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This squabble with Cromek was a discordant episode in Blake's life. The competition with Stothard it induced, placed him in a false position, and, in most people's eyes, a wrong one. In Blake's own mind, where all should have been, and for the most part was, peace, the sordid conflict left a scar. It left him more tetchy than ever ; more disposed to wilful exaggeration of individualities already too prominent, more prone to unmeasured violence of expression. The extremes he again gave way to in his design and writings—mere ravings to such as had no key to them—did him no good with that portion of the public the illustrated Blair had introduced him to. Those designs most people thought wild enough; yet they were really a modified version of his style. Such demand as had existed for his works, never considerable, declined.
Now, too, was established for him the damaging reputation ‘Mad, by which the world has since agreed to recognise William Blake. And yet it is one—and let the reader note this—which none who knew the visionary man personally, at any period of his life, thought of applying to him. And, in his time, he was known to, and valued by, many shrewd, clear-headed men; of whom suffice it to mention Fuseli, Flaxman, Linnell. More on this point hereafter.
WHILE Blake had been nursing his wrath against Cromek and Stothard, and making ineffectual reprisals by exhibition and engraving, the course of Cromek's speculation had not run smoothly. As intimately, if indirectly, bearing on Blake's life of struggles, this matter ought, perhaps, to be glanced at here. We must first go back a little, and track Cromek in his versatile career. The retrospect will, here and there, throw a vivid ray of light on the real character of the man, and so enable us to construe Blake aright in the critical relation in which the two, for a time, stood to one another. It may help the reader to a conclusion as to the rights of that difficult case --for so Smith and Cunningham seemed to find it-Blake v. Stothard and Another.
During the progress, under the engraver, of his first publishing scheme, the active Yorkshireman had been turning his literary tastes to account. He had made a tour in Dumfriesshire, in quest of unpublished fugitive pieces of Robert Burns; a tour undertaken, according to his own statement, from pure interest in the poet. He discovered many previously unknown ; others rejected 'on principle' by the great man's posthumous patron, prim Currie, of now seldom blessed memory. The visit was well timed. Burns had been dead ten years ; but everything by him, everything about him, was already carefully treasured by those privileged enough to have aught to keep
or remember. His mother, and others of his family and friends, were still living. Cromek returned with well-filled wallet; though he too, squeamish as Currie, must needs keep back The Jolly Beggars and Holy Willie's Prayer. Of these gleanings he made an octavo volume, supplementary to Currie's four, entitling it The Reliques of Burns. It was published by Cadell and Davies in 1808,—the year in which the Blair came out,—and is a volume on which subsequent editors and biographers of Burns have freely drawn. It had the peculiar fortune of calling forth memorable manifestations of bad feeling towards the poet, of tepid taste and supercilious vulgarity, from two persons high in the world of letters,—the articles of Jeffrey in the Edinburgh, of Walter Scott in the Quarterly.
Here, again, Cromek's well-directed industry bore off, I fear, the profits, to part of which, another-Burns' widow—was entitled. Cromek might, indeed, plead in self-defence, the lapse of ten years during which no one else had had the pious zeal to glean the open field.
The following summer, which was that of Blake's exhibition, Cromek, encouraged by the success of his first literary venture, revisited Dumfries, with Stothard as a companion, and with new schemes in his head. One was an enlarged and illustrated edition of Burns' works, for which materials and drawing were now to be got together; an enterprise which, in the sequel, failing health prevented his carrying out. The other was a Collection of Old Scottish Songs, such, especially, as had been the favourites of Burns, together with the poet's notes already printed in the Reliques, and any other interesting scraps that could be picked up, could be begged, borrowed, or filched from various contributors. Two duodecimo volumes were got together, and, in the summer of 1810, published under the above title, with three vignettes after Stothard, characteristically cut on wood by clever, hapless Luke Clennell, hereafter the tenant of a madhouse.
During this visit of 1809, the bookmaker fell an easy victim to the hoax devised by a stalwart young stone-mason, afterwards known to fame as poet, novelist, biographer, and art critic. This was Allan Cunningham, then in his twenty-fifth year, earning eighteen shillings a week as a working mason. Cromek, we learn from Mr. Peter Cunningham's interesting introduction to his father's collected Poems and Songs (1847), looked coldly on the mason's acknowledged verses, but caught eagerly at the idea of discoveries of old Songs, to be made among the Nithsdale peasantry. He greedily swallowed Allan's happy imitations, and ever called out for more !' On quitting Dumfries for Newman Street, he put a MS. book into Allan's hands with the modest written injunction, 'to be filled with old unpublished songs and ballads, with remarks on them, historical and critical.' Another milch-cow has turned up!
Under pretence of collecting a world of previously unknown local song from the well-gleaned land of Burns and Scott, the young man, finding in Cromek (who had more natural taste than reading or acumen) a good subject for the cheat, and a willing one, palmed off, as undoubted originals, a whole deskful of his own verse in slightly antique mould. Verse, it proved, bold, energetic, and stirring, or tender, sentimental, and graceful ; the best of modern Scottish songs and ballads since those of the Ayrshire peasant, though wide the interval! Cromek, who reminds one of Burns's Johnson, of Musical Museum memory, a man of the same type, was, as usual, only too happy to avail himself of another's genius and labours ; too ready a recipient to be over-curious as to authenticity. But his letters to Cunningham reveal often pertinent doubts as to any high antiquity, even while he and the eager domestic circle in Newman Street, whom a northern raven was feeding, were receiving the poems with delighted wonder. 'I have read these verses,' he writes of one song (She's gone to dwell in Heaven), ‘to my old mother, my wife, sister, and family, till all our hearts ache.' Cromek spared neither urging
nor vague hints of a future ‘kind return' for all services, to extract from his young friend an original and striking volume of verse, and even copious prose notes illustrative of local traditions. The poet was lured to London, to help push the volume through the press. Cromek gave him free quarters the while, and then left him to hire himself as a sculptor's mason, at six-and-twenty shillings a week. Subsequently Cromek spoke a good word for his protégé to Chantrey, young then, and with little to employ a second pair of hands, but who some years later took Allan as a workman. The engagement, as Chantrey's fortunes rose, transformed itself into a higher one, which lasted to the end of the sculptor's life.
The volume was swelled to due dimensions by a few poems collected from other sources, and by plausible, loose-spun letter-press of Cromek's own,-an “Introduction' and critical Notices of the poems; including grave details of how one had been taken down from the recitation of such and such 'a young girl,' or 'worthy old man. The Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, printed by Bensley, was published by Cadell and Davies, at the latter end of 1810, with a spirited woodcut vignette by Clennell, after Stothard. It is now scarce.
Some general expressions of obligation to Mr. Allan Cunningham' for 'guidance and interesting conversation,' was the sole acknowledgment accorded the gratis contributor (as author and collector) of the bulk, and all the value of the volume. To which add a presentation copy, accompanied by the candid assurance, It ' has been a costly work, and I have made nothing by it, but it is 'd-d good, let the critics say what they will, and when it goes to ' a second edition, I will give you something handsome !' The book was well received, and sold well, but never went to a second edition ; our publishers having taken care to make the first a large one. None of Cromek’s clients grew sleek on his bounty. Nine years later, Cunningham's true share in the volume became known. And