William Blake, a critical essay/Lyrical poems
We must here be allowed space to interpolate a word of the briefest possible comment on the practical side of Blake's character. No man ever lived and laboured in hotter earnest; and the native energy in him had the property of making all his atmosphere of work intense and keen as fire—too sharp and rare in quality of heat to be a good working element for any more temperate intellect. Into every conceivable channel or byway of work he contrived to divert and infuse this overflowing fervour of mind; the least bit of engraving, the poorest scrap or scratch of drawing or writing traceable to his hands, has on it the mark of passionate labour and enjoyment; but of all this devotion of laborious life, the only upshot visible to most of us consists in a heap of tumbled and tangled relics, verse and prose mainly inexplicable, paintings and engravings mainly unacceptable if not unendurable. And if certain popular theories of the just aims of life, duties of an earnest-minded man, and meritorious nature of practical deeds and material services only, are absolutely correct—in that case the work of this man's life is certainly a sample of deplorable waste and failure. A religion which has for Walhalla some factory of the Titans, some prison fitted with moral cranks and divine treadmills of all the virtues, can have no place among its heroes for the most energetic of mere artists. To him, as to others of his kind, all faith, all virtue, all moral duty or religious necessity, was not so much abrogated or superseded as summed up, included and involved, by the one matter of art. To him, as to other such workmen, it seemed better to do this well and let all the rest drift than to do incomparably well in all other things and dispense with this one. For this was the thing he had to do; and this once well done, he had the assurance of a certain faith that other things could not be wrong with him. As long as two such parties exist among men who think and act, it must always be some pleasure to deal with a man of either party who has no faith or hope in compromise. These middle-men, with some admirable self-sufficient theory of reconciliation between two directly opposite aims and forces, are fit for no great work on either side. If it be in the interest of facts really desirable that "the poor Fine Arts should take themselves away," let it be fairly avowed and preached in a distinct manner. That thesis, so delivered, is comprehensible, and deserves respect. One may add that if art can be destroyed it by all means ought to be. If for example the art of verse is not indispensable and indestructible, the sooner it is put out of the way the better. If anything can be done instead better worth doing than painting or poetry, let that preferable thing be done with all the might and haste that may be attainable. And if to live well be really better than to write or paint well, and a noble action more valuable than the greatest poem or most perfect picture, let us have done at once with the meaner things that stand in the way of the higher. For we cannot on any terms have everything; and assuredly no chief artist or poet has ever been fit to hold rank among the world's supreme benefactors in the way of doctrine, philanthropy, reform, guidance, or example: what is called the artistic faculty not being by any means the same thing as a general capacity for doing good work, diverted into this one strait or shallow in default of a better outlet. Even were this true for example of a man so imperfect as Burns, it would remain false of a man so perfect as Keats. The great men, on whichever side one finds them, are never found trying to take truce or patch up terms. Savonarola burnt Boccaccio; Cromwell proscribed Shakespeare. The early Christians were not great at verse or sculpture. Men of immense capacity and energy who do seem to think or assert it possible to serve both masters—a Dante, a Shelley, a Hugo—poets whose work is mixed with and coloured by personal action or suffering for some cause moral or political—these even are no real exceptions. It is not as artists that they do or seem to do this. The work done may be, and in such high cases often must be, of supreme value to art; but not the moral implied. Strip the sentiments and re-clothe them in bad verse, what residue will be left of the slightest importance to art? Invert them, retaining the manner or form (supposing this feasible, which it might be), and art has lost nothing. Save the shape, and art will take care of the soul for you: unless that is all right, she will refuse to run or start at all; but the shape or style of workman-ship each artist is bound to look to, whether or no he may choose to trouble himself about the moral or other bearings of his work. This principle, which makes the manner of doing a thing the essence of the thing done, the purpose or result of it the accident, thus reversing the principle of moral or material duty, must inevitably expose art to the condemnation of the other party—the party of those who (as aforesaid) regard what certain of their leaders call an earnest life or a great acted poem (that is, material virtue or the mere doing and saying of good or instructive deeds and words) as infinitely preferable to any possible feat of art. Opinion is free, and the choice always open; but if any man leaning on crutches of theory chooses to halt between the two camps, it shall be at his own peril—imminent peril of conviction as one unfit for service on either side. For Puritanism is in this one thing absolutely right about art; they cannot live and work together, or the one under the other. All ages which were great enough to have space for both, to hold room for a fair fighting-field between them, have always accepted and acted upon this evident fact. Take the Renaissance age for one example; you must have Knox or Ronsard, Scotch or French; not both at once; there is no place under reformers for the singing of a "Pléiade." Take the mediaeval period in its broadest sense; not to speak of the notably heretical and immoral Albigeois with their exquisite school of heathenish verse, or of that other rebellious gathering under the great emperor Frederick II., a poet and pagan, when eastern arts and ideas began to look up westward at one man's bidding and open out Saracenic prospects in the very face and teeth of the Church—look at home into familiar things, and see by such poems as Chaucer's Court of Love, absolutely one in tone and handling as it is with the old Albigensian Aucassin and all its paganism, how the poets of the time, with their eager nascent worship of beautiful form and external nature, dealt with established opinion and the incarnate moralities of church or household. It is easy to see why the Church on its own principle found it (as in the Albigensian case) a matter of the gravest necessity to have such schools of art and thought cut down or burnt out. Priest and poet, all those times through, were proverbially on terms of reciprocal biting and striking. That magnificent invention of making "Art the handmaid of Religion" had not been stumbled upon in the darkness of those days. Neither minstrel nor monk would have caught up the idea with any rapture. As indeed they would have been unwise to do; for the thing is impossible. Art is not like fire or water, a good servant and bad master; rather the reverse. She will help in nothing, of her own knowledge or freewill: upon terms of service you will get worse than nothing out of her. Handmaid of religion, exponent of duty, servant of fact, pioneer of morality, she cannot in any way become; she would be none of these things though you were to bray her in a mortar. All the battering in the world will never hammer her into fitness for such an office as that. It is at her peril, if she tries to do good: one might say, borrowing terms from the other party, "she shall not try that under penalty of death and damnation." Her business is not to do good on other grounds, but to be good on her own: all is well with her while she sticks fast to that. To ask help or furtherance from her in any extraneous good work is exactly as rational as to expect lyrical beauty of form and flow in a logical treatise. The contingent result of having good art about you and living in a time of noble writing or painting may no doubt be this; that the spirit and mind of men then living will receive on some points a certain exaltation and insight caught from the influence of such forms and colours of verse or painting; will become for one thing incapable of tolerating bad work, and capable therefore of reasonably relishing the best; which of course implies and draws with it many other advantages of a sort you may call moral or spiritual. But if the artist does his work with an eye to such results or for the sake of bringing about such improvements, he will too probably fail even of them. Art for art's sake first of all, and afterwards we may suppose all the rest shall be added to her (or if not she need hardly be overmuch concerned); but from the man who falls to artistic work with a moral purpose, shall be taken away even that which he has—whatever of capacity for doing well in either way he may have at starting. A living critic of incomparably delicate insight and subtly good sense, himself "impeccable" as an artist, calls this "the heresy of instruction" (l'hérésie de l'enseignement): one might call it, for the sake of a shorter and more summary name, the great moral heresy. Nothing can be imagined more futile; nothing so ruinous. Once let art humble herself, plead excuses, try at any compromise with the Puritan principle of doing good, and she is worse than dead. Once let her turn apologetic, and promise or imply that she really will now be "loyal to fact" and useful to men in general (say, by furthering their moral work or improving their moral nature), she is no longer of any human use or value. The one fact for her which is worth taking account of is simply mere excellence of verse or colour, which involves all manner of truth and loyalty necessary to her well-being. That is the important thing; to have her work supremely well done, and to disregard all contingent consequences. You may extract out of Titian's work or Shakespeare's any moral or immoral inference you please; it is none of their business to see after that. Good painting or writing, on any terms, is a thing quite sufficiently in accordance with fact and reality for them. Supplant art by all means if you can; root it out and try to plant in its place something useful or at least safe, which at all events will not impede the noble moral labour and trammel the noble moral life of Puritanism. But in the name of sense and fact itself let us have done with all abject and ludicrous pretence of coupling the two in harness or grafting the one on the other's stock: let us hear no more of the moral mission of earnest art; let us no longer be pestered with the frantic and flatulent assumptions of quasi-secular clericalism willing to think the best of all sides, and ready even, with consecrating hand, to lend meritorious art and poetry a timely pat or shove. Philistia had far better (always providing it be possible) crush art at once, hang or burn it out of the way, than think of plucking out its eyes and setting it to grind moral corn in the Philistine mills; which it is certain not to do at all well. Once and again the time has been that there was no art worth speaking of afloat anywhere in the world; but there never has been or can have been a time when art, or any kind of art worth having, took active service under Puritanism, or indulged for its part in the deleterious appetite of saving souls or helping humanity in general along the way of labour and progress. Let no artist or poet listen to the bland bark of those porter dogs of the Puritan kingdom even when they fawn and flirt with tongue or tail. Cave canem. That Cerberus of the portals of Philistia will swallow your honey-cake to no purpose; if he does not turn and rend you, his slaver as he licks your hand will leave it impotent and palsied for all good work.
Thus much it seemed useful to premise, by way of exposition rather than excursion, so as once for all to indicate beyond chance of mistake the real point of view taken during life by Blake, and necessary to be taken by those who would appreciate his labours and purposes. Error on this point would be ruinous to any student. No one again need be misled by the artist's eager incursions into grounds of faith or principle; his design being merely to readjust all questions of such a kind by the light of art and law of imagination—to reduce all outlying provinces, and bring them under government of his own central empire—the "fourfold spiritual city" of his vision. Power of imaginative work and insight—"the Poetic Genius, as you now call it—"was in his mind, we shall soon have to see,"the first principle" of all things moral or material, "and all the others merely derivative;" a hazardous theory in its results and corollaries, but one which Blake at all events was always ready to push to its utmost consequences and defend at its extreme outworks. Against all pretensions on the part of science or experimental reasoning to assume this post he was especially given to rebel and recalcitrate. Whether or no he were actually prepared to fight science in earnest on its own pitched field—to dispute seriously the conquest of facts achieved by it—may be questionable; I for one am inclined to disbelieve this, and to refer much of his verbal pugnacity on such matters to the strong irregular humour, rough and loose as that of children, and the half simple half scornful love of paradox, which were ingrained in the man. For argument and proof he had the contempt of a child or an evangelist. Not that he would have fallen back in preference upon the brute resource of thaumaturgy; the coarse and cheap machinery of material miracle was wholly insufficient and despicable to him. No wonder-monger of the low sort need here have hoped for a pupil, a colleague, or an authority. This the biographer has acutely noted, and taken well into account; as we must all do under pain of waste time and dangerous error. Let this too be taken note of; that to believe a thing is not necessarily to heed or respect it; to despise a thing is not the same as to disbelieve it. Those who argue against the reality of the meaner forms of "spiritualism" in disembodied life, on the ground apparently that whatever is not of the patent tangible flesh must be of high imperishable importance, are merely acting on the old ascetic assumption that the body is of its nature base and the soul of its nature noble, and that between the two there is a great gulf fixed, neither to be bridged over nor filled up. Blake, as a mystic of the higher and subtler kind, would have denied this superior separate vitality of the spirit; but far from inferring thence that the soul must expire with the body, would have maintained that the essence of the body must survive with the essence of the soul: accepting thus (as we may have to observe he did), in its most absolute and profound sense, the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Flesh. As a temporary blind and bar to the soul while dwelling on earth, fit only (if so permitted) to impede the spiritual vision and hamper the spiritual feet, he did indeed appear to contemn the "vegetable" and sensual nature of man; but on no ascetic grounds. Admitting once for all that it was no fit or just judge of things spiritual, he claimed for the body on its own ground an equal honour and an equal freedom with the soul; denying the river's channel leave to be called the river—refusing to the senses the license claimed for them by materialism to decide by means of bodily insight or sensation questions removed from the sphere of sensual evidence—and reserving always the absolute assurance and certain faith that things do exist of which the flesh can take no account, but only the spirit—he would grant to the physical nature the full right to every form of physical indulgence: would allow the largest liberty to all powers and capacities of pleasure proper to the pure bodily life. In a word, translated into crude practical language, his creed was about this: as long as a man believes all things he may do any thing; scepticism (not sin) is alone damnable, being the one thing purely barren and negative; do what you will with your body, as long as you refuse it leave to disprove or deny the life eternally inherent in your soul. That we believe is what people call or have called by some such name as "antinomian mysticism:" do anything but doubt, and you shall not in the end be utterly lost. Clearly enough it was Blake's faith; and one assuredly grounded not on mere contempt of the body, but on an equal reverence for spirit and flesh as the two sides or halves of a completed creature: a faith which will allow to neither license to confute or control the other. The body shall not deny, and the spirit shall not restrain; the one shall not prescribe doubt through reasoning; the other shall not preach salvation through abstinence. A man holding such tenets sees no necessity to deny that the indulged soul may be in some men as ignoble as the indulged body in others may be noble; and that a spirit ignoble while embodied need not become noble or noticeable by the process of getting disembodied; in other words, that death or change need not be expected to equalize the unequal by raising or lowering spirits to one settled level. Much of the existing evidence as to baser spiritual matters, Blake, like other men of candid sense and insight, would we may suppose have accepted—and dropped with the due contempt into the mass of facts worth forgetting only, which the experience of every man must carry till his memory succeeds in letting go its hold of them. Nothing, he would doubtless have said, is worth disputing in disproof of, which if proved would not be worth giving thanks for. Let such things be or not be as the fates of small things please; but will any one prove or disprove for me the things I hold by warrant of imaginative knowledge? things impossible to discover, to analyze, to attest, to undervalue, to certify, or to doubt?
This old war—not (as some would foolishly have it defined) a war between facts and fancies, reason and romance, poetry and good sense, but simply between the imagination which apprehends the spirit of a thing and the understanding which dissects the body of a fact—this strife which can never be decided or ended—was for Blake the most important question possible. He for one, madman or no madman, had the sense to see that the one thing utterly futile to attempt was a reconciliation between two sides of life and thought which have no community of work or aim imaginable. This is no question of reconciling contraries. Admit all the implied pretensions of art, they remain simply nothing to science; accept all the actual deductions of science, they simply signify nothing to art. The eternal "Après?" is answer enough for both in turn. "True, then, if you will have it; but what have we to do with your good or bad poetries and paintings?" "Undeniably; but what are we to gain by your deductions and discoveries, right or wrong?" The betrothal of art and science were a thing harder to bring about and more profitless to proclaim than "the marriage of heaven and hell." It were better not to fight, but to part in peace; but better certainly to fight than to temporize, where no reasonable truce can be patched up. Poetry or art based on loyalty to science is exactly as absurd (and no more) as science guided by art or poetry. Neither in effect can coalesce with the other and retain a right to exist. Neither can or (while in its sober senses) need wish to destroy the other; but they must go on their separate ways, and in this life their ways can by no possibility cross. Neither can or (unless in some fit of fugitive insanity) need wish to become valuable or respectable to the other: each must remain, on its own ground and to its own followers, a thing of value and deserving respect. To art, that is best which is most beautiful; to science, that is best which is most accurate; to morality, that is best which is most virtuous. Change or quibble upon the simple and generally accepted significance of these three words, "beautiful," "accurate," "virtuous" and you may easily (if you please, or think it worth while) demonstrate that the aim of all three is radically one and the same; but if any man be correct in thinking this exercise of the mind worth the expenditure of his time, that time must indeed be worth very little. You can say (but had perhaps better not say) that beauty is the truthfullest, accuracy the most poetic, and virtue the most beautiful of things; but a man of ordinary or decent insight will perceive that you have merely reduced an affair of things to an affair of words—shifted the body of one thing into the clothes of another—and proved actually nothing.
To attest by word or work the identity of things which never can become identical, was no part of Blake's object in life. What work it fell to his lot to do, that, having faith in the fates, he believed the best work possible, and performed to admiration. It is in consequence of this belief that, apart from all conjectural or problematic theory, the work he did is absolutely good. Intolerant he was by nature to a degree noticeable even among freethinkers and prophets; but the strange forms assumed by this intolerance are best explicable by the singular facts of his training—his perfect ignorance of well-known ordinary things and imperfect quaint knowledge of much that lay well out of the usual way. He retained always an excellent arrogance and a wholly laudable self-reliance; being incapable of weak-eyed doubts or any shuffling modesty. His great tenderness had a lining of contempt—his fiery self-assertion a kernel of loyalty. No one, it is evident, had ever a more intense and noble enjoyment of good or great works in other men—took sharper or deeper delight in the sense of a loyal admiration: being of his nature noble, fearless, and fond of all things good; a man made for believing. This royal temper of mind goes properly with a keen relish of what excellence or greatness a man may have in himself. Those must be readiest to feel and to express unalloyed and lofty pleasure in the great powers and deeds of a neighbour, who, while standing clear alike of reptile modesty and pretentious presumption, perceive and know in themselves such qualities as give them a right to admire and a right to applaud. If a man thinks meanly of himself, he can hardly in reason think much of his judgment; if he depreciates the value of his own work, he depreciates also the value of his praise. Those are loyallest who have most of a just self-esteem; and their applause is best worth having. It is scarcely conceivable that a man should take delight in the real greatness or merit of his own work for so pitiful and barren a reason as merely that it is his own; should be unable to pass with a fresh and equal enjoyment from the study and relish of his own capacities and achievements to the study and relish of another man's. A timid jealousy, easily startled into shrieks of hysterical malice and disloyal spite, is (wherever you may fall in with it) the property of base men and mean artists who, at sight of some person or thing greater than themselves, are struck sharply by unconscious self-contempt, and at once, whether they know it or not, lose heart or faith in their own applauded work. To recognize their equal, even their better when he does come, must be the greatest delight of great men. "All the gods," says a French essayist, "delight in worship: is one lesser for the other's godhead? Divine things give divine thanks for companionship; the stars sang not one at once, but all together." Like all men great enough to enjoy greatness, Blake was born with the gift of admiration; and in his rapid and fervent nature it struck root and broke into flower at the least glimpse or chance of favourable weather. Therefore, if on no other ground, we may allow him his curious outbreaks of passionate dispraise and scorn against all such as seemed to stand in the way of his art. Again, as we have noted, he had a faith of his own, made out of art for art's sake, and worked by means of art; and whatever made against this faith was as hateful to him as any heresy to any pietist. In a rough and rapid way he chose to mass and sum up under some one or two types, comprehensible at first sight to few besides himself, the main elements of opposition which he conceived to exist. Thus for instance the names of Locke and Newton, of Bacon and Voltaire, recur with the most singular significance in his writings, as emblems or incarnate symbols of the principles opposite to his own: and when the clue is once laid hold of, and the ear once accustomed to the curious habit of direct mythical metaphor or figure peculiar to Blake—his custom of getting whole classes of men or opinions embodied, for purposes of swift irregular attack, in some one representative individual—much is at once clear and amenable to critical reason which seemed before mere tempestuous incoherence and clamour of bodiless rhetoric. There is also a certain half-serious perversity and wilful personal humour in the choice and use of these representative names, which must be taken into account by a startled reader unless he wishes to run off at a false tangent. After all, it is perhaps impossible for any one not specially qualified by nature for sympathy with such a man's kind of work, to escape going wrong in his estimate of Blake; to such excesses of paradox did the poet-painter push his favourite points, and in such singular attire did he bring forward his most serious opinions. But at least the principal and most evident chances of error may as well be indicated, by way of warning off the over-hasty critic from shoals on which otherwise he is all but certain to run.
It is a thing especially worth regretting that Balzac, in his Swedenborgian researches, could not have fallen in with Blake's "prophetic" works. Passed through the crucible of that supreme intellect—submitted to the test of that supple practical sense, that laborious apprehension, so delicate and so passionate at once, of all forms of thought or energy, which were the great latent gifts of the deepest and widest mind that ever worked within the limits of inventive prose—the strange floating forces of Blake's instinctive and imaginative work might have been explained and made applicable to direct ends in a way we cannot now hope for. The incomparable power of condensing apparent vapour into tangible and malleable form, of helping us to handle air and measure mist, which is so instantly perceptible whenever Balzac begins to open up any intricate point of physical or moral speculation, would here have been beyond price. He alone who could push analysis to the verge of creation, and with his marvellous clearness of eye and strength of hand turn discovery almost to invention; he who was not "a prose Shakespeare" merely, but rather perhaps a Shakespeare complete in all but the lyrical faculty; he alone could have brought a scale to weigh this water, a sieve to winnow this wind. That wonderful wisdom, never at fault on its own ground, which made him not simply the chief of dramatic story, but also the great master of morals, would not have failed of foothold or eyesight even in this cloudy and noisy borderland of vision and of faith. Even to him too, the supreme student and interpreter of things, our impulsive prophet with his plea of mere direct inspiration might have been of infinite help and use: to such an eye and brain as his, Blake might have made straight the ways which Swedenborg had left crooked, set right the problems which mesmerism had set wrong. As however we cannot have this, we must do what share of interpreter's work falls to our lot as well as we can.
There are two points in the work of Blake which first claim notice and explanation; two points connected, but not inseparable; his mysticism and his mythology. This latter is in fact hardly more in its relation to the former, than the clothes to the body or the body to the soul. To make either comprehensible, it is requisite above all things to get sight of the man in whom they became incarnate and active as forces or as opinions. Now, to those who regard mysticism with distaste or contempt, as essentially in itself a vain or noxious thing—a sealed bag or bladder that can only be full either of wind or of poison—the man, being above all and beyond all a mystic in the most subtle yet most literal sense, must remain obscure and contemptible. Such readers—if indeed such men should choose or care to become readers at all—will be (for one thing) unable to understand that one may think it worth while to follow out and track to its root the peculiar faith or fancy of a mystic without being ready to accept his deductions and his assertions as absolute and durable facts. Servility of extended hand or passive brain is the last quality that a mystic of the nobler kind will demand or desire in his auditors. Councils and synods may put forth notes issued under their stamp, may exact of all recipients to play the part of clerks and indorse their paper with shut eyes: to the mystic such a way of doing spiritual business would seem the very frenzy of fatuity; whatever else may be profitable, that (he would say) is suicidal. And assuredly it is not to be expected that Blake's mystical creed, when once made legible and even partially coherent, should prove likely to win over proselytes. Nor can this be the wish or the object of a reasonable commentator, whose desire is merely to do art a good turn in some small way, by explaining the "faith and works" of a great artist. It is true that whatever a good poet or a good painter has thought worth representing by verse or design must probably be worth considering before one deliver judgment on it. But the office of an apostle of some new faith and the business of a commentator on some new evangel are two sufficiently diverse things. The present critic has not (happily) to preach the gospel as delivered by Blake; he has merely, if possible, to make the text of that gospel a little more readable. And this must be worth doing, if it be worth while to touch on Blake's work at all. What is true of all poets and artists worth judging is especially true of him; that critics who attempt to judge him piecemeal do not in effect judge him at all, but some one quite different from him, and some one (to any serious student) probably more inexplicable than the real man. For what are we to make of a man whose work deserves crowning one day and hooting the next? If the "Songs" be so good, are not those who praise them bound to examine and try what merit may be latent in the "Prophecies"?—bound at least to explain as best they may how the one comes to be worth so much and the other worth nothing? On this side alone the biography appears to us emphatically deficient; here only do we feel how much was lost, how much impaired by the untimely death of the writer. Those who had to complete his work have done their part admirably well; but here they have not done enough. We are not bound to accept Blake's mysticism; we are bound to take some account of it. A disciple must take his master’s word for proof of the thing preached. This it would be folly to expect of a biographer; even Boswell falls short of this, having courage on some points to branch off from the strait pathway of his teacher and strike into a small speculative track of his own. But a biographer must be capable of expounding the evangel (or, if such a word could be, "dysangel") of his hero, however far he may be from thinking it worth acceptance. And this, one must admit, the writers on Blake have upon the whole failed of doing. Consequently their critical remarks on such specimens of Blake's more speculative and subtle work as did find favour in their sight have but a narrow range and a limited value. Some clue to the main character of the artist's habit of mind we may hope already to have put into the reader's hands—some frayed and ravelled "end of the golden string," which with due labour he may "wind up into a ball." To pluck out the heart of Blake's mystery is a task which every man must be left to attempt for himself: for this prophet is certainly not "easier to be played on than a pipe." Keeping fast in hand what clue we have, we may nevertheless succeed in making some further way among the clouds. One thing is too certain; if we insist on having hard ground under foot all the way we shall not get far. The land lying before us, bright with fiery blossom and fruit, musical with blowing branches and falling waters, is not to be seen or travelled in save by help of such light as lies upon dissolving dreams and dividing clouds. By moonrise, to the sound of wind at sunset, one may tread upon the limit of this land and gather as with muffled apprehension some soft remote sense of the singing of its birds and flowering of its fields.
This premised, we may start with a clear conscience. Of Blake's faith we have by this time endeavoured to give the reader some conception—if a faint one, yet at least not a false: of the form assumed by that faith (what we have called the mythology) we need not yet take cognizance. To follow out in full all his artistic and illustrative work, with a view to extract from each separate fruit of it some core of significance, would be an endless labour: and we are bound to consider what may be feasible rather than what, if it were feasible, might be worth doing. Therefore the purpose of this essay is in the main to deal with the artist's personal work in preference to what is merely illustrative and decorative. Designs, however admirable, made to order for the text of Blair, of Hayley, or of Young, are in comparison with the designer's original and spontaneous work mere extraneous by-play. These also are if anything better known than Blake's other labours. Again, the mass of his surviving designs is so enormous and as yet (except for the inestimable Catalogue in Vol. 2 of the Life) so utterly chaotic and unarrangeable that in such an element one can but work as it were by fits and plunges. Of these designs there must always be many which not having seen we cannot judge; many too on which artists alone are finally competent to deliver sentence by authority. Moreover the supreme merits as well as the more noticeable qualities merely special and personal of Blake are best seen in his mixed work. Where both text and design are wholly his own, and the two forms or sides of his art so coalesce or overlap as to become inextricably interfused, we have the best chance of seeing and judging what the workman essentially was. In such an enterprise, we must be always duly grateful for any help or chance of help given us: and for one invaluable thing we have at starting to give due honour and thanks to the biographer. He has, one may rationally hope, finally beaten to powder the rickety and flaccid old theory of Blake's madness. Any one wishing to moot that question again will have to answer or otherwise get over the facts and inferences so excellently set out in Chap. xxxv.: to refute them we may fairly consider impossible. Here at least no funeral notice or obsequies will be bestowed on the unburied carcase of that forlorn fiction. Assuming as a reasonable ground for our present labour that Blake was superior to the run of men, we shall spend no minute of time in trying to prove that he was not inferior. Logic and sense alike warn us off such barren ground.
Of the editing of the present selections—a matter evidently of most delicate and infinite labour—we have here to say this only; that as far as one can see it could not have been done better: and indeed that it could only have been done so well by the rarest of happy chances. Even with the already published poems there was enough work to get through; for even these had suffered much, from the curiously reckless and helpless neglect of form which was natural to Blake when his main work was done and his interest in the matter prematurely wound up. Those only who have dived after the original copies can fully appreciate or apprehend with what tenderness of justice and subtlety of sense these tumbled folds have been gathered up and these ragged edges smoothed off. As much power and labour has gone to the perfect adjustment of these relics of another man's work as a meaner man could have dreamed only of expending on his own. Nor can any one thoroughly enter into the value and excellence of the thing here achieved who has not in himself the impulsive instinct of form—the exquisite desire of just and perfect work. Alike to those who seem to be above it as to those who are evidently below, such work must remain always inappreciable and inexplicable. To the ingeniously chaotic intellect, with its admirable aptitude for all such feats of conjectural cleverness as are worked out merely by strain and spasm, it will seem an offensive waste of good work. But to all who relish work for work's sake and art for art's it will appear, as it is, simply invaluable—the one thing worth having yet not to be had at any price or by any means, except when it falls in your way by divine accident. True however as all this is of the earlier and easier part of the editor's task, it is incomparably more true of the arrangement and selection of poems fit for publishing out of the priceless but shapeless chaos of unmanageable MSS. The good work here done and good help here given it is not possible to over-estimate. Every light slight touch of mere arrangement has the mark of a great art consummate in great things—the imprint of a sure and strong hand, in which the thing to be done lies safe and gathers faultless form. These great things too are so small in mere size and separate place that they can never get praised in due detail. They are great by dint of the achievement implied and the forbearance involved. Only a chief among lyric poets could so have praised the songs of Blake; only a leader among imaginative painters could so have judged his designs; only an artist himself supreme at once in lordship of colour and mastery of metre could so have spoken of Blake's gifts and feats in metre and colour. Reading these notes, one can rest with sufficient pleasure on the conviction that, wherever else there may be failure in attaining the right word of judgment or of praise, here certainly there is none. Here there is more than (what all critics may have) goodwill and desire to give just thanks; for here there is authority, and the right to seem right in delivering sentence.
But these notes, good as they are and altogether valuable, are the least part of the main work. To the beauty and nobility of style, the exquisite strength of sifted English, the keen vision and deep clearness of expression, which characterize as well these brief prefaces as the notes on Job and that critical summary in the final chapter of the Life, one need hardly desire men's attention; that splendid power of just language and gift of grace in detail stand out at once distinguishable from the surrounding work, praiseworthy as that also in the main is; neither from the matter nor the manner can any careful critic mistake the exact moment and spot where the editor of the poems has taken up any part of the business, laid any finger on the mechanism of the book. But this work, easier to praise, must have been also easier to perform than the more immediate editorial labours which were here found requisite. With care inappreciable and invaluable fidelity has the editing throughout been done. The selection must of necessity have been to a certain degree straitened and limited by many minor and temporary considerations; publishers, tasters, and such-like, must have fingered the work here and there, snuffing at this and nibbling at that as their manner is. For the work and workman have yet their way to make in the judicious reading world; and so long as they have, they are more or less in the lax limp clutch of that "dieu ganache des bourgeois" who sits nodding and ponderously dormant in the dust of publishing offices, ready at any jog of the elbow to snarl and start—a new Pan, feeding on the pastures of a fat and foggy land his Arcadian herds of review or magazine:
ἐντὶ γε πικρός,
καὶ οἱ ἀεὶ δριμεῑα χολὰ ποτὶ ῥινὶ κάθηται.
Arcadian virtue and Bœotian brain, under the presidency of such a stertorous and splenetic goat-god, given to be sleepy in broadest noonday, are not the best crucibles for art to be tried in. Then, again, thought had to be taken for the poems themselves; not merely how to expose them in most acceptable form for public acceptance, but how at the same time to give them in the main all possible fullness of fair play. This too by dint of work and patience, still more by dint of pliable sense and taste, has been duly accomplished. Future editions may be, and in effect will have to be, altered and enlarged: it is as well for people to be aware that they have not yet a final edition of Blake; that will have to be some day completed on a due scale. But for the great mass of his lyrical verse all there was to do has been done here, and the ground-plan taken of a larger building to come. These preliminaries stated, we pass on to a rapid general review of those two great divisions which may be taken as resuming for us the ripe poetry of Blake's manhood. Two divisions, the one already published and partially known, the other now first brought into light and baptized with some legible name; the Songs of Innocence and Experience, and the Ideas of Good and Evil. Under this latter head we will class for purposes of readier reference as well the smaller MS. volume of fairly transcribed verses as the great mass of more disorderly writing in verse and prose to which the name above given is attached in a dim broad scrawl of the pencil evidently meant to serve as general title, though set down only on the reverse page of the second MS. leaf. This latter and larger book, extending in date at least from 1789 to (August) 1811, but presumably beyond the later date, is the great source and treasure-house from which has been drawn out most of the fresh verse and all of the fresh prose here given us: and is of course among the most important relics left of Blake.
First then for the Songs of Innocence and Experience. These at a first naming recall only that incomparable charm of form in which they first came out clothed, and hence vex the souls of men with regretful comparison. For here by hard necessity we miss the lovely and luminous setting of designs, which makes the Songs precious and pleasurable to those who know or care for little else of the master's doing; the infinite delight of those drawings, sweeter to see than music to hear, where herb and stem break into grace of shape and blossom of form, and the branch-work is full of little flames and flowers, catching as it were from the verse enclosed the fragrant heat and delicate sound they seem to give back; where colour lapses into light and light assumes feature in colour. If elsewhere the artist's strange strength of thought and hand is more visible, nowhere is there such pure sweetness and singleness of design in his work. All the tremulous and tender splendour of spring is mixed into the written word and coloured draught; every page has the smell of April. Over all things given, the sleep of flocks and the growth of leaves, the laughter in dividing lips of flowers and the music at the moulded mouth of the flute-player, there is cast a pure fine veil of light, softer than sleep and keener than sunshine. The sweetness of sky and leaf, of grass and water—the bright light life of bird and child and beast—is so to speak kept fresh by some graver sense of faithful and mysterious love, explained and vivified by a conscience and purpose in the artist's hand and mind. Such a fiery outbreak of spring, such an insurrection of fierce floral life and radiant riot of childish power and pleasure, no poet or painter ever gave before: such lustre of green leaves and flushed limbs, kindled cloud and fervent fleece, was never wrought into speech or shape. Nevertheless this decorative work is after all the mere husk and shell of the Songs. These also, we may notice, have to some extent shared the comparative popularity of the designs which serve as framework to them. They have absolutely achieved the dignity of a reprint; have had a chance before now of swimming for life; whereas most of Blake's offspring have been thrown into Lethe bound hand and foot, without hope of ever striking out in one fair effort. Perhaps on some accounts this preference has been not unreasonable. What was written for children can hardly offend men; and the obscurities and audacities of the prophet would here have been clearly out of place. It is indeed some relief to a neophyte serving in the outer courts of such an intricate and cloudy temple, to come upon this little side-chapel set about with the simplest wreaths and smelling of the fields rather than incense, where all the singing is done by clear children's voices to the briefest and least complex tunes. Not at first without a sense of release does the human mind get quit for a little of the clouds of Urizen, the fires of Orc, and all the Titanic apparatus of prophecy. And these poems are really unequalled in their kind. Such verse was never written for children since verse-writing began. Only in a few of those faultless fragments of childish rhyme which float without name or form upon the memories of men shall we find such a pure clear cadence of verse, such rapid ring and flow of lyric laughter, such sweet and direct choice of the just word and figure, such an impeccable simplicity; nowhere but here such a tender wisdom of holiness, such a light and perfume of innocence. Nothing like this was ever written on that text of the lion and the lamb; no such heaven of sinless animal life was ever conceived so intensely and sweetly.
"And there the lion's ruddy eyes
Shall flow with tears of gold,
And pitying the tender cries,
And walking round the fold,
Saying Wrath by His meekness
And by His health sickness
Is driven away
From our immortal day.
And now beside thee, bleating lamb,
I can lie down and sleep,
Or think on Him who bore thy name,
Graze after thee, and weep."
The leap and fall of the verse is so perfect as to make it a fit garment and covering for the profound tenderness of faith and soft strength of innocent impulse embodied in it. But the whole of this hymn of Night is wholly beautiful; being perhaps one of the two poems of loftiest loveliness among all the Songs of Innocence. The other is that called The Little Black Boy; a poem especially exquisite for its noble forbearance from vulgar pathos and achievement of the highest and most poignant sweetness of speech and sense; in which the poet's mysticism is baptized with pure water and taught to speak as from faultless lips of children, to such effect as this.
"And we are put on earth a little space
That we may learn to bear the beams of love;
And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
Are like a cloud and like a shady grove."
Other poems of a very perfect beauty are those of the Piper, the Lamb, the Chimney-sweeper, and the two-days-old baby; all, for the music in them, more like the notes of birds caught up and given back than the modulated measure of human verse. One cannot say, being so slight and seemingly wrong in metrical form, how they come to be so absolutely right; but right even in point of verses and words they assuredly are. Add fuller formal completion of rhyme and rhythm to that song of Infant Joy, and you have broken up the soft bird-like perfection of clear light sound which gives it beauty; the little bodily melody of soulless and painless laughter.
Against all articulate authority we do however class several of the Songs of Experience higher for the great qualities of verse than anything in the earlier division of these poems. If the Songs of Innocence have the shape and smell of leaves or buds, these have in them the light and sound of fire or the sea. Entering among them, a fresher savour and a larger breath strikes one upon the lips and forehead. In the first part we are shown who they are who have or who deserve the gift of spiritual sight: in the second, what things there are for them to see when that gift has been given. Innocence, the quality of beasts and children, has the keenest eyes; and such eyes alone can discern and interpret the actual mysteries of experience. It is natural that this second part, dealing as it does with such things as underlie the outer forms of the first part, should rise higher and dive deeper in point of mere words. These give the distilled perfume and extracted blood of the veins in the rose-leaf, the sharp, liquid, intense spirit crushed out of the broken kernel in the fruit. The last of the Songs of Innocence is a prelude to these poems; in it the poet summons to judgment the young and single-spirited, that by right of the natural impulse of delight in them they may give sentence against the preachers of convention and assumption; and in the first poem of the second series he, by the same "voice of the bard," calls upon earth herself, the mother of all these, to arise and become free: since upon her limbs also are bound the fetters, and upon her forehead also has fallen the shadow, of a jealous law: from which nevertheless, by faithful following of instinct and divine liberal impulse, earth and man shall obtain deliverance.
"Hear the voice of the bard!
Who present, past, and future sees:
Whose ears have heard
The ancient Word
That walked among the silent trees:
Calling the lapsed soul
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole
And fallen fallen light renew!"
If they will hear the Word, earth and the dwellers upon earth shall be made again as little children; shall regain the strong simplicity of eye and hand proper to the pure and single of heart; and for them inspiration shall do the work of innocence; let them but once abjure the doctrine by which comes sin and the law by which comes prohibition. Therefore must the appeal be made; that the blind may see and the deaf hear, and the unity of body and spirit be made manifest in perfect freedom: and that to the innocent even the liberty of "sin" may be conceded. For if the soul suffer by the body's doing, are not both degraded? and if the body be oppressed for the soul's sake, are not both the losers?
"O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass!
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.
Turn away no more ;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry shore,
The watery floor,
Are given thee till the break of day."
For so long, during the night of law and oppression of material form, the divine evidences hidden under sky and sea are left her; even "till the break of day." "Will she not get quit of this spiritual bondage to the heavy body of things, to the encumbrance of deaf clay and blind vegetation, before the light comes that shall redeem and reveal? But the earth, being yet in subjection to the creator of men, the jealous God who divided nature against herself—father of woman and man, legislator of sex and race—makes blind and bitter answer as in sleep, "her locks covered with grey despair."
"Prisoned on this watery shore,
Starry Jealousy does keep my den;
Cold and hoar,
I hear the father of the ancient men."
Thus, in the poet's mind, Nature and Religion are the two fetters of life, one on the right wrist, the other on the left; an obscure material force on this hand, and on that a mournful imperious law: the law of divine jealousy, the government of a God who weeps over his creature and subject with unprofitable tears, and rules by forbidding and dividing: the "Urizen" of the prophetic books, clothed with the coldness and the grief of remote sky and jealous cloud. Here as always, the cry is as much for light as for license, the appeal not more against prohibition than against obscurity.
"Can the sower sow by night,
Or the ploughman in darkness plough?"
In the Songs of Innocence there is no such glory of metre or sonorous beauty of lyrical work as here. No possible effect of verse can be finer in a great brief way than that given in the second and last stanzas of the first part of this poem. It recals within one's ear the long relapse of recoiling water and wash of the refluent wave; in the third and fourth lines sinking suppressed as with equal pulses and soft sobbing noise of ebb, to climb again in the fifth line with a rapid clamour of ripples and strong ensuing strain of weightier sound, lifted with the lift of the running and ringing sea.
Here also is that most famous of Blake's lyrics, The Tiger; a poem beyond praise for its fervent beauty and vigour of music. It appears by the MS. that this was written with some pains; the cancels and various readings bear marks of frequent rehandling. One of the latter is worth transcription for its own excellence and also in proof of the artist's real care for details, which his rapid instinctive way of work has induced some to disbelieve in.
"Burnt in distant deeps or skies
The cruel fire of thine eyes?
Could heart descend or wings aspire?
"What the hand dare seize the fire?"
Nor has Blake left us anything of more profound and perfect value than The Human Abstract; a little mythical vision of the growth of error; through soft sophistries of pity and faith, subtle humility of abstinence and fear, under which the pure simple nature lies corrupted and strangled; through selfish loves which prepare a way for cruelty, and cruelty that works by spiritual abasement and awe.
Under the shadow of this tree of mystery, rooted in artificial belief, all the meaner kind of devouring things take shelter and eat of the fruit of its branches; the sweet poison of false faith, painted on its outer husk with the likeness of all things noble and desirable; and in the deepest implication of barren branch and deadly leaf, the bird of death, with priests for worshippers ("the priests of the raven of dawn," loud of lip and hoarse of throat until the light of day have risen), finds house and resting-place. Only in the "miscreative brain" of fallen men can such a thing strike its tortuous root and bring forth its fatal flower; nowhere else in all nature can the tyrants of divided matter and moral law, "Gods of the earth and sea," find soil that will bear such fruit.
Nowhere has Blake set forth his spiritual creed more clearly and earnestly than in the last of the Songs of Experience. "Tirzah," in his mythology, represents the mere separate and human nature, mother of the perishing body and daughter of the "religion" which occupies itself with laying down laws for the flesh; which, while pretending (and that in all good faith) to despise the body and bring it into subjection as with control of bit and bridle, does implicitly overrate its power upon the soul for evil or good, and thus falls foul of fact on all sides by assuming that spirit and flesh are twain, and that things pleasant and good for the one can properly be loathsome or poisonous to the other. This "religion" or "moral law," the inexplicable prophet has chosen to baptize under the singular type of "Rahab"—the "harlot virgin-mother," impure by dint of chastity and forbearance from such things as are pure to the pure of heart: for in this creed the one thing unclean is the belief in uncleanness, the one thing forbidden is to believe in the existence of forbidden things. Of this mystical mother and her daughter we shall have to take some further account when once fairly afloat on those windy waters of prophecy through which all who would know Blake to any purpose must be content to steer with such pilotage as they can get. For the present it will be enough to note how eager and how direct is the appeal here made against any rule or reasoning based on reference to the mere sexual and external nature of man—the nature made for ephemeral life and speedy death, kept alive "to work and weep" only through that mercy which "changed death into sleep"; how intense the reliance on redemption from such a law by the grace of imaginative insight and spiritual freedom, typified in "the death of Jesus." Nor are any of these poems finer in structure or nobler in metrical form.
This present edition of the Songs of Experience is richer by one of Blake's most admirable poems of childhood—a division of his work always of especial value for its fresh and sweet strength of feeling and of words. In this newly recovered Cradle Song are perhaps the two loveliest lines of his writing:
"Sleep, sleep: in thy sleep
Little sorrows sit and weep."
Before parting from this chief lyrical work of the poet's, we may notice (rather for its convenience as an explanation than its merit as a piece of verse) this projected Motto to the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which editors have left hitherto in manuscript:
"The good are attracted by men's perceptions,
And think not for themselves
Till Experience teaches them how to catch
And to cage the Fairies and Elves.
And then the Knave begins to snarl,
And the Hypocrite to howl;
And all his good friends show their private ends,
And the Eagle is known from the Owl."
Experience must do the work of innocence as soon as conscience begins to take the place of instinct, reflection of perception; but the moment experience begins upon this work, men raise against her the conventional clamour of envy and stupidity. She teaches how to entrap and retain such fugitive delights as children and animals enjoy without seeking to catch or cage them; but this teaching the world calls sin, and the law of material religion condemns: the face of "Tirzah" is set against it, in the "shame and pride" of sex.
"Thou, mother of my mortal part,
With cruelty didst mould my heart,
And with false self-deceiving fears
Didst bind my nostrils, eyes, and ears."
And thus those who live in subjection to the senses would in their turn bring the senses into subjection; unable to see beyond the body, they find it worth while to refuse the body its right to freedom.
In these hurried notes on the Songs an effort has been made to get that done which is most absolutely necessary—not that which might have been most facile or most delightful. Analytic remark has been bestowed on those poems only which really cannot dispense with it in the eyes of most men. Many others need no herald or interpreter, demand no usher or outrider: some of these are among Blake's best, some again almost among his worst. Poems in which a doctrine or subject once before nobly stated and illustrated is re-asserted in a shallower way and exemplified in a feebler form, require at our hands no written or spoken signs of either assent or dissent. Such poems, as the editor has well indicated, have places here among their betters: none of them, it may be added, without some shell of outward beauty or seed of inward value. The simpler poems claim only praise; and of this they cannot fail from any reader whose good word is in the least worth having. Those of a subtler kind (often, as must now be clear enough, the best worth study) claim more than this if they are to have fair play. It is pleasant enough to commend and to enjoy the palpable excellence of Blake's work; but another thing is simply and thoroughly requisite—to understand what the workman was after. First get well hold of the mystic, and you will then at once get a better view and comprehension of the painter and poet. And if through fear of tedium or offence a student refuses to be at such pains, he will find himself, while following Blake's trace as poet or painter, brought up sharply within a very short tether. "It is easy," says Blake himself in the Jerusalem, "to acknowledge a man to be great and good while we derogate from him in the trifles and small articles of that goodness; those alone are his friends who admire his minute powers."
Looking into the larger MS. volume of notes we seem to gain at once a clearer insight into the writer's daily habit of life and tone of thought, and a power of judging more justly the sort of work left us by way of result. Here, as by fits and flashes, one is enabled to look in upon that strange small household, so silent and simple on the outside, so content to live in the poorest domestic way, without any show of eccentric indulgence or erratic aspiration; husband and wife to all appearance the commonest citizens alive, satisfied with each other and with their minute obscure world and straitened limits of living. No typical churchwarden or clerk of the parish could rub on in a more taciturn modest manner, or seem able to make himself happy with smaller things. It may be as well for us to hear his own account of the matter:
"I rose up at the dawn of day;
Said I, 'This sure is very odd;
'I have mental joys and mental health,
'Then, if for riches I must not pray,
'I am in God's presence night and day,
'For my worldly things God makes him pay,
'He says, if I do not worship him for a God,
One cannot doubt that to a man of this temper his life was endurable enough. Faith in God and goodwill towards men came naturally to him, being a mystic; on the one side he had all he wanted, and on the other he wanted nothing. The praise and discipleship of men might no doubt have added a kind of pleasure to his way of life, but they could neither give nor take away what he most desired to have; and this he never failed of having. His wife, of whose "goodness" to him he has himself borne ample witness, was company enough for all days. And indeed, by all the evidence left us, it appears that this goodness of hers was beyond example. Another woman of the better sort might have had equal patience with his habit of speech and life, equal faith in his great capacity and character; but hardly in another woman could such a man have found an equal strength and sweetness of trust, an equal ardour of belief and tenderness, an equal submission of soul and body for love's sake;—submission so perfect and so beautiful in the manner of it, that the idea of sacrifice or a separate will seems almost impossible. A man living with such a wife might well believe in some immediate divine presence and in visible faces like the face of an angel. We have not now of course much chance of knowing at all what manner of angel she was; but the few things we do know of her, no form of words can fitly express. To praise such people is merely to waste words in saying that divine things are praiseworthy. No doubt, if we knew how to praise them, they would deserve that we should try.
The notes bearing in any way upon this daily life of Blake's are few and exceptional. In the mass of floating verse and prose there is absolutely no hint of order whatever, save that, at one end of the MS., some short poems are transcribed in a slightly more coherent form. Among these and the other lyrics, strewn as from a liberal but too lax hand about the chaotic leaves of his note-book, are many of Blake's best things. Some of the slight and scrawled designs, as noted in the Catalogue (pp. 242, 243), have also a merit and a power of their own; but it is with the poet's lyrical work that we have to do at this point of our present notes; and here we may most fitly wind up what remains to be said on that matter.
The inexhaustible equable gift of Blake for the writing of short sweet songs is perceptible at every turn we take in his labyrinth of lovely words, of strong and soft designs. Considering how wide is the range of date from the earliest of these songs to the latest, they seem more excellently remote than ever from the day's verse and the day's habit. They reach in point of time from the season of Mason to the season of Moore; and never in any interval of work by any chance influence do these poems at their weakest lapse into likeness or tolerance of the accepted models. From the era of plaster to the era of pinchbeck, Blake kept straight ahead of the times. To the pseudo-Hellenic casts of the one school or the pseudo-Hibernian tunes of the other he was admirably deaf and blind. While a grazing public straightened its bovine neck and steadied its flickering eyelids to look up betweenwhiles, with the day's damp fodder drooping half-chewed from its relaxed jaw, at some dim sick planet of the Mason system, there was a poet, alive if obscure, who had eyes to behold
"the chambers of the East,
The chambers of the sun, that now
From ancient melody have ceased;"
who had ears to hear and lips to reveal the music and the splendour and the secret of the high places of verse. Again, in a changed century, when the reading and warbling world was fain to drop its daily tear and stretch its daily throat at the bidding of some Irish melodist—when the "female will" of "Albion" thought fit to inhale with wide and thankful nostril the rancid flavour of rotten dance-roses and mouldy musk, to feed "in a feminine delusion" upon the sodden offal of perfumed dog's-meat, and take it for the very eucharist of Apollo—then too, while this worship of ape or beetle went so noisily on, the same poet could let fall from lavish hand or melodious mouth such grains of solid gold and flakes of perfect honey as this:
"Silent, silent night,
Quench the holy light
Of thy torches bright;
For possessed of day,
Thousand spirits stray,
That sweet joys betray.
Why should love be sweet,
Usèd with deceit,
Nor with sorrows meet?"
Verse more nearly faultless and of a more difficult perfection was never accomplished. The sweet facility of being right, proper to great lyrical poets, was always an especial quality of Blake's. To go the right way and do the right thing, was in the nature of his metrical gift—a faculty mixed into the very flesh and blood of his verse.
There is in all these straying songs the freshness of clear wind and purity of blowing rain: here a perfume as of dew or grass against the sun, there a keener smell of sprinkled shingle and brine-bleached sand; some growth or breath everywhere of blade or herb leaping into life under the green wet light of spring; some colour of shapely cloud or mound of moulded wave. The verse pauses and musters and falls always as a wave does, with the same patience of gathering form, and rounded glory of springing curve, and sharp sweet flash of dishevelled and flickering foam as it curls over, showing the sun through its soft heaving side in veins of gold that inscribe and jewels of green that inlay the quivering and sundering skirt or veil of thinner water, throwing upon the tremulous space of narrowing sea in front, like a reflection of lifted and vibrating hair, the windy shadow of its shaken spray. The actual page seems to take life, to assume sound and colour, under the hands that turn it and the lips that read; we feel the falling of dew and have sight of the rising of stars. For the very sound of Blake's verse is no less remote from the sound of common things and days on earth than is the sense or the sentiment of it.
"O what land is the land of dreams?
We may say of Blake that he never got back from that other side—only came and stood sometimes, as Chapman said of Marlowe in his great plain fashion of verse, "up to the chin in that Pierian flood," and so sang halfway across the water.
Nothing in the Songs of Innocence is more beautiful as a study of childish music than the little poem from which we have quoted; written in a metre which many expert persons have made hideous, and few could at any time manage as Blake did—a scheme in which the soft and loose iambics lapse into sudden irregular sound of full anapæsts, not without increase of grace and impulsive tenderness in the verse. Given a certain attainable average of intellect and culture, these points of workmanship, by dint of the infinite gifts or the infinite wants they imply, become the swiftest and surest means of testing a verse-writer's perfection of power, and what quality there may be in him to warrant his loftiest claim. By these you see whether a man can sing, as by his drawing and colouring whether he can paint. Another specimen of indefinable sweetness and significance we may take in this symbolic little piece of song;
"I walked abroad on a sunny day;
I wooed the soft snow with me to play.
She played and she melted in all her prime;
And the winter called it a dreadful crime."
Against the "winter" of ascetic law and moral prescription Blake never slackens in his fiery animosity; never did a bright hot wind of March make such war upon the cruel inertness of February. In his obscure way he was always hurrying into the van of some forlorn hope of ethics. Even Shelley, who as we said was no less ready to serve in the same camp all his life long, never shot keener or hotter shafts of lyrical speech into the enemy's impregnable ground. Both poets seem to have tried about alike, and with equally questionable results, at a regular blockade of the steep central fortress of "Urizen;" both after a little personal practice fell back, not quite unscarred, upon light skirmishing and the irregular work of chance guerilla campaigns. Moral custom, "that twice-battered god of Palestine" round which all Philistia rallies (specially strong in her British brigade), seemed to suffer little from all their slings and arrows. Being mere artists, they were perhaps at root too innocent to do as much harm as they desired, or to desire as much harm as they might have done. Blake indeed never proposed to push matters quite to such a verge as the other was content to stand on during his Laon and Cythna period; from that inconceivable edge of theory or sensation he would probably have drawn back with some haste. But such sudden cries of melodious revolt as this were not rare on his part.
"Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs and flaming hair,
But desire gratified
Plants fruits of life and beauty there."
Assuredly he never made a more supremely noble and enjoyable effect of verse than that; the cadence of the first two lines is something hardly to be matched anywhere: the verse (to resume our old simile for a moment) turns over and falls in with the sudden weight and luminous motion of a strong long roller coming in with the wind. So again, lying sad and sick under his marriage myrtle, even in a full rain of fragrant and brilliant blossoms that fall round him to waste, he must needs ask and answer the fatal final question.
"Why should I be bound to thee,
O my lovely myrtle-tree?
Love, free love, cannot be bound
To any tree that grows on ground."
Mixed with this fervour of desire for more perfect freedom, there appears at times an excess of pity (like Chaucer's in his early poems) for the women and men living under the law, trammelled in soul or body. For example, the poem called Infant Sorrow, in the Songs of Experience, ran at first to a greater length and through stranger places than it now overflows into; and is worth giving here in its original form as extracted by cautious picking and sifting from a heap of tumbled readings.
"My mother groaned, my father wept;
Into the dangerous world I leapt,
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
Struggling in my father's hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands,
Bound and weary, I thought best
To sulk upon my mother's breast.
When I saw that rage was vain
And to sulk would nothing gain,
Twining many a trick and wile
I began to soothe and smile.
And I saw before me shine
Clusters of the wandering vine;
And many a lovely flower and tree
Stretched their blossoms out to me.
But many a priest with holy look,
In their hands a holy book,
Pronouncèd curses on his head
Who the fruit or blossoms shed.
I beheld the priests by night;
They embraced the blossoms bright;
I beheld the priests by day;
Underneath the vines they lay.
Like to serpents in the night,
They embraced my blossoms bright;
Like to holy men by day,
Underneath my vines they lay.
So I smote them, and their gore
Stained the roots my myrtle bore;
But the time of youth is fled,
And grey hairs are on my head."
Now not even the spilt blood of those who forbid and betray shall quicken the dried root or flush the faded leaf of love; the myrtle being past all comfort of soft rain or helpful sun. So in the Rose-Tree (vol. ii. p. 60), when for the sake of a barren material fidelity to his "rose" of marriage, he has passed over the offered flower "such as May never bore," the rose herself "turns away with jealousy," and gives him thorns for thanks: nothing left of it for hand or lip but collapsed blossom and implacable edges of brier. Blake might have kept in mind the end of his actual wild vine (vol. i. p. 100 of the Life), which ran all to leaf and never brought a grape worth eating, for fault of priming-hooks and vine-dressers.
In all this there is a certain unmistakeable innocence which accounts for the practical modesty and peaceable forbearance of the man's way of living. The material shape of his speculations never goes beyond a sort of boyish defiant complaint, a half-humorous revolt of the will. Inconstancy with him is not rooted in satiety, but in the freshness of pure pleasure; he would never cast off the old to put on the new. The chain once broken, against which between sleeping and waking he chafes and wrestles, he would lie for most hours of the day with content enough in the old shade of wedded rose or myrtle tree. Nor in leaping or reaching after the new flower would he wilfully bruise or break the least bud of the old. His desire is towards the freedom of the dawn of things—not towards the "dark secret hour" that walks under coverings of cloud.
"Are not the joys of morning sweeter
Than the joys of night?"
The sinless likeness of his seeming "sins"—mere fancies as it appears they mostly were, mere soft light aspirations of theory without body or flesh on them—has something of the innocent immodesty of a birds' or babies' paradise—of a fools' paradise, too, translated into the practice and language of the untheoretic world. Shelley's 'Epipsychidion" scarcely preaches a more bodiless evangel of bodily liberty. That famous and exquisitely written passage beginning, "True love in this differs from gold and clay," delivers in more daringly definite words the exact message of Blake's belief.
Nowhere has the note of pity been more strongly and sweetly struck than in those lovely opening verses of the "Garden of Love," which must here be read once again:—
"I laid me down upon a bank
Where Love lay sleeping:
I heard among the rushes dank
Then I went to the heath and the wild,
To the thistles and thorns of the waste;
And they told me how they were beguiled,
Driven out, and compelled to be chaste."
The sharp and subtle change of metre here and at the end of the poem has an audacity of beauty and a justice of impulse proper only to the leaders of lyrical verse: unfit alike for definition and for imitation, if any copyist were to try his hand at it. The next song we transcribe from the "Ideas" is lighter in tone than usual, and admirable for humorous imagination; a light of laughter shines and sounds through the words.
THE WILL AND THE WAY.
"I asked a thief to steal me a peach;
He turned up his eyes;
I asked a lithe lady to lie her down
Holy and meek, she cries.
As soon as I went
An angel came;
He winked at the thief
And smiled at the dame;
And without one word spoke
Had a peach from the tree;
And 'twixt earnest and joke
Enjoyed the lady."
Less complete in a small way, but worth taking some care of, is this carol of a fairy, emblem of a man's light hard tyranny of will, calling upon the birds in the harness of Venus and the shafts in the hand of her son for help in setting up the kingdom of established and legal love: but caught himself in the very setting of his net.
THE MARRIAGE RING.
"'Come hither, my sparrows,
My little arrows.
If a tear or a smile
Will a man beguile,
If an amorous delay
Clouds a sunshiny day,
If the step of a foot
Smites the heart to its root,
'Tis the marriage ring
Makes each fairy a king.'
So a fairy sang.
From the leaves I sprang;
He leaped from his spray
To flee away:
But in my hat caught,
He soon shall be taught,
Let him laugh, let him cry,
He's my butterfly:
For I've pulled out the sting
Of the marriage ring."
It is not so easy to turn wasps to butterflies in the world of average things; but, as far as verses go, there are few of more supple sweetness than some of these. They recall the light lapse of measure found in the beautiful older germs of nursery rhyme; and the seeming retributive triumph of married lovers over unmarried, of wedlock over courtship, could not well be more gracefully translated than in the "Fairy's" call to his winged and feathered "arrows"—the lover's swift birds of prey, not without beak and claw. "If they do for a minute or so darken our days, dupe our fancies, prevail upon our nerves and blood, once well married we are kings of them at least." Pull out that sting of jealous reflective egotism, and your tamed "fairy"—the love that is in a man once set right—has no point or poison left it, but only rapid grace of wing and natural charm of colour.
Throughout the "Ideas" one or two other favourite points of faith and feeling are incessantly thrown out in new fugitive forms; such as the last (rejected) stanza of "Cupid," which, though the song may well dispense with it and even gain by such a loss in the qualities of shape or sound, must be saved if only as a specimen of the persistent way in which Blake assumed the Greek and Roman habits of mind or art to be typical of "war" and restraint; an iron frame of mind good to fight in and not good for love to grow under.
"'Twas the Greek love of war
That turned Love into a boy
And woman into a statue of stone;
And away fled every joy."
More frequent and more delightful is the recurrence of such loving views of love as that taken in the last lines of "William Bond;" a poem full of strange and soft hints, of mist that allures and music that lulls; typical in the main of the embodied struggle between selfish and sacrificial passion, between the immediate impulse that brings at least the direct profit of delight, and the law of religious or rational submission that reaps mere loss and late regret after a life of blind prudence and sorrowful forbearance—the "black cloud" of sickness, malady of spirit and body inflicted by the church-keeping "angels of Providence" who have driven away the loving train of spirits that live by innate impulse: not the bulk of Caliban but the soul of Angelo being the deadliest direct enemy of Ariel. "Providence" divine or human, prepense moral or spiritual "foresight," was a thing in the excellence of which our prophet of divine instinct and inspired flesh could not consistently believe. His evangel could dispense with that, in favour of such faith in good things as came naturally to him.
"I thought Love lived in the hot sunshine,
But oh, he lives in the moony light;
I thought to find Love in the heat of day,
But sweet Love is the comforter of night.
"Seek Love in the pity of others' woe,
In the gentle relief of another's care;
In the darkness of night and the winter's snow,
In the naked and outcast, seek Love there."
The infinite and most tender beauty of such words is but one among many evidences how thoroughly and delicately the lawless fervour and passionate liberty of desire were tempered in Blake by an exquisite goodness, of sense rather than of thought, which as it were made the pain or pleasure, the well-being or the suffering, of another press naturally and sharply on his own nerves of feeling. Deeply as his thought and fancy had struck into strange paths and veins of spiritual life, he had never found or felt out any way to the debateable land where simple and tender pleasures become complex and cruel, and the roses gathered are redder at root than in leaf.
Another poem, slight of texture and dim of feature, but full of a cloudy beauty, is The Angel: a new allegory of love, blindly rejected or blindly accepted as a thing of course; foiled and made profitless in either case then lost, with all the sorrow it brings and all the comfort it gives: and the ways are barred against it by armed mistrust and jealousy, and its place knows it no more: but this immunity from the joys and sorrows of love is bought at the bitter price of untimely age. (I offer these somewhat verbose and wiredrawn attempts at commentary, only where the poem seems at once to require analysis and to admit such as I give; how difficult it is to make such notes clear and full, yet not to stumble into confusion or slide into prolixity, those can estimate who will try their hand at such work.)
Frequent slips and hitches of grammar, it may be added, are common to Blake's rough studies and finished writings, and are therefore not always things to be weeded out. Little learning and much reading of old books made him more really inaccurate than were their writers, whose apparent liberties he might perhaps have pleaded in defence of his own hardly defensible licences.
None of these poems are worthier, for the delight they give, of the selected praise and most thankful study than The Two Songs and The Golden Net: a pair of perfect things, their feet taken in the deep places of thought, and their heads made lovely with the open light of lyric speech. Between the former of these and The Human Abstract there is a certain difference: here, the moral point of the poem is, that innocence is wholly ignorant, and sees no deeper than the shell of form; experience is mainly malignant, and sees the root of evil and seed of pain under the leaf of good and blossom of pleasant things: there, the vision is the poet's own, and deals with that evil neither actually nor seemingly inherent in the system or scheme of created nature, but watered into life by the error and fed into luxuriance by the act of "the human brain" alone; two widely unlike themes for verse. As to execution, here doubtless there is more of that swift fresh quality peculiar to Blake's simpler style; but the Abstract again has more weight of verse and magnificence of symbol.
Akin to The Golden Net is the form and manner of Broken Love; which, whatever taste may lie in the actual kernel of it, is visibly one of the poet's noblest studies of language. The grandeur of the growing metre and heat of passionate pulses felt through the throbbing body of its verse can escape no ear. In our notes on Jerusalem we shall have, like the "devil" of The Two Songs, to look at it from the inverse side and pass upon it a more laborious and less thankworthy comment.
Of the longest and gravest poem in the "Ideas of Good and Evil" we are bound to take some careful account. This is The Everlasting Gospel, a semi-dramatic exposition of faith on the writer's part; full of subtleties and paradoxes which might well straighten the stiffest hairs of orthodoxy and bewilder the sharpest brain of speculation. Blake has here stated once for all the why and the how of his Christian faith; for Christian he averred that it was, and we may let his word pass for it. Readers must be recommended for the present to look at these things as much as possible from what we will call their artistic or poetic side, and bring no pulpit logic to get chopped or minced on the altar of this prophet's vision. His worst heresy, they may be assured, "will not bite." In effect one may hope (or fear, as the case may be) that there is much less of heresy underlying these daring forms of speech than seems to overlay their outer skirt: schism or division of body rather than of spirit from less wilful and outspoken forms of faith.
Let the student of this "Gospel" of inverted belief and intensified paradox lay hold of and cling fast to the clue given by the "Vision of the Last Judgment." There for one thing the prophet has laid down this rule: "Moral virtues do not exist; they are allegories and dissimulations." For "moral allegory" we are therefore not to look here; we are in the house of pure vision, outside of which allegory halts blindly across the shifting sand of moral qualities, her right hand leaning on the staff of virtue, her left hand propped on the crutch of vice. Conscious unimpulsive "virtue," measured by the praise or judged by the laws of men, was to Blake always Pharisaic: a legal God none other than a magnified and divine Pharisee. Thus far have other (even European) mystics often enough pushed their inference; but this time the mystic was a poet; and therefore always, where it was possible, prone to prefer tangible form and given to beat out into human shape even the most indefinite features of his vision. Assuming Christ as the direct and absolute divine type (divine in the essential not in the clerical sense—divine to the spiritual not the technical reason) he was therefore obliged to set to work and strip that type of the incongruous garment of "moral virtues" cast over it by the law of religious form: to prove, as he elsewhere said, that Christ "was all virtue," not by the possession of these "allegoric" qualities called human virtues or abstinence from those others called human sins or vices: such abstinence or such possession cannot conceivably suffice for the final type of goodness or absolute incarnation of a thing unalterably divine. Virtues are no more predicable of the perfect virtue than vices of the perfect vice. As the supreme sin cannot be said to commit human faults, so neither can the supreme holiness obey the principles of human sanctity. "Deistical virtue" is as the embroidery on the ephod of Caiaphas or the stain left upon the water by the purified hands of Pilate. It is the property of "the heathen schools"; a bitted and bridled virtue, led by the nose and tied by the neck; made of men's hands and subject to men's laws. Can you make a God worth worship out of that? To say that God is wise, chaste, humble, philanthropic, gentle, or just; in one word, that he is "good" after the human sense; is to lower your image of God not less than if you had predicated of him the exactly reverse qualities, by reason of which these exist, even as they by reason of these. How much of all this Blake had fished up out of his studies of Behmen, Swedenborg, or such others, his present critic has not the means of deciding; but is assured of one thing; that where others dealt by inductive rule and law, Blake dealt by assumptive preaching and intuition; that he found form of his own for the body of thought, and body of his own for the spirit of speculation, supplied by others; playing Prometheus to their Epimetheus, doing poet's or evangelist's work where they did philosophic business; not fumbling in the box of Pandora for things flown or fugitive, but bringing from extreme heaven the immediate fire in the hollow of his reed or pen.
Such is the radical "idea" of the poem; and as to details, we are to remember that "modesty" with Blake means a timid and tacit prurience, and "humility" a mistrustful and mendacious cowardice: he puts these terms to such uses in his swift fierce way, just as, in his detestation of deism and its "impersonal God," he must needs embody his vision of a deity or more perfect humanity in the personal Christian type: a purely poetical tendency, which if justly apprehended will serve to account for the wildest bodily forms in which he drew forth his visions from the mould of prophecy.
Thus much by way of prologue may suffice for the moral side of this "Gospel"; the mythological or technically religious side is not much easier to deal with, and indeed cannot well be made out except by such misty light as may be won from the prophetic books. It seems evident that Blake, at least for purposes of evangelism, was content to regard the "Creator" of the mere bodily man as one with the "legal" or "Pharisaic" God of the churches: even as the "mother of his mortal part"—of the flesh taken for the moment simply, and separated (for reasoning purposes) from the inseparable spirit—is "Tirzah." This vision of a creator divided against his own creation and having to be subdued by his own creatures will appear more directly and demand more distinct remark when we come to deal with its symbolic form in the great myth of "Urizen;" where also it will be possible to follow it out with less likelihood of offensive misconstruction. One is compelled here to desire from those who care to follow Blake at all, the keenest ardour of attention possible; they will blunder helplessly if they once fail to connect this present minute of his work with the past and the future of it: if they once let slip the thinnest thread of analogy, the whole prophetic or evangelic web collapses for them into a chaos of gossamer, a tangle of unclean and flaccid fibres, the ravelled woof of an insane and impotent Arachne, who should be retransmuted with all haste into a palpable spider by the spell of reason. Here, as in all swift "inspired" writing, there are on the outside infinite and indefinable anomalies, contradictions, incompatibilities enough of all sorts; open for any Paine or Paley to impugn or to defend. But let no one dream that there is here either madness or mendacity: the heart or sense thus hidden away is sound enough for a mystic.
The greatest passage of this poem is also the simplest; that division which deals with the virtue of "chastity," and uses for its text the story of "the woman taken in adultery:" who is identified with Mary Magdalene. We give it here in full; hoping it may now be comprehensible to all who care to understand, and may bear fruit of its noble and almost faultless verse for all but those who prefer to take the sterility of their fig-tree on trust rather than be at the pains of lifting a single leaf.
|"Was Jesus chaste? or did he|
Give any lessons of chastity?
In no second poem shall we find such a sustained passage as that; such light of thought and thunder of verse; such sudden splendour of fire seen across a strange land and among waste places beyond the receded landmarks of the day or above the glimmering lintels of the night. The passionate glory of its rapid and profound music fills the sense with too deep and sharp a delight to leave breathing-space for any thought of analytic or apologetic work. But the spirit of the verse is not less great than the body of it is beautiful. "Divide from the divine glory the softness and warmth of human colour—subtract from the divine the human presence—subdue all refraction to the white absolute light—and that light is no longer as the sun's is, warm with sweet heat of life and liberal of good gifts; but foul with overmuch purity, sick with disease of excellence, unclean through exceeding cleanness, like the skin of a leper 'as white as snow.'" For the divine nature is not greater than the human; (they are one from eternity, sundered by the separative creation or fall, severed into type and antitype by bodily generation, but to be made one again when life and death shall both have died;) not greater than the human nature, but greater than the qualities which the human nature assumes upon earth. God is man, and man God; as neither of himself the greater, so neither of himself the less: but as God is the unfallen part of man, man the fallen part of God, God must needs be (not more than man, but assuredly) more than the qualities of man. Thus the mystic can consistently deny that man's moral goodness or badness can be predicable of God, while at the same time he affirms man's intrinsic divinity and God's intrinsic humanity. Man can only possess abstract qualities—"allegoric virtues"—by reason of that side of his nature which he has not in common with God: God, not partaking of the "generative nature," cannot partake of qualities which exist only by right of that nature. The other "God" or "Angel of the Presence" who created the sexual and separate body of man did but cleave in twain the "divine humanity," which becoming reunited shall redeem man without price and without covenant and without law; he meantime, the Creator, is a divine dæmon, liable to error, subduable by and through this very created nature of his invention, which he for the present imprisons and torments. His law is the law of Moses, which according to the Manichean heresy Christ came to reverse as diabolic. This singular (and presumably "Pantheistic") creed of Blake's has a sort of Asiatic flavour about it, but seems harder and more personal in its mythology than an eastern philosopher's; has also a distinct Western type and Christian touch in it; being wrought as it were of Persian lotus-leaves hardened into the consistency of English oak-timber. The most wonderful part of his belief or theory is this: "That after Christ's death he became Jehovah:" which may mean simply that through Christ the law of liberty came to supplant the bondage of law, so that where Jehovah was Christ is; or may typify the change of evangel into law, of full-grown Christianity into a fresh type of "Judaism," of the Gospel or good news of freedom into the Church or dogmatic body of faith; or may imply that the two forces, after that supreme sacrifice, coalesced and became one, all absolute Deity, being absorbed into the Divine Humanity; or, as a practical public would suggest, may mean or typify nothing. It is certain that Blake appears so far to have accepted the "Catholic tradition" as to regard this death or sacrifice as tending somehow not merely to the redemption of man (which would be no more than the sequel or outcome of his mystic faith in the Salvation of man by man, the deliverance or redemption of the accident through the essence), but also to the union of the divine crucified man with the creative governing power. Somehow; but the prophet must explain for himself the exact means. We are now fairly up to the ears in mysticism, and cannot afford to strike out at random, for fear of being carried right off our feet by the ground-swell and drifted into waters where swimming will be yet tougher work.
The belief in "holy insurrection" must be almost as old as the oldest religions or philosophies afloat or articulate. In the most various creeds this feature of faith stands out sharply with a sort of tangible human appeal. Earlier heretics than the author of Jerusalem have taken this to be the radical significance of Christianity; a divine revolt against divine law; an evidence that man must become as God only by resistance to God—"the God of this world;" that if Prometheus cannot, Zeus will not deliver us: and that man, if saved at all, must indeed be saved "so as by fire"—by ardour of rebellion and strenuous battle against the God of nature: who as of old must yet feed upon his children, and will no longer take stone for flesh though never so well wrapped up; who must have the organ of destruction and division, by which alone he lives and has ability to beget, cut off from him with the sharpest edge of flint that rebellious hands can whet. In these galliambics of Blake's we see the flint of Atys whetted for such work; made ready against the priests of Nature and her God, though by an alien hand that will cast no incense upon the altar of Cybele; no Phrygian's, who would spend his own blood to moisten and brighten the high places of her worship: but one ready, with what fire he can get, to burn down the groves and melt down the cymbals of Dindymus.
Returning now to the residue of the immediate matter in hand, we may duly notice in this excursive and all but shapeless poem many of Blake's strong points put forth with all his strength: curiously crossed and intermixed with rough skirmishing attacks on the opposite faction, clerical or sceptical, by way of interlude. "You would have Christ act according to what you call a rational or a philanthropic habit of mind—set the actual God to reason, to elevate, to convince or convert after the fashion in which you would set about it? redeem, not the spiritual man by inspiration of his spirit, but the bodily man by application of his arguments? make him as 'Bacon and Newton'" (Blake's usual types of the mere understanding)?
"For thus the Gospel St. Isaac confutes:
'God can only be known by his attributes;
And as to the indwelling of the Holy Ghost
Or of Christ and the Father, it's all a boast
And pride and vanity of imagination
That did wrong to follow this world's fashion.'
To teach doubt and experiment
Certainly was not what Christ meant."
Certainly also no doggrel can be rougher, looser, heavier-weighted about the wrists and ankles, than this; which indeed it was perhaps hardly fair to transcribe; for take out the one great excerpt already given, and the whole poem is a mass of huddled notes jotted down in a series of hints, on stray sides and corners of leaves, crammed into holes and byways out of sight or reach. So perfect a poet is not to be judged by the scrawls and sketches of his note-book; but as we cannot have his revision of the present piece of work, and are not here to make any revision of our own, we must either let drop the chance of insight thus afforded, or make shift with the rough and ragged remnants allowed us by the sparing fingers of a close-handed fate. And this chance of insight is not to be lightly let go, if we mean to look at all into Blake's creed and mind. "Experiment" to the mystic seems not insufficient merely, but irrational. "Reason says miracle; Newton says doubt;" as Blake in another place expounds to such disciples as he may get. On this point also his "Vision of Christ" is other than the Christian public's.
"Thine is the friend of all mankind;
Mine speaks in parables to the blind."
His Christ cared no more to convince "the blind" by plain speech than to save "the world"—the form or flesh of the world, not that imperishable body or complement of the soul which if a man "keep under and bring into subjection" he transgresses against himself; but the mere "sexual" shell which only exists (as we said) by error and by division and by right of temporal appearance.
Keeping in mind the utter roughness and formal incompletion of these notes—which in effect are the mere broken shell or bruised husk of a poem yet unfledged and unembodied—we may put to some present use the ensuing crude and loose fragments.
"What was he doing all that time
From twelve years old to manly prime?
Was he then idle, or the less
About his Father's business?
If he had been Antichrist aping Jesus,
He'd have done anything to please us;
Gone sneaking into synagogues
And not used the elders and priests like dogs;
But humble as a lamb or ass
Obeyed himself to Caiaphas.
God wants not man to humble himself.
That is the trick of the ancient Elf.
This is the race that Jesus ran:
Humble to God, haughty to man;
Cursing the rulers before the people
Even to the temple's highest steeple;
And when he humbled himself to God,
Then descended the cruel rod."
(This noticeable heresy is elsewhere insisted on. Its root seems to be in that doctrine that nothing is divine which is not human—has not in it the essence of completed manhood, clear of accident or attribute; servility therefore to a divine ruler is one with servility to a human ruler. More orthodox men have registered as fervent a protest against the degradation involved in base forms of worship; but this singular mythological form seems peculiar to Blake, who was bent on finding in the sacred text warrant or illustration for all his creed.)
"'If thou humblest thyself thou humblest me:
Thou also dwell'st in eternity.
Thou art a man; God is no more;
Thine own humanity learn to adore,
For that is my spirit of life.
Awake: arise to spiritual strife;
And thy revenge abroad display
In terror at the Last Judgment Day.'"
(Another special point of faith. "Redemption by forgiveness of sins? yes: but the power of redeeming or forgiving must come by strife. A gospel is no mere spiritual essence of boiled milk and rose-water. There are the energies of nature to fight and beat—unforgivable enemies, embodied in Melitus or Annas, Caiaphas or Lycon. Sin is pardonable; but these things, in the body or out of it, are not pardonable. Revenge also is divine; whatever you may think or say while in the body, there is a part of nature not forgivable, an element in the world not redeemable, which in the end must be cast out and tormented." To the priests of Pharisaic morals or Satanic religion—those who crucify the great "human" nature and "scourge sin instead of forgiving it"—to these the Redeemer must be the tormentor.)
"'God's mercy and long-suffering
Are but the sinner to justice to bring.
Thou on the cross for them shalt pray—
And take revenge at the last day.'
Jesus replied, and thunders hurled:
'I never will pray for the world.
Once I did so when I prayed in the garden;
I wished to take with me a bodily pardon.'"
These few lines, interpolated by way of comfortable exposition, are more likely to increase the offence and perplexity: but assuredly no irreverent brutality of paradox was here in the man's mind. Even the "divine humanity" of his quasi-Pantheistic worship must give up (he says) the desire of redeeming the unredeemable "world"—the quality subject to law and technical religion. No "bodily pardon" for that, whatever the divine pity may have hoped, while as yet full-grown in love only, not in knowledge—seraphic fire without cherubic light; before, that is, it had perfect insight into the brute nature or sham body of things. That must be put off—changed as a vesture—by the risen and reunited body and soul. What is it that has to be saved? What is it that can be?
"Can that which was of woman born
In the absence of the morn,
While the soul fell into sleep
And (? heard) archangels round it weep,
Shooting out against the light
Fibres of a deadly night,
Reasoning upon its own dark fiction,
In doubt which is self-contradiction,"
can that reason itself into redemption? The absolute body and essential soul, as we have said, are with all their energies, passive and active powers and pleasures, natural properties and liberties, of an imperishable and vital holiness; but their appended qualities, their form and law, their morals and philosophies, their reason and religion, these are perishable and damnable. The "holy Reasoning power," in whose "holiness is closed the abomination of desolation," must be annihilated. "Rational Truth, root of Evil and Good," must be plucked up and burnt with fire. You cannot, save in an empirical sense, walk by sight and not by faith: you cannot "walk by faith and not by sight," for there is no sight except faith. (Compare generally the Gates of Paradise, for illustrations of all these intricate and intense conceptions.) Doubt then, being one of the perishable qualities which depend on externals, is mere impotence and error: now let us hear further:—
"Humility is only doubt
And does the sun and moon blot out,
Roofing over with thorns and stems
The buried soul and all its gems.
This life's dim window of the soul
Distorts the heavens from pole to pole
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not through, the eye,
That was born in a night, to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in the beams of light."
Part of this reappears with no less vigour of evangelic assertion in the Auguries of Innocence, but stripped of the repellent haze of mythological form. That poem, full as it is of delicate power and clear sweetness of thought, does not however reproduce in full the emblematic beauty of our last extract: nor does it throw so much light of a fitful flame-like sort upon or over the subtlest profundities of Blake's faith.
Elsewhere, reverting with fresh spirit to the same charge, he demands (or his spectre for him—"This was spoken by my spectre to Voltaire, Bacon, &c.):—
"Did Jesus teach doubt? or did he
Give any lessons of philosophy?
Charge visionaries with deceiving?
Or call men wise for not believing?"
Unhappily the respective answers from Verulam and Cirey have not been registered by a too contemptuous prophet; they would have been worth reading.
The dogma of "Christian humility” is totally indigestible to Blake; he batters upon it with the heaviest artillery of his "gospel."
"Was Jesus humble? or did he
Give any proofs of humility?
Boast of high things with humble tone,
And give with charity a stone?"
"When the rich learned Pharisee
Came to consult him secretly,
Upon his heart with iron pen
He wrote 'Ye must be born again.'
He was too proud to take a bribe:
He spoke with authority, not like a Scribe."
Nor can the love of enemies be accepted literally as an endurable doctrine; for "he who loves his enemies hates his friends," in the mind of the too ardent and candid poet, who proceeds to insist that the divine teacher "must mean the mere love of civility" (amour de convenance); "and so he must mean concerning humility": for the willing acceptance of death cannot humiliate, and is therefore no test of "humility" in Blake's sense; self-sacrifice in effect implies an "honest triumphant pride." (Here of course the writer drops for a moment the religious view and divine meaning of the Passion, and looks towards Calvary from the simply human side as it appeared to casual bystanders; for here he has only to deal with what he conceives to be errors in the human conception of Christ's human character. "You the orthodox, and you the reasoners, assert through the mouths of your churches or philosophies that purely human virtues are actually predicable of Christ, and appeal for evidence to his life and death. Well and good; we will, to gain ground for argument with you, forget that the Passion is not, and admit that it is, what you would call a purely human transaction. Are then these virtues predicable of it even as such?) A good man who incurs risk of death by his goodness, is too "proud” to abjure that goodness and live; here is none of that you call "humility." Such a man need not have died; "Caiaphas would forgive" if one "died with Christian ease asking pardon" after your "humble" fashion:—
"He had only to say that God was the devil
And the devil was God, like a Christian civil;
Mild Christian regrets to the devil confess
For affronting him thrice in the wilderness;"
and such an one might have become a very Cæsar's minion, or Caesar himself. Though of course mainly made up of violent quibbling and perversities of passionate humour, which falls to work in this vehement way upon words as some personal relief (a relief easily conceivable in Blake's case by any student of his life), all this has also its value in helping us to measure according to what light we may have in us the stronger and weaker, the worse and better, the graver and lighter sides of the man. It belongs evidently to the period when he painted portraits of the dead and transcribed Jerusalem from spiritual dictation. "This," he lets us know by way of prelude or opening note, "is what Joseph of Arimathæa said to my Fairy," or natural spiritual part by which he conversed with spirits. Next in his defiant doggrel he calls on "Pliny and Trajan"—heathen learning and heathen power or goodness—to "come before Joseph of Arimathæa" and "listen patient." "What, are you here?" he asks as if in the direct surprise of vision. (I will not give these roughest notes in the perfection of their pure doggrel. As verse, serious or humorous, they are irreclaimable and intolerable; what empirical value they may have must be wrung out of them with all haste.)
We may now as well look into a later division of the poem, where Christ is tempted of Satan to obey.
"'John for disobedience bled;
But you can turn the stones to bread.
God's high king and God's high priest
Shall plant their glories in your breast
If Caiaphas you will obey,
If Herod you with bloody prey
Feed with the sacrifice and be
Obedient, fall down, worship me.'
Thunder and lightning broke around
And Jesus' voice in thunder's sound;
'Thus I seize the spiritual prey;
Ye smiters with disease, make way.
I come your King and God to seize;
Is God a smiter with disease?'"
This divine revolt and deliverance of the spiritual human "prey" out of the hands of law and fangs of religion is made matter of accusation against him by the "unredeemable part of the world" of which we spoke—using here as its mouthpiece the "shadowy man" or phantasmal shell of man, which "rolled away" when the times were full "from the limbs of Jesus, to make them his prey":—
"Crying 'Crucify this cause of distress
Who don't keep the secrets of holiness.
All mental powers by diseases we bind:
But he heals the deaf and the dumb and the blind,
Whom God has afflicted for secret ends;
He comforts and heals and calls them friends.'"
But Christ, instead of becoming a prey to it, himself makes his prey of this unclean shadow or ghastly ghost of the bodily life now divided from him—this pestilent nature in bondage to the dæmonic deity, which thought to consume him by dint of death:
"An ever-devouring appetite
Glittering with festering venoms bright;"
puts it off and devours it in three nights; even as now also he feeds upon it to consume it; being made perfect in pride, that he may overcome the body by spiritual and "galling pride:" eat what "never was made for man to eat," the body of dust and clay, the meal's meat of the old serpent: as "the white parts or lights" of a plate are "eaten away with aqua-fortis or other acid, leaving prominent" the spiritual "outline" (Life, v. 1, ch. ix., p. 89). This symbol, taken from Blake's own artistic work of engraving—from the process through which we have with us the Songs and Prophecies—will give with some precision the exact point indicated, and might have been allowed of by himself, as not unacceptable or inapposite.
This final absorption of the destructible body, consumption of "the serpent's meat," is but the upshot of a life of divine rebellion and "spiritual war," not of barren physical qualities and temporal virtues:—
"The God of this world raged in vain;
He bound old Satan in his chain:
Throughout the land he took his course,
And traced diseases to their source:
He cursed the Scribe and Pharisee,
Trampling down hypocrisy."
His wrath was made as it were a chariot of fire; at the wheels of it was dragged the God of this world, overthrown and howling aloud:—
"Where'er his chariot took its way
Those gates of death let in the day;"
every chain and bar broken down from them, and the staples of the doors loosed; his voice was heard from Zion above the clamour of axle and wheel,
"And in his hand the scourge shone bright;
He scourged the merchant Canaanite
From out the temple of his mind,
And in his body tight does bind
Satan and all his hellish crew;
And thus with wrath he did subdue
The serpent bulk of nature's dross
Till he had nailed it to the cross.
He put on sin in the Virgin's womb,
And put it off on the cross and tomb
To be worshipped by the Church of Rome:"
"Was Jesus born of a virgin pure
With narrow soul and looks demure?
If he intended to take on sin,
His mother should an harlot (have) been:
Just such a one as Magdalen,
With seven devils in her pen.
Or were Jew virgins still more cursed,
And more sucking devils nursed?"
(This ingenious solution, worthy of any mediæval heresiarch of the wilder sort in a time of leprosy, is also an afterthought. From the sudden anti-Judaic rapture of grotesque faith or humour into which Blake suddenly dips hereabouts, one might imagine he had been lately bitten or stung by some dealer or other such dangerous craftsman of the Hebrew kind; for that any mortal Jew—or for that matter any conceivable Gentile—would have credited him to the amount of a penny sterling, no one will imagine. Let the reader meanwhile endure him a little further, suppressing if he is wise any comment on Blake's "insanity" or "blasphemous doggrel"; for he should now at least understand that this literal violence of manner, these light or grave audacities of mere form, imply no offensive purpose or significance, except insomuch as offence is inseparable from any strange kind of earnestly heretical belief. Neither is Blake here busied in fetching milk to feed his babes and sucklings. This he could do incomparably well on occasion, with such milk as a nursing-goddess gave to the son of Metaneira; but here he carves meat for men—of a strange quality, tough and crude: but not without savour or sustenance if eaten with the right sauce and prefaced with a proper grace.)
"Or what was it that he took on
That he might bring salvation?
A body subject to be tempted,
From neither pain nor grief exempted,
Or such a body as could not feel
The passions that with sinners deal?
Yes: but they say he never fell.
Ask Caiaphas: for he can tell."
Here follow as given by Caiaphas the old charges of Sabbath-breach, blasphemy and strange doctrine; given again almost word for word, but with a nobler frame of context, in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where, and not here, we will prefer to read them. One charge will be allowed to pass as new coin, having Blake's image and superscription in lieu of Caesar's.
"He turned the devils into swine
That he might tempt the Jews to dine;
Since when, a pig has got a look
That for a Jew may be mistook.
'Obey your parents'? What says he?
'Woman, what have I to do with thee?
No earthly parents I confess:
I am doing my Father's business.'
He scorned earth's parents, scorned earth's God,
And mocked the one and the other's rod;
His seventy disciples sent
Against religion and government,"
and caused his followers to die by the sword of justice as rebels and blasphemers of this world's God and his law: overturned "the tent of secret sins and its God," with all the cords of his weaving, prisons of his building and snares of his setting; overthrew the "bloody shrine of war," the holy place of the God of battles, whose cruel light and fire of wrath was poured forth upon the world till it reached "from star to star"; thus casting down all things of "church and state as by law established," camps and shrines, temples and prisons,
"Halls of justice, hating vice,
Where the devil combs his lice."
Upon all these, to the great grief of Caiaphas and the grievous detriment of the God of this world, he sent "not peace but a sword": lived as a vagrant upon other men's labour, kept company by preference with publicans and harlots.
"And from the adulteress turned away
God's righteous law, that lost its prey."
So we end as we began, at that great practical point of revolt: and finally, with deep fervour of satisfaction, and the sense of a really undeniable achievement, the new evangelist jots down this couplet by way of epilogue:
"I'm sure this Jesus will not do
Either for Englishman or Jew."
Scarcely, as far as one sees: we may surely allow him that. And yet, having somehow steered right through this chaotic evangel, we may as surely admit that none but a great man with a great gift of belief could have conceived or wrought it out even as roughly as it is here set down. There is more absolute worship implied in it than in most works of art that pass muster as religious; a more perfect power of noble adoration, an intenser faculty of faith and capacity of love, keen as flame and soft as light; a more uncontrollable desire for right and lust after justice, a more inexhaustible grace of pity for all evil and sorrow that is not of itself pitiless, a more deliberate sweetness of mercy towards all that are cast out and trodden under. This "vision of Christ," though it be to all seeming the "greatest enemy" of other men's visions, can hardly be regarded as the least significant or beautiful that the religious world has yet been brought into contact with. It is at least not effeminate, not unmerciful, not ignoble, and not incomprehensible: other "visions" have before now been any or all of these. Thus much it is at least; the "vision" of a perfectly brave, tender, subtle and faithful spirit; in which there was no fear and no guile, nothing false and nothing base. Of the technical theology or "spiritualism" each man who cares to try will judge as it may please him; it goes at least high and deep enough to draw down or pluck up matter for absolution or condemnation. It is no part of our affair further to vindicate, to excuse, or to account for the singular gospel here preached. Space may be made here (before we pass on to larger things if not greater) for another stray note or two on separate poems. The Crystal Cabinet, one of the completest short poems by Blake which are not to be called songs, is an example of the somewhat jarring and confused mixture of apparent "allegory" with actual "vision" which is the great source of trouble and error to rapid readers of his verse or students of his designs. The "cabinet" is either passionate or poetic vision—a spiritual gift, which may soon and easily become a spiritual bondage; wherein a man is locked up, with keys of gold indeed, yet is he a prisoner all the same: his prison built by his love or his art, with a view open beyond of exquisite limited loveliness, soft quiet and light of dew or moon, and a whole fresh world to rest in or look into, but intangible and simply reflective; all present pleasure or power trebled in it, until you try at too much and attempt to turn spiritual to physical reality—"to seize the inmost form" with "hands of flame" laid upon things of the spirit which will endure no such ardent handling—to translate eternal existence into temporal, essential into accidental, substantial into attributive; when at once the whole framework, which was meant otherwise to last out your present life, breaks up and leaves you stranded or cast out, feeble and sightless "like a weeping babe;" so that whereas at first you were full of light natural pleasure, "dancing merrily" in "the wild" of animal or childish life, you are now a child again, but unhappy instead of happy—less than a child, thrown back on the crying first stage of babyhood—having had the larger vision, and lost your hold of it by too great pressure of impatience or desire—unfit for the old pleasure and deprived of the new; and the maiden-mother of your spiritual life, your art or your love, is become wan and tearful as you, "pale reclined" in the barren blowing air which cannot again be filled with the fire and the luminous life of vision. In Mary we come again upon the main points of inner contact between Blake's mind and Shelley's. This frank acceptance of pleasure, this avowal without blushing or doubting "that sweet love and beauty are worthy our care," was as beautiful a thing to Shelley as to Blake: he has preached the excellence of it in Rosalind and Helen and often elsewhere: touching also, as Blake does here, on the persecution of it by all "who amant miserè":—
"Some said she was proud, some called her a whore,
And some when she passed by shut to the door;"
for in their sight the tender and outspoken purity of instinct and innocence becomes confounded with base desire or vanity. This rather than genius or mere beauty seems to be the thing whose persecution by the world is here symbolized.
Many others of these brief poems are not less excellent; the slightest among them have the grace of form and heat of life which are indivisible in all higher works of poetry. One, The Mental Traveller, is full of sweet and vigorous verses turned loose upon a somewhat arid and thorny pasture. By a miracle of patient ingenuity this poem has been compelled to utter some connected message; but it may perhaps be doubted whether the message be not too articulate and coherent for Blake. Thus limited and clarified, the broad chafing current of mysticism seems almost too pure and too strait to issue from such a source: a well-head of living speech that bursts up with sudden froth and steam through more outlets than one at once. To have contrived such an elaborate allegory, so welded link by sequent link together, seems an exercise of logical patience to which Blake would hardly have submitted his passionate genius, his overstrained and wayward will. Separate stanzas may be retraced wellnigh through every word in other books. The latter part seems again to record, as in two preceding poems, the perversion of love; which having annihilated all else, falls at last to feed upon itself, to seek out strange things and barren ways, to invent new loves and invert the old, to fill the emptied heart and flush the subsiding veins with perverse passion. Alone in the desert it has made, beguiled to second youth by the incessant diet of joy, fear comes upon love; fear, and seeming hate, and weariness and cunning; fruits of the second graft of love, not native to the simple stock: till reduced at last to the likeness of the two extremes of life, age and infancy, love can be no further abused or consumed. These stages of love, once seen or heard of, allure lovers to eat of the strange fruits and herd with the strange flocks of transforming or transformed desire; the visible world, destroyed at the first advent of love and absorbed into the soul by a single passion, is again felt nearer; the trees bring forth their pleasure, and the planets lavish their light. For the second love, in its wayward and strange delights, is a thing half material; not alien at least from material forms, as was the first simple and spiritual ardour of equal love. Passionate and perverse emotion touches all things with some fervent colour of its own, mixes into all water and all wine some savour of the dubious honey gathered from its foreign flowers. Pure first love will not coexist with outward things, burns up with white fire all tangible form, and so, an unfed lamp, must at last burn itself down to the stage of life and sensation which breeds those latter loves. The babe that is "born a boy," often painfully begot and joyfully brought forth, I take to signify human genius or intellect, which none can touch and not be consumed except the "woman old," faith or fear: all weaker things, pain and pleasure, hatred and love, fly with shrieking averted faces from before it. The grey and cruel nurse, custom or religion, crucifies and torments the child, feeding herself upon his agony to false fresh youth; an allegory not even literally inapt. Grown older, and seeing her made fair with his blood and strong by his suffering, he weds her, and constrains her to do him service, and turns her to use; custom, the daily life of men, once married to the fresh intellect, bears fruit to him of profit and pleasure, and becomes through him nobler than she was; but through such union he grows old the sooner, soon can but wander round and look over his finished work and gathered treasure, the tragic passions and splendid achievements of his spirit, kept fresh in verse or colour; which he deals to all men alike, giving to the poorest of this divine meat and drink, the body and the blood of genius, caught in golden vessels of art and rhyme, that sight and hearing may be fed. This, the supreme and most excellent delight possible to man, is the fruit of his pain; of his suffering at the hands of life, of his union with her as with a bride. The "female babe" sprung from the fire that burns always on his hearth, is the issue or result of genius, which, being too strong for the father, flows into new channels and follows after fresh ways; the thing which he has brought forth knows him no more, but must choose its own mate or living form of expression, and expel the former nature—casting off (as theologians say) the old man. The outcast intellect can then be vivified only by a new love, or by a new aim of which love is the type; a bride unlike the first, who was old at root and in substance, young only in seeming and fair only through cruel theft of his own life and strength; unlike also the art which has now in its ultimate expression turned against him; love which can change the face of former things and scatter in sunder the gatherings of former friends; love which masters the senses and transfigures the creatures of the earthly life, leaving no light or sustenance but what comes of itself. Then follow the stages of love, and the phases of action and passion bred from either stage; of these we have already taken account. If this view of the poem be wholly or partially correct, then we may roughly sum up the problem by saying that its real obscurity arises in the main from a verbal confusion between the passion of art and the passion of love. These are always spoken of by Blake in terms which prove that in his nature the two feelings had actually grown into each other; had become interfused past all chance of mutual extrication. Art was to him as a lust of the body; appetite as an emotion of the soul. This saying, true as to some extent it must be of all great men, was never so exclusively and finally true of any other man as of this one. It is no bad sample of Blake's hurried manner of speech, that having sustained halfway through his poem an allegory of intellect in its relations to art and to common life, he should suddenly stumble over a type of his own setting up, and be led off into a new allegory of, love which might better have made a separate poem. As it is, the two symbols are welded together not without strength and cunning of hand.
Some further and final notice may here be taken of the manifold designs scattered about the MS. pages which we have found so prodigal of verse. Among the most curious of these we rank a series of drawings not quite so roughly pencilled as the rest, each inscribed with a brief text or metrical motto. Many of these have been wrought up into the "Gates of Paradise"; many more remain to speak and shift for themselves as they may. Published as it stands here, the series would exceed in length the whole of that little book: and there is evidently some thread of intended connexion between all, worn thin and all but broken. They are numbered in a different order from that in which they stand, which is indeed plainly a matter of chance. Several have great grace and beauty; one in especial, where Daphne passes into the laurel; her feet are roots already and grasp the ground with strong writhing fibres; her lifted arms and wrestling body struggle into branch and stem, with strange labour of the supple limbs, with agony of convulsed and loosening hair. One of the larger designs seems to be a rough full-length study for Adam and Eve, with these lines opposite by way of suggested epigraph:
"What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of gratified desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of gratified desire."
These are barely to be recognised in the crude sketch: the faces are merely serious and rather grim: though designed to reproduce the sweet silence of beauty, filling features made fair with soft natural pleasure and a clear calm of soul and body. There is however a certain grace and nobility of form in the straight limbs and flowing hair, not unworthy the typical man and woman. Another design which deserves remark is a fine sketch after the manner of the illustrations to Blake's prophecies, in which a figure caught in the fierce slanting current of a whirlwind is drifted sideways like a drowning swimmer under sea, below the orbit of three mingling suns or planets seen above thick drifts of tempestuous air. Other and better notices than ours, of various studies hidden away in the chaos of this MS., the reader will find on reference to that admirable Catalogue which will remain always the great witness for Blake's genius before the eyes of all who read his life.
We have done now with the lyrical side of this poet's work, and pass on to things of less direct attraction. Those who have found any in the record of his life and character, the study of his qualities and abilities, may safely follow him further. The perfect sweetness and sufficiency of his best lyrics and his best designs, we may not find; of these we take now farewell, with thanks and final praise such as we have to give; but we shall not fail to find the traces of a great art and an exalted spirit, to feel about us the clear air of a great man's presence.
- Of course, there can be no question here of bad art: which indeed is a non-entity or contradiction in terms, as to speak of good art is to run into tautology. It is assumed, to begin with, that the artist has something to say or do worth doing or saying in an artistic form.
- Observe especially in Chaucer's most beautiful of young poems that appalling passage, where, turning the favourite edgetool of religious menace back with point inverted upon those who forged it, the poet represents men and women of religious habit or life as punished in the next world, beholding afar off with jealous regret the saltation and happiness of Venus and all her servants (converse of the Hörsel legend, which shows the religious or anti-Satanic view of the matter; though there too there is some pity or sympathy implied for the pagan side of things, revealing in the tradition the presence and touch of some poet): expressly punished, these monks and nuns, for their continence and holiness of life, and compelled after death to an eternity of fruitless repentance for having wilfully missed of pleasure and made light of indulgence in this world; which is perfect Albigeois. Compare the famous speech in Aucassin et Nicolette, where the typical hero weighs in a judicial manner the respective attractions of heaven and hell; deciding of course dead against the former on account of the deplorably bad company kept there; priests, hermits, saints, and such-like, in lieu of knights and ladies, painters and poets. One may remark also, the minute this pagan revival begins to get breathing-room, how there breaks at once into flower a most passionate and tender worship of nature, whether as shown in the bodily beauty of man and woman or in the outside loveliness of leaf and grass; both Chaucer and his anonymous southern colleague being throughout careful to decorate their work with the most delicate and splendid studies of colour and form. Either of the two choice morsels of doctrinal morality cited above would have exquisitely suited the palate of Blake. He in his time, one need not doubt, was considerably worried and gibbered at by "monkeys in houses of brick," moral theorists, and "pantopragmatic" men of all sorts; what can we suppose he would have said or done in an epoch given over to preachers (lay, clerical, and mixed) who assert without fear or shame that you may demand, nay are bound to demand, of a picture or poem what message it has for you, what may be its moral utility or material worth? "Poetry must conform itself to" &c.; "art must have a mission and meaning appreciable by earnest men in an age of work," and so forth. These be thy gods, O Philistia.
- I will not resist the temptation to write a brief word of comment on this passage. While my words of inadequate and now of joyless praise were in course of printing, I heard that a mortal illness had indeed stricken the illustrious poet, the faultless critic, the fearless artist; that no more of fervent yet of perfect verse, no more of subtle yet of sensitive comment, will be granted us at the hands of Charles Baudelaire: that now for ever we must fall back upon what is left us. It is precious enough. We may see again as various a power as was his, may feel again as fiery a sympathy, may hear again as strange a murmur of revelation, as sad a whisper of knowledge, as mysterious a music of emotion; we shall never find so keen, so delicate, so deep an unison of sense and spirit. What verse he could make, how he loved all fair and felt all strange things, with what infallible taste he knew at once the limit and the licence of his art, all may see at a glance. He could give beauty to the form, expression to the feeling, most horrible and most obscure to the senses or souls of lesser men. The chances of things parted us once and again; the admiration of some years, at last in part expressed, brought me near him by way of written or transmitted word; let it be an excuse for the insertion of this note, and for a desire, if so it must be, to repeat for once the immortal words which too often return upon our lips;
"Ergo in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale!"
- There are exceptions, we are told from the first, to all rides; and the sole exception to this one is great enough to do all but establish a rival rule. But, as I have tried already to say, the work—all the work—of Victor Hugo is in its essence artistic, in its accident alone philanthropic or moral. I call this the sole exception, not being aware that the written work of Dante or Shelley did ever tend to alter the material face of things; though they may have desired that it should, and though their unwritten work may have done so. Accidentally of course a poet's work may tend towards some moral or actual result; that is beside the question.
- The reader who cares to remember that everything here set down is of immediate importance and necessity for the understanding of the matter in hand (namely, the life of Blake, and the faith and works which made that life what it was) may as well take here a word of comment. It will soon be necessary for even the very hack-writers and ingenious people of ready pens and wits who now babble about Balzac in English and French as a splendid specimen of their craft, fertile but faulty, and so forth—to understand that they have nothing to do with Balzac; that he is not of their craft, nor of any but the common craft of all great men—the guild of godlike things and people; that a shelf holding "all Balzac's novels—forty volumes long," is not "cabin-furniture" for any chance "passenger" to select or reject. Error and deficiency there may be in his work; but none such as they can be aware of. Of poetic form, for example, we know that he knew nothing; the error would be theirs who should think his kind of work the worse for that. Among men equally great, the distinctive supremacy of Balzac is this; that whereas the great men who are pure artists (Shakespeare for instance) work by implication only, and hardly care about descending to the level of a preacher's or interpreter's work, he is the only man not of their kind who is great enough to supply their place in his own way—to be their correlative in a different class of workmen; being from his personal point of view simply impeccable and infallible. The pure artist never asserts; he suggests, and therefore his meaning is totally lost upon moralists and sciolists—is indeed irreparably wasted upon the run of men who cannot work out suggestions. Balzac asserts; and Balzac cannot blunder or lie. So profound and extensive a capacity of moral apprehension no other prose writer, no man of mere analytic faculty, ever had or can have. This assuredly, when men become (as they will have to become) capable of looking beyond the mere clothes and skin of his work, will be always, as we said, his great especial praise; that he was, beyond any other man, the master of morals—the greatest direct expounder of actual moral fact. Once consent to forget or overlook the mere entourage and social habiliment of Balzac's intense and illimitable intellect, you cannot fail of seeing that he of all men was fittest to grapple with all strange things and words, and compel them by divine violence of spiritual rape to bring forth flowers and fruits good for food and available for use.
- Could God bring down his heart to the making of a thing so deadly and strong? or could any lesser dæmonic force of nature take to itself wings and fly high enough to assume power equal to such a creation? Could spiritual force so far descend or material force so far aspire? Or, when the very stars, and all the armed children of heaven, the "helmed cherubim" that guide and the "sworded seraphim" that guard their several planets, wept for pity and fear at sight of this new force of monstrous matter seen in the deepest night as a fire of menace to man—
"Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?"
We may add another cancelled reading to show how delicately the poem has been perfected; although by an oversight of the writer's most copies hitherto have retained some trace of the rough first draught, neglecting in one line a change necessary to save the sense as well as to complete the sentence.
"And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet
Could fetch it from the furnace deep
And in thy horrid ribs dare steep?
In what clay and in what mould
Were thine eyes of fury rolled?"
Having cancelled this stanza or sketched ghost of a stanza, Blake in his hurry of rejection did not at once remember to alter the last line of the preceding one; leaving thus a stone of some size and slipperiness for editorial feet to trip upon, until the recovery of that nobler reading—
"What dread hand framed thy thy dread feet?"
Nor was this little "rock of offence" cleared from the channel of the poem even by the editor of 1827, who was yet not afraid of laying hand upon the text. So grave a flaw in so short and so great a lyric was well worth the pains of removing and is yet worth the pains of accounting for; on which ground this note must be of value to all who take in verse with eye and ear instead of touching it merely with eyelash and finger-tip in the manner of sand-blind students.
- 'Compare the passage in Ahania where the growth of it is defined; rooted in the rock of separation, watered with the tears of a jealous God, shot up from sparks and fallen germs of material seed; being after all a growth of mere error, and vegetable (not spiritual) life; the topmost stem of it made into a cross whereon to nail the dead redeemer and friend of men.
- Compare again in the Vision of the Last Judgment (v. 2, p. 163), that definition of the "Divine body of the Saviour, the true Vine of Eternity," as "the Human Imagination, who appeared to me as coming to judgment among his saints, and throwing off the Temporal that the Eternal might be established." The whole of that subtle and eloquent rhapsody is about the best commentary attainable on Blake's mystical writings and designs. It is impossible to overstate the debt of gratitude due from all students of Blake to the transcriber and editor of the Vision, whose indefatigable sense and patient taste have made it legible for all. To have extracted it piecemeal from the chaos of notes jotted down by Blake in the most inconceivable way, would have been a praiseworthy labour enough; but without addition or omission to have constructed these abortive fragments into a whole so available and so admirable, is a labour beyond praise.
- This exquisite verse did not fall into its place by chance; the poem has been more than once revised. Its opening stanza stood originally thus:—
"Sleep, sleep; in thy sleep
Thou wilt every secret keep;
Sleep, sleep, beauty bright,
Thou shalt taste the joys of night."
Before recasting the whole, Blake altered the second line into—
"Canst thou any secret keep?"
The gist of the song is this; the speaker, watching a girl newly-born, compares her innocuous infancy with the power that through beauty will one day be hers, her blameless wiles and undeveloped desires with the strong and subtle qualities now dormant which the years will assuredly awaken within her; seeing as it were the whole woamn asleep in the child, he smells future fruit in the unblown bud. On retouching his work, Blake thus wound up the moral and tune of this song in a stanza forming by its rhymes an exact antiphonal complement to the end of the first Cradle Song.
"When thy little heart does wake,
Then the dreadful lightnings break
From thy cheek and from thine eye,
O'er the youthful harvests nigh;
Infant wiles and infant smiles
Heaven and earth of peace beguiles."
The epithet "infant" has supplanted that of "female," which was perhaps better: as to the grammatical licence, Blake followed in that the Elizabethan fashion which made the rule of sound predominate over all others. The song, if it loses simplicity, seems to gain significance by this expansion of the dim original idea; and beauty by expression of the peril latent in a life whose smiles as yet breed no strife between friends, kindle no fire among the unripe shocks of growing corn; but whose words shall hereafter be as very swords, and her eyes as lightning; teterrima belli causa.
- "His," the good man's: this lax piece of grammar (shifting from singular to plural and back again without much tangible provocation) is not infrequent with Blake, and would hardly be worth righting if that were feasible. A remarkable instance is but too patent in the final "chorus" of the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Such rough licence is given or taken by old poets; and Blake's English is always beautiful enough to be pardonable where it slips or halts: especially as its errors are always those of a rapid lyrical style, never of a tortuous or verbose ingenuity: it stammers and slips occasionally, but never goes into convulsions like that of some later versifiers.
- Such we must consider, for instance, the second Little Boy Lost, which looks at first more of a riddle and less worth solution than the haziest section of the prophetic books. A cancelled reading taken from the rough copy in the Ideas will at all events make one stanza more amenable to reason:
"I love myself; so does the bird
That picks up crumbs around the door."
Blake was rather given to erase a comparatively reasonable reading and substitute something which cannot be confidently deciphered by the most daring self-reliance of audacious ingenuity, until the reader has found some means of pitching his fancy for a moment in the ordinary key of the prophet's. This uncomfortable little poem is in effect merely an allegoric or fabulous appeal against the oppression of formulas (or family "textualism" of the blind and unctuous sort) which refuse to single and simple insight, to the outspoken innocence of a child's laughing or confused analysis, a right to exist on any terms: just as the companion poem is an appeal, so vague as to fall decidedly flat, against the externals of moral fashion. Both, but especially the Girl, have some executive merit: not overmuch. To the surprising final query, "Are such things done on Albion's shore?" one is provoked to respond, "On the whole, not, as far as we can see;" but the "Albion" of Blake's verse is never this weaving and spinning country of our working days; it is rather some inscrutable remote land of Titanic visions, moated with silent white mist instead of solid and sonorous surf, and peopled with vague pre-Adamite giants symbolic of more than we can safely define or conceive. An inkling of the meaning may, if anything can, be extracted from some parts of the Jerusalem; but probably no one will try.
- With more time and room to work in, we might have noticed in these less dramatic and seemingly less original poems of the second series which take up from the opposite point of view matters already handled to such splendid effect in the Songs of Innocence, a depth and warmth of moral quality worth remark; infinite tenderness of heart and fiery pity for all that suffer wrong; something of Hugo's or Shelley's passionate compassion for those who lie open to "all the oppression that is done under the sun"; something of the anguish and labour, the fever-heat of sleepless mercy and love incurable which is common to those two great poets. The second Holy Thursday is doubtless far enough below the high level of the first; but the second Chimney-sweeper as certainly has a full share of this passionate grace of pain and pity. Blake's love of children never wrung out into his work a more pungent pathos or keener taste of tears than in the last verse of this poem. It stood thus in the first draught:
"And because I am happy and dance and sing
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who wrap themselves up in our misery."
The quiet tremulous anger of that, its childish sorrow and contempt, are no less true than subtle in effect. It recalls another floating fragment of verse on social wrongs which shall be rescued from the chaos of the Ideas:
"There souls of men are bought and sold,
And milk-fed infancy, for gold;
And youths to slaughter-houses led,
And maidens, for, a bit of bread."
- This verse is of course to be read as one made up of rough but regular anapæsts; the heavier accents falling consequently upon every third syllable—that is, upon the words if, not, and him. The next line is almost as rough, and seems indeed to slip into the solid English iambic; but may also be set right by giving full attention to accent.
- A strange and rather beautiful, if grotesque, evidence of the unity of faith and feeling to which Blake and his wife had come by dint of living and thinking so long together, is given by one of the stray notes in this same book: which we transcribe at full on account of its great biographical value as a study of character. Space might have been found for it in the Life, if only to prove once again how curiously the nature and spiritual habits of a great man leave their mark or dye upon the mind nearest to his own.
"South Moulton Street.
"Sunday, August, 1807.—My wife was told by a spirit to look for her fortune by opening by chance a book which she had in her hand; it was Bysshe's 'Art Poetry.' She opened the following:—'I saw 'em kindle with desire,
While with soft sighs they blew the fire;
Saw the approaches of their joy,
He growing more fierce and she less coy;
Saw how they mingled melting rays,
Exchanging love a thousand ways.
Kind was the force on every side;
Her new desire she could not hide,
Nor would the shepherd be denied.
The blessed minute he pursued,
Till she, transported in his arms,
Yields to the conqueror all her charms.
His panting breast to hers now joined,
They feast on raptures unconfined,
Vast and luxuriant; such as prove
The immortality of love.
For who but a Divinity
Could mingle souls to that degree
And melt them into ecstasy?
Now like the Phœnix both expire,
While from the ashes of their fireThe God, and thrice new vigour took.'—Behn.
Springs up a new and soft desire.
Like charmers, thrice they did invoke
"I was so well pleased with her luck that I thought I would try my own, and opened the following:—
'As when the winds their airy quarrel try,
Jostling from every quarter of the sky,
This way and that the mountain oak they bear,
His boughs they scatter and his branches tear;
With leaves and falling mast they spread the ground;
The hollow valleys echo to the sound;
Unmoved, the royal plant their fury mocks,
Or, shaken, clings more closely to the rocks:
For as he shoots his towering head on high,
So deep in earth his fixed foundations lie.'—Dryden's Virgil."
Nothing is ever so cynical as innocence, whether it be a child's or a mystic's. As a poet, Blake had some reason to be "well pleased" with his wife's curious windfall; for those verses of the illustrious Aphra's have some real energy and beauty of form, visible to those who care to make allowance, first for the conventional English of the time, and secondly for the naked violence of manner natural to that she-satyr, whose really great lyrical gifts are hopelessly overlaid and encrusted by the rough repulsive husk of her incredible style of speech. Even "Astræa" must however have fair play and fair praise; and the simple truth is that, when writing her best, this "unmentionable" poetess has a vigorous grace and a noble sense of metre to be found in no other song-writer of her time. One song, fished up by Mr. Dyce out of the weltering sewerage of Aphra's unreadable and unutterable plays, has a splendid quality of verse, and even some degree of sentiment not wholly porcine. Take four lines as a sample, and Blake's implied approval will hardly seem unjustifiable:—
"From thy bright eyes he took those fires
Which round about in sport he hurled;
But 'twas from mine he took desires
Enough to undo the amorous world."
The strong and subtle cadence of that magnificent fourth verse gives evidence of so delicate an ear and such dexterous power of hand as no other poet between the Restoration date and Blake's own time has left proof of in serious or tragic song. Great as is Dryden's lyrical work in more ways than one, its main quality is mere strength of intellect and solidity of handling—the forcible and imperial manner of his satires; and in pure literal song- writing, which (rather than any 'ode' or such-like mixed poem) may be taken as the absolute and final test of a poet's lyrical nature, he never came near this mark. François Villon and Aphra Behn, the two most inexpressibly non-respectable of male or female Bohemians and poets, were alike in this as well; that the supreme gift of each, in a time sufficiently barren of lyrical merit, was the gift of writing admirable songs; and this, after all, has perhaps borne better fruit for us than any gift of moral excellence.
- Another version of this line, with less of pungent and brilliant effect, has yet a touch of sound in it worth preserving: some may even prefer it in point of simple lyrical sweetness:
"She played and she melted in all her prime:
Ah! that sweet love should be thought a crime."
- On closer inspection of Blake's rapid autograph I suspect that in the second line those who please may read "the ruddy limbs and flowering hair," or perhaps "flowery;" but the type of flame is more familiar to Blake. Compare further on "A Song of Liberty."
- Other readings are "soothed" and "smiled"—readings adopted after the insertion of the preceding stanza. As the subject is a child not yet grown to standing and walking age, these readings are perhaps better, though less simple in sound, than the one I have retained.
- Here and throughout to the end, duly altering metre and grammar with a quite laudable care, Blake has substituted "my father" for the "priests;" not I think to the improvement of the poem, though probably with an eye to making the end cohere rather more closely with the beginning. This and the "Myrtle" are shoots of the same stock, and differ only in the second grafting. In the last-named poem the father's office was originally thus;
"Oft my myrtle sighed in vain
To behold my heavy chain:
Oft my father saw us sigh,
And laughed at our simplicity."
- Those who insist on the tight lacing of grammatical stays upon the "pained loveliness" of a muse's over-pliant body may use if they please Blake's own amended reading; in which otherwise the main salt of the poem is considerably diluted as by tepid water: the angel (one might say) has his sting blunted and the best quill of his pinion pulled out.
"And without one word said
Had a peach from the tree;
And still as a maid," &c.
- We may find place here for another fairy song, quaint in shape and faint in colour, but with the signet of Blake upon it; copied from a loose scrap of paper on the back of which is a pencilled sketch of Hercules throttling the serpents, whose twisted limbs make a sort of spiral cradle around and above the child's triumphant figure: an attendant, naked, falls back in terror with sharp recoil of drawn-up limbs; Alemena and Amphitryon watch the struggle in silence, he grasping her hand.
"A fairy leapt upon my knee
Singing and dancing merrily;Pins, necklaces, and such-like things,
I said, 'Thou thing of patches, rings,
Disgracer of the female form,
Thou paltry gilded poisonous worm!'We turn to what will joy and please.'"
Weeping, he fell upon my thigh,
And thus in tears did soft reply:
'Knowest thou not, O fairies' lord,
How much by us contemned, abhorred,
Whatever hides the female form
That cannot bear the mortal storm?
Therefore in pity still we give
Our lives to make the female live;
And what would turn into disease
Even so dim and slight a sketch as this may be of worth as indicating Blake's views of the apparent and the substantial form of things, the primary and the derivative life; also as a sample of his roughest and readiest work.
- Lest the kingdom of love left under the type of a woman should be over powerful for a nation of hard fighters and reasoners, such as Blake conceived the "ancients" to be. Compare for his general style of fancies on classic matters the prologue to "Milton" and the Sibylline Leaves on Homer and Virgil. To his halftrained apprehension Rome seemed mere violence and Greece mere philosophy.
- Let the reader take another instance of the culture given to these songs—a gift which has happily been bequeathed by Blake to his editor. This one was at first divided into five equal stanzas; the last two running thus:—
"'And pity no more would be
If all were happy as we;'
At his curse the sun went down,
And the heavens gave a frown.
"Down poured the heavy rain
Over the new-reaped grain;
And Misery's increase
Is Mercy, Pity, Peace."
Thus one might say is the curse confuted; for if, as the "grievous devil" will have it, the root of the sweetest goodness is in material evil, then may the other side answer that even by his own showing the flower or "increase" from that root is not evil, but good: a soft final point of comfort missed by the change which gives otherwise fresher colour to this poem.
- But as above shewn the vision of the wise man or poet is wider than both; sees beyond the angel's blind innocent enjoyment to a deeper faith than his simple nature can grasp or include; sees also past the truth of the devil's sad ingenious "analytics" to the broader sense of things, seen by which, "Good and Evil are no more."
- Query "Putting?" This whole poem is jotted down in a close rough hand-writing, not often easy to follow with confidence.
- In the line "A God or else a Pharisee," Blake with a pencil-scratch has turned "a God" to "a devil"; as if the words were admittedly or admissibly interchangeable! A prophet so wonderfully loose-tongued may well be the despair of his faithfullest commentators: but as it happens the pencil-scratch should here be of some help and significance to us: following this small clue, we may come to distinguish the God of his belief from this demon-god of the created "mundane shell"—the God of Pharisaic religion and moral law.
- The creator by division, father of men and women, fashioner of evil and good; literally in the deepest sense "the God of this world," who "does not know the garment from the man;" cannot see beyond the two halves which he has made by violence of separation; would have the body perishable, yet the qualities of the bodily life permanent: thus inverting order and reversing fact. Parallel passages might be brought in by the dozen on all hands, after a little dipping into mystic books; but I want to make no more room here for all this than is matter of bare necessity.
- We shall see this presently. I conceive however that Blake, to save time and contract the space of his preaching, uses the consecrated Hebrew name to design now the giver of the Mosaic law, now that other and opposite Divinity which after the "body of clay" had been "devoured" was the residue or disembodied victorious spirit of the human Saviour. Mysticism need not of necessity be either inaccurate or incoherent: neither need it give offence by its forms and expressions of faith; but a mystic is but human after all, and with the best intentions may slip somewhere, especially a mystic so little in training as Blake, and so much of a poet or artist; who is not accustomed to any careful feeling of his way among words, except with an eye to the perfection of their bodily beauty. Indeed, as appears by Mr. Crabb Robinson's notes of his conversation, Blake affirmed that according to scripture itself the world was created by "the Elohim," not by Jehovah; whose covenant he elsewhere asserted was simply "forgiveness of sins." Thus even according to this heretical creed the God of the Jews would seem to be ranged on the same side with Christ against "the God of this world."
- Compare this fragment of a paraphrase or "excursus" on a lay sermon by a modern pagan philosopher of more material tendencies; but given to such tragic indulgence in huge Titanic dithyrambs. "Nature averse to crime? I tell you, nature lives and breathes by it; hungers at all her pores for bloodshed, aches in all her nerves for the help of sin, yearns with all her heart for the furtherance of cruelty. Nature forbid that thing or this? Nay, the best or worst of you will never go so far as she would have you; no criminal will come up to the measure of her crimes, no destruction seem to her destructive enough. We, when we would do evil, can disorganise a little matter, shed a little blood, quench a little breath at the door, of a perishable body; this we can do, and can call it crime. Unnatural is it? Good friend, it is by criminal things and deeds unnatural that nature works and moves and has her being; what subsides through inert virtue, she quickens through active crime; out of death she kindles life; she uses the dust of man to strike her light upon; she feeds with fresh blood the innumerable insatiable mouths suckled at her milkless breast; she takes the pain of the whole world to sharpen the sense of vital pleasure in her limitless veins: she stabs and poisons, crushes and corrodes, yet cannot live and sin fast enough for the cruelty of her great desire. Behold, the ages of men are dead at her feet; the blood of the world is on her hands; and her desire is continually toward evil, that she may see the end of things which she hath made. Friends, if we would be one with nature, let us continually do evil with our might. But what evil is here for us to do, where the whole body of things is evil? The day's spider kills the day's fly, and calls it a crime? Nay, could we thwart nature, then might crime become possible and sin an actual thing. Could but a man do this; could he cross the courses of the stars, and put back the times of the sea; could he change the ways of the world and find out the house of life to destroy it; could he go into heaven to defile it and into hell to deliver it from subjection; could he draw down the sun to consume the earth, and bid the moon shed poison or fire upon the air; could he kill the fruit in the seed and corrode the child's mouth with the mother's milk; then had he sinned and done evil against nature. Nay, and not then: for nature would fain have it so, that she might create a world of new things; for she is weary of the ancient life: her eyes are sick of seeing and her ears are heavy with hearing; with the lust of creation she is burnt up, and rent in twain with travail until she bring forth change; she would fain create afresh, and cannot, except it be by destroying: in all her energies she is athirst for mortal food, and with all her forces she labours in desire of death. And what are the worst sins we can do—we who live for a day and die in a night? a few murders, a few"——we need not run over the not so wholly insignificant roll-call; but it is curious to observe how the mystical evangelist and the material humourist meet in the reading of mere nature and join hands in their interpretation of the laws ruling the outer body of life: a vision of ghastly glory, without pity or help possible.
- Blake had first written "the creeping," then cancelled "the" and interlined the word "Antichrist": I have no doubt intending some such alteration as that in the text of "creeping" to "aping"; but as far as we can now know the day for rewriting his fair copy never came.
- There are (says the mystic) two forms of "humility": detestable both, and condemnable. By one, the extrinsic form, a man cringes and submits, doubts himself and gives in to others; becomes in effect impotent, a sceptic and a coward; by the other or intrinsic form, he conceives too meanly of his own soul, and comes to believe himself less than God—of course, to a pure Pantheist, the one radical and ruinous error which throws up on all sides a crop of lies and misconceptions, rank and ready; as base a thing to believe as an act of bodily "humility" were base to do: consequently any mere external worship is by this law heathenish, heretical and idolatrous. This heathenish or idolatrous heresy of spiritual humility comes merely of too much reliance on the reasoning power; man is undivine as to his mere understanding, and by using that as an eye instead of an eyeglass "distorts" all which he does not obliterate. "Pride of reason" is a foolish thing for any clerical defender of the "faith" to impugn; such pride is essentially humility. To be proud of having an empty eye-socket implies that you would be ashamed of having eyesight; then you are proud on the wrong side, and humble there exactly where humility is a mere blundering suicide's cut at his own throat; if you are not of your nature heavenly, how shall any alien celestial quality be sewn or stuck on to you? in whose cast clothes will you crawl into heaven by rational or religious cross-roads? "Imputed righteousness" will not much help your case; if you "impute" a wrong quality to any imaginable substance, does your imputation change the substance? What it had not before, it has not now; your tongue has not the power of turning truth to a lie or a lie to truth; the fact gives your assertion a straight blow in the face. The mystic who says that man is God has some logical cause for pride; but the sceptic has no more than the cleric—he who asserts that reason, which is finite, can be final, is essentially as "humb1e" as he who admits that he can be "saved" by accepting as an gift some "imputed" goodness which is not in any sense his. For reason—the "spectre" of the Jerusalem—is no matter for pride; if you make out that to be the best faculty about you, you give proof of the stupidest modesty and hatefullest humility. Look across the lower animal reason, and over the dim lying limit of tangible and changeable flesh; and be humble if you can or dare, then; for if what you apprehend of yourself beyond is not God, there is none—except in that sad sense of a dæmon or natural force, strong only to create and to divide and to destroy and to govern by reason or religion the material scheme of things. Extra hominem nulla salus. "God is no more than man; because man is no less than God:" there is B1ake’s Pantheistic Iliad in a nut-shell.
- An ugly specimen of ready-writing; meaning of course "with the sacrifice of bloody prey:" but doubtless even Blake would not have let this stand, though we cannot safely alter it: and the passage did upon the whole appear worth citing.
- This is so like Blake's style of design that one can scarcely help fancying he must somewhere have translated it into colours perhaps more comprehensible than his words: have given somewhere in painter's types the likeness of that bodily appetite, serpentine food of the serpent, a lithe and strenuous body of clay, fair with luminous flakes of eruptive poison, foul with cold and coloured scales as the scales of a leper in grain; with green pallor of straining mouth and bloodlike expansion of fiery throat; teeth and claws convulsed with the painful lust of pain, eyelids cloven in sunder with a dull flame of desire, the visible venom of its breath shot sharp against the face and eyes of the divine human soul: he, disembodied yet incarnate in the eternal body, stripped of accidental and clothed with essential flesh, naked of attribute that he may be girdled with substance, wrestling silent with fair great limbs, but with calm hair and brows blanched as in fire, with light of lordship in the "sunclear joyful eyes" that already absorb and devour by sweet strength of radiance the relapsing reluctant bulk of body, that foulest ravenous birth begotten of accident or error upon time; eyes beautiful with the after-light of ancient tears, that shall not weep again for ever: "for the former things are passed away": and by that light of theirs shall all men see light. Behind these two, an intense and tremulous night stricken through with stars and fire; and overhead the dividing roof and underfoot the sundering floor-work of the grave; a waste place beyond, full of risen bones that gather flesh, and springing roots that strike out or catch at light flying flames of life. Decidedly the design must exist somewhere; and presumably in "Golgonooza." We have the artist's prophetic authority for believing that his works written and painted before he came upon earth do in effect fill whole chambers in heaven, and are "the delight and study of archangels:" an apocalyptic fact not unnaturally unacceptable and inconceivable to the cleverest of Scotch stonemasons.
- Compare Hugo's admirable poem in the Châtiments (vii. 11. p. 319-321)—"Paroles d'un conservateur à propos d'un perturbateur:"—where, speaking through the mouth of "Elizab, a scribe," the chief poet of our time gives in his great swift manner a dramatic summary of the view taken by priests and elders of Christ. It is worth looking to trace out how nearly the same historical points of objection are selected and the same lines of inference struck into by the two poets; one aiming straight at present politics, one indirectly at mystic doctrine.
"Cet homme était de ceux qui n'ont rien de sacré,
Il ne respectait rien de tout ce qu'on respecte.
Pour leur inoculer sa doctrine suspecte,
Il allait ramassant dans les plus méchants lieux
Des bouviers, des pêcheurs, des drôles bilieux,
D'immondes va-nu-pieds n'ayant ni sou ni maille:
Il faisait son cénacle avec cette canaille.
L'honnête homme indigné rentrait dans sa maison
Quand ce jongleur passait avec cette sequelle.
Il traînait à sa suite une espèce de fille.
Il allait pérorant, ébranlant la famille,
Et la religion et la société.
Il sapait la morale et la propriété.
Quant aux prêtres,
Il les déchirait; bref, il blasphémait. Cela
Dans la rue. II coutait toutes ces horreurs-là
Aux premiers gueux venus, sans cape et sans semelles.
Il fallait en finir, les lois étaient formelles,
On l'a crucifié."
- In a briefer and less important fragment of verse Blake as earnestly inculcates this faith of his: that all mere virtues and vices were known before Christ; of right and wrong Plato and Cicero, men uninspired, were competent to speak as well as he; but until his advent "the moral virtues in their pride" held rule over the world, and among them as they rode clothed with war and sacrifice, driving souls to hell before them, shone "upon the rivers and the streams" the face of the Accuser, holy God of this Pharisaic world. Then arose Christ and said to man "Thy sins are all forgiven thee;" and the "moral virtues," in terror lest their reign of war and accusation should now draw to an end, cried out "Crucify him," and formed with their own hands the cross and the nails and the spear: and the Accuser spoke to them saying:—
"Am I not Lucifer the great
And ye my daughters, in great state,The fruit of my mysterious tree
Of Good and Evil and Misery?"
If, the preacher adds, moral virtue was Christianity, Christ's pretensions were madness, "and Caiaphas and Pilate men praiseworthy;" and the lion's den a fitter emblem of heaven than the sheepfold. "The moral Christian is the cause of the unbeliever;" and Antichrist is incarnate in those who close heaven against sinners
"With iron bars in virtuous state
And Rhadamanthus at the gate."
But men have so long allowed the heathen virtues, whose element is war and whose essence retaliation, to "take Jesus' and Jehovah's name" that the Accuser, Antichrist and Lucifer though he be, is now worshipped by those holy names over all the world: and the era called Christian is the era of his reign. For the rest, this new relic has no special merit, although it may be allowed some share of interest as a supplement or illustration to the larger poem or sermon.
- The words "female" and "reflex" are synonymous in all Blake's writings. What is feminine in its material symbol is derivative in its spiritual significance; "there is no such thing in eternity as a female will;" for in eternity substances lose their shadows, and essence puts off accident. The "frowning babe" of the last stanzas is of course the same or such another as the one whose birth is first spoken of; not the latter female growth born in the earthly house of art, but genius itself, whose likeness is terrible and unlovely at first sight to the run of men, filling them with affright and scandal, with wonder and the repellent sense that a new and strange thing is brought into the world.
- It seems not impossible that this series may have been intended, in its complete form, to bear the title of Ideas of Good and Evil, which we find loosely attached to the general MS. When the designer broke it up into different sets, this name would naturally have been abandoned.
- Of Blake's prose other samples are extant besides the notes on art published in the second volume of the Life and Selections. These strays are for the most part, as far as I have seen, mere waifs of weed and barren drift. One fragment, not without some grace and thoughtfulness curiously used up and thrown away, is an allegory of "the Gods which came from Fear," of Shame born of the "poisonous seed" of pride, and such things; written much in the manner of those early Ossianic studies which dilate and deform the volume of Poetical Sketches: perhaps composed (though properly never composed at all) about the same time. Another, a sort of satire on critics and "philosophers," seems to emulate the style of Sterne in his intervals of lax and dull writing; in execution it is some depths below the baby stories of little Malkin, whose ghost might well have blushed rejection of the authorship. The fragment on Laocoon is a mere cento of stray notes on art which reaffirm in a chaotic and spluttering manner Blake's theories that the only real prayer is study of art, the only real praise, its practice; that excellence of art, not moral virtue, is the aim and the essence of Christianity; and much more of the same sort. These notes, crammed into every blank space and corner of the engraved page, burst out as it were and boil over, disconnected but irrepressible, in a feverish watery style. All really good or even passable prose of Blake's seems to be given in the volume of Selections.