purely a mystic than Swedenborg, he does not condescend to dialectics and scholastic divinity. Those who fancy that a dozen stony syllogisms seal up the perennial fountain of our deepest questionings, will affirm that Blake's belief was an illusion. But an illusion constant and self-consistent and harmonious with the world throughout the whole of man's life, wherein does this differ from a reality? Metaphysically we are absolutely unable to prove any existence: we believe that those things really exist which we find pretty constant and consistent in their relations to us,—a very sound practical but very unsound philosophical belief. Blake and Swedenborg and other true mystics (Jesus among them) undoubtedly had senses other than ours; it is as futile for us to argue against the reality of their perceptions as it would be false in us to pretend that our perceptions are the same. As, however, Blake was supremely a mystic, it is but fair to add that he (and the same may be affirmed of Jesus) was unlike common Christians as thoroughly as he was unlike common Atheists; he lived in a sphere far removed from both. In the clash of the creeds, it is always a comfort to remember that sects with their sectaries, orthodox and heterodox, could not intersect at all if they were not in the same plane. Blake's esteem for argumentation may be read in one couplet:
If the sun and moon should doubt,
They'd immediately go out.
- Keats avowed imitation of Milton in the structure of his rhythm. Similarity to the Council in Pandemonium there of course could not but be in the Council of the overthrown Titans; but the verse of Keats (if I have any ear and intelligence for verse) is as different from the verse of Milton as with the same language and the same metrical standard it possibly could be. It is in my judgment even more beautiful and more essentially powerful and sublime than Milton's.
- Perhaps the astonishing difference in kind between these glorious poets and their contemporaries can best be put in clear light by thus considering them young Greeks of the race of the Gods, born three thousand years after their time, in Christian England. Shelley has been called The Eternal Child, and Keats, The Real Adonis; and Novalis says well, "Children are ancients, and youth is antique" (Die Kinder sind Antiken, Auch die Jugend ist antik: Vol. 3, p. 190). The ideas and sentiments of the race among whom they were reared were naturally strange and in many respects repugnant to them both. Keats simply ignoring the Bumbleism and Christianity, except in so far as the Bumbleism obstructed his poetic career, unperturbed save by the first throes of creative art, developed himself in the regions from which he sprang; Pagan and Hellenic in his themes, his ideas, his perceptions, his objects. Shelley, on the other hand, started from the time and place of his birth to reach the old dominions of his ancestry. In this enterprise he had to conquer and destroy the terrible armies of fanaticism, asceticism, cant, hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, lording it over England; and at the same time, the spirituality of the new religion, the liberty and equality and fraternity of the new political systems, all things lovely and true and holy of the modern life he would bear with him for the re-inspiration of the antique. He aspired not to a new Jerusalem in the heavens, but to a new Hellenic Metropolis on Earth: he looked for redemption and victory, not to Christ on Calvary, but to Prometheus on Caucasus. These young Greeks could not live to old age. The gloom and chill of our English clime, physical and moral and intellectual, could not but be fatal to these children of the sun. England and France are so proudly in the van of civilisation that it is impossible for a great poet to live greatly to old age in either of them.
CHISWICK PRESS:—C. WHITTINGHAM AND CO., TOOKS COURT,