1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Blake

William Clarke and Robert Shelton Mackenzie, in The Georgian Era: Memoirs of the most eminent Persons who have flourished in Great Britain (1832-34) 4:113-15.



WILLIAM BLAKE, the son of a hosier, was born in Broad Street, Golden Square, on the 28th of November, 1757. He was educated for his father's business, but, in consequence of his love for poetry and painting, he was, at fourteen years of age, apprenticed to Basire, the engraver. He served his master with diligence, attending to the graver in the day time, and to his favourite pursuits in the evening. About 1783. he married a young woman, named Katharine Boutcher, and, shortly afterwards, entered into partnership with a fellow-apprentice, and commenced print-seller, in Broad Street. A separation taking place, he removed to Poland Street, where, to the occupation of plate-engraving and song-writing, he added that of musical composition. The first work which he published was entitled, Songs of Innocence and Experience, consisting of about seventy designs, in which the artist and the visionary were equally conspicuous. Of his poetry, he also gave some favourable specimens in this publication; and his love of that art seems to have had a singular effect on his imagination. Not content with putting into verse his dreams, he declared that he held communion with the dead, and that the spirit of his favourite brother, Robert, had appeared to him, for the express purpose of advising him in what manner to bring out the work just mentioned. The spirit, he said, desired him "to write the poetry, and draw the designs upon the copper with a certain liquid (which he always kept a secret;) then to cut the plain parts of the plate down with aquafortis, and that would give the whole, both poetry and figures, in the manner of a stereotype." Blake followed this plan, and tinted both the figures and the verse with a variety of colours. His next successive productions were entitled, respectively, The Gates of Paradise, and Urizen; the latter being a performance of such extravagant originality, that even his wife, who could usually interpret his most obscure meanings, declared she could not tell the import of this. It was published in 1794, at which time he was residing in Lambeth. Genius, however, of no ordinary character, was sufficiently visible in his efforts to make his name favourably known. Edwards, the bookseller, employed him to illustrate Young's Night Thoughts; and he, shortly afterwards, became intimate with Flaxman, the sculptor, and Hayley, the poet. At the request of the latter, who had a house at Felpham, in Sussex, he removed to that place, for the purpose of making engravings for the Life of Cowper. Whilst thus employed, he wrote some letters to Flaxman, in one of which occurs the following passage: "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."

After a residence of three years at Felpham, he removed to South Molton Street, and, shortly afterwards, published a hundred designs, entitled, Jerusalem, which he thus announced: "After my three years' slumber on the banks of the ocean, I again display my giant forms to the world." Some of the figures are said to have been worthy of Michael Angelo; but the performance, as a whole, was too obscure to become popular. His next work was the illustrations of Blair's poem of The Grave, which were deservedly commended by Fuseli, and had the merit of exciting both sympathy and admiration. This was followed by his Canterbury Pilgrimage, which, with his principal works, he exhibited at the house of his brother, in Broad Street, in 1809. One of his latest, and, certainly, the best of his performances, was, A Series of Inventions, as he used to call them, for the Book of Job. They amounted to twenty-one, and were executed with a sublime simplicity, and in a manner worthy of the subject. He next drew, and engraved, two works, entitled, Prophecies concerning Europe and America, containing, together, thirty-five plates: the design was sufficiently wild and obscure; the colouring and drawing in his best style. Blake continued to labour to the last, with cheerfulness and enthusiasm, although, from want of patronage, he was latterly so poor, that, but for the assistance of friends, he would have wanted a meal. Three days before his death, he sat up in bed, to tint a favourite work of his, called The Ancient of Days, and, seeing his wife in tears, said to her, "Stay, Kate; keep just as you are — I will draw your portrait — for you have ever been an angel to me." He made an excellent likeness of her, and died two days afterwards, on the 12th of August, 1828.

Respecting the works of this extraordinary man, no satisfactory conclusion can be come to: by many they will be called the productions of a madman; and still more will regard them as the abortions, or, at least, the misconceptions, of genius. Had he condescended to consult other models than those presented to him by his own ideas, he would undoubtedly have risen to the highest eminence in his art; for he possessed, in addition to a sublime imagination, the most unwearied patience and perseverance. In his most mystical pictures, there is something that arrests the attention strongly, though, perhaps, both the subject and the feeling it conveys are indescribable: he is extravagant, but still sublime; fantastic, not ludicrous.

As a man, he was esteemed and respected by all who knew him: he was somewhat touchy in temper, but his manners were seldom other than gentle and unassuming. He was short in stature, and slightly made; had peculiarly dark and expressive eyes, and a high, thoughtful brow. He continued a visionary to the last, and bore his poverty with the calmness of a philosopher, and the fortitude of a martyr. "Were I to love money," he used to say, "I should lose all power of thought: desire of gain deadens the genius of man. I might roll in wealth, and ride in a golden chariot, were I to listen to the voice of parsimony. My business is not to gather gold, but to make glorious shapes, expressing godlike sentiments."

A few anecdotes of Blake and his supernatural acquaintances are too singular to be omitted in our memoir. He boasted of a personal intimacy with Homer and Virgil, Dante and Pindar. Moses occasionally looked in upon him; and Milton once intrusted him with a whole poem of his; but the communication being oral, he could not give it to the world. Among those who stayed long enough for him to take their portraits, were William Wallace, Edward the First, Corinna, Lais, and Herod; all of whom he declared sat to him in "propria persona." He was engaged, one day, at his easel, when a friend entered: "Disturb me not," said Blake, in a whisper, "I have one sitting to me." "Sitting to you! — Where is he, and what is he? — I see no one," exclaimed the astonished visitor. "But I see him, sir," answered Blake, haughtily; "there he is, his name is Lot — you may read of him in the Scripture. He is sitting for his portrait." The most extraordinary of his visitations is yet to be told. He was found by a friend, one evening, more than usually excited, and, on being asked the cause, said, "I have seen a wonderful thing-the ghost of a flea." "And did you make a drawing of him?" inquired his friend. "No, indeed," he replied; "I wish I had; but I shall, if he appears again." He looked earnestly into a corner of the room, and then said, "Here he is; reach me my things — I shall keep my eye on him. There he comes! his eager tongue whisking out of his mouth, a cup in his hand to hold blood, and covered with a scaly skin of gold and green:" — and according to this description he drew him. When asked how the apparitions of his sages and heroes looked, he answered, "They are all majestic shadows, gray and luminous, and superior to the common height of men."