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The Poetry of William Blake

by Arthur Christopher Benson

BLAKE has had many admirers; he is a laudatis laudatus; that he should have called forth the outspoken and elaborate admiration of Mr. Swinburne and the two Rossettis is of itself a title to consideration. He has had, and will have detractors, though they are mostly of the kind that are converted to an artist's merits when high prices are paid for his work: and that has long been the case with Blake. When some drawings of his were shown to George III., the King cried out pettishly, "Take them away, take them away"; yet we do not hold this to be a crowning proof of Blake's artistic merits, as some of his critics have done. The observation may have been purely fretful, but we believe that it arose from a deeper psychological cause than mere want of appreciation—the timid sympathy of insanity. Blake's sweeping fiery forms, his globular ebullition of light, his insight into all that coils and writhes, are the instinctive creation of a brain which, if not under the actual pressure of madness, was, as Dr. Johnson said, "at least not sober."

Blake has had, we say, his admirers and his detractors, but he has never had a critic. Rossetti, Mr. Swinburne, Gilchrist, Ellis, Yeats, they are sympathetic, appreciative, instructive. Given the admiration for Blake they are the most delicate of commentators; but they are none of them critical.

It will be convenient to summarise shortly Blake's life. He was born in 1757, his father a comfortable hosier; he received a haphazard artistic education, writing original verse at the age of twelve, apprenticed to an engraver at fourteen, under whom he acquired a love for Gothic art which never deserted him—the fact was that to avoid collisions between Blake and his other pupils, Basire, his master, sent him sketching in the summer months in the old London churches. He engraved an original print in 1773. In 1778 he began to earn a precarious existence by engraving for the booksellers; in 1782 he married Catherine Boucher, daughter of a market-gardener, and went to live in Queen Street, Leicester Fields. After a brief and unsatisfactory venture as a print-seller, he began to work for himself, but could find no market for Songs of Innocence. His brother Robert, then lately deceased, revealed a secret method of working up these designs, "in a dream," and the book went out into the world, printed, coloured and bound by the husband and wife. Four years later followed Songs of Experience. In 1793 he moved to Hercules Buildings, Lambeth—there designing forty-three illustrations for Young's Night Thoughts. In 1800 he settled for three years at Felpham, under the auspices of Hayley, a Sussex squire and littérateur, author of a Life of Cowper, but grew weary of Hayley's polite disapprobation, and returned to South Molton Street. In 1820 he moved to 3, Fountain Court, Strand, where he died in 1827. He seems to have had the same feeling for London that Samuel Johnson and Charles Lamb had: he could not live elsewhere. It was in these last years that he executed his finest work—Inventions to the Book of Job. He was always very poor.

The object of this essay will be to criticise, and, if possible, to define Blake's position as a poet and as an artist. We will turn to his writings first.

The union of artistic and poetical gifts is not an uncommon combination: artistic success argues a certain depth of poetical qualities, and if it is rare to find artists who have achieved a marked success in literature, it is simply accounted for by the exigencies of technical study—a high vocation is apt to drain a life dry of other excellences, and in literature, as in art, there are few instances of permanent success apart from the quality of patient elaboration. In our own days we may quote Rossetti and Thackeray as instances of this alliance of gifts, though in the case of the latter such artistic success as he achieved was the result rather of natural facility than technical excellence. Michael Angelo's sonnets, Henry VIII.'s music, Benvenuto Cellini's autobiography, Mr. Lecky's poetry, Archbishop Sumner's water-colour drawings, Mr. Gladstone's Homeric studies, Mr. Arthur Balfour's philosophical works, are dependent for their interest not so much upon the qualities of the work, as on the revelation in an unfamiliar medium of great personalities. Sometimes, it is true, we have instances such as Spohr's autobiography—a singularly unimpressive book—Lord Tennyson's dramas, Milton's Paraphrase of the Psalms, which seem to prove that excellence in one line is apt to be a limited, almost a mechanical faculty—that the artist is, so to speak, ahead of his own personality in one respect, and that in such cases the art is not the casual efflorescence of a vivid nature, but the concentrated bloom of an otherwise unproductive or mediocre stock.

Blake, in spite of the extravagant claims made for him by his admirers, must be held to have been primarily an artist. If he had not been an artist his poems could hardly have survived atall. Mr. D. G. Rossetti says of the Songs of Innocence that they are almost flawless in essential respects. But few will be found to endorse this verdict. The fact is, that those who are carried off their feet by the magnificent originality of Blake's artistic creations, read in between the lines of his delicate and fanciful, but faulty and careless verse, an inspiration to which he laid no claim.

Blake's poetry is, from beginning to end, childish; it has the fresh simplicity, but also the vapid deficiences of its quality—the metre halts and is imperfect; the rhymes are forced and inaccurate, and often impress one with the sense that the exigencies of assonance are so far masters of the sense, that the word that ends a stanza is obviously not the word really wanted or intended by the author, but only approximately thrown out at it. This may be illustrated by a line from the Nurse's song in the Songs of Experience, where he says

Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.

where the sense requires some such word as "disgust" or "weariness." Again, his use of single words is often so strained and unnatural as to rouse a suspicion that really he did not know the precise meaning of some word employed. We may cite such an instance as the following from "London" (Songs of Experience)—

I wander thro' each chartered street
Near where the chartered Thames doth flow.

And also in the "Ideas of Good and Evil," the first two lines of "Thames and Ohio"—

Why should I care for the men of Thames
And the cheating waters of chartered streams...?

Whatever the word 'chartered' means, it is obvious, from its iteration, that Blake attached some importance to it; but what does it mean? In ordinary speech the word of course means 'licensed,' in a metaphorical sense, 'enjoying some special immunity,' as 'chartered buffoon.' Is it possible that Blake confused it with 'chart,' and meant 'mapped out' or 'defined'? Conjecture is really idle in the case of a man who maintained that many of his poems were merely dictated to him, and that he exercised no volition of his own with regard to them.

His rhymes too are incredibly careless—we have 'lambs' rhyming with 'hands,' 'face' with 'dress,' 'peace' with 'distress,' 'vault' with 'fraught,' 'Thames' with 'limbs,' and so forth, in endless measure.

It may be urged that it is hypercritical to note these defects in a poet like Blake; it may be said that he was a child of nature, and that it is in the untamed and untrained character of hispoems that his charm lies. "I regard fashion in poetry," he wrote, "as little as I do in painting." But Blake was a foe to slovenliness in the other branch of his art; in his trenchant remarks upon engraving, in the "Public Address," he is for ever insisting on the value of form; he is for ever deploring the malignant heresy that engravers need not, nay ought not to be draughtsmen. He maintains that this degrading of the engraver into a mere mechanical copyist has killed the art; so had he devoted himself scientifically to poetry, he would have been the first to realise and preach that it is the duty of the artist to acquire a technical precision, so sure, so instinctive, that it ceases to hamper thought.

Blake's work in literature may be roughly divided into three periods: (1) his early Elizabethan period, (2) his original lyrics, (3) his prophetic writings.

The Elizabethan lyrics are to some the most attractive; they are penetrated with the spirit of the Shakesperean age; but when one has said that they are exquisite imitations one has classified them: no imitations, however perfect, can rank with original work; poetry must develop in natural and orderly sequence; the recovery of earlier traditions, however perfect the workmanship, however intimate the insight, is within the grasp of talent. As Tennyson exquisitely says, "All can raise the flower now, for all have got the seed."

In the present century we have often encountered what may be called the neo-Jacobean play. Its characteristics are strikingly Shakesperean: isolated lines would be referred by critics unhesitatingly to the Shakesperean outburst of dramatic poetry; but the knack is one that is capable of being learnt, and not an original gift. "My silks and fine array," "How sweet I roamed from field to field," "Memory hither come," and the delicate poem to the muses which ends with the well-known line, "The sound is forced, the notes are few," are worthy of a place in anthologies, but they are not Blake. Such expressions as "fired my vocal rage" are not what the Romans would call ingenuus—they are not native but exotic. Even these poems published in 1783 contain strange lapses characteristic of Blake's later manner: "where white and brown is our lot" is a monstrous line, alluding, I believe, to bread. Among this collection, however, are included two poems which are interesting as containing the germ (it is hard to believe otherwise) of Keats' "Ode to Autumn," where the poet sees the merry sun-browned summer smiling under the oak.

To this period also belongs the unfinished play of Edward III., with some beautiful lines, but wholly incoherent; yet we may linger in pleasure over such a couplet as "The eagle that doth gaze upon the sun, Fears the small fire that plays about the fens," which contains just the kind of fantastic image belonging to the mystic side of nature that comes naturally to few poets.

It would of course be idle alike to analyse or deny the charm that many have found in the Songs of Innocence. Charles Lamb, perhaps the most surefooted critic we have ever raised among us, was one of the first to recognise it, though in a humorous spirit, luxuriating in them as in the rich absurdities of a childish poem. "The Tiger" he calls "Glorious," though he maliciously altered "Tom Dacre" in the "Chimney Sweep" to "Tom Toddy."

In the poems of natural description there is a certain visionary inspiration, with the freedom of large airs and moving light. And there is at times the poetical realisation of some deep life-truth, as in "Barren Blossom":

I feared the fury of my wind
Would blight all blossoms fair and true;
And my sun it shined and shined,
And my wind it never blew;

But a blossom fair and true
Was not found on any tree,
For all blossoms grew and grew
Faithless, false, though fair to see.

This lyric is born out of the spirit of Blake's life; there was no man better fitted to understand the dangers of the sheltered existence, or with a more visible appreciation of the disciplineof life and labour. "I don't understand what you mean by the want of a holiday," he said; "I never stop for anything—I work on whether ill or not:" we may take the lines as applying to, and perhaps suggested by, Blake's dilettante friend and patron, Hayley, the hermit of Eartham, a feeble and profuse poetaster, who mistook the gentlemanly celebrity of a country squire who wrote verses, for the fame of the laborious poet.

A certain lyric, pre-eminently praised by Mr. Swinburne, has a solemn music of its own, but is less what a lyric should be, the flash of a single mood, a passing experience, than the opening of a stately prelude:

Silent, silent night
Quench the holy light
Of thy torches bright.

For possessed of Day,
Thousand spirits stray
That sweet joys betray.

Why should joys be sweet
Used with deceit,
Nor with sorrows meet?

There is but one more stanza, and in that, inspiration seems suddenly to flag and falter as if the hand had grown weary. And so it is all through—many poems have, especially at the beginning, passages of the rarest lyrical beauty, and then comes some lapse of rhyme or sense that makes the reader feel that the writer either did not know what perfection was, or that he mistook for inspiration the sudden flow and ebb of a mood; many poets must have this experience, that of a mood not lasting quite long enough to stamp the "thoughts that breathe" on "words that burn;" the intellectual faculty fails first—and then succeeds the power which Wordsworth thought so characteristic of the true poet, the power of rendering remembered emotion. Blake seems to have had none of that; the mood flashed without his control, the words flowed, and good or bad there was no mending them. Edward FitzGerald, one of the sanest and surest of critics, lays his finger on this blot: he recognises the genius of Blake, but he says there is not a single poem which retains its inspiration all through.

For instance, it seems almost incredible that the same hand can have written, in the Songs of Experience, within a few pages,

The Holy Word
That walked among the ancient trees,
Calling the lapsed soul,
And weeping in the evening dew,
That might control
The starry pole
And fallen, fallen light renew—

and when we turn the page, in the "Human Vagabond,"

And modest Dame Lurch, who is always at church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch—

which is gross and unintelligible.

At the same time, treating them strictly as sketches, Blake's poems are seldom without interest, and as we have said, occasionally rise into flights of lyrical beauty. All art is necessarily incomplete, but it is not mere incompleteness that we blame—it is the almost total absence of the critical faculty; the inability to separate what is mediocre and fatuous from what is high and great.

The third period is that of the prophetical books; and into this maze of obscurity and futility we will not venture to enter; they are accompanied with glorious designs, many of them, and, but for that, we must honestly say they would have been long ago consigned to oblivion: Mr. Swinburne has penetrated their deepest abysses, solved their enigmas, materialised their allegories, and extracted from them a system of philosophy; and it must be added that their latest champions, Messrs. Ellis and Yeats, consider that not only did Blake never write a page without distinct meaning, but that the utterances combine into a great mythic system. Mr. Rossetti takes his leave of them with the somewhat ambiguous remark that if a man was cast on a desert island with nothing but Blake's poetical works, and came away with an increased admiration for them, he might have a right to his opinion, but it would not agree with Mr. Rossetti's. They are written in a rhythm which appears to be irregular, but which Blake assures us was carefully weighed and calculated. Their language is the language of one who is saturated with Biblical models, and the solemn, if tedious, rhapsodies of Ossian, for whom Blake had a strange admiration. The author considered them direct revelations from God. He said of the "Jerusalem" that it was the grandest poem that this world contains; when each was refused by publisher after publisher, he would say with pathetic faith, "Well, well, it is published elsewhere—and beautifully bound;" a touching instance of how the visionary clung to the material expression of his work. He wrote to Flaxman the sculptor, saying, "I am more famed in heaven for my works than I could well conceive." There have been no signs, if we except Gilchrist and Mr. Swinburne, of the terrestrial public taking the same view. It reminds us of the satirical Princess who, on being told that her husband's previous morganatic marriage was a marriage in the sight of God, said that she was quite content to leave it so, if she could be assured that it was not one in the sight of men.

It would be easy to make merry over the prophetical books by quoting passages; but it is a pious duty to refrain from so doing. What value, however, can be attached to writings where three mythical personages, Kox, Kotope, and Skofeld, spirits of evil, with sway over certain English counties, appear to be nothing more than Messrs. Cox and Courthope, Sussex acquaintances of Blake's, and Scholfield, the drunken soldier who revenged himself on the prophet for a brawl in a public-house, by taking out a summons against him for seditious talk at the Quarter Sessions?

As to their prophetical value, we are hardly in a position to judge; we feel with George Eliot that of all the mistakes we commit, prophecy is probably the most gratuitous.

The fact is that what Blake wanted was culture; in literature he is a good type of how ineffective genius may be, if it is too narrow in its republicanism. Blake was self-absorbed and obstinate. His sympathy with certain qualities and aspects of life—simplicity, innocence, natural purity, faith, devotion—was innate and deep; but he had no idea of making himself appreciate what he did not at once understand: he was his own standard. Consequently, within certain limits, he has left beautiful and refined work, though never with the added charm of elaborateness; the imagination is pleased with Blake's poetry as it may be attracted by an innocent face, a wild flower, a thrush's song; the heart may hanker after a purity that it has lost or possibly never enjoyed. But Blake can only charm idyllically: he can never satisfy intellectually: he has not the simplicity, let us say, of the Gospel, which enters into and subdues the complexity of human hopes and desires. Like the little maid that attended Guinevere, "who pleased her with a babbling heedlessness, that often lured her from herself," it is away from the true and myriad-sided self of man that he wins; his is not the poverty of spirit which comes of renunciation, but the cleanness of soul which results from inadequacy. Self-reverence he has, but not self-knowledge, nor the self-control, the need of which comes home to the human heart through its imperious passions. Wordsworth proposed the remedy of simplicity for healing the diseases of the soul, but Blake's simplicity is not medicinal; it is the calm of the untroubled spirit, not the deeper content which comes of having faced and cured the heaven-sent maladies of mortal nature. Thus it is that his Songs of Innocence have a charm denied to the Songs of Experience, because he was at home in the former region, and did not really understand the meaning of the latter. The critical faculty, the power of seeing the merits latent in work whose scope and aim is not sympathetic, the gift of delicate appreciation was, in Blake, almost wholly in abeyance. He praised and condemned wholesale, vehemently, violently, as a child might judge, deciding from the superficial aspect of the object. Occasionally, as for instance, when he said of Milton in the Spiritual world, "his house is Palladian, not Gothic," he uttered a deep and suggestive criticism. But such sayings are very rare. Probably his own work gained in originality. The man who could work from morning to night at his engraving, for a period of two years, in London, without ever stepping into the open air except to fetch his meat and drink, is to be congratulated no doubt upon his fund of steady enthusiasm, but he is not cast in the mould of other men, still less is he the prey of the temptations which, if they sometimes also degrade, are at least needed to develop in the artist the intimate sympathy with human passion which must be the basis of his work.

But with Blake's pictorial art we step into a different region: it is full of errors and ungainliness; it is often rough and trivial, but it is full of insight and strength and tragic intensity; he touched, as few have done, the secret springs of horror. His methods were of course his own. To take a common instance—the Songs of Innocence—the groundwork of each design was rough copper-plate, used like a stereotype, and containing the main lines of the decoration and the poem. This was then filled up and tinted by hand, sometimes by Blake himself, sometimes by Mrs. Blake; and the latter bound the books.

The very variations in the copies are in themselves a source of confusion. A man might study certain examples, even of some of Blake's finest creations, and see nothing. The design is confused in many cases with colour blotched and blurred, and seemingly laid on rather with the knife than with the brush. In the British Museum there are two instances of one design: in the one, something—it may be a snake, or some monstrous sea-worm, dark, and rude, and violent in colour—seems knotted in strange tangles on an uncertain back-ground of crude green; the picture is like the ugly imagination of a child and its imperfect performance; it scarcely touches the mind except with a shuddering disgust for anything so vile. In the next we see what the truth is: the scale comes out; it is a league-long Behemoth, with gaping jaws crowded with venomous teeth, slipping along, coil after coil, in a surging foaming sea, with a low sun weltering in a distant horizon; it is like some relic of primeval chaos, passing with brute indifference from shore to shore, imagined by a poet, depicted by an artist; and similar instances are by no means rare.

The first characteristic of Blake's plastic work, as revealed to the average student, is his mastery of form. In the majority of his pictures everything is made subservient to this; backgrounds are selected not so much for their own intrinsic features as to give prominence to the main figure: he is full of the poetry of motion. Let any one study the designs in theEurope, where the male and female figures of the Mildew and Blight, blowing the corruption that rushes, as straight as sound, from their long horns on to the festooned ears of barley that droop down the page. The figures seem to fly directly away from the eye, to use a homely metaphor, like a rising partridge—or as the eye watches the last carriage of an express train, is even deceived into substituting for known velocity an imagined contraction of mere dimension.

The Jerusalem, one of the prophetic books, contains perhaps the most striking of Blake's figure designs. We see the best instance here of what seems to have been a favourite design of Blake's, as it occurs in more than one work—in Blair's "Grave" for instance, with the addition of another figure. It is that of an old man stumbling to a shadowy door in the hill-side, and blown forwards, with his garments sweeping in front of him, as if drawn in by some strong current of air, as he approaches. It is worth noticing how exquisitely Miss Jean Ingelow has used this in her "Song of the Going Away."

Here again is the strange mythical figure, half-swan, half-woman, floating on the stream; or the gigantic Cyclopean gate of piled stones, with the wistful crowd about it, and the crescent moon seen through the huge orifice; or that mysterious design of the little bewildered figure, with arms outspread in agony and despair, stumbling between the huge firmly set feet of a gigantic being, to whose ankle-bone he hardly reaches.

Yet with all this subservience of accessories to form, Blake's anatomy is far from perfect. He had a trick of attenuating and elongating the thigh, as in one of the cases we mentioned above, where the young figure in the rising light kneels on the top of the mound into which the old bent man is being urged; or in the three melancholy beings represented on p. 51 of theJerusalem—Vala, Hyle, and Skofeld, the anatomy of the second figure being of the stiffest kind—the attitude aimed at being that of prostration or abandonment, the head between the knees, as in the story of Elijah.

Neither is it universally true that he spends no pains on backgrounds or distances. Occasionally there is some salient and distant point flashed in with a delicacy that reminds you of Albert Dürer, as in one of the coarsely engraved woodcuts, done in 1820 to illustrate Philips's pastorals, where in a background between two heavily outlined hills appears a distant town on the hillside, with spires and roofs lying in its own circle of sunlight, divinely delicate and airy.

Or those rude swathes of newly cut corn that lie beside the wrinkled oak, whose diminished top bows in the tempest that fills the sky with a flickering rain, half-lighted by the crescent moon. In such pictures it is the feeling for nature, in many of them strangely resembling Bewick, which rises above the obvious coarseness of the drawing, and is indeed rather concealed than suggested, as a great artist might cover a superb and glowing work with a filthy cloth of service, and replace it almost fretfully while still the gazer looked. And this quality one is never surprised at others for not recognising, as it depends for its effect upon no technical excellence, but simply on the fact that there was poetical inspiration behind it which demands poetical sympathy. But the most brilliant lesson of Blake's suggestiveness is to be drawn from the rude designs of Gates of Paradise: the spirits of the elements are among the rudest and yet the most poetical of these. "Air" looks from his perch in clouds, drawn as hardly as boulder stones, and clasps his dizzy brow. "Water" sits brooding complacently with outspread hands, in a universal dissolution (the face, be it noted, bears a strange resemblance to that of Mr. Gladstone). Blake was a prophet, and it is impossible to say at what moments, present and to come, his visions may not be found illuminating our history.

But it is in the region of pure fancy—fancy, it must be confessed, which, though sometimes of the essence of the purest poetry, is often on the border line of insanity, that Blake is at his best. Such a design as that from the Daughters of Albion, of God measuring the world with a pair of golden compasses, which contrives to give an impression of vastness and mystery in spite of the precise delineation of hands and hair; the original sketch of this is in the British Museum, and it is interesting to note how much it is altered in the finished design—the position of the chief figure being improved, and the details carefully worked out.

Again in "America" there is a notable design, a drowned man lying at the bottom of an unfathomed sea, still undecayed, though the sunken ribs and stiffening limbs show that he has been long dead, and is suffering a sea change: the worms crawl round him and beneath him, and the fish with large eyes poise in the gloom—notable because, though harshly and literally drawn, and crudely coloured, nothing hinted save what is actually seen, there is a dark suggestiveness about it which fairly takes captive the sense. In "Los" again there is a design of little figures, male and female, of a fairy kind (such perhaps as at the roseleaf burial, of which Blake in a waking vision was the spectator), seated among the petals of a huge lily, with a background of night and stars. This, in the British Museum collection, is coarsely coloured, the night having no aerial quality, no distance, and the lily itself and the vestures of the pigmies being disagreeably strained in tint. But there is a latent spirit which many a more delicately painted study lacks.

But it is as the delineator of immensity and secret horror that Blake by his temperament was pre-eminent. Most people know, and none can describe, a certain nightmare sense of vastness and weight, which is neither near nor far, but of ambiguous horror. This, which is a mental effect of some disordered brain cell, is suggested instinctively by certain of Blake's pictures. Horror is a quality difficult to produce deliberately; it tends to become instantly grotesque, and to provoke mere laughter unless it is based on some secret dismay. Look, for instance, at the work of Henry Fuseli, a contemporary of Blake's, and obviously indebted to him for such a picture as his Nightmare, which aims at producing, and fails to produce, the very impression which Blake awakens, so easily, that it is by no means certain that he always intended it. It is easy to multiply instances of this, but we will take only two. One is the terrible picture in the Job series, where Satan with a look of hard fury turns with his hand the nozzle of an inky cloud, which, swelling into bigness, fills all the sky behind and above, on the body of the prostrate saint. And again in the well-known design for Hamlet's Ghost, the drawing of which is in the British Museum, the stiff arms and hanging hands are lit with a difficult light, that seems to strike upwards from some unknown source. The background is a waste line of sea; on the young man's head, as he kneels, the hair appears to knot itself in terror, while the agony of the woeful eyes of the spirit, which seem to claim pity and revenge, and yet to be too distraught for either, can never be forgotten.

The noble designs of the Book of Job, given by Gilchrist in full, contain the summary of Blake's best qualities: it would be out of place to discuss them here, but a student of Blake's art must make them his first and last study.

It is strange to find that, as a critic, one drifts unconsciously into making the very excuse for his art that one cannot permit to be made for his poetry. The luminous soul shines through, the critic says. But is not much right in art that is not right in literature? Through plastic art we appeal directly to the sensibilities of many untutored souls, that we could not touch through literature. Granted that primarily the object of both art and literature is to gladden and refine, art of the two has the wider scope, and reaps a larger harvest, out of spirits that have never been touched and never can be touched, for want of culture, by anything worth calling literature at all.

Blake's republicanism in art was such that he chose his masters by a theory of his own: Raphael, Michael Angelo, Albert Dürer and Giulio Romano were his idols; Titian, Rubens, Correggio and Rembrandt he abhorred and despised. The selection on the whole did him credit, at the time when it was made. At the same time the attitude which he adopts towards theprofanum vulgus is almost sacerdotal in its claims. It never for a moment conceals that the artist must please his audience first; but his eye, as he chides, is on the beast. He flouts the verdict of his contemporaries on himself, while he holds the verdict of posterity over the head of his enemies. The attitude is neither dignified nor even rational. "To imitate," he wrote, "I abhor. I obstinately adhere to the true style of art, such as Michael Angelo, Giulio Romano, Raphael and Albert Dürer left it. I demand therefore of the amateurs of art the encouragement which is my due. If they continue to refuse, theirs is the loss, not mine, and theirs is the contempt of posterity. I have enough in the appreciation of fellow-labourers; this is my glory and my exceeding great reward: I go on and nothing can hinder my course."

With respect to Blake's character as exhibited in his life, it is difficult, treating him as a sane man, to understand the estimate formed of him by his admirers. There is too much puerile violence and loud self-complacency, too much aggravating childishness and wilful eccentricity, not to offend and even disgust. But treat him as a man of unbalanced brain, and these variations are the very things we should expect, and the hypothesis at once clears the ground.

Both Mr. Rossetti and Mr. Gilchrist have been at pains to prove that Blake was not mad. Perhaps he was not, as they would define madness; but when we find gravely alleged as testimony the fact that his intimate friends did not think him mad, and, on the other hand, the Examiner, or some popular journal of the day, speaking of Blake's little exhibition of pictures "as the production of an unfortunate lunatic who owes his freedom from restraint solely to his personal inoffensiveness"—we know what view we are compelled to take. If Blake was not a madman, he was a fraudulent impostor. Perhaps Hamlet was not mad; perhaps Cowper was not mad. No doubt madness is a divine attribute, and our madmen are our only sane thinkers; but the use of such a term is only a question of majorities, and it is ill to tinker with definitions. A man who saw God Almighty for the first time when he was four years old—"you know, my dear, he put his face to the window and set you screaming," as good Mrs. Blake said; a tree filled with bright angels near Islington at the age of ten; and a ghost in Hercules Buildings at Lambeth, "scaly, speckled, very awful," stalking downstairs, is not as other men. He may have been a philosopher, a poet, an angel; but the world has a right to call such men mad, and will do so to the end of the chapter. Mr. Gilchrist says, in the Dictionary of National Biography: "As a boy, he perhaps believed these were supernatural visions: as a man, it must be gathered from his explicit utterances that he understood their true nature as mental creations." And again: "Blake was wont to say to his friends respecting these 'visions,' 'You can see what I do if you choose. Work up imagination to the state of vision, and the thing is done.'"

Putting aside Blake's visions for a moment, I would be content to rest my case on the following letter:


Letter to Flaxman, written from Felpham.


"We are safe arrived at our cottage, which is more beautiful than I thought it, and more convenient. It is a perfect model for cottages, and, I think, for palaces of magnificence—only enlarging, not altering its proportions, and adding ornaments and not principles. Nothing can be more grand than its simplicity and usefulness. Simple without intricacy, it seems to be the spontaneous expression of humanity, congenial to the wants of man. No other-formed house can ever please me so well, nor shall I ever be persuaded, I believe, that it can be improved either in beauty or use.... Felpham 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. My wife and sister are both well, courting Neptune for an embrace.... And now begins a new life because another covering of earth is shaken off. I am more famed in heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my brain are studies and chambers filled with books and pictures of old which I wrote and painted in ages of eternity before my mortal life; and these works are the delight and study of archangels. Why then should I be anxious about the riches or fame of mortality? The Lord, our Father, will do for us and with us according to his divine will for our good.

"You, O dear Flaxman, are a sublime archangel—my friend and companion from eternity. In the divine bosom is our dwelling-place. I look back into the regions of reminiscence and behold our ancient days, before the earth appeared in its vegetated mortality to my mortal vegetated eyes. I see our houses of eternity, which can never be separated though our mortal vehicles should stand at the remotest corners of heaven from each other.

"Farewell, my best friend. Remember me and my wife in love and friendship to our dear Mrs. Flaxman, whom we ardently desire to entertain beneath our thatched roof of rusted gold. And believe me for ever to remain your grateful and affectionate


"Sept. 21, 1800, Sunday morning."


This letter seems to me to bear traces of that cloud on the brain which is involuntary, and beyond the reach of affectation. Or take another episode—that of the visionary heads, of which the "Ghost of a Flea" remains as one of the most diabolically inspired creations of the human fancy; the bloodthirsty eye, the remorseless jaw, the plated mail of the neck, the suppressed look of lustful fury, combine to give it a peculiar horror.

"Varley, water-colour painter and astrologer, it was," says Gilchrist, "who encouraged Blake to take authentic sketches of certain among his most frequent spiritual visitants. The visionary faculty was so much under control, that at the wish of a friend he could summon before his abstracted gaze any of the familiar forms and faces he was asked for." This was during the favourable and befitting hours of night, from nine or ten in the evening till one or two, or perhaps three or four o'clock in the morning; Varley sitting by, "sometimes slumbering andsometimes waking." Varley would say, "Draw me Moses," or "David"; or would call for a likeness of Julius Cæsar, or Cassivelaunus, or Edward III., or some other great historical personage. Blake would answer, "There he is." And paper and pencil being at hand, he would begin drawing with the utmost alacrity and composure, looking up from time to time as if he had a real sitter before him.... Sometimes Blake had to wait for the vision's appearance: sometimes it would come at call. At others, in the midst of his portrait, he would suddenly leave off, and, in his ordinary quiet tones, and with the same matter-of-fact air another might say, "It rains," would remark, "I can't go on—it is gone: I must wait till it returns;" or—"It has moved—the mouth is gone;" or—"He frowns: he is displeased with my portrait of him." In sober daylight, if criticisms were hazarded by the profane on the character or drawing of any of these visions, "Oh, it's all right," Blake would calmly reply. "It must be right: I saw it so."

Among the personages whom Blake then drew were the Builder of the Pyramids, Edward III.—with a peculiar protrusion of skull, said by Blake to be characteristic of tyrants in the spirit world—a man who instructed Blake in painting in his dreams, David, Uriah, Bathsheba, the Ghost of a Flea—to which allusion has been made above—Joseph and Mary and the roomthey were seen in, Old Parr at the age of forty, and many others which are still extant.

But allowing this want of balance to account for the abnormal variations of vanity, jealousy, and violence, we have a residuum of manly independence, sweet austerity, and faithful devotion that is rare in any annals, most of all in the annals of art. What a touching story it is of the young artist who came to Blake and complained that he was deserted by his inspiration. Blake turned to his faithful wife: "It is just so with us (is it not?) for weeks together, when the visions desert us. What do we do then, Kate?" "We kneel down and pray, Mr. Blake." What pathetic dignity there is in his often-repeated saying, when time after time his prophetical books were returned upon his hands—"Well, it is published elsewhereand beautifully bound."

Blake is one of the few artists who worked all their life long under the pressure of poverty, of whom we can safely assert that he would have worked as hard had he been possessed of a competence; on the other hand, it is equally true that his work would not have been so lasting; the need of finding subsistence kept him saner than he wished to be; had he been a wealthy man, we should have had perhaps twice as many prophetical books—in which his heart was all the time—and no Book of Job. FitzGerald said there was hardly a single poem of Blake's that was good all through. But the man was one of those few who do with simple seriousness whatever comes to their hand, from an illustrated show-list for Wedgwood to the sublimest and most stupendous designs of heaven and hell. The consequence is that some of his crudest designs, almost childish in their execution, have a suggestive insight that is altogether out of proportion to the artistic value of the work. It would be easy to multiply examples. But take the familiar instance of the early wood-cut, "I want, I want," where the little group of enthusiasts have set from a bald shoulder of the globe, as it swims in dark space, a filmy ladder to the crescent moon.

The great value of Blake's life, after all, apart from his productions, is that he is one of the saints of art. That is the problem! To retain simplicity, naturalness, unselfishness in the service of art. Art seems almost to demand self-absorption, self-cultivation, however noble be the ultimate end it sets in view. The duty of cultivating sensitiveness to impressions is hard to reconcile with high and pure devotion. We in this century feel the contrast perhaps too painfully. The fashionable habit of seeking amusement and interest in the problems of others, and on the other hand the blind, dark pressure of Democracy on life, throw into painful prominence the fastidious seclusion of the artist. Nowadays, for a man to throw himself blunderingly into philanthropy, disguising his own reckless hankering after power and influence under the name of duty, is held to have something of heroism about it. Even failure there is thought to be honourable. But the artist who, in obedience to as inevitable, as high an impulse, isolates himself in the sacred pursuit of beauty in all her forms, is called by hard names if he does not make himself a reputation; and if he does attain notoriety, his selfishness, at all events, acquires prestige. It is in reality a far more arduous undertaking. Fiction and life are full of memorable failures. Roderick Hudson is a magnificent presentation of the failure of character to sustain the devotion of art. The life of one of Blake's greatest admirers, D. G. Rossetti, must be forgiven in the light of his achievements, but cannot be forgotten as one of the most dark and shuddering tragedies ever played upon the human stage. But, on the other hand, such a life as Edward FitzGerald's, with its scanty and fortuitous successes, is yet lifted by its dignity and austerity as high and higher than that of many professional saints. The message that we are in need of is something that will introduce the loving simplicity of the Christian Revelation into the world of beauty; for, comprehensive as that revelation claims to be, it is difficult to define the exact place in the Christian economy which is reserved for hearts haunted by the tyrannical instinct of beauty. Such a life as Blake's is an attempt at the reconciliation of the matter. He seems to get nearer the divine principle than many professed religionists; as he himself wrote, "I have laboured hard indeed, and been borne on angels' wings."

Book: Shattered Sighs