POEMS OF MANHOOD. 1788—89. [ÆT. 31—32]
THOUGH Blake’s brother Robert had ceased to be with him in the body, he was seldom far absent from the faithful visionary in spirit. Down to late age the survivor talked much and often of that dear brother; and in hours of solitude and inspiration his form would appear and speak to the poet in consolatory dream, in warning or helpful vision. By the end of 1788, the first portion of that singularly original and significant series of Poems, by which of them¬selves, Blake established a claim, however unrecognised, on the attention of his own and after generations, had been written; and the illustrative designs in colour, to which he wedded them in inseparable loveliness, had been executed. The Songs of Innocence form the first section of the series he afterwards, when grouping the two together, sugges¬tively named Songs of Innocence and of Experience. But how publish? for standing with the public, or credit with the trade, he had none. Friendly Flaxman was in Italy; the good offices of patronising blue-stockings were ex¬hausted. He had not the wherewithal to publish on his own account; and though he could be his own engraver, he could scarcely be his own compositor. Long and deeply he meditated. How solve this difficulty with his own in¬dustrious hands? How be his own printer and publisher?
The subject of anxious daily thought passed—as anxious meditation does with us all—into the domain of dreams and (in his case)
of visions. In one of these a happy in¬spiration befel, not, of course, without supernatural agency. After intently thinking by day and dreaming by night, during long weeks and months, of his cherished object, the image of the vanished pupil and brother at last blended with it. In a vision of the night, the form of Robert stood before him, and revealed the wished-for secret, directing him to the technical mode by which could be produced a fac-simile of song and design. On his rising in the morning, Mrs. Blake went out with half-a-crown, all the money they had in the world, and of that laid out 1s. 10d. on the simple materials necessary for setting in practice the new revelation. Upon that investment of 1s. 10d. he started what was to prove a principal means of support through his future life,—the series of poems and writings illustrated by coloured plates, often highly finished afterwards by hand,—which became the most efficient and durable means of revealing Blake’s genius to the world. This method, to which Blake henceforth consistently adhered for multiplying his works, was quite an original one. It consisted in a species of engraving in relief both words and designs. The verse was written and the designs and marginal embellishments outlined on the copper with an impervious liquid, probably the ordinary stopping-out varnish of engravers. Then all the white parts or lights, the remainder of the plate that is, were eaten away with aquafortis or other acid, so that the outline of letter and design was left prominent, as in stereotype. From these plates he printed off in any tint, yellow, brown, blue, required to be the prevailing, or ground colour in his fac¬similes; red he used for the letter-press. The page was then coloured up by hand in imitation of the original drawing, with more or less variety of detail in the local hues.
He ground and mixed his water-colours himself on a piece of statuary marble, after a method of his own, with common carpenter’s glue diluted, which he had found out, as the early Italians had done before him, to be a good binder. Joseph, the sacred carpenter, had
appeared in vision and revealed that secret to him. The colours he used were few and simple: indigo, cobalt, gamboge, ver¬milion, Frankfort-black freely, ultramarine rarely, chrome not at all. These he applied with a camel’s-hair brush, not with a sable, which he disliked.
He taught Mrs. Blake to take off the impressions with care and delicacy, which such plates signally needed, and also to help in tinting them from his drawings with right artistic feeling; in all which tasks she, to her honour, much delighted. The size of the plates was small, for the sake of economising copper; something under five inches by three. The number of engraved pages in the Songs of Innocence alone was twenty-seven. They were done up in boards by Mrs. Blake’s hand, forming a small octavo; so that the poet and his wife did everything in making the book,—writing, designing, printing, engraving,—every¬thing except manufacturing the paper: the very ink, or colour rather, they did make. Never before surely was a man so literally the author of his own book. ‘Songs of Innocence, the author and printer W. Blake, 1789,’ is the title. Copies still occur occasionally; though the two series bound together in one volume, each with its own title-page, and a general one added, is the more usual state.
First of the Poems let me speak, harsh as seems their divorce from the Design which blends with them, forming warp and woof in one texture. It is like pulling up a daisy by the roots from the green sward out of which it springs. To me many years ago, first reading these weird Songs in their appropriate environment of equally spiritual form and hue, the effect was as that of an angelic voice singing to oaten pipe, such as Arcadians tell of; or, as if a spiritual magician were summoning before human eyes, and through a human medium, images and scenes of divine loveliness; and in the pauses of the strain, we seem to catch the rustling of angelic wings. The Golden Age independent of Space or Time, object of vague sighs and
dreams from many generations of struggling humanity— an Eden such as childhood sees, is brought nearer than ever poet brought it before. For this poet was in assured possession of the Golden Age, within the chambers of his own mind. As we read, fugitive glimpses open, clear as brief, of our buried childhood, of an unseen world present, past, to come; we are endowed with new spiritual sight, with unwonted intuitions, bright visitants from finer realms of thought, which ever elude us, ever hover near. We encounter familiar objects, in unfamiliar, transfigured aspects, simple expression and deep meanings, type and antitype. True, there are palpable irregularities, metrical licence, lapse of grammar, and even of orthography; but often the sweetest melody, most daring eloquence of rhythm, and, what is more, appropriate rhythm. They are unfinished poems: yet would finish have bettered their bold and careless freedom? Would it not have brushed away the delicate bloom? that visible spontaneity, so rare and great a charm, the eloquent attribute of our old Eng¬lish Ballads and of the early Songs of all nations. The most deceptively perfect wax-model is no substitute for the living flower. The form is, in these Songs, a trans¬parent medium of the spiritual thought, not an opaque body. ‘He has dared to venture,’ writes Malkin, not irrelevantly, ‘on the ancient simplicity, and feeling it in his own character and manners, has succeeded better than those who have only seen it through a glass.’
There is the same divine afflatus as in the Poetical Sketches, but fuller: a maturity of expression, despite surviving negligences, and of thought and motive. The ‘Child Angel,’ as we ventured to call the Poet in earlier years, no longer merely sportive and innocently wanton, wears a brow of thought; a glance of insight has passed into
‘A sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused’
in Nature, a feeling of ‘the burthen of the mystery of things;
though still possessed by widest sympathies with all that is simple and innocent, with echoing laughter, little lamb, a flower’s blossom, with ‘emmet wildered and forlorn.’
These poems have a unity and mutual relationship, the influence of which is much impaired if they be read other¬wise than as a whole. They are given entire in the Second Part of this Volume, to which I refer my reader, if not of decisively unpoetic turn.
Who but Blake, with his pure heart, his simple exalted character, could have transfigured a commonplace meeting of Charity Children at St. Paul’s, as he has done in the Holy Thursday? a picture at once tender and grand. The bold images, by a wise instinct resorted to at the close of the first and second stanzas and opening of the third, are in the highest degree imaginative; they are true as only Poetry can be.
How vocal is the poem Spring, despite imperfect rhymes. From addressing the child, the poet, by a transition not infrequent with him, passes out of himself into the child’s person, showing a chameleon sympathy with childlike feelings. Can we not see the little three-year-old prattler stroking the white lamb, her feelings made articulate for her ?—Even more remarkable is the poem entitled The Lamb, sweet hymn of tender infantine sentiment appro¬priate to that perennial image of meekness; to which the fierce eloquence of The Tiger, in the Songs of Experience, is an antitype. In The Lamb, the poet again changes person to that of a child. Of lyrical beauty, take as a sample The Laughing Song, with its happy ring of merry innocent voices. This and The Nurse’s Song are more in the style of his early poems, but, as we said, of far maturer execution. I scarcely need call attention to the delicate simplicity of the little pastoral, entitled The Shepherd: to the picturesqueness in a warmer hue, the delightful domes¬ticity, the expressive melody of The Echoing Green: or to the lovely sympathy and piety which irradiate the touching Cradle Song.
More enchanting still is the stir of fancy and sympathy which animates The Dream, that
‘Did weave a shade o’er my angel guarded bed;’
of an emmet that had
Lost her way,
Where on grass methought I lay.
Few are the readers, I should think, who can fail to appreciate the symbolic grandeur of The Little Boy Lost and The Little Boy Found, or the enigmatic tenderness of the Blossom and the Divine Image; and the verses On Another’s Sorrow express some of Blake’s favourite re¬ligious ideas, his abiding notions on the subject of the Godhead, which surely suggest the kernel of Christian feeling. A similar tinge of the divine, colours the lines called Night, with its revelation of angelic guardians, believed in with unquestioning piety by Blake, who makes us in our turn conscious, as we read, of angelic noiseless foot¬steps. For a nobler depth of religious beauty, with accor¬dant grandeur of sentiment and language, I know no parallel nor hint elsewhere of such a poem as The Little Black Boy—
My mother bore me in the southern wild.
We may read these poems again and again, and they continue fresh as at first. There is something unsating in them, a perfume as of a growing violet, which renews itself as fast as it is inhaled.
One poem, The Chimney Sweeper, still calls for special notice. This and Holy Thursday are remarkable as an anticipation of the daring choice of homely subject, of the yet more daringly familiar manner, nay, of the very metre and trick of style adopted by Wordsworth in a portion of
those memorable ‘experiments in Poetry,’—the Lyrical Ballads:—in The Reverie of Poor Susan, for instance (not written till 1797), the Star Gazers, and The Power of Music (both 1806). The little Sweep’s dream has the spiritual touch
peculiar to Blake’s hand. This poem, I may add, was extracted thirty-five years later in a curious little volume (1824), of James Montgomery’s editing, as friend of the then unprotected Climbing-Boys. It was entitled The Chimney Sweeper’s Friend, and Climbing-Boy’s Album: a miscellany of verse and prose, original and borrowed, with illustrations by Robert Cruickshank. Charles Lamb, one of the living authors applied to by the kind-hearted Sheffield poet, while declining the task of rhyming on such a subject, sent a copy of this poem from the Songs of Innocence, communicating it as ‘from a very rare and curious little work.’ At line five, ‘Little Tom Dacre’ is transformed by a sly blunder of Lamb’s into ‘little Tom Toddy.’ The poem on the same subject in the Songs of Experience, inferior poetically, but in an accordant key of gloom, would have been the more apposite to Montgomery’s volume.
The tender loveliness of these poems will hardly re¬appear in Blake’s subsequent writing. Darker phases of feeling, more sombre colours, profounder meanings, ruder eloquence, characterise the Songs of Experience of five years later.
In 1789, the year in which Blake’s hand engraved the Songs of Innocence, Wordsworth was finishing his versified Evening Walk on the Goldsmith model; Crabbe (‘Pope in worsted stockings,’ as Hazlitt christened him), famous six years before by his Village, was publishing one of his minor quartos, The Newspaper; and Mrs. Charlotte Smith, not undeservedly popular, was accorded a fifth edition within five years, of her Elegiac Sonnets, one or two of which still merit the praise of being good sonnets, among the best in a bad time. In these years, Hayley, Mason, Hannah More, Jago, Downman, Helen Maria Williams, were among the active producers of poetry; Cumberland, Holcroft, Inchbald, Burgoyne, of the acting drama of the day; Peter Pindar, and Pasquin Williams, of the satire.
The designs, simultaneous offspring with the poems, which in
the most literal sense illuminate the Songs of Innocence, consist of poetized domestic scenes. The draw¬ing and draperies are grand in style as graceful, though covering few inches’ space; the colour pure, delicate, yet in effect rich and full. The mere tinting of the text and of the free ornamental border often makes a refined picture. The costumes of the period are idealized, the landscapes given in pastoral and symbolic hints. Sometimes these drawings almost suffer from being looked at as a book and held close, instead of at due distance as pictures, where they become more effective. In composition, colour, per¬vading feeling, they are lyrical to the eye, as the Songs to the ear.
On the whole, the designs to the Songs of Innocence are finer as well as more pertinent to the poems; more closely interwoven with them, than those which accompany the Songs of Experience. Of these in their place.