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Title: William Blake - Painter and Poet
Author: Garnett, Richard
Language: English
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[Illustration: _London. Published as the Act directs March 8. 1823 by
Willm Blake N3 Fountain Court Strand_

_The Sons of God. Design from the Book of Job._]


Painter and Poet



Keeper of the Printed Books in the British Museum


Seeley and Co. Limited, Essex Street, Strand
New York, Macmillan and Co.




  The Sons of God. From the Book of Job                     _Frontispiece_

  The Lamb, and Infant Joy. Songs of Innocence              _to face_   20

  The Fly, and the Tiger. Songs of Experience                 ”   ”     24

  The Book of Thel, title-page. In facsimile by W. Griggs     ”   ”     33

      ”       ”     page vi.         ”            ”           ”   ”     36

  America, page                                               ”   ”     42

     ”     page                                               ”   ”     48


  Morning, or Glad Day. From an engraving by W. Blake                   11

  Illustration from “David Simple.” Engraved by W. Blake after
     T. Stothard, R.A.                                                  17

  From a coloured copy of the “Songs of Innocence and Experience.”
     British Museum                                                     22

  Frontispiece of Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Stories”                       24

  Page of Young’s “Night Thoughts.” Illustrated by W. Blake             26

  I want! I want!--Help! Help!--Aged Ignorance!--Death’s Door           28

  Design from the “Book of Urizen.” By W. Blake                         34

  The Ancient of Days setting a Compass to the Earth. From a
     water-colour drawing by W. Blake. British Museum                   39

  Sweeping the Parlour in the Interpreter’s House                       40

  Design from “Milton.” By W. Blake                                     47

  Portrait of William Blake. From the engraving by L. Schiavonetti,
     after T. Phillips, R.A.                                            50

  The Reunion of Soul and Body. From Blair’s “Grave,” illustrated
     by W. Blake                                                        53

  The Babylonian Woman on the Seven-headed Beast. From a water-colour
     drawing by W. Blake. British Museum                                55

  Portrait of Wilson Lowry. By John Linnell. Engraved by Blake
     and Linnell                                                        61

  The Resurrection of the Dead. From a water-colour drawing by
     W. Blake. British Museum                                           63

  Woodcut from Thornton’s Pastoral                                      64

  The Destruction of Job’s Sons and Daughters. From the “Book of
     Job.” By W. Blake                                                  67

  With dreams upon my bed thou scarest me. From the “Book of Job.”
     By W. Blake                                                        69

  Behemoth and Leviathan. From the “Book of Job.” By W. Blake           71



    _Preliminary observations--Blake’s
    Birth--Education--Marriage--Early Poems--Drawings and

The position of William Blake among artists is exceptional. Of no
other painter of like distinction, save Dante Rossetti, can it be said
that his fame as a poet has fully rivalled his fame as a painter; much
less that, in the opinion of some, his fame as a seer ought to have
exceeded both. Many painters, from Reynolds downwards, have written
admirably upon art; in some instances, notably Haydon’s, the worth of
their precepts greatly exceeds that of their performance. But, Rossetti
always excepted, perhaps no other painter of great distinction,
save Michael Angelo alone, has achieved high renown in poetry, and
the compass of Michael Angelo’s poetical work is infinitesimal in
comparison with his work as an artist. Again, the literary achievements
of an Angelo or a Reynolds admit of clear separation from their
performances as artists. The critic who approaches them from the
artistic side may, if he pleases, omit the literary side entirely from
consideration. This is impossible with Blake, for not only do the
artistic and the poetical monuments of his genius nearly balance each
other in merit and in their claim upon the attention of posterity,
but they are the offspring of the same creative impulse, and are
indissolubly fused together by the process adopted for their execution.
A study of Blake, therefore, must include more literary discussion
than would be allowable in a monograph on any other artist. The poet
and painter in Blake, moreover, are but manifestations of the more
comprehensive character of seer, which suggests inquiries alien to both
these arts; while the personal character of the man is so fascinating,
and his intellectual character so perplexing, that the investigation
of either of them might afford, and often has afforded, material for
a prolonged discussion. In the following pages it will be our object,
whenever compelled to quit the safe ground of biographical narrative,
to subordinate all else to the consideration of Blake as an artist;
but the Blake of the brush is too emphatically the Blake of the pen
to be long dissociated from him, and neither can be detached from the
background of abnormal visionary faculty.

       *       *       *       *       *

From a certain point of view, artists may be regarded as divisible into
three classes: those who regard the material world as an unquestionable
solid reality, whose accurate representation is the one mission of
Art; those to whom it is a mere hieroglyphic of an essential existence
transcending it; and those who, uniting the two conceptions, are at the
same time idealists and realists. The greatest artists generally belong
to the latter class, and with reason, for a literal adherence to matter
of fact almost implies defect of imagination; while an extravagant
idealism may be, to say the least, a convenient excuse for defects of
technical skill. It is difficult to know whether to class the works
of the very greatest artists as realistic or idealistic. Take Albert
Dürer’s _Melancholia_. It is a hieroglyph, a symbol, an expression
of something too intense to be put into words; a delineation of what
the painter beheld with the inner eye alone. Yet every detail is as
correct and true to fact as the most uninspired Dutchman could have
made it. Take Titian’s _Bacchus and Ariadne_, and observe how separate
details which the artist may have actually noticed, are combined into
a whole which has never been beheld, save by the spiritual vision,
since the last thyrsus was brandished by the last Mænad. Yet, though
the creators of such scenes are the greatest, some realists, such as
Velasquez, have in virtue of surpassing technical execution asserted
a nearly equal rank. The case is different when we come to the
enthusiasts and visionaries, whose art is wholly symbolic, who have
given us little that can be enjoyed as art for art’s sake, without
reference to the ideas of which it is made the vehicle. In many very
interesting artists, such as Wiertz and Calvert and Vedder, and in
many isolated works of great masters, such as Giorgione’s _Venetian
Pastoral_, the feeling is so much in excess of the execution--admirable
as this may be--that the result is rather a poem than a picture. But
only one artist who has deliberately made himself the prophet of this
tendency, who has avowedly and defiantly discarded all purpose from his
works save that of spiritual suggestiveness, seems to have ever been
admitted as a candidate for very high artistic honours, and he is our
countryman, William Blake.

This circumstance alone should render Blake an interesting object of
study, even for those who can see no merit in his works: indeed, the
less the merit the more remarkable the phenomenon. He is, moreover,
a most peculiar and enigmatical character, both intellectually and
morally. As an art critic he is of all the most dogmatic, trenchant,
and revolutionary. As a poet, were nineteen-twentieths of his
compositions to be discarded as rubbish, lyrics would remain not only
exquisite in themselves, but possessing the incommunicable and Sapphic
quality that a single stanza, even a single phrase, would often suffice
to make the writer immortal. The question of his sanity is as well
adapted to furnish the world with an interminable subject of discussion
as the execution of Charles I. or the assassination of Cæsar. Finally,
it is very significant that while no man ever wilfully put more
obstacles into the way of his success than Blake, whether as artist,
thinker, or poet, and he did in fact succeed in condemning himself to
poverty and obscurity, the verdict of his contemporaries is now so far
reversed that the drawings which a kind friend overpaid, as he thought,
at fifty guineas, are worth a thousand pounds.

What manner of man was he to whose shade the world has made this
practical apology?

William Blake was born on November 28th,[1] 1757, at 28, Broad Street,
Golden Square. By a singular coincidence this was the very year which
a still more celebrated mystic, Swedenborg, had announced as that
of the Last Judgment in a spiritual sense, which was by no means to
preclude the world from going on in externals pretty much as usual.
Blake’s father, James Blake, was a hosier in moderately prosperous
circumstances, whose father is stated by Blake’s most elaborate
commentators, Messrs. Ellis and Yeats, to have been originally named
O’Neil, and to have assumed his wife’s name as a means of escape from
pecuniary difficulties. This wife, however, was not the mother of
James. This genealogy is not supported by any strong authority, and
is at variance with another, also indifferently supported, according
to which the artist’s family were connected with the admiral’s. We
must leave the question where we find it, merely remarking that
Blake’s parents were certainly Protestants, and that we can detect no
specifically Irish trait in his character or his works. He had three
brothers--one, James, mild and unassuming like his father; another,
Robert, who died young, apparently with more affinity to William; the
third, John, a scapegrace. There was also a sister who never married,
and is described as a thorough gentlewoman, reserved and proud. None of
the family except William and Robert seem to have shown any artistic
talent. With William it must have been precocious, for, ere he had
attained the age of ten, his father, who as a small tradesman might
rather have been expected to have thwarted the boy’s inclinations,
placed him at “Mr. Pars’ drawing school in the Strand.” Here he learned
to draw from plaster casts--the life was denied him--and with the aid
of his father and a friendly auctioneer collected prints, then to be
picked up cheap, showing from the very first, as he afterwards related,
a complete independence of the pseudo-classic taste of the day. At four
he had had his first vision, when “God put his forehead to the window,
which set him screaming.” At eight or ten he saw a tree filled with
angels, and angelic figures walking among haymakers. “The child is
father to the man.”

At the age of fourteen Blake was apprenticed to the engraver
Basire. Ryland had been thought of, but Blake, according to a story
which he must have narrated, but may not improbably have imagined,
demurred, declaring that the fashionable engraver looked as if he
would one day be hanged, as he actually was. Basire’s practice lay
chiefly in engraving antiquities, and the last five years of Blake’s
apprenticeship were chiefly spent in drawing tombs and architectural
details in Westminster Abbey a most advantageous discipline, which
imbued his mind with the Gothic spirit, an influence already in the
air, evincing itself in Götz von Berlichingens, Rowley Poems, Percy
Relics, and Castles of Otranto; and, by directing him to English
history and Shakespeare, powerfully stimulated and felicitously guided
the poetical genius of which he was shortly to give proof. He drew,
Malkin tells us, the monuments of kings and queens in every point
of view he could catch, frequently standing on them. The heads he
considered as portraits, and all the ornaments appeared as miracles
of art to his Gothicised imagination. Nor could a better environment
for a mystic be desired than the venerable and generally solitary
temple, “the height, the space, the gloom, the glory,” with its music,
its memories, and its constant sense of the presence of the dead.
The bent of his mind at the time is shown by his first engraving,
_Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion_, copied, as he states,
from a scarce Italian print. If this was indeed the case, it may be
queried whether the title at least was not his--Joseph, according
to the legend, having been the first missionary to Britain. The
original, if original there was, certainly was not the work of Michael
Angelo, to whom Blake chose to attribute it. Scarcely was he out of
his articles than he produced (1779) two engravings from the history
of England, _The Penance of Jane Shore_ and _King Edward and Queen
Eleanor_. These were after two water-colour drawings, selected from a
much greater number with which he had amused the leisure hours of his
apprenticeship. Mr. Gilchrist says that these and other works of the
period have little of the peculiar Blakean quality, except the striking
design _Morning, or Glad Day_, dated 1780, a facsimile of which is
given here. This, indeed, is Blake all over, and would have made an
excellent frontispiece for the poems with which he was about to herald
the dawn of a new era in English poetry, though in all probability
designed as an illustration of the lines in _Romeo and Juliet_;

    Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
    Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

A naked Apollo-like figure, wearing the dawn for a halo, in whom one
fancifully traces a resemblance to Goethe, alights throbbing with joy
and victory on the peak of a mountain, while the waning moon, as would
seem, sets behind him, and a winged beetle scuds away.

The poems to which reference has been made had meanwhile been slowly
accumulating; if the language of the advertisement which heralded their
publication is to be taken literally, they were now complete. Before
appearing as a poet, however, Blake had to undergo his probation as
a lover. He became enamoured of a pretty girl variously called Polly
or Clara Woods. She rejected him. He fell into a melancholy, and was
sent to Richmond for change of air. There he lodged with a nursery
gardener named Boucher. The daughter of the house, Catherine, had been
frequently asked whom she would like to marry, and had always replied
that she had not seen the man. Coming on the night of Blake’s arrival
into the room where he was sitting with the rest of the family, she
grew faint from the presentiment that she beheld her destined husband.
On subsequently hearing of his disappointment with Clara Woods, she
told him that she pitied, and he told her that he loved. They were
married on August 18, 1782, Blake having, it is said, proved their
mutual constancy by refraining from seeing her for a year, while he was
toiling to save enough to render their marriage not utterly imprudent.
His first care afterwards was to teach her to read and write, to which
he afterwards added enough of the pictorial art to enable her to colour
his drawings. A more devoted wife never lived, though her devotion wore
in the eyes of strangers an aspect of formality, and was always tinged
with awe.

_Poetical Sketches_, 1783, were the first-fruits of Blake’s genius,
composed, as asserted in the advertisement prefixed by his friends,
between 1768 and 1777.[2] They are the only examples of his literary
work devoid of artistic illustration; we ought not, consequently, to
spend much time upon them, yet they are the most memorable of his
works, for they are nothing short of miraculous, and alone among his
productions mark an era. For a hundred and thirty years English poetry
had been mainly artificial, the product of conscious effort ranging
down from the superb art of _Paradise Lost_ to the prettinesses
of Pope’s imitators, but seldom or never wearing the aspect of a
spontaneous growth. This young obscure engraver was the first to show
that it was still possible to sing as the bird sings; he and no other
was the morning star which announced the new day of English poetry. Had
even the verses been of inferior quality, such inspiration would have
sufficed for fame, but Blake is as exquisite as original, and warbles
such nightingale notes as England had not heard since Andrew Marvell
forsook song for satire. The songs of Dryden, indeed, have great merit,
but how they savour of the study compared with the artless melody of a
strain like this!

[Illustration: _Morning, or Glad Day. From an engraving by W. Blake._]

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

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

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

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

This is such a song as Marlowe might have written, but for a delicate
eighteenth-century suggestion in the style, whose aroma is not quite
that of the Elizabethan era. It is none the less one of the pieces
which none but Blake could have produced. The characteristics of his
style, indeed, are much less apparent in this early volume than in his
subsequent productions. They are most conspicuous in the _Mad Song_,
but a more pleasing if less intense example is the following:


    Love and harmony combine,
    And around our souls entwine,
    While thy branches mix with mine
    And our roots together join.

    Joys upon our branches sit,
    Chirping loud and singing sweet;
    Like gentle streams beneath our feet
    Innocence and virtue meet.

    Thou the golden fruit dost bear,
    I am clad in flowers fair;
    Thy sweet boughs perfume the air,
    And the turtle buildeth there.

    There she sits and feeds her young,
    Sweet I hear her mournful song;
    And thy lovely leaves among,
    There is Love: I hear his tongue.

    There his charm’d nest he doth lay,
    There he sleeps the night away,
    There he sports along the day,
    And doth among our branches play.

Not the least remarkable of the _Poetical Sketches_ are “Samson” and
other short pieces in blank verse. They are marvellously Tennysonian;
if imitation there was, it obviously was not on Blake’s part. Who would
have hesitated to ascribe these lines, addressed to the Evening Star,
to the Laureate?

                            Let thy west wind sleep on
    The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
    And wash the dusk with silver.

Even more marvellous than the sentiment is the metre, which cannot be
judged by a short passage. Well might it be said, “Thou hast hid these
things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them unto babes,” when
the secret of melodious blank verse, withheld since the Civil War from
all the highly cultured and in many respects highly gifted bards of
England, is disclosed on the sudden to this half-educated young man.
It is exemplified on a larger scale by the accompanying fragments of
an intended tragedy on _Edward the Third_, which proves two things:
first, that Blake was destitute of all dramatic faculty; secondly,
that, notwithstanding, few have so thoroughly assimilated Shakespeare.
Shakespeare stands almost alone among great poets in having had hardly
any direct imitators. Every one, of course, has profited by the study
of his art; but those most deeply indebted to him in this respect have
felt the least disposed to reproduce his style. The reason is evident.
Other writers are partial, Shakespeare is universal; the model is too
vast for study. A deliberate imitation of Shakespeare would assuredly
be a failure: imitation is only practicable when it is not deliberate
but unconscious, the effluence of a mind so saturated with Shakespeare
that it can for the time only express itself in Shakespearian numbers,
and think under Shakespearian forms. Blake must have been in such a
situation when he attempted _Edward the Third_, the direct fruit of
his roamings among the regal tombs in the Abbey with Shakespeare’s
historical plays in his hand. The drama is childish, but the feeling
approaches Shakespeare as nearly as Keats’s early poems approach
Spenser. The imitation, being spontaneous and unsought, is never
senile, but every line reveals a youth whose soul is with Shakespeare,
though his body may be in Golden Square. Yet the reproduction of
Shakespeare’s manner is never so exact as to conceal the fact that the
poet is writing in the eighteenth and not in the sixteenth century.
The following passage may serve as an example both of the closeness of
Blake’s affinity with Shakespeare and of the _nuances_ of difference
that serve to vindicate his originality.

                              Last night beneath
    The moon I walked abroad when all had pitched
    Their tents, and all were still.
    I heard a blooming youth singing a song
    He had composed, and at each pause he wiped
    His dropping eyes. The ditty was “If he
    Returned victorious he should wed a maiden
    Fairer than snow and rich as midsummer.”
    Another wept, and wished health to his father.
    I chid them both, but gave them noble hopes.
    These are the minds that glory in the battle,
    And leap and dance to hear the trumpet sound.

This is beautiful description, sentiment and metre, but these beauties
sum up the attractions of Blake’s dramatic fragment. The dramatic
element is wanting, there is no action. This deficiency runs through
his whole work, pictorial as well as literary, and explains why one
capable of such sublime conceptions was nevertheless incapable of
taking rank with the Miltons and Michael Angelos. His productions
are full of tremendous scenes, the strivings and agonies of colossal
unearthly powers realised by his own mind with a vividness which proves
the intensity of his conceptions. Yet he seldom impresses the beholder
with any sentiment of awe or terror. The cause is not solely the
fantastic character of these conceptions, for the effect is the same
when he deals with mankind, and represents it in the most thrilling
crises of which humanity is capable. His representation of the plague,
for instance, engraved in Gilchrist’s biography, excites strong
interest and curiosity, but nothing of the shuddering dismay with which
we should view such a scene in actual life, and which is so powerfully
conveyed in such works as Géricault’s _Wreck of the Medusa_ and Poole’s
_Solomon Eagle_. The reason seems to be that Blake was not only a
visionary but also a mystic, and that mysticism is hardly compatible
with tragic passion. The visionary, as in the instances of Dante and
Bunyan, may realise every detail of his ideal conceptions with the
force of actual perception, but it is the very essence of the mystic’s
creed that things are not what they seem, and the man who knows himself
to be depicting a hieroglyphic will never grasp his subject with the
force of him who feels that he is dealing with a concrete reality. The
Hindoos are a nation of mystics who regard existence as an illusion,
and their art labours under the same defects as Blake’s; their drama
especially, with all the charm of lovely arabesque, makes nothing of
the strongest situations, save when these are of the pathetic order.
For although the mystic cannot be exciting, he can be tender: and while
Blake’s efforts at the delineation of frantic passion or overwhelming
catastrophes usually (there are exceptions) leave us unmoved, nothing
can be more pathetic than some of his delineations, such, for example,
as the famous illustration to Blair, of an old man approaching the

It seems almost strange that verses, as contrary to the spirit of
the age that gave them birth as prophetic of the ideals of the age
to come, should have found friends willing to defray their cost. If,
however, it is true that Flaxman was among these friends, Blake had
met with one congenial spirit. A clergyman named Matthews, incumbent
of Percy Chapel, Charlotte Street, is mentioned as another patron,
and as the writer of the well-meaning but too apologetic preface.
Through him Blake seems to have become acquainted with Flaxman. To the
few then able to appreciate the poems, they might well have seemed
indicative of a great poetical career, for they are exactly the sweet,
wild, untaught, prelusive music wherewith youth, as yet unschooled by
criticism and unawakened to its really profound problems, is wont to
essay its art. Why was it that Blake, though rivalling these early
attempts in his _Songs of Innocence_ and _Songs of Experience_, never
progressed further; and in by far the greater part of his subsequent
poetry went off altogether upon a wrong track, so far at least as
concerned poetry? Partly, we think, because his mind was almost
entirely deficient in the plastic element. He could reproduce a scene
ready depicted for him, as in his illustrations to Job; he could embody
a solitary thought with exquisite beauty, whether in poetry or in
painting; but he could not combine his ideas into a whole. His faculty
was purely lyrical, and when this evanescent endowment forsook him,
devoid as he was of all plastic literary power, he had no Oenone or
Ulysses to replace his Claribels and Eleanores. His verse became a mere
accompaniment of his pictorial art, and harmonising with its vagueness
and obscurity, necessarily lacked the symmetry with which a colourist
can dispense, but which is essential to a poet. Even more remarkable
than the music of Blake’s early verses, unparalleled in their age, is
the fact, vouched for by J. T. Smith, the biographer of Nollekens and
Keeper of Prints at the British Museum, that he had composed tunes for
them, which he could only repeat by ear from his ignorance of musical
notation. Some of these, Smith says, were exquisitely beautiful.

At the appearance of the _Poetical Sketches_ (1783), Blake had for a
year been a married man, and was actively striving to make a living
as an engraver. Most of his work of this nature at this time was
executed after Stothard. It cannot be disputed that this graceful
artist largely influenced Blake’s style in its more idyllic aspects;
whether, as he was afterwards inclined to assert, Stothard’s invention
owed something to him is not easy to determine. In 1784 he lost his
father, a mild, pious man, who had well performed his duty to his son.
Blake’s elder brother James took his business, and the artist, who had
probably inherited some little property, returned from Green Street
to Broad Street, and, establishing himself next door to his brother,
launched into speculation as a print-seller in partnership with a
former fellow apprentice named Parker, taking his brother Robert as a
gratuitous pupil. In 1785 he sent four drawings to the Academy. Three,
illustrative of the story of Joseph, were shown in the International
Exhibition of 1862, and are described by Gilchrist as “full of soft
tranquil beauty, specimens of Blake’s earlier style; a very different
one from that of his later and better-known works.” This is probably
as much as to say that he then wrought much under the influence of
Stothard, after whom he engraved the subject from _David Simple_ given
here; for the earlier design illustrative of the passage in _Romeo and
Juliet_ is characteristically Blakean. Mr. Gilchrist adds, “the design
is correct and blameless, not to say tame (for Blake), the colour full,
harmonious and sober.” Mr. Rossetti says that the figure of Joseph, in
the third drawing, “is especially pure and impulsive.”

[Illustration: _Illustration from “David Simple.” Engraved by W. Blake
after T. Stothard, R.A._]

In 1787 Blake’s experiment in print-selling came to an end, through
disagreements, it is said, with his partner; but as neither appears to
have afterwards pursued the calling, it is probable that it had never
been profitable. Parker obtained some distinction as an engraver,
chiefly after Stothard, and died in 1805. In February, 1787, Blake had
sustained a severe loss in the death of his brother and pupil Robert.
Blake himself nursed the patient for some weeks, and when at last
the end came, it is not surprising that he should have beheld his
brother’s spirit “arise and clap its hands for joy.” Not long after,
as he asserted, the spirit appeared to him in a dream, and revealed to
him that process of printing from copper plates which, as we shall see,
had the most decisive influence upon his work as an artist. Writing
to Hayley in 1800, he says, “Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and
with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him
in remembrance in the regions of my imagination. I hear his advice,
and even now write from his dictate.” “The ruins of Time,” he finely
subjoins, “build mansions in Eternity.”

From this time Blake’s sole assistant was his wife, whom he carefully
instructed, and who tinted many of the coloured drawings which
henceforth form the more characteristic portion of his work. After
giving up his business as a print-seller, he removed from Broad Street
to 28, Poland Street. Messrs. Ellis and Yeats conjecture that this may
have been to escape the blighting influence of his commercial brother
next door, but it is more probable that his venture had impoverished
him, and that he was obliged to give up housekeeping.


    _Blake’s Technical Methods--“Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of
    Experience”--Life in Poland Street and in Lambeth--Mystical
    Poetry and Art._

It was during his residence in Poland Street that Blake first appeared
in that mingled character of poet and painter which marks him off
so conspicuously from other painters and other poets. Painting has
often been made the handmaid of poetry; it was Blake’s idea, without
infringing upon this relationship, to make poetry no less the handmaid
of painting by employing his verse, engraved and beautified with
colour, to enhance the artistic value of his designs, as well as to
provide them with the needful basis of subject. The same principle
may probably be recognised in those Oriental scrolls where the
graceful labour of the scribe is as distinctly a work of art as the
illustration of the miniaturist; but of these Blake can have known
nothing. Necessity was with him the mother of invention. Since the
appearance of _Poetical Sketches_ he had written much that he desired
to publish--but how to pay for printing? So severely had he suffered by
his unfortunate commercial adventure that when at length, as he firmly
believed, the new process by which his song and his design could be
facsimiled together was revealed by his brother’s spirit in a dream, a
half-crown was the only coin his wife and he possessed between them in
the world. One shilling and tenpence of this was laid out in providing
the necessary materials.

The technical method to which Blake now resorted is thus described
by Mr. Gilchrist: “It was quite an original one. It consisted of 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
facsimiles; red he used for the letterpress. 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. 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 of 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

[Illustration: The Lamb. Infant Joy. _From Blake’s “Songs of

The total effect of this process is tersely expressed by Mr.
Rossetti, “The art is made to permeate the poetry.” It resulted in
the publication of _Songs of Innocence_ in 1789, two years after its
discovery or revelation. Other productions, of that weird and symbolic
character in which Blake came more and more to delight, followed
in quick succession. These will claim copious notice, but for the
present we may pass on to _Songs of Experience_, produced in 1794, so
much of a companion volume to _Songs of Innocence_ that the two are
usually found within the same cover. Neither attracted much attention
at the time. Charles Lamb says: “I have heard of his poems, but have
never seen them.” He is, however, acquainted with “Tiger, tiger,”
which he pronounces “glorious.” The price of the two sets when issued
together was from thirty shillings to two guineas--an illustration
of the material service which Art can render to Poetry when it is
considered that, published simply as poems, they would in that age
have found no purchasers at eighteenpence. This price was nevertheless
absurdly below their real value, and was enhanced even during the
artist’s lifetime. It came to be five guineas, and late in his life
friends, from the munificent Sir Thomas Lawrence downwards, would
commission sets tinted by himself at from ten to twenty guineas as a
veiled charity.

Of the poems and illustrations in _Songs of Innocence_ and _Songs of
Experience_ Gilchrist justly declares that their warp and woof are
formed in one texture, and that to treat of them separately is like
pulling up a daisy by the roots out of the green sward in which it
springs. One essential characteristic inspires them both, and may be
defined as childish fearlessness, the innocent courage of the infant
who puts his hand upon the serpent and the cockatrice. Any one but
Blake would have feared to publish designs and verses apparently so
verging upon the trivial, and which indeed would have been trivial--and
worse, affected--if the emanation of almost any other brain, or the
execution of almost any other hand. Being his, their sincerity is
beyond question, and they are a valuable psychological document as
establishing the possibility of a man of genius and passion reaching
thirty with the simplicity of a child. Hardly anything else in
literature or art, unless some thought in Shakespeare, so powerfully
conveys the impression of a pure elemental force, something absolutely
spontaneous, innocent of all contact with and all influence from the
refinements of culture. They certainly are not as a rule powerful,
and contrast forcibly with the lurid and gigantic conceptions which
if we did not remember that the same Dante depicted _The Tower of
Famine_ and _Matilda gathering Flowers_, we could scarcely believe
to have proceeded from the same mind. Their impressiveness proceeds
from a different source; their primitive innocence and simplicity, and
the rebuke which they seem to administer to artifice and refinement.
Even great artists and inspired poets, suddenly confronted with such
pure unassuming nature, may be supposed to feel as the disciples
must have felt when the Master set the little child among them. No
more characteristic examples could have been given than “The Lamb”
and “Infant Joy” from _Songs of Innocence_, and “The Fly” and “The
Tiger” from _Songs of Experience_ selected for reproduction here from
an uncoloured copy in the library of the British Museum. There is
frequently a great difference in the colouring of the copies. That in
the Museum Print Room is in full rich colour, while others are very
lightly and delicately tinted.

[Illustration: _From a coloured copy of the “Songs of Innocence and
Experience.” British Museum._]

It is of course much easier to convey an idea of the merits of
Blake’s verse than of his painting, for the former loses nothing by
transcription, and the latter everything. The merit of the latter,
too, is a variable quantity, depending much upon the execution of the
coloured plates. The uncoloured are but phantoms of Blake’s ideas. The
general characteristics of his art in these books may be described
as caressing tenderness and gentle grace, evinced in elegant human
figures, frequently drooping like willows or recumbent like river
deities, and in sinuous stems and delicate sprays, often as profuse as
delicate. The foliated ornament in “On Another’s Sorrow,” for instance,
seems like a living thing, and would almost speak without the aid of
the accompanying verse. The figures usually are too small to impress by
themselves, and rather seem subsidiary parts of the general design than
the dominant factors. They mingle with the inanimate nature portrayed,
as one note of a multitudinous concert blends with another. Yet “The
Little Girl Found” tells its story by itself powerfully enough; and
the innocent Bacchanalianism of the chorus in the “Laughing Song” is
conveyed with truly Lyæan spirit and energy.

The prevalent cheerfulness of the _Songs of Innocence_ is of course
modified in _Songs of Experience_. The keynote of the former is
admirably struck in the introductory poem:--

    Piping down the valleys wild,
      Piping songs of pleasant glee,
    On a cloud I saw a child,
      And he laughing said to me.

    “Pipe a song about a Lamb!”
      So I piped with merry cheer.
    “Piper, pipe that song again.”
      So I piped; he wept to hear.

    “Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;
      Sing thy songs of happy cheer!”
    So I sang the same again.
      While he wept with joy to hear.

    “Piper, sit thee down and write
      In a book, that all may read.”
    So he vanished from my sight;
      And I plucked a hollow reed.

    And I made a rural pen,
      And I stained the water clear,
    And I wrote my happy songs
      Every child may joy to hear.

[Illustration: _Frontispiece of Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Stories.”_]

This incarnate enigma among men could manifestly be as transparent as
crystal when he knew exactly what he wished to say--a remark which may
not be useless to the student of his mystical and prophetical writings.
The character of _Songs of Experience_, published in 1794, when he had
attained the age so often fatal to men of genius, is conveyed more
symbolically, yet intelligibly, in “The Angel”:--

    I dreamt a dream! What can it mean?
    And that I was a maiden Queen
    Guarded by an Angel mild:
    Witless woe was ne’er beguiled!

    And I wept both night and day,
    And he wiped my tears away;
    And I wept both day and night,
    And hid from him my heart’s delight.

    So he took his wings and fled;
    Then the man blushed very red.
    I dried my tears and armed my fears
    With ten thousand shields and spears.

    Soon my Angel came again;
    I was armed, he came in vain;
    For the time of youth was fled,
    And gray hairs were on my head.

[Illustration: The Fly. The Tyger. _From Blake’s “Songs of

Generally speaking, the _Songs of Experience_ may be said to answer to
their title. They exhibit an awakening of thought and an occupation
with metaphysical problems alien to the _Songs of Innocence_. Such a
stanza as this shows that Blake’s mind had been busy:--

    Nought loves another as itself
      Nor venerates another so;
    Nor is it possible to thought
      A greater than itself to know.

These ideas, however, are always conveyed, as in the remainder of the
poem quoted, through the medium of a concrete fact represented by the
poet. Perhaps the finest example of this fusion of imagination and
thought is this stanza of the most striking and best known of all the
poems, “The Tiger”:--

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

An evident, though probably unconscious, reminiscence of “When the
morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy,”
and like it for that extreme closeness to the inmost essence of things
which the author of the Book of Job enjoyed in virtue of the primitive
simplicity of his age and environment, and Blake through a childlike
temperament little short of preternatural in an age like ours. It may
be added, that although the pieces in _Songs of Innocence_ and _Songs
of Experience_ are of very unequal degrees of poetical merit, none want
the infallible mark of inspired poetry--spontaneous, inimitable melody.

[Illustration: _Page of Young’s “Night Thoughts.” Illustrated by W.

Both the simplicity and the melody, however, are absent from the
remarkable works with which Blake had been occupying himself during the
interval between the publication of the two series of his songs, which,
with their successors, have given him a peculiar and unique reputation
in their own weird way, but could not by themselves have given him the
reputation of a poet. Blake’s plain prose, as we shall see, is much
more effective. In a strictly artistic point of view, nevertheless,
these compositions reveal higher capacities than would have been
inferred from the idyllic beauty of the pictorial accompaniments of
_Songs of Innocence and Experience_. Before discussing these it will
be convenient to relate the chief circumstances of Blake’s life during
the period of their production, and up to the remarkable episode
of his migration to Felpham. They were not memorable or striking,
but one of them had considerable influence upon his development. In
1791 he was employed by Johnson, the Liberal publisher of St. Paul’s
Churchyard, and as such a minor light of his time, to illustrate Mary
Wollstonecraft’s _Tales for Children_ with six plates, both designed
and engraved by him, one of which accompanies this essay. They are
much in the manner of Stothard. This commission brought Blake as a
guest to Johnson’s house, where he became acquainted with a republican
coterie--Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin, Paine, Holcroft, Fuseli--with
whose political opinions he harmonised well, though totally dissimilar
in temperament from all of them, except Fuseli, who gave him several
tokens of interest and friendship. These acquaintanceships, and the
excitement of the times, led Blake to indite, and, which is more
extraordinary, Johnson to publish, the first of an intended series
of seven poetical books on the French Revolution. This, Gilchrist
tells us, was a thin quarto, without illustrations, published without
Blake’s name, and priced at a shilling. Gilchrist probably derived
this information from a catalogue, for he carefully avoids claiming to
have seen the book, which seems to have also escaped the researches of
all Blake’s other biographers. It must be feared that it is entirely
lost. Gilchrist must, however, have known something more of it if his
assertion that the other six books were actually written but not
printed, “events taking a different turn from the anticipated one,” is
based upon anything besides conjecture.

[Illustration: _9_ I want! I want! _10_ Help! Help!]

[Illustration: _11_ Aged Ignorance. _15_ Death’s Door.]

In 1793 Blake removed from Poland Street to Hercules Buildings,
Lambeth, then a row of suburban cottages with little gardens. Here he
engraved his friend Flaxman’s designs for the _Odyssey_, to replace
plates engraved by Piroli and lost in the voyage from Italy, whence
Flaxman had returned after seven years’ absence. In 1795 he designed
three illustrations for Stanley’s translation of Burger’s “Lenore,”
and in 1796 executed a much more important work, 537 drawings for an
edition of Young’s _Night Thoughts_ projected by a publisher named
Edwards. Forty-three were engraved and published in 1797, but the
undertaking was carried no further for want of encouragement, and the
designs, after remaining long in the publisher’s family, eventually
came into the hands of Mr. Bain of the Haymarket, who is still the
possessor. The most important are described by Mr. Frederic Shields
in the appendix to the second volume of Gilchrist’s biography. Mr.
Shields’ descriptions are so fascinating[3] that from them alone one
would be inclined to rate the drawings very high: but Mr. Gilchrist
thinks these ill adapted for the special purpose of book illustration
which they were destined to subserve, and reminds us that the absence
of colour is a grave loss. Blake is said to have been paid only a
guinea a plate for the forty-three engravings, on which he worked
for a year. The Lambeth period, however, seems not to have been an
unprosperous one, for he had many pupils. Several curious anecdotes of
it were related after his death on the alleged authority of Mrs. Blake,
but their truth seems doubtful. It is certain that during this period
he met with the most constant of his patrons, Mr. Thomas Butts, who for
nearly thirty years continued a steady buyer of his drawings, and but
for whom he would probably have fallen into absolute distress.

It is now time to speak of the literary works--“pictured poesy,”
like the woven poesy of _The Witch of Atlas_--produced during this
period. In 1789, the year of publication of the _Songs of Innocence_,
the series opens with _Thel_. In 1790 comes _The Marriage of Heaven
and Hell_; in 1793, _The Gates of Paradise_, _The Vision of the
Daughters of Albion_, and _America_; in 1794, _Europe_, _A Prophecy_,
and _Urizen_; in 1795, _The Song of Los_, and _The Book of Ahaniah_.
In 1797 Blake seems to have written, or to have begun to write, the
mystical poem ultimately entitled _Vala_, never published by him, and
more than fifty years after his death found in Linnell’s possession
in such a state of confusion that it took Messrs. Ellis and Yeats days
to arrange the MS., which they fondly deem to be now in proper order.
It is printed in the third volume of their work on Blake. _Tiriel_ is
undated, but would seem to be nearly contemporary with _Thel_.

_The Gates of Paradise_ constitutes an exception to the general spirit
of the works of this period, the accompanying text, though mystical
enough, being lyrical and not epical. The seventeen beautiful designs,
emblematical of the incidents necessarily associated with human nature,
are well described by Allan Cunningham as “a sort of devout dream,
equally wild and lovely.”

The merits of this remarkable series of works will always be a matter
of controversy. “Whether,” as Blake himself says, “whether this is
Jerusalem or Babylon, we know not.” It must be so, for they are
purely subjective, there is no objective criterion; they admit of
comparison with nothing, and can be tested by no recognised rules. In
the whole compass of human creation there is perhaps hardly anything
so distinctively an emanation of the mind that gave it birth. Visions
they undoubtedly are, and, as Messrs. Ellis and Yeats well say,
they are manifestly not the production of a pretender to visionary
powers. Whatever Blake has here put down, pictorially or poetically,
is evidently a record of something actually discerned by the inner
eye. This, however, leaves the question of their value still open.
To the pictorial part, indeed, almost all are agreed in attaching a
certain value, though the warmth of appreciation is widely graduated.
But literary estimation is not only discrepant but hostile; some
deem them revelation, others rhapsody. The one thing certain is the
general tendency towards Pantheism which Mr. Swinburne has made the
theme of an elaborate essay. To us they seem an exemplification of
the truth that no man can serve two masters. Blake had great gifts,
both as poet and artist, and he aspired not only to employ both, but
to combine both in the same work. At first this was practicable, but
soon the artistic faculty grew while the poetical dwindled. Not only
did the visible speech of painting become more important to him than
the viewless accents of verse, but his poetry became infected with the
artistic method. He allowed a latitude to his language which he ought
to have reserved for his form and colour, and became as hieroglyphic
in a speech where hieroglyphs are illegitimate as in one where they are
permissible. This is proved by the fact that the decline in the purity
of poetical form and in the perspicuity of poetical language proceed
_pari passu_. _Thel_, the earliest, is also both the most luminous and
the most musical of these pieces. Could Blake have schooled himself to
have written such blank verse as he had already produced in _Edward the
Third_ and _Samson_, _Thel_ would have been a very fine poem. Even as
it is its lax, rambling semi-prose is full of delicate modulations:

    The daughters of the Seraphim led round their sunny flocks,
    All but the youngest; she in paleness sought the secret air
    To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day.
    Down by the river of Adera her soft voice is heard,
    And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew.

In every succeeding production, however, there is less of metrical
beauty, and thought and expression grow continually more and more
amorphous. Blake may not improbably have been influenced by Ossian,
whose supposed poems were popular in his day, and from whom some of
his proper names, such as Usthona, seem to have been adopted. Many
then deemed that Ossian had demonstrated form to be a mere accident
of poetry instead of, as in truth it is, an indissoluble portion of
its essence. There is certainly a strong family resemblance between
Blake’s shadowy conceptions and Ossian’s misty sublimities. On the
other hand, he may be credited with having made a distinguished
disciple in Walt Whitman, who would not, we think, have written as he
did if Blake had never existed. What was pardonable in one so utterly
devoid of the sentiment of beautiful form as Whitman, was less so
in one so exquisitely gifted as Blake. Both derive some advantages
from their laxity, especially the poet of Democracy, but both suffer
from the inability of poetry, divorced from metrical form, to take a
serious hold upon the memory. One reads and admires, and by and by
the sensation is of the passage of a great procession of horsemen and
footmen and banners, but no distinct impression of a single countenance.

The general effect of these strange works upon the average mind is
correctly expressed by Gilchrist, when he says, speaking of _Europe_:
“It is hard to trace out any distinct subject, any plan or purpose,
or to determine whether it mainly relates to the past, the present,
or things to come. And yet its incoherence has a grandeur about it as
of the utterance of a man whose eyes are fixed on strange and awful
sights, invisible to bystanders.” What, then, did Blake suppose himself
to behold? Messrs. Ellis and Yeats have devoted an entire volume of
their three-volume work on Blake to the exposition of his visions.
Their comment is often highly suggestive, but it is seldom convincing.
When the right interpretation of a symbol has been found, it is usually
self-evident. Not so with their explanations, which appear neither
demonstrably wrong nor demonstrably right. Not that Blake talked
aimless nonsense; we are conscious of a general drift of thought in
some particular direction which seems to us to offer a general affinity
to the thought of the ancient Gnostics. It would be interesting if some
competent person would endeavour to determine whether the resemblance
goes any deeper than externals. Blake certainly knew nothing of the
Gnostics at first hand, nor is it probable that he could have gained
any knowledge of them from the mystical writers he did study, Behmen
and Swedenborg. But similar tendencies will frequently incarnate
themselves in individuals at widely remote periods of the world’s
history without evidence of direct filiation. Even so exceptional a
personage as Blake cannot be considered apart from his age, and his
age, among its other aspects, was one of mesmerism and illuminism. The
superficial resemblance of his writings to those of the Gnostics is
certainly remarkable. Both embody their imaginations in concrete forms;
both construct elaborate cosmogonies and obscure myths; both create
hierarchies of principalities and powers, and equip their spiritual
potentates with sonorous appellations; both disparage matter and its
Demiurgus. “I fear,” said Blake to Robinson, “that Wordsworth loves
nature, and nature is the work of the devil. The devil is in us as far
as we are nature.” The chief visible difference, that the Gnostics’
philosophy tends to asceticism, and Blake’s to enjoyment, may perhaps
be explained by the consideration that he was a poet, and that they
were philosophers and divines. Perhaps the best preparation for any
student of Blake who might wish to investigate this subject further
would be to read the article in the _Dictionary of Christian Biography_
upon the _Pistis Sophia_, the only Gnostic book that has come down
to us, and one which Blake would have delighted in illustrating. The
Gnostic belief in the all-importance of the transcendent knowledge
which comes of immediate perception (γνῶσις) reappears in him with
singular intensity. “Men are admitted into heaven,” he says, “not
because they have curbed and governed their passions, or have no
passions, but because they have cultivated their understandings. The
fool shall not enter into heaven, let him be ever so holy.” Nothing in
Blake, perhaps, is so Gnostic as the strange poem, _The Everlasting
Gospel_, first published by Mr. Rossetti, though many things in it
would have shocked the Gnostics.


The strictly literary criticism of Blake’s mystical books may be almost
confined to the _Book of Thel_, for this alone possesses sufficient
symmetry to allow a judgment to be formed upon it as a whole. The
others are like quagmires occasionally gay with brilliant flowers; but
_Thel_, though its purpose may be obscure, is at all events coherent,
with a beginning and an end. Thel, “youngest daughter of the Seraphim,”
roves through the lower world lamenting the mortality of beautiful
things, including her own. All things with which she discourses offer
her consolation, but to no purpose. At last she enters the realm of
Death himself.

    The eternal gates’ terrific porter lifted the northern bar;
    Thel entered in and saw the secrets of the land unknown.
    She saw the couches of the dead, and where the fibrous root
    Of every heart on earth infixes deep its restless twists:
    A land of sorrows and of tears, where never a smile was seen.

    She wandered in the land of clouds, through valleys dark listening
    Dolours and lamentations; waiting oft beside a dewy grave
    She stood in silence, listening to the voices of the ground,
    Till to her own grave-plot she came, and there she sat down,
    And heard this voice of sorrow breathed from the hollow pit.

The effect of the voice of sorrow upon Thel is answerable to that of
the spider upon little Miss Muffet. This abrupt conclusion injures
the effect of a piece which otherwise may be compared to a strain
of soothing music, suggestive of many things, but giving definite
expression to none. Messrs. Ellis and Yeats, however, have no
difficulty in assigning a meaning. Thel, according to them, is “the
pure spiritual essence,” her grief is the dread of incarnation, and her
ultimate flight is a return “to the land of pure unembodied innocence
from whence she came.” Yet her forsaking this land is represented
as her own act, and it is difficult to see how she could have “led
round her sunny flocks” in it if she had not been embodied while she
inhabited it. At the same time, if Messrs. Ellis and Yeats are right,
no interpretation of Blake can be disproved by any inconsistency that
it may seem to involve. “The surface,” they say, “is perpetually, as
it were, giving way before one, and revealing another surface below
it, and that again dissolves when we try to study it. The making of
religions melts into the making of the earth, and that fades away into
some allegory of the rising and the setting of the sun. It is all like
a great cloud full of stars and shapes, through which the eye seeks a
boundary in vain.”

[Illustration: _Design from the “Book of Urizen.” By W. Blake._]

Mr. Yeats, putting his interpretation of Blake’s symbolism more
tersely into the preface to his excellent edition of the Poetical
Works, describes it as shadowing forth the endless conflict between
the Imagination and the Reason, which, we may add, the Gnostics
would have expressed as the strife between the Supreme Deity and the
god of this world, the very phrase which Mr. Yeats himself uses in
describing Urizen, Blake’s Evil Genius, “the maker of dead law and
blind negation,” contrasted as the Gnostics would have contrasted him
with Los, the deity of the living world. Blake, therefore, has points
of contact with the representatives of the French Revolution on one
side, and with Coleridge on the other. Mr. Yeats’s interpretation is
in itself coherent and plausible, but the question whether it can be
fairly deduced from Blake himself is one on which few are entitled to
pronounce, and the causes of Blake’s obscurity are not so visible as
its consequences. To us, as already said, much of it appears to arise
from his imperfect discrimination between the provinces of speech and
of painting. His discourse frequently seems a hieroglyphic which would
have been more intelligible if it could have been expressed in the
manner proper to hieroglyphics by pictorial representation. As Mr.
Smetham says of some of the designs, “Thought cannot fathom the secret
of their power, and yet the power is there.” It seems evident that the
poem, when a complete lyric, generally preceded the picture in Blake’s
mind, and that the latter must usually be taken as a gloss, in which
he seeks to illustrate by means of visible representation what he was
conscious of having left obscure by verbal expression. The exquisite
song of the Sunflower, for example, certainly existed before the very
slight accompanying illustration.

    Ah Sunflower, weary of time,
    Who counted the steps of the sun,
    Seeking after that sweet golden clime
    Where the traveller’s journey is done.

    Where the youth, pined away with desire,
    And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
    Arise from their graves and aspire
    Where my sunflower wishes to go.

The first of these stanzas is perfectly clear: the second requires
no interpretation to a poetical mind, but will not bear construing
strictly, and its comprehension is certainly assisted by the slight
fugitive design lightly traced around the border. Generally the
pictorial illustration of Blake’s thought is much more elaborate, but
in _Songs of Innocence and Experience_ it almost always seems to have
grown out of the poem. In the less inspired _Prophetical Books_, on the
other hand, the pictorial representation, even when present only to the
artist’s mind, seems to have frequently suggested or modified the text.
An example may be adduced from _The Book of Thel_.

    Why an ear, a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in?

Blake had noted the external likeness of the convolutions of the ear to
the convolutions of a whirlpool; therefore the ear shall be described
as actually being what it superficially resembles, and because the
whirlpool sucks in ships, the ear shall suck in creations. It must also
be remembered that Blake’s belief that his works were given him by
inspiration prevented his revising them, and that they were stereotyped
by the method of their publication. No considerable productions of
the human mind, it is probable, so nearly approach the character of
absolutely extemporaneous utterances.

Before passing from the literary to the artistic expression of Blake’s
genius in these books, something must be said of the remarkable
appendix to _The Marriage of Heaven and Hell_ entitled _Proverbs of
Hell_. These are a number of aphoristic sayings, impregnated with
Blake’s peculiarities of thought and expression, but for the most part
so shrewd and pithy as to demonstrate the author’s sanity, at least at
this time of his life. The following are some of the more striking:--

    Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.
    The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
    A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
    All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.
    If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
    The fox condemns the trap, not himself.
    The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of
       the crow.
    The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion.
    He who has suffered you to impose on him, knows you.
    The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
    One law for the lion and ox is oppression.
    The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest.

These are not the scintillations of reason which may occasionally
illumine the chaos of a madman’s brain, but bespeak a core of good
sense quite inconsistent with general mental disturbance, though
sufficiently compatible with delusion on particular subjects. With
incomparable art, Shakespeare has imparted a touch of wildness to
Hamlet’s shrewdest sayings; but Blake speaks rather as Polonius would
have spoken if it had been possible for Polonius to speak in tropes.


From the difficult subject of the interpretation of Blake’s mystical
designs we pass with satisfaction to the artistic qualities of the
designs themselves. On this point there is an approximation to
unanimity. To some the sublime, to others the grotesque, may seem to
preponderate, but all will allow them to be among the most remarkable
and original series of conceptions that ever emanated from a mortal
brain. To whatever exceptions they may be liable, it enlarges one’s
apprehension of the compass of human faculties to know that human
faculties have been adequate to their production. They may be ranked
with the most imaginative passages of _Paradise Lost_, and of Byron’s
_Cain_ as an endeavour of the mind to project itself beyond the visible
and tangible, and to create for itself new worlds of grandeur and of
gloom in height and abyss and interstellar space. Wonderful indeed is
the range of imagination displayed, even though we cannot shut our
eyes to some palpable repetitions. In the opinion, however, of even
so sympathetic a critic as Dr. Wilkinson, Blake deserves censure for
having degenerated into mere monstrosity. “Of the worst aspect of
Blake’s genius,” he says, “it is painful to speak. In his _Prophecies
of America_, his _Visions of the Daughters of Albion_, and a host of
unpublished drawings, earth-born might has banished the heavenlier
elements of art, and exists combined with all that is monstrous and
diabolical. The effect of these delineations is greatly heightened by
the antiquity which is engraven on the faces of those who do and suffer
in them. We have the impression that we are looking down into the hells
of the ancient people, the Anakim, the Nephilim, and the Rephaim. Their
human forms are gigantic petrifactions, from which the fires of lust
and intense selfish passion have long dissipated what was animal and
vital, leaving stony limbs and countenances expressive of despair and
stupid cruelty.” We, on the other hand, should rather criticise Blake
for having failed to be as appalling as he meant to be. His power, as
it seems to us, consisted rather in the vivid imagination than in the
actual rendering of scenes of awe and horror. Far inferior artists have
produced more thrilling effects of this sort with much simpler means.
It would be wrong to say that his visions appear unreal, but they do
appear at a remove from reality, a world seen through a glass darkly,
its phantasm rather than its portrait. This, however, only applies to
the inventions of Blake’s own brain, which, if we may judge by the
moderate development of the back head in Deville’s cast, lacked the
force of the animal propensities requisite for the portrayal of cruelty
and horror. He could render the conceptions of others with startling
force--witness the impressive delineation reproduced by us of the
Architect of the Universe at work with his compasses; and the simple
pencil outline of Nebuchadnezzar in Mr. Rossetti’s book, engraved by
Gilchrist, where the human quadruped creeps away with an expression of
overwhelming and horror-stricken dismay. This power of interpretation
was to find yet finer expression in the illustration of the Book of Job.

Blake’s technical defects are indicated by Messrs. Ellis and Yeats
as consisting mainly in imperfect treatment of the human form from
want of anatomical knowledge. He had always disliked that close study
of the life which alone could have made him an able draughtsman; it
“obliterated” him, he said, and had resolved to quarrel with almost
all the artists from whom he might have learned. It must be remembered
in his excuse that consummate colouring and consummate draughtsmanship
are seldom found associated. Those who may feel disappointed with the
reproductions of Blake’s mystical designs must also remember that
these are but shadows of the artist’s thought, which needed for its
full effect the application of colour by his own hand. “Much,” says
Dante Rossetti, “which seems unaccountably rugged and incomplete is
softened by the sweet, liquid, rainbow tints of the coloured copies
into mysterious brilliancy.” The effect thus obtained may perhaps be
best shown by Mr. Gilchrist’s eloquent description of the illuminated
drawings in Lord Crewe’s copy of _America_. “Turning over the leaves,
it is sometimes like an increase of daylight in the retina, so fair
and open is the effect of particular pages. The skies of sapphire,
or gold, rayed with hues of sunset, against which stand out leaf or
blossom, or pendent branch, gay with bright-plumaged birds; the strips
of emerald sward below, gemmed with flower and lizard, and enamelled
snake, refresh the eye continually. Some of the illustrations are of a
more sombre kind. There is one in which a little corpse, white as snow,
lies gleaming on the floor of a green over-arching cave, which close
inspection proves to be a field of wheat, whose slender interlacing
stalks, bowed by the full ear and by a gentle breeze, bend over the
dead infant. The delicate network of stalks, which is carried up
one side of the page, the main picture being at the bottom, and the
subdued yet vivid green light shed over the whole, produce a lovely
decorative effect. Decorative effect is, in fact, never lost sight of,
even where the motive of the design is ghastly or terrible.” Whatever
the imperfections of Blake’s peculiar sphere, it _was_ his sphere, and
probably the only department of art in which he could have obtained
greatness even if his technical accomplishment had been as complete
as it was the reverse. When painting on more orthodox lines he is
often surprisingly tame and conventional. How remote he was from the
inane when he could revel in his own conceptions may, notwithstanding
the tremendous disadvantages inherent in reproduction, be judged from
the illustrations to his mystical books selected for this monograph,
the frontispiece and Plate IV. of _Thel_, and the two subjects from

[Illustration: _The Ancient of Days setting a Compass to the Earth.
From a water-colour drawing by W. Blake. British Museum._]


    _Blake’s removal to Felpham--Intercourse with Hayley--Return
    to London--“Jerusalem”--Connection with Cromek--Illustrations
    of Blair’s “Grave”--Illustration of Chaucer’s “Canterbury
    Pilgrims”--Exhibition of his Works and “Descriptive Catalogue.”_

Blake was now about to make a change in his external environment,
which would have been momentous to any artist whose themes had been
less exclusively discerned by the inner eye. It is an extraordinary
fact, but there is absolutely no evidence that the poet who “made
a rural pen” had as yet ever seen the country beyond the immediate
neighbourhood of London. It is vain to speculate upon the precise
modification which might have been wrought in his genius by rural
nurture or foreign travel. Now he was actually to become a denizen
of the country for some years. An introduction from Flaxman had made
him acquainted with William Hayley, a Sussex squire and scholar, now
chiefly remembered as his patron and the biographer of Cowper, but
esteemed in his own day as one of the best representatives of English
poetry at what seemed the period of its deepest decrepitude, though
he is unaccountably omitted in Porson’s catalogue of the bards of
the epoch.[4] Hayley, having lost his son, a pupil of Flaxman, and
his friend Cowper within a week of each other in the spring of 1800,
resolved to solace his grief by writing Cowper’s life, and suggested
that Blake should live near him during the progress of the work to
execute the engravings by which it was to be illustrated. In August,
1800, Blake removed from Lambeth to Felpham, near Bognor, on the
Sussex coast, where Hayley occupied a marine villa, his own residence
at Eastham being let on account of the embarrassment of his affairs.
The cottage was not provided by him for Blake, but the rent was paid
by Blake himself. The change from Lambeth to a beautiful country of
groves, meadows, and cornfields, with sails in the distance,

    Half lost in the liquid azure bloom of a crescent of sea,
    The shining sapphire-spangled marriage ring of the land,

affected Blake with enthusiastic delight. “Felpham,” he wrote to
Flaxman, “is a sweet place for study, because it is more spiritual than
London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates; her windows
are not obstructed by vapours; voices of celestial inhabitants are more
distinctly heard, and their forms more distinctly seen, and my cottage
is also a shadow of their houses.” He continues: “I am more famed in
Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my brain are studies
and chambers with books and pictures of old, which I wrote and painted
in ages of eternity before my mortal life; and those works are the
delight and study of archangels. Why then should I be anxious about
the riches or fame of mortality?” It is clear that, notwithstanding
his theories of the deadness of the material creation, Blake valued
natural beauty as an instrument for bringing him into more intimate
connection with the visionary world. At first the desired effect was
fully produced. Blake began to compose, or rather, according to his
own account, to take down from supernatural dictation the _Jerusalem_,
the most important in some respects of his mystical writings. Walking
by the shore--the very shore where Cary was afterwards to encounter
Coleridge--he habitually met Moses and the Prophets, Homer, Dante,
and Milton. “All,” he said, “majestic shadows, gray but luminous, and
superior to the common height.” A description so fine, that some may
be inclined to deem it something more than a mere fancy. Unfortunately
he also fell in with a fairies’ funeral, a stumbling-block to the most
resolute faith. By and by, however, the dampness of the cottage proved
provocative of rheumatism, and, which was much more disastrous, the
mental climate proved unsympathetic. Hayley’s patronage of so strange
a creature as he must have thought Blake does him the highest honour.
He appears throughout, not only as a very kind man, but, what is less
usual in a literary personage, a very patient one. He actually
instructed Blake in Greek. His kindness and patience did not, however,
render him any the better poet; he was an elegant _dilettante_ at
the best, and Blake must have chafed at the obligation under which
he felt himself to illustrate his verses. One ballad of some merit,
however, “Little Tom the Sailor,” inspired Blake with a striking if
somewhat rude design, and he adorned Hayley’s library with ideal
portraits of illustrious authors. The engraving work which he had to
execute for Hayley’s life of Cowper was also little to his taste, but
there seems no valid reason to charge him with neglect of it. His own
self-reproach, indeed, ran in quite a different channel: he accused
himself most seriously of unfaithfulness to his high vocation as a
revealer and interpreter of spiritual things. Absence from town led him
to write frequently to his friend and patron Butts, and these letters
are invaluable indications not only of the frame of his mind at the
time, but of its general habit. “I labour,” he says, “incessantly, I
accomplish not one-half of what I intend, because my abstract folly
hurries me often away while I am at work, carrying me over mountains
and valleys, which are not real, into a land of abstraction where
spectres of the dead wander. This I endeavour to prevent; I, with my
whole might, chain my feet to the world of duty and reality. But in
vain! the faster I bind, the lighter is the ballast; for I, so far
from being bound down, take the world with me in my flights, and often
it seems lighter than a ball of wool rolled by the wind.… If we fear
to do the dictates of our angels, and tremble at the tasks set before
us, if we refuse to do spiritual acts because of natural fears or
natural desires, who can describe the dismal torments of such a state?…
Though I have been very unhappy, I am so no longer. I have travelled
through perils and darkness not unlike a champion. I have conquered and
shall go on conquering. Nothing can withstand the fury of my course
among the stars of God and in the abysses of the accuser.” In plain
English Hayley strongly advised Blake to give up his mystical poetry
and design and devote himself solely to engraving, and Blake looked
upon the advice as a suggestion of the adversary. We do not know what
Hayley said. If he thought that one of the _Poetical Sketches_ or the
_Songs of Innocence_ was worth many pages of _Urizen_ apart from the
illustrations, he had reason for what he thought. But Blake’s lyrical
gift had all but forsaken him; he was incapable of emitting “wood-notes
wild,” and the only way in which he could give literary expression to
the inspiration by which he justly deemed himself visited was through
his rhythmical form, which to Hayley may well have seemed monstrous.
It is highly probable that the pictorial part of Blake’s work found no
more favour with Hayley than the poetical; at all events it is very
certain that he greatly preferred his engraving, and wished Blake to
follow the art by which he had the best prospect of providing for
himself. Johnson and Fuseli, by Blake’s own admission, had given the
same advice; and an obscure line in one of his rather undignified
and splenetic epigrams against his well-intentioned friend may be
interpreted as meaning that Hayley had tried to bring his wife’s
influence to bear upon him for this end. In any case he lost temper
with Hayley, and wrote to Butts (July, 1803): “Mr. Hayley approves of
my designs as little as he does of my poems, and I have been forced
to insist on his leaving me in both to my own self-will; for I am
determined to be no longer pestered with his genteel ignorance and
polite disapprobation. I know myself both poet and painter, and it
is not his affected contempt that can move to anything but a more
assiduous pursuit of both arts.” Two months afterwards he returned
to London, but on better terms with Hayley; partly on account of the
latter’s generous conduct in providing for his defence against a charge
of using seditious language, trumped up against him by a soldier whom
he had turned out of his garden. “Perhaps,” he wrote to Butts, “this
was suffered to give opportunity to those whom I doubted to clear
themselves of all imputation.” The case was tried in January, 1804, and
terminated in Blake’s triumphant acquittal. An old man who had attended
the trial as a youth said that he remembered nothing of it except
Blake’s flashing eye.

[Illustration: _From Blake’s “America.”_]

The engravings executed by Blake for Hayley during his residence at
Felpham were six for the life and letters of Cowper; four original
designs for ballads by Hayley, including “Poor Tom,” and six engravings
after Maria T. Flaxman for Hayley’s _Triumphs of Temper_. He did some
work for Hayley after his return to town--engravings for the _Life of
Romney_, and original designs for Hayley’s _Ballads on Animals_--and
corresponded with him in a friendly spirit, but the intimacy gradually
died away.

Blake was profoundly influenced by his residence at Felpham in
one respect; he became acquainted with opposition, and distinctly
realised a power antagonistic to his aspirations. He was thus stung
into self-assertion, and became hostile to the artists whose aims and
methods he was unable to reconcile with his ideas. The first hints
of this attitude appear in the praises he bestows upon the work of
his own which chiefly occupied him at Felpham, the _Jerusalem_. “I
may praise it,” he says, “since I dare not pretend to be any other
than the secretary; the authors are in eternity. I consider it as the
grandest poem that this world contains. Allegory addressed to the
intellectual powers, while it is altogether hidden from the corporeal
understanding, is my definition of the most sublime poetry.” Blake’s
allegory so effectually eludes both the reason and the understanding
that Messrs. Ellis and Yeats frankly tell us that it is not for a
moment to be supposed that their own elaborate interpretation will
convey any idea to the mind unless it is read conjointly with the poem;
and if such is the commentary what must the text be? If they are right
the confusion is greatly increased by a wrong arrangement, and by the
numerous interpolations which Blake subsequently introduced into the
poem, which, though nominally issued in 1804, was not, they think,
actually completed until about 1820. It suffers from being nearer prose
than any of his former books. “When this verse was dictated to me,” he
says, “I considered a monotonous cadence, like that used by Milton,
Shakespeare, and all writers of English blank verse, derived from the
modern bondage of rhyming, to be a necessary and indispensable part of
the verse. But I soon found that in the mouth of a true orator such
monotony was not only awkward, but as much a bondage as rhyme itself.”
What can be said of the ears that could find Shakespeare’s and Milton’s
blank verse monotonous? The truth is that Blake’s originally exquisite
perception of harmony had waned with his lyrical faculty, and he scoffs
at what he is no longer able to produce. Yet the general grandiose
effect of _Jerusalem_ is undeniable. Little as we can attach any
definite idea to it, it simultaneously awes and soothes like one of the
great inarticulate voices of nature, the booming of the billows, or
the whisper of the winds in the wood. Occasionally we encounter some
beautiful little vignette like this:--

    She creates at her will a little moving night and silence,
    With spaces of sweet gardens and a tent of elegant beauty,
    Closed in by sandy deserts, and a night of stars shining;
    A little tender moon, and hovering angels on the wing,
    And the male gives a time and revolution to her space
    Till the time of love is passed in ever-varying delights:
    For all things exist in the human imagination.

This seems an illustration of what we have said of the dependence
of Blake’s poetry upon his pictorial imagination, for it is clearly
nothing but a magnificent expansion of the midsummer night idyl of the
glowworm shining for her mate, “with her little drop of moonlight,” as
Beddoes beautifully says.

In artistic merit _Jerusalem_ is fully equal to any of Blake’s works.
There is less of the grotesque than in the others, and even more of the
impressive. Much, however, depends upon the colouring, which varies
greatly in different copies. Mr. Gilchrist warns us that it cannot
be judged aright if we have not seen the “incomparable” copy in the
possession of Lord Crewe. “It is printed in a warm reddish-brown, the
exact colour of a very fine photograph; and the broken blending of
the deeper lines with the more tender shadows--all sanded over with a
sort of golden mist peculiar to Blake’s mode of execution--makes still
more striking the resemblance to the then undiscovered handling of
Nature herself.” The general character of the design is excellently
described by Gilchrist. “The subjects are vague and mystic as the poem
itself. Female figures lie among waves full of reflected stars: a
strange human image, with a swan’s head and wings, floats on water in a
kneeling attitude and drinks; lovers embrace in an open water-lily; an
eagle-headed creature sits and contemplates the sun; serpent-women are
coiled with serpents; Assyrian-looking, human-visaged bulls are seen
yoked to the plough or the chariot; rocks swallow or vomit forth human
forms, or appear to amalgamate with them; angels cross each other over
wheels of flame; and flames and hurrying figures wreathe and wind among
the lines.” It may indeed, like Blake’s other productions of the kind,
be described as a gigantic arabesque, imbued with a passion and pathos
not elsewhere attempted in this branch of art.

[Illustration: _Design from “Milton.” By W. Blake._]

The subject of _Milton_, from which one of our illustrations
is selected, is, in Mr. Swinburne’s words, the incarnation and
descent into earth and hell of Milton, who represents redemption
by inspiration. Something similar, as we have seen, is the idea of
Blake’s fine mystical book, _Thel_, and the pilgrimage through a
lower sphere is also found in the oldest Assyrian poetry. The book,
like _Jerusalem_, is dated 1804, but, like its companion, must have
been composed at Felpham. Nothing save actual and present contact with
country scenes could have inspired such a passage as this, the crown of
all Blake’s unrhymed poetry:--

    Thou hearest the nightingale begin the song of spring:
    The lark sitting upon his earthly bed, just as the sun
    Appears, listens silent: then springing from the wavy corn-field loud
    He leads the choir of day: trill, trill, trill, trill:
    Mounting upon the wings of light into the great expanse;
    Re-echoing against the lovely blue and shining heavenly shell:
    His little throat labours with inspiration, every feather
    On throat and breast and wings vibrates with the effluence divine:
    All nature listens silent to him, and the awful sun
    Stands still upon the mountain looking on this little bird
    With eyes of soft humility, and wonder, love, and awe.

Such a passage shows how greatly Blake might have gained as a poet had
he been more intimate with external nature. Very splendid lines might
be quoted from “Milton,” such as “A cloudy heaven mingled with stormy
seas in loudest ruin,” but they are glowing light upon a black core of
obscurity. Mr. Housman’s judgment applies to it as to all the works of
its class. “They are the sign chiefly of a beautiful nature wasted for
lack of equipment in formulating disputatively what grew out of his
better work with all the thoughtlessness and glory of a flower.”[5]

[Illustration: _From Blake’s “America.”_]

Several lyrical poems printed in Blake’s works may be assigned to this
date. Some, such as “The Crystal Cabinet” and “The Mental Traveller,”
are extremely mystical; others, such as “Mary,” are of simply human
interest; others, such as “Auguries of Innocence,” seem little remote
from nonsense. “The Everlasting Gospel” expresses his profoundest ideas
with startling crudity. None are wholly unmelodious, but the old
bewitching melody has gone from all, unless from the lines introductory
to “Milton”:--

    And did those feet in ancient time
      Walk upon England’s mountains green;
    And was the holy Lamb of God
      On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

    And did the countenance divine
      Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
    And was Jerusalem builded here
      Among these dark Satanic mills?

    Bring me my bow of burning gold,
      Bring me my arrows of desire:
    Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
      Bring me my chariot of fire!

    I will not cease from mental fight,
      Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
    Till we have built Jerusalem
      In England’s green and pleasant land.

[Illustration: _Portrait of William Blake. From the engraving by L.
Schiavonetti, after T. Phillips, R.A._]

Blake, who had settled at 17, South Molton Street, Oxford Street, was
in the meantime dealing with a very different patron from Hayley,
Robert Cromek, a “stickit” engraver turned print-seller, who tricked
if he did not actually defraud him, but who is entitled to the credit
of having recognised his genius, and of having brought forward works
of his more adapted to attract public notice than anything he had
yet done. These were the twelve illustrations to Blair’s _Grave_,
full of Blake’s peculiar genius and at the same time intelligible to
all. They had been executed in 1804 and 1805. Cromek, who afterwards
admitted that they were worth sixty guineas, obtained them for twenty
from the artist, who had intended to publish them himself. It had been
understood that Blake should have engraved them, but Cromek, wisely
from his own point of view, but wrongfully as regarded Blake, intrusted
the task to Schiavonetti. As a frontispiece, they were accompanied
by a portrait of Blake from a drawing by Phillips, also engraved by
Schiavonetti, which we have reproduced. Thanks to Cromek’s judicious
engineering, and the popularity of the poem illustrated, the adventure
proved a considerable success. “It is the only volume with Blake’s
name on the title-page,” says Mr. Gilchrist, “which is not scarce.”
The publication took place in 1808. In the interval Cromek, calling
upon Blake, had seen a pencil sketch of a design for the procession of
Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims. Failing to obtain a finished drawing
from the artist, who resented his previous treatment, he proposed
the subject to Stothard, withholding as apart from all questions of
Stothard’s “frigid and exemplary” character would be most natural
for him to do, all mention of Blake’s drawing. Stothard accepted the
commission; his elaborate oil picture was exhibited in 1807 with great
success, but at the cost of a breach with Blake, who went so far in
his denunciation, not only of Cromek’s underhand dealing but of the
defects which he found in Stothard’s work, that when he afterwards
sought a reconciliation Stothard remained impervious. Determined to
vindicate his superiority, Blake completed, exhibited, and engraved his
own fresco. The exhibition, accompanied by a remarkable “descriptive
catalogue,” to which we shall return--was not the success it might
have been in the hands of the shrewd Cromek. The exhibition room was
watched by Blake’s brother James, whom Crabb Robinson asked whether
he should be allowed to come again free in consideration of having
bought four copies of the descriptive catalogue. “As long as you live,”
answered the overjoyed custodian. The success of the engraving was
proportionate to that of the exhibition; though it might have been
otherwise if the roughness of the original design had been smoothed
down by the deft Schiavonetti. “Blake’s production,” says Mr. Rossetti,
“is as unattractive as Stothard’s is facile; as hard and strong as
Stothard’s is limp; one face in Blake’s design means as much on the
part of the artist, and takes as much scrutiny and turning over of
thought on the part of the spectator, as all the pretty _fantoccini_
and their sprightly little horses in Stothard’s work.” The engraving of
the _Pilgrimage_ in Gilchrist’s biography evinces the justice of this
criticism; though Ellis and Yeats rightly add that Blake has given all
his personages the eyes of visionaries. “A work of wonderful power and
spirit, hard and dry, yet with grace,” says Charles Lamb. The original
fresco was purchased by Elijah’s raven, the ever-ready Butts.

We must now return to the illustrations to Blair’s _Grave_, which are
not only the most popular of Blake’s works, but among his greatest.
He showed in general more vigour in dealing with the conceptions
of another than with his own, the latter imbibing an element of
fanciful grace from the gentle spirit which produced them. Hence _The
Soul Exploring the Recesses of the Grave_, reproduced from _Thel_,
though one of the most poetical of the designs, is one of the least
powerful. His rendering of Blair’s thoughts is marvellously direct and
impressive, whether the passion depicted be joy, as in _The Reunion
of the Soul and the Body_ (given here), or horror, as in _The Death
of the Strong Wicked Man_, or an intermediate shade, as in _The Soul
hovering over the Body_. None of these and few of the series, once
seen, will easily be forgotten. The most famous, and deservedly so,
is the marvellous one, a combination of two designs in _America_ and
_The Gates of Paradise_, where the aged man, impelled by a strong
wind, totters towards the portal of the sepulchre, on the summit of
which sits the rejuvenated spirit, personified by a strong youth,
rejoicing in his deliverance, but dazzled by the as yet unwonted
light. In all these designs the element of seemly, yet slightly
formal and conventional grace which Blake had learned from Stothard,
is very conspicuous. The least successful, as seems to us, is _The
Last Judgment_, where Blake appears as a minor Michael Angelo, but
this work as engraved differs widely from his description of the work
as exhibited. It may well be believed that the modified version was
distinguished by great splendour of colouring.

Other works of this period were two small frescoes exhibited at the
Academy in 1808, _Christ in the Sepulchre_ and _Jacob’s Dream_; the
“ornamental device” engraved (by Cromek) along with the frontispiece
to Malkin’s _Father’s Memoirs of his Child_, a graceful and pathetic
composition; three illustrations to Shakespeare, one of which, the
highly imaginative conception of the appearance of the Ghost to Hamlet,
is engraved in Gilchrist’s biography; _The Babylonian Woman on the
Seven-headed Beast_ (1809) reproduced here; a continuous series of
designs produced for Mr. Butts, to be mentioned more fully hereafter;
and the pictures displayed along with _The Canterbury Pilgrims_ at
its exhibition (1809). We must now devote some attention to Blake’s
appearance as an æsthetic writer in the _Descriptive Catalogue_ he put
forth on this occasion, with which his other principal deliverances on
the subject of art may be advantageously grouped.

[Illustration: _The Reunion of Soul and Body. From Blair’s “Grave,”
illustrated by W. Blake._]

Blake’s _Descriptive Catalogue_ and his _Appeal to the Public_ to judge
between himself and his rivals in the department of engraving, are a
singular mixture of gold and clay. The dignity which characterised
his demeanour in life forsakes him as soon as he takes the pen into
his hand, and he reviles Stothard, Woollett, and others in a
strain inconsistent with self-respect on his own part, even had his
criticism been well founded. As a matter of fact, it seems to have had
no foundation, and assuredly has not affected the reputation of his
antagonists in the smallest degree. At the same time it is impossible
not to be moved by his earnestness. He is evidently contending for
principles of great importance to himself, and through the mist of his
confused and ungrammatical expression we seem to catch glimpses of high
and serious truth. A refreshing contrast is afforded by the passages
devoted to Chaucer, which are truly admirable for their felicitous
insight into the old poet. “For all who have read Blake,” justly say
Messrs. Ellis and Yeats, “Chaucer is something more than the sweet
spinner of rhyming gossip that he seems to most.” Like Ruskin, and
indeed all men of creative power, Blake is on much safer ground when
he extols than when he censures. To much the same period belongs a
remarkable paper on his _Last Judgment_, published by Gilchrist from
his MS. Nothing of his admits us so fully into the sanctuary of his
mind. “_The Last Judgment_,” he begins, “is not fable or allegory, but
vision. Fable, or allegory, is a totally distinct and inferior kind of
poetry. Vision, or imagination, is a representation of what actually
exists, really and unchangeably.” Then follows an extremely graphic and
vivid description of the painting, interspersed with profound remarks,
such as “Man passes on, but states remain for ever; he passes through
them like a traveller, who may as well suppose that the places he has
passed through exist no more as a man may suppose that the states he
has passed through exist no more; everything is eternal.” “I have seen,
when at a distance, multitudes of men in harmony appear like a single
infant.”[6] “In Hell all is self-righteousness; there is no such
thing there as forgiveness of sin. He who does forgive sin is crucified
as an abettor of criminals.” “Angels are happier than men and devils,
because they are not always prying after good and evil in one another,
and eating the tree of knowledge for Satan’s gratification.” “_The Last
Judgment_ is an overwhelming of bad art and science.” Finally, in words
that state his own case as respects his reputed delusions, he says: “I
assert for myself that I do not behold the outward creation, and that
to me it is hindrance and not action. ‘What!’ it will be questioned,
‘when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire, somewhat
like a guinea?’ Oh! no! no! I see an innumerable company of the
heavenly host, crying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!’ I
question not my corporeal eye, any more than I would question a window
concerning a sight. I look through it, and not with it.”

[Illustration: _The Babylonian Woman on the Seven-headed Beast. From a
water-colour drawing by W. Blake. British Museum._]

Blake’s conception of the sun may be compared with Dante’s vision of
the angels with the cloud:--

    Then lifting up mine eyes, as the tears came,
      I saw the Angels, like a rain of manna,
        In a long flight flying back heavenward;
    Having a little cloud in front of them,
      After the which they went, and said, “Hosanna!”
        And if they had said more, you should have heard.

An earlier acquaintance with Dante would undoubtedly have exerted a
great influence upon Blake.

Not the least interesting part of Blake’s catalogue is his description
of the pictures accompanying his _Canterbury Pilgrims_, which include
the strange patriotic allegories of _Nelson guiding Leviathan_ and
_Pitt guiding Behemoth_, the latter of which is now in the National
Gallery; _Satan calling up his Legions_; _The Bard_, described by
Rossetti as “a gorgeous piece of colour tone”; an idyll, charming in
conception whatever it may have been in execution, representing goats
nibbling the vine leaves that form the sole drapery of savage maidens;
and Arthur’s battle of Camlan, whence only three--the strongest, the
most beautiful, and the ugliest of champions--escaped with their lives.
This picture Seymour Kirkup thought Blake’s best, and Allan Cunningham
his worst. Kirkup, Mr. Swinburne tells us, remembered to the last
“the fury and splendour of energy there contrasted with the serene
ardour of simply beautiful courage, the violent life of the design,
and the fierce distance of fluctuating battle.” Blake’s estimate of
his powers, as conveyed in his descriptions of his works, certainly
does not err on the side of modesty; perhaps he thought with Goethe
that “Nur die Lumpen sind bescheiden.” It is a more serious matter that
the descriptions are crammed with statements far more significant than
Blake’s visions of a condition of mental disorder, such as that the
Greek marbles are copies of the works of the Asiatic patriarchs; that
no one painted in oil, except by accident, before Vandyke; that ancient
British heroes dwell to this day on Snowdon “in naked simplicity”:
a species of Welsh Mahatmas, as it would appear. It would have been
a judicious emendation if any one had suggested the substitution of
“lying spirits” when the artist spoke of himself as “molested by
blotting and blurring demons.”

More important than these idle extravagances, though extravagant
enough, are the annotations on Reynolds’s discourses, written a few
years afterwards. To read Blake’s abuse of this great artist with
any patience, one must remember that his expressions require to be
translated out of his peculiar dialect into ordinary speech; as when,
for example, he says that Correggio is a most effeminate and cruel
demon, he only means that he is a bad model for artists to follow.
Yet there is a great and serious truth lying at the bottom of Blake’s
declamation, and his protest against the apparent tendency of Reynolds
to inculcate the feasibility of manufacturing genius by study was not
uncalled for. What he did not sufficiently remember was that the number
of artists capable of what Plato calls divine insanity, must always be
very small, and that Reynolds’s precepts may be very serviceable for
the rank and file of the great army. As his denunciation of Reynolds
was partly prompted by personal grievances (not the less real, if
the apparent paradox may be excused, for being imaginary), it is the
more to his honour to find him breaking out into genuine admiration
whenever, in Swedenborg’s phrase, the dry rod blossoms as Reynolds
affirms a truth. It is also pleasant to receive Samuel Palmer’s
assurance that Blake’s splenetic outbreaks in print astonished those
accustomed to his catholicity of criticism in conversation.


    _Blake’s Life in South Molton Street and Fountain
    Court--Acquaintance with Linnell and Varley--Drawings
    of Visionary Heads--Miscellaneous Works in Private
    Collections--Illustrations of “Job”--Work as an
    Engraver--Acquaintance with Crabb Robinson--Illustrations of
    Dante--Declining health and death--General observations--His
    principal Biographer and Critics._

Very little is known of Blake’s life for several years after his
exhibition. William Carey, a rare example of disinterestedness among
picture-dealers, for he praised Blake enthusiastically without having
dealt with him, says in his exposition of West’s _Death on the Pale
Horse_ (1817), “So entire is the uncertainty in which he is involved
that after many inquiries I meet with some in doubt whether he is
still in existence. But I have accidentally learned since I commenced
these remarks that he is now a resident in London.” He was, in fact,
continuing to live on his second floor in South Molton Street, poor,
but content, subsisting from day to day by hack work as an engraver,
and the occasional sale of a water-colour design or a coloured copy
of one of his books, but nowise squalid, abject, or destitute. He
was no longer able to publish on his own account as of old, and the
poems which he continued to produce abundantly, all of which have
perished, met with the reception which was to be expected from earthly
publishers. Blake smiled in pity, assured that, in his own figurative
language, they were handsomely printed and bound in heaven, and eagerly
perused by spiritual intelligences. “I should be sorry,” he afterwards
said to Crabb Robinson, “if I had any earthly fame, for whatever
natural glory a man has is so much taken from his spiritual glory.”
He certainly had not thought so when he published his catalogue; but
there is no question of his perfect sincerity when he added, “I wish
to do nothing for profit. I wish to live for art.” Though he had said
“Thought is act: Christ’s acts were nothing to Cæsar’s if this is not
so”; so intense was his own devotion to labour that for two years he
never quitted his lodging, except (for the ridiculous will intrude
where it is not wanted--imps grin in the cells of anchorites--) for
a pot of porter. Even while he engraved he read, as the plate-marks
on his books attest. Flaxman, his steady friend from youth, found him
some work in engraving, and praised him in conversation. “But Blake’s a
wild enthusiast, isn’t he?” “Some think _me_ an enthusiast,” answered
Flaxman, who was, in truth, more than half a Swedenborgian.

From this hermit’s existence Blake once more emerges, in 1818, into
comparative publicity through the intimacy he formed with a young
painter of promise, which he was destined to more than redeem. This
was John Linnell, who was introduced to him by Mr. George Cumberland,
of Bristol, an enlightened patron of art. At this time Linnell was
largely engaged in portrait painting, and the plate of the portrait
selected here for reproduction, that of Wilson Lowry, Esq., appears to
have been worked upon by both him and Blake, bearing the name of each.
Linnell, though neither gentle nor mystical, lived much in the world
of the spirit, and, without sharing Blake’s peculiarities, was rather
attracted than repelled by them. Within a few days after making Blake’s
acquaintance he had found him work to the amount of fifteen guineas,
and gradually introduced him to patrons, including Sir Thomas Lawrence,
a great gentleman as well as a fine painter, who took the notice of
Blake which it became him to take in his position as President of the
Royal Academy. Blake never encountered hostility from artists of true
eminence. Reynolds advised him wisely, though he would not think so.
Lawrence patronised him; and Flaxman, Fuseli, Stothard, Linnell were,
so far as he permitted them, real friends. Within a few years Linnell
had introduced him to a younger circle, ready in a measure to sit at
his feet, and the rejected stone was honourably built into the corner.
Of these we shall have to speak afterwards, but one important intimacy
mainly belongs to the period of 1818-21. This was his acquaintance
with John Varley, famed as one of the fathers of English water-colour
painting, but even more renowned as an astrologer. Indeed, some of
the stories told of his successful predictions are less startling to
the uninitiated than to astrologers themselves, who cannot comprehend
on what principle of the art they could be made. They certainly were
not arrived at by vision or revelation, for the good Varley was a most
unspiritual personage, the very antipodes of seer or anchorite, big,
sanguine, jovial, and everlastingly in the claws of the bailiffs.
Astrology, therefore, a study which, with all its fascination for an
imaginative mind, requires nothing but observation and calculation, was
the only occult science open to him; for magic, although a diabolical
pursuit, occasionally demands an amount of fasting inconvenient even
for a saint. Varley would have wished to go further, and finding the
perception of visions inconsistent with his own corporeal and spiritual
constitution, was delighted to make the acquaintance of one who to this
end needed but to open his eyes. He speedily developed the practical
idea that Blake should depict the spiritual entities which he beheld.
Blake forthwith set to work, and ere long the portfolios of Varley and
Linnell were enriched with those ghosts of fleas, portraits of Edward
the Third, and men who built the pyramids, which are better known to
many than anything he ever did, and are assuredly no mean examples of
his imaginative power. “All,” says Gilchrist, “are marked by a decisive
portrait-like character, and are evidently literal portraits of what
Blake’s imaginative eye beheld.”[7] This is corroborated by the account
of Varley, who says, “On hearing of this spiritual apparition of a
Flea, I asked him if he could draw for me the resemblance of what he
saw. He instantly said, ‘I see him now before me.’ I therefore gave
him a paper and a pencil, with which he drew the portrait of which a
facsimile is given in this number [of Varley’s _Zodiacal Physiognomy_].
I felt convinced by his mode of proceeding that he had a real image
before him; for he left off and began on another part of the paper to
make a separate drawing of the mouth of the Flea, which the spirit
having opened he was prevented from proceeding with the first sketch
till he had closed it.” It was “an idea with the force of a sensation,”
as Peacock’s philosopher classifies the apparition in _Nightmare
Abbey_. Shelley, who also saw visions, has enriched his note-books
with similar delineations of imaginary figures, generally vague and
careless, but sometimes very Blake-like. One of Linnell’s most spirited
studies from life, engraved in Story’s biography, represents Blake and
Varley in discussion.

[Illustration: _Portrait of Wilson Lowry. By John Linnell. Engraved by
Blake and Linnell._]

These drawings were mostly executed in 1819 and 1820. In the latter
year Blake lost his chief patron Butts, whose walls, indeed, had
become so crowded with his works that he had almost ceased to give him
commissions. The greater part of the collection was dispersed in 1852,
but the zeal of Mr. W. M. Rossetti traced most of its constituents out,
and reference to his notes, printed in the second volume of Gilchrist’s
biography, will enable us to convey some faint notion of its manifold
opulence. Putting the _Job_ aside for the present, the most remarkable
appear to be the nine designs for _Paradise Lost_, the property of
Mr. J. C. Strange, in which, says Mr. Rossetti, Blake is king of all
his powers of design, draughtsmanship, conception, spiritual meaning,
and impression. Another set, belonging to Mr. Aspland, of Liverpool,
omits one subject and adds four. Another set of Miltonic designs for
_Comus_, rather distinguished by grace than grandeur, has been recently
published by Mr. Quaritch. Another set of no less than one hundred and
eighteen designs for Gray’s works, in 1860 in the possession of the
Duke of Hamilton, are reputed to rank among Blake’s finest productions,
but have not been inspected by any one competent to describe them.
Among others especially commended by Mr. Rossetti are _The Sacrifice
of Jephthah’s Daughter_, _Ruth_, _The Judgment of Paris_, _The Wise
and Foolish Virgins_, _Fire_, _Famine_, _Samson subdued_, _The Finding
of Moses_, _Moses erecting the Brazen Serpent_, _The Ghost of Samuel
appearing to Saul_, _The Entombment_, _The Sealing of the Sepulchre_,
_The Angel rolling the Stone from the Sepulchre_, _The River of Life_,
and _Hecate_. To these may be added _The Resurrection of the Dead_, now
in the British Museum, reproduced by us. Many others, not belonging to
the Butts collection, are described with equal enthusiasm; and, apart
from all questions of technical execution, usually splendid, but lost
upon those who have not access to the original works, it may be said
that the conceptions, as described by Mr. Rossetti, would be impossible
to one unendowed with the highest artistic imagination, and that the
body is worthy of the spirit.

[Illustration: _The Resurrection of the Dead. From a water-colour
drawing by W. Blake. British Museum._]

Prominent among these designs are the set of illustrations to _Job_,
now the property of the Earl of Crewe. A duplicate set belonged to
Mr. Linnell, who, “discounting as it were,” says Gilchrist, “Blake’s
bill on posterity when no one else would,” commissioned this from
him, tracing the outlines from Butt’s copy himself, and handing
them over to Blake to complete. This was done in September, 1821,
and when the drawings were completed in 1823 Linnell went further
still, and commissioned Blake to engrave them, a stroke which has
probably effected more than anything else for the artist’s fame, for
the drawings which have set him on such a pinnacle, if unengraved,
would have remained virtually unknown to the world. The terms also
were liberal. Blake was to receive £100 for the twenty-two plates and
£100 more out of the profits. When the publication barely covered
its expenses, Linnell, reflecting that the plates remained in his
possession in virtue of the agreement, not unreasonably but very
handsomely allowed Blake £50 more. But for this manna from heaven
Blake’s last years would have been spent in engraving pigs and poultry
after Morland. Linnell, who was himself an excellent engraver, further
conferred an important benefit upon him by making him acquainted with
the best style of Italian engraving. Blake proved a docile pupil at
sixty-five, and his plates to _Job_ are not only technically the best
he ever executed, but occupy an important place in the history of the

The glory of _Job_, however, is not in the engraving, but in the
invention, which, beautiful in the soft and idyllic passages, rises
into sublimity when the theme appeals strongly to the creative
imagination. It is especially remarkable as being one of the very
few instances of a worthy representation of the Almighty. The tender
humanities of Christian art are absent: all is awful, Hebraic, and
strictly monotheistic. Among the most remarkable designs may be
noted that where the exulting fiend pulls down the mansion upon
Job’s sons and daughters (reproduced here); the frantic speed of the
messenger of evil, who bursts out with his tale before he is well
within hearing, while another follows with equal haste hard upon him,
and the uninterested sheep graze on undisturbed; the terrible scene
where Satan, a figure repeated in essentials from works of earlier
date, smites the prostrate Job with sore boils; Eliphaz besieged with
phantoms, to all seeming not less real than himself (also given here);
the morning stars singing together; the downfall of the wicked; and
the Lord answering Job out of the whirlwind. Passages even of the
less striking designs often have a singular fascination, such as the
night-piercing stars in the Elihu scene, which would be impressive
in the absence of any human figure; Behemoth and Leviathan, the _ne
plus ultra_ of grotesque grandeur, which we have also given; and
the bowed backs of Job’s accusing friends when the Lord blesses
him.[8] On the whole, though others of Blake’s designs may be more
transcendent of ordinary human faculty, he has scarcely executed
anything displaying all his faculties so well combined and in such
perfect equilibrium; and, were it necessary to rest his fame upon one
set of works, this would probably be selected. As a scriptural theme
it appealed with especial strength to English sympathies, and having
been selected by Gilchrist for reproduction, it is more widely known
than any of his works except the illustrations to Blair’s _Grave_.
“The original water-colour designs,” Rossetti says, “are much larger
than the engravings, and generally pale in colour, with a less full
and concentrated effect than the engravings, and by no means equal to
them in power and splendid decorative treatment of the light and shade.
On the other hand, they are often completer and naturally freer in
expression, and do not exhibit a certain tendency to over-sturdiness of
build and physiognomy in the figures.” Fine as is the figure of Satan
in _The Destruction of Job’s Sons and Daughters_, it is, Mr. Rossetti
thinks, much finer in the water colour. On the other hand, “the effect
of sublimity and multitude in _When the morning stars sang together_
is centupled in the engraving by adding the upraised arms of two other
angels to right and left, passing out of the composition.” The whole
account suggests how desirable it would be to have many of Blake’s
unpublished water colours translated into black and white, could
engraver or etcher of the needful force be found.

[Illustration: _Woodcut from Thornton’s Pastoral._]

In 1821 Blake had performed another work of moment, his first and
last wood-engravings. These were to illustrate Phillips’s imitation
of Virgil’s first pastoral, republished by Dr. Thornton, a physician
and botanist. Blake was a novice in this branch of art, and the cuts
answer to Dr. Thornton’s own description of them: “They display less
of art than of genius.” But nothing could more effectually confirm the
principle enunciated by their critic in the _Athenæum_: “Amid all
drawbacks there exists a power in the work of the man of genius which
no one but himself can utter fully.” Rude as they are, their force is
extraordinary; few things can be more truly magical than the glimpse
of distant sea in the second of those engraved by Gilchrist. At the
same time they are not in the least Virgilian, and in this respect
form an instructive contrast with the exquisite though unfinished
Virgilian illustrations of Samuel Palmer. Palmer, though putting in
a cypress now and then as a tribute to _couleur locale_, provides
Virgil substantially with the same style of illustration as he had
been producing all his life for other ends, and yet this seems as
appropriate to the text as Blake’s is discrepant. It is interesting
to speculate what effect an Italian residence of two or three years,
such as Palmer had enjoyed, would have produced upon Blake beyond the
inevitable one of dissipating his monstrous delusions about Italian
artists. He would probably have gone chiefly with the view of studying
Michael Angelo, but we suspect that the influences of Italian landscape
would in the long run have proved fully as potent.

In 1821 Blake removed from South Molton Street to Fountain Court,
Strand, near the Savoy, where he occupied two rooms on the first floor.
The reason may have been that the house was kept by a brother-in-law
of Mrs. Blake’s named Baines, the only trace we have of any connection
with his wife’s family. Economy too may have had its influence; his
means were very low, not yet improved by the donation of £25 he
received from the Academy next year, or his arrangement with Linnell in
the year following. At the worst, however, the rooms were always clean
and neat, thanks to Mrs. Blake’s industry and devotion; and Blake’s
manner always had the simplicity and dignity of a gentleman. That his
circumstances improved was almost entirely the doing of Linnell, who
not only provided for his wants by commissions, but made him what
his genius had never made him, the patriarch of a band of admirers,
almost disciples. Coming frequently to visit Linnell at Hampstead,
Blake fell in with a group of young men who resorted thither, four of
whom at least--Samuel Palmer, Edward Calvert, George Richmond, and
F. O. Finch--became artists of great distinction. One characteristic
these young men had in common: they were as far as possible from the
theory of art for art’s sake, but only valued art as the outward and
visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of consecration to the
Power behind Nature. The biographies of Palmer and Calvert disclose
the priestlike spirit in which they wrought, a spirit akin to that
of their pre-Raphaelite successors, but apparently less impregnated
with the ordinary atmosphere of the studio. These were just the men to
treat the aged Blake as the antediluvian youth ought to have treated
the aged Jubal; and the patriarchal influence is visible both in their
writings and their works, not always to the advantage of the latter,
if we may judge by the examples preserved of Palmer’s early labours.
But all seemed fair in the light of fond retrospect. Twenty-eight years
after Blake’s death Samuel Palmer addressed a letter to Mr. Gilchrist,
long and full of interesting particulars relating to Blake’s opinions
on art; but the gist of the estimate of the man is conveyed in few
words. “In him you saw at once the Maker, the Inventor; one of the
few in any age; a fitting companion for Dante. He was energy itself,
and shed around him a kindling influence, an atmosphere of life, full
of the ideal. He was a man without a mask; his aim single, his path
straightforwardness, and his wants few; so he was free, noble, and

[Illustration: _The Destruction of Job’s Sons and Daughters. From the
“Book of Job.” By W. Blake._]

A very important witness to Blake’s demeanour and opinions in his later
years is Henry Crabb Robinson the diarist, whom we have already met
as a visitor to Blake’s exhibition, and who had made him the subject
of an essay in a German periodical. Robinson was the right man in the
right place, not being a mystic or enthusiast to fall down at Blake’s
feet, nor yet a man of the world to deride him as a visionary, but
an inquisitive observer of great intellectual range and most kindly
and tolerant disposition, ready to allow that things might exist of
which his philosophy had not dreamed, and whom abnormal opinions,
if held in evident sincerity, might startle but could hardly shock.
“It is strange,” says he, “that I who have no imagination, nor any
power beyond that of a logical understanding, should yet have a great
respect for religious mystics.” Thrown into Blake’s company in 1825,
he has recorded his conversations with him at considerable length in
his delightful diary, as yet but partially published. His description
of Blake’s “interesting appearance” agrees with that of his own
circle. “He is pale, with a Socratic countenance, and an expression
of great sweetness, though with something of languor about it except
when animated, and then he has about him an air of inspiration. The
tone and manner are incommunicable. There are a natural sweetness and
gentility about him which are delightful.” Having heard of Blake’s
visions, Robinson was not surprised to find him asserting that the
visionary gift was innate in all men, and only torpid for want of
cultivation; but he must have had much ado to digest such statements as
that the world was flat, that Wordsworth was a Pagan, and that “what
are called the vices in the natural world are the highest sublimities
in the spiritual world.” Not understanding that by atheism Blake
meant, in his own words, “whatever assumes the reality of the natural
and unspiritual world,” Robinson was naturally aghast when Locke was
classed with atheists, and ventured what must have appeared to him the
conclusive rejoinder that Locke had written in defence of Christianity.
Blake, who probably understood Robinson’s definition of atheism as
little as Robinson did his, “made no reply.” Some of Blake’s remarks
are well worthy of preservation. “Art is inspiration. When Michael
Angelo, or Raphael, or Mr. Flaxman does any of his fine things, he does
them in the spirit.” “Irving is a _sent_ man. But they who are sent go
further sometimes than they ought.” “Dante saw devils where I see none.”

[Illustration: _With Dreams upon my Bed thou scarest me. From the “Book
of Job.” By W. Blake._]

Dante must have been much in Blake’s thoughts just then, for Robinson
found him occupied with the long series of illustrations of the poet
commissioned by Linnell, the last important work of his life. The
history of the commission is thus related by Linnell’s biographer,
Mr. Story. “Although the _Job_ had been paid for, Linnell continued
to give him money weekly. Blake said, ‘I do not know how I shall ever
repay you.’ Linnell replied, ‘I do not want you to repay me. I am only
too glad to be able to serve you. What I would like, however, if you
do anything for me, is that you should make some designs for Dante’s
_Inferno_, _Purgatorio_, and _Paradiso_.’ Blake entered upon the work
with alacrity, concurrently with the engraving of the _Job_ designs,
and the two together occupied the old man for the rest of his life.”
During all this period Linnell was remitting Blake money, as the
latter’s notes in acknowledgment prove. Linnell undoubtedly acquired
the designs at a low price, but immediately upon Blake’s death he
endeavoured to dispose of them for the benefit of the widow. Failing in
this he kept them, never attempting to make anything by them; and they
are still in the possession of his family.

Blake studied Italian to qualify himself more effectually for his task,
and is said to have acquired it; when Robinson saw him, however, at
an early stage of the commission it is true, he was working by the
aid of Cary’s English version. He executed no less than ninety-eight
drawings, several of which were left in an unfinished state. Seven have
been engraved. The merits of the series have been variously estimated.
Mr. Rossetti considers them “on the whole a very fine series, though
not uniformly equal in merit.” Mr. Yeats, so well qualified by his own
imaginative gift to enter into the merit of Blake’s work, thinks them
the finest of all his productions. Robinson, who saw Blake at work
upon them, says, “They evince a power I should not have anticipated of
grouping, and of throwing grace and interest over conceptions monstrous
and horrible.” For our own part, we must regretfully admit that when
we saw them at the Old Masters’ exhibition the monstrosity and horror
appeared more evident than the grace and interest. We could not deem
Dante’s conceptions adequately rendered; the colour, too, often seemed
harsh and extravagant. Blake went on working upon them until his death,
when Mrs. Blake sent them to Linnell. They thus escaped the fate
of Blake’s other artistic and literary remains left in his widow’s
possession, which after her death were appropriated, apparently without
any legal authority, by a person named Tatham, who had been much
about Blake in his later years, and who ultimately destroyed them in
deference to the mandate of a religious sect with which he had become

[Illustration: _Behemoth and Leviathan. From the “Book of Job.” By W.

The end was now near. During 1827 Blake’s health greatly failed from
catarrh and dysentery, and he could no longer go up to Hampstead to
see Linnell. Linnell wished him to quit the damp neighbourhood of the
river, and live in his own house in Cirencester Place, part only of
which he used as a studio. But Blake said, “I cannot get my mind out
of a state of terrible fear at such a step.” He also said, “I am too
much attached to Dante to think much of anything else.” One of his last
works was the colouring of _The Ancient of Days_ for the elder Tatham,
who paid him at a higher rate than he was accustomed to receive. Blake
accordingly worked his hardest, and when it was finished “threw it
from him, and with an air of exulting triumph exclaimed, ‘There, that
will do, I cannot mend it.’” Later still he exclaimed to his wife,
“You have ever been an angel to me, I will draw you,” and produced a
sketch, “interesting, but not like.” On August 12 he died, “composing
and uttering songs to his Maker.” He was buried in Bunhill Fields, in a
grave which cannot now be identified. It is little to the honour of his
countrymen that no public memorial of him should exist. A better one
could not be than his own _Death’s Door_ in the illustration to Blair’s
_Grave_, treated as a bas-relief with the necessary modifications.

The artist whose life had been spent in a condition so little remote
from penury did not leave a single debt, and the accumulated stock of
his works sufficed to support his widow in comfort for the four years
for which she survived him. Friends, indeed, aided, Linnell and Tatham
successively giving her house-room, and others assiduously recommending
her stores of drawings to wealthy patrons. She died in Upper Charlotte
Street, Fitzroy Square, and was buried beside her husband in Bunhill

       *       *       *       *       *

The artistic processes used by Blake are a subject of considerable
discussion. Notwithstanding his constant description of his pictures
as “frescoes,” it seems certain that he never resorted to fresco in
the ordinary acceptation of the term. Linnell, who must have been
exceedingly familiar with his work, told Mr. Gilchrist: “He evidently
founded his claim to the name fresco on the material he used, which
was water-colour on a plaster ground (literally glue and whiting);
but he always called it either fresco, gesso, or plaster.” Linnell
added that when he himself obtained from Italy the first copy that
ever came to England of Cennino Cennini’s _Trattato della Pittura_,
a sixteenth-century treatise, edited in 1822 from the original MS.,
Blake, who was soon able to read it, “was gratified to find that he
had been using the same materials and methods in painting as Cennini
describes, particularly the carpenter’s glue.” “Unfortunately,” says
Linnell, “he laid this ground on too much like plaster to a wall,” and
when this was so applied to canvas or linen the picture was sure to
crack, and many of Blake’s best works have suffered great injury. Oil
he disliked and vituperated. The reason probably was that, contrary to
what might have been expected, his system of execution was by no means
bold and dashing, but deliberate and even slow. He drew a rough dotted
line with pencil, then with ink, then colour, filling in cautiously
and carefully. All the grand efforts of design, he thought, depended
on niceties not to be got at once. He seems, in fact, to have worked
very much in the spirit of the mediæval illuminators, and the general
aspect of a page of one of his Prophetical Books reminds us forcibly of
one of their scrolls. Whether any direct influence from them upon him
is traceable would be difficult to determine. Keats had evidently seen
illuminated manuscripts, and been deeply impressed by them; but nearly
forty years elapsed between the publication of the first of Blake’s
Prophetical Books and the composition of Keats’s _Eve of St. Mark_. In
one respect Blake certainly differed from the ancient miniaturists; he
wrought mainly from reminiscence, and disliked painting with his eye on
the object. His memory for natural forms must have been very powerful.

Blake is endowed in a very marked degree with the interest ascribed
by Goethe to _Problematische Naturen_, men who must always remain
more or less of a mystery to their fellows. In ancient times, and
perhaps in some countries at the present day, he would have been
accepted as a seer; in his own age and country the question was rather
whether he should be classed with visionaries or with lunatics. A
visionary he certainly was, and few will believe either that his
visions had any objective reality, or that he himself intended them
to be received merely as symbols. “You can see what I do, if you
choose,” he said to his friends. He thus confused fancy with fact;
unquestionably, therefore, he laboured under delusions. But delusions
do not necessarily amount to insanity, and, however Blake erred in
form, it may be doubted whether in essentials he was not nearer the
truth than most so-called poets and artists. Every poet and artist
worthy of the name will confess that his productions, when really good
for anything, are the suggestion of a power external to himself, of an
influence which he may to a certain extent guide, but cannot originate
or summon up at his will; and in the absence of which he is helpless.
In personifying this influence as the Muse, or howsoever he may prefer
to describe it, such an one is usually fully aware that, in obedience
to a law of the human mind, he is bestowing personality and visibility
upon what is actually invisible and impersonal, but not on that account
unreal. Some there are, however, whose perceptions are so lively, or
their power of dealing with abstractions so limited, that the mental
influences of which they are conscious appear to them in the light of
personalities. Such was Blake, and the peculiarity in him was probably
closely connected with the childlike disposition which rendered him
so amiable as a man. As a child it naturally never occurred to him to
question the reality of his visions, and he grew up without acquiring
the critical habit of mind which would have led him to do so. With him
“the vision splendid” did _not_

                                  Die away,
    And fade into the light of common day.

Such a state of mind is quite compatible with sanity. The question is
not whether the person

          Gives to airy nothings
    A local habitation and a name,

but whether he allows his conduct to be actuated by them to the extent
of inverting the rules of right and wrong, wasting his substance,
or becoming offensive to others or dangerous to himself. It is even
possible to travel far in this direction without arriving at the
confines of insanity. Prince Polignac brought the monarchy of the
Restoration to ruin in deference to imaginary revelations from the
Virgin Mary, yet no court of law would ever have placed him under
restraint. With Blake not the faintest suggestion of such a thing
is possible. Except for one or two incidents, related upon doubtful
authority, he appears throughout his life in the light of an exemplary
citizen, and in his unselfishness and unworldliness contrasts with his
Sadducæan neighbours in a way that forbids us to call him mentally
diseased, though he may have been mentally warped. The value of his
mystical utterances is quite another question. The occasional splendour
of the poetry in which they are couched will not be disputed, any more
than their general confusion and obscurity. Commentators have striven
hard to elicit the sunbeam from the cucumber; we pass no judgment on
their efforts, further than may seem to be implied in the observation
that in our opinion the chief mission of Blake’s mystical poetry was to
be the vehicle of his finest and most characteristic art. His ideas,
many profound and worthy of close attention, may, we think, be more
advantageously collected from his prose aphorisms and the fragments
of his conversation; and in this respect he is by no means singular.
The one great achievement which unquestionably entitles him to the
distinction of an inspired man, is to have produced in boyhood, without
set purpose or any clear consciousness of what he was doing, lyrics
recalling the golden prime of English poetry, and instinct with a music
to which, since Chatterton was no more, no contemporary save Burns was
capable of making the slightest approach. It is true that reaction
against artifice and conventionality was in the air of the time, and
was already announced by evident symptoms. To compare, however, the
highly creditable efforts in this direction of even such poets as
Cowper and Mickle with the achievements of this stripling is to become
sensible at once of the difference between talent and inspiration.

Blake’s gifts and shortcomings as an artist are sufficiently revealed
by the examples of his work which accompany this essay. It need merely
be remarked here that, apart from the great army of artists of genius
who move on recognised lines, transmitting the succession from the age
of Zeuxis and Phidias to our own, there is, as it were, a parallel
column skirting it on the by-roads of art; and that at certain periods
of Art’s history the genius which has forsaken the more conspicuous
of her manifestations has seemed to take refuge with etchers, or
designers, or delineators of the life of the people. It has frequently
happened of late that men whose work was chiefly done for books and
periodicals, and who during their lives were scarcely regarded as
artists at all, have upon their deaths been deservedly exalted to very
high places. Blake is perhaps the most striking and remarkable example
of this class.

Blake’s peculiarities as a man, and the anecdotes of which he became
the subject, secured him earlier attention as artist and poet than
his works would have obtained on their own account. Not long after
his death he was made (1830) the subject of one of Allan Cunningham’s
_Lives of British Painters_, in the main a fair and impartial
biography, rather in advance of than behind its time. Cunningham,
however, possessed no sort of spiritual kinship with Blake, who found
his first really congenial commentator in a veteran philosopher, still
happily spared to us, Dr. James Garth Wilkinson, who in 1839, the
year of the first collected edition of Shelley’s poems, republished
_Songs of Innocence and Experience_ with an anonymous preface claiming
for Blake something like his proper position as a lyric poet, and
accompanied by judicious remarks upon his paintings. Dr. Wilkinson
would probably have expressed himself still more decidedly if he had
written a few years later, but the movement towards the exaltation of
the more spiritual aspects of English poetry as typified in Wordsworth
and Shelley was as yet but incipient, and the stars of Tennyson and
Browning were hardly above the horizon. Little further seems to
have been done for Blake, until, about 1855, the late Mr. Alexander
Gilchrist began to write his biography, published in 1862, a labour
of love and diligence which will never be superseded, especially
since the revision it has received in the definitive edition of 1880,
brought out by his widow. The value of Gilchrist’s labours is greatly
enhanced by the accompanying illustrations, which allow a fairly
adequate conception to be formed of Blake’s pictorial genius, by the
reprint of much of his most characteristic literary work, and by the
copious descriptions of his drawings by Mr. W. M. Rossetti and Mr. F.
Shields. Since Gilchrist wrote, Mr. Swinburne (1868) has investigated
Blake’s thought with special reference to its Pantheistic tendency, and
Messrs. Ellis and Yeats, in a most comprehensive work in three volumes
(1891), including additional biographical particulars and copious
illustrations, which comprise the previously unpublished “Vala,” have
striven to present Blake’s mysticism as a coherent system of thought.
Valuable monographs are also prefixed to the editions of Blake’s
poems by Rossetti (1883) and Yeats (1893), and to the selection from
his literary works by Mr. Housman (1893), this last perhaps on the
whole, after Gilchrist’s biography, the most desirable possession for
the literary student of Blake. Of the numerous detached essays upon
Blake the most important, perhaps, are that by the late Mr. Smetham,
republished in his Essays, and in the second volume of Gilchrist’s
biography, and that by James Thomson, author of _The City of Dreadful
Night_, appended to his _Shelley, a Poem_ (1884).

It is exceedingly difficult to obtain a proper idea of Blake as an
artist, from the extent to which his designs depend upon colouring, and
the great inequality of this colouring, which is often not his own. In
Mr. Gilchrist’s opinion, the copy of _The Song of Los_, in the Print
Room of the British Museum, and a volume of miscellaneous designs, in
the same collection, represent him with adequate fairness; and these
fortunately are public property. The finest specimens of his work
seen by his biographer are apparently in the collection of the Earl
of Crewe, and therefore not generally accessible. Those belonging to
private collectors must of necessity be continually changing hands,
and few students have the time or the opportunity to make the thorough
investigation of them accomplished by Mr. Rossetti. Fortunately the
illustrations in Gilchrist’s biography, where the whole of the _Job_
series is reissued, suffice to establish Blake’s genius as a designer,
even though destitute of the charm of colour. Mr. Bell Scott has
executed effective etchings after him; Mr. Quaritch has republished the
drawings for _Comus_; in 1876 the _Songs of Innocence and Experience_
and the Prophetic Books up to _Los_ were reprinted together, but
only to the extent of a hundred copies, nor was the execution very
satisfactory. It cannot be said that Messrs. Ellis and Yeats have
entirely overcome the difficulties of reproduction; yet, perhaps, for
those unable to obtain access to the copies tinted by the artist, or
even to the uncoloured plates in the original edition, nothing so
well displays the wilder and more weird aspects of his genius as the
reprints in their third volume, especially those from _Jerusalem_.

Blake’s character and works will long remain the subject of criticism
and speculation, for the world does not easily forgo its interest in
what Goethe calls “problematic natures.” By another famous saying
of Goethe’s he cannot profit, “He who has sufficed his own age has
sufficed all ages,” nor can he be reckoned among those who have been
in advance of their age, except in those exquisite early songs which
died away before the actual arrival of the better time. But it would
not be too much to say of him that he revealed possibilities, both in
poetry and painting, which without him we should hardly have suspected,
and which remain an unexhausted seed-field of inspiration for his
successors. It is labour lost to strive to make him transparent, but
even where he is most opaque

                Sparks spring out of the ground,
    Like golden sand scattered upon the darkness.

Nor is the general tendency of art towards a world of purity,
harmony, and joy unrepresented in him; sometimes this even seems the
conclusion to which all else is merely subservient, as in the series of
illustrations to Job, the ideal representation of his own history.

[Illustration: _Sweeping the Parlour in the Interpreter’s House._]


[1] November 20 has been stated as the date, but the above is shown
to be correct by the horoscope drawn for November 28, 7.45 P.M. in
_Urania, or the Astrologer’s Chronicle_, 1825, published therefore in
Blake’s lifetime, and undoubtedly derived from Varley.

[2] If, however, the “Kitty” of “I love the jocund dance” is Catherine
Boucher, this poem at least must be later than 1780, unless the name
has been substituted for another, as has been known to happen.

[3] As for example “Man lies by a rock-bound shore, his thoughts flying
forth from him in likeness of delicate airy figures driven by the wind
to perish in the endless sea as soon as born.” In the absence of the
drawings themselves such descriptions affect us like the projects for
unwritten stories in Hawthorne’s _American Note Book_.


    Poetis nos laetamur tribus,
    Pye, Petro Pindar, parvo Pybus;
    Si ulterius ire pergis,
    Adde his Sir James Bland Burges.

[5] Blake is seldom detected in borrowing, but when he tells us that

                                              Milton’s shadow fell
    Precipitant, loud thundering, into the sea of Time and space,

he is clearly, though perhaps unconsciously, reminiscent of Dyer’s

    Tumbling all precipitate down dashed,
    Rattling around, loud thundering to the Moon.

[6] The same remark is the subject of one of the finest passages of

    Praeterea, magnae legiones quom loca cursu
    Camporum complent, belli simulacra cientes,
    Fulgur ibi ad cœlum se tollit, totaque circum
    Aere renidescit tellus, subterque virum vi
    Excitur pedibus sonitus, clamoreque montes
    Icti rejectant voces ad sidera mundi;
    Et circumvolitant equites, mediosque repente
    Tramittunt, valido quatientes impete, campos;
    Et tamen est quidam locus altis montibus, unde
    Stare videntur, et in campis consistere fulgur.

[7] Not always without assistance from the eyes of others; for the
portrait of Edward the First is clearly a reminiscence of that which in
Blake’s time adorned Goldsmith’s History.

[8] It is observable that Job’s wife, so disadvantageously treated in
Scripture, is by Blake represented as the sufferer’s loving companion
throughout. This was probably out of tenderness to Mrs. Blake, from
whom, indeed, upon a comparison between her portrait as a young woman
and the ideal representation of the Patriarch’s spouse, his model for
the latter would seem to have been derived; but if so the inference
seems justified that Blake regarded the story of Job as emblematic of
his own history.

[9] It must be now about thirty-five years since we received a visit
from this person; how he had found us out we cannot recollect. He
stated that he had lived by painting miniatures, and, having been
deprived of his customers by photography, proposed to devote himself
to historical painting, to the great prospective advantage of British
art. He considered his forte to be the delineation of bare arms, and
wished to be recommended to a subject which would afford scope for the
exercise of this department of the pictorial faculty. We suggested
the interment of the young princes in the Tower; he thanked us and
departed; and we saw no more of him. He admitted having parted with
all the relics of Blake that had been in his possession, but sought to
convey that they had been sold, not destroyed, which may be partly true.


    “America,” 29, 38, 40, 52

    “Appeal to the Public,” 52

    Aspland, Mr., 62

    “Babylonian Woman, The”, 52

    Bain, Thomas, 29

    “Bard, The”, 56

    Basire, James, 8

    Blair’s _Grave_, Illustrations to, 49, 51, 52, 72

    Blake, Catherine, 10, 18, 20, 29, 66, 70

    Blake, James, 7, 8, 16

    Blake, John, 8

    Blake, Robert, 8, 17, 18

    Blake, William;
      his birth and parentage, 7;
      sent to Pars School, 8;
      apprenticed to Basire, 9;
      marries Catherine Boucher, 10;
      settles in Poland Street, 18;
      removes to Lambeth, 28;
      his sojourn at Felpham and intercourse with Hayley, 47;
      returns to London, 49;
      his friendship with Linnell and Varley, 59, 60;
      his death, 72

    Bognor, 41

    “Book of Ahaniah, The”, 29

    Boucher, Catherine see Blake, Catherine

    British Museum, 22, 62, 77

    Butts, Thomas, 29, 43, 44, 52, 61, 62

    Calvert, Edward, 66

    “Canterbury Pilgrims, The”, 52, 56

    Carey, William, 58

    Cennini, Cennino, 73

    “Christ in the Sepulchre,” 54

    “Comus,” 62

    Cowper, William, 41, 43, 44, 75

    Crewe, Earl of, 38, 46, 62, 77

    Cromek, Robert, 49, 51, 52

    Cumberland, George, 59

    Cunningham, Allan, 30, 56, 76

    Dante, Illustrations to, 69, 70

    “Death on the Pale Horse,” 58

    Descriptive Catalogue by Blake, 52

    Deville, 38

    Eartham, 41

    “Edward III.,” 13, 31

    Ellis and Yeats, Messrs., 8, 18, 30, 32, 33, 35, 38, 45, 51, 54, 70,
       76, 77

    “Europe,” 31

    “Everlasting Gospel, The”, 33

    Felpham, 27, 41, 42, 44, 45, 48

    Finch, G. O., 66

    Flaxman, 15, 28, 41, 42, 59, 69

    Fuseli, 27, 44, 59

    “Gates of Paradise, The”, 29, 30, 52

    Gilchrist, Alexander, 9, 14, 16, 19, 27, 29, 31, 38, 46, 49, 51, 52,
       54, 60-62, 65, 66, 68, 73, 76

    Godwin, William, 27

    Gray, Illustrations to works of, 62

    Hamilton, Duke of, 62

    Hayley, William, 18, 42-44, 49

    Holcroft, 27

    Housman, 48, 77

    “Jacob’s Dream,” 52

    “Jerusalem,” 42, 45, 46, 48

    Job, Illustrations to the Book of, 62, 64, 70, 77, 78

    Johnson (publisher), 27, 44

    “Joseph of Arimathæa,” 9

    Lamb, Charles, 20, 51

    Lawrence, Sir Thomas, 21, 59

    Linnell, John, 30, 59, 60, 62, 64, 69, 72, 73

    “Los, The Song of”, 29

    Malkin, 9, 52

    “Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The”, 29, 36

    Matthews, 15

    “Milton,” 46, 48, 49

    “Morning,”, 9

    “Nelson guiding Leviathan,” 56

    O’Neil, 8

    Ossian, 31

    Paine, Tom, 27

    Palmer, Samuel, 57, 66, 68

    _Paradise Lost_, Illustrations for, 62

    Parker, Robert, 16, 17

    Pars, William, 8

    “Penance of Jane Shore,” 9

    Phillips, Thomas, 49

    Piroli, 28

    “Pitt guiding Behemoth,” 56

    “Poetical Sketches,” 10, 13, 16, 19, 43

    “Prophecies of America,” 37

    “Proverbs of Hell,” 36

    Reynolds, Sir Joshua, 57, 59

    Richmond, George, 66

    Robinson, Crabb, 32, 51, 59, 68-70

    Rossetti, Dante, 38

    Rossetti, William, 17, 20, 33, 38, 51, 61, 62, 65, 70, 76, 77

    Ryland, William, 8

    “Samson,” 31

    “Satan calling up his Legions,” 56

    Schiavonetti, 49, 51

    Shields, Frederick, 29, 76

    “Simple, David”, 16

    Smetham, 77

    Smith, J. T., 16

    “Songs of Experience,” 15, 20, 21, 23-25, 27, 35, 76, 77

    “Songs of Innocence,” 15, 20, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 35, 43, 76, 77

    Stothard, Thomas, 16, 17, 51, 54, 59

    Strange, J. C., 62

    Swinburne, A. C., 30, 47, 56, 76

    Tatham, 70, 71, 72

    “Thel, The Book of”, 29, 31, 33, 36, 40, 47

    Thomson, James, 77

    Thornton, Dr., 65

    “Tiriel,” 30

    “Urizen,” 29, 43

    “Vala,” 29, 77

    Varley, John, 56, 60

    “Vision of the Daughters of Albion,” 29, 37

    Whitman, Walt, 31

    Wilkinson, J. Garth, 76

    Wollstonecraft, Mary, 27

    Woollett, 54

    Young’s _Night Thoughts_, Illustrations to, 29

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