The New Edition of Gilchrist's Blake

THE omission of the words Pictor Ignotus from the title-page of the new edition of Gilchrist’s Life and Works of William Blake,1 and the positive advance made in beauty of presentation, may be taken both as an intimation that the obscurity in which Blake’s name was hidden twenty years ago has since been dissipated, and as a clear justification of the liberality which has attended the rehabilitation of a man of genius. Blake’s celebrity to-day is largely due to the affectionate labors of Mr. Gilchrist and of Messrs. Rossetti, and since the publication of the first edition to the commentaries by Mr. Swinburne, Mr. Smetham, Mr. W. B. Scott, and others, the reprinting of Blake’s poems in various editions, the issue of fac-similes of his prophetic books, the exhibition of Blake’s works in London in 1876, and the modest one recently held in Boston, with the notes and discussions which all these have occasioned in journals and magazines; this accumulation of study has widened the circle of Blake’s influence, and has been a witness to his unmistakable power. Nothing is more certain than that it would not have been in the power of a coterie of writers and artists to bring back to life a dead reputation, and the result which has followed the original publication of Gilchrist’s Life may be referred, after due honor has been paid to the enthusiastic biographer, to the unquenchable fire of Blake’s genius and to the hospitality of this generation. Truly, we may congratulate ourselves upon an increased susceptibility to genius in unwonted forms, when we observe this new and admirable edition succeeding a book which was long since absorbed by the public ; or, if this be too self-complacent, we may at least believe that the interest in art has been liberalized, and rendered less timid and conventional. It would be only a partial judgment, we think, which should connect Blake’s fame with a waning school in English literature and art that has made much of this visionary. The elements of power in that school which have given it a temporary sway are represented in Blake, but the coincidence is not so wide as to persuade us that with the decadence of an essentially hopeless art and literature there will disappear also a merely fashionable admiration for this great Englishman.

In external features, as we have hinted, this new edition surpasses the former. The cover is bolder and more significant; then the proportions of the page are better, and the illustrations are printed with greater care, india paper being used for the impressions of the steel-plates and the wood-cuts. The number of these has been increased. Mr. Herbert Gilchrist, a son of the author, has furnished two interesting designs of Blake’s cottage at Felpham, and his working-room in Fountain Court. One of the recently discovered illustrations of Shakespeare by Blake has been reproduced, an additional page from the Jerusalem, and the Phillips’ portrait, reduced in size. Several of the wood-cut illustrations from Blake’s works used in a recent article in Scribner’s Monthly have been incorporated, and a reproduction of the Book of Job by the photointaglio process has taken the place of the unfortunate photo-lithographs of the first edition. The larger specimens of the Book of Job, inserted near the beginning of the first volume have also, fortunately, been dropped, and the printing of the leaves from the prophetic books uniformly in a reddish tint gives a much more satisfactory result; it may be added that the printing and tint here are both great improvements upon those in the first edition. It seems a pity to have dropped the folding plate illustrative of the Canterbury Pilgrims engraving, and we wish that the Visionary Heads could have been redrawn. Mr. Linton’s copy of the original is unfaithful. A new illustration, by Shields, of Mrs. Blake, from Blake’s drawing, is a good addition, and the placing of Mrs. Tatham’s name under the old head of Mrs. Blake removes the misunderstanding formerly created. In the exigency of printing, some of the delicate pendants to chapters have disappeared, but one or two new ones have been added. We are hardly prepared to accept Mr. Rossetti’s judgment with regard to the photointaglio reproduction of Job. The series is of great importance, — of the greatest, we may say, — and no student of Blake, if limited to one of his great works, would fail to choose the Job ; but to say of photo-intaglios that they “are of course line for line, and minutest touch for touch, the counterparts of their originals,” is to mislead the ordinary student. There is a reduction in size, itself a misfortune, and the very mechanism of the process of reproduction has a subtle disenchantment. Let one, for example, compare the two impressions of number twelve of the series, or of number fourteen, and observe in the first case how the photo - intaglio has deepened the black behind the stars, giving a hard brilliancy which is deceptive, and in the second how the wonderful silvery tone has entirely been lost, and in all cases how the vitality of the engraving seems to have been dissipated. It may he said, indeed, that the greatest defect of these reproductions is in the absence of true color ; but this means that the originals are alive, and these reproductions are dead. Still we may certainly be thankful that the process has carried the designs a step beyond that which they had reached in the photo-lithograph.

When we come to the text of the book we find equal evidence of care and of a purpose to increase the value of the work. The biography remains substantially as it was first given, but a number of silent corrections of style have been made and superfluous passages dropped, and the information regarding Blake, which has been accumulating, has been used to render statements fuller or more accurate. Thus the engravings for Elements of Morality, attributed to Blake, are now shown to be the work of Chodowiecki, reëngraved by Blake; the discovery of a noble set of drawings for Young’s Night Thoughts, never engraved, is noted, and the designs commented on, and slight stories or testimonies confirmatory of what had originally been said regarding Blake are introduced effectively, as the passage, for example, on page 197 of the first volume. The studies which have been made of Blake by Swinburne and others, since the publication of the first edition, are used judiciously in the illumination of Blake’s writing, especially in the case of the Jerusalem, and one is constantly reminded, in comparing the two issues, of the conscientiousness and thoroughness which have been applied to the revision. The letters to Captain Butts, which before were placed by themselves in the second volume, having come to hand too late to be inserted in their proper place, are now distributed in the narrative, and the collection of Blake’s own letters is enriched by the recent discovery and use here of a number of letters which he wrote to Hayley. These have been incorporated in the biography, and form a very interesting and substantial addition to our material for estimating Blake. The relation subsisting between him and Hayley was a singular one ; no two men could have been wider apart intellectually, but there was a common ground of generosity of character, and, it may be added, of unworldliness. With Blake the unworldliness was largely other-worldliness, but of this Hayley had scarcely a particle; after Blake’s idealization of his complacent and kind friend had been exhausted, there remained an irritation on Blake’s part at the utter flatness of his friend, but a sense also of grateful respect. It was during the time when Hayley’s mild moon was waning in Blake’s horizon that these letters were written, and they show the writer trying hard to keep at Hayley’s level, yet every once in a while bounding up to airy heights where he would be quickly lost to his friend’s sight. There are times when a visionary is ambitious of asserting his plain sense, and never more than when he is in relation with a plain man, whom he respects for his character rather than for his spiritual attainments. The whole story of Blake’s interest in the review for which Hayley was too great to write is inimitable in its revelation of this phase of a visionary’s mind.

The second volume, as before, is occupied with Blake’s writings, with the annotated catalogue, the series of Job, and the incomplete one of Songs of Innocence and Experience. To these are added, in this edition, Descriptive Notes of the Designs to Young’s Night Thoughts, by F. J. Shields ; an Essay on Blake, by James Smetham, reprinted from the London Quarterly Review, interesting as the judgment of a refined artist writing for a distinctively religious audience, and a memoir of Mr. Gilchrist, by his widow. Blake’s writings have been drawn from a little more fully. Love and Deceit is, we think, new, and so are some of the couplets and fragments ; but the most important addition is The Ghost of Abel, first printed by Mr. Swinburne, a powerful conception, of great originality, which needs but the slight ordering and repression of sane art to lift it into imperishable renown. It would be hard to point out a more significant illustration of the fatal blur upon Blake’s genius, which so often makes us rise on wings in his verse and fall suddenly to earth, and so often mars his designs with the touch which is unconscious travesty.

The annotated catalogue has also been revised with great care, and many additions have been made, as well as corrections of previous entries. The names of owners have rarely been given, as compared with the previous edition, perhaps because of the frequent changes which render such reference misleading. Mr. Shields’s list is of the same general character as Mr. Rossetti’s, and both have an interest for the reader, as such lists seldom have, for they really enlarge his knowledge of Blake’s style. The brief biography of Mr. Gilchrist, finally, is very acceptable. The readers of the first edition of Blake’s Life were told that the author died before the actual completion of the work, and that Mrs. Gilchrist’s hand was in the final touch. She has indeed scrupulously withheld all credit from herself in this undertaking, but we may justly refer to her loyalty and steady interest this new and beautiful edition. It is a monument to her husband as well as to Blake, and the glimpses which she gives in this little biographic sketch of the unselfish, enthusiastic, and highminded writer and student, make it possible for one to see how a life so earnest and generous should have had a lasting power in his family. Mrs. Gilchrist has made us all her debtors, and yet, by the emphasis which she has laid on her husband’s work, she has almost made us forget our obligation to her.

  1. Life of William Blake, with Selections from his Poems and other Writings. By ALEXANDER GILCHRIST. A new and enlarged Edition, illustrated from Blake’s own Works; with Additional Letters and a Memoir of the Author. In two volumes. London: Macmillan & Co. 1880.