INTRODUCTION TO THE POLITE WORLD. 1782—84. [ÆT. 24—26.]
TO his father, Blake’s early and humble marriage is said to have been unacceptable; and the young couple did not return to the hosier’s roof. They commenced housekeeping on their own account in lodgings, at 23, Green Street, Leicester Fields: in which Fields or Square, on the north side, the junior branches of Royalty had lately abode, on the east (near Green Street) great Hogarth. On the west side of it Sir Joshua in these very years had his handsome house and noble gallery. Green Street, then the abode of quiet private citizens, is now a nondescript street, given up to curiosity-shops, shabby lodging-houses, and busy feet hastening to and from the Strand. No. 23, on the right-hand side going citywards, next to the house at the corner of the Square, is one—from the turn the narrow Street here takes—at right angles with and looking down the rest of it. At present, part tenanted by a shoemaker, the house in an abject plight of stucco, dirt, and dingy desolation. In the previous year, as we have seen, friendly Flaxman had married and taken a house.
About this time, or a little earlier, Blake was introduced by the admiring sympathetic sculptor to the accomplished Mrs. Mathew, his own warm friend. The ‘celebrated Mrs. Mathew?’ alas! for tenure of mortal Fame! This lady ranked among the distinguished blue-stockings of her day; was once known to half the Town, the polite and lettered part thereof, as the agreeable, fascinating, spirituelle Mrs. Mathew, as, in brief, one of the most ‘gifted and
elegant’ of women. As she does not, like her fair comrades, still flutter about the bookstalls among the half-remembered all-unread, and as no lettered contemporary has hand down her portrait, she has disappeared from us. Yet the lady, with her husband, the Rev. Henry Mathew, merit remembrance from the lovers of Art, as the first discoverers and fosterers of the genius of Flaxman, when a boy not yet in teens, and his introducer to more opulent patrons. Their son, afterwards Dr. Mathew, was John Hunter’s favourite pupil. Learned as well as elegant, she would read Homer in Greek to the future sculptor, interpreting as she went, while the child sat by her side sketching a passage here and there; and thus she stimulated him to acquire hereafter some knowledge of the language for himself. She was an encourager of musicians, a kind friend to young artists. To all of promising genius the doors of her house, 27, Rathbone Place, were open. Rathbone Place, not then made over to papier-maché, Artist’s colours, toy-shops, and fancy-trades, was a street of private houses, stiffly genteel and highly respectable, nay, in a sedate way, quasi fashionable; the Westbourne Street of that day, when the adjacent district of Bloomsbury with its Square, in which (on the countryward side) was the Duke of Bedford’s grand House, was absolutely fashionable and comparatively new, lying on the northern skirts of London; where Great Ormond Street, Queen’s Square, Southampton Row, were accounted ‘places of pleasure,’ being ‘in one of the most charming situations about town,’ next the open fields, and commanding a ‘beautiful landscape formed by the hills of Highgate and Hampstead and adjacent country.’ Among the residents of Rathbone Place, the rebel Lords Lovat, Kilmarnock, Balmarino had at one time numbered. Of the Mathew’s house, by the way, now divided into two, both of them shops, the library or back parlour, garrulous Smith (Nolleken’s biographer) in his Book for a Rainy Day tells us, was decorated by grateful Flaxman ‘with models in putty and
sand, of figures in niches in the Gothic manner:’ quære if still extant? the window was painted ‘in imitation of stained glass’—just as that in Battersea church, those at Strawberry Hill, and elsewhere were, the practice being one of the valued arts or artifices of the day—by Loutherbourg’s assistant, young Oram, another protégé. The furniture, again, ‘bookcases, tables, and chairs, were also ornamented to accord with the appearance of those of antiquity.’
Mrs. Mathew’s drawing-room was frequented by most of the literary and known people of the last quarter of the century, was a centre of all then esteemed enlightened and delightful in society. Réunions were held in it such as Mrs. Montagu and Mrs. Vesey had first set going, unconsciously contributing the word blue-stocking to our language. There, in the list of her intimate friends and companions, would assemble those esteemed ornaments of their sex: unreadable Chapone, of well improved mind; sensible Barbauld; versatile, agreeable Mrs. Brooke, novelist and dramatist; learned and awful Mrs. Carter, a female Great Cham of literature, and protectress of ‘Religion and Morality.’ Thither, came sprightly, fashionable Mrs. Montagu herself, Conyers Middleton’s pupil, champion of Shakspere in his urgent need against rude Voltaire, and a letter-writer almost as vivacious and piquante in the modish style as her namesake Lady Wortley; her printed correspondence remaining still readable and entertaining. This is the lady whose powers of mind and conversation Dr. Johnson estimated so highly, and whose good opinion he so highly valued, though at last to his sorrow falling out with her. It was she who gave the annual May-Day diner to the chimney sweeps, in commemoration of a well-known family incident. As illustrative of their status with the public, let us add, on Smith’s authority, that the four last-named beaux-esprits figured as Muses in the Frontispiece to a Lady’s Pocket Book for 1778—a flattering apotheosis of nine con-
temporary female wits, including Angelica Kauffman and Mrs. Sheridan. Perhaps pious, busy Hannah More, as yet of the world, as yet young and kittenish, though not without claws, also in her youth a good letter-writer in the woman-of-the-world style; perhaps, being of the Montagu circle, she also would make one at Mrs. Mathew’s, on her visits to town to see her publishers, the Cadells, about some ambling poetic 4to. Florio and the Bas-bleu, modest Sacred Drama, heavy 8vo. Strictures on Female Education, or other fascinating lucubration on
‘Providence, foreknowledge, will and fate:’
dissertations, which, after having brought their author in some thirty thousand pounds sterling, a capricious public consumes with less avidity than it did. Good heavens! what a frowsy, drowsy ‘party sitting in a parlour,’ now ‘all silent and all damned’ (in a literary sense), these venerable ladies and great literary luminaries of their day, ladies once lively and chatty enough, seem to an irreverent generation, at their present distance from us. The spiritual interval is an infinitely wider one than the temporal; so foreign have mere eighteenth-century habits of thought and prim convention become. Let us charitably believe the conversation of the fair was not so dull as their books; that there was the due enlivenment of scandal and small talk; and that Mrs. Mathew—by far the most pleasant to think of, because she did not commit herself to a book—that she, with perhaps Mrs. Brooke and Mrs. Montagu, took the leading parts.
The disadvantages of a neglected education, such as Blake’s, are considerable. But, one is here reminded, the disadvantages of a false one are greater: when the acquisition of a second nature of conventionality, misconception of high models and worship of low ones, is the kind in vogue. an inestimable advantage for an original mind to have retained its freedom, the healthy play of native powers, of virgin faculties yet unsophisticate.
Mrs. Mathew’s husband was a known man, too, man of taste and virtù, incumbent of the neighbouring Proprietary Chapel, Percy Chapel, Charlotte Street, built for him by admiring lay friends; an edifice known to a later generation as the theatre of Satan Montgomery’s displays. Mr. Mathew filled also a post of more prestige as afternoon preacher at St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields; and ‘read the church-service more beautifully than any other clergyman in London,’ a lady who had heard him informs me—and as others too used to think—Flaxman for one. with which meagre biographic trait, the inquisitive reader must be satisfied. The most diligent search yields nothing further. That he was an amiable, kindly man we gather from the circumstances of his first notice of the child Flaxman in the father’s cast-shop, coughing over his Latin behind the counter, and of his continued notice of the weakly child during the years which elapsed before he was strong enough to walk from the Strand to Rathbone Place, and be received into the sunshine of Mrs. Mathew’s smiles.
To that lady’s agreeable and brilliant conversazioni Blake was made welcome. At one of them, a little later (in 1784), Nollekens Smith, most literal, most useful of gossips, then a youth of eighteen, first saw the poet-painter, and ‘heard him read and sing several of his poems’—‘often heard him.’ Yes! sing them; for Blake had composed airs to his verses. Wholly ignorant of the art of music, he was unable to note down these spontaneous melodies, and repeated them by ear. smith reports that his tunes were sometimes ‘most singularly beautiful,’ and ‘were noted down by musical professors;’ Mrs. Mathew’s being a musical house. I wish one of these musical professors or his executors would produce a sample. Airs simple and ethereal to match the designs and poems of William Blake would be a novelty in music. One would fain hear the melody invented for
How sweet I roam’d from field to field—
or for some of Songs of Innocence. ‘He was listened to by the company,’ adds Smith, ‘with profound silence, and allowed by most of the visitors to possess original and extraordinary merit.’ Phœnix amid an admiring circle of cocks and hens is alone a spectacle to compare mentally with this!
The accomplished hostess for a time took up Blake with much fervour. His poetic recitals kindled so much enthusiasm in her feminine bosom, that she urged her husband to join his young friend, Flaxman, in placing the poems—those of which we gave an account at the date of composition—in the clear light of print, and to assume half the cost. Which, accordingly, was done, in 1783: the year in which happened the execution for forgery of the gifted fellow-engraver—in whose face the boy Blake, twelve years before, had so strangely deciphered omens of his fate—Ryland. This unfortunate man’s prepossessing appearance and manners inspired on the other hand so much confidence in the governor of the prison in which he awaited trial, that on one occasion the former took him out for a walk, implicitly trusting to his good faith that he would not avail himself of the opportunity to run away. Ryland’s was the last execution at Tyburn, then still on the outside of London. This was the year, too, in which Barry published his Account of the Pictures in the Adelphi. On one copy I have seen a characteristic pencil recollection, from Blake’s hand, of the strange Irishman’s ill-favoured face: that of an idealized bulldog, with villainously low forehead, turn-up nose, and squalid tout-ensemble. It is strong evidence of the modest Flaxman’s generous enthusiasm for his friend that, himself a struggling artist, little patronized, he should have made the first offer of printing these poems, and at his own charge; and that he now bore a moiety of the cost. The book only runs to 74 pages, 8vo., and its unpretending title-page stands thus: Poetical Sketches; by W. B. London: Printed in the Year 1783. The clergyman ‘with his usual urbanity’ penned
a preface stating the youthful authorship of the volume, apologizing for ‘irregularities and defects’ in the poems, and hoping their ‘poetic originality merits some respite from oblivion.’
The author’s absence of leisure is pleaded, ‘requisite to such a revisal of these sheets as might have rendered them less unfit to meet the public eye.’ Little revisal certainly they had, not even correction of the press, apparently. The pamphlet, which has no printer’s name to be discredited by it, is as carelessly printed as an old English play, evidently at an establishment which did not boast a ‘reader.’ Semicolons and fullstops where commas should be, misprints, such as ‘beds of dawn,’ for ‘birds,’ by no means help out the meaning. The whole impression was presented to Blake to sell to friends or publish, as he should think best. Unfortunately, it never got published, and for all purposes except that of preservation, might as well continued MS. As in those days there still survived, singular to say, a bonâ fide market for even mediocre verse, publishers and editors actually handing over hard cash for it, just as if it were prose, Blake’s friends would have done better to have gone to the Trade with his poems. The thin octavo did not even get so far as the Monthly Review; at all events, it does not appear in the copious and explicit Index of ‘books noticed’ in that periodical, now quite a manual of extinct literature.
The poems J. T. Smith, in 1784, heard Blake sing can hardly have been those known to his hearers by the printed volume of 1783, but fresh ones, to the composition of which the printing of that volume had stimulated him: some doubtless of the memorable and musical Songs of Innocence, as they were subsequently named.
Blake’s course of soirées in Rathbone Place was not long a smooth one. ‘It happened unfortunately,’ writes enigmatic Smith, whose forte is not grammar, ‘soon after this period ‘—soon after 1784, that is, the year during which Smith heard him ‘read and sing his poems’ to an attentive auditory—‘that in consequence of his unbend¬ing deportment, or what his adherents are pleased to call his manly
firmness of opinion, which certainly was not at all times considered pleasing by every one, his visits were not so frequent’—and after a time ceased altogether, ’tis to be feared. One’s knowledge of Blake’s various origi¬nalities of thought on all subjects, his stiffness, when roused, in maintaining them, also his high, though at ordinary moments inobtrusive notions of his calling, of the dignity of it, and its superiority to all mere worldly dis¬tinctions, help to elucidate gossiping John Thomas. One readily understands that on more intimate acquaintance, when it was discovered by well-regulated minds that the erratic Bard perversely came to teach, not to be taught, nor to be gently schooled into imitative proprieties and condescendingly patted on the back, he became less acceptable to the polite world at No. 27, than when first started as a prodigy in that elegant arena.