William Blake

IN Mr. W. M. Rossetti’s edition of William Blake’s lyrical and miscellaneous poems, and Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job, with notes and an introductory essay by Mr. Charles E. Norton, we have two books which cannot fail to make the reading public more familiar with the works of one of the most noteworthy of English poets and artists. It is a great merit of these two volumes that they give us Blake unaltered, in one case returning to the original text of the poems as they left the author’s hand; while as to the designs, the heliotype process comes nearest of all methods to faithfully reproducing the artist’s wonderful engravings. In Gilchrist’s Life of Blake, Mr. D. G. Rossetti had made certain changes in the poems here and there, correcting faults of grammar, and smoothing occasional rugged lines, always in such a way, to be sure, as to make them more impressive; but his brother did not feel justified in reprinting these alterations in what pretended to be an accurate edition of Blake’s poems. Fully to understand a poet the reader should have his writings unmodified by even the most obvious improvements.

As we have said, Mr. W. M. Rossetti’s edition is an exact reprint of the original poems, and with the exception of three pieces, omitted on the ground of copyright, it is complete. The three not included are two slight songs, entitled respectively By a Shepherd and By an Old Shepherd, and another, far less interesting, called Long John Brown and Little Mary Bell.

The first runs as follows:

“ Welcome, stranger, to this place,
Where joy doth sit on every bough,
Paleness flies from every face ;
We reap not what we do not SOW.
“ Innocence doth like a rose
Bloom on every maiden’s cheek ;
Honor twines around her brows,
The jewel health adorns her neck.”

The second is this: —

“ When silver snow decks Sylvio’s clothes,
And jewel hangs at shepherd’s nose,
We can abide life’s pelting storm,
That makes our limbs quake, if our hearts be warm.
“ While Virtue is our walking-staff,
And Truth a lantern to our path,
We can abide life’s pelting storm,
That makes our limbs quake, if our hearts be warm.
“ Blow, boisterous wind ; stern Winter, frown ;
Innocence is a Winter’s gown.
So clad, we ’ll abide life’s pelting storm,
That makes our limbs quake, if our hearts be warm,”

Neither of these pieces stands among the best that Blake wrote; of the third perhaps a single stanza will suffice. We give that which opens the poem: —

“ Little Mary Bell had a fairy in a nut,
Long John Brown had the devil in his gut;
Long John Brown loved little Mary Bell,
And the fairy drew the devil into the nutshell.”

He is a bold admirer of Blake who mourns the absence of this poem. Almost everything of his that the reader will care to see can be found in this edition.

Mr. Rossetti’s prefatory memoir is full and intelligent. It contains a complete account of Blake’s life, and some discussion of such questions as his sanity, the nature of the visions he saw, the merit of his designs and poems, etc. Mr. Gilchrist, in his valuable Life of Blake, it will be remembered, denied that Blake was a madman. But Mr. Rossetti, with what seems more fairness, is inclined to hold the contrary opinion. Biographers so often assume the part of advocate that an admission of this sort might appear at first sight to carry more condemnation than is designed. Mr. Rossetti explicitly disowns any malevolence in this statement: “For my own part,” he says, “ with the deepest reverence for Blake, the keenest enjoyment of a great deal of his work, and an inclination to accept the rest of it as in some way or other justifiable to the author’s intellect, and responsive to and representative of his large conceptions and deep meanings, I must nevertheless avow that I think there was something in his mind not exactly sane.” And again: “I cannot pretend to furnish — what has baffled many persons incomparably more qualified than myself for such a task — a fair definition of the term ‘madness;’ but when I find a man pouring forth conceptions and images for which he professes himself not responsible, and which are in themselves in the highest degree remote, nebulous, and intangible, and putting some of these moreover into words wherein congruent sequence and significance of expression or of analogy are not to be traced, then I cannot resist a strong presumption that that man was in some true sense of the word mad.”

This is the opinion with which we think most of those who read any account of Blake’s life will readily agree. The folly of calling him merely a madman, however, cannot be too severely condemned. Indeed, much that he wrote may serve as his best defense against so partial a judgment. Mr. Norton’s statement of the case is even more favorable; he says, “Blake was a most childlike man,— childlike in simplicity and faith; childlike even to childishness, as mystics are apt to be, in the indulgence of wayward moods, and in the defect of the sense of proportion between individual conceits and the wisdom of mankind.” This certainly can content us; a harsher judgment might be approved of, but the whole question is not of the greatest importance; what more nearly concerns us is the merit of Blake’s work.

How well Blake could write may be seen by any one who will open Mr. Rossetti’s collection of his lyrics and miscellaneous pieces. When the reader remembers the lamentable condition of English poetry at the time most of these poems were written, he will be amazed at the simplicity and loveliness of Blake’s verse. However slighting our opinion may be of the taste of our grandfathers, it can hardly exaggerate the feebleness of most of the verse-makers of the period. Pope’s trick of rhyming had at last come nearly to its cloying end. Darwin’s Botanic Garden is perhaps not an unfair specimen of the pompous mediocrity which assumed to be poetry, and had for a long time been read and admired. Cowper’s earliest poems, the signal of a change, were published in 1782, the year before Blake’s first venture, The Poetical Sketches, appeared. It was very long since there had been heard such words as these in the poem To the Muses, which stood in that volume : —

“ Whether on Ida’s shady brow,
Or in the chambers of the East,
The chambers of the Sun, that now
From ancient melody have ceased ;
“ Whether in heaven ye wander fair,
Or the green corners of the earth,
Or the blue regions of the air,
Where the melodious winds have birth ;
“ Whether on crystal rocks ye rove,
Beneath the bosom of the sea,
Wandering in many a coral grove ;
Fair Nine, forsaking Poetry,
“ How have you left the ancient love
That bards of old enjoyed in you !
The languid strings do scarcely move,
The sound is forced, the notes are few !”

At the time these lines were written Blake was not over twenty years old. He was the son of poor parents who had been able to give him only the barest rudiments of education, but when he had once learned to read and write, he devoted himself zealously to the study of early models. Even if there were not direct testimony to the truth of this statement, it could not be doubted after reading some of the poems which contain echoes of the lyrics of the old dramatists. Such, for example, is the following: —

“ My silks and fine array,
My smiles and languished air,
By love are driven away ;
And mournful, lean Despair
Brings me yew to deck my grave
Such end true lovers have.
“ His face is fair as heaven
When springing buds unfold ;
Oh why to him was't given,
Whose heart is wintry cold !
His breast is love’s all-worshiped tomb,
Where all love’s pilgrims come.
“ Bring me an ax and spade,
Bring me a winding-sheet;
When I my grave have made,
Let winds and tempests beat:
Then down I ’ll lie, as cold as clay.
True love doth pass away ! ”

It is hardly too great praise to say of this that it is almost a fit pendant to the song from Twelfth Night: —

“ Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid ; ”

or to the song from Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy: —

“ Lay a garland on my hearse
Of the dismal yew ;
Maidens, willow branches bear,
Say I died true.
“ My love was false, but I was firm
From my hour of birth ;
Upon my buried body lie
Lightly, gentle earth.”

The melody, the pathos, the artistic and unaffected expression, are all in Blake’s lines as truly as in those of his great masters. Even without regarding the age of the writer, and the aridity of the period in which he was living, it is impossible not to call such poems as this and the Address to the Muses, quoted above, simply marvelous productions. In none of his later poems did Blake excel the best of the Poetical Sketches. In some there are to be found indications of boyishness and crudity, but others need no apology; the two already given are perhaps the most favorable specimens. Another, almost as good, is this song: —

“ Memory, hither come,
And tune your merry notes :
And, while upon the wind
Your music floats,
I ’ll pore upon the stream
Where sighing lovers dream,
And fish for fancies as they pass
Within the watery glass.
“ I ’ll drink of the clear stream,
And hear the linnet’s song,
And there I ’ll lie and dream
The day along:
And when night comes, I ’ll go
To places fit for woe,
Walking along the darkened valley
With silent Melancholy.”

In every one of these poems one cannot help noticing, besides the graceful melody, the simplicity and the appropriateness of the epithets employed. He is especially fond of the adjectives sweet and golden, yet they never cloy the ear. Blake is rich in words, but, in these simpler poems at least, never extravagant with them. Here is another charming one, said to have been written when he was but fourteen years old: —

“ How sweet I roamed from field to field,
And tasted all the summer’s pride,
Till I the Prince of Love beheld,
Who in the sunny beams did glide
“ He showed me lilies for my hair,
And blushing roses for my brow ;
He led me through his gardens fair
Where all his golden pleasures grow.
“ With sweet May-dews my wings were wet,
And Phœbus fired my vocal rage ;
He caught me in his silken net,
And shut me in his golden cage.
“ He loves to sit and hear me sing,
Then, laughing, sports and plays with me ;
Then stretches out my golden wing,
And mocks my loss of liberty.”

Perhaps no poet since Blake has so well understood how to write songs and lyrics. In his best pieces he has the rare art of the true poet winch enables him to exclude words as mere ornament, while at the same time he is far from being indifferent to their real value in expression. There are those who find traces of artifice even in Tennyson, while generally in his followers there is but little else. Indeed, the modern fashion of picking out epithets from a poem, serving them up for approbation, and letting their neatness and singularity stand instead of the truer poetic value, — making a scrap suffice for the whole pattern, — tends to encourage in poets the sacrifice of the substance to the form, and in readers too great readiness to rest satisfied with an agreeable titillation of the ear. With Blake’s delicious melody and simplicity of language, there is no trace of effort; he never seems struggling for the right word, for a happy epithet; he was a poet because the thought and its expression came to him. When in reading him a line particularly strikes us, it is either by the beauty and accuracy of the expression, as in the poem to the Evening Star, —

“ Speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver,”

or, in addition, by the grace of the melody, as, —

“ Ah, sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun ;
Seeking after that sweet, golden clime
Where the traveler’s journey is done ; ”

never by the cheaper attraction of a mere ingenious word. There is to be found in Blake a charm which it is hard to describe. It is the exaltation of simple words into memorable lines, producing an effect like that which we are conscious of in a few notes of a great musician, or a few lines drawn by a great artist; it is, in short, the mark of genius. In English poetry the best examples of this quality, — which attracts immediately the reader’s attention, while it eludes analysis,— are to be found in the lyrics of the Elizabethan dramatists, as, for example, the bridal song from Beaumont and Fletcher’s Two Noble Kinsmen: —

“ Roses, their sharp spines being gone,
Not royal in their smells alone,
But in their hue,” etc.

It is felt notably in many of Shakespeare’s songs, and, among later poets, there can be found in Shelley and Landor passages which either sing or recite themselves, as if they were written to the finest music, delighting the ear and haunting the memory. In Goethe there is the same charm of melody, which lies in a few simple words chosen and arranged by a master. Every reader of German can be trusted to recall many examples.

The quotations made from Blake show that it is not merely in what some may slightingly call this mechanical merit that his poems excel. In the Songs of Innocence (1789) we find added a new element, that of tender sympathy with children and with joyous innocent life. The Little Black Boy, The Chimney Sweeper, which Lamb admired, Night, and On Another’s Sorrow, are examples of this to which the reader can be referred without need of quotation. In the Songs of Experience (1794), there are frequent traces of the mysticism which marked so much of Blake’s later writing. In many poems this tendency showed itself by a disposition to use an allegorical form such as is frequently employed by Goethe. A good example is the poem entitled My Pretty Rose-Tree: —

“A flower was offered to me,
Such a flower as May never bore ;
But I said, ' I 've a pretty rose-tree,'
And I passed the sweet flower o'er.
“ Then I went to my pretty rose-tree
To tend her by day and by night,
But my rose turned away with jealousy,
And her thorns were my only delight.”

This certainly bears a close resemblance to Goethe’s Gefunden, in the nature of the subject treated, as well as in the employment of allegory, and indeed of very similar allegorical expression : —

“ Ich ging im Walde
So für mich hin,
Und nichts zu suchen
Das war mein Sinn.
“ Im Schatten sah ich
Ein Blümchen stehn,” etc.

Other similar songs of Blake’s are The Wild Flower’s Song and In a Myrtle Shade. They are not the best he wrote.

In Mr. Rossetti’s collection there are many poems which are obscure, and some of which it is impossible to form any satisfactory explanation. In his Critical Essay, Mr. Swinburne undertakes with great zest the task of unriddling Blake’s more enigmatical writing. It cannot be denied that the surest way of getting at one poet’s meaning is to set another poet to explaining it, and in many cases Mr. Swinburne throws light on dark passages. The later poet’s enthusiasm was what was needed to clear away the willful suspensions of intelligibility of which Blake’s poems are full. Some of the interpretations are wise, and many are ingenious. Others again, and these not the least ingenious, seem to have for their object enrolling Blake among free-lovers and other rebels against society. Many of the explanations given the rugged text tend over-violently in this direction. Part of the joy Mr. Swinburne feels at flying in the face of " Philistia ” is made over by him to Blake, who was probably unconscious of the heresy which was to be ascribed to him in these later days. Blake’s occasional enthusiastic over-toppling of social walls bears much more resemblance to the wanton thoughtlessness of a child, than it does to the disgust of a man who takes hold of the world in a way sure to produce satiety, or to the scorn of one who has carefully weighed the world as it is and the world as he would have it, and who has then taken the side of those who wish to remodel it. It may be doubted whether Blake would have acknowledged himself responsible for all that some of his more fervent disciples find in his writings. The impression the Philistine gets is that Blake shot his arrows very much at random, and not, like many bards of the present time, with deliberate intent of preaching what is called a new gospel, which is really a very old one, — as old as human nature.

The mysticism in which Blake buried his meaning in his later poems, the Prophetic Books, makes them often really inexplicable. Part of this mysticism is doubtless insanity, and perhaps a greater part is due to the fact that he thought it much more his duty to be a prophet than to be a poet. Goethe and, in a way, Wordsworth are both examples of how much easier it is for a poet to be spoiled, than for a trustworthy prophet to be made, by this determination. Then, too, in Blake’s case the habit was probably strengthened by his contempt for a public which had shown itself insensible to the beauty of his former simpler poems, and for whom he did not think it worth while to take the trouble of making himself clear. He would follow any whim that entered his Head to its wildest result, not so much, apparently, from a desire of complying with any logical laws, as from a lack of self-control ; and in his expression he was sometimes carried away by love of the sound of words, preferring what was big, tumid, grandiose, to the charming simplicity of the Poetical Sketches, and the best of the Songs of Innocence and Experience.

It is interesting to observe a similar tendency to mysticism and unintelligibility in Goethe’s later poetry. This may be seen especially in the second part of Faust, which is a stumbling-block even to German commentators. All human interest, which is the heart of poetry, has left it, and in its place is an attempted solution of some of the graver problems of the universe, the task which prophets are accustomed to set themselves. Goethe felt no need of trying to make himself clear to his readers. He felt justified in employing allegory, remote allusions, mysterious obscurity, because he knew that his position was so firmly established that the worshiping public would be ready to take the trouble of finding out his meaning, no matter in what apparent impenetrability it was wrapped up. He was wise enough never to give the slightest useful clew. But even when he was most obscure, he was at the same time most melodious. Eupliorion, in the poem just mentioned, in whom Goethe intended to embody the spirit of poetry, almost makes himself known by the delicious melody of his song. Goethe did not lay aside all his skill; he was too good a critic, too wise a man, to lose himself entirely in the clouds. Blake, on the other hand, who had shown himself so little affected by the artificial verses of his age, became too ready a follower of Ossian, who, with all his exaggeration, was one of the first signs of a return to natural models. Goethe, too, it will be remembered, had known what it was to admire Ossian, in the days in which he was studying Shakespeare and reading the Vicar of Wakefield.

But even where Blake is obscurest, there are gems which repay the reader. One such is included in Mr. Rossetti’s volume, the Book of Thel. This poem, save perhaps at the end, is not beyond easy comprehension and real enjoyment. A short extract may show some of its qualities. Thel, “a daughter of the Seraphim,” laments the transitoriness of life, and is answered in turn by the lily of the valley, the cloud, the earthworm, and the clod of clay, who teach her that “ everything that lives, lives not alone nor for itself.” This is not a novel lesson, but the method is certainly novel.

‘ The Lily of the Valley, breathing in the humble grass,
Answered the lovely maid, and said, ‘ I am a watery weed,
And I am very small, and love to dwell in lowly vales;
So weak the gilded butterfly searce perches on my head.
Yet I am visited from heaven ; and he that smiles on all
Walks in the valley, and each morn over me spreads his hand,
Saying, " Rejoice, thou humble grass, thou newborn lily-flower,
Thou gentle maid of silent valleys and of modest brooks;
For thou shalt be clothed in light, and fed with morning manna,
Till summer’s heat melts thee beside the fountains and the springs,
To flourish in eternal vales ! ” Then why should Thel complain ? ’
Thel answered: ‘ O thou little virgin of the peaceful valley,
Giving to those that cannot crave, the voiceless, the o'ertired,
Thy breath doth nourish the innocent lamb ; he smells thy milky garments,
He crops thy flowers, while thou sittest smiling in his face,
Wiping his mild and meekin mouth from all contagious taints.’ ”

The quaint innocence of this is very characteristic of Blake. The Book of Tiriel, here for the first time published, has what Mr. Rossetti suggests might be called Indo-Ossianic grandeur. It is as impressive and quite as unintelligible as most nightmares. The effect of reading it is not unlike the vague impression made by an opera sung in a foreign tongue, — or in English, for that matter, — upon a listener who is only dimly conscious of the cause of the violent emotions represented on the stage. For most readers this taste of Blake’s obscurity will be sufficient. In the volume there are many very difficult poems included, however, for some of which more or less probable explanations are suggested by the editor. We would not quarrel with this. It gives a fairer view of Blake; and what is unintelligible to one man will be clear enough to another, so that it would be hard to know what to leave out; all tastes could not be suited. But it is of more importance to urge attention to what is clearest in Blake’s writings, than it is to try to inculcate an artificial respect for that which can never be read with the certainty that the author’s meaning is caught. Blake’s audience is small enough now, but it would only be smaller if one had to read everything he wrote. At present, too, there is more danger of Blake’s receiving affected admiration than of his being treated with unmerited neglect. There is enough in his poetry, however, that can be sincerely liked, and that can withstand what is so fatal to just appreciation of a poet’s merits, namely, too lavish praise of what is less worthy of approbation.

Blake’s designs have merits which correspond in many ways with those of his poetry. In the volume containing the heliotype reproductions of the Illustrations of the Book of Job, we are told by the editor that the plates give us “the general character of the original engravings; but they fail to render the most delicate beauties of expression, and the finest touches of execution. The inmost, evanescent, vital spirit of the original is not to be found in these copies. But, for what they do afford, — the poetic and pictorial conception, the general composition, the distribution (though not the scale) of light and shade, — these heliotypes are greatly to be prized; and by their means many a lover of art, who without them could know little of Blake’s style, may gain a near, and, so far as it goes, a true acquaintance with the best designs of the most spiritually imaginative of English painters.”

He who works in the art of design has free scope for his fancy, because he addresses himself directly to the imagination of others, while one who writes addresses the imagination through the intelligence; he has first to make himself understood, and then to let the image be drawn by his hearer. The painter uses a more universal language; one who looks at a painting or drawing cannot fail to get some notion of the scene represented; he does not ask for the meaning of every line, as he does, or is liable to do, for every word in reading poetry, for instance; he merely feels the impression the picture makes. An uncultivated person demands that the illustration of a book should be a pictorial translation of the words, should give what has been described in language, and only that. But such illustrations are as inartistic as hieroglyphics. It is encumbering the art which has its home in the imagination with the fetters that belong to unadorned narration. Blake nowhere creeps in this way. He gives us the story of Job pictorially; he does not translate the words, he impresses us with the sight of what cannot be described in written language, but which conveys to our minds all the feeling, whether it be solemn praise, as in Plate 14, or despair, as in Plate 8, which in the text is given in another way.

What was obscurity in Blake’s poetry becomes at times grotesqueness, as in Plate 11, or, more frequently, decorative beauty with but vague significance. When we are reading it is impossible for us to be long charmed by the mere sound of words; in looking at the designs it is very possible for us to be gratified by what is graceful, or impressed by what is awful, without perplexing ourselves for too literal an explanation. Our eyes may detect in these designs certain faults of drawing, but we see much more promptly the combination of great majesty with tender grace, and both of the most imaginative sort. They show what Blake meant when he said, " I assert for myself that I do not behold the outward creation, and that, to me, it is hindrance and not action. ‘What!’ it will be questioned, ‘ when the sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a guinea? ’ Oh! no, no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying, ‘ Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty! ’ I question not my corporeal eye any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it, and not with it.”

These two books, the one giving a tolerably complete notion of his poems, — giving all, that is to say, except the mystical Prophetic Books, and even a taste of them, — and the other some of his most impressive drawings, may open to many of our readers a new and most interesting subject of study. In each may be found a concise and sympathetic account of Blake’s life, and generous tributes to his singular powers. They do not give the material necessary for a complete study of his mingled genius and eccentricity, but they do give what is easiest to understand, and, on the whole, what is most admirable in Blake. Let every one who studies use forbearance, lest he judge that great man by too narrow a test, and he will find much to delight in, even while resisting the obvious temptation to praise too lavishly what merely attracts the fancy by novelty and singularity. You who study him will find few poets and artists who, like him, to use his own words, enable you —

“ To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”

T. S. Perry.

  1. The Poetical Works of William Blake, Lyrical and Miscellaneous. Edited, with a Prefatory Memoir, by WILLIAM MICHAEL ROSSETTI. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1875.
  2. William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job. With Descriptive Letter-press, and a Sketch of the Artist’s Life and Works. By CHARLES ELIOT NOB TON. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co. 1875.