Life of William Blake (1880), Volume 1/Chapters 7—9
STRUGGLE AND SORROW. 1782—87. [ÆT. 25—30.]
Returning to 1782-3, among the engravings executed by Blake in those years, I have noticed after Stothard, four illustrations—two vignettes and two oval plates—to Scott of Amwell's Poems, published by Buckland (1782); two frontispieces to Dodsley's Lady's Pocket Book—'The morning amusements of H.R.H. the Princess Royal and her four sisters' (1782), and 'A Lady in full-dress' with another 'in the most fashionable undress now worn' (1783);—and The Fall of Rosamond, a circular plate in a book published by Macklin (1783). To the latter year also, the first after Blake's marriage, belong about eight or nine of the vignettes after the purest and most lovely of the early and best designs of the same artist—full of sweetness, refinement, and graceful fancy—which illustrate Ritson's Collection of English Songs (3 vols. 8vo.); others being engraved by Grignon, Heath, &c. In the first volume occur the best designs, and—what is remarkable—designs very Blake-like in feeling and conception; having the air of graceful translation of his inventions. Most in this volume are engraved by Blake, and very finely, with delicacy, as well as force. I may instance in particular one at the head of the Love Songs, a Lady singing, Cupids fluttering before her, a singularly refined composition; another, a vignette to Jemmy Dawson, which is, in fact. Hero awaiting Leander; another to When Lovely Woman, a sitting figure of much dignity and beauty.
In after-years of estrangement from Stothard, Blake used to complain of this mechanical employment as engraver to a fellow designer, who (he asserted) first borrowed from one that, in his servile capacity, had then to copy that comrade's version of his own inventions—as to motive and composition his own, that is. The strict justice of this complaint I can hardly measure, because I know not how much of the Design he afterwards engraved was actually being produced at this period—doubtless much. We shall hereafter have to point out that a good deal in Flaxman and Stothard may be traced to Blake, is indeed only Blake in the Vernacular, classicized and (perhaps half-unconsciously) adapted. His own compositions bear the authentic first-hand impress; those unmistakable traces, which no hand can feign, of genuineness, freshness, and spontaneity; the look as of coming straight from another world—that in which Blake's spirit lived. He, in his cherished visionary faculty, his native power and lifelong habit of vivid Invention, was placed above all need or inclination to borrow from others. If, as happens to all, there occur occasional passages of unconscious reminiscence from the Old Masters, there is no cooking or disguise. His friend Fuseli, with characteristic candour, used to declare, 'Blake is d——d good to steal from!'
Certainly, Stothard, though even he could by utmost diligence only earn a moderate income—for if in request with the publishers he was neglected by picture-buyers—was throughout life, compared with Blake, a prosperous, affluent man. He had, throughout, the advantage of Blake with the public. Hence, early, some feeling of soreness in his uncompliant companion's bosom. Stothard had the advantage in the marketable quality of his genius, in his versatile talents, his superior technic attainments—or, rather, superior consistency of attainment; above all, in his inborn grace and elegance. He could make the refined Domestic groups he so readily conceived, whether all his own or in part borrowed, far more palatable to the many, the cultivated many—cultivated Rogers for example, his life-long patron—than Blake could ever make his Dantesque sublimity, wild Titanic play of fancy, and spiritually imaginative dreams. I think the latter, as we shall see when we come to the Songs of Innocence and Experience, was at this period of his life influenced to his advantage as a designer by contact with Stothard's graceful mind; but that any capability of grander qualities occasionally shown by Stothard was derived, and perhaps as unconsciously, from Blake. And Stothard's earlier style is far purer and more 'matterful,' to use an expression of Charles Lamb's, than the sugar-plum manner of his latter years. In Stothard as in Blake, however nominally various the subject, there is the tyrannous predominance of certain ruling ideas of the designer's. Stothard's tether was always shorter than Blake's; but within the prescribed limits, his performance was the more (superficially) perfect, as well as soft, and rounded.
In 1784 I find Blake engraving after Stothard and others in the Wit's Magazine. The Wit's Magazine was a 'Monthly Repository for the Parlour Window'—not designed (as the title in those free-speaking days might warrant a suspicion) to raise a blush on Lady's cheek:—a miscellany of innocently entertaining rather than strictly witty gleanings, and original contributions, mostly amateur. A periodical curious to look back upon in days of a weekly Punch! It would be difficult now to find a literary parallel to Mr. Harrison's plan of 'creating a spirit of emulation, and rewarding genius:' by awarding 'one silver medal' per month to the 'best witty tale, essay, or poem,' another to 'the best answer' to the munificent proprietor's 'prize enigmas.' A full list of the names and addresses of successful candidates for Fame is appended to each of the two octavo volumes to which the Magazine ran. A graceful grotesque, the Temple of Mirth, of Stothard's design, is the frontispiece to the first number: a folding sheet forcibly engraved by Blake in his characteristic manner of distributing strongly contrasted light and shade and tone. To it succeeded, month by month, four similar engravings by him after a noted caricaturist of the day now forgotten, S. Collings: on broad-grin themes, such as The Tithe in Kind, or the Sow's Revenge, The Discomfited Duellists, The Blind Beggar's Hats, and May Day in London. After which, an engraver of lower grade, one Smith, (quære, our friend Nollekens Smith?) executes the engravings; and after him a nameless one. The engraving caricatures of the earth earthy for this 'Library of Momus' was truly a singular task for a spiritual poet!Some slight clue to the original Design of this period in a somewhat different key is given by the Exhibition-Catalogues, which report Blake as making a second appearance at the Academy in 1784. In that year,—the year of Reynolds's Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, and Fortune-Teller,—there hung in the 'Drawing and Sculpture Room,' two designs of Blake's: one,—War unchained by an Angel—Fire, Pestilence and Famine following; the other, a Breach in a City—The Morning after a Battle. Companion-subjects, their tacit moral—the supreme despicableness of War—was one of which the artist, in all his tenets thorough-going, was a fervent propagandist in days when War was tyrannously in the ascendant. This, by the way, was the year of Peace with the tardily recognised North American States. I have not seen the former of those two drawings. The same theme gave birth about twenty years later to four very fine water-colour drawings,—for Dantesque intensity, imaginative directness, and power of the terrible: illustrations of the doings of the Destroying Angels that War lets loose—Fire, Plague, Pestilence, and Famine. Of the second-named we give here a reduced
During the summer of 1784, died Blake's father, an honest shopkeeper of the old school, and a devout man—a dissenter. He was buried in Bunhill Fields, on the fourth of July (a Sunday) says the Register. The second son, James,—a year and a half William's senior,—continued to live with the widow Catherine, and succeeded to the hosier's business in Broad Street, still a highly respectable street, and a good one for trade, as it and the whole neighbourhood continued until the era of Nash and the 'first gentleman in Europe.' Golden Square was still the 'town residence' of some half-dozen M.P.'s—for county or rotten borough; Poland Street and Great Marlborough Street of others. Between this brother and the artist no strong sympathy existed, little community of sentiment or common ground (mentally) of any kind; although indeed, James—for the most part an humble matter-of-fact man—had his spiritual and visionary side too; would at times talk Swedenborg, talk of seeing Abraham and Moses, and to outsiders seem, like his gifted brother, 'a bit mad'—a mild madman instead of a wild and stormy.
On his father's death, Blake, who found Design yield no income, Engraving but a scanty one, returned from Green Street, Leicester Fields, to familiar Broad Street. At No. 27, next door to his brother's, he set up shop as printseller and engraver, in partnership with a former fellow-apprentice at Basire's: James Parker, a man some six or seven years his senior. An engraving by Blake after Stothard, Zephyrus and Flora (a long oval), was published by the firm "Parker and Blake" this same year (1784). Mrs. Mathew, still friendly and patronizing, though one day to be less eager for the poet's services as Lion in Rathbone Place, countenanced, nay perhaps first set the scheme going—in an ill-advised philanthropic hour; favouring it, if Smith's hints may be trusted, with solid pecuniary help. It will prove an ill-starred speculation; Pegasus proverbially turning out an indifferent draught-horse. Mrs. Blake helped in the shop; the poet busied himself with his graver and pencil still. William Blake behind the counter would have been a curious sight to see! His younger and favourite brother, Robert, made one in the family; William taking him as a gratis pupil in engraving. It must have been a singularly conducted commercial enterprise. No. 27 bears at present small trace—with its two quiet parlour-windows, apparently the same casements that have been there from the beginning—of having once been even temporarily a shop. The house is of the same character as No. 28: a good-sized three-storied one, with panelled rooms; its original aspect (like that of No. 28) wholly disguised, externally, by all-levelling stucco. It is still a private mansion; but let out (now) in floors and rooms to many families, instead of one.
From 27, Broad Street, Blake in 1785 sent four water-colour drawings or frescos, in his peculiar acceptation of the term, to the Academy-Exhibition, one by the way, at which our old friend Parson Gardnor is still exhibiting—some seven Views of Lake Scenery. One of Blake's drawings is from Gray, The Bard. The others are subjects from the Story of Joseph: Joseph's Brethren bowing before him; Joseph making himself known to them; Joseph ordering Simeon to be bound. The latter series I have seen. The drawings are interesting for their imaginative merit, and as specimens, full of soft tranquil beauty, of Blake's earlier style: a very different one from that of his later and better-known works. Conceived in a dramatic spirit, they are executed in a subdued key, of which extravagance is the last defect to suggest itself. The design is correct and blameless, not to say tame (for Blake), the colour full, harmonious and sober. At the head of the Academy-Catalogues of those days, stands the stereotype notification, 'The pictures &c. marked (*) are to be disposed of.' Blake's are not so marked: let us hope they were disposed of! The three Joseph drawings turned up within the last ten years in their original close rose-wood frames (a far from advantageous setting), at a broker's in Wardour Street, who had purchased them at a furniture-sale in the neighbourhood. They were sent to the International Exhibition of 1862. Among Blake's fellow-exhibitors, it is now curious to note the small galaxy of still remembered names—Reynolds, Nollekens, Morland, Cosway, Fuseli, Flaxman, Stothard (the last three yet juniors)—sprinkling the mob of forgotten ones: among which such as West, Hamilton, Rigaud, Loutherbourg, Copley, Serres, Mary Moser, Russell, Dance, Farington, Edwards, Garvey, Tomkins, are positive points of light. This year, by the way, Blake's friend Trotter exhibits a Portrait of the late Dr. Johnson, 'a drawing in chalk from the life, about eighteen months before his death,' which should be worth something.
Blake's brother Robert, his junior by nearly five years, had been a playfellow of Smith's, whose father lived near (in Great Portland Street); and from him we hear that 'Bob, as he was familiarly called,' had ever been 'much beloved by all his companions.' By William he was in these years not only taught to draw and engrave, but encouraged to exert his imagination in original sketches. I have come across some of these tentative essays, carefully preserved by Blake during life, and afterwards forming part of the large accumulation of artistic treasure remaining in his widow's hands: the sole, but not at all unproductive, legacy, he had to bequeath her. Some are in pencil, some in pen and ink outline thrown up by a uniform dark ground washed in with Indian ink. They unmistakably show the beginner—not to say the child—in art; are naïf and archaic-looking; rude, faltering, often puerile or absurd in drawing; but are characterized by Blake-like feeling and intention, having in short a strong family likeness to his brother's work. The subjects are from Homer and the poets. Of one or two compositions there are successive and each time enlarged versions. True imaginative animus is often made manifest by very imperfect means; in the composition of the groups, and the expressive disposition of the individual figure, or of an individual limb: as e.g. (in one drawing) that solitary upraised arm stretched heaven-ward from out the midst of the panic-struck crowd of figures, who, embracing, huddle together with bowed heads averted from a Divine Presence. In another, a group of ancient men stand silent on the verge of a sea-girt precipice, beyond which they gaze towards awe-inspiring shapes and sights unseen by us. This last motive seems to have pleased Blake himself. One of his earliest attempts, if not quite his earliest, in that peculiar stereotype process he soon afterwards invented, is a version of this very composition; marvellously improved in the treatment—in the disposition and conception of the figures (at once fewer and better contrasted), as well, of course, as in drawing; which was what Blake's drawing always was—whatever its wilful faults—not only full of grand effect, but firm and decisive, that of a Master.
With Blake and with his wife, at the print-shop in Broad Street, Robert for two happy years and a half lived in seldom disturbed accord. Such domestications, however, always bring their own trials, their own demands for self-sacrifice. Of which the following anecdote will supply a hint, as well as testify to much amiable magnanimity on the part of both the younger members of the household. One day, a dispute arose between Robert and Mrs. Blake. She, in the heat of discussion, used words to him, his brother (though a husband too) thought unwarrantable. A silent witness thus far, he could now bear it no longer, but with characteristic impetuosity—when stirred—rose and said to her: 'Kneel down and beg Robert's pardon directly, or you never see my face again!' A heavy threat, uttered in tones which, from Blake, unmistakably showed it was meant. She, poor thing! 'thought it very hard,' as she would afterwards tell, to beg her brother-in-law's pardon when she was not in fault! But being a duteous, devoted wife, though by nature nowise tame or dull of spirit, she did kneel down and meekly murmur, 'Robert, I beg your pardon, I am in the wrong!' 'Young woman, you lie!' abruptly retorted he: 'I am in the wrong!'
At the commencement of 1787, the artist's peaceful happiness was gravely disturbed by the premature death, in his twenty-fifth year, of this beloved brother: buried in Bunhill Fields the 11th of February. Blake affectionately tended him in his illness, and during the last fortnight of it watched continuously day and night by his bedside, without sleep. When all claim had ceased with that brother's last breath, his own exhaustion showed itself in an unbroken sleep of three days' and nights' duration. The mean room of sickness had been to the spiritual man, as to him most scenes were, a place of vision and of revelation; for Heaven lay about him still, in manhood, as in infancy it 'lies about us' all. At the last solemn moment, the visionary eyes beheld the released spirit ascend heavenward through the matter-of-fact ceiling, 'clapping its hands for joy'—a truly Blake—like detail. No wonder he could paint such scenes! With him they were work'y-day experiences.
In the same year, disagreements with Parker put an end to the partnership and to print-selling. This Parker subsequently engraved a good deal after Stothard, in a style which evinces a common Master with Blake as well as companionship with him: in particular, the very fine designs, among Stothard's most masterly, to the Vicar of Wakefield (1792), which are very admirably engraved; also most of those of Falconer's Shipwreck (1795). After Flaxman, he executed several of the plates to Homer's Iliad; after Smirke, The Commemoration of 1797; after Northcote, The Revolution of 1688, and others; and for Boydell's Shakspeare, eleven plates. He died 'about 1805,' according to the Dictionaries.
Blake quitted Broad Street for neighbouring Poland Street: the long street which connects Broad Street with Oxford Street, and into which Great Marlborough Street runs at right angles. He lodged at No. 28 (now a cheesemonger's shop, boasting three brass bells), not many doors from Oxford Street on the right-hand side, going towards that thoroughfare; the houses at which end of the street are smaller and of later date than those between Great Marlborough and Broad Street. Henceforward Mrs. Blake, whom he carefully instructed, remained his sole pupil—sole assistant and companion too; for the gap left by his brother was never filled up by children. In the same year—that of Etty's birth (March, 1787) amid the narrow streets of distant antique York—his friend Flaxman exchanged Wardour Street for Rome, and a seven years' sojourn in Italy. Already educating eye and mind in his own way, Turner, a boy of twelve, was hovering about Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, in which the barber's son was born: some half mile—of (then) staid and busy streets—distant from Blake's Broad Street; Long Acre, in which Stothard first saw the light, lying between the two.
MEDITATION: NOTES ON LAVATER. 1788. [ÆT. 31.]
One of Blake's engravings of the present period is a frontispiece after Fuseli to the latter's translation of the Aphorisms of his fellow-countryman, Lavater. The translation, which was from the original MS., was published by Johnson in 1788, the year of Gainsborough's death. If any deny merit to Blake as an engraver, let them turn from this boldly executed print of Fuseli's mannered but effective sitting figure, ostentatiously meditative, of Philosophic Contemplation, or whatever it may be, to the weak shadow of the same in the subsequent Dublin editions of this little book. For the Swiss enthusiast had then a European reputation. And this imposing scroll of fervid truisms and hap-hazard generalities, as often disputable as not, if often acute and striking, always ingenuous and pleasant, was, like all his other writings, warmly welcomed in this country. Now it, as a whole, reads unequal and monotonous; does not impress one as an elixir of inspired truth; induces rather, like most books of maxims, the ever recurring query, cui bono? And one readily believes what the English edition states, that the whole epitome of moral wisdom was the rapid 'effusion' of one autumn.
In the ardent, pious, but illogical Lavater's character, full of amiability, candour, and high aspiration, a man who in the eighteenth century believed in the continuation of miracles, of witchcraft, and of the power of exorcising evil spirits, who, in fact, had a bonâ fide if convulsive hold of the super-sensual, there was much that was german to William Blake, much that still remains noble and interesting.
In the painter's small library the Aphorisms became one of his most favourite volumes. This well-worn copy contains a series of marginal notes, neatly written in pen and ink—it being his habit to make such in the books he read—which speak to the interest it excited in him. On the title-page occurs a naïve token of affection: below the name Lavater is inscribed 'Will. Blake,' and around the two names, the outline of a heart.
Lavater's final Aphorism tells the reader, 'If you mean to know yourself, interline such of these as affected you agreeably in reading, and set a mark to such as left a sense of uneasiness with you, and then show your copy to whom you please.' Blake showed his notes to Fuseli; who said one assuredly could read their writer's character in them.
'All old!' 'This should be written in letters of gold on our temples,' are the endorsements accorded such an announcement as 'The object of your love is your God;' or again, 'Joy and grief decide character. What exalts prosperity? What embitters grief? What leaves us indifferent? What interests us? As the interest of man, so his God, as his God so is he.'
But the annotator sometimes dissents; as from this: 'You enjoy with wisdom or with folly, as the gratification of your appetites capacitates or unnerves your powers.' 'False!' is the emphatic denial, 'for weak is the joy which is never wearied.' On one Aphorism, in which 'frequent laughing,' and 'the scarcer smile of harmless quiet,' are enumerated as signs respectively 'of a little mind,' or 'of a noble heart;' while the abstaining from laughter merely not to offend, &c. is praised as 'a power unknown to many a vigorous mind;' Blake exclaims, 'I hate scarce smiles; I love laughing!' 'A sneer is often the sign of heartless malignity,' says Lavater. 'Damn sneerers!' echoes Blake. To Lavater's censure of the 'pietist who crawls, groans, blubbers, and secretly says to gold, Thou art my hope! and to his belly, Thou art my god,' follows a cordial assent. 'Everything,' Lavater rashly declares, 'may be mimicked by hypocrisy but humility and love united.' To which, Blake: 'All this may be mimicked very well. This Aphorism certainly was an oversight; for what are all crawlers but mimickers of humility and love?' 'Dread more the blunderer's friendship than the calumniator's envy,' exhorts Lavater. 'I doubt this!' says the margin.
At the maxim, 'You may depend upon it that he is a good man, whose intimate friends are all good, and whose enemies are characters decidedly bad,' the artist (obeying his author's injunctions) reports himself 'Uneasy,' fears he 'has not many enemies!' Uneasy, too, he feels at the declaration, 'Calmness of will is a sign of grandeur: the vulgar, far from hiding their will, blab their wishes—a single spark of occasion discharges the child of passion into a thousand crackers of desire.' Again: 'Who seeks those that are greater than himself, their greatness enjoys, and forgets his greatest qualities in their greater ones, is already truly great.' To this, Mr. Blake: 'I hope I do not flatter myself that this is pleasant to me.'
Some of Blake's remarks are not without a brisk candour: as when the Zurich philanthropist tells one, 'The great art to love your enemy consists in never losing sight of man in him,' &c.; and he boldly replies, 'None can see the man in the enemy. If he is ignorantly so, he is not truly an enemy: if maliciously so, not a man. I cannot love my enemy, for my enemy is not a man but a beast. And if I have any, I can love him as a beast, and wish to beat him.' And again, to the dictum, 'Between passion and lie there is not a finger's breadth,' he retorts, 'Lie is contrary to passion.' Upon the aphorism, 'Superstition always inspires littleness; religion grandeur of mind; the superstitious raises beings inferior to himself to deities,' Blake remarks at some length: 'I do not allow there is such a thing as superstition, taken in the true sense of the word. A man must first deceive himself before he is thus superstitious, and so he is a hypocrite. No man was ever truly superstitious who was not as truly religious as far as he knew. True superstition is ignorant honesty, and this is beloved of God and man. Hypocrisy is as different from superstition as the wolf from the lamb.' And similarly when Lavater, with a shudder, alludes to 'the gloomy rock, on either side of which superstition and incredulity their dark abysses spread,' Blake says, 'Superstition has been long a bug-bear, by reason of its having been united with hypocrisy. But let them be fairly separated, and then superstition will be honest feeling, and God, who loves all honest men, will lead the poor enthusiast in the path of holiness.' This was a cardinal thought with Blake, and almost a unique one in his century.
The two are generally of better accord. The since often-quoted warning, 'Keep him at least three paces distant who hates bread, music, and the laugh of a child!' is endorsed as the 'Best in the book.' Another, 'Avoid like a serpent him who speaks politely, yet writes impertinently,' elicits the ejaculation, 'A dog! get a stick to him!' And the reiteration, 'Avoid him who speaks softly and writes sharply,' is enforced with, 'Ah, rogue, I would be thy hangman!' The assertion that 'A woman, whose ruling passion is not vanity, is superior to any man of equal faculties,' begets the enthusiastic comment, 'Such a woman I adore!' At the foot of another, on woman, 'A great woman not imperious, a fair woman not vain, a woman of common talents not jealous, an accomplished woman who scorns to shine, are four wonders just great enough to be divided among the four corners of the globe,' Blake appends, 'Let the men do their duty and the women will be such wonders: the female life lives from the life of the male. See a great many female dependents and you know the man.'
In a higher key, when Lavater justly affirms that 'He only who has enjoyed immortal moments can reproduce them, Blake exclaims, 'Oh that men would seek immortal moments!—that men would converse with God!' as he, it may be added, was ever seeking, ever conversing, in one sense. In another place Lavater declares, that 'He who adores an impersonal God, has none; and without guide or rudder launches on an immense abyss, that first absorbs his powers and next himself.' To which, warm assent from the fervently religious Blake: 'Most superlatively beautiful, and most affectionately holy and pure. Would to God all men would consider it!' Religious, I say, but far from orthodox; for in one place he would show sin to be 'negative not positive evil:' lying, theft, &c., 'mere privation of good; ' a favourite idea with him, which, whatever its merit as an abstract proposition, practical people would not like written in letters of gold on their temples, for fear of consequences.
One of the most prolix of these aphorisms runs, 'Take from Luther his roughness and fiery courage, from this man one quality, from another that, from Raffaelle his dryness and nearly hard precision, and from Rubens his supernatural luxury of colours; detach his oppressive exuberance from each, and you will have something very correct and flat instead,' as it required no conjuror to tell us. Whereon Blake, whom I here condense: 'Deduct from a rose its red, from a lily its whiteness, from a diamond hardness, from an oak-tree height, from a daisy lowliness, rectify everything in nature, as the philosophers do, and then we shall return to chaos, and God will be compelled to be eccentric in His creation. Oh! happy philosophers! Variety does not necessarily suppose deformity. Beauty is exuberant, but if ugliness is adjoined, it is not the exuberance of beauty. So if Raffaelle is hard and dry, it is not from genius, but an accident acquired. How can substance and accident be predicated of the same essence? Aphorism 47 speaks of the "heterogeneous" in works of Art and Literature, which all extravagance is; but exuberance is not. 'But,' adds Blake, 'the substance gives tincture to the accident, and makes it physiognomic.'
In the course of another lengthy aphorism, the 'knave' is said to be 'only an enthusiast, or momentary fool.' Upon which Mr. Blake breaks out still more characteristically: 'Man is the ark of God: the mercy-seat is above upon the ark; cherubim guard it on either side, and in the midst is the holy law. Man is either the ark of God or a phantom of the earth and water. If thou seekest by human policy to guide this ark, remember Uzzah—2 Sam. 6th ch. Knaveries are not human nature; knaveries are knaveries. This aphorism seems to lack discrimination.' In a similar tone, on Aphorism 630, commencing, 'A God, an animal, a plant, are not companions of man; nor is the faultless,—then judge with lenity of all,' Blake writes, 'It is the God in all that is our companion and friend. For our God Himself says, "You are my brother, my sister, and my mother;" and St. John, "Whoso dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him." Such an one cannot judge of any but in love, and his feelings will be attractions or repulsions. God is in the lowest effects as well as in the highest causes. He is become a worm that he may nourish the weak. For let it be remembered that creation is God descending according to the weakness of man: our Lord is the Word of God, and everything on earth is the Word of God, and in its essence is God.'
Surely gold-dust may be descried in these notes; and when we remember it is a painter, not a metaphysician, who is writing, we can afford to judge them less critically. Another characteristic gleaning or two, ere we conclude. An ironical maxim, such as 'Take here the grand secret, if not of pleasing all, yet of displeasing none: court mediocrity, avoid originality, and sacrifice to fashion,' meets with the hearty response from an unfashionable painter, 'And go to hell.' When the Swiss tells him that 'Men carry their character not seldom in their pockets: you might decide on more than half your acquaintance had you will or right to turn their pockets inside out;' the artist candidly acknowledges that he 'seldom carries money in his pockets, they are generally full of paper,' which we readily believe. Towards the close, Lavater drops a doubt that he may have 'perhaps already offended his readers;' which elicits from Blake a final note of sympathy. 'Those who are offended with anything in this book, would be offended with the innocence of a child, and for the same reason, because it reproaches him with the errors of acquired folly.'
Enough of the Annotations on Lavater, which, in fulfilment of biographic duty, I have thus copiously quoted; too copiously, the reader may think, for their intrinsic merit. To me they seem mentally physiognomic, giving a near view of Blake in his ordinary moments at this period. We, as through a casually open window, glance into the artist's room, and see him meditating at his work, graver in hand.
Lavater's Aphorisms not only elicited these comments from Blake, but set him composing aphorisms on his own account, of a far more original and startling character. In Lavater's book I trace the external accident to which the form is attributable of a remarkable portion—certain 'Proverbs of Hell,' as they were waywardly styled—of an altogether remarkable book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, engraved two years later; the most curious and significant book, perhaps, out of many, which ever issued from the unique man's press.
Turning from the Annotations on Lavater to higher, less approachable phases of this original Mind, the indubitably INSPIRED aspects of it, it is time to note that the practice of verse had, as we saw in 1784, been once more resumed, in a higher key and clearer tones than he had yet sounded. Design more original and more mature than any he had before realized, at once grand, lovely, comprehensible, was in course of production. It must have been during the years 1784—88, the Songs and Designs sprang from his creative brain, of which another chapter must speak.
POEMS OF MANHOOD. 1788—89. [ÆT. 31—32.]
Though Blake's brother Robert had ceased to be with him in the body, he was seldom far absent from the faithful visionary in spirit. Down to late age the survivor talked much and often of that dear brother; and in hours of solitude and inspiration his form would appear and speak to the poet in consolatory dream, in warning or helpful vision. By the end of 1788, the first portion of that singularly original and significant series of Poems, by which of themselves, Blake established a claim, however unrecognised, on the attention of his own and after generations, had been written; and the illustrative designs in colour, to which he wedded them in inseparable loveliness, had been executed. The Songs of Innocence form the first section of the series he afterwards when grouping the two together, suggestively named Songs of Innocence and of Experience. But how publish? for standing with the public, or credit with the trade, he had none. Friendly Flaxman was in Italy; the good offices of patronising blue-stockings were exhausted. He had not the wherewithal to publish on his own account; and though he could be his own engraver, he could scarcely be his own compositor. Long and deeply he meditated. How solve this difficulty with his own industrious hands? How be his own printer and publisher?
The subject of anxious daily thought passed—as anxious meditation does with us all—into the domain of dreams and (in his case) of visions. In one of these a happy inspiration befell, not, of course, without supernatural agency. After intently thinking by day and dreaming by night, during long-weeks and months, of his cherished object, the image of the vanished pupil and brother at last blended with it. In a vision of the night, the form of Robert stood before him, and revealed the wished-for secret, directing him to the technical mode by which could be produced a fac-simile of song and design. On his rising in the morning, Mrs. Blake went out with half-a-crown, all the money they had in the world, and of that laid out 1s. 10d. on the simple materials necessary for setting in practice the new revelation. Upon that investment of 1s. 10d. he started what was to prove a principal means of support through his future life,—the series of poems and writings illustrated by coloured plates, often highly finished afterwards by hand,—which became the most efficient and durable means of revealing Blake's genius to the world. This method, to which Blake henceforth consistently adhered for multiplying his works, was quite an original one. It consisted in a species of engraving in relief both words and designs. The verse was written and the designs and marginal embellishments outlined on the copper with an impervious liquid, probably the ordinary stopping-out varnish of engravers. Then all the white parts or lights, the remainder of the plate that is, were eaten away with aquafortis or other acid, so that the outline of letter and design was left prominent, as in stereotype. From these plates he printed off in any tint, yellow, brown, blue, required to be the prevailing or ground colour in his fac-similes; red he used for the letter-press. The page was then coloured up by hand in imitation of the original drawing, with more or less variety of detail in the local hues.
He ground and mixed his water-colours himself on a piece of statuary marble, after a method of his own, with common carpenter's glue diluted, which he had found out, as the early Italians had done before him, to be a good binder. Joseph, the sacred carpenter, had appeared in vision and revealed that secret to him. The colours he used were few and simple: indigo, cobalt, gamboge, vermilion, Frankfort-black freely, ultramarine rarely, chrome not at all. These he applied with a camel's-hair brush, not with a sable, which he disliked.
He taught Mrs, Blake to take off the impressions with care and delicacy, which such plates signally needed; and also to help in tinting them from his drawings with right artistic feeling; in all which tasks she, to her honour, much delighted. The size of the plates was small, for the sake of economising copper; something under five inches by three. The number of engraved pages in the Songs of Innocence alone was twenty-seven. They were done up in boards by Mrs. Blake's hand, forming a small octavo; so that the poet and his wife did everything in making the book,—writing, designing, printing, engraving,—everything except manufacturing the paper: the very ink, or colour rather, they did make. Never before surely was a man so literally the author of his own book, 'Songs of Innocence, the author and printer W. Blake, 1789,' is the title. Copies still occur occasionally; though the two series bound together in one volume, each with its own title-page, and a general one added, is the more usual state.
First of the Poems let me speak, harsh as seems their divorce from the Design which blends with them, forming warp and woof in one texture. It is like pulling up a daisy by the roots from the greensward out of which it springs. To me many years ago, first reading these weird Songs in their appropriate environment of equally spiritual form and hue, the effect was as that of an angelic voice singing to oaten pipe, such as Arcadians tell of; or, as if a spiritual magician were summoning before human eyes, and through a human medium, images and scenes of divine loveliness; and in the pauses of the strain we seem to catch the rustling of angelic wings. The Golden Age independent of Space or Time, object of vague sighs and dreams from many generations of struggling humanity—an Eden such as childhood sees, is brought nearer than ever poet brought it before. For this poet was in assured possession of the Golden Age within the chambers of his own mind. As we read, fugitive glimpses open, clear as brief, of our buried childhood, of an unseen world present, past, to come; we are endowed with new spiritual sight, with unwonted intuitions, bright visitants from finer realms of thought, which ever elude us, ever hover near. We encounter familiar objects, in unfamiliar, transfigured aspects, simple expression and deep meanings, type and antitype. True, there are palpable irregularities, metrical licence, lapse of grammar, and even of orthography; but often the sweetest melody, most daring eloquence of rhythm, and what is more, appropriate rhythm. They are unfinished poems: yet would finish have bettered their bold and careless freedom? Would it not have brushed away the delicate bloom? that visible spontaneity, so rare and great a charm, the eloquent attribute of our old English ballads and of the early Songs of all nations. The most deceptively perfect wax-model is no substitute for the living flower. The form is, in these Songs, a transparent medium of the spiritual thought, not an opaque body. 'He has dared to venture,' writes Malkin, not irrelevantly, '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.
There is the same divine afflatus as in the Poetical Sketches, but fuller: a maturity of expression, despite surviving negligences, and of thought and motive. The 'Child Angel,' as we ventured to call the Poet in earlier years, no longer merely sportive and innocently wanton, wears a brow of thought; a glance of insight has passed into
'A sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused'
in Nature, a feeling of 'the burthen of the mystery of things'; though still possessed by widest sympathies with all that is simple and innocent, with echoing laughter, little lamb, a flower's blossom, with 'emmet wildered and forlorn.'
These poems have a unity and mutual relationship, the influence of which is much impaired if they be read otherwise than as a whole. They are given entire in the Second Volume, to which I refer my reader, if not of decisively unpoetic turn.
Who but Blake, with his pure heart, his simple exalted character, could have transfigured a commonplace meeting of Charity Children at St. Paul's, as he has done in the Holy Thursday? A picture at once tender and grand. The bold images, by a wise instinct resorted to at the close of the first and second stanzas and opening of the third, are in the highest degree imaginative; they are true as only Poetry can be.
How vocal is the poem Spring, despite imperfect rhymes. From addressing the child, the poet, by a transition not infrequent with him, passes out of himself into the child's person, showing a chameleon sympathy with childlike feelings. Can we not see the little three-year-old prattler stroking the white lamb, her feelings made articulate for her?—Even more remarkable is the poem entitled The Lamb, sweet hymn of tender infantine sentiment appropriate to that perennial image of meekness; to which the fierce eloquence of The Tiger, in the Songs of Experience, is an antitype. In The Lamb the poet again changes person to that of a child. Of lyrical beauty, take as a sample The Laughing Song, with its happy ring of merry innocent voices. This and The Nurse's Song are more in the style of his early poems, but, as we said, of far maturer execution. I scarcely need call attention to the delicate simplicity of the little pastoral, entitled The Shepherd: to the picturesqueness in a warmer hue, the delightful domesticity, the expressive melody of The Echoing Green: or to the lovely sympathy and piety which irradiate the touching Cradle Song. More enchanting still is the stir of fancy and sympathy which animates The Dream, that
Did weave a shade o'er my angel-guarded bed;
of an emmet that had
Lost her way,
Where on grass methought I lay.
Few are the readers, I should think, who can fail to appreciate the symbolic grandeur of The Little Boy Lost and The Little Boy Found, or the enigmatic tenderness of the Blossom and the Divine Image; and the verses On Another's Sorrow, express some of Blake's favourite religious ideas, his abiding notions on the subject of the Godhead, which surely suggest the kernel of Christian feeling. A similar tinge of the divine colours the lines called Night, with its revelation of angelic guardians, believed in with unquestioning piety by Blake, who makes us in our turn conscious, as we read, of angelic noiseless footsteps. For a nobler depth of religious beauty, with accordant grandeur of sentiment and language, I know no parallel nor hint elsewhere of such a poem as The Little Black Boy—
My mother bore me in the southern wild.
We may read these poems again and again, and they continue fresh as at first. There is something unsating in them, a perfume as of a growing violet, which renews itself as fast as it is inhaled.
One poem, The Chimney Sweeper, still calls for special notice. This and Holy Thursday are remarkable as an anticipation of the daring choice of homely subject, of the yet more daringly familiar manner, nay, of the very metre and trick of style adopted by Wordsworth in a portion of those memorable 'experiments in poetry,'—the Lyrical Ballads,—in The Reverie of Poor Susan, for instance (not written till 1797), the Star Gazers, and The Power of Music (both 1806). The little Sweep's dream has the spiritual touch peculiar to Blake's hand. This poem, I may add, was extracted thirty-five years later in a curious little volume (1824) of James Montgomery's editing, as friend of the then unprotected Climbing Boys. It was entitled, The Chimney Sweepers Friend and Climbing Boy's Album; a miscellany of verse and prose, original and borrowed, with illustrations by Robert Cruikshank. Charles Lamb, one of the living authors applied to by the kind-hearted Sheffield poet, while declining the task of rhyming on such a subject, sent a copy of this poem from the Songs of Innocence, communicating it as "from a very rare and curious little work." At line five, 'Little Tom Dacre' is transformed, by a sly blunder of Lamb's, into 'little Tom Toddy.' The poem on the same subject in the Songs of Experience, inferior poetically, but in an accordant key of gloom, would have been the more apposite to Montgomery's volume.
The tender loveliness of these poems will hardly reappear in Blake's subsequent writing. Darker phases of feeling, more sombre colours, profounder meanings, ruder eloquence, characterise the Songs of Experience of five years later.
In 1789, the year in which Blake's hand engraved the Songs of Innocence, Wordsworth was finishing his versified Evening Walk on the Goldsmith model; Crabbe ('Pope in worsted stockings,' as Hazlitt christened him), famous six years before by his Village, was publishing one of his minor quartos, The Newspaper; and Mrs. Charlotte Smith, not undeservedly popular, was accorded a fifth edition within five years, of her Elegiac Sonnets, one or two of which still merit the praise of being good sonnets, among the best in a bad time. In these years, Hayley, Mason, Hannah More, Jago, Downman, Helen Maria Williams, were among the active producers of poetry; Cumberland, Holcroft, Inchbald, Burgoyne, of the acting drama of the day; Peter Pindar, and Pasquin Williams, of the satire.
The designs, simultaneous offspring with the poems, which in the most literal sense illuminate the Songs of Innocence, consist of poetized domestic scenes. The drawing and draperies are grand in style as graceful, though covering few inches' space; the colour pure, delicate, yet in effect rich and full. The mere tinting of the text and of the free ornamental border often makes a refined picture. The costumes of the period are idealized, the landscape given in pastoral and symbolic hints. Sometimes these drawings almost suffer from being looked at as a book and held close, instead of at due distance as pictures, where they become more effective. In composition, colour, pervading feeling, they are lyrical to the eye, as the Songs to the ear.
On the whole, the designs to the Songs of Innocence are finer as well as more pertinent to the poems; more closely interwoven with them, than those which accompany the Songs of Experience. Of these in their place.