AT WORK FOR THE PUBLISHERS. 1795—99. [æt. 38—42]
In 1795-6, Miller, the publisher, of Old Bond Street employed Blake to illustrate a new edition in quarto, of a translation of Bürger’s Lenore, by one Mr. J. T. Stanley, F.R.S. The first edition (1786), had preceded by ten years Sir Walter Scott’s translation, which came out at the same time as Stanley’s new edition. The amateur version amounts to a paraphrase, not to say a new poem; the original being ‘altered and added to,’ to square it with ‘the cause of religion and morality.’ Blake’s illustrations are engraved by a man named Perry, and are three in number. One is a frontispiece—Lenore clasping her ghostly bridegroom on their earth-scorning charger; groups of imps and spectres from hell hovering above and dancing below; a composition full of grace in the principal figures, wild horror and diablerie in the accessories. Another — a vignette — is an idealized procession of Prussian soldiers, escorted by their friends; Lenore and her mother vainly gazing into the crowd in quest of their missing William. It is a charmingly composed group, characterized by more than Stothard’s grace and statuesque beauty. The third illustration, also a vignette, is the awakening of Lenore from her terrible dream, William rushing into her arms in the presence of the old St. Anna-like mother—for such is the turn the catastrophe takes under Mr. Stanley’s hands. This again is a composition of much daring and grace; its principal female figure, one of those spiritual, soul-startled forms Blake alone of men could draw. To Stanley’s
translation the publisher added the original German poem, with two engravings after Chodowiecki, ‘the German Hogarth,’ as he has been called, which, though clever, look, as here executed, prosaic compared with Blake.
Edwards, of New Bond Street, at that day a leading bookseller, engaged Blake, in 1796, to illustrate an expensive edition, emulating Boydell’s Shakspere and Milton, of Young’s Night Thoughts. The Night Thoughts was then, as it had been for more than half a century, a living classic, which rival booksellers delighted to re-publish. Edwards paid his designer and engraver ‘a despicably low sum,’ says Smith, which means, I believe, a guinea a plate. And yet, the prefatory Advertisement, dated December 22, 1796, tells us that the enterprise had been undertaken by the publisher ‘not as a speculation of advantage, but as an indulgence of inclination, in which fondness and partiality would not permit him to be curiously accurate in adjusting the estimate of profit and loss’; undertaken also from the wish ‘to make the arts in their most honourable agency subservient to the purposes of religion.’ In the same preface, written with Johnsonian swing, by Fuseli probably—the usual literary help of fine-art publishers in those days—and who I suspect had something to do with Edwards’ choice of artist, ‘the merit of Mr. Blake’ is spoken of in terms which show it to have been not wholly ignored then: ‘to the eyes of the discerning it need not be pointed out; and while a taste for the arts of design shall continue to exist, the original conception, and the bold and masterly execution of this artist cannot be unnoticed or unadmired.’ The edition, which was to have been issued in parts, never got beyond the first; public encouragement proving inadequate. This part extends to ninety-five pages,—to the end of Night the Fourth,—and includes forty-three designs. It appeared in the autumn of 1797.
These forty-three plates occupied Blake a year. A complete set of drawings for them had been made, which were afterwards sold by
Edwards for twenty guineas, and passed ultimately, I am told, into one of the royal collections. At this very time was preparing, and in 1802 was published by Vernor and Hood, and the trade, an octavo edition of Young, illustrated by Stothard, which did prove successful,
Edwards’ edition was as much a book of design as of type; splendidly printed in folio on thick paper, with an ample margin to each page. Around every alternate leaf Blake engraved wild, allegorical figures; designs little adapted to the apprehension of his public. He so engraved them as to make a picture of the whole page, as in his own illustrated poems; but not with an equally felicitous result, when combined with formal print. To each of the four Nights was prefixed an introductory design or title. The illustrations have one very acceptable aid, and that is, a written ‘explanation of the engravings ‘ at the end; drawn up or put into shape by another hand than Blake’s,—the same possibly which had penned the Advertisement It would be well if all his designs had this help. For at once literal in his translation of word into line, daring and unhackneyed in his manner of indicating his pregnant allegories, Blake’s conceptions do not always explain themselves at a glance, and without their meaning, half their beauty too must needs be lost.
Looked at merely as marginal book illustrations, the engravings are not strikingly successful. The space to be filled in these folio pages is of itself too large, and the size of the outlines is æsthetically anything but a gain. For such meanings as Blake’s, not helped by the thousand charms of the painter’s language, can be advantageously compressed into small space. The oft-repeated, colossal limbs of Death and Time sprawling across the page,— figures too large for the margin of the book, and necessarily always alike,—become somewhat uninteresting. How little Blake was adapted to ingratiate himself with the public, the whole series exemplifies. The general spectator will find these designs, all harping on life, death, and immortality,
far from attractive; austere themes austerely treated, if also sweetly and grandly; without even the relief of so much admixture of worldly topic and image as is introduced in the text of the epigrammatic poet. There is monotony of subject, of treatment, of handling the graver even. Blake’s art, never imitative, but the expression of ideas pure and simple, ideas similar to those literature is commonly employed to convey, yet transcending words, is at the very opposite pole to that of the great mass of modern painters. There is little or no individuality in his faces, if more in his forms. Typical forms and faces, abstract impersonations, are used to express his meaning. Everything,— figures, landscape, costume, accessory,—is reduced to its elemental shape, its simplest guise—’ bare earth, bare sky, and ocean bare.’
The absence of colour, the use of which Blake so well understood, to relieve his simple design and heighten its significance, is a grave loss. I have seen one copy of the Young, originally coloured for Mr. Butts, now in the hands of Mr. Monckton Milnes, much improved by the addition forming a book of great beauty.
Many of these designs, taken by themselves, are however surpassingly imaginative and noble. As the first— ‘Death, in the character of an old man, having swept away with one hand part of a family, is presenting with the other their spirits to immortality’; in which, as often happens with Blake, separate parts are even more beautiful compositions than the whole. And again, the literal
translation into outline of a passage few other artists would have selected, to render closely:—
‘What though my soul fantastic measures trod
O’er fairy fields; or mourn’d along the gloom
Of pathless woods; or down the craggy steep
Hurl’d headlong; swam with pain the mantled pool
Or scaled the cliff, or danced on hollow winds,
With antic shapes, wild natives of the brain.
Again, the illustration to the line—
‘’Tis greatly wise to talk with our past hours,’
in which ‘the hours are drawn as aërial and shadowy beings some of whom are bringing their scrolls to the inquirer, while others are carrying their records to heaven.’ Again, ‘the author, encircled by thorns emblematical of grief, laments the loss of his friend to the midnight hours,’ here also represented as aërial shadowy beings. A grand embodiment is that of the Vale of Death, where ‘the power of darkness broods over his victims as they are borne down to the grave by the torrent of a sinful life’ the life stream showing imploring, upturned faces rising to the surface, of infancy, youth, age; while the pure, lovely figure of Narcissa wanders in the shade beside.
Of a higher order still, are some illustrations in which the designer chooses themes of his own, parallel to, or even independent of the text, not mere translations of it. As to the line—
‘Its favours here are trials not rewards, ’
where in exemplification of the ‘frailty of the blessings of this life, the happiness of a little family is suddenly destroyed by the accident of the husband’s death from the bite of a serpent.’ The father is writhing in the serpent’s sudden coil, while beside him his beautiful wife, as yet unconscious of his fate, is bending over, and holding back her infant, who stretches out eager little hands to grasp a bird on the wing. A truly pregnant allegory, nobly designed, and of Raffaelesque grace. On so slight a hint as the line—
‘Oft burst my song beyond the bounds of life, ’
a lovely and spiritual ‘figure holding a lyre, and springing into the air, but confined by a chain to the earth,’ typifies ‘the struggling of the soul for immortality.’ The line—
‘We censure nature for a span too short,’
waywardly suggests a naïve but fine composition of ‘a man measuring an infant with his span, in allusion to the shortness of life.’ To the words—
‘Know like the Median, fate is in thy walls,’
we have of course the story of Belshazzar. Illustrative of the axiom ‘teaching we learn,’ is introduced an unaffected and beautiful group, an aged father instructing his children.
Some of the designs trench on those afterwards more matured in Blair’s Grave: as ‘Angels attending the deathbed of the righteous,’ and ‘Angels conveying the spirit of the good man to heaven,’ both of aërial tenderness and grace. ‘A skeleton discovering the first symptoms of reanimation on the sounding of the archangel’s trump,’ is precisely the same composition as one introduced in The Grave, except that in the earlier design the foreshortened figure of the archangel is different and finer.
Throughout, the familiar abstractions Death and Time are originally conceived, as they had need be, recurring so frequently. They are personified by grand, colossal figures. Instead of the hackneyed convention of a skeleton, Death appears as a solemn, draped, visionary figure. So, too, the conventional wings of angel and spirit are dispensed with. The literalness with which the poet’s metaphors are occasionally embodied, is a startling and not always felicitous invasion of the province of words. As when Death summons the living ‘from sleep to his kingdom the grave,’ with a handbell; or ‘plucks the sun from his sphere.’ Or again, when a personification of the Sun hides his face at the crucifixion; or another of Thunder, directs the poet to admiration of God; all which difficulties are fearlessly handled. Any less daring man would have fared worse. In Blake’s conceptions it is hit or miss, and the miss is a wide one: witness the ‘Resurrection of our Saviour,’ and ‘Our Saviour in the furnace of affliction’; large, soulless figures, quite destitute of Blake’s genius.
Excepting one or two such as I have last named, familiarity does much to help the influence of these, as of all Blake’s designs; to deepen the significance of our artist’s high spiritual commentary on the poet; to modify the monotony of the appeal. The first unpleasant effect wears off, of the conventional mannikins which here represent humanity, wherewith gigantic Time and Death disport on the page. Art hath her tropes as well as poetry.
Blake’s Young compares advantageously, I may add, with Stothard’s, whose designs, with some few exceptions, display a very awkward attempt to reconcile the insignia of the matter-of-fact world with those of the spiritual. Better Blake’s nude figures (in which great sacrifices are made to preserve decorum), better his favourite, simple draperies of close-fitting garments, and his typical impersonation of ‘the author,’ than Stothard’s clerical gentleman, in full canonicals, looking, with round-eyed wonder, at the unusual phenomenon of winged angels fluttering above.
Returning to Blake’s career, I find him, in 1799, exhibiting a picture at the Academy, The Last Supper. ‘Verily I say unto you that one of you shall betray Me.’ Among the engravings of the same year are some slight ones after the designs of Flaxman for a projected colossal statue of the allegoric sort for Greenwich Hill, to commemorate Great Britain’s naval triumphs. They illustrate the sculptor’s Letter or quarto pamphlet, addressed to the committee which had started the scheme of such a monument. It is a curious pamphlet to look at now. Flaxman’s design, rigidly classical of course, is not without recommendations, on paper. There is an idea in it, a freshness, purity, grand simplicity we vainly look for in the Argand-lamp style of the Trafalgar Square column, or in any other monument erected of late by the English, so unhappy in their public works.