Page images
PDF
EPUB

WILLIAM BLAKE, POET AND PAINTER : *
BY THE REV. JABEZ MARRAT.

WILLIAM BLAKE passed through life in comparative obscurity, his great and peculiar powers being scarcely recognised beyond the little circle of his personal friendships. But since his death, his literary and artistic works have been rated at their true value, as those of a man of unique and independent genius. The present generation is largely indebted for its discovery of Blake to the biographical labours of Alexander Gilchrist, the brilliant monogram in which the poetical Swinburne has shown his best penmanship, the graceful sketches by the two Rossettis, and the superlatively beautiful essay written by James Smetham for The London Quarterly Review. After the lapse of seventeen years, a second edition of Gilchrist's two volumes has been published, under the editorial care of his widow. This edition

contains letters and designs which were not in the first, but its special enrichment is the essay by James Smetham, who, by delicate blending of literary lights and shadows, keen philosophical insight and fine artistic sympathies, has unconsciously attested his own claim to stand highest among the gifted men who have expatiated on the splendours, and endeavoured to elucidate the mysteries, of Blake's intellect. In a supplementary chapter to Blake's Life, Mr. D. G. Rossetti has written of Mr. Smetham as

'A painter and designer of our own day, who is, in many signal respects, very closely akin to Blake; more so, probably, than any other living artist could be said to be. James Smetham's work-generally of small or moderate size-ranges from

Gospel subjects of the subtlest imaginative and mental insight, and sometimes of the grandest colouring, through Old Testament compositions and through

poetic and pastoral themes of every kind, to a special imaginative form of landscape. In all these he partakes greatly of Blake's imaginative spirit, being also often nearly allied by landscape intensity to Samuel Palmer, in youth, the noble disciple of Blake!'

This glowing testimony to the sadly neglected merits of a man who, gifted with the intellectual qualities which command the homage of high poetic and artistic genius, has never been ashamed to be known as the Methodist son of a Methodist Preacher, cannot but be gratifying to all who appreciate his powers.

William Blake was born in BroadStreet, Carnaby-Market, London, on November 28th, 1757. Even amid the prosaic surroundings of his boyhood-the hosier's shop kept by his father, and the dull uniformity of the brick walls, he lived in a dreamland from which all mean images and sordid thoughts were excluded. When old enough to wander alone, he frequently walked out to the villages and rural scenes which were accessible from his father's house, and saw an entrancing wealth of beauty in the hedgerows hung with woodbines and wild roses, and the long green vistas formed by avenues of elm and chestnut. The peculiar power which enabled him to project the fancies which crowded his brain into the sphere of realness and visibility was manifested when he was eight or ten years old. Returning home one day from a ramble on Peckham-Rye, he said that he had

* Life of William Blake. With Selections from his Poems and other Writings. By Alexander Gilchrist, of the Middle Temple, Barrister-at-Law, Author of The Life of William Etty, R.A. A New and Enlarged Edition, Illustrated from Blake's own Works, with Additional Letters and a Memoir of the Author. London: Macmillan and Co.

seen a tree filled with angels, their bright wings sparkling like stars on every bough. His worthy, unvisionary father thought he was telling a falsehood, and would have whipped him, had not his mother, who had a clearer perception of the mystic qualities of his mind, interceded on his behalf. Fear of the rod might close his lips, but not his eyes; for another day, as he was passing a hayfield, he saw in the blaze of the summer sunshine a company of angels gliding to and fro amid the blithe haymakers.

Some of his boyish ideas were characterized by unusual largeness and brilliancy. One day a traveller was describing the wonders of a foreign city. 'Do you call that splendid?' he exclaimed. I should call a city splendid in which the houses were of gold, the pavement of silver, the gates ornamented with precious stones.'

Though his father frowned on his angelic vision, he encouraged his artistic taste and skill, giving him the advantage of lessons from a drawing-master, and apprenticing him to an engraver. He was first taken to Ryland, but the negotiation with him was not successful. When they left the house he said, 'Father, I do not like that man's face; it looks as if he will live to be hanged.' Ryland was at that time engraver to the King, and in a good social position, but his circumstances became embarrassed; he committed forgery on the East India Company, and was executed for the crime.

James Basire was the master to whom Blake was indentured. He must have been a careful, industrious apprentice, for he was frequently sent to make drawings of tombs and statues in Westminster Abbey, and various old churches. The vast solemnities of the Abbey were in keeping with his genius. In the sacred silence, unbroken save by the

creaking of a distant door or the flight of an imprisoned bird along the vaulted roof, and while glories of ruby and amethyst streamed from the painted windows on pavement and pillar, he felt as if buried generations were springing out of the ancient sepulchres and renewing around him the pomp and chivalry of vanished ages. Wrapped in joyful dreamings, yet not forgetful of duty, he sketched with patient hand the august memorials of kings, queens, knights and mitred men, and received from the Gothic form and colour which he then studied impressions and influences which largely affected his later work.

From Basire, Blake went to the Antique School of the Royal Academy, where he practised drawing under a Mr. Moser. While still living in his father's house he began to paint in water-colours and to execute prints for periodicals.

In 1782, he married Catherine Sophia Boucher. She was sprightly in manner and graceful in form, but so uneducated as to be unable to write her name in the marriageregister. In her husband, however, she had an efficient instructor, who taught her not only to read and write, but also to take part in his artistic labours.

Blake's first attempt to give public utterance to the wild music of his poetry was made soon after his marriage. A Clergyman named Matthews united with Flaxman, the sculptor, in helping him to bring out a thin octavo containing poems written in his boyhood and youth. The book, entitled Poetical Sketches, was characterized by rugged power and dewy freshness, but fell from the press into such obscurity as scarcely to provoke hostile criticism. His Songs of Innocence were issued in 1789. The pictorial decorations were engraved by himself; the book was bound by his wife. According to his own account, the spirit of his de

parted brother Robert instructed him one night in a new method of preparing the plates. When he rose in the morning, he sent his wife out with half-a-crown, all the money he possessed, to purchase materials for the experiment. By the use of some kind of biting acid, he was able to get the words and designs in relief. He then transferred them to paper in the tint which he wished to be the groundwork of the page: the beautiful devices in the margin, and running in and out among the lines, being painted in colours rich as those in the feather-pictures of the ancient Mexicans. Birds, flowers, trees, landscapes, human figures gave to the poems a splendour excelling that of the old monkish missals. The

lovely devices of the artist sported amid the fair fancies of the poet like bright children amid thickets of sweet-brier and arbours of myrtle.

The Songs were worthy of the illustrations which were lavished upon them. In what beauty of phrase, and yet how naturally a child speaks

to a lamb:

[blocks in formation]

'When the voices of children are heard on the green,

And laughing is heard on the hill, My heart is at rest within my breast, And everything else is still. "Then come home, my children! the sun is gone down,

And the dews of night arise; Come, come, leave off play, and let us

away,

Till the morning appears in the skies." "No, no, let us play, for it is yet day, And we cannot go to sleep;

Besides, in the sky the little birds fly, And the hills are all covered with sheep."

"Well, well, go and play, till the light fades away,

And then go home to bed."

The little ones leaped and shouted and laughed,

And all the hills echoed.'

The artistic designs in which this song is set are as beautiful as the

words. The title is entwined with foliage and fair human forms; coiling tendrils and branches of trees fill up the spaces between, and at the end of the lines; and at the bottom of the page there is a

The nurse, charming idyllic scene. with a book on her lap, is seated under a tree; boys and girls, with arms outstretched, are sporting on the green, and in the background are the quiet hills dotted with sheep.

Songs of Experience were afterwards added to Songs of Innocence, being engraven and illustrated in the same manner. The united works were sold by the author at prices ranging from thirty shillings to two guineas, and in his later years for as much as five guineas. Songs of Experience contain The Tiger, which, though mystic in some of its lines, palpitates with true sublimity of feeling:

'Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
'In what distant deeps or skies
Burned that fire within thine eyes?
On what wings dared he aspire?
What the hand dared seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
When thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand formed thy dread feet?

'What the hammer, what the chain,
Knit thy strength, and forged thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dared thy deadly terrors clasp?

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?'

[ocr errors]

Blake devoted much time and mental energy to the preparation of what are called his Prophetic Books,' such as The Book of Thel, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, and Europe: a Prophecy. They are vast, shadowy conceptions, and as remote from the ordinary methods of human thought as if they had been written within the sweep of Saturn's rings. Genius is shown in many a delectable phrase and many a flash of splendid imagery; but the meaning was kept by the writer as a secret in his own mind. The most enthusiastic student of Blake's writings can only theorize as to the significance of his prophecies. No system of doctrine or morals can be evolved from their accumu

lated glooms and splendours. They are as wild unbounded seas in which it is not possible for any adventurous Columbus to discover archipelago or continent on which firm footing can be ensured. But if the words have

no value but as memorials of the large dreamings of the author's mind, the illustrations by which they are accompanied are worthy of consideration as a bold attempt to give form and substance to 'airy nothing.'

In the year 1800, a new scene opened before Blake. William Hayley was a country gentleman who had some skill in the merely mechanical part of verse-making, but whose greatest intellectual feat was the imagining himself to be a poet. His Triumphs of Temper won

the favour of those who could tolerate feeble dilutions of commonplace thought given in lines measured and modulated in imitation of those of Pope; but the work which he and his admirers regarded as the pillar of his fame is now only to be found among the trash which has been ignominiously thrown out of old libraries. While he lived at Eartham, a beautiful seat in Sussex, he entered into friendly relationship with Cowper, and had him for a short time as his guest. Cowper having died in the spring of 1800, he engaged to write his life, and sought Blake's help in the illustration of the work. It was one of his affectations to call himself The Hermit of Eartham;' but injudicious expenditure of money compelled him to leave his mansion and lovely gardens for a humbler residence. He retired to Felpham, a village about six miles from Eartham, and lived at a reduced outlay in a turreted marine cottage. In order to be near him while he was writing the Life of Cowper, Blake went to Felpham, taking a cottage there, which, if less elaborate in construction than that of the Hermit, was thoroughly in accordance with his own poetical feelings.

[ocr errors]

There were three rooms on the ground-floor, three above, and a thatched verandah extending the whole length of the house. In front of the verandah there was a slip of garden bounded by a low flint wall and a lane shaded by evergreens. The upper windows opened on the sea, which, with its shifting lights and shadows, and its fair show of white sails, was looked upon by Blake with high enthusiasm. He was charmed with his new home and its surroundings, and wrote in a letter to his friend Flaxman:

'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....... 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.'

The sounding sea and the green landscape heightened the vivacity of Blake's imagination. Bright visions flitted before him as he walked on the beach or in the little garden in front of his verandah. In his reveries he saw the spectral images of Moses and the Prophets, of Homer, Dante and Milton. When questioned as to these appearances, he described them as 'majestic shadows, gray but luminous, and superior to the common height of men.'

'Did you ever see a fairy's funeral, Madam?' said he to a lady who was sitting by him in company. Never, Sir,' was the answer. I have,' he added; but not before last night. I was walking alone in my garden; there was great stillness among the branches and flowers, and more than common sweetness in the air; I heard a low and pleasant sound, and I knew not whence it came. At last I saw the broad leaf of a flower move, and underneath I saw a procession of creatures, of the size and colour of green and gray grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a roseleaf, which they buried with songs, and then disappeared. It was a fairy funeral.' The visions were not intended to bear the test of a hard literalism. Blake himself partly explained them as the creation of his own brain. He was once talking to a little group of friends within hearing of a lady

6

But

whose children had just come home from school for the holidays. The other evening,' he said, 'taking a walk, I came to a meadow, and at the farther corner of it I saw a fold of lambs. Coming nearer, the ground blushed with flowers, and the wattled cote and its woolly tenants were of an exquisite pastoral beauty. I looked again, and it proved to be no living flock, but beautiful sculpture.' The lady, thinking that it would be an entertaining show for her children, wished to be informed as to its locality. I beg pardon, Mr. Blake, but may I ask where you saw this?' 'Here, Madam,' answered Blake, touching his forehead. His essay, entitled A Vision of the Last Judgment, contains a similar explanation of the wonderful sights with which he was favoured. '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?" O 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.'

Blake was an idealist, but was also a diligent worker, and while at Felpham not only did the engravings for Cowper's Life, but also laboured on illustrations for the Triumphs of Temper, and another of Hayley's productions, Ballads on Anecdotes relating to Animals. The pictorial illumination of Hayley's feeble rhymes was a strange employment for the man who had sung The Lamb and The Tiger, and who at will could call up the forms of mighty poets, and see a procession of fairies under the leaf of a flower. The seer of visions got tired of the

« PreviousContinue »