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In the year 1804, a century ago, William Blake sat in his London rooms on the first floor of No. 17 South Molton Street, dating the engraved title-pages of his two final poems, each a volume in itself, feeling sure that at last he had turned the corner in the pathway of his daily life, and believing that he saw how he had come to that corner through the past, and that he could see how to go forward from it into the future.
Of ordinary daylight he had enough, but by no means too much to work by. At the present day, as we walk down the shady side of the street, going perhaps by the convenient slanting short cut that it offers from the Bond Street Station of the Central or “ Tube" railway to the heart of Bond Street itself, we can still look up and see several such windows as he sat near. They have six small panes in the lower, and six small panes in the upper half. But the front of No. 17, where he laboured for seventeen years, is now re-glazed with modern plate. Here, feeling at peace with all men, and glowing with the warmth of affection and gratitude to some, he began confidently to prepare for printing and illustrating with his own hands the most picturesque and profound symbolic poems that have ever been produced in our language. The main subject of them was the imaginative and affectionate moods of life, of how art leads to brotherhood, and the two together to visionary power, and so to immortality-to "eternal salvation”; for, as he held, “in eternity all is vision.” He began his last poetic task with confidence, for he had reason to trust his friends, and to trust his employments, and to trust his visions. He was
practically certain that he could make his living by means within his power, without laying aside his poetic art.
And yet it was here that he was to feel the bitterest disappointments of his life, and the deepest resentments. It was here that he, who had harmed no man and helped more than one, who had been consistently courageous and incessantly industrious, was soon to be reduced to writing in his private MS. book this entry: “Between two and seven in the evening: despair.” His difficulty in the ordinary intercourse of life partly sprang from the fact that he always claimed to be a man of genius. His claim is now allowed so fully that when the merest tinted sketch, or book of poetry illuminated by his hand, is put up publicly for sale, about fifty times the price that he obtained is frequently given without hesitation, as the account-books of the Carfax Gallery, late of Ryder Street, or of Sotheby in Wellington Street, undoubtedly show.
Records of pounds, shillings, and pence, if they are not the history of art itself, go a long way towards telling us its history, as a heap of dead shells go far towards revealing to us the story of the sea. This amazing increase in the recognised value of Blake's original work has not come suddenly, nor can it be put aside as a whim of fashion. It has grown up slowly as the man himself has become more widely known, and has reached its towering height this year, when gossip whispers that there are many new books of different kinds in preparation that are intended to show him to us more fullypossibly more truly—than he has ever yet been shown.
We all know something about him. Whoever has heard the name of William Blake knows that he was a poet of great sweetness, but great difficulty, and a painter of great spirituality and power, but of visionary extravagance and more than dream-like unreality; but behind the poet and the painteris the man, and it is only beginning to be known that this man was as well worth understanding for his character as for his work.
When, after his first and last attempt to live and labour in the country, he returned to the London battlefield of art, pitching his tent in South Molton Street in 1804, he was forty-seven years of age, and in the very prime of his vigorous development. He had seen visions for forty years, and had kept his head. He had been married for twenty-two years, and his heart was fresh. He had been all his life confident of his genius, but was still the hardest of plodding workers, He had been poor and obscure from the beginning of his career, and had lived in the company of well-known men, eminent men, and men of property; and he had not become tainted with subserviency, but had remained independent in heart and mind, and had paid his own debts from his own earnings. He had more imagination than any man of his age, but had never allowed it to betray him into deceiving any one. He had the temperament of a Turk and the fidelity of a knight. His hopes of position as an artist, as a poet, and as a husband were disappointed, for his pictures were undervalued, his poetry was very little read, and his wife was childless; and yet he remained as cheerful and pleasant in all companies as the luckiest of the lucky, and in his gloomiest moments kept his sorrow strictly at home.
The first event of poetic importance in Blake's life happened when he was four years old. He saw God in a vision put His forehead to the window. This set the child screaming. We only know of the incident through Mr. Crabb Robinson, in whose diary is an allusion to it made many years later. There had been some conversation about visions, and Mrs. Blake reminding her husband of this one, Mr. Robinson jotted it down. Nothing more is told us beyond the bare fact. The probability is that when the little boy's screaming was over he told no one near him at the time about what he had seen. It was too awful and confidential an experience. Possibly the vision was only of a huge forehead and eyes appearing at the window of an upper story, and seeming to imply a figure of supernatural dimensions in the street. It proves at least that William Blake had heard much of God when he was only four years old, and had thought much of what he had heard. His thoughts even then were pictorial. What he thought, he saw.
He was a child who had plenty of time to think. His life and mind in early years were not turned into mere foolishness by constant endearments and amusement. He had the advantage of not being a favourite. He was the third son, though some of his contemporaries, who had never heard of the eldest, afterwards thought that he was the second. John, the first son, turned out a scapegrace, and the family did not speak about him after his death. The next brother, James, took his place, passed for the eldest, and became the favourite. Although John turned out ill, yet, while the boys were still all at home together, their parents used to hold him up as an example to William, who, for being so foolish and unpractical as to wish to be an artist, was told that he would one day beg his bread at John's door. The contrary of this is what happened. John died young—it is hinted, from the effects of dissipation-after being a soldier. In some of Blake's verses written at Felpham he is recalled :
My brother John, the evil one,
No more is known about him. But in the early days the fact that he was the favourite, and James the next in esteem as in age, gave William a certain freedom from the frequent notice of his parents, an isolation that must have been of use to him, enabling him to dream unmolested.
That he said nothing about his first vision is not only to be inferred from the awfulness of it, but from the fact that Mrs. Blake, to whom he probably told of it during the summer days of his courtship, had no further details to relate to Mr. Crabb Robinson—or rather, none to remind her husband to relate. There is not a word about how his family took it. He would certainly have told her something about this if the family had ever heard of it at all. He probably had never spoken of the vision to any one until he mentioned it to her that once, just as she recalled it to him afterwards. Then through the hurry and rush of business and struggle, and the crowding-in of other visions upon his mind, he seems to have forgotten it altogether.
The next experience of the same kind of which we know anything was three years later, when Blake was seven. One pleasant day at Peckham Rye, where every house has a pretty garden, he saw a tree full of angels, “ their bright wings bespangling the boughs like stars," as he said in describing it, for in his natural delight he related this to his family, and his father decided to give him a thrashing for telling a lie. He probably began to do so with some severity. His mother begged him off. His friend Frederick Tatham, who gathered facts about him in his old age, whether from himself or his wife, says that his mother herself beat him afterwards for having a vision of Ezekiel. Tatham's memoir is bound up with the handsomest coloured copy known of the poem called “ Jerusalem.” It was in the possession of Mr. Quaritch ten or eleven years ago, when the present writer was privileged to consult it.
We also learn that Blake's fit of fury at being struck was so violent and appalling that it resulted in the decision that he was not to go to school. In later life he wrote of himself:
not to go to appalling that it resulted iny at being struck w