THE GATES OF PARADISE, AMERICA, ETC. 1793. [ÆT. 36]
IN 1793, Blake quitted Poland Street, after five years’ residence there. The now dingy demi-rep street, one in which Shelley lodged in 1810, after his ex¬pulsion from Oxford, had witnessed the production of the Songs of Innocence and other Poetry and Design of a genus unknown, before or since, to that permanently foggy district. From the neighbourhood of his birth he removed across Westminster Bridge to Lambeth. There he will remain other seven years, and produce no less an amount of strange and original work. Hercules buildings is the new abode; a row of houses which had sprung up, since his boyish rambles.
Within easy reach of the centre of London on one side, the favourite Dulwich strolls of early years were at hand on the other. Hercules Buildings, stretching diagonally between the Kennington Road and Lambeth Palace, was then a street of modest irregular-sized houses, from one to three stories high, with fore-courts or little gardens in front, in the suburban style; a street indeed only for half its length, the
remainder being a single row, or terrace. No. 13, Blake’s, was among the humbler, one-storied houses, on the right-hand side as you go from the Bridge to the Palace. It had a wainscoted parlour, pleasant low windows, and a narrow strip of real garden behind, wherein grew a fine vine. A lady, who as a girl used with her elders to call on the artist here, tells me Blake would on no account prune this vine, having a theory it was wrong and unnatural to prune vines: and the affranchised tree consequently bore a luxuriant crop of leaves, and plenty of infinitesimal grapes which never ripened. Open garden ground and field, in¬terspersed with a few lines of clean, newly-built houses, lay all about and near; for brick and mortar was spreading even then. At back, Blake looked out over gardens towards Lambeth Palace, and the Thames, seen between gaps of Stangate Walk,—Etty’s home a few years later. The city and towers of Westminster closed the prospect beyond the river, on whose surface sailing hoys were then plying once or twice a day. Vauxhall Gardens lay half a mile to the left; Dulwich and Peckham hills within view to the south-west. The street has since been partly re¬built, partly renamed; the whole become now sordid and dirty. At the back of what was Blake’s side has arisen a row of ill-drained, one-storied tenements bestridden by the arches of the South-Western Railway; while the adjacent main roads, grimy and hopeless-looking, stretch out their long arms towards further mile on mile of suburb,—New¬ington, Kennington, Brixton.
In Hercules Buildings Blake engraved and ‘published’—May, 1793, adding at the foot of the title-page Johnson’s name to his own—The Gates of Paradise; a singularly beautiful and characteristic volume, pre-eminently marked by significance and simplicity. It is a little foolscap octavo, printed according to his usual method, but not coloured; containing seventeen plates of emblems, accom¬panied by verse, with a title or motto to each plate. For Children, the title runs, or, as some copies have it, For the Sexes. The Gates of Paradise—’ a sort of devout dream, equally wild and lovely,’ Allan Cunningham happily terms it. There is little in art which speaks to the mind directly and pregnantly as do these few simple Designs, emblem¬atic of so much which could never be imprisoned in words, yet of a kind more allied to literature than to art. It is plain, on looking at this little volume alone, from whom Flaxman and Stothard borrowed. Hints of more than one design of theirs might
be found in it. And Blake’s designs have, I repeat, the look of originals. A shock as of something wholly fresh and new, these typical com¬positions give us.
The verses at the commencement elucidate, to a certain extent, the intention of the Series, embodying an ever-recurrent canon of Blake’s Theology:—
Mutual forgiveness of each vice,
Such are the Gates of Paradise,
Against the Accuser’s chief desire,
Who walked among the stones of fire.
Jehovah’s fingers wrote The Law:
He wept! then rose in zeal and awe,
And in the midst of Sinai’s heat,
Hid it beneath His Mercy Seat.
O Christians! Christians! tell me why
You rear it on your altars high?
‘What is man? ‘—the frontispiece significantly inquires.
To the Gates of Paradise their author in some copies added what many another book of his would have profited by,—the Keys of the Gates, in sundry wild lines of rudest verse, which do not pretend to be poetry, but merely to tag the artist’s ideas with rhyme, and are themselves a little obscure, though they do help one to catch the prevailing motives. For which reason they shall here accompany our samples of the ‘emblems.’ The numbers prefixed to the lines refer them to the plates which they are severally in¬tended to explain.
The Keys of the Gates.
The Caterpillar on the Leaf
Reminds thee of thy Mother’s Grief.
1 My Eternal Man set in Repose,
The Female from his darkness rose;
And she found me beneath a Tree,
A Mandrake, and in her Veil hid me.
Serpent reasonings us entice,
Of Good and Evil, Virtue, Vice.
2 Doubt self-jealous, Wat’ry folly,
3 Struggling through Earth’s Melancholy.
4 Naked in Air, in Shame and Fear,
5 Blind in Fire, with Shield and Spear,
Two Horrid Reasoning Cloven Fictions,
In Doubt which is Self Contradiction,
A dark Hermaphrodite I stood,—
Rational Truth, Root of Evil and Good.
Round me, flew the Flaming sword;
Round her, snowy Whirlwinds roar’d,
Freezing her Veil, the mundane shell.
6 I rent the veil where the Dead dwell:
When weary Man enters his Cave,
He meets his Saviour in the Grave.
Some find a Female Garment there,
And some a Male, woven with care,
Lest the Sexual Garments sweet
Should grow a devouring Winding-sheet.
7 One Dies! Alas! the living and dead!
One is slain! and one is fled!
8 In vainglory hatcht and nurst,
By doubles spectres, self accurst.
My Son! my Son! thou treatest me
But as I have instructed thee.
9 On the shadows of the Moon,
Climbing thro’ night’s highest noon:
10 In Time’s Ocean falling, drown’d:
11 In Aged Ignorance profound,
Holy and cold, I clipt the Wings
Of all Sublunary Things:
12 And in depths of icy Dungeons
Closed the Father and the Sons.
13 But when once I did descry
The Immortal man that cannot Die,
14 Thro’ evening shades I haste away
To close the labours of my Day.
15 The Door of Death I open found,
And the Worm weaving in the Ground:
16 Thou’rt my Mother, from the Womb
Wife, Sister, Daughter, to the Tomb:
Weaving to Dreams the Sexual Strife,
And weeping over the Web of Life.
Last follows an epilogue, or postscript, which perhaps explains itself, addressed
To the Accuser, who is the God of this World.
Truly, my Satan, thou art but a dunce,
And dost not know the garment from the man;
Every harlot was a virgin once,
Nor canst thou ever change Kate into Nan.
Though thou art worshipped by the names divine
Of Jesus and Jehovah, thou art still.
The Son of Morn in weary Night’s decline,
The lost traveller’s dream under the hill.
In this year, by the way, the first volume of a more famous poet, but a much less original volume than Blake’s first,—the Descriptive Sketches of Wordsworth, followed by the Evening Walk,—were published by Johnson, of St. Paul’s Churchyard. Neither reached a second edition; but by 1807, when the Lyrical Ballads had attracted admirers here and there, they had, according to De Quincey, got out of print, and scarce.
Other engraved volumes, more removed from ordinary sympathy and comprehension than the Gates of Paradise, were issued in the same year: dreamy ‘Books of Prophecy’ following in the wake of the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. First came Visions of the
Daughters of Albion, a folio volume of Designs and rhymeless verse, printed in colour.
The eye sees more than the heart knows
is the key-note struck in the first page, to which follows the Argument:—
I loved Theotormon,
And I was not ashamed;
I trembled in my virgin fears,
And I hid in Leutha s vale.
I plucked Leutha’s flower,
And I rose up from the vale;
But the terrible thunders tore
My virgin mantle in twain.
The poem partakes of the same delicate mystic beauty as Thel, but tends also towards the incoherence of the writings which immediately followed it. Of the former qualities the commencement may be quoted as an instance—
Enslaved, the daughters of Albion weep: a trembling lamentation
Upon their mountains; in their valleys, sighs toward America.
For the soft soul of America,—Oothoon,—wandered in woe
Among the vales of Leutha, seeking flowers to comfort her:
And thus she spoke to the bright marigold of Leutha’s vale,—
‘Art thou a flower? Art thou a nymph? I see thee now a flower;
And now a nymph! I dare not pluck thee from thy dewy bed!’
The golden nymph replied, ‘Pluck thou my flower, Oothoon the mild,
Another flower shall spring, because the soul of sweet delight
Can never pass away.’—She ceased, and closed her golden shrine.
Then Oothoon plucked the flower, saying,—’ I pluck thee from thy bed,
Sweet flower, and put thee here to glow between my breasts,
And thus I turn my face to where my whole soul seeks.’
Over the waves she went, in wing’d exulting swift delight,
And over Theotormon’s reign took her impetuous course.
But she is taken in the ‘thunders,’ or toils of Bromion, who appears the evil spirit of the soil. Theotormon, in jealous fury, chains them—’ terror and meekness ‘— together, back to back, in Bromion’s caves, and seats him¬self sorrowfully by. The lamentations of Oothoon, and her appeals to the incensed divinity, with his replies, form the burthen of the poem. The Daughters of Albion, who are alluded to in the opening lines as enslaved, weeping, and sighing towards America, ‘hear her woes and echo back her cries’; a recurring line or refrain, which includes all they have to do.
We subjoin another extract or two:—
Oothoon weeps not: she cannot weep! her tears are locked up!
But she can howl incessant, writhing her soft, snowy limbs,
And calling Theotormon’s eagles to prey upon her flesh!
‘I call with holy voice! kings of the sounding air!
Rend away this defiled bosom that I may reflect
The image of Theotormon on my pure transparent breast!’
The eagles at her call descend and rend their bleeding prey.
Theotormon severely smiles; her soul reflects the smile,
As the clear spring mudded with feet of beasts grows pure and smiles.
The Daughters of Albion hear her woes and echo back her sighs.
‘Why does my Theotormon sit weeping upon the threshold?
And Oothoon hovers by his side persuading him in vain!
I cry, Arise, O Theotormon! for the village dog
Barks at the breaking day; the nightingale has done lamenting;
The lark does rustle in the ripe corn; and the Eagle returns
From nightly prey, and lifts his golden beak to the pure east,
Shaking the dust from his immortal pinions, to awake
The sun that sleeps too long! Arise, my Theotormon; I am pure!
* * * * * *
‘Ask the wild ass why he refuses burdens; and the meek camel
Why he loves man. Is it because of eye, ear, mouth, or skin,
Or breathing nostrils? No: for these the wolf and tiger have.
Ask the blind worm the secrets of the grave; and why her spires
Love to curl round the bones of death: and ask the ravenous snake
Where she gets poison; and the winged eagle, why he loves the sun:
And then tell me the thoughts of man that have been hid of old!
‘Silent I hover all the night, and all day could be silent,
If Theotormon once would turn his loved eyes upon me;
How can I be defiled, when I reflect thy image pure?
Sweetest the fruit that the worm feeds on; and the soul prey’d on by woe.
The new washed lamb ting’d with the village smoke and the bright swan
By the red earth of our immortal river I bathe my wings,
And I am white and pure, to hover round Theotormon’s breast.’
Then Theotormon broke his silence, and he an¬swered:—
‘Tell me what is the night or day to one o’erflow’d with woe;
Tell me what is a thought? and of what substance is it made?
Tell me what is a joy; and in what gardens do joys grow;
And in what rivers swim the sorrows; and upon what mountains
Wave shadows of discontent? And in what houses dwell the wretched,
Drunken with woe forgotten, and shut up from cold despair?
Tell me where dwell the thoughts forgotten till thou call them forth?
‘Tell me where dwell the joys of old, and where the ancient loves?
And when they will renew again, and the night of oblivion pass?
That I may traverse times and spaces far remote, and bring
Comforts into a present sorrow, and a night of pain.’
The poem concludes thus:—
The sea fowl takes the wintry blast for a covering to her limbs.
And the wild snake the pestilence, to adorn him with gems and gold.
And trees, and birds, and beasts, and men, behold their eternal joy.
Arise, you little glancing wings, and sing your infant joy!
Arise, and drink your bliss! For every thing that lives is holy.
Thus every morning wails Oothoon, but Theotormon sits
Upon the margined ocean, conversing with shadows dire.
The Daughters of Albion hear her woes, and echo back her sighs.
Formidable moral questions are, in an enigmatic way, occasionally opened up through the medium of this alle¬gory, and in many another of Blake’s writings: questions on which he had his own views, and gave fearless and glow¬ing expression to them,—as the exemplary man had good right to do. But we will not enter on them here.
The designs to the Visions of the Daughters of Albion are magnificent in energy and portentousness. They are coloured with flat, even tints, not worked up highly. A frontispiece represents Bromion and Oothoon, chained in a cave that opens on the sea; Theotormon sitting near. The title-page is of great beauty; the words are written over rainbow and cloud, from the centre of which emerges an old
man in fire, other figures floating round. We give two specimens. One (page 108) illustrates the Argument we have quoted; the other (on cover), an incident in the poem (also quoted), where the eagles of Theotormon rend the flesh of Oothoon.
The other volume of this year’s production at Lambeth, entitled America, a Prophecy, is a folio of twenty pages, of still more dithyrambic verse. It is verse hard to fathom; with far too little Nature behind it, or back-bone; a re¬dundance of mere invention,—the fault of all this class of Blake’s writings; too much wild tossing about of ideas and words. The very names—Urthona, Enitharmon, Orc, &c. are but Ossian-like shadows, and contrast oddly with those of historic or matter-of-fact personages occasionally mentioned in the poem, whom, notwithstanding the subject in hand, we no longer expect to meet with, after reading the Preludium:—
The shadowy Daughter of Urthona stood before red Orc,
When fourteen suns had faintly journey’d o’er his dark abode:
His food she brought in iron baskets, his drink in cups of iron.
Crown’d with a helmet and dark hair, the nameless female stood.
A quiver with its burning stores, a bow like that of night
When pestilence is shot from heaven,—no other arms she needs,—
Invulnerable though naked, save where clouds roll round her loins
Their awful folds in the dark air. Silent she stood as night;
For never from her iron tongue could voice or sound arise;
But dumb from that dread day when Orc essay’d his fierce embrace.
‘Dark virgin!’ said the hairy youth, ‘thy father stem, abhorr’d,
Rivets my tenfold chains, while still on high my spirit soars;
‘Sometimes an eagle screaming in the sky; sometimes a lion,
‘Stalking upon the mountains; and sometimes a whale, I lash
‘The raging, fathomless abyss; anon, a serpent folding
‘Around the pillars of Urthona, and round thy dark limbs,
‘On the Canadian wilds I fold.’
The poem itself opens thus:—
The Guardian Prince of Albion burns in his nightly tent.
Sullen fires across the Atlantic glow to America’s shore,
Piercing the souls of warlike men, who rise in silent night.
Washington, Franklin, Paine, Warren, Gates, Hancock and Green,
Meet on the coast, glowing with blood, from Albion’s fiery prince.
Washington spoke: ‘Friends of America, look over the Atlantic sea.
‘A bended bow is lifted in heaven, and a heavy iron chain
‘Descends link by link from Albion’s cliffs across the sea to bind
‘Brothers and sons of America, till our faces pale and yellow,
‘Heads deprest, voices weak, eyes downcast, hands work-bruised,
‘Feet bleeding on the sultry sands, and the furrows of the whip,
‘Descend to generations that in future times forget.’
The strong voice ceased: for a terrible blast swept over the heaving sea,
The eastern cloud rent. On his cliffs stood Albion’s wrathful Prince,—
A dragon form clashing his scales: at midnight he arose,
And flamed red meteors round the land of Albion beneath.
His voice, his locks, his awful shoulders and his glowing eyes,
Appear to the Americans, upon the cloudy night.
Solemn heave the Atlantic waves between the gloomy nations.
One more extract shall suffice:—
The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations
The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up.
The bones of death, the covering clay, the sinews shrunk and dried,
Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing! awakening!
Spring,—like redeemed captives when their bonds and bars are burst.
Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field;
Let him look up into the heavens and laugh in the bright air.
Let the enchained soul, shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years,
Rise, and look out I—his chains are loose I his dungeon doors are open!
The poem has no distinctly seizable pretensions to a prophetic character, being, like the rest of Blake’s ‘Books of Prophecy,’ rather a retrospect in its mystic way, of events already transpired. The American War of Inde¬pendence is the theme; a portion of history here con¬ducted mainly by vast mythic beings, ‘Orc,’ the ‘Angels of Albion,’ the ‘Angels of the thirteen states,’ &c.; whose movements
are throughout accompanied by tremen¬dous elemental commotion—’ red clouds and raging fire’; ‘black smoke, thunder,’ and
Plagues creeping on the burning winds driven by flames of Orc,
through which chaos the merely human agents show small and remote, perplexed and busied in an ant-like way. Strange to conceive a somewhile associate of Paine pro¬ducing these ‘Prophetic’ volumes!
The America now and then occurs coloured, more often plain black, or occasionally blue, and white. The designs blend with and surround the verse; the mere grouping of the text, filled in here and there with ornament, often forming, in itself, a picturesque piece of decorative com-position. Of the beauty of most of these designs, in their finished state, it would be quite impossible to obtain any notion, without the necessary adjunct of colour. The specimen given in this chapter can at best only show form and arrangement—the groundwork of the page; the frame as it were in which the verses are set; Blake never intending any copies to go forth to the world until they had been coloured by hand. Facing page 112, however, we give the fac-simile of a whole page from the America, an exact fac-simile both .as regards drawing and writing, though reduced to about half the size of the original, and the colour ordinarily used by Blake for the groundwork, as we said before, of his painted leaves being necessarily absent. Similar examples we shall give when we come to other books of the same character,—the Europe, and that yet more remarkable, the Jerusalem.
Whatever may be the literary value of the work, the designs display unquestionable power and beauty. In firmness of outline and refinement of finish, they are exceeded by none from the same hand. We have more especially in view Mr. Monckton
Milnes’s superb copy. Turning over the leaves, it is sometimes like an increase of daylight on the retina, so fair and open is the effect of particular pages. The skies of sapphire, or gold, rayed with hues of sunset against which stand out leaf or blossom, or pendant branch, gay with bright plumaged birds; the strips of emerald sward below, gemmed with flower and lizard and enamelled snake, refresh the eye continually. Some of the illustrations are of a more sombre kind. There is one in which a little corpse, white as snow, lies gleaming on the floor of a green overarching cave, which close inspection proves to be a field of wheat, whose slender interlacing stalks, bowed by the full ear and by a gentle breeze,
bend over and inclose the dead infant The delicate network of stalks (which is carried up one side of the page, the main picture being at the bottom), and the subdued yet vivid green light shed over the whole, produce a lovely decorative effect. Decorative effect is in fact never lost sight of, even when the motive of the design is ghastly or terrible. As for instance at page I 3, which represents the different fate of two bodies drowned in the sea—the one, that of a woman, cast up by the purple waves on a rocky shore; an eagle, with outstretched wings, alighting on her bosom, his beak already tearing her flesh: the other, lying at the bottom of the ocean, where snaky loathsome things are twining round it, and open-mouthed fishes gathering greedily to devour. The effect is as of looking through water down into wondrous depths. One design in the volume was an especial favourite of Blake’s: that of an old man entering Death’s door. It occurs in the Gates of Paradise (Plate ii); in Blair’s Grave (1805), and as a distinct engraving. There are also two other subjects repeated subsequently—in the Grave and the Job. But one more design (we might expatiate on all) shall tempt us to loiter. It heads the last page of the book, and consists of a white-robed, colossal figure, bowed to the earth; about which, as on a huge snow-covered mass of rock, dwarf shapes are clustered here and there. Enhancing the weird effect of the whole, stand three lightning-scathed oaks, each of which, ‘as if threaten¬ing heaven with vengeance, holds out a withered hand.’ An exquisite piece of decorative work occupies the foot of the page.
In all these works the Designer’s genius floats loose and rudderless; a phantom ship on a phantom sea. He pro¬jects himself into shapeless dreams, instead of into fair definite forms, as already in the Songs of Innocence he had shown that he could do; and hereafter will again in the tasks so happily prescribed by others:—the illustrations to Young, to Blair’s Grave, to Job, to Dante. In
these amorphous Prophecies are profusely scattered the unhewn materials of poetry and design: sublime hints are sown broad-cast. But alas! whether Blake were definite or indefinite in his conceptions, he was alike ignored. He had not the faculty to make himself popular, even with a far more intelligent public as to Art than any which existed during the reign of George the Third.
In 1794, Flaxman returned from his seven years’ stay in Italy; with well-stored portfolios, with more than ever classicized taste, and at Rome having made for discerning patrons those designs from Homer, Æschylus, and Dante, which were afterwards to spread his fame-through Europe. He returned to be promoted R.A. at once, and to set up house and studio in Buckingham Street, Fitzroy Square,— then a new, scantily peopled region, lying open to the hills of Hampstead and Highgate. In these premises he con¬tinued till his death in 1826. Piroli, a Roman artist, had been engaged to engrave the above-mentioned graceful com¬positions from the poets. His first set of plates,—those to the Odyssey,—were lost in the voyage to England, and Blake was employed to make engravings in their stead, although Piroli’s name still remained on the general title-page (dated 1793); probably as being likelier credentials with the public. Piroli subsequently engraved the Outlines to Æschylus, to the Iliad, &c. Blake’s engravings are much less telling, at the first glance, than Piroli’s. Instead of hard, bold, decisive lines, we have softer, lighter ones. But on looking into them we find more of the artist in the one,—as in the beautiful Aphrodite, for instance, a very fine and delicate engraving,—more uniform mechanical effect in the other. Blake’s work is like a drawing, with traces as of a pen; Piroli’s the orthodox copperplate style. Blake, in fact, at that time, etched a good deal more than do ordinary engravers.
One consistent patron there was, whom it has become time to mention. Without his friendly countenance, even less would have remained to show the world, or a portion of it, what manner of man
Blake was. I mean Mr. Thomas Butts, whose long friendship with Blake com¬menced at this period. For nearly thirty years he con¬tinued (with few interruptions) a steady buyer at moderate prices of Blake’s drawings, temperas, frescoes; the only large buyer the artist ever had. Occasionally he would take of Blake a drawing a week. He, in this way, often supplied the imaginative man with the bare means of sub¬sistence when no others existed—at all events from his art. All honour to the solitary appreciator and to his zealous constancy! As years rolled by, Mr. Butts’ house in Fitzroy Square became a perfect Blake Gallery. Fitzroy Square, by the way built in great part by Adelphi Adams, was fashionable in those days. Noblemen were contented to live in its spacious mansions; among other celebrities, General Miranda, the South American hero, abode there.
Mr. Butts was no believer in Blake’s ‘madness.’ Strangers to the man, and they alone, believed in that. Yet he could give piquant accounts of his protégé’s extra¬vagances. One story in particular he was fond of telling, which has been since pretty extensively retailed about town. At the end of the little garden in Hercules Buildings there was a summer-house. Mr. Butts calling one day found Mr. and Mrs. Blake sitting in this summer¬house, freed from ‘those troublesome disguises’ which have prevailed since the Fall. ‘Come in!’ cried Blake ‘it’s only Adam and Eve, you know!’ Husband and wife had been reciting passages from Paradise Lost, in character, and the garden of Hercules Buildings had to represent the Garden of Eden: a little to the scandal of wonder¬ing neighbours, on more than one occasion. However, they knew sufficient of the single-minded artist not wholly to misconstrue such phenomena.’ For my reader not to do so, but frankly to enter into the full simplicity and naïveté of Blake’s character, calls for the exercise of a little imagination on his part. He must go out of himself for a moment, if he would
take such eccentricities for what they are worth, and not draw false conclusions. If he or I— close-tethered as we are to the matter-of-fact world—were on a sudden to wander in so bizarre a fashion from the prescriptive proprieties of life, it would be time for our friends to call in a doctor, or apply for a commission de lunatico. But Blake lived in a world of Ideas; Ideas to him were more real than the actual external world. On this matter, as on all others, he had his own peculiar views. He thought that the Gymnosophists of India, the ancient Britons, and others of whom History- tells, who went naked, were, in this, wiser than the rest of mankind—pure and wise,—and that it would be well if the world could be as they. From the speculative idea to the experimental realization of it in his own person, was, for him, but a step; though the prejudices of Society would hardly permit the experiment to be more than temporary and private. Another of Blake’s favourite fancies was that he could be, for the time, the historical person into whose character he projected himself: Socrates, Moses, or one of the Prophets. ‘I am Socrates,’ or ‘Moses,’ or ‘the prophet Isaiah,’ he would wildly say; and always, his glowing enthusiasm was mirrored in the still depths of his wife’s nature. This incident of the garden illustrates forcibly the strength of her husband’s influence over her, and the unquestioning manner in which she fell in with all he did or said. When assured by him that she (for the time) was Eve, she would not dream of contradiction—nay, she in a sense believed it. If therefore the anecdote argues madness in one, it argues it in both.
The Blakes do not stand alone, however, in modern history as to eccentric tenets, and even practices, in the article of drapery. Jefferson Hogg, for instance, in his Life of Shelley, tells us of a ‘charming and elegant’ family in the upper ranks of society, whose acquaintance the poet made about 1813, who had embraced the theory of ‘philosophical nakedness.’ The parents believing
in an impending ‘return to nature’ and reason, the pristine state of innocence, prepared their children for the coming millennium by habituating them to run naked about the house, a few hours every day; in which condition they would open the door to welcome Shelley. The mother herself, enthusiastic in the cause,—than whom there was ‘never a more innocent or virtuous lady,’—also rehearsed her part—in private. She would rise betimes, lock herself into her dressing-room, and there for some hours remain (without her clothes) reading and writing; naïvely assuring her friends afterwards that she ‘felt so much the better for it; so innocent during the rest of the day.’ Strange dénouements have happened to other believers in the high physical, moral, and æsthetic advantages of nudity. Hogg tells another story,—of Dr. Franklin; who wrote, on merely sanitary grounds, in favour of morning ‘air-baths.’ The philosopher, by the daily habit of devoting the early hours to study undressed, had so familiarized himself with the practice of his theory, that the absence of mind natural to philosophers led him into inadvertences. Espying once a friend’s maid-servant tripping quickly across the green with a letter in her hand—an important letter he had been eagerly expecting—the philosopher ran out to meet her: at which apparition she fled in terror, screaming. Again, no one ever accused hard-headed, canny Wilkie even of eccentricity. But he was a curious mixture of simplicity, worldliness, and almost fanatical enthusiasm in the practice of his art. One morning, the raw-boned young Scotch-man was discovered by a caller (friend Haydon) drawing from the nude figure before a mirror; a method of study he pronounced ‘verra improving,’ as well as economical! Blake’s vagary, then, we may fairly maintain to be not wholly without parallel on the part of sane men, when carried away by an idea, as at first blush it would seem.
At the period of the enactment of the scene from Milton,
Mrs. Blake was, in person, still a presentable Eve. A ‘brunette’ and ‘very pretty’ are terms I have picked up as conveying something regarding her appearance in more youthful days. Blake himself would boast what a pretty wife he had. She lost her beauty as the seasons sped,— ‘never saw a woman so much altered’ was the impression of one on meeting her again after a lapse of but seven years; a life of hard work and privation having told heavily upon her in the interim. In spirit, she was, at all times, a true Eve to her Adam; and might with the most literal appropriateness have used to him the words of Milton:
‘What thou bid’st
Unargued I obey; so God ordains:
God is thy law, thou mine; to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.
With thee conversing I forget all time;
All seasons and their change, all please alike.’
To her he never seemed erratic or wild. There had indeed at one time been a struggle of wills, but she had yielded; and his was a kind, if firm rule. Surely never had visionary man so loyal and affectionate a wife!