Life of William Blake (1880), Volume 1/Chapter 10


BOOKS OF PROPHECY. 1789—90. [ÆT. 32—33.]

In the same year that the Songs of Innocence were published, Blake profited by his new discovery to engrave another illustrated poem. It is in a very different strain; one, however, analogous to that running through nearly all his subsequent writings, or 'Books,' as he called them. The Book of Thel is a strange mystical allegory, full of tender beauty and enigmatic meaning. Thel, youngest of 'the Daughters of the Seraphim' (personification of humanity, I infer), is afflicted with scepticism, with forebodings of life's brevity and nothingness:—

She in paleness sought the secret air
To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day;
Down by the river of Adona her soft voice is heard,
And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew.

As the poem is printed entire in our Second Volume, I will now simply give an Argument of it, by way of indicating its tenor, and to serve as a bridge for the reader across the eddying stream of abstractions which make up this piece of poetic mysticism.


Thel laments her transient life—The Lily of the Valley answers her—Pleads her weakness, yet Heaven's favour—Thel urges her own uselessness—A little cloud descends and taketh shape— Shows how he weds the evening dew and feeds the flowers of earth—Tells of Love and Serviceableness—Thel replies in sorrow still—The Cloud invokes the lowly worm to answer her—Who appears in the form of a helpless child—A clod of clay pities her wailing cry—And shows how in her lowliness she blesses and is blessed—She summons Thel into her house—The grave's gates open—Thel, wandering, listens to the voices of the ground—Hears a sorrowing voice from her own grave-plot—Listens, and flees back.

The fault of the poem is the occasional tendency to vagueness of motive, to an expression of abstract emotions more legitimate for the sister art of music than for poetry, which must be definite, however deep and subtle. The tendency grew in Blake's after writings and overmastered him. But on this occasion the meaning which he is at the pains to define, with the beauty of much of the imagery and of the pervading sentiment, more than counterbalance any excess of the element of the Indefinite, especially when, as in the original, the poem is illumined by its own design, lucidly expository, harmonising with itself and with the verse it illustrates.

The original quarto consists of seven engraved pages, including the title, in size some six inches by four and a quarter. Four are illustrated by vignettes, the other two by ornamental head or tail-piece. The designs—Thel, the virgin sceptic, listening to the lily of the valley in the humble grass; to the golden cloud 'reclining on his airy throne;' to the worm upon her dewy bed; or kneeling over the personified clod of clay, an infant wrapped in lily's leaf; or gazing at the embracing clouds—are of the utmost sweetness; simple, expressive, grand; the colour slight, but pure and tender. The mere ornamental part of the title-page, of which the sky forms the framework, is a study for spontaneous easy grace and unobtrusive beauty. The effect of the whole, poem and design together, is as of a wise, wondrous, spiritual dream' or angel's reverie. The engraving of the letter-press differs from that of the Songs of Innocence, the text (in colour red as before) being relieved by a white ground, which makes the page more legible if less of a picture. I may mention, in corroboration of a previous assertion of Stothard's obligations as a designer to Blake, that the copy of Thel, formerly Stothard's, bears evidence of familiar use on his part, in broken edges, and the marks of a painter's oily fingers. These few and simple designs, while plainly original, show all the feeling and grace of Stothard's early manner, with a tinge of sublimity superadded which was never Stothard's.

In the track of the mystical Book of Thel came in 1790 the still more mystical Marriage of Heaven and Hell, an engraved volume, illustrated in colour, to which I have already alluded as perhaps the most curious and significant, while it is certainly the most daring in conception and gorgeous in illustration of all Blake's works. The title dimly suggests an attempt to sound the depths of the mystery of Evil, to view it in its widest and deepest relations. But further examination shows that to seek any single dominating purpose, save a poetic and artistic one, in the varied and pregnant fragments of which this wonderful book consists, were a mistake. The student of Blake will find in Mr. Swinburne's Critical Essay on Blake all the light that can be thrown by the vivid imagination and subtle insight of a Poet on this as on the later mystic or 'Prophetic Books.'

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell opens with an 'Argument' in irregular unrhymed verse:—

Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burdened air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

Once meek and in a perilous path
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow,
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.

Then the perilous path was planted;
And a river and a spring
On every cliff and tomb;
And on the bleached bones
Red clay brought forth.

Till the villain left the paths of ease
To walk in perilous paths, and drive
The just man into barren climes.

Now the sneaking serpent walks
In mild humility,
And the just man rages in the wilds
Where lions roam.

Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burdened air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

The key-note is more clearly sounded in the following detached sentences:—

Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive, that obeys Reason. Evil is the active, springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

The Voice of the Devil.

All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following errors:—

1. That man has two real existing principles, viz. a Body and a Soul.

2. That Energy, called Evil, is alone from the Body, and that Heaven, called Good, is alone from the Soul.

3. That God will torment man in Eternity for following his energies.

But the following contraries to these are true:—

1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul, for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.

2. Energy is the only Life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.

3. Energy is Eternal Delight.

To this shortly succeeds a series of Proverbs or Aphorisms, called 'Proverbs of Hell.' These we give almost entire.

In seed-time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.

Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.

The cut worm forgives the plough.

Dip him in the river who loves water.

A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.

He whose face gives no light shall never become a star.

Eternity is in love with the productions of Time.

The busy bee has no time for sorrow.

The hours of Folly are measured by the clock, but of Wisdom no clock can measure.

All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.

Bring out number, weight, and measure, in a year of dearth.

The most sublime act is to set another before you.

If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.

Shame is Pride's cloak.

Excess of sorrow laughs; excess of joy weeps.

The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.

The fox condemns the trap, not himself.

Joys impregnate, sorrows bring forth.

Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.

The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.

The selfish smiling fool and the sullen frowning fool shall be both thought wise, that they may be a rod.

What is now proved was once only imagined.

The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbit, watch the roots; the Lion, the tiger, the horse, the elephant, watch the fruits.

The cistern contains; the fountain overflows.

One thought fills immensity.

Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.

Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth.

The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.

The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion.

He who has suffered you to impose on him, knows you.

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

Expect poison from the standing water.

You never know what is enough, unless you know what is more than enough.

Listen to the fool's reproach; it is a kingly title!

The eyes of fire; the nostrils of air; the mouth of water; the beard of earth.

The weak in courage is strong in cunning.

The apple-tree never asks the beech how he shall grow, nor the lion the horse how he shall take his prey.

The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.

If others had not been foolish, we should be so.

The soul of sweet delight can never be defiled.

When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of genius; lift up thy head!

One law for the lion and ox is oppression.

To create a little flower is the labour of ages.

Damn braces, Bless relaxes.

The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest.

Prayers plough not! Praises reap not!

Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!

As the air to a bird, or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.

The crow wished everything was black, the owl that everything was white.

Exuberance is beauty.

Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of Genius.

Where man is not, Nature is barren.

Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believed.

Enough! or too much.

The remainder of the book consists of five distinct, but kindred prose compositions, not all following consecutively, each entitled a 'Memorable Fancy.' Half dream, half allegory, these wild and strange fragments defy description or interpretation. It would hardly occur, indeed, that they were allegorical, or that interpretation was a thing to be expected or attempted, but for an occasional sentence like the following:—'I, in my hand, brought the skeleton of a body which in the mill was Aristotle's Analytics:' and we are sometimes tempted to exclaim with the angel who conducts the author to the mill: 'Thy phantasy has imposed upon me, and thou oughtest to be ashamed.' Throughout these 'Memorable Fancies,' there is a mingling of the sublime and grotesque better paralleled in art than literature—in that Gothic art with the spirit of which Blake was so deeply penetrated; where corbels of grinning and distorted faces support solemn overarching grandeurs, and quaint monsters lurk in foliaged capital or nook.

In the second 'Memorable Fancy,' of which we give a brief sample or two, he sees Isaiah and Ezekiel in a vision:—

* * * Then I asked: 'Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so make it so?'

He replied, 'All poets believe that it does, and in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything.'

Then Ezekiel said: 'The philosophy of the East taught the first principles of human perception; some nations held one principle for the origin and some another; we of Israel taught that the Poetic Genius (as you now call it) was the first principle, and all the others merely derivative; which was the cause of our despising the priests and philosophers of other countries, and prophesying that all gods would at last be proved to originate in ours, and to be the tributaries of the Poetic Genius. It was this that our great poet, King David, desired so fervently and invoked so pathetically, saying, "By this he conquers enemies, and governs kingdoms;" and we so loved our God, that we cursed in His name all the deities of surrounding nations, and asserted that they had rebelled. From these opinions, the vulgar came to think that all nations would at last be subject to the Jews.'

'This,' said he, 'like all firm persuasions, is come to pass, for all nations believe the Jews' code and worship the Jews' God; and what greater subjection can be?'

I heard this with some wonder, and must confess my own conviction.

* * * * *

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is—infinite.

For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.

A Memorable Fancy.

I was in a printing-house in hell, and saw the method in which knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation.

In the first chamber was a dragon-man, clearing away the rubbish from a cave's mouth; within, a number of dragons were hollowing the cave.

In the second chamber was a viper folding round the rock and the cave, and others adorning it with gold, silver, and precious stones.

In the third chamber was an eagle with wings and feathers of air; he caused the inside of the cave to be infinite. Around, were numbers of eagle-like men, who built palaces in the immense cliffs. In the fourth chamber were lions of flaming fire raging around and melting the metals into living fluids.

In the fifth chamber were unnamed forms, which cast the metals into the expanse.

There they were received by men who occupied the sixth chamber, and took the forms of books, and were ranged in libraries.

The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence, and now seem to live in it in chains, are, in truth, the causes of its life and the sources of all activity, but the chains are the cunning of weak and tame minds which have power to resist energy; according to the proverb, the weak in courage is strong in cunning.

Thus, one portion of being is the Prolific, the other the Devouring. To the devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains, but it is not so; he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole.

But the Prolific would cease to be prolific, unless the devourer, as a sea, received the excess of his delights.

* * * * *

A Memorable Fancy.

An Angel came to me, and said, 'O pitiable, foolish young man! O horrible—O dreadful state! Consider the hot burning dungeon thou art preparing for thyself to all eternity, to which thou art going in such career.' I said, 'Perhaps you will be willing to show me my eternal lot, and we will contemplate together upon it, and see whether your lot or mine is most desirable.'

So he took me through a stable and through a church, and down into the church vault, at the end of which was a mill. Through the mill we went, and came to a cave: down the winding cavern we groped our tedious way till a void, boundless as a nether sky, appeared beneath us, and we held by the roots of trees, and hung over this immensity. But I said, 'If you please, we will commit ourselves to this void and see whether Providence is here also; if you will not, I will!' But he answered, 'Do not presume, O young man; but as we here remain, behold thy lot, which will soon appear when the darkness passes away.'

So I remained with him, sitting in the twisted root of an oak; he was suspended in a fungus which hung with the head downward into the deep.

By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city. Beneath us, at an immense distance, was the sun, black but shining. Round it were fiery tracks, on which revolved vast spiders crawling after their prey, which flew or rather swam in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption; and the air was full of them, and seemed composed of them. These are Devils, and are called Powers of the Air. I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot? he said, 'Between the black and the white spiders.'

But now from between the black and white spiders, a cloud and fire burst and rolled through the deep, blackening all beneath; so that the nether deep grew black as a sea, and rolled with a terrible noise. Beneath us was nothing now to be seen but a black tempest; till, looking east between the clouds and the waves, we saw a cataract of blood mixed with fire, and not many stones' throw from us appeared and sunk again the scaly fold of a monstrous serpent. At last to the east, distant about three degrees, appeared a fiery crest above the waves. Slowly it reared like a ridge of golden rocks, till we discovered two globes of crimson fire, from which the sea fled away in clouds of smoke, and now we saw it was the head of Leviathan. His forehead was divided into streaks of green and purple, like those on a tiger's forehead. Soon we saw his mouth and red gills hang just above the raging foam, tinging the black deep with beams of blood, advancing towards us with all the fury of a spiritual existence.

My friend the Angel climbed up from his station into the mill. I remained alone, and then this appearance was no more; but I found myself sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river by moonlight, hearing a harper who sung to the harp, and his theme was, 'The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.'

But I arose, and sought for the mill, and there I found my Angel; * * * but I by force suddenly caught him in my arms, and flew westerly through the night, till we were elevated above the earth's shadow. Then I flung myself with him directly into the body of the sun. Here I clothed myself in white, and, taking in my hand Swedenborg's volumes, sunk from the glorious clime, and passed all the planets till we came to Saturn. Here I stayed to rest, and then leaped into the void between Saturn and the fixed stars.

* * * * *

Soon we saw seven houses of brick; one we entered; in it were a number of monkeys, baboons, and all of that species, chained by the middle, grinning and snatching at one another, but withheld by the shortness of their chains. However, I saw that they sometimes grew numerous, and then the weak were caught by the strong, and with a grinning aspect devoured, by plucking off first one limb and then another, till the body was left a helpless trunk. This, after grinning and kissing it with seeming fondness, they devoured too; and here and there I saw one savourily picking the flesh off his own tail. As the stench terribly annoyed us both, we went into the mill, and I in my hand brought a skeleton of a body, which in the mill was Aristotle's Analytics. So the Angel said: 'Thy phantasy has imposed upon me, and thou oughtest to be ashamed.' I answered, 'We impose on one another, and it is but lost time to converse with you, whose works are only Analytics.' Swedenborg boasts that what he writes is new; though it is only the contents or index of already published books.

* * * * *

Any man of mechanical talents may, from the writings of Paracelsus or Jacob Behmen, produce ten thousand volumes of equal value with Swedenborg's, and from those of Dante or Shakespeare an infinite number.

But when he has done this, let him not say that he knows better than his master, for he only holds a candle in sunshine.

The power of these wild utterances is enhanced to the utmost by the rich adornments of design and colour in which they are set—design as imaginative as the text, colour which has the lustre of jewels.

A strip of azure sky surmounts, and of land divides, the words of the title-page, leaving on each side scant and baleful trees, little else than stem and spray. Drawn on a tiny scale, lies a corpse, and one bends over it. Flames burst forth below and slant upward across the page, gorgeous with every hue. In their very core two spirits rush together and embrace. These beautiful figures appear to have suggested to Flaxman the delicately executed bas-relief on Collins's monument.

In the second design, to the right of the page, there runs up an almost lifeless tree. A man clinging to the thin stem, and holding by a branch, reaches its only cluster to a woman standing below. Distant are three figures reposing on the ground. At the top of the third, a woman with outspread arms is borne away on flames—

'like a creature native and indued
Unto that element;'

beneath, two figures are rushing away from a female lying on the earth.

In the next, the sun sets over the sea in blood. A spirit, grasping a child, walks on the waves. Another, in the midst of fire, would fain rush to her, but an iron link clinches his ankle to the rock.

The fifth resembles the catastrophe of Phaëton, save that there is but one horse. Spires of flame are already kindling below.

Under the text of the sixth, an accusing demon, with batlike wings, points fiercely to a scroll—a great parchment scroll across his knees. A figure sits on each side recording.

In the next design we have a little island of the sea, where an infant springs to its mother's bosom. From the birth-cleft ground a spirit has half emerged. Below, with outstretched arms and hoary beard, an awful ancient man rushes at you, as it were, out of the page.

At the top of the fourteenth page a spirit, with streaming locks, extends her arms across, pointing hither and thither. She hovers, poised over a corpse, which looks as if 'laid out,' the arms straight by the sides; helpless, uncoffined; flames are rolling onward to consume it.

The ninth design is of an eagle flying and gazing upwards: his talons gripe a long snake trailing and writhing. Both are flecked with gold, and coruscate as from a light within.

The tenth presents a huddled group of solemn figures seated on the ground. The next is a surging of mingled fire, water, and blood, wherein roll the volumes of a huge double-fanged serpent, his crest erect, his jaws wide open.

In the twelfth, the disembodied spirit, luminous and radiant, sits lightly upon its late prison house, gazing upwards whither it is about to soar. It is the same figure as that in Blair's Grave, where you see also the natural body, bent with years, tottering into the dark doorway beneath.

The thirteenth and last design gives Blake's idea of Nebuchadnezzar in the wilderness. Mr. Palmer tells me that he has old German translations of Cicero and Petrarch, in which, among some wild and original designs, almost the very same figure occurs; but that many years had elapsed after making his own design before Blake saw the woodcut.

The designs are highly finished: Blake had worked upon them so much, and illuminated them so richly, that even the letterpress seems as if done by hand. The ever-fluctuating colour, the spectral pigmies rolling, flying, leaping among the letters; the ripe bloom of quiet corners, the living light and bursts of flame, the spires and tongues of fire vibrating with the full prism, make the page seem to move and quiver within its boundaries, and you lay the book down tenderly, as if you had been handling something sentient. A picture has been said to be midway between a thing and a thought; so in these books over which Blake had long brooded, with his brooding of fire, the very paper seems to come to life as you gaze upon it—not with a mortal life, but with a life indestructible, whether for good or evil.

The volume is an octavo, consisting of twenty-four pages; all of them illuminated. In some copies the letters are red, in others a golden brown. The engraved page is about six inches by four. Occasionally a deep margin was left so as to form a quarto. Lord Houghton possesses a fine quarto, Mr. Linnell an octavo copy.

The subjoined outline of Nebuchadnezzar is not copied from the design just spoken of in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but is a facsimile of what was probably the original sketch for this, and is taken from a MS. volume by Blake, of rare interest and value, in the possession of Mr. Rossetti. This book contains, besides rough sketches and rough draughts, afterwards elaborated into finished designs and poems, much that exists in no other form. The kindness of the owner enables me freely to draw from this source.