1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Blake

Robert Carruthers, in Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature, 3rd ed. (1876; 1879) 5:122-23.



An artist-poet of rare but wild and wayward genius — touched with a "fine poetic madness" — appeared in WILLIAM BLAKE (1757-1827), whose life has been written with admirable taste and feeling by Allan Cunningham (Lives of British Painters, 1830), and in a more copious form by Alexander Gilchrist (1863). Blake was a native of London, son of a hosier. He was apprenticed to an engraver, but devoted all his leisure to drawing (in which he had occasional instruction from Flaxman and Fuseli), and in composing verses. Between his twelfth and twentieth years he produced a variety of songs, ballads, and a dramatic poem. A collection of these was printed at the cost of Flaxman and a gentleman named Matthews, who presented the sheets to their author to dispose of for his own advantage. In 1789 Blake himself published a series of Songs of Innocence, with a great number of illustrations etched on copper by the poet and his wife — the affectionate, "dark-eyed Kate." His wife, we are told, worked off the plates in the press, and Blake tinted the impressions, designs, and letter-press with a variety of pleasing colours. His next work was a series of sixteen small designs, entitled, The Gates of Paradise (1793); these were followed by Urizen, or twenty-seven designs representing hell and its mysteries; and shortly afterwards by a series of illustrations of Young's Night Thoughts — a congenial theme. Flaxman introduced Blake to Hayley the poet, and Hayley persuaded the artist to remove to Felpham in Sussex, to make engravings for the Life of Cowper.

At Felpham Blake resided three years (1800-3), and in the comparative solitude of the country, in lonely musings by the sea-shore, indulged in those hallucinations which indicated a state of diseased imagination or chronic insanity. He conceived that he had lived in other days, and had formed friendships with Homer and Moses, with Pindar and Virgil, with Dante and Milton. These great men, he asserted, appeared to him in visions, and even entered into conversation. When asked about the looks of those visions, he answered: "They are all majestic shadows, gray but luminous, and superior to the common height of men" (Cunningham). Blake laboured indefatigably, but with little worldly gain, at his strange fanciful illustrations. A work entitled Jerusalem comprised a hundred designs; he executed twelve designs for Blair's Grave, and a watercolour painting of the Canterbury Pilgrims, which was exhibited with other productions of the artist. These were explained in a Descriptive Catalogue as eccentric as the designs, but which had a criticism on Chaucer admired by Charles Lamb as displaying "wonderful power and spirit." Lamb also considered Blake's little poem on the tiger as "glorious." The remaining works of the artist were Twenty-one Illustrations to the Book of Job, and two works of Prophecies (1793-4), one on America in eighteen plates, and the ether on Europe in seventeen: he also illustrated Dante, but only seven of his illustrations were engraved. Three days before his death he was working on one of his prophetic works, the Ancient of Days. "He sat bolstered up in bed, and tinted it with his choicest colours, and in his happiest style. He touched and retouched it — held it at arm's length, and then threw it from him, exclaiming "There! that will do! I cannot mend it." He saw his wife in tears — she felt this was to be the last of his works — "Stay, Kate!" cried Blake; "keep just as you are — I will draw your portrait — for you have ever been an angel to me." She obeyed, and the dying artist made it a fine likeness." The poems of Blake have been frequently printed — at least in part — and his designs are now eagerly sought after.