Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

Small favor and small notice these works secured from the public, which found more edification in the drunken courtship and brutal squabbles of " the First Gentleman of Europe" than in Songs of Innocence or Sculptures for Eternity. The poet's own friends constituted his public, and patronized him to the extent of their power. The volume of Songs he sold for thirty shillings and two guineas. Afterwards, with the delicate and loving design of helping the artist, who would receive help in no other way, five and even ten guineas were paid, for which sum he could hardly do enough, finishing off each picture like a miniature. One solitary patron he had, Mr. Thomas Butts, who, buying his pictures for thirty years, and turning his own house into "a perfect Blake Gallery, often supplied the painter with his sole means of subsistence." May he have his reward! Most pathetic is an anecdote related by Mr. H. C. Robinson, who found himself one morning sole visitor at an Exhibition which Blake had opened, on his own account, at his brother James's house. In view of the fact that he had bought four copies of the Descriptive Catalogue, Mr. Robinson inquired of James, the custodian, if he might not come again free. "Oh, yes ! free as long as you live I" was the reply of the humble hosier, overjoyed at having so munificent a visitor, or a visitor at all.

We have a sense of incongruity in ?eeing this defiant, but sincere pencil employed by publishers to illustrate the turgid sorrow of Young's "Night Thoughts." The work was to have been issued in parts, but got no farther than the first. (It would have been no great calamity, if the poem itself had come to the same premature end !) The sonorous mourner could hardly have recognized himself in the impersonations in which he was presented, nor his progeny in the concrete objects to which they were reduced. The well-known couplet,

"'T is greatly wise to talk with our past hours And ask them what report they 've borne to heaven,"

is represented by hours " drawn as aerial and shadowy beings," some of whom are bringing their scrolls to the inquirer, and others are carrying their records to heaven.

"OH burst my song beyond the bounds of life"

has a lovely figure, holding a lyre, and springing into the air, but confined* by a chain to the earth. Death puts off his skeleton, and appears as a solemn, draped figure; but in many cases the clerical poet is "taken at his word," with a literalness more startling than dignified.

Introduced by Flaxman to Hayley, friend and biographer of Cowper, favorably known to his contemporaries, though now wcllnigh forgotten, Blake was invited to Felpham, and began there a new life. It is pleasant to look back upon this period. Hayley, the kindly, generous, vain, imprudent, impulsive country squire, not at all excepting himself in his love for mankind, pouring forth sonnets on the slightest provocation, — indeed, so given over to the vice of verse, that "he scarce could ope

His month but out there flew a trope," — floating with the utmost self-complacence down the smooth current of his time; and Blake, sensitive, unique, protestant, impracticable, aggressive: it was a rare freak of Fate that brought about such companionship; yet so true courtesy was there that for four years they lived and wrought harmoniously together,—Hayk-y pouring out his harmless wish-wash, and Blake touching it with his fiery gleam. Their joint efforts were hardly more pecuniarily productive than Blake's singlehanded struggles; but his life there had other and better fruits. In the little cottage overlooking the sea, fanned by the pure breeze, and smiled upon by sunshine of the hills, he tasted rare spiritual joy. Throwing off mortal incumbrance, —never, indeed, an overweight to him,— he revelled in his clairvoyance. The lights that shimmered across the sea shone from other worlds. The purple of the gathering darkness was the curtain of God's tabernacle. Gray shadows of the gloaming a.«sumed mortal shapes, and he talked with Moses and the prophets, and the old heroes of song. The Ladder of Heaven was firmly fixed by his gardengate, and the angels ascended and descended. A letter written to Flaxman, soon after his arrival at Felpham, is so characteristic that we cannot refrain from transcribing it: —

"Dear Sculptor Of Eternity,— 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.

"Mr. Hayley received us with his uaual brotherly affection. I have begun to work. 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 vapors; 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.

"Our journey was very pleasant; and though we had a great deal of luggage, no grumbling. All was cheerfulness and good-hnmor on the road, and yet we could not arrive at our cottage before half-past eleven at night, owing to the necessary shifting of our luggage from one chaise to another; for we had seven different chaises, and as many different drivers. We set out between six and seven in the morning of Thursday, with sixteen heavy boxes and portfolios full of prints.

"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 those 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 this 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 thatt-hed roof of rusted gold. And believe me forever to remain your grateful and affectionate

"William Blake."

Other associations than spiritual one* mingle with the Felpham sojourn. A drunken soldier one day broke into his garden, and, being great of stature, despised the fewer inches of the owner. But between spirits of earth and spirits of the skies there is but one issue to the conflict, and Blake " laid hold of the intrusive blackguard, and turned him out neck and crop, in a kind of inspired frenzy." The astonished ruffian made good his retreat, but in revenge reported sundry words that exasperation had struck from his conqueror. The result was a trial for high treason at the next Quarter Sessions. Friends gathered about him, testifying to his previous character; nor was Blake himself at all dismayed. When the soldiers trumped up their false charges in court, he did not scruple to cry out, "False!" with characteristic and convincing vehemence. Had this trial occurred at the present day, it would hardly be necessary to say that he was triumphantly acquitted. But fifty years ago such a matter wore a graver aspect . In his early life he had been an advocate of the French Revolution, an associate of Price, Priestley, Godwin, and Tom Paine, a wearer of white cockade and bonnet rouge. He had even been instrumental in saving Tom Paine's life, by hurrying him to France, when the Government was on bis track; but all this was happily unknown to the Chicbester lawyers, and Blake, more fortunate than some of his contemporaries, escaped the gallows.

The disturbance caused by tin- untoward incident, the repeated failures of literary attempts, the completion of Cowper's Life, which had been the main object of his coming, joined, doubtless, to a surfeit of Hayley, induced a return to London. He feared, too, that his imaginative faculty was failing. "The visions were angry with me at Felpham," he used afterwards to say. We regret to see, also, that he seems not always to have been in the kindest of moods towards his patron. Indeed, it was a weakness of his to fall out occasionally with his best friends; but when a man is waited upon by angels and ministers of grace, it is not surprising that he should sometimes be impatient with mere mortals. Nor is it difficult to imagine that the bland and trivial Hayley, perpetually kind, patronizing, and obvious, should, without any definite provocation, become presently insufferable to such a man as Blake.

Returned to London, he resumed the production of his oracular works,—" prophetic books," he called them. These he illustrated with his own peculiar and beautiful designs, "all sanded over with a sort of golden mist." Among much that is incoherent and incomprehensible may be found passages of great force, tenderness, and beauty. The concluding verses

of the Preface to "Milton" we quote, as shadowing forth his great moral purpose, and as revealing also the luminous heart of the cloud that so often turns to us only its gray and obscure exterior: —

"And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon England's mountain green? And was the holy Lamb of God On England's pleasant pastures seeu 1

"And did the countenance Divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here Among these dark, Satanic hills?

"Bring me my bow of burning gold!

Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! 0 clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

"I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my band, Till we have built Jerusalem In England's green and pleasant land."

The same lofty aim is elsewhere expressed in the line, — "I touch the heavens as an instrument to glorify the Lord!"

Our rapidly diminishing space warns ns to be brief, and we can only glance at a few of the remaining incidents of this outwardly calm, yet inwardly eventful life. In an evil hour—though to it we owe the " Illustrations to Blair's Grave" — he fell into the hands of Cromek, the shrewd Yorkshire publisher, and was tenderly entreated, as a dove in the talons of a kite. The famous letter of Cromek to Blake is one of the finest examples on record of long-headed worldliness bearing down upon wrong-headed genius. Though clutching the palm in this case, and in some others, it is satisfactory to know that Cromek's clever turns led to no other end than poverty; and nothing worse than poverty had Blake, with all his simplicity, to encounter. But Blake, in his poverty, had meat to eat which the wily publisher knew not of.

In the wake of this failure followed another. Blake had been engaged to make twenty drawings to illustrate Ambrose Philips's " Virgil's Pastorals " for schoolboys. The publishers saw them, aud stood aghast, declaring he must do no more. The engravers received them frith derision, and pronounced sentence, "This will never do." Encouraged, however, by the favorable opinion of a few artists who saw them, the publishers admitted, with an apology, the seventeen which had already been executed, and gave the remaining three into more docile hands. Of the two hundred and thirty cuts, the namby-pambyism, which was thought to be the only thing adapted to the capacity of children, has sunk to the level of its worthlessness, and the book now is valued only for Blake's small contribution.

Of an entirely different nature were the " Inventions from the Book of Job," which are pronounced the most remarkable series of etchings on a Scriptural theme that have been produced since the days of Rembrandt and Albrecht Diirer. Of these drawings we have copies in the second volume of the "Life," from which one can gather something of their grandeur, their bold originality, their inexhaustible and often terrible power. His representations of God the Father will hardly accord with modern taste, which generally eschews all attempt to embody the mind's conceptions of the Supreme Being; but Blake was far more closely allied to the ancient than to the modern world. His portraitare and poetry often remind us of the childlike familiarity — not rude in him, but utterly reverent — which was frequently, and sometimes offensively, displayed in the old miracle and moral plays.

These drawings, during the latter part of his life, secured him from actual want. A generous friend, Mr. Linnell, himself a struggling young artist, gave him a commission, and paid him a small weekly stipend: it was sufficient to keep the wolf from the door, and that was enough: so the wolf was kept away, his lintel was uncrossed 'gainst angels. It was little to this piper that the public had no ear for his piping, — to this painter, that there was no eye for his pictures.

"His soul was like a star, and dwelt apart." He had but to withdraw to his inner chamber, and all honor and recognition awaited him. The pangs of poverty or coldness he never experienced, for his life was on a higher plane : —

"I am in God's presence night and day, He never turns his face away."

When a little girl of extraordinary beauty was brought to him, bis kindest wish, as he stood stroking her long ringlets, was, "May God make this world to you, my child, as beautiful as it has been to me!" His own testimony declares,—

"The angel who presided at my birth Said, — ' Little creature, formed of joy and

mirth, Go, love without the help of anything ou

earth!'"

But much help from above came to him. The living lines that sprung beneath his pencil were but reminiscences of his spiritual home. Immortal visitants, unseen by common eyes, hung enraptured over his sketches, lent a loving ear to his songs, and left with him their legacy to Earth. There was no looking back mournfully on the past, nor forward impatiently to the future, but a rapturous, radiant, eternal now. Every morning came heavyfreighted with its own delights; every evening brought its own exceeding great reward.

So, refusing to the last to work in traces,— flying out against Reynolds, the bland and popular President of the Royal Academy, yet acknowledging with enthusiasm what he deemed to be excellence, — loving Fuseli with a steadfast love through all neglect, and hurling his indignation at a public that refused to see his worth, — flouting at Bacon, the great philosopher, and fighting for Barry, the restorer of the antique, he resolutely pursued his appointed way unmoved. But the day was fast drawing on into darkness. The firm will never quailed, but the sturdy feet faltered. Yet, as the sun went down, soft lights overspread the heavens. Young men came to him with fresh hearts, and drew out all the freshness of his own. Little children learned to watch for his footsteps over the Hampstead hills, and sat on his knee, sunning him with their caresses. Men who towered above their time, reverencing the god within, and bowing not down to the daemon k la mode, gathered around him, listened to his words, and did obeisance to his genius. They never teased him with unsympathetic questioning, or enraged him with blunt contradiction. They received his visions simply, and discussed them rationally, deeming them worthy of study rather than of ridicule or vulgar incredulity. To their requests the spirits were docile. Sitting by his side at midnight, they watched while he summoned from unknown realms longvanished shades. William Wallace arose from his "gory bed," Edward L turned back from the lilies of France, and, forgetting their ancient hate, stood before him with placid dignity. The man who built the Pyramids lifted his ungainly features from the ingulfing centuries; souls of blood - thirsty men, duly forced into the shape of fleas, lent their hideousness to his night; and the Evil One himself did not disdain to sit for his portrait to this undismayed magician. That these are actual portraits of concrete objects is not to be affirmed. That they are portraits of what Blake saw is as b-ttle to be denied. We are assured that his whole manner was that of a man copying, and not inventing, and the simplicity and sincerity of his life forbid any thought of intentional deceit. No criticism affected him. Nothing could shake his faith. "It must be right: I saw it so," was the beginning and end of his defence. The testimony of these friends of his is that he was of all artists most spiritual, devoted, and single-minded. One of them says, if asked to point out among the intellectual a happy man, he should at once think of Blake. One, a young artist, finding his invention flag for a whole fortnight, had recourse to Blake.

"It is just so with us," he exclaimed, turning to his wife, " is it not, for weeks together, when the visions forsake us? What do we do then, Kate?"

'' We kneel down and pray, Mr. Blake." To these choice spirits, these enthusiastic and confiding friends, his house was the House of the Interpreter. The little back-room, kitchen, bedroom, studio, and parlor in one, plain and neat, had for them a kind of enchantment. That royal presence lighted up the " hole " into a palace. The very walls widened with the greatness of his soul. The windows that opened on the muddy Thames seemed to overlook the river of the water of life. Among the scant furnishings, his high thoughts, set in noble words, gleamed like apples of gold in pictures of silver. Over the gulf that yawns between two worlds he flung a glorious arch, and walked tranquilly back and forth. Heaven was as much a matterof-fact to him as earth. Of sacred things he spoke with a familiarity which, to those who did not understand him, seemed either madness or blasphemy; but his friends never misunderstood. With one exception, none who knew him personally ever thought of calling his sanity in question. To them he was a sweet, gentle, lovable man. They felt the truth of his life. They saw that

"Only that fine madness still he did retain Which rightly should possess a poet's brain."

Imagination was to him the great reality. The external, that which makes the chief consciousness of most men, was to him only staging, an incumbrance, and uncouth, but to be endured and made the most of. The world of the imagination was the true world. Imagination bodied forth the forms of things unknown in a deeper sense, perhaps, than the great dramatist meant . His poet's pen, his painter's pencil turned them to shapes, and gave to airy nothings a local habitation and a name. Nay, he denied that they were nothings. He rather asserted the actual existence of his visions, — an existence as real, though not of the same nature, as those of the bed or the table. Imagination was a kind of sixth sense, and its objects were as real as the objects of the other senses. This sense he believed

« ZurückWeiter »