THE SONGS OF EXPERIENCE. 1794. [ÆT. 37]
IN the Songs of Experience, put forth in 1794, as com¬plement to the Songs of Innocence, of 1789, we come again on more lucid writing than the Books of Prophecy last noticed,—writing freer from mysticism and abstractions, if partaking of the same colour of thought. Songs of Innocence and Experience, showing the Two Con¬trary States of the Human Soul: the author and printer, W. Blake, is the general title now given. The first series, quite in keeping with its name, had been of far the more heavenly temper. The second, produced during an interval of another five years, bears internal evidence of later origin, though in the same rank as to poetic excellence. As the title fitly shadows, it is of grander, sterner calibre, of gloomier wisdom. Strongly contrasted, but harmonious phases of poetic thought are presented by the two series.
One poem in the Songs of Experience happens to have been quoted often enough, (first by Allan Cunningham, in connexion with Blake’s name), to have made its strange old Hebrew-like grandeur, its Oriental latitude yet force of eloquence, comparatively familiar:—The Tiger. To it Charles Lamb refers: ‘I have heard of his poems,’ writes he, ‘but have never seen them. There is one to a tiger, beginning—
Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
which is glorious!’
Of the prevailing difference of sentiment between these poems and the Songs of Innocence, may be singled out as examples The Clod and the Pebble, and even so slight a piece as The Fly; and in a more sombre mood, The Garden of Love, The Little Boy Lost, Holy Thursday (anti-type to the poem of the same title in Songs of Innocence), The Angel, The Human Abstract, The Poison Tree, and above all, London. One poem, The Little Girl Lost, may startle the literal reader, but has an inverse moral truth and beauty of its own. Another, The Little Girl Lost, and Little Girl Found, is a daringly emblematic anticipation of some future age of gold, and has the picturesqueness of Spenserian allegory, lit with the more ethereal spiritualism of Blake. Touched by
‘The light that never was on sea or shore,’
is this story of the carrying off of the sleeping little maid by friendly beasts of prey, who gambol round her as she lies; the kingly lion bowing ‘his mane of gold,’ and on her neck dropping ‘from his eyes of flame, ruby tears’; who, when her parents seek the child, brings them to his cave; and
They look upon his eyes,
Filled with deep surprise;
And wondering behold
A spirit armed in gold!
Well might Flaxman exclaim, ‘Sir, his poems are as grand as his pictures.’ Wordsworth read them with delight, and used the words before quoted. Blake himself thought his poems finer than his designs. Hard to say which are the more uncommon in kind. Neither, as I must reiterate, reached his own generation. In Malkin’s Memoirs of a Child, specimens from the Poetical Sketches and Songs of Innocence and Experience were given; for these poems struck the well-meaning scholar, into whose hands by chance they
fell, as somewhat astonishing; as indeed they struck most who stumbled on them. But Malkin’s Memoirs was itself a book not destined to circulate very freely; and the poems of Blake, even had they been really known to their generation, were not calculated in their higher quali¬ties to win popular favour,—not if they had been free from technical imperfection. For it was an age of polish, though mostly polish of trifles; not like the present age, with its slovenliness and licence. Deficient finish was never a characteristic of the innovator Wordsworth himself who started from the basis of Pope and Goldsmith; and whose matter, rather than manner, was obnoxious to critics. Defiant carelessness, though Coleridge in his Juvenile Poems was often guilty of it, did not become a characteristic of English verse, until the advent of Keats and Shelley; poets of imaginative virtue enough to cover a multitude of their own and other people’s sins. The length to which it has since run (despite Tennyson) we all know.
Yet in this very inartificiality lies the secret of Blake’s rare and wondrous success. Whether in design or in poetry, he does, in very fact, work as a man already practised in one art, beginning anew in another; express¬ing himself with virgin freshness of mind in each, and in each realizing, by turns, the idea flung out of that prodigal cornucopia of thought and image, Pippa Passes:— ‘If there should arise a new painter, will it not be in some such way by a poet, now, or a musician (spirits who have conceived and perfected an ideal through some other channel), transferring it to this, and escaping our conven¬tional roads by pure ignorance of them?’ Even Malkin, with real sense, observes of the poet in general,—his mind ‘is too often at leisure for the mechanical prettinesses of cadence and epithet, when it ought to be engrossed by higher thoughts. Words and numbers present themselves unbidden when the soul is inspired by sentiment, elevated by enthusiasm, or ravished by devotion.’ Yes! ravished by devotion. For in these songs of
Blake’s occurs devotional poetry, which is real poetry too—a very excep¬tional thing. Witness that simple and beautiful poem entitled The Divine Image, or that On Another’s Sorrow. The Songs of Innocence are in truth animated by an uniform sentiment of deep piety, of reverent feeling, and may be said, in their pervading influence, to be one devout aspira¬tion throughout. The Songs of Experience consist rather of earnest, impassioned arguments; in this differing from the simple affirmations of the earlier Songs of Innocence,— arguments on the loftiest themes of existence.
After the Songs of Experience, Blake never again sang to like angelic tunes; nor even with the same approach to technical accuracy. His poetry was the blossom of youth and early manhood. Neither in design did he improve on the tender grace of some of these illustrations; irregulari¬ties became as conspicuous in it, as in his verse; though in age he attained to nobler heights of sublimity, as the Inventions to Job will exemplify.
Let us again take a glance at what was going on con¬temporaneously in English literature during the years 1789-94. In novels, these were the days of activity of the famous Minerva Press, with Perdita Robinson and melan¬choly Charlotte Smith as leaders. Truer coin was cir¬culated by Godwin (St. Leon appeared in 1799), by Zeluco Moore, by Mrs. Radcliffe (Mysteries of Udolpho, in 1794), by Monk Lewis, the sisters Lee, Mrs. Inchbald, and Mrs. Opie. In verse, it was the hour of the sentimental Della Cruscans, Madame Piozzi, Mrs. Robinson again, ‘Mr. Merry,’ and others. On these poor butterflies, Gifford, in this very year, laid his coarse, heavy hand; himself as empty a versifier, if smarter. Glittering Darwin, whose Loves of the Plants delighted the reading world in 1789, smooth Hayley, Anna Seward, ‘Swan of Lichfield,’ were popular poets. In satire, Dr. Wolcott was punctually receiving from the booksellers his unconscionably long annuity of two hundred and fifty pounds, for copious Peter Pindarisms, fugitive odes, and epistles. In
the region of enduring literature, Cowper had closed his contributions to poetry by the translation of Homer, The third reprint of Burns’s Poems, with Tam O’Shanter for one addition, had appeared at Edinburgh in 1793; and the poet himself took leave of this rude world in 1796. Crabbe had achieved his first success. Among rising juniors was Rogers, who had made his début in 1786, the same year as Burns; and in 1792, the Pleasures of Memory established a lasting reputation for its author,—a thing it would hardly do now. A little later (1799), stripling Campbell’s Pleasures of Hope will leap through four editions in a year. Bloomfield is in 1793—4 jotting down The Farmer’s Boy; Wordsworth shaping the first example, but a diffuse one, of that new kind of poetry which was hereafter to bring refreshment and happiness to many hearts,—Guilt and Sorrow; still one of his least read poems.
In the newly-opened fruitful domain of poetic anti¬quarianism,—the eighteenth century’s best poetic bequest,—Bishop Percy had found a zealous follower in choleric, trenchant Joseph Ritson, who in 1791 published his Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry, and in 1795 Robin Hood. In 1790 had appeared Ellis’s Specimens of the Early English Poets.
Surely there was room for Blake’s pure notes of song— still, in 1860, fresh as when first uttered—to have been heard. But it was fated otherwise. Half a century later, they attracted the attention of a sympathiser with all mystics and spiritualists, Dr. Wilkinson, the editor of Swedenborg. Under his auspices, the Songs of Innocence and Experience were reprinted, or rather first printed, as a thin octavo, without illustrations, by Pickering, in Chancery Lane, and W. Newberry, in Chenies Street, both extinct publishers now. A very limited impression was taken off, and the reprint soon became almost as scarce as the costly and beautiful original. During the last few years I have observed only three copies turn up—two at the fancy prices of £1 8s. and £1 7s. 6d.; the other, secured by my¬self at
a more moderate outlay. Consisting, as they did, of loose sheets, the Songs have seldom been bound up twice alike, and are generally even numbered wrong. Dr. Wilkinson printed them in an order of his own, and too often with words of his own; alterations which were by no means improvements always.
A few words of bibliographic detail may perhaps be permitted for the collector’s sake, considering the extreme beauty, the singularity, and rarity of the original book.
The illustrated Songs of Innocence and Experience was issued to Blake’s public, to his own friends that is, at the modest price of thirty shillings and two guineas. Its sell¬ing price now, when perfect, varies from ten and twelve guineas upwards.1 From the circumstance of its having lain on hand in sheets, and from some purchasers having preferred to buy or bind only select portions, the series often occurs short of many plates—generally wants one or two. The right number is fifty-four engraved pages.
Later in Blake’s life,—for the sheets always remained in stock,—five guineas were given him, and in some cases, when intended as a delicate means of helping the artist, larger sums. Flaxman recommended more than one friend to take copies, a Mr. Thomas among them, who, wishing to give the artist a present, made the price ten guineas. For such a sum Blake could hardly do enough, finishing the plates like miniatures, In the last years of his life, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Sir Francis Chantrey, and others, paid as much as twelve and twenty guineas; Blake conscientiously working up the colour and finish, and perhaps over-labouring them, in return; printing off only on one side of the leaf, and expanding the book by help of
margin into a handsome quarto. If without a sixpence in his pocket, he was always too justly proud to confess it: so that, whoever desired to give Blake money, had to do it indirectly, to avoid offence, by purchasing copies of his works; which, too, might have hurt his pride, had he suspected the secret motive, though causelessly; for he really gave, as he well knew, far more than an intrinsic equivalent.
The early, low-priced copies,—Flaxman’s for instance,—though slighter in colour, possess a delicacy of feeling, a freshness of execution, often lost in the richer, more laboured examples, especially in those finished after the artist’s death, by his widow. One of the latter I have noticed, very full and heavy in colour, the tints laid on with a strong and indiscriminating touch.
Other considerable varieties of detail in the final touches by hand exist. There are copies in which certain minutia are finished with unusual care and feeling. The prevailing ground-colour of the writing and illustrations also varies. Sometimes it is yellow, sometimes blue, and so on. In one copy the writing throughout is yellow, not a happy effect Occasionally the colour is carried further down the page than the ruled space; a stream say, as in The Lamb, is introduced. Of course, therefore, the degrees of merit vary greatly between one copy and another, both as a whole and in the parts. A few were issued plain, in black and white, or blue and white, which are more legible than the polychrome examples. In these latter, the red or yellow lettering being sometimes unrelieved by a white ground, we have, instead of contrasted hue, gradations of it, as in a picture.
Out of the destruction that has engulfed so large a portion of Blake’s copper-plates, partly owing to the poverty which compelled him often to obliterate his own work, that the same metal might serve again, partly to the neglect, and worse than neglect, of some of those into whose hands they fell, we have happily been able
to enrich our pages from a remnant,—ten plates, taking off sixteen impressions (a few having been engraved on both sides),—of the Songs of Innocence and Experience. The gentleman from whom they were obtained had once the entire series in his possession; but all save these ten were stolen by an un¬grateful black he had befriended, who sold them to a smith as old metal.