PRODUCTIVE YEARS. 1794—95. [ÆT. 37—38]
TO the Songs of Experience succeeded from Lambeth the same year (1794) volumes of mystic verse and design, in the track of the Visions of the Daughters of Albion, and the America. One of them is a sequel to the America, and generally occurs bound up with it, sometimes coloured, sometimes plain. It is entitled Europe, a Prophecy: Lambeth, printed by William Blake, 1794; and consists of seventeen quarto pages, with designs of a larger size than those of America, occupying the whole page often. The frontispiece repre¬sents the ‘Ancient of Days,’ as shadowed forth in Pro¬verbs viii. 27: ‘when he set a compass upon the face of the earth’; and again, as described in Paradise Lost, Book vii. line 236: a grand figure, ‘in an orb of light sur¬rounded by dark clouds, is stooping down, with an enormous pair of compasses, to describe the world’s destined orb’; Blake adopting with child-like fidelity, but in a truly sublime spirit, the image of the Hebrew and English poets. This composition was an especial favourite with its designer. When colouring it by hand, he ‘always bestowed more time,’ says Smith, ‘and enjoyed greater pleasure in the task, than from anything else he produced.’ The process of colouring his designs was never to him, however, a mechanical or irksome one. Very different feelings were his from those of a mere copyist. Throughout life, whenever for his few patrons filling in the colour to his engraved books, he lived anew the first fresh, happy experiences of conception, as in the high hour of in¬spiration.
Smith tells us that Blake ‘was inspired with the splendid grandeur of this figure, ‘ The Ancient of Days,’ by the vision which he declared hovered over his head at the top of his staircase’ in No. 13, Hercules Buildings, and that ‘he has been frequently heard to say that it made a more powerful impression upon his mind than all he had ever been visited by.’ On that same staircase it was Blake, for the only time in life, saw a ghost. When talk¬ing on the subject of ghosts, he was wont to say they did not appear much to imaginative men, but only to common minds, who did not see the finer spirits. A ghost was a thing seen by the gross bodily eye, a vision, by the mental. ‘Did you ever see a ghost?’ asked a friend. ‘Never but once,’ was the reply And it befel thus. Standing one evening at his garden-door in Lambeth, and chancing to look up, he saw a horrible grim figure, ‘scaly, speckled, very awful,’ stalking downstairs towards him. More frightened than ever before or after, he took to his heels, and ran out of the house.
It is hard to describe poems wherein the dramatis persona’ are giant shadows, gloomy phantoms; the scene, the realms of space; the time, of such corresponding vast¬ness, that eighteen hundred years pass as a dream:—
* * * *
She slept in middle of her nightly song,
Eighteen hundred years.
More apart from humanity even than the America, we are baffled in the endeavour to trace out any distinct subject, any plan or purpose, in the Europe, or to deter¬mine whether it mainly relate to the past, present, or to come. And yet, though the natural impulse is to close such a book in despair, we can testify to the reader, that were it his lot, as it has been ours, to read and re-read many times this and other of the ‘prophetic’ volumes, he would do so with a deepening conviction that their in¬coherence has a grandeur about
it, as that of a man whose eyes are fixed on strange and awful sights, invisible to bystanders. To use an expression of Blake’s own, on a subsequent occasion, it is as if the ‘Visions were angry,’ and hurried in stormy disorder before his rapt gaze, no longer to bless and teach, but to bewilder and confound.
The Preludium, and the two accompanying specimen pages, which give a portion of both words and design, will enable the reader to form some idea of the poem. There occurs in one passage an allusion to the Courts of Law at Westminster, which is a striking instance of that occasional mingling of the actual with the purely symbolic, before spoken of. Perhaps the broidery of spider’s web which so felicitously embellishes the pages, was meant to bear a typical reference to the same. The Preludium, and the accompanying specimen pages, which give a portion of both words and design, will enable the reader to form some idea of the poem.
The ‘nameless shadowy female,’ with whose lamenta¬tion the poem opens, personifies Europe as it would seem; her head (the mountains) turbaned with clouds, and round her limbs, the ‘sheety waters’ wrapped; whilst Eni¬tharmon symbolizes great mother Nature:—
The nameless shadowy female rose from out
The breast of Orc,
Her snaky hair brandishing in the winds of Enitharmon:
And thus her voice arose:—
‘O mother Enitharmon, wilt thou bring forth other sons?
‘To cause my name to vanish, that my place may not be found?
‘For I am faint with travel!
‘Like the dark cloud disburdened in the day of dismal thunder.
‘My roots are brandish’d in the heavens; my fruits in earth beneath,
‘Surge, foam, and labour into life!—first born, and first consum’d,
‘Consumed and consuming!
‘Then why shouldst thou, accursed mother! bring me into life?
‘I weep!—my turban of thick clouds around my lab’ring head;
‘And fold the sheety waters as a mantle round my limbs.
‘Yet the red sun and moon
‘And all the overflowing stars rain down prolific pains.
‘Unwilling I look up to heaven: unwilling count the stars,
‘Sitting in fathomless abyss of my immortal shrine.
‘I seize their burning power,
‘And bring forth howling terrors and devouring fiery kings!
‘Devouring and devoured, roaming on dark and desolate mountains,
‘In forests of eternal death, shrieking in hollow trees,
‘Ah! mother Enitharmon I
‘Stamp not with solid form this vig’rous progeny of fire!
‘I bring forth from my teeming bosom, myriads of flames,
‘And thou dost stamp them with a signet. Then they roam abroad,
‘And leave me, void as death.
‘Ah! I am drown’d in shady woe, and visionary joy.
‘And who shall bind the infinite with an eternal band?
‘To compass it with swaddling bands? And who shall cherish it
‘With milk and honey?
‘I see it smile, and I roll inward, and my voice is past.’
She ceas’d; and rolled her shady clouds
Into the secret place.
So rapid was the production of this class of Blake’s writings, that notwithstanding their rich and elaborate decoration, and the tedious process by which the whole had to be, with his own hand, engraved and afterwards coloured, the same year witnessed the completion of another, and the succeeding year, of two more ‘prophetic books.’ The Book of Urizen (1794) was the title of the next. The same may be said of it as of its predecessors. Like them, the poem is shapeless, unfathomable; but in the heaping up of gloomy and terrible images, the America and Europe are even exceeded. It throws, however, some vivid though confused glimpses of light upon the specula¬tive conceptions of Blake himself—conceptions not essenti¬ally
undevout, but much the reverse, in their own audacious, iconoclastic way.
The following striking passage, which describes the appearing of the first woman, will serve as an example of Urizen:—
At length, in tears and cries, embodied
A female form trembling and pale
Waves before his deathly face.
All Eternity shudder’d at sight
Of the first female form, now separate,
Pale as a cloud of snow,
Waving before the face of Los!
Wonder, awe, fear, astonishment,
Petrify the eternal myriads
At the first female form now separate.
They call’d her Pity, and fled!
‘Spread a tent with strong curtains around them:
‘Let cords and stakes bind in the Void,
‘That Eternals may no more behold them!’
They began to weave curtains of darkness.
They erected large pillars round the void;
With golden hooks fastened in the pillars;
With infinite labour, the Eternals
A woof wove, and called it Science.
The design, like the text, is characterized by a monotony of horror. Every page may be said as a furnace mouth to
‘Cast forth redounding smoke and ruddy flame,’
in the midst of which are figures howling, weeping, writh¬ing, or chained to rocks, or hurled headlong into the abyss. There are grand things among them. Of the more strik¬ing, we recall a figure that stoops over and seems breathing upon a globe enveloped in flames, the lines of fire flowing into those of his drapery and hair; an old, amphibious-looking giant, with rueful visage, letting himself
sink slowly through the waters like a frog; a skeleton coiled round, resembling a fossil giant imbedded in the rock, &c. The colouring is rich,—a little overcharged perhaps in the copy I have seen,—and gold-leaf has been freely used, to heighten the effect.
Still another volume bears date 1794,—a small quarto, consisting of twenty-three engraved and coloured designs, without letter-press, explanation, or key of any kind. The designs are of various size, all fine in colour, all extra¬ordinary, some beautiful, others monstrous, abounding in forced attitudes, and suspicious anatomy. The frontis¬piece, adopted from Urizen, is inscribed Lambeth, printed by Will. Blake, 1794, and has the figure of an aged man, naked, with white beard sweeping the ground, and extended arms, each hand resting on a pile of books, and each hold¬ing a pen, wherewith he writes. The volume seems to be a carefully finished selection of favourite compositions from his portfolios and engraved books. Four are recog¬nisable as the principal designs of the Book of Thel modified in outline, and in colour richer and deeper. One occurs in the Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Another will hereafter reappear in the illustrations to The Grave:— ‘The spirit of the strong wicked man going forth.’
The Song of Los (1795) is in metrical prose, and is divided into two portions, one headed Africa, the other Asia. In it, we again, as in the America, seem to catch a thread of connected meaning. It purports to show the rise and influence of different religions and philosophies upon mankind; but, according to Blake’s wont, both action and dialogue are carried on, not by human agents, but by shadowy immortals, Orc, Sotha, Palamabron, Rintrah, Los, and many more:—
Then Rintrah gave abstract philosophy to Brama in the East;
(Night spoke to the cloud—
‘So these human-formed spirits in smiling hypocrisy war
‘Against one another: so let them war on!
‘Slaves to the eternal elements!’)
Next, Palamabron gave an ‘abstract law’ to Pythagoras; then also to Socrates and Plato:—
Times roll’d on o’er all the sons of men,
till Christianity dawns. Monasticism is spoken of:—
* * * The healthy built,
Secluded places: * * *
Afterwards as becoming a fruitful source of spiritual cor¬ruption:—
Then were the churches, hospitals, castles, palaces,
Like nets and gins and traps to catch the joys of eternity;
And all the rest a desert,
Till like a dream, eternity was obliterated and erased.
Prior to this, however—
Antamon call’d up Leutha from her valleys of delight,
And to Mahomet a loose Bible gave.
But in the North to Odin, Sotha gave a code of war.
A gradual debasement of the human race goes on—
Till a philosophy of five senses was complete!
Urizen wept, and gave it into the hands of Newton and Locke.
Clouds roll heavy upon the Alps round Rousseau and Voltaire.
And on the mountains of Lebanon round the deceas’d gods of Asia,
And on the deserts of Africa round the Fallen Angels.
The Guardian Prince of Albion burns in his nightly tent!
Under the symbol of the kings of Asia, the Song describes the misery of the old philosophies and despot¬isms; their bitter lament and prayer that by pestilence and fire the race may be saved; ‘that a remnant may learn to obey’:—
The Kings of Asia heard
The howl rise up from Europe!
And each ran out from his web,
From his ancient woven den:
For the darkness of Asia was startled
At the thick-flaming, thought-creating fires of Orc.
And the Kings of Asia stood
And cried in bitterness of soul:—
‘Shall not the King call for Famine from the heath?
‘Nor the Priest for Pestilence from the fen?
‘To restrain! to dismay! to thin,
‘The inhabitants of mountain and plain!
‘In the day of full-feeding prosperity,
‘And the night of delicious songs?’
Urizen heard their cry:—
And stretched his clouds over Jerusalem:
For Adam, a mouldering skeleton,
Lay bleached on the garden of Eden;
And Noah, as white as snow,
On the mountains of Ararat.
He thunders desolately from the heavens; Ore rises ‘like a pillar of fire above the Alps,’ the earth shrinks, the resurrection of dry bones is described, and the poem concludes.
Orc, that spirit of most volcanic nature whom we hear of so frequently throughout the ‘Prophetic Books,’ seems (for a too positive assertion were unwise) to represent the wild energies of nature, and more especially of man: the ‘natural man’ in a state of permanent revolt and protest against the tyranny of Urizen, Theotormon, &c.
Of the illustrations, two are separate pictures occupying the full page; the rest surround and blend with the text in the usual manner; and if they have not all the beauty, they share a full measure of the spirit and force of Blake. The colour is laid on with an impasto which gives an opaque and heavy look to some of them, and the medium being oil, the surface and tints have suffered. Here, as elsewhere, the designs seldom directly embody the subjects of the poem, but are independent though kindred concep¬tions—the right method perhaps.
As if the artist himself were at length beginning to grow weary,
The Book of Ahania (1795), last of this series, is quite unadorned, except by two vignettes, one on the title, the other on the concluding page. The text is neatly engraved in plain black and white, without border or decoration of any kind. There are lines and passages of much force and beauty, but they emerge from surrounding obscurity like lightning out of a cloud:—
‘And ere a man hath power to say—Behold!
The jaws of darkness do devour it up.’
The first half of the poem is occupied with the dire warfare between Urizen and his rebellious son, Fuzon. Their weapons are thus described:—
The broad disk of Urizen upheaved,
Across the void many a mile.
It was forged in mills where the winter
Beats incessant: ten winters the disk
Unremitting endured the cold hammer.
But it proves ineffectual against Fuzon’s fiery beam:—
* * Laughing, it tore through
That beaten mass; keeping its direction,
The cold loins of Urizen dividing.
Wounded and enraged, Urizen prepares a bow formed of the ribs of a huge serpent—‘ a circle of darkness ’—and strung with its sinews, by which Fuzon is smitten down into seeming death. In the midst of the conflict, Ahania, who is called ‘the parted soul of Urizen,’ is cast forth:—
She fell down, a faint shadow wand’ring
In chaos and circling dark Urizen,
As the moon anguish’d circles the earth;
Hopeless! abhorr’d I a death-shadow
Unseen, unbodied, unknown I
The mother of Pestilence!
Her lamentation, from which we draw our final extract, fills the concluding portion of the poem:—
Ah, Urizen! Love!
Flower of morning! I weep on the verge
Of non-entity: how wide the abyss
Between Ahania and thee!
* * * * *
I cannot touch his hand,
Nor weep on his knees, nor hear
His voice and bow; nor see his eyes
And joy; nor hear his footsteps and
My heart leap at the lovely sound!
I cannot kiss the place
Whereon his bright feet have trod.
But I wander on the rocks
With hard necessity.
While intent on the composition and execution of these mystic books, Blake did not neglect the humble task-work which secured him a modest independence. He was at this very time busy on certain plates for a book of travels, Captain J. G. Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. This work, ‘illustrated with eighty elegant engravings from drawings made by the author,’ was published by Johnson the following year (1796). Of these’ elegant engravings’ Blake executed fourteen; Holloway and Bartolozzi were among those employed for the remainder. Negroes, monkeys, ‘Limes, Capsicums, Mummy-apples,’ and other natural productions of the country, were the chief subjects which fell to Blake’s share.
Also among the fruit of this period should be particular¬ised two prints in which the figures are on a larger scale than in any other engravings by Blake. They are both from his own designs. Under the first is inscribed:— Ezekiel: ‘ Take away from thee the desire of Mine eyes.’ Ezek. xxiv. 17. Painted and Engraved by W Blake. Oct. 27, 1794. 13, Hercules Buildings. Ezekiel kneels
with arms crossed and eyes uplifted in stern and tearless grief, according to God’s command: beside him is one of those solemn bowed figures, with hidden face, and hair sweeping the ground, Blake often, and with such powerful effect, introduces: and on a couch in the background lies the shrouded corpse of Ezekiel’s wife.
The subject of the other, which corresponds in size and style, is from the Book of Job:—‘ What is man, that thou shouldst try him every moment?’ It possesses a peculiar interest as being the first embodiment of Blake’s ideas upon a theme, thirty years later, to be developed in that series of designs—the Inventions to the Book of Job; which, taken as a grand harmonious whole, is an instance of rare individual genius, of the highest art with whatever com¬pared, that certainly constitutes his masterpiece. The figure of Job himself, in the early design, is the . same as that in the Inventions. But the wife is a totally different conception, being of a hard and masculine type.