William Blake, a critical essay/Life and designs
Tous les grands poëtes deviennent naturellement, fatalement, critiques. Je plains les poëtes que guide le seul instinct; je les crois incomplets. Dans la vie spirituelle des premiers, une crise se fait infailliblement, où ils veulent raisonner leur art, découvrir les lois obscures en vertu desquelles ils ont produit, et tirer de cette étude une série de préceptes dont le but divin est l'infáillibilité dans la production poétique. Il serait prodigieux qu'un critique devînt poëte, et il est impossible qu'un poëte ne contienue pas un critique.—Charles Baudelaire.
I.—LIFE AND DESIGNS.
In the year 1827, there died, after a long dim life of labour, a man as worthy of remark and regret as any then famous. In his time he had little enough of recognition or regard from the world; and now that here and there one man and another begin to observe that after all this one was perhaps better worth notice and honour than most, the justice comes as usual somewhat late.
Between 1757 and 1827 the world, one might have thought, had time to grow aware whether or not a man were worth something. For so long there lived and laboured in more ways than one the single Englishman of supreme and simple poetic genius born before the closing years of the eighteenth century; the one man of that date fit on all accounts to rank with the old great names. A man perfect in his way, and beautifully unfit for walking in the way of any other man. We have now the means of seeing what he was like as to face in the late years of his life: for his biography has at the head of it a clearly faithful and valuable likeness. The face is singular, one that strikes at a first sight and grows upon the observer; a brilliant eager, old face, keen and gentle, with a preponderance of brow and head; clear bird-like eyes, eloquent excitable mouth, with a look of nervous and fluent power; the whole lighted through as it were from behind with a strange and pure kind of smile, touched too with something of an impatient prospective rapture. The words clear and sweet seem the best made for it; it has something of fire in its composition, and something of music. If there is a want of balance, there is abundance of melody in the features; melody rather than harmony; for the mould of some is weaker and the look of them vaguer than that of others. Thought and time have played with it, and have nowhere pressed hard; it has the old devotion and desire with which men set to their work at starting. It is not the face of a man who could ever be cured of illusions; here all the medicines of reason and experience must have been spent in pure waste. We know also what sort of man he was at this time by the evidence of living friends. No one, artist or poet, of whatever school, who had any insight or any love of things noble and lovable, ever passed by this man without taking away some pleasant and exalted memory of him. Those with whom he had nothing in common but a clear kind nature and sense of what was sympathetic in men and acceptable in things—those men whose work lay quite apart from his—speak of him still with as ready affection and as full remembrance of his sweet or great qualities as those nearest and likest him. There was a noble attraction in him which came home to all people with any fervour or candour of nature in themselves. One can see, by the roughest draught or slightest glimpse of his face, the look and manner it must have put on towards children. He was about the hardest worker of his time; must have done in his day some horseloads of work. One might almost pity the poor age and the poor men he came among for having such a fiery energy cast unawares into the midst of their small customs and competitions. Unluckily for them, their new prophet had not one point they could lay hold of, not one organ or channel of expression by which to make himself comprehensible to such as they were. Shelley in his time gave enough of perplexity and offence; but even he, mysterious and rebellious as he seemed to most men, was less made up of mist and fire than Blake.
He was born and baptized into the church of rebels; we can hardly imagine a time or scheme of things in which he could have lived and worked without some interval of revolt. All that was accepted for art, all that was taken for poetry, he rejected as barren symbols, and would fain have broken up as mendacious idols. What was best to other men, and in effect excellent of its kind, was to him worst. Reynolds and Rubens were daubers and devils. The complement or corollary of this habit of mind was that he would accept and admire even small and imperfect men whose line of life and action seemed to run on the same tramway as his own. Barry, Fuseli, even such as Mortimer—these were men he would allow and approve of. The devils had not entered into them; they worked, each to himself, on the same ground as Michael Angelo. To such effect he would at times prophesy, standing revealed for a brief glimpse on the cloudy and tottering height of his theories, before the incurious eyes of a public which had no mind to inhale such oracular vapour. It is hard to conjecture how his opinions, as given forth in his Catalogue or other notes on art, would have been received—if indeed they had ever got hearing at all. This they naturally never did; by no means to Blake's discouragement. He spoke with authority; not in the least like the Scribes of his day.
So far one may at least see what he meant; although at sight of it many would cover their eyes and turn away. But the main part of him was, and is yet, simply inexplicable; much like some among his own designs, a maze of cloudy colour and perverse form, without a clue for the hand or a feature for the eye to lay hold of. What he meant, what he wanted, why he did this thing or not that other, no man then alive could make out. Nevertheless it was worth the trying. In a time of critical reason and definite division, he was possessed by a fervour and fury of belief; among sane men who had disproved most things and proved the rest, here was an evident madman who believed a thing, one may say, only insomuch as it was incapable of proof. He lived and worked out of all rule, and yet by law. He had a devil, and its name was Faith. No materialist has such belief in bread and meat as Blake had in the substance underlying appearance which he christened god or spectre, devil or angel, as the fit took him; or rather as he saw it from one or the other side. His faith was absolute and hard, like a pure fanatic's; there was no speculation in him. What could be made of such a man in a country fed and clothed with the teapot pieties of Cowper and the tape-yard infidelities of Paine? Neither set would have to do with him; was he not a believer? and was he not a blasphemer? His licence of thought and talk was always of the maddest, or seemed so in the ears of his generation. People remember at this day with horror and pity the impression of his daring ways of speech, but excuse him still on the old plea of madness. Now on his own ground no man was ever more sane or more reverent. His outcries on various matters of art or morals were in effect the mere expression, not of reasonable dissent, but of violent belief. No artist of equal power had ever a keener and deeper regard for the meaning and teaching—what one may call the moral—of art. He sang and painted as men write or preach. Indifference was impossible to him. Thus every shred of his work has some life, some blood, infused or woven into it. In such a vast tumbling chaos of relics as he left behind to get in time disentangled and cast into shape, there are naturally inequalities enough; rough sides and loose sides, weak points and helpless knots, before which all mere human patience or comprehension recoils and reels back. But in all, at all times, there is the one invaluable quality of actual life.
Without study of a serious kind, it is hopeless for any man to get at the kernel of Blake's life and work. Nothing can make the way clear and smooth to those who are not at once drawn into it by a sincere instinct of sympathy. This cannot be done; but what can be done has been thoroughly and effectually well done in this present biography. A trained skill, an exquisite admiration, an almost incomparable capacity of research and care in putting to use the results of such long and refined labour, no reader can fail to appreciate as the chief gifts of the author: one who evidently had at once the power of work and the sense of selection in perfect order. The loss of so admirable a critic, so wise and altogether competent a workman, is a loss to be regretted till it can be replaced—a date we are not likely to see in our days. At least his work is in no danger of following him. This good that he did is likely to live after him; no part of it likely to be interred in his grave. For the book, unfinished, was yet not incomplete, when the writer's work was broken short off. All or nearly all the biographical part had been ably carried through to a good end. It remained for other hands to do the editing; to piece together the loose notes left, and to supply all that was requisite or graceful in the way of remark or explanation. With what excellent care and taste this has been done, no one can miss of seeing. Of the critical and editorial part there will be time to speak further in its own place. All, in effect, which could be done for a book thus left suddenly and sadly to itself, has been done as well as possible; no tenderness of labour grudged, no power and skill spared to supply or susstain it. So that we now have it in a fair and sufficient form, and can look with reasonable hope for this first critical Life of Blake and selected edition of his Works to make its way and hold its place among the precious records and possessions of Englishmen.
What has been once well done need not be tried at again and done worse. No second writer need now recapitulate the less significant details of Blake's life: space and skill wanting, we can but refer readers to the complete biography. That the great poet and artist was a hosier's son, born near Golden Square, put to school in the Strand to learn drawing at ten of one Pars, apprenticed at fourteen to learn engraving of one Basire; that he lived "smoothly enough" for two years, and was then set to work on abbey monuments, "to be out of harm's way," other apprentices being "disorderly," "mutinous," and given to "wrangling;" these facts and more, all of value and weight in their way, Mr. Gilchrist has given at full in his second and third chapters, adding just enough critical comment to set the facts off and give them their proper relief and significance. His labours among Gothic monuments, and the especial style of his training as an engraver, left their marks on the man afterwards. Two things here put on record are worthy of recollection: that he began seeing visions at "eight or ten;" and that he took objections to Ryland (a better known engraver than Basire), when taken to be apprenticed to him, on a singular ground: "the man's face looks as if he will live to be hanged:" which the man was, ten years later. But the first real point in Blake's life worth marking as of especial interest is the publication of his Poetical Sketches; which come in date before any of his paintings or illustrative work, and are quite as much matters of art as these. Though never printed till 1783, the latest written appears to belong to 1777, or thereabouts.
Here, at a time when the very notion of poetry, as we now understand it, and as it was understood in older times, had totally died and decayed out of the minds of men; when we not only had no poetry, a thing which was bearable, but had verse in plenty, a thing which was not in the least bearable; a man, hardly twenty years old yet, turns up suddenly with work in that line already done, not simply better than any man could do then; better than all except the greatest have done since: better too than some still ranked among the greatest ever managed to do. With such a poet to bring forward it was needless to fall back upon Wordsworth for excuse or Robert Southey for patronage. The one man of genius alive during any part of Blake's own life who has ever spoken of this poet with anything like a rational admiration is Charles Lamb, the most supremely competent judge and exquisite critic of lyrical and dramatic art that we have ever had. All other extant notices down to our own day, even when well-meaning and not offensive, are to the best of our knowledge and belief utterly futile, incapable and valueless: burdened more or less with chatter about "madness" and such-like, obscured in some degree by mere dullness and pitiable assumption.
There is something too rough and hard, too faint and formless, in any critical language yet devised, to pay tribute with the proper grace and sufficiency to the best works of the lyrical art. One can say, indeed, that some of these earliest songs of Blake's have the scent and sound of Elizabethan times upon them; that the song of forsaken love—"My silks and fine array"—is sweet enough to recall the lyrics of Beaumont and Fletcher, and strong enough to hold its own even beside such as that one of Aspatia—"Lay a garland on my hearse"—which was cut (so to speak) out of the same yew; that Webster might have signed the "Mad Song," which falls short only (as indeed do all other things of the sort) of the two great Dirges in that poet's two chief plays; that certain verses among those headed "To Spring," and "To the Evening Star," are worthy even of Tennyson for tender supremacy of style and noble purity of perfection; but when we have to drop comparison and cease looking back or forward for verses to match with these, we shall hardly find words to suit our sense of their beauty. We speak of the best among them only; for, small as the pamphlet is (seventy pages long, with title-page and prefatory leaf), it contains a good deal of chaff and bran besides the pure grain and sifted honeymeal. But these best things are as wonderful as any work of Blake's. They have a fragrance of sound, a melody of colour, in a time when the best verses produced had merely the arid perfume of powder, the twang of dry wood and adjusted strings; when here the painting was laid on in patches, and there the music meted out by precedent; colour and sound never mixed together into the perfect scheme of poetry. The texture of these songs has the softness of flowers; the touch of them has nothing metallic or mechanical, such as one feels in much excellent and elaborate verse of this day as well as of that. The sound of many verses of Blake's cleaves to the sense long after conscious thought of the meaning has passed from one: a sound like running of water or ringing of bells in a long lull of the wind. Like all very good lyrical verse, they grow in pleasurable effect upon the memory the longer it holds them—increase in relish the longer they dwell upon the taste. These, for example, sound singularly plain, however sweet, on a first hearing; but in time, to a reader fit to appreciate the peculiar properties and merits of a lyric, they come to seem as perfect as well can be:
"Thou the golden fruit dost bear,
I am clad in flowers fair;
Thy sweet boughs perfume the air,
And the turtle buildeth there.
There she sits and feeds her young:
Sweet I hear her mournful song;
And thy lovely leaves among,
There is love, I hear his tongue."
The two songs "To Memory," and "To the Muses" are perhaps nearer being faultless than any others in the book. This last especially should never be omitted in any professedly complete selection of the best English lyrics. So beautiful indeed is its structure and choice of language that its author's earlier and later vagaries and erratic indulgences in the most lax or bombastic habits of speech become hopelessly inexplicable. These unlucky tendencies do however break out in the same book which contains such excellent samples of poetical sense and taste; giving terrible promise of faults that were afterwards to grow rank and run riot over much of the poet's work. But even from his worst things here, not reprinted in the present edition, one may gather such lines as these:
"My lord was like a flower upon the brows
Of lusty May: ah life as frail as flower!
My lord was like a star in highest heaven,
Drawn down to earth by spells and wickedness;
My lord was like the opening eye of day;
But he is darkened; like the summer moon
Clouded; fall'n like the stately tree, cut down:
The breath of heaven dwelt among his leaves."
Verses not to be despised, when one remembers that the boy who wrote them (evidently in his earlier teens) was living in full eighteenth century. But for the most part the blank verse in this small book is in a state of incredible chaos, ominous in tone of the future "Prophetic Books," if without promise of their singular and profound power or menace of their impenetrable mistiness, the obscurity of confused wind and cloud. One is thankful to see here some pains taken in righting these deformed limbs and planing off those monstrous knots, by one not less qualified to decide on such minor points of execution than on the gravest matters of art; especially as some amongst these blank verse poems contain things of quite original and incomparable grandeur. Nothing at once more noble and more sweet in style was ever written, than part of this "To the Evening Star":
"Smile on our loves; and while thou drawest round
The sky's blue curtains, scatter silver dew
On every flower that closes its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake: speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver."
The two lines, or half lines, which make the glory of this extract resemble perfectly, for vigorous grace and that subtle strength of interpretation which transfigures the external nature it explains, the living leader of English poets. Even he has hardly ever given a study of landscape more large and delicate, an effect of verse more exquisite and sonorous. Of the "Spring" we have already said something; but for that poem nothing short of transcription would be adequate. The "Autumn," too, should hardly have been rejected: it contains lines of perfect power and great beauty, though not quite up to the mark of "Spring" or "Summer." From another poem, certainly not worthier of the place it has been refused, we have extracted two lines worth remembering for their terseness and weight of scorn, recalling certain grave touches of satire in Blake's later work:
"For ignorance is folly's leasing nurse,
And love of folly needs none other's curse."
All that is worth recollection in the little play of "Edward the Third" has been here reproduced with a judicious care in adjusting and rejecting. Blake had probably never seen the praiseworthy but somewhat verbose historical drama on the same subject, generously bestowed upon Shakespeare by critics of that German acuteness which can accept as poetry the most meritorious powers of rhetoric. His own disjointed and stumbling fragment, deficient as it is in shape or plan or local colour, has far more of the sound and savour of Shakespeare's style in detached lines: more indeed than has ever been caught up by any poet except one to whom his editor has seized the chance of paying tribute in passing—the author of "Joseph and his Brethren;" a poem which, for strength of manner and freshness of treatment, may certainly recall Blake or any other obscurely original reformer in art; although we may not admit the resemblance claimed for it on spiritual grounds to the works of Blake, in whose eyes the views taken by the later poet of the mysteries inherent in matters of faith or morality, and generally of the spiritual side of things, would, to our thinking, probably have appeared shallow and untrue by the side of his own mystic personal creed. In dramatic passion, in dramatic character, and in dramatic language, Mr. Wells' great play is no doubt far ahead, not of Blake's work only, but of most other men's: in actual conception of things that lie beyond these, it keeps within the range of common thought and accepted theory; falling therefore far short, in its somewhat over frequent passages of didactic and religious reflection, of much less original thinkers than Blake.
One other thing we may observe of these "Sketches;" that they contain, though only in the pieces rejected from our present collection, sad indications of the inexplicable influence which an early reading of the detestable pseudo-Ossian seems to have exercised on Blake. How or why such lank and lamentable counterfeits of the poetical style did ever gain this luckless influence—one, too, which in after years was to do far worse harm than it has done here—it is not easy to guess. Contemporary vice of taste, imperfect or on some points totally deficient education, may explain much and more than might be supposed, even with regard to the strongest untrained intellect; but on the other hand, the songs in this same volume give evidence of so rare a gift of poetical judgment, such exquisite natural sense and art, in a time which could not so much as blunder except by precedent and machinery, that such depravity of error as is implied by admiration and imitation of such an one as Macpherson remains inconceivable. Similar puzzles will, however, recur to the student of Blake's art; but will not, if he be in any way worthy of the study, be permitted for a minute to impair his sense of its incomparable merits. Incomparable, we say advisedly: for there is no case on record of a man's being quite so far in advance of his time, in everything that belongs to the imaginative side of art, as Blake was from the first in advance of his.
In 1782 Blake married, it seems after a year or two of engaged life. His wife Catherine Boucher deserves remembrance as about the most perfect wife on record. In all things but affection, her husband must have been as hard to live with as the most erratic artist or poet who ever mistook his way into marriage. Over the stormy or slippery passages in their earlier life Mr. Gilchrist has passed perhaps too lightly. No doubt Blake's aberrations were mainly matters of speech or writing; it is however said, truly or falsely, that once in a patriarchal mood he did propose to add a second wife to their small and shifting household, and was much perplexed at meeting on one hand with tears and on all hands with remonstrances. For any clandestine excursions or furtive eccentricities he had probably too much of childish candour and impulse; and this one hopeful and plausible design he seems to have sacrificed with a good grace, on finding it really objectionable to the run of erring men. As to the rest, Mrs. Blake's belief in him was full and profound enough to endure some amount of trial. Practically he was always, as far as we know, regular, laborious, immaculate to an exception; and in their old age she worked after him and for him, revered and helped and obeyed him, with an exquisite goodness.
For the next eighteen years we have no continuous or available record under Blake's own hand of his manner of life; and of course must not expect as yet any help from those who can still, or could lately, remember the man himself in later days. He laboured with passionate steadiness of energy, at work sometimes valueless and sometimes invaluable; made, retained, and lost friends of a varying quality. Even to the lamentable taskwork of bad comic engravings for dead and putrescent "Wit's Magazines" his biographer has tracked him and taken note of his doings. The one thing he did get published—his poem, or apology for a poem, called "The French Revolution" (the first of seven projected books)—is, as far as I know, the only original work of its author worth little or even nothing; consisting mainly of mere wind and splutter. The six other books, if extant, ought nevertheless to be looked up, as they can hardly be without some personal interest or empirical value, even if no better in workmanship than this first book. During these years however he produced much of his greatest work; among other things, the "Songs of Innocence and Experience," and the prophetic books from "Thel" to "Ahania;" of all which we shall have to speak in due time and order. The notes on Reynolds and Lavater, from which we have here many extracts given, we must hope to see some day printed in full. Their vivid and vigorous style is often a model in its kind; and the matter, however violent and eccentric at times, always clear, noble, and thoughtful; remarkable especially for the eagerness of approbation lavished on the meanest of impulsive or fanciful men, and the fervour of scorn excited by the best works and the best intentions of others. The watery wisdom and the bland absurdity of Lavater's axioms meet with singular tolerance from the future author of the "Proverbs of Hell;" the considerate regulations and suggestions of Reynolds "Discourses" meet with no tolerance at all from the future illustrator of Job and Dante. In all these rough notes, even we may say in those on Bacon's Essays, there is always a bushel of good grain to an ounce of chaff. What is erroneous or what seems perverse lies for the most part only on the surface; what is falsely applied is often truly said; what is unjustly worded is often justly conceived. A man insensible to the perfect manner and noble matter of Bacon, while tolerant of the lisping and slavering imbecilities of Lavater, seems at first sight past hope or help; but subtract the names or alter the symbols given, and much of Blake's commentary will seem, as it is, partially true and memorable even in its actual form, wholly true and memorable in its implied meaning. Again, partly through ingrained humour, partly through the rough shifts of his imperfect and tentative education, Blake was much given to a certain perverse and defiant habit of expression, meant rather to scare and offend than to allure and attract the common run of readers or critics. In his old age we hear that he would at times try the ironic method upon objectionable reasoners; not, we should imagine, with much dexterity or subtlety.
The small accidents and obscure fluctuations of luck during these eighteen years of laborious town life, the changes of residence and acquaintance, the method and result of the day's work done, have been traced with much care and exhibited in a direct distinct manner by the biographer. Nothing can be more clear and sufficient than the brief notices of Blake's favourite brother and pupil, in character seemingly a weaker and somewhat violent replica of his elder, not without noble and amiable qualities; of his relations with Fuseli and Flaxman, with Johnson the bookseller, and others, whose names are now fished up from the quiet comfort of obscurity, and made more or less memorable for good or evil through their connection with one who was then himself among the obscurest of men. His alliance with Paine and the ultra-democrats then working or talking in London is the most curious episode of these years. His republican passion was like Shelley's, a matter of fierce dogmatic faith and rapid assumption. Looking at any sketch of his head and face one may see the truth of his assertion that he was born a democrat of the imaginative type. The faith which accepts and the passion which pursues an idea of justice not wholly attainable looks out of the tender and restless eyes, moulds the eager mobile-seeming lips. Infinite impatience, as of a great preacher or apostle—intense tremulous vitality, as of a great orator—seem to me to give his face the look of one who can do all things but hesitate. We need no evidence to bid us believe with what fervour of spirit and singleness of emotion he loved the name and followed the likeness of freedom, whatever new name or changed likeness men might put upon her. Liberty and religion, taken in a large and subtle sense of the words, were alike credible and adorable to him; and in nothing else could he find matter for belief or worship. His forehead, largest (as he said) just over the eyes, shows an eager steadiness of passionate expression. Shut off any single feature, and it will seem singular how little the face changes or loses by the exclusion. With all this, it is curious to read how the author of "Urizen" and "Ahania" saved from probable hanging the author of the "Rights of Man" and "Age of Reason." Blake had as perfect a gift of ready and steady courage as any man: was not quicker to catch fire than he was safe to stand his ground. The swift quiet resolution and fearless instant sense of the right thing to do which he showed at all times of need are worth notice in a man of such fine and nervous habit of mind and body.
In the year after Paine's escape from England, his deliverer published a book which would probably have been something of a chokepear for the conventionnel. This set of seventeen drawings was Blake's first series of original designs, not meant to serve as merely illustrative work. Two of the prophetic books, and the "Songs of Innocence," had already been engraved; but there the designs were supplementary to the text; here such text as there was served only to set out the designs; and even these "Keys" to the "Gates of Paradise," somewhat of the rustiest as they are, were not supplied in every copy. The book is itself not unavailable as a key to much of Blake's fitful and tempestuous philosophy; and it would have been better to re-engrave the series in full than to give random selections twisted out of their places and made less intelligible than they were at first by the headlong process of inversion and convulsion to which they have here been subjected.
The frontispiece gives a symbol of man's birth into the fleshly and mutable house of life, powerless and painless as yet, but encircled by the likeness and oppressed by the mystery of material existence. The pre-existent spirit here well-nigh disappears under stifling folds of vegetable leaf and animal incrustation of overgrowing husk. It lies dumb and dull, almost as a thing itself begotten of the perishable body, conceived in bondage and brought forth with grief. The curled and clinging caterpillar, emblem of motherhood, adheres and impends over it, as the lapping leaves of flesh unclose and release the human fruit of corporeal generation. With mysterious travail and anguish of mysterious division, the child is born as a thing out of sleep; the original perfect manhood being cast in effect into a heavy slumber, and the female or reflective element called into creation. This tenet recurs constantly in the turbulent and fluctuating evangel of Blake; that the feminine element exists by itself for a time only, and as the shadow of the male; thus Space is the wife of Time, and was created of him in the beginning that the things of lower life might have air to breathe and a place to hide their heads; her moral aspect is Pity. She suffers through the lapse of obscure and painful centuries with the sufferings of her children; she is oppressed with all their oppressions; she is plagued with all the plagues of transient life and inevitable death. At sight of her so brought forth, a wonder in heaven, all the most ancient gods or daemons of pre-material life were terrified and amazed, touched with awe and softened with passion; yet endured not to look upon her, a thing alien from the things of their eternal life; for as space is impredicable of the divine world, so is pity impredicable of the dæmonic nature. (See the "First Book of Urizen.") For of all the minor immortal and uncreated spirits Time only is the friend of man; and for man's sake has given him Space to dwell in, as under the shadow and within the arms of a great compassionate mother, who has mercy upon all her children, tenderness for all good and evil things, Only through his help and through her pity can flesh or spirit endure life for a little, under the iron law of the maker and the oppressor of man. Alone among the other co-equal and co-eternal dæmons of his race, the Creator is brought into contact and collision with Space and Time; against him alone they struggle in Promethean agony of conflict to deliver the children of men; and against them is the Creator compelled to fight, that he may reach and oppress those whose weakness is defended by all the warring hands of Time, sheltered by all the gracious wings of Space.
In the first plate of the "Gates of Paradise," the woman finds the child under a tree, sprung of the earth like a mandrake, which he who plucks up and hears groan must go mad or die; grown under the tree of physical life, which is rooted in death, and the leaf of it is poisonous, and it bears as fruit the wisdom of the serpent, moral reason or rational truth, which invents the names of virtue and vice, and divides moral life into good and evil. Out of earth is rent violently forth the child of dust and clay, naked, wide-eyed, shrieking; the woman bends down to gather him as a flower, half blind with fierce surprise and eagerness, half smiling with foolish love and pitiful pleasure; with one hand she holds other children, small and new-blown also as flowers, huddled in the lap of her garment; with the other she plucks him up by the hair, regardless of his deadly shriek and convulsed arms, heedless that this uprooting of the mandrake is the seal of her own death also. Then follow symbols of the four created elements from which the corporeal man is made; the water, blind and mutable as doting age, emblem of ignorant doubt and moral jealousy; the heavy melancholy earth, grievous to life, oppressive of the spirit, type of all sorrows and tyrannies that are brought forth upon it, saddest of all the elements, tightest as a curb and painfullest as a load upon the soul: then the air wherein man is naked, the fire wherein man is blind; ashamed and afraid of his own nature and its nakedness, surrounded with similitudes of severance and strife: overhung by rocks, rained upon by all the storms of heaven, lighted by unfriendly stars, with clouds spread under him and over; "a dark hermaphrodite," enlightened by the light within him, which is darkness—the light of reason and morality; evil and good, who was neither good nor evil in the eternal life before this generated existence; male and female, who from of old was neither female nor male, but perfect man without division of flesh, until the setting of sex against sex by the malignity of animal creation. Round the new-created man revolves the flaming sword of Law, burning and dividing in the hand of the angel, servant of the cruelty of God, who drives into exile and debars from paradise the fallen spiritual man upon earth. Round the woman (a double type perhaps at once of the female nature and the "rational truth" or law of good and evil) roar and freeze the winds and snows of prohibition, blinding, congealing, confusing; and in that tempest of things spiritual the shell of material things hardens and thickens, excluding all divine vision and obscuring all final truth with solid-seeming walls of separation. But death in the end shall enlighten all the deluded, shall deliver all the imprisoned; there, though the worm weaves, the Saviour also watches; the new garments of male and female to be there assumed by the spirit are so woven that they shall no longer be as shrouds or swaddling-clothes to hamper the newly born or consume the newly dead, but free raiment and fair symbol of the spirit. For the power of the creative daemon, which began with birth, must end with death; upon the perfect and eternal man he had not power till he had created the earthly life to bring man into subjection; and shall not have power upon him again any more when he is once resumed by death. Where the Creator's power ends, there begins the Saviour's power; where oppression loses strength to divide, mercy gains strength to reunite. For the Creator is at most God of this world only, and belongs to the life which he creates; the God of this world is a thing of this world, but the Saviour or perfect man is of eternity, belonging to the spiritual life which was before birth and shall be after death.
In these first six plates is the kernel of the book; round these the subsequent symbols revolve, and toward these converge. The seventh we may assume to be an emblem of desire as it is upon earth, blind and wild, glad and sad, destroying the pleasures it catches hold of, losing those it lets go. One Love, a moth-like spirit, lies crushed at the feet of the boy who pursues another, flinging his cap towards it as though to trap a butterfly; startled with the laugh of triumphant capture even at his lips, as the wingless flying thing eludes him and soars beyond the enclosure of summer leaves and stems toward upper air and cloud. To the original sketch was appended this quotation from Spenser, Book 2, Canto 2, v. 2:
"Ah luckless babe, born under cruel star,
And in dead parents' baleful ashes bred;
Full little weenest thou what sorrows are
Left thee for portion of thy livelyhed."
I have given thus early a rough and tentative analysis of this set of designs, rather than leave it to find a place among the poems or prophecies, because it does in effect belong rather to art than poetry, the verses being throughout subordinate to the engravings, and indeed scarcely to be accounted of as more than inscriptions or appendages. It may however be taken as being in a certain sense one of the prophetic or evangelic series which was afterwards to stretch to such strange lengths. In this engraved symbolic poem of life and death, most of Blake's chief articles of faith are advanced or implied; noticeably, for example, that tenet regarding the creative deity and his relations to time and to the sons of men. Thus far he can see and no farther; for so long and no longer he has power upon the actions and passions of created and transient life. Him let no Christians worship, nor the law of his covenant; the written law which its writer wept at and hid beneath his mercy-seat; but instead let them write above the altars of their faith a law of infinite forgiveness, annihilating in the measureless embrace of its mercy the separate existences of good and evil. So speaks Blake in his prologue; and in his epilogue thus:
Truly, my Satan, thou art but a dunce,
Though them are worshipped by the names divine
Upon the life which is but as a vesture, and as a vesture shall be changed, he who created it has power till the end; appearances and relations he can alter, and turn a virgin to a harlot; but not change one individual life to another, reverse or rescind the laws of personality. Virtue and vice, chastity and unchastity, are changeable and perishable; "they all shall wax old as doth a garment:" but the underlying individual life is imperishable and intangible. All qualities proper to human nature are inventions of the Accuser; not so the immortal prenatal nature, which is the essence of every man severally from eternity. That lies beyond the dominion of the God of this world; he is but the Son of Morning, that having once risen, will set again; shining only in the darkness of spiritual night; his light is but a light seen in dreams before the dawn by men belated and misled, which shall pass away and be known no more at the advent of the perfect day.
All these mystical heresies may seem turbid and chaotic; but the legend or subject-matter of the present book is transparent as water, lucid as flame, compared to much of Blake's subsequent work. The designs, even if taken apart from their significance, are among his most inventive and interesting. They were done "for children," because, in Blake's mind, the wise innocence of children was likeliest to appreciate and accept the message involved in them; "for the sexes," that they might be at once enlightened to see beyond themselves, and enfranchised from the bondage of pietism or materialism. Interpreted according to Blake's intention, the book was a small leaf or chapter of the inspired gospel of deliverance which he was charged to preach through the organs of his art; a gospel not easily to be made acceptable or comprehensible.
Of the prophetic books produced about this time we shall not as yet speak; nor have we much to say of the next set of designs, those illustrative of "Young's Night Thoughts," which were done, as will be surmised, on commission. Power, invention, and a certain share of beauty, these designs of course have; but less, as it seems to me, of Blake's great qualities and more of his faults or errors than usual. That the text which serves as a peg to hang them on, or a finger-post to point them out, is itself a thing dead and rotten, does not suffice to explain this; for Blake could do admirable work by way of illustration to the verse of Hayley.
This name brings us to a new and singular division of our present task. During the four important years of Blake's residence at Felpham we can trace his doings and feelings with some fulness and with some confidence. They were probably no busier than other years of his life; but by a happy accident we hear more concerning the sort of labour done. In August 1800 Blake moved out of London for the first time; he returned "early in 1804."
Hayley's patronage of Blake is a piece of high comedy perfect in its way. The first act or two were played out with sufficient liking on either side. "Mr. Hayley acts like a prince" towards "his good Blake," not it seems in the direct way of pecuniary gifts or loans, but in such smaller attentions as he could easily show to the husband and wife on their first arrival close at hand. It must be remarked and remembered that throughout this curious and incongruous intercourse there is no question whatever of obligation on Blake's part for any kindness shown beyond the equal offices of friend to friend. It is for "Mr. Hayley's usual brotherly affection" that he expresses such ready gratitude. That the poor man's goodwill was genuine we need not hesitate to allow; but the fates never indulged in a freak of stranger humour than when it seemed good to their supreme caprice to couple in the same traces for even the shortest stage a man like Hayley with a man like Blake, and bracket the "Triumphs of Temper" with the "Marriage of Heaven and Hell."
England, with a deplorable ingratitude, has apparently forgotten by this time what her Hayley was once like. It requires a certain strength of imagination to realise the assured fact that he was once a "greatest living poet;" retrospection collapses in the effort, and credulity loses heart to believe. Such, however, was in effect his profession; he had the witness of his age under hand and seal to the fact, that on the death of his friend Cowper the supreme laurels of the age or day had fallen by inheritance to that poet's accomplished and ingenious biographer. There is something pathetic and almost piteous in his perfect complacency and his perfect futility. A moral country should not have forgotten that to Mr. Hayley, when at work on his chief poem, "it seemed to be a kind of duty incumbent on those who devote themselves to poetry to render a powerful and too often a perverted art as beneficial to life and manners as the limits of composition and the character of modern times will allow." Although the ages, he regretted to reflect, were past, in which poetry was idolized for miraculous effects, yet a poem intended to promote the cultivation of good humour, and designed to unite the special graces of Ariosto, of Dante, and of Pope, might still be of service to society; or, he added with a chaste and noble modesty, "if this may be thought too chimerical and romantic by sober reason, it is at least one of those pleasing and innocent illusions in which a poetical enthusiast may be safely indulged;" who will deny it?
This was the patron to whom Flaxman introduced Blake as an available engraver, and, on occasion, a commendable designer. Hayley was ready enough to cage and exhibit among the flock of tame geese which composed his troop of swans this bird of foreign feather; and until the eagle's beak and claws came into play under sharp provocation, the Felpham coop and farmyard were duly dignified by his presence and behaviour as a "tame villatic fowl." The master bantam-cock of the hen-roost in person fluttered and cackled round him with assiduous if perplexed patronage. But of such alliances nothing could come in the end but that which did come. "Mr. H.," writes Blake in July 1803 to Mr. Butts, his one purchaser (on the scale of a guinea per picture), "approves of my designs as little as he does of my poems. I have been forced to insist on his leaving me, in both, to my own self-will; for I am determined to be no longer pestered with his genteel ignorance and polite disapprobation. His imbecile attempts to depress me only deserve laughter." Let a compassionate amateur of human poultry imagine what confusion must by this time have been reigning in the poor hen-roost and dove-cote of Eartham! Things, however, took some time in reaching the tragic pitch of these shrill discords. For months or years they appear to have run through various scales of very tolerable harmony. Blake, in the intervals of incessant engraving and occasional designing, was led by his good Hayley into the greenest pastures of literature and beside the stillest waters of verse; he was solicited to help in softening and arranging for public inspection the horrible and pitiful narrative of Cowper's life; he was prevailed upon to listen while Hayley "read Klopstock into English to Blake," with what result one may trust he never knew. For it was probably under the sting of this infliction that Blake scratched down in pencil a brief lyrical satire on the German Milton, which modern humanity would refuse to read in public if transcribed; although or because it might be, for grotesque ease and ringing breadth of melodious extravagance, a scrap saved from some tattered chorus of Aristophanes, or caught up by Rabelais as the fragment of a litany at the shrine of the Dive Bouteille. Let any man judge, from the ragged shred we can afford to show by way of sample, how a sight or handling of the stuff would have affected Hayley;
"The moon at that sight blushed scarlet red,
Only in choice Attic or in archaic French could the rest be endured by modern eyes; but Panurge could hardly have improved on the manner of retribution devised for flaccid fluency and devout sentiment always running at the mouth.
For the rest, when out of the shadow of Klopstock or Cowper, Blake had enough serious work on hand. His designs for various ballads of Hayley's, strays of sick verse long since decomposed, were admirable enough to warrant a hope of general admiration. This they failed of; but Blake's head and hands were full of other work. "Miniature," he writes to Mr. Butts, "is become a goddess in my eyes." He did not serve her long; but while his faith in her godhead lasted he seems to have officiated with some ardour in the courts of her temple. He speaks of orders multiplying upon him, of especial praise received for proficiency in this style of work; not, we may suppose, from any who had much authority to praise or dispraise. It is impossible to imagine that Hayley knew a really great work of Blake's when he saw it; a clever comminution of great power must have seemed to him the worthiest use of it; whereas the design and the glory of Blake was to concentrate and elevate his talent: all he did and all he touched with profit has an air and a savour of greatness. In miniature and such things he must probably have worked with half his heart and less than half his native skill or strength of eye and hand.
There is a certain pathos in the changes of tone which come one by one over Blake's correspondence at this time. All at first is sunlit and rose-coloured. "The villagers are not mere rustics; they are polite and modest. Meat is cheaper than in London; but the sweet air and the voices of winds, trees, and birds, and the odours of the happy ground, make it a dwelling for immortals." This intense and eager pleasure in the freshness of things, this sharp relish of beauty in all the senses, which must needs run over and lapse into sudden musical expression, will recall the passages in Shelley's letters where some delight of sound or sight suddenly felt or remembered forces its way into speech, and makes music of the subservient words. "Work will go on here with God-speed. A roller and two harrows lie before my window." This passion for hints and types, common to all men of highly toned nerves and rapid reflectiveness of spirit, was not with Blake a matter of fugitive impulse or casual occasion. In his quietest moods of mind, in his soberest tempers of fancy, he was always at some such work. At this time, too, he was living at a higher strain of the senses than usual. So sudden a change of air and change of world as had come upon him filled his nerves and brain at every entrance with keen influences of childlike and sensitive satisfaction. Witness his first sweet and singular verses to Flaxman and to Butts—"such as Felpham produces by me, though not such as she produces by her eldest son," he remarks, with some reason; that eldest son and heir of every Muse being her good Hayley. Witness too the simple and complete pleasure with which he writes invitations and descriptions, transcribes visions and experiences. Probably too in some measure, could we trace the perfect relation of flesh with spirit and blood with brain, we should find that this first daily communion with the sea wrought upon him at once within and without; that the sharp sweetness of the salted air was not without swift and pungent effect; that the hourly physical delight lavished upon every sense by all tunes and odours and changes and colours of the sea—the delight of every breath or sound or shadow or whisper passing upon it—may have served at first to satiate as well as to stimulate, before the pressure of enjoyment grew too intense and the sting of enjoyment too keen. Upon Blake, of all men, one may conjecture that these influences of spirit and sense would act with exquisite force. It is observable that now, and not before, we hear of visions making manifest to him the spiritual likeness of dead men: that the scene of every such apocalypse was a sea-beach; the shore of a new Patmos, prolific as was the first of splendid and enormous fancies, of dreams begotten and brought forth in a like atmosphere and habit of mind. Now too the illimitable book of divine or dæmonic revelation called "Jerusalem" was dictated by inspiration of its authors, who "are in eternity:" Blake "dares not pretend to be any other than the secretary." Human readers, if such indeed exist beyond the singular or the dual number, will wish that the authors had put themselves through a previous course of surgical or any other training which might have cured a certain superhuman impediment of speech, very perplexing to the mundane ear; a habit of huge breathless stuttering, as it were a Titanic stammer, intolerable to organs of flesh. "Allegory," the too obedient secretary writes to his friend, "addressed to the intellectual powers, while it is altogether hidden from the corporeal understanding, is my definition of the most sublime poetry." A better perhaps could not be given; as far that is as relates to the "spirit of sense" which is to be clothed in the beautiful body of verse; but when once we have granted the power of conception, the claims of form are to be first thought of. It is of small moment how the work thus done may strike the heavy ear of vulgarity or affect the torpid palate of prurience; against mere indolence or mere misconstruction it is waste of time to contrive precautions or rear defences; but the laws and the dues of art it is never permissible to forget. It is in fact only by innate and irrational perception that we can apprehend and enjoy the supreme works of verse and colour; these, as Blake indicates with a noble accuracy, are not things of the understanding; otherwise, we may add, the whole human world would appreciate them alike or nearly alike, and the high and subtle luxuries of exceptional temperaments would be made the daily bread of the poor and hungry; the vinum dæmonum which now the few only can digest safely and relish ardently would be found medicinal instead of poisonous, palatable instead of loathsome, by the run of eaters and drinkers; all specialties of spiritual office would be abolished, and the whole congregation would communicate in both kinds. All the more, meantime, because this "bread of sweet thought and wine of delight" is not broken or shed for all, but for a few only—because the sacramental elements of art and poetry are in no wise given for the sustenance or the salvation of men in general, but reserved mainly for the sublime profit and intense pleasure of an elect body or church—all the more on that account should the ministering official be careful that the paten and chalice be found wanting in no one possible grace of work or perfection of material.
That too much of Blake's written work while at Felpham is wanting in executive quality, and even in decent coherence of verbal dress, is undeniable. The Pythoness who delivers these stormy and sonorous oracles is at once exposed and hampered as it were by her loose and heavy raiment; the prophetic robe here slips or gapes, there muffles and impedes; is now a tatter that hardly hides the contorted limbs, and now an encumbrance that catches or trips up the reeling feet. Everything now written in the fitful impatient intervals of the day's work bears the stamp of an overheated brain and of nerves too intensely strung. Everything may well appear to confirm the suggestion that, as high latitudes and climates of rarefied air affect the physical structure of inhabitants or travellers, so in this case did the sudden country life, the taste and savour of the sea, touch sharply and irritate deliciously the more susceptible and intricate organs of mind and nature. How far such passive capacity of excitement differs from insanity; how in effect a temperament so sensuous, so receptive, and so passionate, is further off from any risk of turning unsound than hardier natures carrying heavier weight and tougher in the nerves; need scarcely be indicated. For the rest, our concern at present shall still be mainly with the letters of this date; and by their light we may be enabled to see light shed upon many things hitherto hopelessly dark. As no other samples of Blake's correspondence worth mention have been allowed us by the jealousy of fate and divine parsimony, we must be duly grateful and careful in dealing with all we have; gathering the fragments into commodious baskets, and piecing the shreds into available patchwork.
These letters bear upon them the common stamp of all Blake's doings and writings; the fiery and lyrical tone of mind and speech, the passionate singleness of aim, the heat and flame of faith in himself, the violence of mere words, the lust of paradox, the loud and angry habits of expression which abound in his critical or didactic work, are not here missing; neither are clear indications wanting of his noblest qualities; the great love of great things, the great scorn of small men, the strong tenderness of heart, the tender strength of spirit, which won for him honour from all that were honourable. Ready even in a too fervent manner to accept, to praise, to believe in worth and return thanks for it, he will have no man or thing impede or divert him, either for love's sake or hate's. Small friends with feeble counsels to suggest must learn to suppress their small feelings and graceful regrets, or be cleared out of his way with all their powers to help or hinder; lucky if they get off without some label of epigram on the forehead or sting of epigram in the flesh. Upon Hayley, as we may see by collation of Blake's note-book with his letters, the lash fell at last, after long toleration of things intolerable, after "great objections to my doing anything but the mere drudgery of business," (as for instance engraving illustrations to Hayley's poems designed by Flaxman's sister—not by his wife, as stated at p. 171 of the "Life" by some momentary slip of a most careful pen), "and intimations that if I do not confine myself to this I shall not live. This," adds Blake, "has always pursued me. You will understand by this the source of all my uneasiness. This from Johnson and Fuseli brought me down here, and this from Mr. H. will bring me back again." In a sharper mood than this, he appended to the decent skirts of Mr. Hayley one of the best burlesque epigrams in the language:—
"Of Hayley's birth this was the happy lot:
His mother on his father him begot."
With this couplet tied to his tail, the ghost of Hayley may perhaps run further than his own strength of wind or speed of foot would naturally have carried him: with this hook in his nose, he may be led by "his good Blake" some way towards the temple of memory.
What is most to be regretted in these letters is the wonderful tone of assertion respecting the writer's own pictures and those of the great Italian schools. This it would be difficult enough to explain, dishonest to overlook, easy to ridicule, and unprofitable to rebuke. All that need be said of this singular habit of Blake's has been said with admirable clearness and fairness in the prefatory note to the prose selections in Vol. II. Higher authority than the writer's of that note no man can have or can require. And as Blake's artistic heresies are in fact mere accidents—the illegitimate growth of chance and circumstance—we may be content to leave them wholly to the practical judgment and the wise charity of such artists as are qualified to pass sentence upon the achievements and the shortcomings of this great artist. Their praise can alone be thoroughly worth having; their blame can alone be of any significance: and in no other hands than theirs may we safely leave the memory and the glory of a fellow-labourer so illustrious as Blake.
Other points and shades of character not less singular it is essential here to take notice of. These are not matters of accident, like the errors of opinion or perversities of expression which may distort or disfigure the notes and studies on purely artistic matters; they compose the vital element and working condition of Blake's talent. From the fifth to the tenth letter especially, it becomes evident that the writer was passing through strange struggles of spirit and passionate stages of faith. As early as the fourth letter, dated almost exactly a year later than the first written on his arrival at Felpham, Blake refers in a tone of regret and perplexity to the "abstract folly" which makes him incapable of direct practical work, though not of earnest and continuous labour. This action of the nerves or of the mind he was plainly unable to regulate or modify. It hurries him while yet at work into "lands of abstraction;" he "takes the world with him in his flight." Distress he knows would make the world heavier to him, which seems now "lighter than a ball of wool rolled by the wind;" and this distress material philosophies or methodical regulations would "prescribe as a medicinal potion" for a mind impaired or diseased merely by the animal superflux of spirits and childlike excess of spiritual health. But this medicine the strange and strong faculty of faith innate in the man precludes him from taking. Physical distress "is his mock and scorn; mental no man can give; and if Heaven inflicts it, all such distress is a mercy." It is not easy, but it is requisite, to realise the perpetual freshness and fulness of belief, the inalterable vigour and fervour of spirit with which Blake, heretic and mystic as he may have been, worshipped and worked; by which he was throughout life possessed and pursued. Above all gods or dæmons of creation and division, he beheld by faith in a perfect man a supreme God. "Though I have been very unhappy, I am so no longer. I am again emerged into the light of day; I still (and shall to eternity) embrace Christianity, and adore Him who is the express image of God." In the light of his especial faith all visible things were fused into the intense heat and sharpened into the keen outline of vision. He walked and laboured under other heavens, on another earth, than the earth and the heaven of material life:
"With a blue sky spread over with wings,
And a mild sun that mounts and sings;
With trees and fields full of fairy elves
And little devils who fight for themselves;
With angels planted in hawthorn bowers,
And God Himself in the passing hours."
"My hands are laboured day and night
And rest comes never in my sight;
My wife has no indulgence given
Except what comes to her from heaven;
We eat little, we drink less;
This earth breeds not our happiness."
"When I had my defiance given
The sun stood trembling in heaven;
The moon, that glowed remote below,
Became leprous and white as snow;
And every soul of man on the earth
Felt affliction and sorrow and sickness and dearth."
In all this we may see on one side the reflection and refraction of outer things, on the other side the projection of his own mind, the effusion of his individual nature, throughout the hardest and remotest alien matter. Strangely severed from other men, he was, or he conceived himself, more strangely interwoven with them. The light of his spiritual weapons, the sound of his spiritual warfare, was seen, he believed, and was heard in faint resonance and far reverberation among men who knew not what such sights and sounds might mean. If, worsted in this "mental fight," he should let "his sword sleep in his hand," or "refuse to do spiritual acts because of natural fears and natural desires," the world would be the poorer for his defection, and himself "called the base Judas who betrays his friend." Fear of this rebuke shook and wasted him day and night; he was rent in sunder with pangs of terror and travail. Heaven was full of the dead, coming to witness against him with blood-shedding and with shedding of tears:
"The sun was hot
With the bows of my mind and with arrows of thought."
In this spirit he wrought at his day's work, seeing everywhere the image of his own mood, the presence of foes and friends. Nothing to him was neutral; nothing without significance. The labour and strife of soul in which he lived was a thing as earnest as any bodily warfare. Such struggles of spirit in poets or artists have been too often made the subject of public study; nay, too often the theme of chaotic versifiers. A theme more utterly improper it is of course impossible to devise. It is just that a workman should see all sides of his work, and labour with all his might of mind and dexterity of hand to make it great and perfect; but to use up the details of the process as crude material for cruder verse—to invite spectators as to the opening of a temple, and show them the unbaked bricks and untempered mortar—to expose with immodest violence and impotent satisfaction the long revolting labours of mental abortion—this no artist will ever attempt, no craftsman ever so perform as to escape ridicule. It is useless for those who can carve no statue worth the chiselling to exhibit instead six feet or nine feet of shapeless plaster or fragmentary stucco, and bid us see what sculptors work with; no man will accept that in lieu of the statue. Not less futile and not less indecent is it for those who can give expression to no great poem to disgorge masses of raw incoherent verse on the subject of verse-making: to offer, in place of a poem ready wrought out, some chaotic and convulsive story about the way in which a poet works, or does not work.
To Blake the whole thing was too grave for any such exposure of spiritual nudity. In these letters he records the result of his "sore travail;" in these verses he commemorates the manner of his work "under the direction of messengers from heaven daily and nightly, not without trouble or care;" but he writes in private and by pure instinct; he speaks only by the impulse of confidence, in the ardour of faith. "What he has to say is said with the simple and abstract rapture of apostles or prophets; not with the laborious impertinence and vain obtrusion of tortuous analysis. For such heavy play with gossamer and straws his nature was too earnest and his genius too exalted. This is the mood in which he looks over what work he has done or has to do; and in his lips the strange scriptural language used has the sincerity of pure fire. "I see the face of my Heavenly Father; He lays His hand upon my head, and gives a blessing to all my work. Why should I be troubled? why should my heart and flesh cry out? I will go on in the strength of the Lord; through hell "will I sing forth His praises; that the dragons of the deep may praise Him, and that those who dwell in darkness and in the sea-coasts may be gathered into His kingdom." So did he esteem of art, which indeed is not a light thing; nor is it wholly unimportant to men that they should have one capable artist more or less among them. How it may fare with artisans (be they never so pretentious) is a matter of sufficiently small moment. One blessing there assuredly was upon all Blake's work; the infinite blessing of life; the fervour of vital blood.
In spite however of all inspiration and of all support, sickness and uncongenial company impeded his hours of labour and corroded his hours of repose. A trial on the infamous charges of sedition and assault, brought by a private soldier whose name of Scholfield was thus made shamefully memorable, succeeded finally in making the country unendurable to him. It must be said here of the hapless Hayley that he behaved well in this time of vexation and danger: coming forward to bail "our friend Blake," and working hard for the defence in a tumultuous and spluttering way: he "would appear in public at the trial, living or dying," and did, with or without leave of doctors, appear and speak up for the accused. Blake's honourable acquittal does not make it less disgraceful that the charge should at all have been entertained. His own courage, readiness of wit, and sincerity of spirit are fully shown in the letter relating this short and sharp episode in his quiet life. Some months later he returned to London once for all, and once for all broke off relations with Felpham: commending, it may be hoped, Hayley to the Muses and Scholfield to the halberts.
Having read these letters, we are not lightly to judge of Blake as of another man. Thoughts and creeds peculiar to his mind found expression in ways and words peculiar to his lips. It was no vain or empty claim that he put forward to especial insight and individual means of labour. If he spoke strangely, he had great things to speak. If he acted strangely, he had great things to do. "Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire." Let the tree be judged by its fruit. If the man who wrote thus had nothing to do or to say worth the saying or the doing, it may fairly be said that he was mad or foolish. The involving smoke, here again, implied the latent fire. Where the particles of dust are mere hardened mud, where the cloud is mere condensing fog hatched from the stagnation of a swamp, one may justly complain of the obstruction and the obscurity. There is here indeed too much of mist, but it is at least clear; the air that breeds it is high, the moisture that feeds it is pure. This man had never lived in the low places of thought. In the words of a living poet, whose noble verses are worthy to stand thus near Blake's own—
"He had seen the moon's eclipse
By the fire from Etna's lips,
"With Orion had he spoken,
His fast with honey-dew had broken."
His dialect was too much the dialect of a far country; but it was from a far country that he came, from a lofty station that he spoke. To a poet who has given us so much, to an artist who has done great things to such great purpose, we may give at least some allowance and some toleration. The distance is great which divides a fireside taper from the eclipsed moon on Etna. Rules which are useful or necessary for household versifiers may well be permitted to relax or even to dissolve when applied to one who has attained to see with unblinded eyes and to speak with adequate words of matters so far above them.
The next point noticeable by us in the story of Blake's life is his single-handed duel with Cromek and Stothard; and of this we need not wish to speak at much length. The engraver, swift and sharp in all his dealings—never scrupulous, insolent sometimes, and always cunning—had an easy game to play, and played it without shame; not even taking the trouble to hide his marked cards or to load his dice in private. In spite or in consequence of this rapacity and mendacity, Cromek was evidently of some use to Blake. And even for the exercise of these special talents he is perhaps not to be blamed; the man did but work with such qualities as he had; did but put out to use his natural gifts and capacities. But that he should have done this at Blake's expense is and must remain unpardonable: and therefore he must be left to hang with the head downwards from the memorial gallows to which biography has nailed him; a warning to all such others to choose their game more warily. A tradesman who, by their own account, swindled Blake and robbed Scott can hardly expect to be allowed safe harbourage under the compassionate shelter of complete oblivion or behind the weather-tight screen of simple contempt. It may be worth while to condense the evidence as to his dealings with Blake and Stothard. One alone of these three comes out clear from the involved network of suspicious double-dealing. In the matter of the engravings to Blair, Cromek had entrapped and cheated Blake from the first. In the matter of the drawing from Chaucer, he had gone a step further down the steep slope of peculation. After the proposal to employ Schiavonetti, Blake might at once have thrown him over as a self-detected knave. He did not; and was accordingly plundered again in a less dexterous and a more direct manner. It is fortunate that the shameful little history has at last been tracked through all its scandalous windings by so keen an eye and so sure a hand as Mr. Gilchrist's. Two questions arise at first sight; did Cromek give Blake a commission for his design of the "Pilgrims"? did Stothard, when Cromek proposed that he should take up the same subject, know that the proposal was equivalent to the suggestion of a theft? Both these questions Blake would have answered in the affirmative; and in his dialect the affirmative mood was distinct and strong. Further evidence on the first head can be wanted by no one of decent insight or of decent candour. That Cromek, with more than professional impudence, denied the charge, is an incident in the affair neither strange nor important. The manner of his denial may be matched for effrontery with the tone of his insolent letter to Blake on the subject of the designs to Blair. With the vulgarities and audacities, the shifts and the doubles of this shuffling man of prey, no one need again be troubled. That a visitor caught with the spoons in his pocket should bluster, stammer, and grin as he pleads innocence or affects amazement, is natural and desirable; for every word and gesture, humble or shameless, incoherent or intrepid, serves to convict him twice over. Undoubtedly he saw Blake's sketch, tried to conjure it into his pocket, and failed; undoubtedly, finding that the artist would not again give up his work to be engraved by other hands, he made such approach to an honest offer as was compatible with his character; undoubtedly also he then made money in his uncleanly way out of the failure by tossing the subject to another painter as a bait. No man has a right to express wonder that Blake refused to hold Stothard blameless. It is nothing whatever to the purpose that, while Cromek's somewhat villainous share in the speculation was as yet under cover, Blake may have bestowed on Stothard's unfinished design his friendly counsel and his frank applause. After the dealer's perfidy had been again bared and exposed by his own act, it was, and it is yet, a stretch of charity to suppose that his associate was not likewise his accomplice. And the manner of Stothard's retort upon Blake, when taxed by him with unfair dealing, was not of a sort qualified to disperse or to allay suspicion. He charged, and he permitted Cromek to charge, the plundered man with the act of plunder. Even though we, who can now read the whole account without admixture of personal feeling, may acquit Stothard of active or actual treachery, as all must gladly do who remember how large a debt is due from all to an artist of such exquisite and pleasurable talent, it is hopeless to make out for him a thoroughly sufficient case. The fellowship of such an one as Cromek leaves upon all who take his part at least the suspicion of a stain. All should hope that Stothard on coming out of the matter could have shown clean hands; none can doubt that Blake did. That on Stothard's part irritation should have succeeded to surprise, and rancour to irritation, is not wonderful. If he was indeed injured by the fault of Cromek and the misfortune of Blake, it would doubtless have been admirably generous to have controlled the irritation and overcome the rancour; but in that case the worst that should be said of him is that he did not adopt the noblest course of action possible to him. Admitting this, he is not blameable for choosing to throw in his lot with Cromek; but we must then suppose not merely that Cromek had abstained from any avowal of his original treachery, but that Stothard was unhappily able to accept in good faith the bare assertion of Cromek in preference to the bare assertion of Blake. If we believe this, we are bound to admit no harsher feeling than regret that Cromek should so have duped and blinded his betters; but in common fairness we are also bound to restrict the question within these limits. For Stothard a door of honourable escape stands open; and all must desire rather to widen than to narrow the opening. No one can wish to straiten his chance of acquittal, or to inquire too curiously whether there be not a pretext for closing the door that now stands ajar. But for the rest, it is simply necessary to choose between Blake's authority and Cromek's; and to consider this alternative seriously for a moment would be at once an act of condescension towards Cromek and of impertinence towards Blake, equally unjustifiable on either side. It is possible that Blake was not wronged by Stothard; it is undeniable that he was wronged through him. It is probable that Stothard believed himself to be not in the wrong; it is certain that Blake was in the right.
About the close of this quarrel, and before the publication of Blake's designs to Blair as engraved for Cromek by Schiavonetti, a book came out which would have deserved more notice and repaid more interest than has yet been shown it. The graceful design by Blake on its frontispiece is not the only or even the chief attraction of Dr. Malkin's "Memoirs of his Child." The writer indeed treads ponderously and speaks thickly; but there is extant no picture at once so perfect and so quaint of a purely childlike talent. Even supreme genius, which usually has a mind now and then to try, has never given us the complete and vivid likeness which a child has for once given of himself. Even Shakespeare, even Hugo, even Blake, has not done this. The husky dialect of his father suffices to express something; and the portrait is significant and pleasant, reproducing as it does the solid grace and glad gravity proper to children; a round and bright figure, with no look of over-training or disease. But the child's own scraps and scrawls contain the kernel and jewel of the book. His small drawings are certainly firmer, clearer, more inventive than could have been looked for in a six-year-old artist. Any slight imitative work in a child implies the energy which impels invention in a man. His little histories and geographies are delightful for illogical sequence of events and absurd coherence of fancy. Only a child could have invented and combined such unimaginable eccentricities of innocence. The language and system of proper names strongly recall Blake's own habits of speech. The province of Malleb and the city of Tumblebob are no unfit abodes for Hand and Hyle, Kwantok and Kotope. The moral polity of Allestone is not unlike that which prevails among the Emanations "who in the aggregate are called Jerusalem." The pamphlet, condensed and compressed into a form more thoroughly readable, would be worth republishing.
It seems probable that the verses following were written by Blake about this time, as Mr. Gilchrist refers the design of the "Last Judgment," executed on commission for Lady Egremont, to the year 1807. They are evidently meant to match the beautiful dedication of the designs to Blair, which were not brought out till the next year. Less excellent in workmanship, they are not less important by way of illustration. The existence of some mythical or symbolic island of Atalantis, where the arts were to be preserved as in paradise, now walled round or washed over by the blind and bitter waters of time, was a favourite vision with Blake. At a first reading some of these verses seemed to refer to the subsequent series of designs from Dante; but there is no evidence of any such later commission as we must in that case take for granted.
"The caverns of the grave I've seen,
Blake was always looking westward for his islands of the blest. All transatlantic things appear to have a singular hold upon his fancy. America was a land of misty and stormy morning, struck by the fierce and fugitive fires of intermittent war and nascent freedom. In a dim confused manner, he seems to mix up the actual events of history with the formless and labouring legends of his own mythology; or rather to cast circumstances into the crucible of vision, and extract a strange amalgam of metals unfit for mortal currency and difficult to bring to any test.
In 1808 the illustrations to "Blair's Grave" appeared, and found some acceptance; a success on which the shameful soul of Cromek fed exultingly and fattened scandalously. The ravenous gamester had packed his cards from the first with all due care, and was able now to bluster without fear as he had before swindled without shame. Twenty pounds of the profits fell to the share of the designer for some of the most admirable works extant in that line. The sweetness and vivid grace of these designs are as noticeable as the energy and rapidity of imagination implied by them. Even in Blake's lifetime their tender and lofty beauty drew down some recognition; and incautious criticism, as it praised them, forgot that the artist was not dead yet. The generous oversight was afterwards amply and consistently redeemed. For the moment it was perhaps not wonderful that even so much excellence should obtain something of mistrustful admiration. The noble passion and exaltation of spirit here made visible burnt its way into notice for a time; and Cromek was allowed to claim applause for his invention of Blake. We will choose two designs only for reference. None who have seen can well forget the glorious violence of reunion between soul and body, meeting with fierce embraces, with glad agony and rage of delight; with breasts yearning and eyes wide, with sweet madness of laughter at their lips; the startled and half-arisen body not less divine already than the descending soul, though the earth clings yet about his knees and feet, and though she comes down as with a clamour of rushing wind and prone impulse of falling water, fresh from the stars and the highest air of heaven. But for perfect beauty nothing of Blake's can be matched against the design of the soul departing; in this drawing the body lies filled as it were and clothed with the supreme sleep of flesh, no man watching by it; with limbs laid out and covered, with eyelids close; and the soul, with tender poise of pausing feet, with painless face and sad pure eyes, looks back as with a serene salutation full of pity, before passing away into the clear air and light left at the end of sunset on heaven and the hills; where outside the opened lattice a soft cold land of rising fields and ridged moorland bears upon it the barren beauty of shadow and sleep, the breath and not the breeze of evening. The sweet and grave grace of this background, with a bright pallor in the sky and an effect upon field and moor of open air without wind, brings with it a sense as of music.
A year later Blake advertised and opened his exhibition; which he was about as qualified to manage as little Malkin might have been. Between anger, innocence, want of funds and sense of merit, he would assuredly have ruined a better chance than he ever had. With the exception of his Canterbury Pilgrims, the choice of pictures and designs for exhibition seems to have been somewhat unhappy. The admirable power and high dramatic quality of that singular but noble picture, the latent or superincumbent beauty which corrects and redeems its partial ugliness, the strong imagination and the fanciful justice of the entire work, were invisible to all but such spectators as Charles Lamb; if indeed there were ever another capable of seeing them to such purpose. Whatever portion of the like merit there may have been in the other works exhibited was still more utterly lost upon the few who saw them at all; for of these we have scarcely any record beyond Blake's own. One journal alone appears to have noticed the exhibition. An angry allusion of Blake's to some assault of the Examiner newspaper upon his works and character has been hitherto left unexplained, presumably through a not irrational contempt. That Blake may be cleared from any charge of perversity, a brief account of the quarrel is here appended. Contemptible as are both the journeyman writer and his poor day's work, they have been found worth tracking down on account of the game flown at.
In the thirtieth number of the Examiner (August 7th, 1808) there is a review (signed R. H.) of the Blair's Grave, sufficiently impudent in manner and incapable in matter to have provoked a milder spirit than Blake's. Fuseli's prefatory note is cited with a tone of dissentient patronage not lightly to be endured; "none but such a visionary as Mr. Blake or such a frantic (sic) as Mr. Fuseli could possibly fancy," and so forth; then follows some chatter about the failures of great poets, "utter impossibility of representing Spirit to the eye" (except by means of italic type), "insipid," "absurd," "all the wise men of the East would not possibly divine," "small assistance of the title" (italics again), "how are we to find out?" (might not one reply with Thersites, "Make that demand of thy Maker?"), "how absurd," "more serious censure," "most heterogeneous and serio-fantastic," "most indecent," "appearance of libidinousness," "much to admire, but more to censure," and all the common-places of that pestilent old style which, propped on italics and points of exclamation, halts at every sentence between a titter, a shrug, and a snarl. Schiavonetti also "has done more than justice" to Blake, and Blair and his engraver are finally bidden to divide the real palm. Who this reviewer was, no man need either know or care; but all may now understand the point of Blake's allusion. Next year however the real batteries were opened. It is but loathsome labour to shovel out this decomposed rubbish from the catacombs of liberal journalism; but if thus only we can explain an apparently aimless or misplaced reference on the great artist's part, it may be worth while to throw up a few spadefuls.
This second article bears date September 17th, 1809, No. 90 of the Examiner, and is labelled "Mr. Blake's Exhibition." The contributor has already lapsed from simple fatuity into fatuity compound with scurrility. Blake here figures as "an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement, and consequently of whom no public notice would have been taken, if he was not" (the man's grammar here goes mad on its own account, but what then?) "forced on the notice and animadversion of the Examiner in having been held up" (the case by this time is fairly desperate) "to public admiration;" such is the eccentricity of human error. The Blair of last year "was a futile endeavour by bad drawings to represent immateriality by bodily personifications," and so forth; once again, "the tasteful hand of Schiavonetti," one regrets to remember, was employed to bestow "an exterior charm on deformity and nonsense. Thus encouraged, the poor man" (to wit, Blake) "fancies himself a great master, and has painted a few wretched pictures, some of which are"—any one may finish that for the critic. The catalogue is "a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness (sic), and egregious vanity." Stothard and the irrepressible Schiavonetti are of course held up in contrast to the "distempered brain" which produced Blake's Pilgrims. The picture of The Ancient Britons "is a complete caricature; the colour of the flesh is exactly like hung beef." Here we will pull the man up short and have done with him. He shirks a signature this time; and whether or no he were the same as last year's critic, those may find out who care.
"Arcadiæ pecuaria rudere dicas;" would not one say that this mingling bray and howl had issued through the throat and nostril of some one among the roving or browsing cattle of our own daily or weekly literature, startled at smelling some incongruous rose in his half-eaten thistle-heap? Such feeders were always one in voice and one in palate: it were waste of wood and iron to cudgel or to prod them. Even when their clamour becomes too intolerably dissonant we may get out of hearing and solace our vexed ears and spirits with reflection on that axiom of Blake's, which, though savouring in such a case of excessive optimism, we will strive to hope is true:
"The bleat, the bark, bellow, and roar,
Are waves that beat on Heaven's shore."
This was not Blake's only connexion or collision with the journals of his day. An adverse notice of Fuseli had excited him to more direct reprisals than the attack upon himself now did. The Monthly Magazine for July 1st, 1806 (vol. xxi. pp. 520, 521), contains the following letter, which is now first unearthed and seems worth saving. It is not without perversities; neither is it wanting in vigour and fervour of thought.
"To the Editor of the 'Monthly Magazine.'
"Sir,—My indignation was exceedingly moved at reading a criticism in Bell's Weekly Messenger (25th May) on the picture of Count Ugolino, by Mr. Fuseli, in the Royal Academy Exhibition; and your magazine being as extensive in its circulation as that paper, and as it also must from its nature be more permanent, I take the advantageous opportunity to counteract the widely-diffused malice which has for many years, under the pretence of admiration of the arts, been assiduously sown and planted among the English public against true art, such as it existed in the days of Michael Angelo and Raphael. Under pretence of fair criticism and candour, the most wretched taste ever produced has been upheld for many, very many years; but now, I say, now its end has come. Such an artist as Fuseli is invulnerable, he needs not my defence; but I should be ashamed not to set my hand and shoulder, and whole strength, against those wretches who, under pretence of criticism, use the dagger and the poison.
"My criticism on this picture is as follows: 'Mr. Fuseli' s Count Ugolino is the father of sons of feeling and dignity, who would not sit looking in their parent's face in the moments of his agony, but would rather retire and die in secret while they suffer him to indulge his passionate and innocent grief, his innocent and venerable madness, and insanity, and fury, and whatever paltry cold-hearted critics cannot, because they dare not, look upon. Fuseli's Count Ugolino is a man of wonder and admiration, of resentment against man and devil, and of humiliation before God: prayer and parental affection fills the figure from head to foot. The child in his arms, whether boy or girl signifies not (but the critic must be a fool who has not read Dante, and who does not know a boy from a girl); I say, the child is as beautifully drawn as it is coloured—in both, inimitable; and the effect of the whole is truly sublime, on account of that very colouring which our critic calls black and heavy. The German-flute colour, which was used by the Flemings (they call it burnt bone), has [? so] possessed the eye of certain connoisseurs, that they cannot see appropriate colouring, and are blind to the gloom of a real terror.
"The taste of English amateurs has been too much formed upon pictures imported from Flanders and Holland, consequently our countrymen are easily brow-beat on the subject of painting; and hence it is so common to hear a man say, 'I am no judge of pictures;' but, O Englishmen! know that every man ought to be a judge of pictures, and every man is so who has not been connoisseured out of his senses.
"A gentleman who visited me the other day said, 'I am very much surprised at the dislike which some connoisseurs show on viewing the pictures of Mr. Fuseli; but the truth is, he is a hundred years beyond the present generation.' Though I am startled at such an assertion, I hope the contemporary taste will shorten the hundred years into as many hours; for I am sure that any person consulting his own eyes must prefer what is so supereminent; and I am as sure that any person consulting his own reputation, or the reputation of his country, will refrain from disgracing either by such ill-judged criticisms in future."
"Yours, Wm. Blake."
This ready championship, erratic and excessive as it may be, is not less characteristic of the man than is that outspoken violence which helped to make his audience often deaf and unfriendly. The letter, as we said, did not happen to turn up in time for insertion in any niche of the Life or Appendix: it will not seem a valueless windfall if read by the light of the Catalogue, the Address, and other notes on art embalmed in the second volume.
No part of Blake's life was nobler in action or is yet worthier of study than the period of neglected labour and unbroken poverty which followed. Much of the work done is now, it appears, irretrievably lost. New friends gathered about him as the old ones died out; for indeed all men capable of seeing the beauty of greatness and goodness were drawn at once to such a man as he was. Violent and petulant as he may have seemed on some rare occasions of public protest, he endured all the secret slights and wants of his latter life with a most high patience, and with serene if not joyous acceptance of his fate. Without brute resignation, nay with keen sense of neglect shown and wrong done, he yet laboured gladly and without ceasing. Sick or well, he was at work; his utmost rest was mere change of labour. To relax the intense nerve or deaden the travailing brain would have been painful and grievous to him. Fervent incessant action was to him as the breath of every moment, the bread of every day. His talk was eager and eloquent; his habits of life were simple and noble, alike above compassion and beyond regret. To all the poor about him—and among the poor he had to live out all his latter days of life—he showed all the supreme charities of courtesy. From one or two things narrated of him, we may all see and be assured that a more perfect and gentle excellence of manner, a more royal civility of spirit, was never found in any man. Fearless, blameless, and laborious, he had also all tender and exquisite qualities of breeding, all courteous and gracious instincts of kindness. As there was nothing base in him, so was there nothing harsh or weak. This old man, whose hand academicians would not take because he had to fetch his own porter, had the habit and spirit of the highest training. He was born a knight and king among men, and had the great and quiet way of such. To say that he was not ashamed or afraid of his poverty seems an expression actually libellous by dint of inadequacy. Fear and shame of any base kind are inconceivable of him. The great and sleepless soul which impelled him to work and to speak could take no taint and no rest in this world. Conscious as he was of the glory of his gift and capacity, he was apparently unconscious how noble a thing was his own life. The work which he was able and compelled to perform he knew to be great; that his manner of living should be what it was, he seems to have thought but simple. "Few," his biographer has well said, "are so persistently brave." But his was the supreme valour which ignorantly assumes and accepts itself. It was natural to him not to cease from doing well or complain of faring ill, as it is natural to a soldier not to turn tail. That he should do great things for small wages was a condition of his life. Neither, with all his just and distinct self-assertion, did he assume any special credit for this. He did not ask for more of meat and drink, more of leisure or praise; he demanded only such recognition as might have enabled him to do more work and greater while strength and sight were left in him. That neglect, and the necessities of mere handiwork involved by neglect, should thus shorten his time and impair his capacity for higher labours, he did at times complain, not without an audible undertone of scornful and passionate rebuke. "Let not that nation," he says once, "where less than nobility is the 'reward' pretend that Art is encouraged by that nation." There was no angry prurience for fame or gold underlying such complaints.
His famous drawings, burlesque or serious, of visionary heads are interesting chiefly for the evidence they give of Blake's power upon his own mind and nerves, and of the strong and subtle mixture of passion with humour in his temperament. Faith, invention, and irony are here mingled in a rare and curious manner. The narrow leer of stolid servile vigour, the keen smirk of satisfied and brutish achievement, branded upon the grotesque face of the "Man who built the Pyramids," implies a good satire on workmen of base talent and mean success. Several others, such as "The Accusers" and the celebrated "Ghost of a Flea," are grotesque almost to grandeur, and full of strength and significance. More important than hundreds of these are the beautiful designs to Virgil or to Phillips. Reproduced at page 271 of Vol. I. with the utmost care and skill, they have of course lost something by the way; enough remains, and would remain had less favour been shown them, to give great and keen pleasure. In the first, the remote sweet curve of hill against a sky filled with evening, seen far above the rows of folded sheep, may recall a splendid former design in the "Blair." In the second, which perhaps has lost more than any in course of transference, the distance of winding road and deepening gorge, woods and downs and lighted windy sky, is among the noblest inventions of imaginative landscape. Highest of all in poetical quality I should class the third design. Upon the first two, symbolic as they are of vision and of pilgrimage, the shadow of peace is cast like a garment; rest lies upon them as a covering. In the third, a splendour of sweet and turbulent moonlight falls across blown bowed hedgerows, over the gnarled and labouring branches of a tough tortuous oak, upon soft ears of laid corn like long low waves without ripple or roll; every bruised blade distinct and patient, every leaf quivering and straightened out in the hard wind. The stormy beauty of this design, the noble motion and passion in all parts of it, are as noticeable as its tender sense of detail and grace in effect of light. Not a star shows about the moon; and the dark hollow half of her glimmering shell, emptied and eclipsed, is faint upon the deep air. The fire in her crescent burns high across the drift of wind. Blake's touch in this appears to me curiously just and perfect; the moon does not seem to quail or flicker as a star would; but one may feel and see, as it were, the wind passing beneath her; amid the fierce fluctuation of heaven in the full breath of tempest, blown upon with all the strength of the night, she stands firm in the race of winds, where no lesser star can stand; she hangs high in clear space, pure of cloud; but no likeness of the low-hung labouring moon, no blurred and blinking planet with edges blotted and soiled in fitful vapour, would have given so splendid a sense of storm as this white triumphal light seen above the wind. Small and rough as these half-engraved designs may be, it is difficult to express in words all that is latent, even all that is evident, in the best of them. Poets and painters of Blake's kind can put enough into the slightest and swiftest work they do to baffle critics and irritate pretenders.
Friends, as we have said, were not wanting to Blake in his old age; to one of them we owe, among other more direct obligations, an inestimable debt for the "Illustrations to Job," executed on his commission. Another worthy of notice here was, until our own day called forth a better, the best English critic on art; himself, as far as we know, admirable alike as a painter, a writer, and a murderer. In each pursuit, perhaps, there was a certain want of solid worth and fervour, which at times impeded or impaired the working of an excellent faculty; but in each it is evident there was a noble sense of things fair and fit; a seemliness and shapeliness of execution, a sensitive relish of excellence, an exquisite aspiration after goodness of work, which cannot be overpraised. With pen, with palette, or with poison, his hand was never a mere craftsman's. The visible vulgarities and deficiencies of his style went hardly deeper than the surface. Excess of colour and levity of handling have not unjustly been charged against him; he does not seem to have always used the material on hand, whether strychnine or mere ink, to the best purpose; his work has a certain crudity and violence of tone; his articles and his crimes are both too often wanting in the most delightful qualities of which finished art is capable; qualities which a more earnest man of lesser genius might have given them. The main object in both seems wrong, or at best insufficient; in the one case he looked less to achievement than to effect; in the other he aimed rather at money-getting than at enjoyment; which is the more deplorable, as a man so greatly gifted must have been in every way fitted to apprehend, to relish, and to realize all noble and subtle pleasure in its more vigorous forms and in its more delicate sense. What he has done however is excellent; and we need not inquire with a captious ingratitude whether another could have done better: that meaner men have since done worse, we know and lament. Too often the murderer is not an artist; and the converse defect is no doubt yet more unhappily frequent. On all accounts we may suppose that in days perhaps not remote a philosophic posterity, mindful that the harvest of art has few reapers worthy of their hire, and well aware that what is exalted must also be exceptional, will inscribe with due honour upon the list of men who have deserved well of mankind the name of Wainwright. Those who would depreciate his performance as a simple author must recollect that in accordance with the modern receipt he "lived his poems;" that the age prefers deeds to songs; that to do great things is better than to write; that action is of eternity, fiction of time; and that these poems were doubtless the greater for being "inarticulate." Remembering which things, the sternest critic will not deny that no kaiser or king ever "polished his stanza" to better purpose with more strenuous will.
What concerns us at present is, that there grew up between Blake and Wainwright an intimacy not unpleasing to commemorate. An artist in words, in oils, and in drugs, Wainwright had an exquisite power of recognition, and a really noble relish of all excellence. No good work came in his way but he praised it with all his might. The mixture of keen insight with frank pleasure, innate justice of eye with fresh effusion of enjoyment, gives to his papers on art a special colour or savour which redeems the offences of a tricked and tinselled style. Clearly too he did what he could for Blake in the way of journalism; but a super-editorial thickness of hide and head repelled the light sharp shafts loosed from a bow too relaxed by too unsteady a hand. It is lamentable that the backstroke of a recalcitrant hoof should have broken this bowman's arm when it might have done good service. Help shown to Blake about this time, especially help of the swift efficient nature that Wainwright would have given, might have been infinitely important; it was no light thing to come so near and yet fall short of. Exposition of the beloved "Song of Jerusalem," adequate at least on the side of pure art, would assuredly have given the great old man pleasure beyond words and beyond gold. This too he was not to have. There are men set about the ways of life who seem made only to fulfil the office of thorns; it is difficult for retrospection to observe that they have done anything but hurt and hinder the feet of higher men. Doubtless they have had their use and taken their pleasure. These have left no trace; we can still see the scars they made on the hand and the fragments they rent from the cloak of a great man as he passed by them. A little of the honour which he has lately received would have been to Blake in his life a great and pleasant thing to attain; praise of his work now leaves an after-taste of bitterness on the lips which utter it. His work, not done for wages, hardly repaid with thanks, we can touch and handle and remark upon as ability is given us; "nothing can touch him further." Those who might have done what we would give much to do left it undone. And even to men who enjoy such power to do and such wisdom to choose greatly as were the inheritance of Blake it is not a thing worth no regret to have been allowed upon earth no comprehension and no applause. He had a better part in life than the pleasure that comes of such things; but these also he might have had. He would not come down to chaffer for them or stoop to gather them up from unclean or unsafe ground; but they might have been laid at his feet freely and with thanks; which they never were.
Foiled as he had been in his good purpose, the critic at least won full gratitude from the gentle and great nature of his friend, who repaid him in a kingly manner with praise worth gold. One may hope that a picture painted by Wainwright and commended by Blake will yet be traced somewhere, in spite of the singular fate which hung upon so much of their lives, and which still obscures so much of their work. At least its subject and quality should be sought out and remembered. But for the strange collision with social laws which broke up his life and scattered his designs, it might also be hoped that some other relics of Wainwright would be found adrift in manuscript or otherwise, and a collection of his stray works be completed and published, with an adequate notice of his life, well weeded of superfluous lamentations, duly qualified to put an end to perversion and foolish fancies, clear of deprecation or distortion, just, sufficient, and close to the purpose, Few things would be better worth doing by a competent editor.
Even of the "Inventions to the Book of Job," as far as I know, no especial notice was taken. Upon these, the greatest of all Blake's designs, such noble exposition has now at length been bestowed that further remark may henceforward well be spared. This commentary has something of the stately beauty and vigorous gravity of style which distinguish the work spoken of. Blake himself, had he undertaken to write notes on his designs, must have done them less justice than this. The perfect apprehension and the perfect representation of the great qualities which all men, according to their capacity, must here in some degree perceive, give to these notes a value beyond that of mere eloquence or of mere sympathy. The words chosen do not merely render the subject with fluency and fitness; they attain a choiceness and exaltation of expression, which give to the writing much of the character of the designs. Whether or not from any exceptional aptitude in the material, these designs are more lucid and dramatic in effect than perhaps any of Blake's works. His specialties of belief or sentiment hardly show in this series at all; except perhaps in the passionate and penitent character which seems here to supplant the traditional divine look of patience and power. The whole work has in it a vibration as of fire; even the full stars and serene lines of hill are set in frameworks of fervent sky or throbbing flame. But for the most part those intense qualities of sleepless invention which in many of Blake's other works impel him into fierce aberration and blind ecstasy, through ways which few can tread and mists which few can pierce, are now happily diverted and kept at work upon the exquisite borders and appendages. In these there is enough of fiery fancy and tender structure of symbol to employ the whole wide and vivid imagination of the artist. And throughout the series there is a largeness and a loftiness of manner which sustain the composition at the height of the poem. In the highest flights of spiritual passion and speculation, in the subtle contention with fate and imperious agony of appeal against heaven, Blake has matched himself against his text, and translated its sharp and profound harmonies into a music of design not less adorable.
Those who have read with any care or comprehension the excellent chapters on Blake's personal life will regret, not it may be without a keen suppressed sense of vain vexation, that the author did not live to get sight of the letters which have since been found and published. They will at least observe with how much reason the editor of the Life has desired us to notice the close and complete confirmation given by that correspondence to the accuracy of these chapters. No tribute more valuable could be devised to the high sincerity, the clear sagacity, the vigorous sense of truth and lucid power of proof, which have left us for the first time an acceptable and endurable portrait of Blake. All earlier attempts were mere masses of blot and scratch, evidently impossible and false on the face of them, and even pitifully conscious that they could not be true, not being human. The bewildered patronage, fear, contempt, goodwill and despair which Blake had excited among those hapless biographers have left in their forlorn failures a certain element of despicable pathos. We have now, thanks to no happier chance, but solely to the strenuous ability and fidelity of a man qualified to study and to speak upon the matter, a trustworthy, perspicuous, and coherent summary of the actual facts of Blake's life, of the manner in which he worked, and of the causes which made his work what it was.
Among these late labours of Blake the "Dante" may take a place of some prominence. The seven published plates, though quite surprisingly various in merit, are worth more notice than has yet been spared them. Three at least, for poetical power and nobility of imaginative detail, are up to the artist's highest mark. Others have painted the episode of Francesca with more or less of vigour and beauty; once above all an artist to whom any reference here must be taken as especially apposite has given with the tenderest perfection of power, first the beauty of beginning love in the light and air of life on earth, then the passion of imperishable desire under the dropping tongues of flame in hell. To the right the lovers are drawn close, yearning one toward another with touch of tightened hands and insatiable appeal of lips; behind them the bower lattice opens on deep sunshine and luminous leaves; to the left, they drift before the wind of hell, floated along the misty and straining air, fastened one upon another among the fires, pale with perpetual division of pain; and between them the witnesses stand sadly, as men that look before and after. Blake has given nothing like this: of personal beauty and special tenderness his design has none; it starts from other ground. Often as the lovers had been painted, here first has any artist desired to paint the second circle itself. To most illustrators, as to most readers, and (one might say) to Dante himself, the rest are swallowed up in those two supreme martyrs. Here we see, not one or two, but the very circle of the souls that sinned by lust, as Dante saw it; and as Keats afterwards saw it in the dream embalmed by his sonnet; the revolution of infinite sorrowing spirits through the bitter air and grievous hurricane of hell. Through strange immense implications of snake-shaped fold beyond fold, the involved chain of figures that circle and return flickers in wan white outline upon the dense dark. Under their feet is no stay as on earth; over their heads is no light as in heaven. They have no rest, and no resting-place: they revolve like circles of curling foam or fire. The two witnesses, who alone among all the mobile mass have ground whereon to set foot, stand apart upon a broken floor-work of roots and rocks, made rank with the slime and sprawl of rotten weed and foul flag-leaves of Lethe. Detail of drawing or other technical work is not the strong point of the design; but it does incomparably well manage to render the sense of the matter in hand, the endless measured motion, the painful and fruitless haste as of leaves or smoke upon the wind, the grey discomforted air and dividing mist. Blake has thoroughly understood and given back the physical symbols of this first punishment in Dante; the whirling motion of his figures has however more of blind violence and brute speed than the text seems to indicate: they are dashed and dragged one upon another like weed or shingle torn up in the drift of a breaking sea: overthrown or beaten down, haled or crushed together, as if by inanimate strength of iron or steam: not moved as we expect to see them, in sad rapidity of stately measure and even time of speed. The flame-like impulse of idea natural to Blake cannot absolutely match itself against Dante's divine justice and intense innate forbearance in detail; nor so comprehend, as by dint of reproduction to compete with, that supreme sense of inward and outward right which rules and attunes every word of the Commedia.
Two other drawings in this series are worth remark and praise; the sixth and seventh in order. In the sixth, Dante and Virgil, standing in a niche of rifted rock faced by another cliff up and down which a reptile crowd of spirits swarms and sinks, look down on the grovelling and swine-like flocks of Malebolge; lying tumbled about the loathsome land in hateful heaps of leprous flesh and dishevelled deformity, with limbs contorted, clawing nails, and staring horror of hair and eyes: one figure thrown down in a corner of the crowded cliff-side, her form and face drowned in an overflow of ruined raining tresses. The pure grave folds of the two poets' robes, long and cleanly carved as the straight drapery of a statue, gain chastity of contrast from the swarming surge and monstrous mass of all foulest forms beneath, against the reek of which both witnesses stop their noses with their gowns. Behind and between, huge outlines of dark hill and sharp curves of crag show like stiffened ridges of solid sea, amid heaving and glaring motion of vapour and fire. Slight as the workmanship is of this design also, alien as is perhaps its structure of precipice and mountain from the Dantesque conception of descending circles and narrowing sides, it has a fiery beauty of its own; the background especially, with its climbing or crawling flames, the dark hard strength and sweep of its sterile ridges, seen by fierce fits of reflected light, washed about with surf and froth of tideless fire, and heavily laden with the lurid languor of hell. In the seventh design we reach the circle of traitors; the foot of the passenger strikes against one frost-bound face; others lie straight, with crowned congealing hair and beard taken in the tightening rivets of ice. To the right a swarm of huge and huddled figures seems gathering with moan or menace behind a veil of frozen air, a mask of hardening vapour; and from each side the bitter light of ice or steel falls grey in cruel refraction. Into the other four designs we will not enter; some indeed are too savagely reckless in their ugly and barren violation of form or law, to be redeemed by even an intenser apprehension of symbol and sense; and one at least, though with noble suggestions dropped about it, is but half sketched in. In that of the valley of serpents there is however a splendid excess of horror and prodigal agony; the ravenous delight of the closing and laughing mouths, the folded tension of every scale and ring, the horrible head caught and crushed with the last shriek between its teeth and the last strain upon its eyelids, in the serrated jaws of the erect serpent—all have the brand of Blake upon them.
These works were the last he was to achieve; out of the whole Dantesque series, seven designs alone have ever won their way into such notice as engraving could earn for them. The latest chapters of Blake's life are perhaps also the noblest. His poverty, if that word implies anything of a destitute or sordid way of living, seems to have grown and swollen somewhat beyond its actual size in the dim form of report. Stories have come to hand of late, which, being seemingly accurate in the main, though not as yet duly fixed in detail or date, remove any such ground of fear. They do better; they bring proof once again of the noble charity, the tender exaltation of mind, the swift bounty of hand, which would have made memorable a man meaner in talent. Once, it is said, he lent £40 to some friend in distress, which friend's wife, having laid out most of her windfall in dress, thought Mrs. Blake might like to see that by way of change for her husband's money. Once too they received into their lodging (into which does not yet seem certain) a young student of art, sick and poor, who died some time after upon their hands. These things, and such as these, we know dimly. One or two such deeds, seen through such dull vague obstruction, in the midst of so many things forgotten, should be taken to imply much. How few we know of, it is easy to say; how many there must have been, it is not easy. This also may be remembered, that the man so liberal when he had little might once have had much to give, and would not take it at the price. It is recorded on the authority of a personal friend, that some proposal had once been made to "engage Blake as teacher of drawing to the royal family"; a proposal declined on his part from no folly or vulgarity of prepossession, but from a simple and noble sense of things reasonable and right. For once, it is also said, some samples of his work were laid before the king, not then, unluckily, in his strait-waistcoat; "Take them away!" spluttered the lunatic—not quite as yet "blind, mad, despised, and dying," as when Byron and Shelley embalmed him in corrosive rhymes; not all of these as yet. But as a great man then alive and yet living has well asked "What mortal ever heard Any good of George the Third?" Blake's MSS. contain an occasional allusion expressive of no ardent reverence for the person or family of that insane Dagon, so long left standing as the leaden rather than brazen idol of hypocrites and dunces. As to the arts, it was well for Blake to keep clear of the patron of West. All he ever got from government was the risk of hanging, or such minor penalty as that equitable time might have inflicted on seditious laxity of speech and thought.
In smaller personal matters, Blake was as fearless and impulsive as in his conduct of these graver affairs. Seeing once, somewhere about St. Giles's, a wife knocked about by some husband or other violent person, in the open street, a bystander saw this also—that a small swift figure coming up in full swing of passion fell with such counter violence of reckless and raging rebuke upon the poor ruffian, that he recoiled and collapsed, with ineffectual cudgel; persuaded, as the bystander was told on calling afterwards, that the very devil himself had flown upon him in defence of the woman; such Tartarean overflow of execration and objurgation had issued from the mouth of her champion. It was the fluent tongue of Blake which had proved too strong for this fellow's arm: the artist, doubtless, not caring to remember the consequences, proverbial even before Molière's time, of such interference with conjugal casualties.
These things, whenever it was that they happened, were now of the past; as were many labours of many days, to be followed by not many more. Among a few good friends, and not without varieties of changed scene and company, Blake drew daily nearer to death. Of all the records of these his latter years, the most valuable perhaps are those furnished by Mr. Crabb Robinson, whose cautious and vivid transcription of Blake's actual speech is worth more than much vague remark, or than any commentary now possible to give. A certain visible dislike and vexation excited by the mystic violence of Blake's phrases, by the fierce simplicity of his mental bearing, have not been allowed to impair the excellent justice of tone and evident accuracy of report which give to these notes their singular value. In his correspondence, in his conversation, and in his prophecies, Blake was always at unity with himself; not, it seems to us, actually inconsistent or even illogical in his fitful varieties of speech and expression. His faith was large and his creed intricate; in the house of his belief there were many mansions. In these notes, for instance, the terms "atheism" and "education" are wrested to peculiar uses; education must mean not exactly training, but moral tradition and the retailed sophistries of artificial right and wrong; atheism, as applicable to Dante, must mean adherence to the received "God of this world"—that confusion of the Creator with the Saviour which was to Blake the main rock of offence in all religious systems less mystic than his own; being indeed, together with "Deism," the perpetual butt of his prophetic slings and arrows. All this, however, we must leave now for time to enlighten in due course as it best may; meanwhile some last word has to be said concerning Blake's life and death.
To a life so gentle and great, so brave and stainless, there could be but one manner of end, come when and how it might; a serene and divine death, full of placid ardour and hope unspotted by fear. Having lived long without a taint of shame upon his life, having long laboured without a stain of falsehood upon his work, it was no hard task for him to set the seal of a noble death upon that noble life and labour. He, it might be said, whom the gods love well need not always die young; for this man died old in years at least, having done work enough for three men's lives of strenuous talent and spirit. After certain stages of pain and recovery and relapse, the end came on the second Sunday in August 1827. A few days before he had made a last drawing of his wife—faithful to him and loving almost beyond all recorded faith and love. Forty-five years she had cloven to him and served him all the days of her life with all the might of her heart; for a space of four years and two months they were to be divided now. He did not draw her like, it appears: that which "she had ever been to him," no man could have drawn. Of her, out of just reverence and gratitude that such goodness should have been, we will not say more. All words are coarse and flat that men can use to praise one who has so lived. It has been told more than once in print—it can never be told without a sense of some strange and sweet meaning—how, as Blake lay with all the tides of his life setting towards the deep final sleep, he made and sang new fragments of verse, the last oblations he was to bring who had brought so many since his first conscience of the singular power and passion within himself that impels a man to such work. Of these songs not a line has been spared us; for us, it seems, they were not made. In effect, they were not his, he said. At last, after many songs and hours, still in the true and pure presence of his wife, his death came upon him in the evening like a sleep.
Only such men die so; though the worst have been known to die calmly and the meanest bravely, this pure lyric rapture of spirit and perfect music of sundering soul and body can only be given to these few. Knowing nothing of whence and whither, the how and the when of a man's death we can at least know, and put the knowledge to what uses we may. In this case, if we will, it may help us to much in the way of insight and judgment; it may show us many things that need not be wrought up into many words. For what more is there now to say of the man? Of the work he did we must speak gradually, if we are to speak adequately. Into his life and method of work we have looked, not without care and veneration; and find little to conclude with by way of comment. If to any reader it should not by this time appear that he was great and good among the chief of good and great men, it will not appear for any oration of ours. Most funeral speeches also are cheap and inconclusive. Especially they must be so, or seem so, when delivered over the body of a great man to whom his own generation could not even grant a secure grave. In 1831 his wife was buried beside him: where they are laid now no man can say: it seems certain only that their graves were violated by hideous official custom, and their bones cast out into some consecrated pit among other nameless relics of poor men. It might not have hurt them even to foresee this; but nevertheless the doers of such a thing had better not have done it. Having missed of a durable grave, Blake need not perhaps look for the "weak witness" of any late memorial. Such things in life were indifferent to him; and should be more so now. To be buried among his nearest kin, and to have the English burial service read over him, he did, we are told, express some wish; and this was done. The world of men was less by one great man, and was none the wiser; while he lived he was called mad and kept poor; after his death much of his work was destroyed; and in course of time not so much as his grave was left him. All which to him must matter little, but is yet worth a recollection more fruitful than regret. The dead only, and not the living, ought, while any trace of his doings remains, to forget what was the work and what were the wages of William Blake.
- Gilchrist's "Life of Blake."
- It may be as well set down here as at any further stage of our business, that the date of Blake's birth appears, from good MS. authority, to have been the 20th of November (1757), not the 28th; that he was the second of five children, not four; James, the hosier in Broad Street, being his junior, not, as the biography states, his senior by a year and a half. The eldest son was John, a favourite child who came to small good, enlisted, and died it seems in comparative youth; of him Mr. Gilchrist evidently had not heard. In some verses of the Felpham period (written in 1801, printed in vol. ii. p. 189 of the "Life and Selections") Blake makes mention of "my brother John the evil one," which may now be comprehensible enough.
- Our greatest poet of the later days may be cited as a third witness. Through the marvellous last book of the Contemplations the breath and sound of the sea is blown upon every verse; when he heard as it were the thunder and saw as it were the splendour of revelation, it was amid the murmur and above the motion of the Channel;
- W. B. Scott. The few and great words cited above occur, it will be observed, in a poem affording throughout no inapt allegory of Blake's life and works. More accurate and more admirable expression was never given to a theme so pregnant and so great. The whole "fable" may be well applied by students of the matter in hand to the history of Blake's relations with minor men of more turn for success; which, as Victor Hugo has noted in his royal manner, is so often "a rather hideous thing."
- It appears that some effort, laudable if wholly sincere, and not condemnable if partly coloured by personal feeling, has been made to rebut the charges brought against Stothard and Cromek by the biographer of Blake. What has been written in the text is of course based upon the assumption that Mr. Gilchrist has given an account of the matter as full and as fair as it was assuredly his desire to make it. As junior counsel (so to speak) on behalf of Blake, I have followed the lead of his biographer; for me in fact nothing remained but to revise and restate, with such clearness and brevity as I could, the case as laid down by him. This, finding on the face of it nothing incoherent or incredible, I have done; whether any man can disprove it remains to be seen. Meantime we are not left to our own choice in the matter of epithets. There is but one kind of phrase that will express such things and the doers of such things. Against Stothard no grave charge has been brought; none therefore can be refuted. Any reference to subsequent doings or sufferings of his must be unspeakably irrelevant to the matter in hand. Against Cromek a sufficiently heavy indictment has been laid; one which cannot be in the least degree lightened by counter-charges of rash violence on Blake's part or blind hastiness on Mr. Gilchrist's. One thing alone can avail him in the way of whitewash. He is charged with theft; prove that he did not steal. He is charged with breach of contract; prove that his contract was never broken. He is charged with denying a commission given by him; prove that he did not deny it. For no man, it is to be feared, will now believe that Blake, sleeping or waking, forged the story of the commission or trumped up the story of the contract. That point of the defence the counsel for Cromek had best give up with all convenient speed; had better indeed not dream at all of entering upon it. Again: he is charged, as above, with adding to his apparent perfidy a superfetation of insolence, an accretion or excrescence of insult. Prove that he did not write the letter published by Mr. Cunningham in 1852. It is undoubtedly deplorable that any one now living should in any way have to suffer for the misdoings of a man, whom, were it just or even possible, one would be willing to overlook and to forget. But time is logical and equable; and this is but one among many inevitable penalties which time is certain to bring upon such wrong-doers in the end; penalties, or rather simple results of the thing done. Had this man either dealt honestly or while dealing dishonestly been but at the pains to keep clear of Walter Scott and William Blake, no writer would have had to disturb his memory. But now, however strong or sincere may be our just sense of pity for all to whom it may give pain, truth must be spoken; and the truth is that, unless the authorities cited can be utterly upset and broken down by some palpable proof in his favour, Cromek was what has been stated. Mr. Gilchrist also, in the course of his fair and lucid narrative, speaks once of "pity." Pity may be good, but proof is better. Until such proof come, the best that can be done for Cromek is to let well alone. Less could not have been said of him than equitable biography has here been compelled to say; no more need be said now and for ever, if counsel will have the wisdom to let sleeping dogs lie. This advice, if they cannot refute what is set down without more words, we must give them; μὴ κίνει Καμάριναν. The waters are muddy enough without that. Vague and vain clamour of deprecation or appeal may be plaintive but is not conclusive. As to any talk of cruelty or indelicacy shown in digging up the dead misdeeds of dead men, it is simply pitiable. Were not reason wasted on such reasoners it might be profitable (which too evidently it is not) to reply that such an argument cuts right and left at once. Suppress a truth, and you suggest a lie; and a lie so suggested is the most "indelicate" of cruelties possible to inflict on the dead If, for pity's sake or contempt's or for any other reason, the biographer had explained away the charges against Cromek which lay ready to his hand, he must have left upon the memory of Scott and upon the memory of Blake the stain of a charge as grave as this: if Cromek was honest, they were calumniators. To one or two the good name of a private man may be valuable; to all men the good name of a great man must be precious. This difference of value must not be allowed to weigh with us while considering the evidence; but the fact seems to be that no evidence in disproof of the main charges has been put forward which can be seriously thought worth sifting for a moment. This then being the sad case, to inveigh against Blake's biographer is utterly idle and hardly honest. If the stories are not true, any man's commentary which assumes their truth must be infinitely unimportant. If the stories are true, no remark annexed to the narrative can now blacken the accused further. Those alone who are responsible for the accusation brought can be convicted of unfairness in bringing it; Mr. Gilchrist, it must be repeated, found every one of the charges which we now find in his book, given under the hand and seal of honourable men. These he found it, as I do now, necessary to transcribe in a concise form; adding, as I have done, any brief remarks he saw fit to make in the interest of justice and for the sake of explanation. Let there be no more heard of appeal against this exercise of a patent right, of invective against this discharge of an evident duty. Disproof is the one thing that will now avail; and to anything short of that no one should again for an instant listen.
- It is to be regretted that the share taken in this matter by Flaxman, who defended Stothard from the charge of collusion with Cromek, appears to have alienated Blake from one of his first friends. Throughout the MS. so often cited by his biographer, he couples their names together for attack. In one of his rough epigrams, formless and pointless for the most part, but not without value for the sudden broken gleams of light they cast upon Blake's character and history, he reproaches both sculptor and painter with benefits conferred by himself and disowned by them: and the blundering stumbling verses thus jotted down to relieve a minute's fit of private anger are valuable as evidence for his sincere sense of injury.
To F. and S.
"I found them blind: I taught them how to see;
And now they know neither themselves nor me.
'Tis excellent to turn a thorn to a pin,
A fool to a bolt, a knave to a glass of gin."
Whether or not he had in fact thus utilized his rivals by making the most out of their several qualities, may be questionable. If so, we must say he managed to scratch his own fingers with the pin, to miss his shot with the bolt, and to spill the liquor extracted from the essence of knavery. The following dialogue has equal virulence and somewhat more sureness of aim.
Mr. Stothard to Mr. Cromek.
"For fortune's favour you your riches bring;
But fortune says she gave you no such thing.
Why should you prove ungrateful to your friends,
Sneaking, and backbiting, and odds-and-ends?"
Mr. Cromek to Mr. Stothard.
"Fortune favours the brave, old proverbs say;
But not with money; that is not the way:
Turn back, turn back; you travel all in vain;
Turn through the iron gate down Sneaking Lane."
- Since writing the lines above I have been told by Mr. Seymour Kirkup that one picture at least among those exhibited at this time was the very noblest of all Blake's works; the "Ancient Britons." It appears to have dropped out of sight, but must be still hidden somewhere. Against the judgment of Mr. Kirkup there can be no appeal. The saviour of Giotto, the redeemer of Dante, has power to pronounce on the work of Blake. I allow what I said to stand as I said it at first, only that I may not miss the chance of calling attention to the loss and paying tribute to the critic.
- Written in 1863, Mr. Landor died Sept. 17th, 1864
- Since the lines above were written, I have been informed by a surviving friend of Blake, celebrated throughout Italy as over England, in a time nearer our own, as (among other things) the discoverer of Giotto's fresco in the Chapel of the Podesta, that after Blake's death a gift of £100 was sent to his widow by the Princess Sophia, who must not lose the exceptional honour due to her for a display of sense and liberality so foreign to her blood. At whose suggestion it was made is not known, and worth knowing. Mrs. Blake sent back the money with all due thanks, not liking to take or keep what (as it seemed to her) she could dispense with, while many to whom no chance or choice was given might have been kept alive by the gift; and, as readers of the "Life" know, fell to work in her old age by preference. One complaint only she was ever known to make during her husband's life, and that gently. "Mr. Blake" was so little with her, though in the body they were never separated; for he was incessantly away "in Paradise"; which would not seem to have been far off. Mr. Kirkup also speaks of the courtesy with which, on occasion, Blake would waive the question of his spiritual life, if the subject seemed at all incomprehensible or offensive to the friend with him: he would no more obtrude than suppress his faith, and would practically accept and act upon the dissent or distaste of his companions without visible vexation or the rudeness of a thwarted fanatic. It was in the time of this intimacy (see note at p. 58) that Mr. Kirkup also saw, what seems long since to have dropped out of human sight, the picture of The Ancient Britons; which, himself also an artist, he thought and thinks the finest work of the painter: remembering well the fury and splendour of energy there contrasted with the serene ardour of simply beautiful courage; the violent life of the design, and the fierce distance of fluctuating battle.
- The direct cause of Blake's death, it appears from a MS. source, "was the mixing of the gall with the blood." It may be worth remark, that one brief notice at least of Blake's death made its way into print; the "Literary Gazette" (No. 552; the "Gentleman's Magazine " published it in briefer form but nearly identical words as far as it went) of August 18, 1827, saw fit to "record the death of a singular and very able man," in an article contributed mainly by "the kindness of a correspondent," who speaks as an acquaintance of Blake, and gives this account of his last days, prefaced by a sufficiently humble reference to the authorities of Fuseli, Flaxman, and Lawrence. "Pent, with his affectionate wife, in a close back-room in one of the Strand courts, his bed in one corner, his meagre dinner in another, a ricketty table holding his copper-plates in progress, his colours, books (among which his Bible, a Sessi Velutello's Dante, and Mr. Carey's translation, were at the top), his large drawings, sketches, and MSS.; his ankles frightfully swelled, his chest disordered, old age striding on, his wants increased, but not his miserable means and appliances; even yet was his eye undimmed, the fire of his imagination unquenched, and the preternatural never-resting activity of his mind unflagging. He had not merely a calmly resigned, but a cheerful and mirthful countenance. He took no thought for his life, what he should eat or what he should drink; nor yet for his body, what he should put on; but had a fearless confidence in that Providence which had given him the vast range of the world for his recreation and delight. Blake died last Monday; died as he had lived, piously, cheerfully, talking calmly, and finally resigning himself to his eternal rest like an infant to its sleep. He has left nothing except some pictures, copper-plates, and his principal work, a series of a hundred large designs from Dante….. He was active" (the good correspondent adds, further on) "in mind and body, passing from one occupation to another without an intervening minute of repose. Of an ardent, affectionate, and grateful temper, he was simple in manner and address, and displayed an inbred courteousness of the most agreeable character." Finally, the writer has no doubt that Mrs. Blake's "cause will be taken up by the distributors of those funds which are raised for the relief of distressed artists, and also by the benevolence of private individuals": for she "is left (we fear, from the accounts which have reached us) in a very forlorn condition, Mr. Blake himself having been much indebted for succour and consolation to his friend Mr. Linnell the painter." The discreet editor, "when further time has been allowed him for inquiry, will probably resume the matter:" but, we may now more safely prophesy, assuredly will not.