William Blake (Symons)/From 'A Father's Memoirs of his Child,' by Benjamin Heath Malkin

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[This, the first printed account of Blake, is taken from the dedicatory epistle of 'A Father's Memoirs of his Child,' by Benj. Heath Malkin, Esq., M.A., F.A.S. (London: Printed for Longmans, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, Paternoster Row, by T. Bensley, Bolt Court, Fleet Street, 1806), to Thomas Johnes, the translator of Froissart. I have given everything that relates to Blake, with enough of the remainder to explain the purpose of the dedication. Malkin was himself, perhaps, already engaged on the translation of Gil Blas, which he brought out in 1809. The frontispiece to the Memoirs, designed by Blake, and engraved by Cromek, consists of a portrait of little Malkin, from a miniature, surrounded by a design of the child saying good-bye to his mother, and floating up to heaven, hand in hand with an ample and benign angel.]

To Thomas Johnes, of Hafod, Esq. M.P. Lord Lieutenant of the County of Cardigan, etc. etc. etc.

My dear Friend,

I have been influenced by several motives, in prefixing your name to the following pages. My pen seems destined to owe its employment, in some shape or other, to Hafod. . . .

You may perhaps recollect, that while I was staying with you last summer, our conversations were nearly as rambling and as various, as our rides over your new mountain-farms, or as the subject matter of these preliminary remarks seems likely to be. . . .

It would have been unnatural, to have concealed the mark of an afflicting dispensation, in society so capable of consoling the survivor, and appreciating the merit of the departed. In the interchange of our thoughts on this subject, the task of furnishing the public with the following facts was urged upon me, at once as a tribute to the latter, and a relief to the feelings of the former. . . . On mentioning my design to some of my friends, they expressed their regret, that I had not determined on it sooner. . . . In every other respect, but that of catching attention while the object is still before the eye, the interval must be considered as an advantage. . . . I have been asked, 'How could you get over such a loss?' I need not say, that this was not your question, for you could never have found it on the list of possible interrogatories: and to you, for that very reason, will I answer it.

I got over this great loss, by considering at once what I had left; how unavailing the lengthened and excessive indulgence of grief would have been to myself, and how useless it would have rendered me to others. . . .

Besides this comparison of my own, with the probable or actual circumstances of others, I bore my disappointment the better for the recollection, that personal regards are selfish. If my thoughts were disposed to dwell on the mortifying idea, that society might have lost an ornament derived to it through me, they were soon checked, and ashamed of their presumption. Topics of private bewailing or condolence, of whatever magnitude they may appear to the individual, can never be modestly transferred to general interest. But it was my principal consolation, that the change to him must have been for the better. Supposing the opinion to have been rational and probable, that the promise of this child would have ripened into something more than fair capacity and marketable talent, the prolongation of life was to himself perhaps the less desirable on that very account. It rarely happens, that the world affords even the ordinary allowance of happiness to men of transcendent faculties. Their merits are too frequently denied the protection and encouragement, to which they feel themselves entitled, from the private intimations of their own scrutinizing spirit. When they are most successful, the composure of their minds does not always keep pace with the prosperity of their fortunes. They necessarily have but few companions; few, who are capable of appreciating their high endowments, and entering into the grandeur of their conceptions. Of these few, those who come the nearest to their own rank and standard, those who might be the associates of their inmost thoughts, and the partners of their dearest interests, are too often envious of their fame. It is a common remark, that great men are not gregarious. This is but too just; and so much of man's happiness depends upon society, that the comparative solitude, to which a commanding genius condemns its possessor, detracts considerably from the sum of his personal enjoyment.

While I am on this subject, I cannot forbear enlarging somewhat on an instance the more apposite, as being casually connected with the subsequent pages. Hitherto, it has confirmed the observation just hazarded, on the probable fate of stubborn originality in human life. There seems now indeed some prospect, that the current will turn: and I shall be eager, on the evidence of the very first deponent, to disencumber myself of an opinion, which pays so ill a compliment to our nature. In the mean time, I am confident that you, and my other readers of taste and feeling, will readily forgive my travelling a little out of the record, for the purpose of descanting on merit, which ought to be more conspicuous, and which must have become so long since, but for opinions and habits of an eccentric kind.

It is, I hope, unnecessary to call your attention to the ornamental device, round the portrait in this book; but I cannot so easily refrain from introducing to you the designer.

Mr. William Blake, very early in life, had the ordinary opportunities of seeing pictures in the houses of noblemen and gentlemen, and in the king's palaces. He soon improved such casual occasions of study, by attending sales at Langford's, Christie's, and other auction-rooms. At ten years of age he was put to Mr. Pars's drawing-school in the Strand, where he soon attained the art of drawing from casts in plaster of the various antiques. His father bought for him the Gladiator, the Hercules, the Venus of Medicis, and various heads, hands, and feet. The same indulgent parent soon supplied him with money to buy prints; when he immediately began his collection, frequenting the shops of the print-dealers, and the sales of the auctioneers. Langford called him his little connoisseur; and often knocked down to him a cheap lot, with friendly precipitation. He copied Raphael and Michael Angelo, Martin Hemskerck and Albert Durer, Julio Romano, and the rest of the historic class, neglecting to buy any other prints, however celebrated. His choice was for the most part contemned by his youthful companions, who were accustomed to laugh at what they called his mechanical taste. At the age of fourteen, he fixed on the engraver of Stuart's Athens and West's Pylades and Orestes for his master, to whom he served seven years apprenticeship. Basire, whose taste was like his own, approved of what he did. Two years passed over smoothly enough, till two other apprentices were added to the establishment, who completely destroyed its harmony. Blake, not chusing to take part with his master against his fellow apprentices, was sent out to make drawings. This circumstance he always mentions with gratitude to Basire, who said that he was too simple and they too cunning.

He was employed in making drawings from old buildings and monuments, and occasionally, especially in winter, in engraving from those drawings. This occupation led him to an acquaintance with those neglected works of art, called Gothic monuments. There he found a treasure, which he knew how to value. He saw the simple and plain road to the style of art at which he aimed, unentangled in the intricate windings of modern practice. The monuments of Kings and Queens in Westminster Abbey, which surround the chapel of Edward the Confessor, particularly that of King Henry the Third, the beautiful monument and figure of Queen Elinor, Queen Philippa, King Edward the Third, King Richard the Second and his Queen, were among his first studies. All these he drew in every point he could catch, frequently standing on the monument, and viewing the figures from the top. The heads he considered as portraits; and all the ornaments appeared as miracles of art, to his Gothicised imagination. He then drew Aymer de Valence's monument, with his fine figure on the top. Those exquisite little figures which surround it, though dreadfully mutilated, are still models for the study of drapery. But I do not mean to enumerate all his drawings, since they would lead me over all the old monuments in Westminster Abbey, as well as over other churches in and about London.

Such was his employment at Basire's. As soon as he was out of his time, he began to engrave two designs from the History of England, after drawings which he had made in the holiday hours of his apprenticeship. They were selected from a great number of historical compositions, the fruits of his fancy. He continued making designs for his own amusement, whenever he could steal a moment from the routine of business; and began a course of study at the Royal Academy, under the eye of Mr. Moser. Here he drew with great care, perhaps all, or certainly nearly all the noble antique figures in various views. But now his peculiar notions began to intercept him in his career. He professes drawing from life always to have been hateful to him; and speaks of it as looking more like death, or smelling of mortality. Yet still he drew a good deal from life, both at the academy and at home. In this manner has he managed his talents, till he is himself almost become a Gothic monument. On a view of his whole life, he still thinks himself authorized to pronounce, that practice and opportunity very soon teach the language of art: but its spirit and poetry, which are seated in the imagination alone, never can be taught; and these make an artist.

Mr. Blake has long been known to the order of men among whom he ranks; and is highly esteemed by those, who can distinguish excellence under the disguise of singularity. Enthusiastic and high-flown notions on the subject of religion have hitherto, as they usually do, prevented his general reception, as a son of taste and of the muses. The sceptic and the rational believer, uniting their forces against the visionary, pursue and scare a warm and brilliant imagination, with the hue and cry of madness. Not contented with bringing down the reasonings of the mystical philosopher, as they well may, to this degraded level, they apply the test of cold calculation and mathematical proof to departments of the mind, which are privileged to appeal from so narrow and rigorous a tribunal. They criticise the representations of corporeal beauty, and the allegoric emblems of mental perfections; the image of the visible world, which appeals to the senses for a testimony to its truth, or the type of futurity and the immortal soul, which identifies itself with our hopes and with our hearts, as if they were syllogisms or theorems, demonstrable propositions or consecutive corollaries. By them have the higher powers of this artist been kept from public notice, and his genius tied down, as far as possible, to the mechanical department of his profession. By them, in short, has he been stigmatised as an engraver, who might do tolerably well, if he was not mad. But men, whose names will bear them out, in what they affirm, have now taken up his cause. On occasion of Mr. Blake engaging to illustrate the poem of The Grave, some of the first artists in this country have stept forward, and liberally given the sanction of ardent and encomiastic applause. Mr. Fuseli, with a mind far superior to that jealousy above described, has written some introductory remarks in the Prospectus of the work. To these he has lent all the penetration of his understanding, with all the energy and descriptive power characteristic of his style. Mr. Hope and Mr. Locke have pledged their character as connoisseurs, by approving and patronising these designs. Had I been furnished with an opportunity of shewing them to you, I should, on Mr. Blake's behalf, have requested your concurring testimony, which you would not have refused me, had you viewed them in the same light.

Neither is the capacity of this untutored proficient limited to his professional occupation. He has made several irregular and unfinished attempts at poetry. He has dared to venture on the ancient simplicity; and feeling it in his own character and manners, has succeeded better than those, who have only seen it through a glass. His genius in this line assimilates more with the bold and careless freedom, peculiar to our writers at the latter end of the sixteenth, and former part of the seventeenth century, than with the polished phraseology, and just, but subdued thought of the eighteenth. As the public have hitherto had no opportunity of passing sentence on his poetical powers, I shall trespass on your patience, while I introduce a few specimens from a collection, circulated only among the author's friends, and richly embellished by his pencil.

When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by,
When the air does laugh with our merry wit,
And the green hill laughs with the noise of it,

When the meadows laugh with lively green,
And the grasshopper laughs in this merry scene,
When Mary and Susan and Emily,
With their sweet round mouths, sing Ha, ha, he!

When the painted birds laugh in the shade,
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread,
Come live and be merry and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of Ha, ha, he!

The Fairy Glee of Oberon, which Stevens's exquisite music has familiarised to modern ears, will immediately occur to the reader of these laughing stanzas. We may also trace another less obvious resemblance to Jonson, in an ode gratulatory to the Right Honourable Hierome, Lord Weston, for his return from his embassy, in the year 1632. The accord is to be found, not in the words nor in the subject; for either would betray imitation: but in the style of thought, and, if I may so term it, the date of the expression.

   Such pleasure as the teeming earth
   Doth take in easy nature's birth,
When she puts forth the life of every thing:
   And in a dew of sweetest rain,
   She lies delivered without pain,
Of the prime beauty of the year, the spring.

The rivers in their shores do run,
   The clouds rack clear before the sun,
The rudest winds obey the calmest air:
   Rare plants from every bank do rise,
   And every plant the sense surprise,
Because the order of the whole is fair!

   The very verdure of her nest,
   Wherein she sits so richly drest,
As all the wealth of season there was spread;
   Doth show the graces and the hours
   Have multiplied their arts and powers.
In making soft her aromatic bed.

   Such joys, such sweets, doth your return
   Bring all your friends, fair lord, that burn
With love, to hear your modesty relate
   The bus'ness of your blooming wit,
   With all the fruit shall follow it,
Both to the honour of the king and state.

The following poem of Blake is in a different character. It expresses with majesty and pathos, the feelings of a benevolent mind, on being present at a sublime display of national munificence and charity.

'Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two, in red and blue and green;
Grey-headed beadles walked before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul's, they, like Thames' waters, flow.

Oh! What a multitude they seemed, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit, with radiance all their own!
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs;
Thousands of little boys and girls, raising their innocent hands.

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings, the seats of heaven among!
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor:
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

The book of Revelation, which may well be supposed to engross much of Mr. Blake's study, seems to have directed him, in common with Milton, to some of the foregoing images. "And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth." Milton comprises the mighty thunderings in the epithet "loud," and adopts the comparison of many waters, which image our poet, having in the first stanza appropriated differently, to their flow rather than to their sound, exchanges in the last for that of a mighty wind.

It may be worth a moment's consideration, whether Dr. Johnson's remarks on devotional poetry, though strictly just where he applies them, to the artificial compositions of Waller and Watts, are universally and necessarily true. Watts seldom rose above the level of a mere versifier. Waller, though entitled to the higher appellation of poet, had formed himself rather to elegance and delicacy, than to passionate emotions or a lofty and dignified deportment. The devotional pieces of the Hebrew bards are clothed in that simple language, to which Johnson with justice ascribes the character of sublimity. There is no reason therefore, why the poets of other nations should not be equally successful, if they think with the same purity, and express themselves in the same unaffected terms. He says indeed with truth, that "Repentance trembling in the presence of the judge, is not at leisure for cadences and epithets." But though we should exclude the severer topics from our catalogue, mercy and benevolence may be treated poetically, because they are in unison with the mild spirit of poetry. They are seldom treated successfully; but the fault is not in the subject. The mind of the poet is too often at leisure for the mechanical prettinesses of cadence and epithet, when it ought to be engrossed by higher thoughts. Words and numbers present themselves unbidden, when the soul is inspired by sentiment, elevated by enthusiasm, or ravished by devotion. I leave it to the reader to determine, whether the following stanzas have any tendency to vindicate this species of poetry; and whether their simplicity and sentiment at all make amends for their inartificial and unassuming construction.

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
All pray in their distress,
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
Is God our Father dear:
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
Is man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart;
Pity, a human face;
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In Heathen, Turk, or Jew!
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.

Shakspeare's Venus and Adonis, Tarquin and Lucrece, and his Sonnets, occasioned it to be said by a contemporary, that, "As the soul of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras, so the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous honey-tongued Shakespeare." These poems, now little read, were favourite studies of Mr. Blake's early days. So were Jonson's Underwoods and Miscellanies, and he seems to me to have caught his manner, more than that of Shakspeare in his trifles. The following song is a good deal in the spirit of the Hue and Cry after Cupid, in the Masque on Lord Haddington's marriage. It was written before the age of fourteen, in the heat of youthful fancy, unchastised by judgment. The poet, as such, takes the very strong liberty of equipping himself with wings, and thus appropriates his metaphorical costume to his corporeal fashion and seeming. The conceit is not unclassical; but Pindar and the ancient lyrics arrogated to themselves the bodies of swans for their august residence. Our Gothic songster is content to be encaged by Cupid; and submits, like a young lady's favourite, to all the vagaries of giddy curiosity and tormenting fondness.

How sweet I roamed from field to field,
   And tasted all the summer's pride,
Till I the prince of love beheld,
   Who in the sunny beams did glide!

He shewed me lilies for my hair,
   And blushing roses for my brow;
He led me through his gardens fair,
   Where all his golden pleasures grow.

With sweet May dews my wings were wet,
   And Phœbus fired my vocal rage;
He caught me in his silken net,
   And shut me in his golden cage.

He loves to sit and hear me sing,
   Then, laughing, sports and plays with me
Then stretches out my golden wing,
   And mocks my loss of liberty.

The playful character ascribed to the prince of love, and especially his wanton and fantastic action while sporting with his captive, in the two last stanzas, render it probable that the author had read the Hue and Cry after Cupid. If so, it had made its impression; but the lines could scarcely have been remembered at the time of writing or the resemblance would have been closer. The stanzas, to which I especially allude, are these.

Wings he hath, which though ye clip,
   He will leap from lip to lip,
   Over liver, lights, and heart,
   But not stay in any part;
   And, if chance his arrow misses,
   He will shoot himself, in kisses.

Idle minutes are his reign;
   Then the straggler makes his gain,
   By presenting maids with toys,
   And would have ye think 'em joys:
   'Tis th' ambition of the elf,
   To have all childish as himself.

The two following little pieces are added, as well by way of contrast, as for the sake of their respective merits. In the first, there is a simple and pastoral gaiety, which the poets of a refined age have generally found much more difficult of attainment, than the glitter of wit, or the affectation of antithesis. The second rises with the subject. It wears that garb of grandeur, which the idea of creation communicates to a mind of the higher order. Our bard, having brought the topic he descants on from warmer latitudes than his own, is justified in adopting an imagery, of almost oriental feature and complexion.


I love the jocund dance,
The softly breathing song,
Where innocent eyes do glance,
And where lisps the maiden's tongue.

I love the laughing gale,
I love the echoing hill,
Where mirth does never fail,
And the jolly swain laughs his fill.

I love the pleasant cot,
I love the innocent bower,
Where white and brown is our lot,
Or fruit in the mid-day hour.

I love the oaken seat.
Beneath the oaken tree,
Where all the old villagers meet,
And laugh our sports to see.

I love our neighbours all,
But, Kitty, I better love thee;
And love them I ever shall;
But thou art all to me.

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright,
In the forest of the night!
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
When thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand forged thy dread feet?

What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dared its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he, who made the lamb, make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Besides these lyric compositions, Mr. Blake has given several specimens of blank verse. Here, as might be expected, his personifications are bold, his thoughts original, and his style of writing altogether epic in its structure. The unrestrained measure, however, which should warn the poet to restrain himself, has not unfrequently betrayed him into so wild a pursuit of fancy, as to leave harmony unregarded, and to pass the line prescribed by criticism to the career of imagination.

But I have been leading you beside our subject, into a labyrinth of poetical comment, with as little method or ceremony, as if we were to have no witness of our correspondence. It is time we should return from the masquing regions of poetry, to the business with which we set out. Donne, in his Anatomy of the World, remarks the Egyptians to have acted wisely, in bestowing more cost upon their tombs than on their houses. This example he adduces, to justify his own Funeral Elegies: and I may perhaps be allowed to adopt it, as an additional plea, should my former be of no avail, for coming forward with this piece of almost infantine biography. . . .

I regret, my dear friend, that it was not in my power to furnish you and my readers with a portrait of a later date. We had often talked of allowing ourselves that indulgence; but we were not privy to the event, which was to have communicated to it an incalculable value. The engraving here given, though it might well be taken to represent a much older child, is from a very beautiful miniature, painted by Paye, when Thomas was not quite two years old. He then was only beginning to speak; but there was even at that early period an intelligence in his eye, and an expression about his mouth, which are, I hope, sufficiently characterised in the delineation, to afford no inadequate idea of his physiognomy. . . .

At all events, this work, though it should escape censure, can rank no higher than a trifle. What apology must I make for addressing it to a fellow-labourer, who has accomplished the serious and difficult task of giving an English dress to Froissart? I think it was Gray, who denominated your venerable original the Herodotus of a barbarous age. But surely that age is entitled to a more respectful epithet, when France could boast its Froissart, Italy its Petrarch, England its Wickliffe, the father of our reformation, and Chaucer, the father of our poetry. If I might slightly alter the designation of so complete a critic, I would prefer calling this simple and genuine historian, the Herodotus of chivalry. But by whatever title we are to greet him, the interesting minuteness of his recital, affording a strong pledge of its fidelity, the lively delineation of manners, and the charm of unadulterated language, all conspire to place him in the first rank of early writers. The public begin to revolt from that spirit of philosophizing on the most common occasions, in consequence of which our modern historians seem to be more ingenious in assigning causes and motives, than assiduous to ascertain facts. We are returning home to plain tales and first-hand authorities; and you will share the honour of pointing out the way. Froissart, hitherto inaccessible to English readers in general, from the obsolete garb both of the French and of Lord Berners's translation, may now be read in such a form, as to unite the peculiar thought and turn of the ancient with the intelligible phraseology of modern times. With my best congratulations on your success, and my earnest request to be forgiven for thus intruding on your leisure, believe me to be, my dear friend, faithfully yours,B. H. MALKIN.

Hackney, January 4, 1806.