A BOY’S POEMS. 1768—77. [ÆT. 11—20]
THE poetical essays of the years of youth and apprenticeship are preserved in the thin octavo, Poetical Sketches by W. B., printed by help of friends in 1783, and now so rare, that after some years’ vain attempt, I am forced to abandon the idea of myself owning the book. I have had to use a copy borrowed from one of Blake’s surviving friends, In such hands alone, linger, I fancy, the dozen copies or so still extant. There is (of course) none where, at any rate, there should be one—in the British Museum.
’Tis hard to believe these poems were written in the author’s teens, harder still to realize how some of them in their unforced simplicity, their bold and careless freedom of sentiment and expression, came to be written at all in the third quarter of the eighteenth century: the age of ‘polished phraseology and subdued thought,’—subdued with a vengeance. It was the generation of Shenstone, Langhorne, Mason, Whitehead, the Wartons; of obscurer Cunningham, Lloyd, Carter. Volumes of concentrated Beauties of English Poetry, volumes as fugitive often as those of original verse, are literary straws which indicate the set of the popular taste. If we glance into one of this date,—say into that compiled towards the close of the century, by one Mr. Thomas Tompkins, and which purports to be a collection (expressly compiled ‘to enforce the practice of Virtue’) of ‘ Such poems as have been uni¬versally esteemed the first ornaments of our language,’— who are the elect? We have
in great force the names just enumerated, and among older poets then read and honoured, to the exclusion of Chaucer and the Eliza¬bethans, so imposing a muster-roll as—Parnell, Mallett, Blacklock, Addison, Gay; and, ascending to the highest heaven of the century’s Walhalla, Goldsmith, Thomson, Gray, Pope; with a little of Milton and Shakspere thrown in as make-weight.
Where, beyond the confines of his own most individual mind, did the hosier’s son find his model for that lovely web of rainbow fancy already quoted? I know of none in English literature. For the Song commencing
‘My silks and fine array,’
(see Part II.), with its shy evanescent tints and aroma as of pressed rose-leaves, parallels may be found among the lyrics of the Elizabethan age: an alien though it be in its own. The influence of contemporary models, unless it be sometimes Collins or Thomson, is nowhere in the volume discernible; but involuntary emulation of higher ones partially known to him: of the Reliques given to the world by Percy in 1760; of Shakspere, Spenser, and other Elizabethans. For the youth’s choice of masters was as unfashionable in Poetry as in Design. Among the few students or readers in that day of Shakspere’s Venus and Adonis, Tarquin and Lucrece, and Sonnets, of Ben Jonson’s Underwoods and Miscellanies, the boy Blake was, accord¬ing to Malkin, an assiduous one. The form of such a poem as
‘Love and harmony combine,’
is inartificial and negligent; but incloses the like intangible spirit of delicate fancy: a lovely blush of life as it were, suffusing the enigmatic form. Even schoolboy blunders against grammar, and schoolboy complexities of expression, fail to break the musical echo, or mar the naïve sweetness of the two concluding stanzas; which,
in practised hands, might have been wrought into more artful melody, with little increase of real effect. Again, how many reams of scholastic Pastoral have missed the simple gaiety of one which does not affect to be a ‘ pastoral’ at all:—
‘I love the jocund dance.’
Of the remarkable Mad Song extracted by Southey in his Doctor, who probably valued the thin octavo, as became a great Collector, for its rarity and singularity, that poet has said nothing to show he recognised its dramatic power, the daring expression of things otherwise inarticulate, the unity of sentiment, the singular truth with which the key¬note is struck and sustained, or the eloquent, broken music of its rhythm.
The ‘marvellous Boy’ that ‘perished in his pride,’ (1770) while certain of these very poems were being written, amid all his luxuriant promise, and memorable displays of Talent produced few so really original as some of them. There are not many more to be instanced of quite such rare quality. But all abound in lavish if sometimes unknit strength. Their faults are such alone as flow from youth, as are inevitable in one whose intellectual activity is not sufficiently logical to reduce his imaginings into sufficiently clear and definite shape. As examples of poetic power and freshness quickening the imperfect, immature form, take his verses To the Evening Star, in which the con-cluding lines subside into a reminiscence, but not a slavish one, of Puck’s Night Song in Midsummer Night’s Dream; or the lament To the Muses,—not inapposite surely, when it was written; or again, the full-coloured invocation To Summer.
In a few of the poems, the influence of Blake’s con¬temporary, Chatterton,—of the Poems of Rowley, i.e., is visible, In the Prologue to King John, Couch of Death, Samson, &c., all written in measured prose, the influence is still more conspicuous of Macpherson’s Ossian, which had taken the world by storm in Blake’s boyhood, and in
his manhood was a ruling power in the poetic world, In the ‘Prophetic’ and too often incoherent rhapsodies of later years this influence increases unhappily, leading the prophet to indulge in vague impalpable personifications, as dim and monotonous as a moor in a mist. To the close of his life, Blake retained his allegiance to Ossian and Rowley. ‘I believe,’ writes he, in a MS. note (1826) on Wordsworth’s Supplementary Essay, ‘I believe both Macpherson and Chatterton: that what they say is ancient is so.’ And again, when the Lake Poet speaks contemptuously of Macpherson, ‘I own myself an admirer of Ossian equally with any other poet whatever; of Rowley and Chatterton also.’
The longest piece in this volume, the most daring, and perhaps considering a self-taught boy wrote it, the most re¬markable, is the Fragment, or single act, of a Play on the high historic subject of King Edward III.: one of the few in old English history accidentally omitted from Shakspere’s cycle. In his steps it is, not in those of Addison or Home, the ambitious lad strives as a dramatist to tread; and, despite halting verse, confined knowledge, and the ana¬chronism of a modern tone of thought, not unworthily,— though of course with youthful unsteady stride. The manner and something of the spirit of the Historical Plays is caught, far more nearly than by straining Ireland in his forgeries.
Fully to appreciate such poetry as the lad Blake com¬posed in the years 1768-77, let us call to mind the dates at which first peeped above the horizon the cardinal lights which people our modern poetic Heavens; those once more wakening into life the dull corpse of English song. Five years later than the last of these dates was published a small volume of Poems, ‘By William Cowper, of the Middle Temple.’ Nine years later (1786), Poems in the Scottish Dialect, by Robert Burns, appealed to a Kilmarnock public.
Sixteen years later (1793) came the poems Wordsworth afterwards named Juvenile, written between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two: The Evening Walk, and the Descriptive Sketches, with their modest pellucid merit, still in the fettered 18th-century manner. Not till twenty-one years later (1798), followed the more memorable Lyrical Ballads, including, for one thing, the Tintern Abbey of Wordsworth; for another, The Ancient Mariner of Cole¬ridge.
All these Poems had their influence, prompt or tardy, widening eventually into the universal. All were at any rate published. Some,—those of Burns,—appealed to the feelings of the people, and of all classes; those of Cowper to the most numerous and influential section of an English community. The unusual notes struck by William Blake, in any case appealing but to one class and a small one, were fated to remain unheard, even by the Student of Poetry, until the process of regeneration had run its course, and, we may say, the Poetic Revival gone to seed again: seeing that the virtues of simplicity and directness the new poets began by bringing once more into the foreground, are those least practised now.