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Thank heaven I never was sent to school
It is more probable that if he had been flogged at school at all, the style into which this would have driven him would have been that of a madman or a murderer. His feeling of personal dignity was, next to the love of art and vision, the ruling passion of his life. He long disliked the very word father. It is often a term of reproach in his poems. He was intensely affectionate, but held as a fixed rule that he must be neither controlled nor criticised. His pride, like his genius, was beyond all ordinary measure, and grew with his growth. He could not be made to understand for many years that people could disagree with him even in the mildest way, unless they were actually wicked. He had from childhood a gift of words as much above that of all other boys as his gift of love and his gift of pride, and we may exercise our more limited imaginations till they are tired without any danger of going beyond what he is likely, in his indignation, to have said to his parents about the flogging. He obtained the mastery over them. They must have been of unusually kind dispositions if their consequent dislike of him did not rise to absolute hatred.
Among the other children that were born to these parents was a daughter, of whom little is known but that she lived longer than all the rest of the family, died unmarried, and had to the last some distinction of bearing which seems to have always been remarked in this family. Besides John and James, William had a third brother, Robert, the best beloved and youngest.
They grew up in the house behind their father's shop. He was a draper,-a hosier as it was called then,—and attended seriously to his business, saved a little money, and left a respectable goodwill to James, the son who took his place at his death. But he was not an ordinary shopman. His name was not really Blake, but O'Neil. No one can study the cast of William Blake's head made for Deville the phrenologist without seeing that he was an Irishman. His grandfather was an O'Neil in Ireland when his father was born,the family does not know from what mother. This O'Neil married a woman named Ellen Blake, who had some money that came through whisky, and she gave him not only her dowry but her name, for he was in trouble that tradition says was political, and no one in Ireland was ever anxious to know more about a gentleman's misfortunes when so satisfactory an explanation could be offered. There were many honourable men of good blood and good standing who were in political trouble in those days, and not all of them found a kind Ellen Blake into whose family their identity could vanish, while debt and all other troubles were also left outside. John O'Neil's motherless boy, William Blake's father, probably had no very legal name of his own. At any rate, he accepted the name of Blake when his father adopted it, and there would have been an end of the story had not Ellen Blake borne to John O'Neil children of her own, and if Dr. Carter Blake, who was descended from one of these, had not told the whole story to Mr. W. B. Yeats, on whose authority it is given here.
William Blake's mortal and perishable existence is like a sentence in a parenthesis. With a father across whose shield is a bar sinister, he not merely left no children of his own, but he had no nephews or nieces. The family begins and ends in one generation from the date of its pseudonymous founder, and no kin or next of kin to William Blake survives. Even his grave is difficult to identify now, though its number and place in the cemetery of Bunhill Fields is recorded.
Should those hidden bones ever be disturbed, the cast of the head that answers for William's nationality will answer for his identity. A copy of it is in the possession of Sir William Richmond, who was named after him; and it is reproduced in this volume by his kind permission.
HOW HE GREW UP
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At first an attempt was made to teach Blake to be a hosier. Unfortunately, he had a constitutional aversion to anything like commerce. He hated money transactions, and even hated money. In later days a patron who was buying a copy of his Songs of Innocence and Experience as a sort of “veiled charity,” because Blake was dependent on such sales for his bread, was rather taken aback when he tried to make him a present of the work.
By adding to this spirit of anti-commercialism the wild ways of his brother John, we can form a guess of how their grandfather, the John O'Neil who married Ellen Blake, came to be in both financial and political trouble at once. Fortunately, there was a strain of severe conscientiousness in the blood, and William had his share of this, and his long life of struggle was an honest one.
When his parents gave up the idea of teaching him to be shopman, they did not altogether deprive him of pocketmoney, and they allowed him to spend it as he chose. For this a white stone must mark their memory. It is true, of course, that they did not, because they could not, foresee what lasting and wise use the character of the boy would enable him to make of his opportunity. They were probably glad enough that he seemed quiet, and was not heard of as being in any mischief.
But, going back to his childish years with the knowledge his writings give us, we can see into the silent places of his mind now, better than his father and mother could see then. They noticed that the once bragging boy seldom spoke, though he looked as vivacious as ever, going quickly about with his flame-like golden-red hair on end, curling up all over his head, his lips sometimes moving as though he talked to himself, but his large, dark, flashing eyes very seldom
fragment of auting in the verses elder sister
seeking theirs either with anger or in confidence. He was a complete mystery. He did what they told him in the small matters of daily life. We even suspect that he went so far as to allow his upright flames of waving hair to be combed down for him sometimes. The drawing that he afterwards made to the “Nurse's Song,” among the Songs of Experience, shows a boy quite big enough to comb his own hair, who stands folding his hands resolutely with the deliberate meekness of a martyr, while golden locks, the colour of Blake's own, are flattened on his head and reduced to respectability by a young woman, perhaps his elder sister. There is no allusion to combing in the verse. If this drawing is not a fragment of autobiography it is incomprehensible. It is certainly not introduced to serve a purpose either decorative or pathetic, nor is it symbolic as are the drawings to some of the songs.
Now, at between eight and ten years of age, he was growing into a more and more complete estrangement from his parents, partly caused by resentful remembrance making permanent the results of the appalling fits of fury that he had shown when they had struck him, to teach him not to pretend to have visions; for Vision became more and more sacred to him. But a deeper cause was at work. He had made a discovery. The figure is formed for beauty. From that moment he was an artist. It is usually thought, even by the educated classes, that an artist is different from other people merely because he has a talent for drawing or painting, and likes pictures and the making of pictures, but that the difference goes no deeper.
A boy who has discovered that the figure is formed for beauty has in his mind an idea that alters the whole nature of his thought and character from those of another boy who does not know yet that it is formed for anything else but use and strength, measuring and boasting, dressing or washing, playing or whipping. As he grows up it even gives him a delight in a quality of the flesh- forin—which is independent of the attractions of sex.
The delight in form, and the belief that beautiful form is one of the things chiefly worth considering in life, give the mind food that it cannot obtain from gossip, philosophy, religion, or commerce. History knows nothing of this delight. It merely knows that, somehow or other, there were statues well done by a few people at a particular time, and ill done before and afterwards by everybody else.
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If we are to have an idea of Blake as he grew up we must first get to know what it is to discover the delight in form and the belief in form, and we must at every moment remind ourselves how much, and of what sort, is the difference between the mind of any one to whom this is a leading thought, and the mind of those who divide man into flesh and spirit and forget form—that is neither the one nor the other. Form can be loved in those whom we absolutely dislike, both for their flesh and their spirit. Were this not so, the majority of artists' models would starve.
We cannot go so far as to suppose that our doctrine, the figure is formed for beauty, came into Blake's head in dogmatic style when he was a little boy. We should not say of Sir John Franklin that the notion that the North Pole was formed for exploration was in his mind, as a set phrase, in childhood, when his mother found him on the floor instead of in his bed one night, and he gravely assured her that he was hardening himself for his coming privations when he should be a great traveller. Yet the emotional perception of purpose in this world of ours, and of duties arising from this purpose, is perhaps among the youngest of thoughts, even if it is obliged to wait till years bring maturity before it can be given out as statement or shown in action.
Much in the same way as that in which a lad whose pet idea is the sea will devour heavy books about Nelson or Captain Cook, while the sporting boy reads about Mr. Selous, and the mechanical boy about Watt, Stephenson, or Edison, Blake worshipped and studied Raphael, Michael Angelo, and Albert Dürer. Religion awoke in him. As he said later, “The worship of God is honouring His gifts in individual men.” So he used to go to the sales of prints where threepenny bids were taken in those days, and where Langford, the auctioneer, took a fancy to him because he showed knowledge enough to pick out the best masters, called him his “ little connoisseur," and often knocked down lots to him “with friendly precipitation.” His father even bought casts for him to copy at home—the Gladiator, Hercules, and Venus de' Medici—and at ten years old sent him to draw at Parr's Life School in the Strand.
The styles of prettiness and ugliness which in our own day, like blue and brown streams, unite their currents, but not their waters, to form the great river of modern art, have so swept most of us along with them that it is difficult now to realise that the old masters and the classics are not necessarily