POET HAYLEY AND FELPHAM. 1800—1801. [ÆT. 43—44]
BLAKE’S life at Felpham was a happy one. In Hayley he had a kind and friendly neighbour; notwithstanding disparity of social position and wider discrepancies of training and mental character. Hayley, the valued friend of Gibbon in one generation, of Cowper in the next, whose reputation, like many another reputation then and since, was for a time in excess of his literary deservings, has since been, even from a literary point of view, just as disproportionately despised,
—sneered at with excess of rigour. By Allan Cunningham he is never mentioned, in connexion with Blake or Romney, but to be injuriously spoken of, and the worst construction put upon his motives. This he does, swayed by the gratuitous assertions of Romney’s too acrimonious son, and giving the rein to one of those unmeasured dislikes the stalwart Scot was prone to take into his head; witness his distorted portrait of the amiable, urbane Sir Joshua.
As a poet, Hayley was no worse, if little better, than his compeers; Cowper and Burns standing of course apart. One must judge him not as a literary man, but as a literary country gentleman; an amateur, whose words flowed a thousand times faster than his thoughts. His Life of Cowper was one of the earliest and best examples in that modern school of biography wherein authentic letters form the basis, and the hero draws his own portrait. Mason’s Life of Gray was the first, but not an unexceptionable one; Mason being at the pains of mutilating and otherwise doctoring Gray’s lively
scholarly gossip. Hayley’s own part in the Life of Cowper is well and gracefully written, in the smooth style,—in a style, which is something.
If Hayley was always romancing, as it were, which his position in life allowed; always living in a fool’s paradise of ever-dispelled, ever-renewed self-deceptions about the commonest trifles; seeing all men and things athwart a fog of amiability; it was not in the main a worse world than common, and sometimes it was a useful life to others. The pension his bustling energy obtained for Cowper out¬weighs many an absurdity and inanity. He was surely an endurable specimen, for variety’s sake, among corn-law and game-preserving squires. A sincere, if conventional love of literature, independence of the great world, and in¬difference to worldly distinctions, are, after all, not criminal foibles. Pertinacious, wrongheaded, and often foolish in his actions; weakly greedy of applause, as ready to lavish it; prone to exaggeration of word and thought; without reticence; he was also an agreeable companion, really kind-hearted and generous; though vanity mixed itself with all he did; for ever going out of his way to befriend some one, to set in motion some well-intended, ill-considered scheme. For Blake,—let us remember, to the hermit’s honour,—Hayley continued to entertain unfeigned respect And the self-tutored, wilful visionary must have been a startling phenomenon to so conventional a mind. During the artist’s residence at Felpham his literary friend was constantly on the alert to advance his fortunes.
Another source of happiness for Blake at Felpham was the natural beauty which surrounded him, and which the transplanted Londoner keenly enjoyed. ‘A cottage which is more beautiful than I had thought it, and more con¬venient; a perfect model for cottages,’ Blake had written of his new home on his first arrival. It is still standing, and is on the southern or seaward side of the village. It is really a cottage; a long, shallow, white-faced house, one room deep, containing but six in all,—small and cosy; three on the ground-
floor, opening one into another, and three above. Its latticed windows look to the front; at back the thatched roof comes sweeping down almost to the ground. A thatched wooden verandah, which runs the whole length of the house, forming a covered way, paved with red brick, shelters the lower rooms from a southern sun a little too much so at times, as the present tenant (a gardener) complains. The entrance is at the end of this verandah, out of the narrow lane leading from the village to the sea. In front lies the slip of garden (there is none at back), inclosed by a low, flint wall. In front of that again is a private way, shaded with evergreens, to the neighbouring large red brick mansion, surrounded by ample gardens, in which Cyril Jackson, Dean of Christ Church and Tutor to George IV. once lived. Beyond, corn-fields stretch down to the sea, which is but a few furlongs distant, and almost on the same level,—the coast here being low and crumbling. To the right are scattered one or two labourers’ humble cottages, with their gardens and patches of corn-field. Further seaward are two windmills standing conspicuously on a tongue of land which shuts off adjacent Bognor from sight The hideous buildings now to be descried in that direction were not extant in Blake’s time. His upper or bedroom windows commanded a glorious view of the far-stretching sea, with many a white sail gleaming at sunset in the distance, on its way betwixt the Downs and the chops of the Channel. The wide and gentle bay is terminated westward by Selsea Bill, above which the cloud-like Isle of Wight is commonly visible; eastward by Worthing and the high cliff of Beechy Head beyond. Often, in after years, Blake would speak with enthusiasm of the shifting lights on the sea he had watched from those windows. In fine weather the waves come rip-pling in to the gently shelving, sandy beach, but when rough, with so much force as to eat away huge mouthfuls of the low, fertile coast. Middleton Church and signal-house, on a point of land a mile or so eastward, have disappeared bodily since Blake’s time. The village, a large but compact one, spreading along two or three winding
roads, still wears much the same aspect it must have done then; rustic, pleasant, and (as yet) unspoiled by the close vicinity of a ‘genteel’ watering-place. It includes a few tolerably commodious marine residences of the last century, and several picturesque old thatched cottages. The church has within the last few years been restored, all but its fine western tower of Perpendicular date. Excellent in pro¬portion, strikingly picturesque in hue and outline, this tower is at once well preserved and in good state for the artist. It is a landmark for many miles, rising above the thick foliage which in the distance hides yet distinguishes the village from the surrounding flats. Several epitaphs of Hayley’s,—in the composition of which species of poetry, it may perhaps be still conceded, he was happy,— are to be met with in the church and adjoining graveyard.
A few steps up the winding lane, by the old Fox Inn, brought Blake to the postern-like gate of his patron’s house, in the centre of the village; a plain white house, of little architectural pretension (but for its turret) and less beauty. It stands at one corner of the garden which Hayley had carefully inclosed with high walls for privacy’s sake. The lofty turret commanded some remarkable views, of the sea in one direction, of the adjacent levels and great part of the South Downs in another. For walks, Blake had the pleasant sands which stretch below the shingle, or an upper path along the coast on one hand; the Downs eight or nine miles distant rising in undulating solemn clouds on the other. These were the great natural features, ever the same, yet ever varying with shifting lights and tones and hues. The walks inland, within a range of five or six miles, are tame and monotonous, though in summer pleasant, with corn and pasture, shady lane, fair old home¬stead, and humble early English village church. One especi¬ally pleasant summer-walk is that by footpath to the village of Walberton, some five miles northward. Bognor was not then ugly and repulsive as great part of it is now. At all events, there were none of those ghastly blocks of un-tenanted,
unfinished houses, dreary monuments of building infatuation, which lower upon the traveller and put him out of heart as he approaches from Felpham, looking like so many builder’s nightmares; erections that bespeak an almost brutish absence of natural instincts for the beautiful or expressive in construction. It was only some nine years previous to Blake’s residence in Sussex that Sir Richard Hotham, the retired hatter, had set Bognor going as a fashionable watering-place. He had found it a sequestered hamlet of smugglers. The ‘retired and beautiful village of Hothamton,’ as it was for a time called, included then but fifty houses, Hothamton Place, viz, and those which form now the eastern section of Bognor, visited or tenanted only by a select and aristocratic few.
By the sounding shore, visionary conversations were held with many a majestic shadow from the Past—Moses and the Prophets, Homer, Dante, Milton: ‘All,’ said Blake, when questioned on these appearances, ‘all majestic shadows, grey but luminous, and superior to the common height of men.’ Sometimes his wife accompanied him, seeing and hearing nothing, but fully believing in what he saw. By the sea, or pacing the pretty slip of garden in front of his house, many fanciful sights were witnessed by the speculative eyes. The following highly imaginative little scene was transacted there. It is related by Allan Cunningham. ‘Did you ever see a fairy’s funeral, madam?’ he once said to a lady who happened to sit by him in company. ‘Never, sir,’ was the answer. ‘I
have!’ said Blake, ‘but not before last night I was walking alone in my garden; there was great stillness among the branches and flowers, and more than common sweetness in the air; I heard a low and pleasant sound, and I knew not whence it came. At last I saw the broad leaf of a flower move, and underneath I saw a procession of creatures, of the size and colour of green and grey grasshoppers bearing a body laid out on a rose leaf, which they buried with songs, and then disappeared It was a fairy funeral!’
Among the engravings executed by Blake’s industrious hands during his first year at Felpham, I make note of a fine one of Michael Angelo at the end of the first edition (in quarto) of Fuseli’s famous Lectures on Painting,—the first three, delivered at the Academy in March, 1801, pub-lished in May. It is an interesting and characteristic full-length portrait The great Florentine is standing, looking out on the world with intent, searching gaze the Coliseum in the background, The circular plate on the title-page of the same volume, well engraved by F. Legat, has no designer’s name. Grand and suggestive, in a dim allegoric way, is this drooping female figure seated on the earth, her crossed arms flung down in expressive abandon; the face bowed between them and hidden by her streaming hair. This is a design I could swear to as Blake’s, whether ‘adopted’ by Fuseli or not.
In the latter part of 1801 Hayley began spinning a series of Ballads on Anecdotes relating to Animals, of very different merit from Little Tom the Sailor of the previous year; empty productions, long-winded, bald, devoid of every poetic virtue save simplicity,—in the unhappy sense of utter insipidity. What must the author of the Songs of Innocence have thought of them? On these Ballads hung a project as usual with Hayley. They were to be illustrated by Blake, printed by another protégé, Seagrave, a Chichester bookseller, and published for the artist’s sole benefit; in realizing which they were fated to have but ill success. Our hermit sincerely believed in contributing verse of his he was giving money’s worth, in that serene faith meaning as generously as when handing over tangible coin.