A NEW LIFE. 1799—1800. [ÆT. 42—43]
ABOUT this time (1800) the ever-friendly Flaxman gave Blake an introduction which had important consequences; involving a sudden change of residence and mode of life. This was in recommending him to Hayley, ‘poet,’ country gentleman, friend and future biographer of Cowper; in which last capacity the world alone remembers him. Then, though few went to see his plays, or read his laboured Life of Milton, he retained a traditional reputa¬tion on the strength of almost his first poem,—still his magnum opus, after nearly twenty years had passed since its appearance,—the Triumphs of Temper. He held, in fact, an honoured place in contemporary literature; his society eagerly sought and obtained, by lovers of letters to mere ordinary squires and neighbours sparingly accorded; to the majority point-blank refused. His name continued to be held in esteem among a slow-going portion of the world, long after his literary ware had ceased to be marketable. People of distinction and position in society,’ princesses of the blood, and others, when visiting Bognor, would, even many years later, go out of their way to see him, as if he had been a Words¬worth.
Between Flaxman and the Hermit of Eartham, as the book-loving squire delighted to subscribe himself friendly relations had, for some twenty years, subsisted. During three of these, Hayley’s acknowledged son (he had no legitimate children), Thomas Alphonso, had been an articled pupil of the sculptor’s. Early in 1798, beginnings
of curvature of the spine had necessitated a return from Flaxman’s roof into Sussex. There, after two years’ more suffering, he died of the accumulated maladies engendered in a weakly constitution by sedentary habits; a victim of forcing, I suspect.
In 1799, the author of the Triumphs of Temper was seeing through the press one of his long Poetical Essays, as smooth and tedious as the rest, on Sculpture; in the form of ‘Epistles to Flaxman.’ It was published in 1800, with three trivial illustrations. Two of these are engraved by Blake: The Death of Demosthenes, after a bald outline by Hayley junior, whom the father easily persuaded himself into believing, as well as styling, his ‘youthful Phidias’; and a portrait of the ‘young sculptor;’ after a medallion by his master, Flaxman, the drawing of which was furnished Blake by Howard; the combined result being indifferent.
On April 25th, 1800, the long intermittent tragedy of Cowper’s life came to an end, amid dark and heavy clouds: the last years of suffering having been smoothed by a pension obtained through Hayley’s intercession. A week later died Hayley’s hapless son. And our poor bard had to solace himself in his own way, by inditing sonnets to his child’s memory, ‘on his pillow,’ at four o’clock in the morning; a daily sonnet or two soon swelling into MS. volumes.
As further consolation, Hayley resolved on ample memoirs of son and friend. To the biography of Cowper he was ultimately urged by Lady Hesketh herself. Dur¬ing one of his frequent flying visits to town, and his friends the Meyers, at Kew, in June, 1800, and while he, nothing loth, was being coaxed to the task of writing. Cowper’s life, the idea was mooted of helping a deserving artist, by the employment of Blake to engrave the illustrations of the projected quarto. And in the same breath followed the proposal for the artist to come and live at Felpham, that, during the book’s progress, he might be near ‘that highly respected hermit,’ as Smith styles the
squire; a generous, if hot-headed hermit, who thought to push Blake’s fortunes, by introducing him to his numerous well-connected friends. All Hayley’s projects were hurried into execution in the very hey-day of conception, or as speedily abandoned. Blake at once fell in with this scheme, encouraged perhaps by the prospect of a patron. And his friend, Mr. Butts, rejoiced aloud, deeming his protégé’s fortune made.
A copy of the Triumphs of Temper (tenth edition), illustrated by Stothard, which had belonged to the poet’s son, and was now given to Blake, contains evidence—in verse of course,—of Hayley’s esteem for him. Perhaps the fact can palliate our insertion of rhymes so guiltless of sense otherwise. It is Smith who is answerable for having preserved them:—
Accept, my gentle visionary Blake,
Whose thoughts are fanciful and kindly mild;
Accept, and fondly keep for friendship’s sake,
This favoured vision, my poetic child!
Rich in more grace than fancy ever won,
To thy most tender mind this book will be,
For it belonged to my departed son;
So from an angel it descends to thee.
W. H. July, 1800.
After seven productive years in Lambeth, the modest house in Hercules Buildings was exchanged for a cottage by the sea, where Blake spent four years; the only portion of his life passed in the country. He was now in his forty-third year, Hayley in his fifty-seventh. In August, Blake went down to Felpham to look at his future home, and secure a house; which he did at an annual rent of twenty pounds: not being provided with one rent-free by Hayley, as some supposed,—a kind of patronage which would have ill suited the artist’s independent spirit The poet was not even his landlord,
owning, in fact, no property in the village beyond what he had bought to build his house on. Blake’s cottage belonged to one Archdeacon Webber, Vicar of Boxgrove.
Hayley, whose forte was not economy nor prudent conduct of any kind, had, by ill-judged generosities and lavish expenditure, seriously incumbered the handsome estate inherited from his father. Felpham, his present retreat, lay some six miles off the patrimonial ‘paradise;’ as he, for once, not hyperbolically styled it—romantic Eartham, a peaceful, sequestered spot among the wooded hills stretching southward from the Sussex Downs; a hamlet made up of some dozen widely-scattered cottages, a farmhouse or two, a primitive little antique church, and the comfortable modern ‘great house;’ lying high, in the centre of lovely sheltered gardens and grounds, command¬ing wide, varied views of purple vale and gleaming sea. At Felpham, during the latter years of his son’s life, he had built a marine cottage, planned to his own fancy, whither to retire and retrench, while he let his place at Eartham. It was a cottage with an embattled turret; with a library fitted up with busts and pictures; ‘a covered way for equestrian exercise;’ and a well laid-out garden; all as a first step in the new plans of economy. His son passed the painful close of his ill-starred existence in it; and here Hayley himself had now definitely taken up his abode. He continued there till his death in 1820; long before which he had sold Eartham to Huskisson, the statesman; whose widow inhabited it until five years ago.
On the eve of removing from Lambeth, in the middle of September, was written the following characteristic letter from Mrs. Blake to Mrs. Flaxman,—the ‘dear Nancy’ of the sculptor. I am indebted for a copy of it to the courtesy of Mrs. Flaxman’s sister, the late Miss Denman. Characteristic, I mean, of Blake; for though the wife be the nominal inditer, the husband is obviously the author. The very handwriting can hardly be distinguished from his. The verses with
which it concludes may, in their artless spiritual simplicity, almost rank with the Songs of Innocence and Experience.
From Mrs. Blake to Mrs. Flaxman.
‘MY DEAREST FRIEND,
‘I hope you will not think we could forget your services to us, or any way neglect to love and remember with affection even the hem of your garment. We indeed presume on your kindness in neglecting to have called on you since my husband’s first return from Felpham. We have been incessantly busy in our great removal; but can never think of going without first paying our proper duty to you and Mr. Flaxman. We intend to call on Sunday afternoon in Hampstead, to take farewell; all things being now nearly completed for our setting forth on Tuesday morning. It is only sixty miles and Lambeth one hundred; for the terrible desert of London was between. My husband has been obliged to finish several things necessary to be finished before our migration. The swallows call us, fleeting past our window at this moment. 0! how we delight in talking of the pleasure we shall have in preparing you a summer bower at Felpham. And we not only talk, but behold! the angels of our journey have inspired a song to you:—
To my dear Friend Mrs. Anna Flaxman.
This song to the flower of Flaxman’s joy;
To the blossom of hope, for a sweet decoy;
Do all that you can or all that you may,
To entice him to Felpham and far away.
Away to sweet Felpham, for Heaven is there;
The Ladder of Angels descends through the air,
On the turret its spiral does softly descend,
Through the village then winds, at my cot it does end.
You stand in the village and look up to heaven;
The precious stones glitter on flight seventy-seven;
And my brother is there; and my friend and thine
Descend and ascend with the bread and the wine.
The bread of sweet thought and the wine of delight
Feed the village of Felpham by day and by night;
And at his own door the bless’d hermit does stand,
Dispensing unceasing to all the wide land. BLAKE.
‘Receive my and my husband’s love and affection, and believe me to be yours affectionately,
‘H. B. Lambeth, 14 Sept. 1800.’
A letter from Blake’s own hand to Flaxman, penned immediately after arrival in Sussex, has been put into print by our excellent friend Smith. This very physiog¬nomic composition, lucid enough to all who know Blake, needlessly puzzled Allan Cunningham. It does not, to my mind, separate, as he maintains, into two distinct parts of strongly contrasted spirit; nor does it betoken that irrecon¬cilable discord of faculties he imagines. The mingling of sound sagacity with the utmost licence of imagination showed itself at every hour of Blake’s life. He would, at any moment, speak as he here writes, and was not a mere sensible mortal in the morning and a wild visionary in the evening. Visionary glories floated before his eyes even while he stooped over the toilsome copper-plate. There was no pause or hiatus in the life-long wedding of spiritual and earthly things in his daily course; no giving the reins to imagination at one time more than another.
And if immortality, if eternity mean something, if they imply a pre-existence as well as a post-mortal one, that which startles the practical mind in this letter is not so wholly mad: especially if we make due allowance for the dialect, the unwonted phraseology (most
very original men have their phraseology), which long custom had made familiar and anything but extravagant to him, or to those who have read themselves into Blake’s writing and design; a dialect so full of trope and metaphor, dealt with as if they were literal, not symbolic facts.
‘DEAR SCULPTOR OF ETERNITY,
‘We are safe arrived at our cottage, which is more beau¬tiful than I thought it, and more convenient. It is a perfect model for cottages, and I think for palaces of magnificence, only enlarging not altering its proportions, and adding ornaments and not principles. Nothing can be more grand than its simplicity and usefulness. Simple without intricacy, it seems to be the spontaneous expression of humanity, congenial to the wants of man. No other formed house can ever please me so well, nor shall I ever be persuaded, I believe, that it can be improved either in beauty or use.
‘Mr. Hayley received us with his usual brotherly affection. I have begun to work. Felpham is a sweet place for study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates: her windows are not obstructed by vapours; voices of celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard, and their forms more distinctly seen; and my cottage is also a shadow of their houses. My wife and sister are both well, court¬ing Neptune for an embrace.
‘Our journey was very pleasant; and though we had a great deal of luggage, no grumbling. All was cheerfulness and good humour on the road, and yet we could not arrive at our cottage before half-past eleven at night, owing to the necessary shifting of our luggage from one chaise to another; for we had seven different chaises, and as many different drivers. We set out between six and seven in the morning of Thursday, with sixteen heavy boxes and portfolios full of prints.
‘And now begins a new life, because another covering of earth is shaken off. I am more famed in Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my brain are studies and chambers filled with books and pictures of old, which I wrote and painted in ages of eternity before my mortal life; and those works are the delight and study of archangels. Why then should I be anxious about the riches or fame of mortality? The Lord our Father will do for us and with us according to his Divine will, for our good.
‘You, O dear Flaxman! are a sublime archangel,—my friend and companion from eternity. In the Divine bosom is our dwelling-place. I look back into the regions of reminiscence, and behold our ancient days before this earth appeared in its vegetated mortality to my mortal vegetated eyes. I see our houses of eternity which can never be separated, though our mortal vehicles should stand at the remotest corners of heaven from each other.
‘Farewell, my best friend I Remember me and my wife in love and friendship to our dear Mrs. Flaxman, whom we ardently desire to entertain beneath our thatched roof of rusted gold. And believe me for ever to remain your grateful and affectionate
‘Felpham, Sept. 21st, 1800.
From this letter it appears the squire’s method of travelling by post-chaise was adopted by the painter. His sister, nearly seven years younger than himself, made one in the party and in Blake’s family during his residence at Felpham.
‘I have begun to work,’ Blake writes; on the plates to a ballad of Hayley’s, that is:—Little Tom the Sailor, written and printed for a charitable purpose. The project had been set going in Hayley’s fervid head by an account his friend Rose the barrister gave of the boy’s heroism and the mother’s misfortunes, as celebrated in the poem. Hayley was at once to write a ballad, Blake to illustrate
and engrave it, and the broadsheet to be sold for the widow’s benefit to the poet’s friends, or any who would join in helping the ‘ necessities of a meritorious woman’; in which the brochure, says Hayley’s Memoirs, proved suc¬cessful.
The poem, like some others of Hayley’s, has simplicity, and perhaps even a touch of sweetness. At any rate, it is brief. If its author had not been cursed with the fatal facility of words and numbers, he might have done better things. A tinge of Blake-like feeling seems to have passed for once into the smooth verse of the poet of Eartham. The ballad was written 22nd September, 1800; Blake’s broadsheet bears date October 5th. Both verse and designs, of which there are two, one at the head, the other at the foot of the page, are executed on metal—pewter, it is said—the designs being graver work, in the same manner as on wood, the ballad and imprint bitten in with acid. The impressions were printed off by himself and Mrs. Blake:—‘ Printed for and sold by the Widow Spicer of Folkstone, for the benefit of her orphans.’ The sheet is now exceedingly scarce, as broadsheets always become, even when far more widely circulated than this could ever have been. I have come across but two or three copies.
The engravings are vigorous and effective, in an unpre¬tending, rude style. The designs have all Blake’s charac¬teristic directness and naïveté. At the foot we see the future widow leaving her humble cottage to seek her sick husband, and turning her head wistfully round as she steps forth on her way; her little son rocking the cradle within. Around stretches a landscape in the typical style of Poussin,—wood, and winding path, and solemn distant downs. It is a grand and simple composition. The en¬graving at the head of the sheet represents the sailor-boy aloft on the shrouds, climbing to the top-mast, the embodied spirit of his father bursting with extended arms from the midst of the storm-cloud and forked lightnings. This picture also is full of high feeling.
To those disposed to judge a work of art vulgarly by what the eye merely can see, instead of by the emotions aroused, it may look like gross exaggeration to speak of grandeur in so rude and slight a work. But the kindled imagination of the artist can speak eloquently through few and simple strokes, and with them kindle imagination in others. This is more than the most skilful piece of mere artistic handicraft can do, which as it does not come from, neither can it appeal to, the mind. Hence we venture to claim for these designs, a place among the genuinely great, in kind though not in degree of ex¬cellence. In truth, there are very few works by Blake for which thus much, at least, cannot be claimed.