The Wives of Poets
IN resuming our study of the Wives of Poets, I need only say by way of reminder that in my first articles I explained the general nature of the undertaking, and considered the foreign poets and their wives ; in the present one I shall have to consider the English-speaking poets and their wives; and inquire, in conclusion, whether a general view of the whole subject, so far as I have been able to carry it, does or does not confirm a somewhat prevalent belief that poets are not prosperous as married men, or (to put it axiomaticaly), the better the poet, the worse the husband. This is all the preliminary that I shall allow myself on the present occasion, for we have a great deal of ground to travel over in considering the British poets individually, and I must address myself at once to that task.
Our first poet will be Edmund Spenser, the author of The Faery Queen, who was born in London of a Lancashire family in 1553. Some think he was born a few years earlier; but I observe in one of his love sonnets, written towards 1592—3, a remark that he had then been a year in love, and was full forty years old, and this confirms the date 1553 with much exactness. After leaving the university, Spenser lived unoccupied in the North of England, and is said to have been there enamored of the lady whom he celebrated under the name of Rosalind in his first conspicuous work, The Shepherd’s Calendar; this passion, however, came to nothing. Afterwards, in 1580, Spenser went to Ireland as secretary to the lord deputy; and he obtained a considerable grant of land in the County Cork, including the Castle of Kilcolman. In 1589 his fame was much enlarged by the publication of the opening cantos of The Faery Queen, He was styled Queen Elizabeth’s laureate, and received a pension of £50 per annum. In October, 1598, in consequence of an outbreak of the disaffected, Spenser’s house was burned ; a new-born child perished in the ruins, and the poet and his wife, with two surviving sons, had to fly for their lives to England. Very shortly after this, on January 13, 1599, he died in London,—it has been alleged, “ for lack of bread,” but we may fairly doubt whether this is literally true, and surmise rather that the shock of his late terrible calamity and its many attendant hardships had shattered his constitution.
Spenser was a man of reserved and gentle character, which we find indicated in his face according to the best authenticated of the portraits ; of grateful heart and religious mind, which took a rather strong anti-Catholic bias ; endowed with an uncommon extent of learning and with proportionate self-esteem.
Of his wife we know very little. It used to be said that she was a simple Irish peasant-girl but this tradition, which I should have liked to believe in honor of old Ireland and the fair ones native to her soil, is now shelved, and she is understood to have been a gentlewoman of station corresponding to that of Spenser himself. Her Christian name is recorded, Elizabeth, but not her surname. Of her fate after Spenser’s death I find no account. The poet has left us a considerable amount of verse about this lady, — eighty-eight sonnets composed prior to marriage, and the elaborate, stately, and joyous Epithalamium. From the latter we learn that the wedding took place on the longest day of the year. The sonnets do not give us much information about the damsel of a definite kind. They indicate that she was not easily won ; and they speak of “ the deep wit that true heart’s thought can spell,” of “ that proud port which her so goodly graceth,” and of “ her ruddy cheeks like unto roses red.” The beauty most frequently insisted on is her golden hair, as in these lines : —
She doth attire under a net of gold,
And with sly skill so cunningly them dresses
That which is gold or hair may scarce be told?”
And here is a graceful little sonnet on some of her embroidery-work representing, as we shall see. a bee and a spider, on which the poet puts his own interpretation : —
Yourself unto the bee ye do compare,
And me unto the spider that doth lurk
In close await to catch her unaware.
Right so yourself were caught in cunning snare
Of a dear foe, and thrallèd to his love,
In whose strait bands ye now captivèd are
So firmly that ye never may remove.
But, as your work is woven all about
With woodbine-flowers and fragrant eglantine,
So sweet your prison you in time shall prove
With many dear delights bedecked fine;
And all thenceforth eternal peace shall see
Between the spider and the gentle bee.”
The greatest of human intellects, William Shakespeare, is the poet whom we have next to consider. The little that is known about him is so familiar to all that, save so far as concerns his marital relations, I shall say nothing of it, beyond reminding the reader that he was born in April, 1564, probably on the 23d of the month, and died on the same day of 1616, aged fifty-two.
At the singularly early age of eighteen Shakespeare married a damsel eight years older than himself, Anne Hathaway, daughter of a thriving yeoman at Shottery who had died about a year previous. There is every reason to suppose that during the courtship Anne had been less prudent than confiding: consequently the pair were united after a single asking of the banns, and, in order to save the licensing bishop and his officers harmless for such an irregularity, two friends of the Hathaways, Sandalls and Richardson, had to enter beforehand into a bond of indemnity, dated November 28, 1582. The wedding then ensued ; and on May 26,1583, Shakespeare’s first child, Susanna, was baptized. She was followed in 1585, by twins, Hamnet and Judith, and apparently there were not any other children of the marriage. In the dramatist’s play of Twelfth Night we find a few lines which suggest that the difference of age between himself and his wife was not unnaturally regarded by him as falling on the wrong side : —
An elder than herself: so wears she to him ;
So sways she level in her husband’s heart:
For, boy (however we do praise ourselves),
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,
Than women’s are. . . .
Then let thy love be younger than thyself,
Or thy affection cannot hold the bent.”
How did Shakespeare demean himself as a married man ? This is a question which some of us would very much like to solve, but the materials are scanty, and we can at best arrive at an approximate solution. Shakespeare quitted Stratford-on-Avon in or before 1586,— in consequence, perhaps, of that affair we have all heard about, the stealing of Sir Thomas Lucy’s deer from Charlecote ; perhaps, by no means certainly; he unquestionably went to London and became an actor. That he at first left his wife and children behind at Stratford is so probable that we may almost assume it as a fact; whether they did or did not afterwards rejoin him in the capital is quite unknown. There is, at any rate, sufficient evidence that he had not been long in London before he began providing for his ultimate resettling in Stratford ; and he visited the place frequently, possibly as often as once in each year. The virtue of marital constancy was perhaps not the one of all others which Shakespeare, under the circumstances of his profession and its surroundings, was likely to practice; and, if we accept his sonnets as fairly representing certain incidents and emotions in his own life, — and I am of those who do so accept them, — we must decidedly say that in one instance, at least, he was faithless to his marriage-vow. Certain of the later sonnets do undoubtedly indicate — unless we choose to construe them in some figurative or extraneous sense— that Shakespeare was captivated by a dark-complexioned married woman, of very irregular character, from whom he could not disentangle himself, although conscious that she was playing fast and loose with him, and encouraging, along with his own, the addresses of an intimate friend of his. The precise date of this affair is not ascertainable ; it was not earlier than 1597, nor later than 1609, when the poet was respectively thirty-three and forty-five years of age, and the probability is that the incident occurred nearer the earlier than the later of these two dates. There are also two other stories, — one relating to Mrs. Davenant, who kept a hostelry in Oxford and became the mother of Sir William Davenant, and the second relating to some citizen dame of London ; but these I need not further discuss, as the evidence regarding them is mere matter of anecdotical tradition or surmise. Indeed, it has quite recently been alleged (but without any details published) that Mrs. Davenant’s character is now finally vindicated.
Not later than 1612, when he was forty-eight years of age, Shakespeare was resettled in Stratford as a man of no little opulence and position, owner of New Place, the principal mansion in the town. His wife and his second daughter, Judith, lived with him. The son had died in 1596, and the elder daughter, Susanna, had in 1607 married a well-reputed local physician, Dr. Hall. Only two months before Shakespeare’s death Judith also married, her husband being a vintner, Mr. Thomas Guiney. This daughter could not write, but Susanna could. The poet’s will was drawn up just prior to the wedding, and was executed after it, the great bulk of his property being left to Mrs. Hall. To his wife he bequeathed nothing originally, and then, by an interlineation, merely his second-best bed with its furniture. This point, standing unexplained, might certainly seem to show that he regarded her with indifference, or some repugnance ; but it is explained by one simple and undeniable fact, — that his estates were almost all freehold, and that the existing law gave his widow an adequate provision out of those estates, under the name of dower. She survived her husband seven years, dying in August, 1623, aged sixty-seven.
From the various details which I have here put together my inference is that Shakespeare was not devotedly attached to his wife ; but to go beyond this (as has often been done), and say that he slighted or disliked her, appears to savor more of guess-work than of deduction.
From the mightiest of all English poets, and, as Englishmen generally (and I among them) believe, the mightiest on the whole of all poets whensoever or wheresoever, I pass to one who is comparatively obscure, John Donne, commonly called by his ecclesiastical designation, Dr. Donne. This writer, considered simply as a poet, is, however, quite worthy to figure in our list; and the more than commonly interesting and touching incidents of his married life withhold me from passing him over. Donne was one of those authors whom Dryden, and after him Dr. Johnson, called “metaphysical poets; ” poets, that is, whose writings are full of labored, fanciful, non-natural thoughts and images, — intellectual “ conceits,” as we now call them, — borrowed from all regions of speculation or of scholarship, and dragged into the service or disservice of his subject matter (so to speak) by the head and shoulders. This we rightly account a very serious and indeed a very exasperating defect: nevertheless, Donne was a true master in his own style, and a genuine poet, many of whose verses we can read with acute delight. while many others, crabbed and strained though they are, repay, by their depth and brilliancy of thought, the rather fatiguing study which they exact from their reader. But critical estimate of Donne as a poet is not my business now : I will therefore at once proceed to the facts of his life, and especially his married life.
John Donne, the son of a rich London merchant, was born in the capital in 1573. His relatives were Roman Catholics ; he looked into the question himself before he was fully of age, and became a Protestant. In 1596-97, having first squandered in excesses a handsome fortune left him by his father, he accompanied the Earl of Essex in bis expeditions against Cadiz and the Azores, and afterwards passed some years in Italy and Spain. On his return he became secretary, for about five years, to Lord Elsinore. This nobleman was uncle to a youthful and beautiful lady, daughter of Sir George More, lieutenant of the Tower. The young people fell in love, and were clandestinely married. When the secret came to light Donne was not only dismissed from his employment, but was committed to prison along with the good-natured friend who had given the bride away ; they were, however, speedily released. Next an expensive law proceeding had to be commenced by Donne for the recovery of his bride ; and this exhausted the scanty remains of his fortune. In their poverty they were housed by bis kinsman, Sir Francis Wooley, at Pirford, in Surrey ; and at last Sir George More consented to pay a portion for his daughter, and they settled at Mitcham, still with very straitened means, and afterwards in London. In 1612, Donne was urged to travel on the Continent with another patron of his, Sir Robert Drury ; his wife, who was then ill, demurred, but the motives which urged him to go were too strong, and he departed. At Paris, he is said to have had a distressing vision of his wife with her hair hanging over her shoulders, holding a dead child; and in fact it turned out that on that very same night she had given birth to a still-born infant. Returning to London, Donne relinquished the study of the civil and canon law, on which he had been engaged, and was finally persuaded to take orders in the church. This he did, but only after much self-questioning and studious preparation.
The poems of Donne consist partly of so-called Divine Poems, — religious effusions which were chiefly composed in the very youthful days of his Catholicism ; and partly of Secular Poems, — satires, love verses, etc., many of which are secular indeed, and give promise of anything rather than the priestly office. or personal sanctity. These also belong mostly to his youth, few of them being later than 1600: one most remarkable work, The Progress of the Soul, dates in 1601. But the heat and license of his youth had for some years past been assuaged in a happy and loving, though trouble - crossed marriage ; and by the time that he took orders — at the age of forty, more or less — he was qualified to do justice to his sacred profession, and he soon shone forth preëminently, both as a man of evangelical life and as a powerful preacher. Not long afterwards, in 1617, his beloved wife died, leaving seven children, — the survivors of a large family of eleven. Donne’s health suffered from this bereavement, and he went for a while to Germany. Towards 1619 he was made Dean of St. Paul’s. He died of consumption in March, 1631.
Among Donne’s love poems there are three addressed to his wife: probably more than three. The first shows that, soon after their as yet undetected marriage, a project was started that Donne should go abroad, to France and Italy, and his bride was bent upon accompanying him habited as a page : the poem is an earnest dissuasive against this rashly romantic scheme. It begins,—
By all desires which thereof did ensue,
By our long-starving hopes, by that remorse
Which my words' masculine-persuasive force
Begot in thee, and by the memory
Of hurts which spies and rivals threatened me,
I calmly beg.”
Further on he speaks of “ thy else almighty beauty,” and prettily says that, spite of her proposed page’s attire,
A blushing, womanly, discovering grace.”
The second poem is named The Anniversary, and was written on the first yearly recurrence of the day when Donne and the lady had originally met: it speaks of himself and his bride as being sovereigns and subjects each of the other, and ends, —
Years and years unto years, till we attain
To write threescore; this is the second of our reign.”
The third poem is a song written on the occasion I have already mentioned, when Donne had to journey to France, and his wife was loath to part from him, —
For weariness of thee.”
It ranks among his most graceful productions, and is comparatively simple : I would gladly quote it, were my space less restricted.
I shall now go on to John Milton, — one of the poets most constantly cited as having had ill-fortune in marriage. As to this, we must at starting remember that Milton married thrice, and we should not confound his fate with his second and third wives with that which befell him with the first. The details, very much condensed, are as follows : —
Milton, born in London on December 9, 1608, and occupied during his early manhood in superintending the education of various youths, — keeping, as we might say, a semi-private school, — was thirty-six years of age when, in 1644, he married Mary Powell, aged perhaps twelve years less, daughter of a royalist gentleman and magistrate living at Forest Hill, Oxfordshire. The Powells were a large and social family, and were king’s men. Milton, though still young and in person remarkably comely, was of grave and somewhat austere temperament, a Puritan and a Parliament’s man. This contrast between the two houses, combined (it is said) with often hearing the school-boys cry when they were beaten, was of itself enough to indispose Mary to her new position. At the close of the first month she went to pay a visit to her parents; failed to return at the appointed time ; and, acting more especially at her mother’s instigation, paid no heed to her husband’s letters and messages of recall. Milton was not exactly the man to stand this : it flashed upon his mind that a wife whose temper is uncongenial is a wife who ought to be divorced. He therefore published in rapid succession The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce ; Tetrachordon, or Expositions upon the four chief Places in Scripture which treat of Marriage; The Judgment of Martin Bucer concerning Divorce and Colasterion. These writings were displeasing to the Presbyterian divines at Westminster, who got the author summoned before the House of Lords ; they, however, soon dismissed him. Some of the expressions in the books are very symptomatic of what lurked in the indignant husband’s mind. For instance, “ The bashful muteness of a virgin may oftentimes hide all the unliveliness and natural sloth which is really unfit for conversation ; ” or, “ a mute and spiritless mate ; ” or, “ an image of earth and phlegm.” But to write books was mere skirmishing ; to gain the battle he must marry again, and Milton, without more ado, set about courting a lady of great sense and beauty, daughter of Dr. Davies. She, it appears, was not exactly favorable to his suit; at any rate, Mrs. Milton settled the question by a tardy but complete submission. The royal cause had been ruined by the battle of Naseby, in June, 1645 ; and political concurred with conjugal prudence to counsel her. Milton was one day visiting a relative, Mr. Blackborough, in St. Martin’s Lane, when his wife made her appearance, and implored his forgiveness : she fell at his knees, and the two, it is said, mingled their tears. The poet pardoned his offending wife ; took her home as soon as a new home was provided for her in Barbican ; treated her kindly, and, with an admirable breadth of generosity, received into his house also her father and brothers, who were exposed to sequestration. The brothers, the father having died meanwhile, remained with him as long as was needed, — a year or thereabouts. It has lately been suggested that something more than mere wifely contumacy, something more than mere divergence of political and religious convictions, was at the bottom of the dispute between Milton and his spouse ; that she in fact revealed to her family matters of interest to King Charles’s cause with which she became acquainted in her husband’s house, and that the Powells used these to some effect. On this point all I can say is that no direct evidence in support of the surmise is adduced.
It does not appear that Milton ever retracted or relinquished the bold opinions he had published regarding divorce; but that he was unhappy with his reinstalled wife is a supposition which, however plausible, remains unproved. Lines scattered here and there in his poems countenance, without exactly verifying, it. Four children were born to him, and three of them survived their mother, who died soon after the birth of the last, Deborah, in May, 1652.
Milton was probably almost blind at the date of Mary’s death, for the loss of his sight is ascribed immediately to his having written, spite of the warnings of physicians, a work in defense of the great English republic, printed in 1651 : at all events, he was, toward the end of 1 653, totally blind, through paralysis of the optic nerve. In November, 1656, he remarried, taking to wife Catherine, daughter of Captain Woodcock, of Hackney. The marriage was ratified by an alderman, not by any ecclesiastical person. In fourteen months she also was dead, expiring in childbirth. Even Milton himself has hardly written a nobler sonnet than the one which he consecrated to her beloved memory, and which is enough to satisfy us that in her at least he had found, would but fate have permitted it, the true partner of his life and heart. The sonnet will not be new to any of my readers, but I cannot refrain from quoting it : —
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescued from Death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom washed from spots of childbed taint
Purification in the old law did save,
And such as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white pure as her mind.
Her face was veiled; yet, to my fancied sight,
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But oh, as to embrace me she inclined,
I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.”
Having remained a widower for about five years, and meanwhile having witnessed, though not with eyes, the downfall of the Commonwealth, and the Restoration of Charles II., Milton in 1663, on the recommendation of a friend, espoused Elizabeth Minshull, daughter of a gentleman of Wistaston, near Nantwich, in Cheshire: he was opposed to the idea of marrying a widow. Elizabeth was about thirty years younger than himself, with golden hair ; probably a goodlooking as well as lady-like woman, and seemingly of peaceful and agreeable humor. Yet she is said to have been a rather harsh step-mother, and one account (which we are not bound to credit implicitly) represents her as a termagant. This was a childless union ; and we may reasonably opine that there was nothing in it, on either side, even distantly resembling the authentic passion of love. At the same time it would appear that Milton was well contented with the kindly and unremitting attentions rendered to him by Elizabeth; and that Elizabeth (“ Betty,” as he called her) liked and respected Milton well enough to do without grudging all that it was incumbent upon her to perform for him. She would often write down from his dictation some twenty or thirty verses before he rose in the morning. She also frequently sang to him, and he remarked that she had a good voice, but no ear. There are two anecdotes — the first possibly true, and the second certainly — which show the terms upon which the spouses lived. The first purports that Charles II., conscious of the European reputation attaching to Milton as the Latin secretary of the preceding government, wished to retain his services in the same or some similar capacity. This the staunch hero of republicanism declined ; and, when his wife remonstrated, he said, “You, as other women, would ride in your coach : for me, my aim is to live and die an honest man.” The second anecdote shows us Milton and his wife together at dinner, about four month before the poet’s death, which took place from gout on November 8, 1674, in Artillery Walk, Bunhill Fields. Mrs. Milton had prepared for the meal some viand which suited her husband’s taste ; and he observed, “ God have mercy, Betty, I see thou wilt perform according to thy promise in providing me with such dishes as I think fit whilst I live, and when I die thou knowest that I have left thee all.” There is a nearly similar and equally well - attested anecdote about another family dinner, this time recorded as taking place in the kitchen only a month before Milton’s death. On intentions such as this, declared by word of mouth (in one of the instances he called her “ Elizabeth, my loving wife,” who “ had been very kind and careful of me”), did Mrs. Milton ground her claim, after her husband’s decease, to be his general legatee ; for he left no written will. The property amounted to some £1500. The claim was contested by the three daughters of his first marriage, to whom the poet was understood to have left nothing, except the portion, £1000, which he ought to have received on espousing Mary Powell, but which had never been paid ; and probably, at this remote date, it was not practicably recoverable. Ultimately Mrs. Milton had to compromise with the daughters by resigning £100 to each of them, and indeed she admitted that her husband had intended that the daughters should receive any balance of his property, exceeding a lump sum of £1000 to herself. In her native county, Cheshire, to which she returned soon after Milton’s death, she died many years later, 1727, being then in religion a Baptist.
I should have liked to say something more about Milton in relation to his daughters, two of whom (one being excused on account of a defect in speech) must undoubtedly have led a somewhat dreary life in continually reading out to their blind father learned and modern languages, of which they knew the letters and pronunciation, but no jot of the meaning. But my limited space does not allow of my discussing the details, on both sides rather distasteful.
The great poet had light-brown hair, fair complexion, gray eyes, which did not change in appearance through his blindness, and a musical voice ; he was rather below than above the middle height. He played on the organ and bass-viol ; was cheerful and interesting in friendly converse, of serene temper, and abstemious. His habit was to smoke a pipe at the close of the evening ; he composed his poems chiefly in bed, and in the winter season. In religion he was commonly called an Independent, but was in fact more of an Arian, and he joined in no public worship.
The next poet on our list is John Dryden, the most renowned and robust master of verse who bridged over the chasm — and a very wide chasm it certainly is — between Milton and Pope, He was a grandson of Sir Erasmus Dryden, Bart., of Canons Ashby, and was born at Alwinckle, in Northamptonshire, in August, 1631. His first considerable poem was an elegaic celebration of the deceased Cromwell ; his next, an applausive welcome to the restored Charles II. ; later on he became famous as a dramatist, and above all as a satirist, his masterpiece in this line being the Absalom and Achitophel, written in 1680: he had been appointed poet laureate twelve years before. He became a Roman Catholic when James II. ascended the throne, and did not return to Protestantism when, at the revolution under William III., it would have been his worldly interest to do so. He died in London of mortification of the leg, in May, 1700. Drydon’s face was well moulded and prepossessing, with an aspect of very powerful faculties, at easy command, and in harmonious balance. Yet his manner, unlike his countenance, is said to have been cold, and his temper querulous : his own account is that he is more saturnine than sprightly. With unbounded ferocity as a satirist, he was nevertheless credited with a humane, forgiving disposition.
Dryden seems to have borne a fair character in general and family morals ; but he is numbered, apparently with reason, among those poets who have found little heartfelt satisfaction in marriage. His wife, it seems, thought him capricious and neglectful, she not making sufficient allowance for his literary pursuits and poetic variability of mood ; and recrimination was frequent between them. He wrote an anticipative epitaph for his wife, who, however, survived him ; if it is genuine — and I am not aware that this has ever been questioned—it speaks volumes for his disesteem of her, and very little for his own good-feeling or courtesy. It has, at any rate, the merit of terseness: —
Now she’s at rest — and so am I.”
The lady in question, whom he married in December, 1663, when he was thirty-one years of age, was Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Earl of Berkshire, and sister of Sir Robert Howard, who had been Drydon’s associate in the composition of one of his dramas. A satire imputed to Lord Somers indicates that the circumstances under which the wedding took place were not very honorable to either party, Lady Elizabeth’s reputation being already somewhat compromised. She brought some moderate addition to the poet’s means, which, though fair enough from one source or another, were the reverse of large. There were three sons of the marriage, and one of them eventually succeeded to the baronetcy. Dryden, in justifying his conversion to Catholicism, averred that his wife had been a Catholic several years before himself, — an allegation which would seem to imply that he attached some importance to her opinions and feelings, — and that his son John, who had been converted while at Cambridge, converted him.
We now come to one of the most singular figures in our literary history, William Blake, —poet, painter, engraver, visionary; a mystic in a very high degree, and indeed many people think a madman. Mrs. Blake also possesses great interest for us: an enthusiastic student of her husband’s works, Mr. Swinburne, has gone so far as to term her “ about the most perfect wife on record, faithful to him, and loving beyond all recorded faith and love.”
Blake was the son of a respectable hosier, and was born in London, in November, 1757. With little schooling beyond reading and writing, he began inditing verses towards the age of eleven ; and exquisite in simple ideality some of his early verses are, as proved many years afterwards upon the publication of his Poetical Sketches. These were succeeded by the Songs of Innocence and of Experience; the former series incomparable for child-like candor, and the latter full of abrupt intuitions of the sublime. He produced also a number of so-called Prophetic Books, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Europe, Urizen, Jerusalem, etc., — works, speaking of them in the mass, of a great though chaotic faculty, in which many noble things are embodied or imbedded ; vast and vague ; only partially intelligible, and quite as partially readable. They show Blake to have been an intense believer in the spiritual verities which underlie our world of sense, and at the same time a most daring speculator in religion and morals. He was a man who saw visions, and to whom ghosts sat for their portraits, — a man exalted, unworldly, vehement, laborious, simple-hearted ; mildly or sometimes fiercely immovable ; in politics a republican ; strange to all men save the fewest; a very phenomenon in the English world of writing and of painting of his day. He lived and died poor and contented, — at one time his income was only half a guinea a week, — unregarded, mostly unknown; radiant with his own inner light, outwardly obscure. He expired in London, August 12, 1827, aged nearly seventy. Frequent colds and dysentery had broken him down.
The courtship and the married life of Blake were on this wise. Towards 1780, when he was twenty-three years of age, he had had a disappointment with a girl who was indifferent, and made him jealous. He spoke of this matter at the house of a market-gardener, Mr. Boucher, with whom he was perhaps then lodging. One of the daughters, Catherine Sophia Boucher, said, “ I pity you from my heart.” “ Do you pity me?” rejoined Blake. “Yes, I do, most sincerely.” “ Then I love you for that.” “ And I love you,” replied Catherine. And Blake and his Catherine soon afterwards, on August 18, 1782, married, she making her mark in the register, for she had next to no education. She was a brunette, slim, graceful, and very pretty, with gleaming black eyes, white hands, and expressive features ; her age twenty. Blake taught her to read and write, and to work off his engravings and bind them into volumes, and she would sometimes color them, and even attained a certain skill in designing, in a style very like her husband’s. She believed in his visions ; never saw the same appearances that he did, but had some visions of her own, and would get up night after night, and for hours at a time, and be a stay to him, she not moving hand or foot, in his accesses of spiritual fantasy or conflict. She attended at the counter when Blake kept shop as an engraver, for this was his settled vocation ; and she performed all the domestic work, their means not being sufficient for keeping a servant. Blake himself, however, would rise first from bed, light the fire, and put the kettle on. Sometimes, when the painterpoet was rapt in his own inventions, and his money had sunk from little to nothing, his wife would set before him an empty plate at dinner; he would then turn to at any hack work of engraving that might be hanging on hand. It appears that in the earlier years of wedlock Blake tried the temper and feelings of his wife somewhat severely, for he had some highly patriarchal notions on the subject of marriage ; but it may be that he gave no practical, though certainly ample theoretical, cause for jealousy, and, as time wore on, they understood each other perfectly, and were united heart and soul. There were no children of the marriage. Mrs. Blake’s good looks did not last, it seems, beyond the period of youth; she was precise, firm, punctual, free from vulgarity ; not exempt, however, from one of those traits which are characteristic of an early want of refined training, — an exaggerated suspiciousness of her husband’s friends, of whom he had, in his closing years, some very steady and serviceable ones, including especially our admirable and now almost nonagenarian landscape-painter, Linnell. In her early years, also, when domiciled with Blake’s younger brother, Robert, and afterwards near Chichester with his sister, she had found some difficulty in getting on with either.
The last six years of Blake’s life were spent in No. 3 Fountain Court, Strand, where he occupied two rooms, one of them serving for all purposes save the reception of visitors. “ Himself, his wife, and his rooms,” it is on record, “ were clean and orderly ; ” not “ squalid,” as some people have alleged who confuse poverty with squalor. On his death-bed he drew a sketch portrait of his Catherine, saying to her, “ You have ever been an angel to me ; ” and he sang to her songs, his own words and his own music, of spiritual things and hopes. He died devout in mind, serene even to rapture.
Blake was about five and a half feet high, robust and fearless; with grand eyes, short-sighted, a speaking mouth, and a low, musical voice. His manner was refined, and his assiduity in work such that he never took a holiday. He was as liberal as his very narrow means permitted ; indeed, on occasion more so than could have been supposed.
After his death Mrs. Blake continued selling his books and drawings, and managed to get on in moderate comfort. The Princess Sophia liberally sent her £100: she returned it, — really a majestic act in its quiet way. As she believed, with her husband, that death is merely like going out of one apartment into another, she had a firm conviction of his still being present with her; and only complained that this was not the case frequently enough, he being so often away in Paradise. She would always speak of him, with trembling voice and tearful eyes, as “ that wonderful man.” She died in a lodging, 17 Upper Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, of a neglected gastric inflammation, on October 18, 1831, aged sixty-nine (the same age as her husband); in her last hours “repeating texts of Scripture, and calling continually to her William, as if he were only in the next room, to say that she was coming to him, and would not be long now.” To many generations she will have left a beautiful memory, indissolubly and touchingly blended with that of her husband and his marvelous gifts of idiosyncrasy.
William M. Rossetti.