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The life of a most extraordinary man has recently appeared, and should be studied by all who are interested in the curiosities of literature and art.? To this generation he is nearly unknown. To his contemporaries he most frequently seemed to be a madman. Yet of this strange being-at once a poet and a painter--Wordsworth said : “ There is To something in his madness which “ interests me more than the sanity of “ Lord Byron and Walter Scott.” Fuseli and Flaxman declared that the time would come when his designs should be as much sought after and treasured in portfolios as those of Michael Angelo. “ Blake is d- good to steal from," said Fuseli. “And, ah! sir,” said Flaxman, “his poems are as grand as his pictures." Who is the unknown genius that is praised so highly, and what has he done? The answer is given in two goodly volumes, to which three ardent admirers have contributed. The late Mr. Gilchrist, who distinguished himself by the production of a good biography of Etty, has traced the incidents of Blake's life; Mr. Dante Rossetti, one of the leading preRaphaelite painters, has edited Blake's poetry and criticised his style of art; and Mr. W. M. Rossetti has produced a critical catalogue of Blake's designs. The work produced by three such able men is very interesting. Perhaps they overrate Blake's merits, but their opinion, if exaggerated, is worth examining; and they have done really a good work in rescuing from oblivion one of the most extraordinary men of our nation.
William Blake was born in 1757, and he died in 1827. He was born, he
i The Life of William Blake, “ Pictor Ignotus," with Selections from his Poems and other Writings : By the late Alexander Gilchrist, author of “The Life of William Etty :" illustrated from Blake's own works in facsimile by W. J. Linton, and in Photolitho. graphy; with a few of Blake's original Plates. 2 vols. Macmillan and Co. 1863.
lived, and he died in London. His threescore and ten years covered a most important, a most active period in the history of English art and poetry ; and what manner of man he was we can see at once in the earliest incident of his childhood which is known. When he had not yet entered his teens he saw a vision. He beheld a tree at Peckham Rye all filled with angels. He told his father of the sight on coming home, and was about to receive a flogging for the supposed lie, when his mother interfered and saved him for that once. All his life he saw such visions. “ Did you ever see a fairy's funeral, madam ?” he once said, quite gravely, to a lady; "I have.” And then he described how, in the stillness of his garden, he had seen a procession of little creatures of the size and colour of green and grey grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a roseleaf, which they buried with songs. At this time he was an artist, and drew with wonderful truthfulness the sights which he saw in vision. He really saw what he drew; and if the vision changed its appearance he could not go on. He once saw and drew the ghost of a flea! See the portrait of this amazing monster at page 255—a sketch of singular vigour, which any one once seeing will never forget. As he was drawing this ghostly flea, it appeared in vision to move its mouth, and he had to take the portrait over again. Mr. Richmond, the well-known portrait-painter, was one of his admirers, and finding his invention flag during a whole fortnight, went to Blake, as was his wont, for advice. When he told Blake that his power of invention had been failing him, the strange visionary turned suddenly to Mrs. Blake and said, “ It is just so with us, is it not, for weeks together when the visions, forsake us ? What do we do then, Kate ?” “We kneel down and pray, Mr. Blake," was the reply. He prayed for vision,
and the vision came. He would insist of his poems; but we can, in a short on it, too, that no one could really draw example, show what we mean by objectwell any imaginary scene who did not ing to the disproportion between his see it as a reality in vision. He was ideas and facts :surrounded with strange sights and sounds which nobody else saw or heard.
A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all hearen in a rage; "What! when the sun rises do you not A dove-house filled with doves and pigeons see a round disc of fire somewhat like Shudders hell through all its regions; a guinea ?” he supposes some one to ask,
A game cock clipped and armed for fight and he answers, “ Oh! no, no! I see
Doth the rising sun affright. an innumerable company of the heavenly This is rather a wild way of saying that host, crying, "Holy, holy, holy is the redbreasts ought not to be caged, that Lord God Almighty!' I question not a dovecot is a pretty sight, and that my corporeal eye, any more than I would cock-fighting is a barbarous sport. Apart question a window concerning a siglit. from these faults, which will prevent I look through, and not with it.”
sober critics from speaking of Blake's Although this is the side of his cha- poems in the somewhat extravagant racter which first fixes our attention, terms adopted by Mr. Rossetti and by Blake was, after all, not a mere visionary, Mr. Gilchrist, there is a power and an but had a sharp, observing eye for ex- originality in his style which cannot be ternal nature, and understood perfectly overlooked, especially when we rememthat no one can draw visions well un- ber the date to which most of the poems less he can first draw real things well. belong. He drew well and easily, and he had a One of the most curious studies in quick and clear insight into character. criticism concerns the rise and fall of At the age of fourteen his father proposed Pope's poetical ascendancy in the last to bind him as an apprentice to Ryland, century. So much has been written the engraver. “Father," he said, “I do upon this theme that it may seem to be not like the man's face ; he will live to now exhausted ; but the truth is, that be hanged.” And twelve years after we are not yet in full possession of the wards Ryland actually was hanged. He facts that would enable us to trace with was bound apprentice to Busire, the perfect accuracy the movement either of engraver, and worked hard under him flow or of ebb. In the middle of last till he was twenty-one years of age. Then century we find Pope enthroned in our he studied in the newly-formed Royal literature with imperial power. So far Academy, and began to make original as we can trace, the first conscious or designs, some like those of his friend critical lapsing from his authority—the Stothard, to illustrate books. At the first open treason-- is to be found in a same time he was cultivating poetry, work published in 1787 by a young When he was yet fourteen, indeed, he man of twenty-two. Henry Headley, threw off verses of no mean merit, of Trinity College, Oxford, then gave and thenceforward he wrote what, for to the world a book of beauties, which the time, we must consider very re- he entitled, “Select Beauties of Ancient markable poems, though, regarding his English Poets, with Remarks.” Among poetical works as a whole, we cannot these remarks will be found a most share Mr. Gilchrist's surprise that Blake determined protest against the influence is little known as an English poet. For of Pope. He tells us that the translathe most part his poems are wanting in tion of Homer, timed as it was, operated form, or they are difficult to understand, like an inundation on our literature; or the sentiment which they convey is that the consequences which have ensued out of all proportion to the world of fact. from the sway of Pope have been full We cannot without long quotations, of harm ; that “in proportion as his which no one would much care to read, 6 works were read and the dazzle of his show the formlessness and the obscurity “ diction admired, proselytes, who would
“ not originally have been scribblers in the comparison many fresh times before 66 verse, were gained, and the art of we can quite make up our minds. In “ tagging smooth couplets, without any this case we start back with astonish“ reference to the character of a poet, ment from the conclusion that “the “ became an almost indispensable requi- grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spens” “ site in a fashionable education ;" that is a veritable product of Pope's own hence arose “a spurious taste” which day and generation. Yet Mr. Chambers “ reprobated and set at defiance our has made out a strong case in favour of older masters ;” and that “to cull that conclusion. And if in accordance “ words, vary pauses, adjust accents, with this theory it should in the end “ diversify cadence, and by, as it were, prove that some of the best ballads in 66 balancing the line, make the first part Percy—those which secured for his “ of it betray the second,” had become three volumes their chief influencethe chief accomplishment of an age were produced in Scotland at the very whose poetical art seemed to consist time when Pope was in England entirely “of a suite of traditional elaborating his style and establishing “ imagery, hereditary similes, readiness his supremacy, it will then follow that “ of rhyme, and volubility of syllables.” the seeds of the revolt against the EngBut the revolt thus openly proclaimed lish poet were being sown at the very by the daring young critic, in 1787, same time when his authority began to had for some time been secretly fer- be planted in the hearts of the people. menting, and it is common in this con Parallel with the movement of poetry nexion to fix upon the publication of in England there began a movement of Percy's “Reliques,” in 1765, as the first poetry in Scotland. Nothing could be distinct sign of a change. Now it is more splendid or self-asserting than the universally allowed that the most remark- beginnings of the former; nothing more able specimens in Percy, of what may be humble and retiring than the beginnings termed ballad-thinking, are of Scottish of the latter. But ere long the influence origin; and Mr. Robert Chambers, in a of the unpretending crept into the dorecent tract which has not received the main of pretentious song, grew there attention it deserves, attempts to make into favour, at length overthrew the good the position that these famed giant, and great was the downfall. Scottish ballads are by no means of Now Blake asserted his originality at such ancient origin as Percy imagined; a time when it was an extraordinary that, in fact, they were produced in the merit to do so-—when as yet the ballad early part of last century. We have style which Percy favoured had not not yet examined into this question so thoroughly told upon the public ear. closely as to be able to give a decisive Blake was eight years of age when, in answer to it, and we reserve to our- 1765 (Mr. Gilchrist is wrong in the date selves the right of hereafter rejecting 1760), Percy published his ballads, and Mr. Chambers's theory; but in the he began to write in his eleventh year. meantime we cannot help thinking that His poems show a remarkable precocity, he has made out a fair case for inquiry. that does not suffer by comparison with The great difficulty of the question the similar precocity of Chatterton, who depends on the nature of the evidence was but four years ahead of him in age. which has to be weighed. It turns By the year 1770 Chatterton had done almost wholly on the delicacies of style his work and died at the age of sevenand other points of internal evidence, teen. His younger compeer had begun which no cautious critic will care to to compose two years before, and had decide off-hand. To detect and follow produced some strains which, for his out resemblances is always a very age, are quite wonderful. The following ticklish task. The resemblance which piece was written certainly before the strikes us to-day we cannot see to boy was fourteen, and shows a rare morrow, and it is necessary to approach precocity :
How street I roam'd from field to field, he is quite unintelligible ; if he is not And tasted all the summer's pride,
unintelligible, then he is either enigmaTill I the prince of Love beheld, Who in the sunny beams did glide !
tical, or he says common things with a
disproportionate ponderosity, not of He shew'd me lilies for my hair,
words, but of images. We gave some And blushing roses for my brow; He led me through his gardens fair,
examples from the passage in which Where all his golden pleasures grow.
Blake tells us that a cock-fight “doth
the rising sun affright.” Here is more · With sweet May-dews my wings were wet, And Phoebus fir'd my vocal rage;
in the same style of disproportionate He caught me in his silken net,
grandeur : And shut me in his golden cage.
Kill not the moth mor butterfly, He loves to sit and hear me sing,
For the last judgment draweth nigh : Then, laughing, sports and plays with me; The beggar's dog and widow's cat, Then stretches out my golden wing,
Feed them and thou shalt grow fat; And mocks my loss of liberty.
Every tear from every eye
Becomes a babe in eternity; To our thinking the finest verses The bleat, the bark, bellow and roar, penned by Blake are those addressed to Are waves that beat on heaven's shore. a tiger; and whoever will read them,
It is when he turns from the sublime remembering the sort of style which was
and the difficult to the simple and easy, in vogue at the time of their compo
that he shows to best advantage. sition, will have no difficulty in detecting
Witness the following bit of simin them the notes of a man of true
plicity : genius. If this be madness, it is that species of it to which all genius is said Piping down the valleys wild, to be near akin :
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he, laughing, said to me :
‘Pipe a song about a Lamb!' Framed thy fearful symmetry ?
So I piped with merry cheer.
‘Piper, pipe that song again ;' In what distant deeps or skies
So I piped : he wept to hear.
Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;
Sing thy songs of happy cheer !'
So I sang the same again,
While he wept with joy to hear.
* Piper, sit thee down and write What dread hand formed thy dread feet?
In a book, that all may read.'
So he vanish'd from my sight,
And I pluck'd a hollow reed,
And I made a rural pen,
And I stain'd the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.
Blake was peculiar in his mode of Did He who made the lamb make thee?
publication. He engraved his poems, Blake, we say, never surpassed these he surrounded each page with drawings Verses, and it is curious that though here to illustrate the text, and he carefully we have the true sublime, and though coloured these drawings by hand. His with his pencil he could at any time illustrative designs, whether mixed up reach the sublime, yet the more ambi- with the text or drawn on a separate tious efforts of his pen are usually the page, are of various degrees of merit and least successful. Sometimes—we must of interest. In every design there is say it, with all deference to the really evident the perfect ease of a master. subtle criticism of Mr. Dante Rossetti - There is no doubt that he could draw
well, but frequently he chose to draw one of form, but it is to impossibilities impossibilities-heads and legs in im- of drawing not less wonderful than the possible attitudes, muscles developed impossibility of colouring a tiger blue beyond all possible tension. In this and green that we ventured to refer he was supposed to resemble Michael when just now speaking of the supposed Angelo ; but the great Italian, if he resemblance of his style to that of strained to the utmost degree the appear Michael Angelo. Neither for colouring ance of muscular action, never repre- nor for drawing, however, should Blake sented actions which the muscles were be judged by only a few of his works. incapable of performing. Blake often Much of his art looks like mere nightoutdid nature in this way. Sometimes, mare, and oppresses one sometimes too, he seemed to have no idea of what with the oppressive hideousness, some. composition is. The first glance at many times with the oppressive loveliness, of of his designs is so far from exciting night-mare. To understand the man expectation of any good thing, that it well he ought to be studied as a whole, is bewildering. The details of the and his admirers ought to make some picture are tossed about in hopeless attempt to bring his innumerable works confusion, which it takes some little time together. Then we should see the enorto understand. Yet, notwithstanding mous energy of the man ; his prodigious these defects, there is scarcely a drawing power of invention; how grand and how of Blake's in which close study does not graceful he could be in design ; how detect rare beauties and suggestions. spiritual and poetical were all his He was wonderfully suggestive, and it thoughts and views of life. He is best is not without reason that the authors known by his illustrations to Blair's and editors of the present biography Grave; but the volumes of coloured attribute to Blake's influence much that designs are even more interesting. Some is peculiarly impressive in the style both of these will be found in the Print-room of Flaxman and Stothard. His angels of the British Museum. But still finer are among the finest things we have examples belong to the collections of ever seen, and his treatment of angelic Lord Houghton and Captain Butts. In forms is famous for originality. His the possession of Captain Butts are three sense of colour, too, is most remarkable, works which we have never seen ; but and receives high praise from a colourist, Mr. William Rossetti is a competent Mr. Dante Rossetti, than whom no living judge, we accept his opinion of them painter is better able to judge. The without misgiving, and we shall quote painters who are known among us as that opinion as a remarkable testimony pre-Raphaelites are most excellent of all to the wonderworking faculty of Blake's in their sense of colour, and Blake may pencil. Mr. Rossetti has made a debe regarded as the herald and forerunner scriptive catalogue of every one of Blake's of the pre-Raphaelite system of colour, works of which he could find a trace “in which tints laid on side by side, no matter how slight; and the three “each in its utmost force, are made by works to which we refer bear in his “masterly treatment to produce a start catalogue respectively the numbers 18,44, “ling and novel effect of truth.” Mr. and 54. Here is what Mr. Rossetti Rossetti admits, however, that now and says:then an unaccountable perversity may be apparent in Blake's colour, as when a
ELOHIM CREATING ADAM. “ tiger is painted in fantastic streaks of
The Creator is an amazingly grand figure, “ red, green, blue, and yellow, while a
worthy of a primeval imagination or intuition. “ tree stem at his side tantalizingly He is struggling, as it were, above Adam, who “supplies the tint which one might lies distended on the ground, a serpent twined “ venture to think his due, and is perfect
around one leg. The colour has a terrible “ tiger-colour!” A mistake of this kind
power in it; and the entire design is truly a
mighty one---perhaps on the whole the greatest in colour is inore easily detected than monument extant of Blake's genius.;