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He said the things imagination saw were as much realities as were gross and tangible facts. He would tell his artist-friends, • You have the same faculty as I (the visionary), only you do 'not trust or cultivate it. You can see what I do, if you choose.' In a similar spirit was his advice to a young painter: “You have only to work up imagination to the state of vision, and the thing is done.' After all, he did but use the word vision in precisely the same sense in which Wordsworth uses it to designate the poet's special endowment; as when he speaks of Chaucer as one
- 'whose spirit often dwelt In the clear land of vision.'
The only difference is, that Blake was for applying the word boldly in detail, instead of merely as a general term. And why not? What word could more happily express the truth? In short, his belief in what he himself “saw in vision,' was not as in a material, but a spiritual fact—to his mind a more real kind of fact. The greater importance of the latter was one of his leading canons. He was, moreover, inclined, metaphysically, to be a follower of Bishop Berkeley,—a disbeliever in matter, as I have already said.
Extravagant and apocryphal stories have passed current about Blake. One—which I believe Leigh Hunt used to tell — bears internal evidence, to those who understand Blake, of having been a fabrication. Once, it is said, the visionary man was walking down Cheapside with a friend. Suddenly he took off his hat and bowed low. “What did you do that for?' 'Oh! that was the Apostle Paul.' A story quite out of keeping with the artist's ordinary demeanour towards his spiritual visitants, though quite in unison with the accepted notions as to ghosts and other apparitions with whom the ghost-seer is traditionally supposed to have tangible personal relations. Blake's was not that kind of vision. The spirits which appeared to him did not reveal themselves in
palpable, hand-shaking guise, nor were they mistaken by him for bodily facts. He did not claim for them an external, or (in German slang) an objective existence.
In Blake, imagination was by nature so strong, by himself had been so much fostered and, amid the solitude in which he lived, had been so little interfered with by the ideas of others, that it had grown to a disproportionate height so as to overshadow every other faculty. He relied on it as on a revelation of the Invisible. The appearances thus summoned before his mental eye were implicitly trusted in, not dismissed as idle phantoms as an ordinary
—even an imaginative-man dismisses them. Hence his bond fide • portraits' of visionary characters, such as those drawn for John Varley. And to this genuine faith is due the singular difference in kind between his imaginative work and that of nearly every other painter who has left a record of himself. Such is the explanation which all who knew the man personally give of what seemed mere madness to the world.
And here let us finally dispose of this vexed question of Blake's * madness ;' the stigma which, in its haste to arrive at some decision on an unusual phenomenon, the world has fastened on him, as on many other notable men before. Was he a 'glorious madman,' according to the assumption of those who knew nothing of him personally, little of his works, nothing of the genesis of themof the deep though wayward spiritual currents of which they were the unvarying exponent ?
To Blake's surviving friends all who knew more of his character than a few casual interviews could supply—the proposition is (I find) simply unintelligible; thinking of him, as they do, under the strong influence of happy, fruitful, personal intercourse rememhered in the past; swayed by the general tenor of his life, rather than by isolated extravagancies of speech, or wild passages in his writings. All are unanimous on the point. And I have taken the opinions of many independent witnesses. 'I saw nothing but 'sanity,' declares one (Mr. Calvert); "saw nothing mad in his 'conduct, actions, or character.' Mr. Linnell and Mr. Palmer express themselves in the same sense, and almost in the same words. Another very unbiassed and intelligent acquaintance-Mr. Finchsummed up his recollections thus :— He was not mad, but perverse and wilful; he reasoned correctly from arbitrary, and often false
premises.' This, however, is what madmen have been sometimes defined to do; grant them their premises, and their conclusions are right. Nor can I quite concur in it as characteristic of Blake, who was no reasoner, but pre-eminently a man of intuitions ; and therefore more often right as to his premises than his deductions. But, at all events, a madman's actions are not consonant with sound premises : Blake's always were. He could throw aside his visionary mood and his paradoxes when he liked. Mad people try to conceal their crazes, and in the long run cannot succeed.
There was nothing mad about him,' emphatically exclaimed to me Mr. Cornelius Varley ; 'people set down for mad anything different from themselves.' That vigorous veteran, the late James Ward, who had often met Blake in society and talked with him, would never hear him called mad. If mad he were, it was a madness which infected everybody who came near him; the wife who all but worshipped him, for one-whose sanity I never heard doubted; sensible, practical Mr. Butts, his almost life-long friend and patron, for another-who, I have reason to know, reckoned him eccentric but nothing worse. The high respect which Flaxman and Fuseli always entertained for him, I have already referred to. Even so well-balanced a mind as Cary's (the translator of Dante) abandoned, after he came to know him, the notion he had taken up of his madness,' and simply pronounced him an enthusiast.' Evidently this was the light in which he was regarded, throughout life, by all who had personal relations
with him : Paine at one time, Cromek at another, Hayley at another; the first two, men of sufficiently un-visionary, the last of sufficiently commonplace, intellect. So, too, by honest, prosaic John Thomas Smith, who had known Blake as a young man. He commences his notice of Blake with the declaration à propos of what he calls this ‘stigma of eccentricity.' 'I believe it has been 'invariably the custom of every age, whenever a man has been found 'to depart from the usual mode of thinking, to consider him of de' ranged intellect, and not unfrequently, stark, staring mad.' And he quotes Cowper's words, when writing to Lady Hesketh, speaking of a dancing master's advertisement : ‘The author of it had the good hap to be crazed, or he had never produced anything half so clever ; for you will ever observe that they who are said to have lost their wits, have more than other people.' 'I could see in Blake's wild enthusiasm and extravagance,' writes another of his personal friends, only the struggle of an ardent mind to deliver itself of *the bigness and sublimity of its own conceptions.' Even shrewd Allan Cunningham, a man who lived in an atmosphere of common sense, had, it is evident, spontaneously adopted a similar conclusion, and writes of Blake in a manner that tacitly assumes his sanity. Blake's misfortune,' says he, 'was that of possessing 'this precious gift (imagination) in excess. His fancy overmastered ‘him, until he at length confounded “the mind's eye” with the 'corporeal organ, and dreamed himself out of the sympathies of 'actual life.' And again : 'Painting, like poetry, has followers, the 'body of whose genius is light compared to the length of its 'wings, and who, rising above the ordinary sympathies of our 'nature, are, like Napoleon, betrayed by a star which no eye can 'see save their own. To this rare class belonged William Blake.'
That the present writer shares the view of his predecessors and of Blake's personal intimates, is doubtless already apparent. And, perhaps, the deliberate opinion, on such a point, of a bio
grapher who has necessarily devoted a bona fide slice of his life to deciphering the character of him he writes of, is entitled to some weight,—to more, say, than the rough and ready decisions, which are based on an isolated anecdote or two, or on certain incoherent passages in a series of professedly mystical writings. So far as I am concerned, I would infinitely rather be mad with William Blake than sane with nine-tenths of the world. When, indeed, such men are nicknamed 'mad, one is brought in contact with the difficult problem. What is madness ?' Who is not mad-in some other person's sense, himself, perhaps, not the noblest of created mortals? Who, in certain abstruse cases, is to be the judge ? Does not prophet or hero always seem ‘mad' to the respectable mob, and to polished men of the world, the motives of feeling and action being so alien and incomprehensible?
In a letter respecting Blake, addressed by the late James Ward, in June, 1855, to his son, George Raphael, the engraver, the venerable artist gave expression to an interesting view of his own—itself, some may think, tinged by eccentricity. “There can
be no doubt,' he writes, of his having been what the world calls “a man of genius. But his genius was of a peculiar character, sometimes above, sometimes below the comprehension of his fellow-men. ... I have considered him as amongst the many proofs
I have witnessed, of men being possessed of different orders of 'spirits now, as well as in the time when the Saviour Christ was
upon the earth,—although our Established Church (to their shame) set themselves against it—some good, some evil, in their different • degrees. It is evident Blake's was not an evil one, for he was “a good man, the most harınless and free from guile. But men, • and even our Church, set down everyone who is eccentric as 'mad. Alas! how many, now in Bedlam, are there for disorders
of soul (spirit), and not of the body ?' A similar suspicion to this Blake himself would sometimes hazard, viz. that there are