Life of William Blake (1880), Volume 1/Chapters 4—6

CHAPTER IV.

A BOY'S POEMS. 1768—77. [ÆT. 11— 20.]

The poetical essays of the years of youth and apprenticeship are preserved in the thin octavo, Poetical Sketches by W. B., printed by help of friends in 1783, and now so rare, that after some years' vain attempt, I am forced to abandon the idea of myself owning the book. I have had to use a copy borrowed from one of Blake's surviving friends. In such hands alone, linger, I fancy, the dozen copies or so still extant. There is (of course) none where, at any rate, there should be one—in the British Museum.

'Tis hard to believe these poems were written in the author's teens, harder still to realize how some of them, in their unforced simplicity, their bold and careless freedom of sentiment and expression, came to be written at all in the third quarter of the eighteenth century: the age 'of polished phraseology and subdued thought,'—subdued with a vengeance. It was the generation of Shenstone, Langhorne, Mason, Whitehead, the Wartons; of obscurer Cunningham, Lloyd, Carter. Volumes of concentrated Beauties of English Poetry, volumes as fugitive often as those of original verse, are literary straws which indicate the set of the popular taste. If we glance into one of this date,—say into that compiled towards the close of the century, by one Mr. Thomas Tompkins, which purports to be a collection (expressly compiled 'to enforce the practice of Virtue') of 'Such poems as have been universally esteemed the first ornaments of our language,'—who are the elect? We have in great force the names just enumerated, and among older poets then read and honoured, to the exclusion of Chaucer and the Elizabethans, so imposing a muster-roll as—Parnell, Mallett, Blacklock, Addison, Gay; and, ascending to the highest heaven of the century's Walhalla, Goldsmith, Thomson, Gray, Pope; with a little of Milton and Shakspere thrown in as make-weight.

Where, beyond the confines of his own most individual mind, did the hosier's son find his model for that lovely web of rainbow fancy already quoted? I know of none in English literature. For the Song commencing

(see Vol. II.), with its shy evanescent tints and aroma as of pressed rose-leaves, parallels may be found among the lyrics of the Elizabethan age, an alien though it be in its own. The influence of contemporary models, unless it be sometimes Collins or Thomson, is nowhere in the volume discernible; but involuntary emulation of higher ones partially known to him, there is;—of the Reliques given to the world by Percy in 1760; of Shakspere, Spenser, and other Elizabethans. For the youth's choice of masters was as unfashionable in Poetry as in Design. Among the few students or readers in that day of Shakspere's Venus and Adonis, Tarquin and Lucrece, and Sonnets, of Ben Jonson's Underwoods and Miscellanies, the boy Blake was, according to Malkin, an assiduous one. The form of such a poem as

is inartificial and negligent; but incloses the like intangible spirit of delicate fancy; a lovely blush of life as it were, suffusing the enigmatic form. Even schoolboy blunders against grammar, and schoolboy complexities of expression, fail to break the musical echo, or mar the naive sweetness of the two concluding stanzas; which, in practised hands, might have been wrought into more artful melody with little increase of real effect. Again, how many reams of scholastic Pastoral have missed the simple gaiety of one which does not affect to be a 'pastoral' at all:—

Of the remarkable Mad Song extracted by Southey in his Doctor, who probably valued the thin octavo, as became a great Collector, for its rarity and singularity, that poet has said nothing to show he recognised its dramatic power, the daring expression of things otherwise inarticulate, the unity of sentiment, the singular truth with which the key-note is struck and sustained, or the eloquent, broken music of its rhythm.

The 'marvellous Boy' that 'perished in his pride,' (1770) while certain of these very poems were being written, amid all his luxuriant promise, and memorable displays of Talent produced few so really original as some of them. There are not many more to be instanced of quite such rare quality. But all abound in lavish if sometimes unknit strength. Their faults are such alone as flow from youth, as are inevitable in one whose intellectual activity is not sufficiently logical to reduce his imaginings into sufficiently clear and definite shape. As examples of poetic power and freshness quickening the imperfect, immature form, take his verses To the Evening Star in which the concluding lines subside into a reminiscence, but not a slavish one, of Puck's Night Song in Midsummer Night's Dream; or the lament To the Muses,—not inapposite surely, when it was written; or again, the full-coloured invocation To Summer.

In a few of the poems, the influence of Blake's contemporary, Chatterton,—of the Poems of Rowley, i.e., is visible. In the Prologue to King John, Couch of Death, Samson, &c., all written in measured prose, the influence is still more conspicuous of Macpherson's Ossian, which had taken the world by storm in Blake's boyhood, and in his manhood was a ruling power in the poetic world. In the 'Prophetic' and too often incoherent rhapsodies of later years this influence increases unhappily, leading the prophet to indulge in vague inpalpable personifications, as dim and monotonous as a moor in a mist. To the close of his life, Blake retained his allegiance to Ossian and Rowley. 'I believe,' writes he, in a MS. note (1826) on Wordsworth's Supplementary Essay, 'I believe both Macpherson and Chatterton: that what they say is ancient, is so.' And again, when the Lake Poet speaks contemptuously of Macpherson, 'I own myself an admirer of Ossian equally with any other poet whatever; of Rowley and Chatterton also.'

The longest piece in this volume, the most daring and perhaps, considering a self-taught boy wrote it, the most remarkable, is the Fragment or single act, of a Play on the high historic subject of King Edward III.: one of the few in old English history accidentally omitted from Shakspere's cycle. In his steps it is, not in those of Addison or Home, the ambitious lad strives as a dramatist to tread; and, despite halting verse, confined knowledge, and the anachronism of a modern tone of thought,—not unworthily, though of course with youthful unsteady stride. The manner and something of the spirit of the Historical Plays is caught, far more nearly than by straining Ireland in his forgeries. Of this performance as of the other contents of the volume, specimens must be deferred till Vol. II.; not to interrupt the thread of our narrative too much.

Fully to appreciate such poetry as the lad Blake composed in the years 1768-77, let us call to mind the dates at which first peeped above the horizon the cardinal lights which people our modern poetic Heavens, once more wakening into life the dull corpse of English song. Five years later than the last of these dates was published a small volume of Poems, 'By William Cowper, of the Middle Temple.' Nine years later (1786), Poems in the Scottish Dialect, by Robert Burns, appealed to a Kilmarnock public. Sixteen years later (1793) came the poems Wordsworth afterwards named Juvenile, written between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two: The Evening Walk, and the Descriptive Sketches, "with. their modest pellucid merit, still in the fettered 18th century manner. Not till twenty-one years later (1798), followed the more memorable Lyrical Ballads, including for one thing, the Tintern Abbey of Wordsworth, for another, The Ancient Mariner of Coleridge.

All these Poems had their influence, prompt or tardy, widening eventually into the universal. All were at any rate published. Some—those of Burns,—appealed to the feelings of the people, and of all classes; those of Cowper to the most numerous and influential section of an English community. The unusual notes struck by William Blake, in any case appealing but to one class and that a small one, were fated to remain unheard, even by the Student of Poetry, until the process of regeneration had run its course, and, we may say, the Poetic Revival gone to seed again, since the virtues of simplicity and directness the new poets began by bringing once more into the foreground are those least practised now.


Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, page 27.png
Life of William Blake (1880), volume 1, page 28.png

MORNING, OR GLAD DAY.


CHAPTER V.

STUDENT AND LOVER. 1778—82. [ÆT, 21—25.]

Apprenticeship to Basire having ended, Blake, now (1778) twenty-one, studied for a while in the newly formed Royal Academy: just then in an uncomfortable chrysalis condition, having had to quit its cramped lodgings in Old Somerset Palace (pulled down in 1775) and awaiting completion of the new building in which more elbow-room was to be provided. He commenced his course of study at the Academy (in the Antique School) 'under the eye of Mr. Moser,' its first Keeper, who had conducted the parent Schools in St. Martin's Lane. Moser, like Kauffman and Fuseli, was Swiss by birth: a sixth of our leading artists were still foreigners, as lists of the Original Forty testify. By profession he was a chaser unrivalled in his generation, medallist—he modelled and chased a great seal of England, afterwards stolen—and enamel-painter, in days when costly watch-cases continued to furnish ample employment for the enamel-painter. He was, in short, a skilled decorative artist during the closing years of Decorative Art's existence as a substantive fact in England, or Europe. The thing itself—the very notion that such art was wanted—was about to expire; and be succeeded, for a dreary generation or two, by a mere blank negation. Miss Moser, afterwards Mrs. Lloyd 'the celebrated flower painter,' another of the original members of the Academy, was George Michael Moser's daughter. Edwards, in his Anecdotes of Painters, obscurely declares of the honest Switzer that he was 'well skilled in the construction of the human figure and, as an instructor in the Academy, his manners, as well as his abilities, rendered him a most respectable master to the students.' A man of plausible address, as well as an ingenious, the quondam chaser and enameller was, evidently: a favourite with the President (Reynolds), a favourite with royalty. On the occasion of one royal visit to the Academy, after 1780 and its instalment in adequate rooms in the recently completed portion of Chambers' 'Somerset Place,' Queen Charlotte penetrated to the old man's apartment, and made him sit down and have an hour's quiet chat in German with her. To express his exultation at such 'amiable condescension,' the proud Keeper could ever after hardly find broken English and abrupt gestures sufficiently startling and whimsical. He was a favourite, too, with the students; many of whom voluntarily testified their regard around his grave in the burial-ground of St. Paul's, Covent Garden, when the time came to be carried thither in January, 1783.

The specific value of the guidance to be had by an ingenuous art-student from the venerable Moser, now a man of seventy-three, is suggestively indicated by a reminiscence afterwards noted down in Blake's MS. commentary on Reynolds' Discourses. 'I was once,' he there relates, 'looking over the prints from Raffaelle and Michael Angelo in the Library of the Royal Academy. Moser came to me, and said,—"You should not study these old, hard, stiff, and dry, unfinished works of art: stay a little and I will show you what you should study." He then went and took down Le Brun and Rubens' Galleries. How did I secretly rage! I also spake my mind! I said to Moser,—"These things that you call finished are not even begun: how then can they be finished?" The man who does not know the beginning cannot know the end of art.' Which observations 'tis to be feared Keeper Moser accounted hardly dutiful. For a well-conducted Student ought, in strict duty, to spend (and in such a case lose) his evening in looking through what his teacher sets before him. It has happened to other Academy students under subsequent Keepers and Librarians, I am told, to find themselves in a similarly awkward dilemma to this of Blake's.

With the Antique, Blake got on well enough, drawing with 'great care all or certainly nearly all the noble antique figures in various views.' From the living figure he also drew a good deal; but early conceived a distaste for the study as pursued in Academies of Art. Already 'life,' in so factitious, monotonous an aspect of it as that presented by a Model artificially posed to enact an artificial part—to maintain in painful rigidity some fleeting gesture of spontaneous Nature's—became, as it continued, 'hateful' looking to him, laden with thick-coming fancies, 'more like death' than life; nay (singular to say), 'smelling of mortality'—to an imaginative mind! 'Practice and opportunity,' he used afterwards to declare, 'very soon teach the language of art:' as much, that is, as Blake ever acquired, not a despicable if imperfect quantum. 'It's spirit and poetry, centred in the imagination alone, never can be taught; and these make the artist:' a truism, the fervid poet already began to hold too exclusively in view. Even at their best—as the vision-seer and instinctive Platonist tells us in one of the very last years of his life (MS. notes to Wordsworth)—mere 'Natural Objects always did and do weaken, deaden and obliterate imagination in me!'

The student still continued to throw off drawings and verses for his own delight; out of his numerous store of the former, engraving two designs from English history. One of these engravings, King Edward and Queen Eleanor, 'published' by him at a later date (from Lambeth), I have seen. It is a meritorious but heavy piece of business, in the old-fashioned plodding style of line-engraving, wherein the hand monotonously hatched line after line, now struck off by machine. The design itself and the other water-colour drawings of this date, all on historical subjects, which now lie scattered among various hands, have little of the quality or of the mannerism we are accustomed to associate with Blake's name. They remind one rather of Mortimer, the historical painter (now obsolete) of that era, who died, high in reputation with his contemporaries for fancy and correct drawing of the human figure, but neglected by patrons, about this very time, viz. in 1779, at the early age of forty. Of Mortimer, Blake always continued to entertain a very high estimate. The designs of this epoch in his life are correctly drawn, prettily composed, and carefully coloured, in a clear uniform style of equally distributed positive tints. But the costumes are vague and mythical, without being graceful and credible; what mannerism there is is a timid one, such as reappears in Hamilton always, in Stothard often; the general effect is heavy and uninteresting,—and the net result a yawn. One drawing dating from these years (1778-9), The Penance of Jane Shore in St. Paul's Church, thirty years later was included in Blake's Exhibition of his own Works (1809). In the Descriptive Catalogue he speaks of it with some complacency as 'proving to the author, and he thinks to any discerning eye, that the productions of our youth and of our maturer age are equal in all essential points.' To me, on inspecting the same, it proves nothing of the kind; though it be a very exemplary performance in the manner just indicated. The central figure of Jane Shore has however much grace and sweetness; and the intention of the whole composition is clear and decisive. One extrinsic circumstance materially detracts from the appearance of this and other water-colour drawings from his hand of the period: viz. that, as a subsittute for glass, they were all eventually, in prosecution of a hobby of Blake's, varnished—of which process, applied to a water-colour drawing, nothing can exceed the disenchanting, not to say destructive effect.

There is a scarce engraving inscribed 'W. B. inv. 1780' (reproduced at the head of this chapter,) which, within certain limitations, has much more of the peculiar Blake quality and intensity about it. The subject is evidently a personification of Morning, or Glad Day: a nude male figure, with one foot on earth, just alighted from above; a flood of radiance still encircling his head; his arms outspread,—as exultingly bringing joy and solace to this lower world,—not with classic Apollo-like indifference, but with the divine chastened fervour of an angelic minister. Below crawls a caterpillar, and a hybrid kind of night-moth takes wing.

Meanwhile, the Poet and Designer, living under his father the hosier's roof, 28, Broad Street, had not only to educate himself in high art, but to earn his livelihood by humbler art—engraver's journey-work. During the years 1779 to 1782 and onwards, one or two booksellers gave him employment in engraving from afterwards better known fellow designers. Harrison of Paternoster Row employed him for his Novelists' Magazine, or collection of approved novels; for his Ladies' Magazine, and perhaps other serials; J. Johnson, a constant employer during a long series of years, for various books; and occasionally other booksellers,—Macklin, Buckland, and (later) Dodsley, Stockdale, the Cadells. Among the first in date of such prints, was a well-engraved frontispiece after Stothard, bold and telling in light and shade ('The Four Quarters of the Globe'), to a System of Geography (1779): and another after Stothard ('Clarence's Dream') to Enfield's Speaker, published by Johnson in 1780. Then came with sundry miscellaneous, eight plates after some of Stothard's earliest and most beautiful designs, for the Novelists' Magazine. The designs brought in young Stothard, hitherto an apprentice to a Pattern-draftsman in Spitalfields, a guinea a-piece,—and established his reputation: their intrinsic grace, feeling, and freshness being (for one thing) advantageously set off by very excellent engraving, of an infinitely more robust and honest kind than the smooth style of Heath and his School which succeeded to it and eventually brought about the ruin of line-engraving for book illustrations. Of Blake's eight engravings, all thorough and sterling pieces of workmanship, two were illustrations of Don Quixote, one of the Sentimental Journey (1782), one of Miss Fielding's David Simple, another of Launcelot Greaves, three of Grandison (1782-3).

One Trotter, a fellow-engraver who received instructions from Blake, engraved a print or two after Stothard, and was also draftsman to the calico-printers, had introduced Blake to Stothard, the former's senior by nearly two years, then lodging in company with Shelly, the miniature painter, in the Strand. Stothard introduced Blake to Flaxman, who after seeing some of the early graceful plates in the Novelists' Magazine, had of his own accord made their designer's acquaintance. Flaxman, of the same age and standing as Stothard, was as yet subsisting by his designs for the first Wedgwood, and also living in the Strand with his father who there kept a well-known plaster-cast shop when plaster-cast shops were rare. A wistful remembrance of the superiority of 'old Flaxman's' casts still survives among artists. In 1781 the sculptor married, taking house and studio of his own at 27, Wardour Street, and becoming Blake's near neighbour. He proved—despite some passing clouds which for a time obscured their friendship at a later era—one of the best and firmest friends Blake ever had, as great artists often prove to one another in youth. The imaginative man needed friends; for his gifts were not of the bread-winning sort. He was one of those whose genius is in a far higher ratio than their talents: and it is Talent which commands worldly success. Amidst the miscellaneous journey-work which about this period kept Blake's graver going, if not his mind, may be mentioned the illustrations to a show-list of Wedgwood's productions, specimens of his latest novelties in earthenware and porcelain—tea and dinner services, &c. Seldom have such very humble essays in Decorative Art—good enough in form, but not otherwise remarkable—tasked the combined energies of a Flaxman and a Blake! To the list of the engraver's friends was afterwards added Fuseli, of maturer age and acquirements, man of letters as well as Art, a multifarious and learned author. From intercourse with minds like these, much was learned by Blake, in his art and out of it. In 1780, Fuseli, then thirty-nine, just returned from eight years' sojourn in Italy, became a neighbour, lodging in Broad Street, where he remained until 1782. In the latter year, his original and characteristic picture of The Nightmare made 'a sensation' at the Exhibition: the first of his to do so. The subsequent engraving gave him a European reputation. Artists' homes as well as studios abounded then in Broad Street and its neighbourhood. Bacon the sculptor lived in Wardour Street, Paul Sandby in Poland Street, the fair R.A., Angelica Kauffman in Golden Square, Bartolozzi with his apprentice Sherwin in Broad Street itself and, at a later date, John Varley, 'father of modern Water Colours,' in the same street (No. 15). Literary celebrities were not wanting: in Wardour Street, Mrs. Chapone; in Poland Street, pushing, pompous Dr. Burney, of Musical History notoriety.

In the catalogue of the now fairly established Royal Academy's Exhibition for 1780, its twelfth, and first at Somerset House—all previous had been held in its 'Old Room' (originally built for an auction room), on the south side of Pall Mall East—appears for the first time a work by 'W. Blake.' It was an Exhibition of only 489 'articles' in all, waxwork and 'designs for a fan' inclusive; among its leading exhibitors, boasting Sir Joshua Reynolds and Mary Moser, R.A., Gainsborough and Angelica Kauffman, R.A. Cosway, and Loutherbourg, Paul Sandby and Zoffany, Copley (Lyndhurst's father), and Fuseli, not yet Associate. Blake's contribution is the Death of Earl Godwin exhibited in 'The Ante-room' devoted to flower-pieces, crayons, miniatures, and water-colour landscapes—some by Gainsborough. This first Exhibition in official quarters went off with much éclat, netting double the average amount realized by its predecessors: viz. as much as 3,000l.

In the sultry, early days of June, 1780, the Lord George Gordon No-Popery Riots rolled through Town. Half London was sacked, and its citizens for six days laid under forced contributions by a mob some forty thousand strong of boys, pickpockets, and 'roughs.' In this outburst of anarchy, Blake long remembered an involuntary participation of his own. On the third day, Tuesday, 6th of June, 'the Mass-houses' having already been demolished—one, in Blake's near neighbourhood, Warwick Street, Golden Square—and various private houses also; the rioters, flushed with gin and victory, were turning their attention to grander schemes of devastation. That evening, the artist happened to be walking in a route chosen by one of the mobs at large, whose course lay from Justice Hyde's house near Leicester Fields, for the destruction of which less than an hour had sufficed, through Long Acre, past the quiet house of Blake's old master, engraver Basire in Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, and down Holborn, bound for Newgate. Suddenly, he encountered the advancing wave of triumphant Blackguardism, and was forced (for from such a great surging mob there is no disentanglement) to go along in the very front rank, and witness the storm and burning of the fortress-like prison, and release of its three hundred inmates. This was a peculiar experience for a spiritual poet; not without peril, had a drunken soldier chanced to have identified him during the after weeks of indiscriminate vengeance: those black weeks when strings of boys under fourteen were hung up in a row to vindicate the offended majesty of the Law. 'I never saw boys cry so!' observed Selwyn, connoisseur in hanging, in his Diary.

It was the same Tuesday night, one may add, that among the obnoxious mansions of magistrate and judge gutted of furniture, and consigned to the flames, Lord Mansfield's in Bloomsbury Square was numbered. That night, too—every householder having previously chalked the talisman, 'No Popery,' on his door, (the very Jews inscribing 'This House True Protestant!') every house showing a blue flag, every wayfarer having donned the blue cockade—that night the Londoners with equal unanimity illuminated their windows. Still wider stupor of fear followed next day: and to it, a still longer sleepless night of prison-burning, drunken infatuation, and onsets from the military, let slip at last from civil leash. Six-and-thirty fires are to be seen simultaneously blazing in one new neighbourhood (Bloomsbury), not far from Blake's and still nearer to Basire's; whence are heard the terrible shouts of excited crowds, mingling with the fiercer roar of the flames, and with the reports of scattered musket-shots at distant points from the soldiery. Some inhabitants catch up their household effects and aimlessly run up and down the streets with them; others cheerfully pay their guinea a mile for a vehicle to carry them beyond the tumult. These were not favourable days for designing, or even quiet engraving.

Since his twentieth year, Blake's energies had been 'wholly directed to the attainment of excellence in his profession' as artist: too much so to admit of leisure or perhaps inclination for poetry. Engrossing enough was the indispensable effort to master the difficulties of Design, with pencil or in watercolours. With the still tougher mechanical difficulties of oil-painting he never fairly grappled; but confined himself to water-colours and tempera (on canvas), with, in after years a curious modification of the latter—which he daringly christened 'fresco.' Original invention now claimed more than all his leisure. His working-hours during the years 1780 to 1782 were occupied by various book-plates for the publications already named. These voluminous, well-illustrated serials are not infrequently stumbled on by the Collector at the second-hand booksellers. Very few are to be found in our Museum Library, professedly miscellaneous as that collection is. In the Print Room exists a fine series of engravings after Stothard; which, however, being undated, affords little help to those wishing to learn something about the engravers of them.

These were days of Courtship, too. And the course of Blake's love did not open smoothly. 'A lively little girl' in his own, or perhaps a humbler station, the object of his first sighs readily allowed him, as girls in a humbler class will, meaning neither marriage nor harm, to 'keep company' with her; to pay his court, take mutual walks, and be as lovesick as he chose; but nowise encouraged the idea of a wedding. In addition to the pangs of fruitless love, attacks of jealousy had stoically to be borne. When he complained that the favour of her company in a stroll had been extended to another admirer, 'Are you a fool' was the brusque reply—with a scornful glance. 'That cured me of jealousy,' Blake used naïvely to relate. One evening at a friend's house he was bemoaning in a corner his love-crosses. His listener, a dark-eyed generous-hearted girl, frankly declared 'She pitied him from her heart.' 'Do you pity me?' 'Yes! I do, most sincerely.' 'Then I love you for that!' he replied with enthusiasm:—such soothing pity is irresistible. And a second more prosperous courtship began. At this, or perhaps a later meeting, followed the confession, I dare say in lower tones, 'Well! and I love you!'—always, doubtless, a pretty one to hear.

The unsophisticated maiden was named Catherine Sophia Boucher—plebeian corruption, probably, of the grand historic name, Bourchier;—daughter of William and Mary Boucher of Battersea. So at least the Register gives the name: where, within less than ten years, no fewer than seven births to the same parents, including two sets of twins in succession, immediately precede hers. Her position and connexions in life were humble, humbler than Blake's own; her education—as to book-lore—neglected, not to say omitted. For even the (at first) paltry makeshift of National Schools had not yet been invented; and Sunday Schools were first set going a little after this very time, namely in 1784. When, by and by, Catherine's turn came, as bride, to sign the Parish Register, she, as the same yet mutely testifies, could do no more than most young ladies of her class then, or than the Bourchiers, Stanleys, and magnates of the land four centuries before could do—viz. make a as 'her mark:' her surname on the same occasion being misspelt for her and vulgarized into Butcher, and her second baptismal name omitted. A bright-eyed, dark-haired brunette, with expressive features and a slim graceful form, can make a young artist and poet overlook such trifles as defective scholarship. Nor were a fair outside and a frank accessible heart deceptive lures in this instance. Catherine—Christian namesake, by the way, of Blake's mother—was endowed with a loving loyal nature, an adaptive open mind, capable of profiting by good teaching, and of enabling her, under constant high influence, to become a meet companion to her imaginative husband in his solitary and wayward course. Uncomplainingly and helpfully, she shared the low and rugged fortunes which over-originality insured as his unvarying lot in life. She had mind and the ambition which follows. Not only did she prove a good housewife on straitened means, but in after-years, under his tuition and hourly companionship, she acquired, besides the useful arts of reading and writing, that which very few uneducated women with the honestest effort ever succeed in attaining—some footing of equality with her husband, She, in time, came to work off his engravings as though she had been bred to the trade; nay, imbibed enough of his very spirit to reflect it in Design which might almost have been his own.

Allan Cunningham says she was a neighbour. But the marriage took. place at Battersea, where I trace relatives of Blake's father to have been then living. During the course of the courtship, many a happy Surrey ramble must have been taken towards and around the pleasant village of the St. Johns. The old family-seat, spacious and venerable, still stood, in which Lord Bolingbroke had been born and died, which Pope had often visited. The village was 'four miles from London' then, and had just begun to shake hands with Chelsea by a timber bridge over the Thames; the river bright and clear there at low tide as at Richmond now, with many a placid angler dotting its new bridge. Green meadow and bright cornfield lay between the old-fashioned winding High Street and the purple heights of Wimbledon and Richmond. In the volume of 1783, among the poems which have least freshness of feeling, being a little alloyed by false notes as of the poetic Mocking Bird, are one or two love-poems anticipating emotions as yet unfelt. And Love, it is said, must be felt ere it can be persuasively sung. One or two stanzas, if we did not know they had been written long before, might well have been allusive to the 'black-eyed maid' of present choice and the 'sweet village' where he wooed her.

When early morn walks forth in sober grey,
Then to my black-ey'd maid I haste away;
When evening sits beneath her dusky bow'r
And gently sighs away the silent hour,
The village-bell alarms, away I go,
And the vale darkens at my pensive woe.


To that sweet village, where my black-ey'd maid
Doth drop a tear beneath the silent shade,
I turn my eyes; and pensive as I go.
Curse my black stars, and bless my pleasing woe.


Oft when the summer sleeps among the trees,
Whisp'ring faint murmurs to the scanty breeze,
I walk the village round; if at her side
A youth doth walk in stolen joy and pride,
I curse my stars in bitter grief and woe.
That made my love so high and me so low.

* * * * *

The last is an inapplicable line to the present case,—decidedly unprophetic. In a better, more Blake-like manner is the other poem, apposite to how many thousand lovers, in how many climes, since man first came into the planet.

* * * * *

My feet are wing'd while o'er the dewy lawn
I meet my maiden risen with the morn:
Oh, bless those holy feet, like angel's feet!
Oh, bless those limbs beaming with heavenly light!


As when an angel glitt'ring in the sky
In times of innocence and holy joy,
The joyful shepherd stops his grateful song
To hear the music of that angel's tongue:


So when she speaks, the voice of Heav'n I hear;
So when we walk, nothing impure comes near;
Each field seems Eden and each calm retreat;
Each village seems the haunt of holy feet.

But that sweet village where my black-ey'd maid
Closes her eyes in sleep beneath Night's shade,
Whene'er I enter, more than mortal fire
Burns in my soul, and does my song inspire.


The occasional hackneyed rhyme, awkward construction, and verbal repetition, entailed by the requirements of very inartificial verse, are technical blemishes any poetical reader may by ten minutes' manipulation mend, but such as clung to Blake's verse in later and maturer years.

The lovers were married, Blake being in his twenty-fifth year, his bride in her twenty-first, on a Sunday in August (the 18th), 1782, in the then newly rebuilt church of Battersea: a 'handsome edifice,' say contemporary topographers. Which, in the present case, means a whitey-brown brick building in the church-warden style, relying for architectual effect externally, on a nondescript steeple, a low slate roof, double rows of circular-headed windows, and an elevated western portico in a strikingly picturesque and unique position, almost upon the river as it were, which here takes a sudden bend to the south-west, the body of the church stretching alongside it. The interior, with its galleries (in which are interesting seventeenth and eighteenth century mural tablets from the old church, one by Roubiliac), and elaborately decorated apsidal dwarf-chancel, has an imposing effect and a strongly marked characteristic accent (of its Day), already historical and interesting. There, standing above the vault wherein lies the coronetted coffin of Pope's Bolingbroke, the two plighted troth. The vicar who joined their hands, Joseph Gardnor, was himself an amateur artist of note in his day, copious 'honorary contributor' (not above customers) to the Exhibitions; sending 'Views from the Lakes,' from Wales, and other much-libelled Home Beauties, and even Landscape Compositions 'in the style of the Lakes,' whatever that may mean. Specimens of this master—pasteboard-like model of misty mountain, old manorial houses as of cards, perspectiveless diagram of lovely vale—may be inspected in Williams' plodding History of Monmouthshire, and in other books of topography. Engravers had actually to copy and laboriously bite in these young-lady-like Indian ink drawings. Conspicuous mementoes of the vicar's Taste and munificence still survive, parochially, in the 'handsome crimson curtains' trimmed with amber, and held up by gold cord with heavy gold tassels, festooned about the painted eastern window of the church: or rather in deceptively perfect imitations of such upholstery, painted ('tis said) by the clergyman's own skilled hand on the light-grained wall of the circular chancel. The window is an eighteenth century remnant piously preserved from the old church: a window literally painted not stained—the colours not burnt in, that is; so that a deluded cleaner on one occasion rubbed out a portion. The subjects are armorial bearings of the St. Johns, and (at bottom) portraits of three august collateral connexions of the Family: Margaret Beauchamp, Henry VII. and Queen Elizabeth. The general effect is good in colour, not without a tinge of ancient harmony, yellow being the predominating hue. From the vicar's hand, again, are the two small 'paintings on glass,'—The Lamb bearing the sacred monogram, and The Dove (descending),—which fill the two circular side-windows, of an eminently domestic type, in the curvilinear chancel-wall: paintings so 'natural' and familiarly 'like,' an innocent spectator forgets perhaps their sacred symbolism—as possibly did the artist too! Did the future designer of The Gates of Paradise, the Jerusalem, and the Job, kneel beneath these trophies of religious art?

CHAPTER VI.

INTRODUCTION TO THE POLITE WORLD. 1782—84. [ÆT. 25—27.]

To his father, Blake's early and humble marriage is said to have been unacceptable; and the young couple did not return to the hosier's roof. They commenced housekeeping on their own account in lodgings at 23, Green Street, Leicester Fields; in which Fields or Square, on the north side, the junior branches of Royalty had lately abode, and on the east (near Green Street) great Hogarth. On the west side of it Sir Joshua, in these very years, had his handsome house and noble gallery. Green Street, then the abode of quiet private citizens, is now a nondescript street, given up to curiosity-shops, shabby lodging-houses and busy feet hastening to and from the Strand. No. 23, on the right-hand side going city-wards, next to the house at the corner of the Square, is one—from the turn the narrow Street here takes—at right angles with and looking down the rest of it. At present, part tenanted by a shoemaker, the house is in an abject plight of stucco, dirt, and dingy desolation. In the previous year, as we have seen, friendly Flaxman had married and taken a house.

About this time, or a little earlier, Blake was introduced by the admiring, sympathetic sculptor to the accomplished Mrs. Mathew, his own warm friend. The 'celebrated Mrs. Mathew?' Alas! for tenure of mortal Fame! This lady ranked among the distinguished blue-stockings of her day; was once known to half the Town, the polite and lettered part thereof, as the agreeable, fascinating, spirituelle Mrs. Mathew, as, in brief, one of the most 'gifted and elegant' of women. As she does not, like her fair comrades, still flutter about the bookstalls among the half-remembered all-unread, and as no lettered contemporary has handed down her portrait, she has disappeared from us. Yet the lady, with her husband, the Rev. Henry Mathew, merit remembrance from the lovers of Art, as the first discoverers and fosterers of the genius of Flaxman, when a boy not yet in teens, and his introducer to more opulent patrons. Their son, afterwards Dr. Mathew, was John Hunter's favourite pupil. Learned as well as elegant, she would read Homer in Greek to the future sculptor, interpreting as she went, while the child sat by her side sketching a passage here and there; and thus she stimulated him to acquire hereafter some knowledge of the language for himself. She was an encourager of musicians, a kind friend to young artists. To all of promising genius the doors of her house, 27, Rathbone Place, were open. Rathbone Place, not then made over to papier-maché, Artist's colours, toy-shops, and fancy-trades, was a street of private houses, stiffly genteel and highly respectable, nay, in a sedate way, quasi fashionable; the Westbourne Street of that day, when the adjacent district of Bloomsbury with its Square, in which (on the countryward side) was the Duke of Bedford's grand House, was absolutely fashionable and comparatively new, lying on the northern skirts of London; when Great Ormond Street, Queen's Square, Southampton Row, were accounted 'places of pleasure,' being 'in one of the most charming situations about town,' next the open fields, and commanding a 'beautiful landscape formed by the hills of Highgate and Hampstead and adjacent country.' Among the residents of Rathbone Place, the rebel Lords Lovat, Kilmarnock, Balmarino had at one time been numbered. Of the Mathews' house, by the way, now divided into two, both of them shops, the library or back parlour, garrulous Smith (Nollekens's biographer) in his Book for a Rainy Day tells us, was decorated by grateful Flaxman 'with models in putty and sand, of figures in niches in the Gothic manner:' quære if still extant? The window was painted 'in imitation of stained glass'—just as that in Battersea church, those at Strawberry Hill, and elsewhere were, the practice being one of the valued arts or artifices of the day—by Loutherbourg's assistant, young Oram, another protégé. The furniture, again, 'bookcases, tables, and chairs, were also ornamented to accord with the appearance of those of antiquity.'

Mrs. Mathew's drawing-room was frequented by most of the literary and known people of the last quarter of the century, was a centre of all then esteemed enlightened and delightful in society. Réunions were held in it such as Mrs. Montagu and Mrs. Vesey had first set going, unconsciously contributing the word blue-stocking to our language. There, in the list of her intimate friends and companions, would assemble those esteemed ornaments of their sex,—unreadable Chapone, of well improved mind; sensible Barbauld; versatile, agreeable Mrs. Brooke, novelist and dramatist; learned and awful Mrs. Carter, a female Great Cham of literature, and protectress of 'Religion and Morality.' Thither came sprightly, fashionable Mrs. Montagu herself, Conyers Middleton's pupil, champion of Shakspere in his urgent need against rude Voltaire, and a letter-writer almost as vivacious and piquante in the modish style as her namesake Lady Wortley; her printed correspondence remaining still readable and entertaining. This is the lady whose powers of mind and conversation Dr. Johnson estimated so highly, and whose good opinion he so highly valued, though at last to his sorrow falling out of favour with her. It was she who gave the annual May-Day dinner to the chimney sweeps, in commemoration of a well-known family incident. As illustrative of their status with the public, let us add, on Smith's authority, that the four last-named beaux-esprits figured as Muses in the Frontispiece to a Lady's Pocket Book for 1778—a flattering apotheosis of nine contemporary female wits, including Angelica Kauffman and Mrs. Sheridan. Perhaps pious, busy Hannah More, as yet of the world, as yet young and kittenish, though not without claws, also in her youth a good letter-writer in the woman-of-the-world style; perhaps, being of the Montagu circle, she also would make one at Mrs. Mathew's, on her visits to town to see her publishers, the Cadells, about some ambling poetic 4to. Florio and the Basbleu, modest Sacred Drama, heavy 8vo. Strictures on Female Education, or other fascinating lucubration on

"Providence, foreknowledge, will and fate:"

dissertations, which, after having brought their author in some thirty thousand pounds sterling, a capricious public consumes with less avidity than it did. Good heavens! what a frowsy, drowsy 'party sitting in a parlour,' now 'all silent and all damned' (in a literary sense), these venerable ladies and great literary luminaries of their day, ladies once lively and chatty enough, seem to an irreverent generation, at their present distance from us. The spiritual interval is an infinitely wider one than the temporal; so foreign have mere eighteenth-century habits of thought and prim conventions become. Let us charitably believe the conversation of the fair was not so dull as their books; that there was the due enlivenment of scandal and small talk; and that Mrs. Mathew—by far the most pleasant to think of, because she did not commit herself to a book—that she, with perhaps Mrs. Brooke and Mrs. Montagu, took the leading parts.

The disadvantages of a neglected education, such as Blake's, are considerable. But, one is here reminded, the disadvantages of a false one are greater: when the acquisition of a second nature of conventionality, misconception of high models and worship of low ones, is the kind in vogue. An inestimable advantage for an original mind to have retained its freedom, the healthy play of native powers, of virgin faculties yet unsophisticate!

Mrs. Mathew's husband was a known man, too, man of taste and virtù, incumbent of the neighbouring Proprietary Chapel, Percy Chapel, Charlotte Street, built for him by admiring lay friends; an edifice known to a later generation as the theatre of Satan Montgomery's displays. Mr. Mathew filled also a post of more prestige as afternoon preacher at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields; and 'read the church-service more beautifully than any other clergyman in London,' a lady who had heard him informs me—and as others too used to think, Flaxman for one. With which meagre biographic trait, the inquisitive reader must be satisfied. The most diligent search yields nothing further. That he was an amiable, kindly man we gather from the circumstances of his first notice of the child Flaxman in the father's cast-shop, coughing over his Latin behind the counter, and of his continued notice of the weakly child during the years which elapsed before he was strong enough to walk from the Strand to Rathbone Place, and be received into the sunshine of Mrs. Mathew's smiles.

To that lady's agreeable and brilliant conversazioni Blake was made welcome. At one of them, a little later (in 1784), Nollekens Smith, most literal, most useful of gossips, then a youth of eighteen, first saw the poet-painter, and 'heard him read and sing several of his poems'—'often heard him.' Yes! sing them; for Blake had composed airs to his verses. Wholly ignorant of the art of music, he was unable to note down these spontaneous melodies, and repeated them by ear. Smith reports that his tunes were sometimes 'most singularly beautiful,' and 'were noted down by musical professors;' Mrs. Mathew's being a musical house. I wish one of these musical professors or his executors would produce a sample. Airs simple and ethereal to match the designs and poems of William Blake would be a novelty in music. One would fain hear the melody invented for

or for some of the Songs of Innocence. 'He was listened to by the company,' adds Smith, 'with profound silence, and allowed by most of the visitors to possess original and extraordinary merit.' Phœnix amid an admiring circle of cocks and hens is alone a spectacle to compare mentally with this!

The accomplished hostess for a time took up Blake with much fervour. His poetic recitals kindled so much enthusiasm in her feminine bosom that she urged her husband to join his young friend Flaxman, in placing the poems—those of which we gave an account at the date of composition—in the clear light of print and to assume half the cost. Which, accordingly, was done, in 1783: the year in which happened the execution for forgery of the gifted fellow-engraver—in whose face the boy Blake, twelve years before, had so strangely deciphered omens of his fate—Ryland. This unfortunate man's prepossessing appearance and manners inspired, on the other hand, so much confidence in the governor of the prison in which he awaited trial, that on one occasion the former took him out for a walk, implicitly trusting to his good faith that he would not avail himself of the opportunity to run away. Ryland's was the last execution at Tyburn, then still on the outside of London. This was the year, too, in which Barry published his Account of the Pictures in the Adelphi. On one copy I have seen a characteristic pencil recollection, from Blake's hand, of the strange Irishman's ill-favoured face: that of an idealized bulldog, with villainously low forehead, turn-up nose, and squalid tout-ensemble. It is strong evidence of the modest Flaxman's generous enthusiasm for his friend that, himself a struggling artist, little patronized, he should have made the first ofter of printing these poems, and at his own charge; and that he now bore a moiety of the cost. The book only runs to 74 pages, 8vo., and its unpretending title-page stands thus: Poetical Sketches; by W. B., London: Printed in the Year 1783. The clergyman 'with his usual urbanity' penned a preface stating the youthful authorship of the volume, apologizing for 'irregularities and defects' in the poems, and 'hoping their poetic originality merits some 'respite from oblivion.'

The author's absence of the leisure, 'requisite to such a revisal of these sheets as might have rendered them less unfit to meet the public eye, is pleaded.' Little revisal certainly they had, not even correction of the press, apparently. The pamphlet, which has no printer's name to be discredited by it, is as carelessly printed as an old English play, evidently at an establishment which did not boast a 'reader.' Semi-colons and fullstops where commas should be, misprints, such as 'beds of dawn' for 'birds,' by no means help out the meaning. The whole impression was presented to Blake to sell to friends or publish, as he should think best. Unfortunately, it never got published and, for all purposes except that of preservation, might as well have continued MS. As in those days there still survived, singular to say, a bonâ fide market for even mediocre verse, publishers and editors actually handing over hard cash for it, just as if it were prose, Blaise's friends would have done better to have gone to the Trade with his poems. The thin octavo did not even get so far as the Monthly Review; at all events, it does not appear in the copious and explicit Index of 'books noticed' in that periodical, now quite a manual of extinct literature.

The poems J. T. Smith, in 1784, heard Blake sing, can hardly have been those known to his hearers by the printed volume of 1783, but fresh ones, to the composition of which the printing of that volume had stimulated him: some, doubtless, of the memorable and musical Songs of Innocence, as they were subsequently named.

Blake's course of soirées in Rathbone Place was not long a smooth one. 'It happened unfortunately,' writes enigmatic Smith, whose forte is not grammar, 'soon after this period'—soon after 1784, that is, the year during which Smith heard him 'read and sing his poems' to an attentive auditory—'that in consequence of his unbending deportment, or what his adherents are pleased to call his manly firmness of opinion, which certainly was not at all times considered pleasing by every one, his visits were not so frequent':—and after a time ceased altogether, 'tis to be feared. One's knowledge of Blake's various originalities of thought on all subjects, his stiffness, when roused, in maintaining them, also his high, though at ordinary moments inobtrusive notions of his calling, of the dignity of it, and its superiority to all mere worldly distinctions, help to elucidate gossiping John Thomas. One readily understands that on more intimate acquaintance, when it was discovered by well-regulated minds that the erratic Bard perversely came to teach, not to be taught, nor to be gently schooled into imitative proprieties and condescendingly patted on the back, he became less acceptable to the polite world at No. 27, than when first started as a prodigy in that elegant arena.


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