MEDITATION: NOTES ON LAVATER. 1788. [ÆT. 30—31]
ONE of Blake’s engravings of the present period is a frontispiece after Fuseli to the latter’s translation of the Aphorisms of his fellow-countryman, Lavater. The translation, which was from the original MS., was published by Johnson in 1788, the year of Gainsborough’s death. If any deny merit to Blake as an engraver, let them turn from this boldly executed print of Fuseli’s mannered but effective sitting figure, ostentatiously meditative, of Philosophic Contemplation, or whatever it may be, to the weak shadow of the same in the subsequent Dublin editions of this little book. For the Swiss enthusiast had then a European reputation. And this imposing scroll of fervid truisms and haphazard generalities, as often disputable as not, if often acute and striking, always ingenuous and pleasant, was, like all his other writings, warmly welcomed in this country. Now it as a whole reads unequal and monoto¬nous, does not impress one as an elixir of inspired truth; induces rather, like most books of maxims, the ever re¬curring query, cui bono? And one readily believes what the English edition states, that the whole epitome of moral wisdom was the rapid ‘effusion’ of one autumn.
In the ardent, pious, but illogical Lavater’s character, full of amiability, candour, and high aspiration, a man who in the eighteenth century believed in the continuation of miracles, of witchcraft, and of the power of exorcising evil spirits, who, in fact, had a bonâ fide if convulsive hold of the super-sensual, there was much that was
german to William Blake, much that still remains noble and in¬teresting.
In the painter’s small library the Aphorisms became one of his most favourite volumes. This well-worn copy contains a series of marginal notes, neatly written in pen and ink—it being his habit to make such in the books he read—which speak to the interest it excited in him. On the title-page occurs a naïve token of affection: below the name Lavater is inscribed ‘Will. Blake,’ and around the two names the outline of a heart.
Lavater’s final Aphorism tells the reader, ‘If you mean to know yourself, interline such of these as affected you agreeably in reading, and set a mark to such as left a sense of uneasiness with you, and then show your copy to whom you please.’ Blake showed This notes to Fuseli; who said one assuredly could read their writer’s character in them.
‘All Gold!’ ‘This should be written in letters of gold on our temples,’ are the endorsements accorded such an announcement as, ‘The object of your love is your God’; or again, ‘Joy and grief decide character.’ ‘What exalts prosperity?’ ‘What embitters grief?’ ‘What leaves us indifferent?’ ‘What interests us?’ ‘As the interest of man, so is God, as his God so is he.’
But the annotator sometimes dissents; as from this: ‘You enjoy with wisdom or with folly, as the gratification of your appetites capacitates or unnerves your powers. ‘False!’ is the emphatic denial, ‘for weak is the joy which is never wearied.’ On one Aphorism, in which ‘frequent laughing,’ and ‘the scarcer smile of harmless quiet,’ are enumerated as signs respectively ‘of a little mind,’ or ‘of a noble heart’; while the abstaining from laughter merely not to offend, &c., is praised as ‘a power unknown to many a vigorous mind’; Blake exclaims, ‘I hate scarce smiles; I love laughing!’ ‘A sneer is often the sign of heartless malignity;’ says Lavater. ‘Damn sneerers!’ echoes Blake. To Lavater’s censure of the ‘pietist who
crawls, groans, blubbers, and secretly says to gold, Thou art my hope! and to his belly, Thou art my God,’ follows a cordial assent. ‘Everything,’ Lavater rashly declares, ‘may be mimicked by hypocrisy but humility and love united.’ To which, Blake: ‘All this may be mimicked very well. This Aphorism certainly was an oversight; for what are all crawlers but mimickers of humility and love?’ ‘Dread more the blunderer’s friendship than the calumniator’s envy,’ exhorts Lavater. I doubt this!’ says the margin.
At the maxim, ‘You may depend upon it that he is a good man, whose intimate friends are all good, and whose enemies are characters decidedly bad,’ the artist (obeying his author’s injunctions) reports himself’ Uneasy,’ fears he ‘has not many enemies!’ Uneasy, too, he feels at the declaration, ‘Calmness of will is a sign of grandeur: the vulgar, far from hiding their will, blab their wishes—a single spark of occasion discharges the child of passion into a thousand crackers of desire.’ Again: ‘Who seeks those that are greater than himself, their greatness enjoys, and forgets his greatest qualities in their greater ones, is already truly great’ To this, Mr. Blake: ‘I hope I do not flatter myself that this is pleasant to me.
Some of Blake’s remarks are not without a brisk can¬dour: as when the Zurich philanthropist tells one, ‘The great art to love your enemy consists in never losing sight of man in him,’ &c.; and he boldly replies, ‘None can see the man in the enemy. If he is ignorantly so, he is not truly an enemy: if maliciously so, not a man. I cannot love my enemy, for my enemy is not a man but a beast. And if I have any, I can love him as a beast, and wish to beat him.’ And again, to the dictum, ‘Between passion and lie there is not a finger’s breadth,’ he retorts, ‘Lie is contrary to passion.’ Upon the aphorism, ‘Superstition always inspires littleness; religion, grandeur of mind; the superstitious raises beings inferior to himself to deities,’ Blake remarks at some length: ‘I do not allow there is such a thing as superstition, taken in the true sense of the word.
A man must first deceive himself before he is thus superstitious, and so he is a hypocrite. No man was ever truly superstitious who was not as truly religious as far as he knew. True superstition is ignorant honesty, and this is beloved of God and man. Hypocrisy is as different from superstition as the wolf from the lamb.’ And simi¬larly when Lavater, with a shudder, alludes to ‘the gloomy rock, on either side of which superstition and incredulity their dark abysses spread,’ Blake says, ‘Superstition has been long a bug-bear, by reason of its having been united with hypocrisy. But let them be fairly separated, and then superstition will be honest feeling, and God, who loves all honest men, will lead the poor enthusiast in the path of holiness.’ This was a cardinal thought with Blake, and almost a unique one in his century.
The two are generally of better accord. The since often-quoted warning, ‘Keep him at least three paces distant who hates bread, music, and the laugh of a child!’ is endorsed as the ‘Best in the book.’ Another, ‘Avoid like a serpent him who speaks politely, yet writes imper¬tinently,’ elicits the ejaculation, ‘A dog! get a stick to him!’ And the reiteration, ‘Avoid him who speaks softly and writes sharply;’ is enforced with, ‘Ah, rogue, I would be thy hangman!’ The assertion that ‘A woman, whose ruling passion is not vanity, is superior to any man of equal faculties,’ begets the enthusiastic comment, ‘Such a woman I adore I’ At the foot of another, on woman, ‘A great woman not imperious, a fair woman not vain, a woman of common talents not jealous, an accom¬plished woman who scorns to shine, are four wonders just great enough to be divided among the four corners of the globe,’ Blake appends, ‘Let the men do their duty, and the women will be such wonders: the female life lives from the life of the male. See a great many female dependents, and you know the man.’
In a higher key, when Lavater justly affirms that ‘He only who has enjoyed immortal moments can reproduce them,’ Blake exclaims,
‘Oh that men would seek immortal moments I—that men would converse with God!’ as he, it may be added, was ever seeking, ever conversing, in one sense. In another place Lavater declares, that ‘He who adores an impersonal God, has none; and without guide or rudder launches on an immense abyss, that first absorbs his powers and next himself.’ To which warm assent from the fervently religious Blake: ‘Most superlatively beautiful, and most affectionately holy and pure. Would to God all men would consider it!’ Religious, I say, but far from orthodox; for in one place he would show sin to be ‘negative not positive evil’; lying, theft, &c. ‘mere privation of good’; a favourite idea with him, which, whatever its merit as an abstract position, practical people would not like written in letters of gold on their temples, for fear of consequences.
One of the most prolix of these aphorisms runs, ‘Take from Luther his roughness and fiery courage, from this man one quality, from another that, from Raffaelle his dryness and nearly hard precision, and from Rubens his supernatural luxury of colours; detach his oppressive exuberance from each, and you will have something very correct and flat instead, as it required no conjuror to tell us? Whereon Blake, whom I here condense: ‘Deduct from a rose its red, from a lily its whiteness, from a diamond hardness, from an oak-tree height, from a daisy lowliness, rectify everything in nature, as the philosophers do, and then we shall return to chaos, and God will be
compelled to be eccentric in His creation. Oh! happy philosophers! Variety does not necessarily suppose de¬formity. Beauty is exuberant, but if ugliness is adjoined, it is not the exuberance of beauty. So if Raffaelle is hard and dry, it is not from genius, but an accident acquired. How can substance and accident be predicated of the same essence? Aphorism 47th speaks of the ‘heterogeneous’ in works of Art and Literature, which all extravagance is; but exuberance is not. But,’ adds Blake, ‘the sub¬stance gives tincture to the accident, and makes it physiognomic.’
In the course of another lengthy aphorism, the ‘knave’ is said to be ‘only an enthusiast, or momentary fool.’ Upon which Mr. Blake breaks out still more characteris¬tically: ‘Man is the ark of God: the mercy seat is above upon the ark; cherubim guard it on either side, and in the midst is the holy law. Man is either the ark of God or a phantom of the earth and water. . If thou seekest by human policy to guide this ark, remember Uzzah. 2d Sam. 6th ch. Knaveries are not human nature; knaveries are knaveries. This aphorism seems to lack discrimina¬tion.’ In a similar tone, on Aphorism 630, commencing, ‘A God, an animal, a plant are not companions of man; nor is the faultless,—then judge with lenity of all,’ Blake writes, ‘It is the God in all that is our companion and friend. For our God Himself says, ‘You are my brother, my sister, and my mother;‘ and St. John, ‘Whoso dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him.’ Such an one cannot judge of any but in love, and his feelings will be attractions or repulsions. God is in the lowest effects as well as in the highest causes. He is become a worm that he may nourish the weak. For let it be remembered that creation is God descending according to the weak¬ness of man: our Lord is the Word of God, and every¬thing on earth is the Word of God, and in its essence is God.’
Surely gold-dust may be descried in these notes; and when we remember it is a painter, not a metaphysician, who is writing, we can afford to judge them less critically. Another characteristic gleaning or two, ere we conclude. An ironical maxim, such as ‘Take here the grand secret if not of pleasing all yet of displeasing none: court mediocrity, avoid originality, and sacrifice to fashion,’ meets with the hearty response from an unfashionable painter, ‘And go to hell.’ When the Swiss tells him that ‘Men carry their character not seldom in their pockets: you might decide on more than half your acquaintance had you will or right to turn their pockets inside out’; the artist candidly acknowledges that he ‘seldom carries money in his
pockets: they are generally full of paper,’ which we readily believe. Towards the close, Lavater drops a doubt that he may have ‘perhaps already offended his readers’; which elicits from Blake a final note of sym¬pathy. ‘Those who are offended with anything in this book, would be offended with the innocence of a child, and for the same reason, because it reproaches him with the errors of acquired folly.’
Enough of the Annotations on Lavater, which, in fulfil¬ment of biographic duty, I have thus copiously quoted; too copiously, the reader may think, for their intrinsic merit. To me they seem mentally physiognomic, giving a near view of Blake in his ordinary moments at this period. We, as through a casually open window, glance into the artist’s room, and see him meditating at his work, graver in hand.
Lavater’s Aphorisms not only elicited these comments from Blake, but set him composing aphorisms on his own account, of a far more original and startling character. In Lavater’s book I trace the external accident to which the form is attributable of a remarkable portion — certain ‘Proverbs of Hell,’ as they were waywardly styled—of an altogether remarkable book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, engraved two years later; the most curious and significant book, perhaps, out of many, which ever issued from the unique man’s press.
Turning from the Annotations on Lavater to higher, less approachable phases of this original Mind, the indubitably INSPIRED aspects of it, it is time to note that the practice of verse had, as we saw in 1784, been once more resumed, in a higher key and clearer tones than he had yet sounded. Design more original and more mature than any he had before realized; at once grand, lovely, comprehensible, was in course of production. It must have been during the years 1784-88, the Songs and Designs sprang from his creative brain, of which another chapter must speak.