WORKING HOURS. 1801—3. [ÆT. 44—46]
DURING the progress of the Life of Cowper, and of the Ballads, the letters of Hayley to the Rev. John Johnson supply glimpses, here and there, of Blake at his engraving, or in familiar intercourse with his patron; and they supply more than glimpses of the writer himself in his accustomed undress of easy, slip-shod vanity and amiability. This Johnson was Cowper’s cousin, his right-hand man in latter years, and faithful guardian ultimately. The letters are entombed in Hayley’s Memoirs of himself and his son, edited, or, at all events, seen through the press, by the amiable clergyman in 1823.
‘Our Good Blake,’ scribbles the artist’s patron, one hot day in August, 1801, ‘is actually in labour with a young lion. The new-born cub will probably kiss your hands in a week or two. The Lion is his third Ballad;’ (none are yet printed), ‘and we hope his plate to it will surpass its pre¬decessors. Apropos of this good warm-hearted artist. He has a great wish that you should prevail on Cowper’s dear Rose’ (Mrs. Anne Bodham, a cousin of the poet on the mother’s side, and the correspondent who sent him that picture of his mother which elicited the poem we all know so well) ‘to send her portrait of the beloved bard, by Abbott, to Felpham that Blake may engrave it for the Milton we meditate; which we devote (you know) to the sublime purpose of raising a monument suited to the dignity of the dear bard, in the metropolis; if the public
show proper spirit (as I am persuaded it will) on that occa¬sion—a point that we shall put to the end, in publishing the Life.’
A portrait of Cowper, by Abbott, the Academician,—a very prosaic one,—was not, I presume, sent to Felpham; for it was never engraved by Blake. A print of it, by one W. C. Edwards, forms the frontispiece to Vol. I. of The Private Correspondence of Cowper, edited by Johnson in 1824. The scheme here referred to was that of an edition of Cowper’s unfinished Commentary on Paradise Lost, and MS. translations of Milton’s Latin and Italian poetry, together with Hayley’s previously published lengthy Life of Milton, The whole was to be in three quarto volumes, ‘decorated with engravings,’ by Blake, after designs by Flaxman: the proceeds to go towards a London monu¬ment to Cowper, from Flaxman’s chisel. The project, like so many from the same brain, had to be abandoned for one of later birth:—a single quarto, illustrated by Flaxman, of Cowper’s Translations and Notes on Milton, for the proposed ‘benefit,’ as usual, of somebody,—this time of ‘an orphan godson of the poet,’ which in 1808 actually did take shape; followed in 1810, by a ‘neat pocket edition,’ for the emolument of Cowper’s kinsman, Johnson.
September 3, 1801: (Hayley to Johnson again) * * * ‘The good Blake is finishing, very happily, the plate of the poet’s mother. He salutes you affectionately.’ October 1, 1801: ‘October, you see, is arrived, and you, my dear Johnny, will arrive, I trust, before half this pleasant month shall pass away; for we want you as a faithful coadjutor in the turret, more than I can express. I say we, for the warm-hearted indefatigable Blake works daily by my side, on the intended decorations of our biography. Engrav¬ing, of all human works, appears to require the largest portion of patience; and he happily possesses more of that inestimable virtue than I ever saw united before to an imagination so lively and so prolific. Come, and criticise what we have done! Come, and assist
us to do more! I want you in a double capacity,—as an excellent scribe, and as an infallible fountain of intelligence for all the latter days of our dear bard.’
Hayley, whose sight was often weak, availed himself of Blake’s help too, as amanuensis, and in other ways, during the progress of the Life. Blake had thus opportunity to form a judgment of Hayley’s mode of dealing with his material; he was not greatly impressed by its candour and fidelity.
November 8th, 1801: (Hayley again) * * * ‘And now let me congratulate you on having travelled so well through the Odyssey!’ (an edition of Cowper’s Homer, with the translator’s final touches, which the clergyman was bringing out). ‘Blake and I read every evening that copy of the Iliad which your namesake’ (the bookseller) ‘of St. Paul’s was so good as to send me; comparing it with the first edition, and with the Greek, as we proceed. We shall be glad to see the Odyssey also, as soon as it is visible.’
This and other passages in the correspondence show the familiar intimacy which had been established between the literary gentleman and the artist. The latter evidently spent much of his time, and most of his working hours, in Hayley’s library, in free companionship with its owner; which, in the case of so proud and sensitive a man as Blake, can only have been due to much delicacy and genial courtesy on the part of his host; whose manners, indeed, were those of a polished gentleman of the old school. We can, for a moment, see the oddly assorted pair; both visionaries, but in how different a sense! the urbane amateur seeing nothing as it really was; the painter seeing only, so to speak, the unseen: the first with a mind full of literary conventions, swiftly writing without thought; the other, with a head just as full of originalities—right or wrong—patiently busying his hands at his irksome craft, while his spirit wandered through the invisible world.
November 18th, 1801.—Hayley writes to Johnson from the house
of his friend Mrs. Poole: ‘Your warm-hearted letter (that has met me this instant in the apartments of our benevolent Paulina, at Lavant) has delighted us all so much (by all, I mean Paulina, Blake, and myself), that I seize a pen, while the coffee is coming to the table, to tell you with what cordial pleasure we shall expect you and your young pupil. If my Epitaphs’ (on Mrs. Unwin) ‘delighted you, believe me, your affectionate reception of it has afforded me equal delight. I have been a great scribbler of Epitaphs in the last month, and as you are so kindly partial to my monumental verses, I will transcribe for you, even in the bustle of this morning, a recent Epitaph on your humble old friend, my good William, who closed his height of cheerful and affectionate existence (near eighty) this day fortnight, in the great house at Eartham, where Blake and I had the mournful gratification of attending him (by accident) in the few last hours of his life.’
November 22nd, 1801 * * * ‘Did I tell you that our excellent Blake has wished to have Lawrence’s original drawing to copy, in his second engraving; and that our good Lady Hesketh is so gracious as to send it?’
The engravings to the Life of Cowper—the first issue in two volumes quarto (they were omitted in the subsequent octavo edition)—are not of that elaborate character the necessity of their being executed under the ‘biographer’s own eye’ might have led us to expect. One is after that portrait of Cowper, by Romney, in crayons, made during the poet’s own visit to Eartham in 1792; which drew forth the graceful, half-sad, half-sportive sonnet, concluding with so skilful an antithesis of friendly hyperbole in compli¬menting his painter and host. A correct copy as to likeness, the engraving gives no hint of the refinement of Romney’s art. In so mannered, level a piece of workman¬ship, industry of hand is more visible than of mind. Another is after the stiff Lely-like portrait of Cowper’s mother, by
D. Heins, which suggested the poet’s beautiful lines. In Vol. II. we have a good rendering of young Lawrence’s clever, characteristic sketch of Cowper; and, at the end, a group of pretty, pastoral designs from Blake’s own hand. The subjects are that familiar household toy ‘the weather house,’ described in The Task; and Cowper’s tame hares. These vignettes are executed in a light, delicate style, very unusual with Blake.
In January, 1802, Cowper’s cousin paid the promised visit, and brought with him the wished-for anecdotes of the poet’s last days. Hayley, with friendly zeal, had urged Blake to attempt the only lucrative walk of art in those days—portraiture; and during Johnson’s stay, the artist executed a miniature of him, which Hayley mentions as particularly successful. It would be an interesting one to see, for its painter’s sake, and for the subject—the faithful kinsman and attendant with whom The Letters of Cowper have put on friendly terms all lovers of that lovable poet, the fine-witted, heaven-stricken man.
Hayley, desiring the artist’s worldly advancement, introduced him to many of the neighbouring gentry; among them Lord Egremont of Petworth, Lord Bathurst of Lavant, Mrs. Poole; and obtained him commissions for miniatures. Some of which, reports Hayley, ‘that singu-larly industrious man, who applied himself to various branches of the art’ and ‘had wonderful talents for original design,’ executed ‘very happily.’
Besides bestirring himself to obtain Blake commissions, Hayley did what his means would allow to furnish em¬ployment himself. The interior of his new villa was fitted up in a manner bespeaking the cultivated man of letters and of taste,—thanks, in great part, to his friendly relations with such artists as Flaxman and Romney,—was adorned with busts, statues, and pictures. Among the latter were interesting portraits of distinguished contem¬poraries and friends, and of the Hermit himself; all from Romney’s hand, and originally painted
for the library at Eartham. There was one of Gibbon, sitting and convers¬ing; there were others, in crayons, of Cowper, Charlotte Smith, Anne Seward, Madame de Genlis; above all, there were fine studies of Lady Hamilton in various fancy characters, as Cassandra, Andromeda, Cecilia, Sensibility, &c. When, twenty years earlier, Hayley had built him¬self at Eartham a large and handsome room, specially to contain his fine collection of books in many languages, Flaxman had superintended the sculptured ornaments, and had modelled for it busts of the poet and his friend Romney. The new library at Felpham, Blake, during his residence in Sussex, decorated with temperas—eighteen heads of the poets, life-size, some accompanied by ap¬propriate subsidiary compositions. Among them were Shakespeare, Homer, Camöens, Sir Philip Sidney, Cowper, Hayley himself (encircled by cooing doves). Within twenty years after Hayley’s death the marine villa passed by sale from the hands of his cousin and heir, Captain Godfrey, to strangers. The place was dismantled and the effects sold. Among other things, these temperas, so interesting in their original position, were dispersed. Five of them, including Homer, Cowper, Hayley, are now (1860) with Mr. Toovey, the bookseller. Like most of Blake’s ‘temperas’ and ‘frescoes,’ they are blistered and cracked, and have not been improved by varnish and exposure to dust and gas; but they bear the unmistakable Blake im¬press. The head of Cowper I remember as one of the most interesting, and the accompanying vignette, with its hint of landscape, in which appears Cowper’s favourite dog, as being in Blake’s best manner. I know not into whose hands the other five passed from Mr. Toovey’s. Booksellers are nervously afraid of giving one too much information.
Our next excerpts from Hayley’s garrulous letters date after Johnson’s visit to Felpham.
February 3d 1802. [Hayley to Johnson, as before.] * * * ‘Here is instantaneously a title-page for thee’ (for the new edition of
Cowper’s Homer), ‘and a Greek motto, which I and Blake, who is just become a Grecian, and literally learning the language, consider as a happy hit! . . . The new Grecian greets you affectionately.’
Blake, who had a natural aptitude for acquiring know¬ledge, little cultivated in youth, was always willing to apply himself to the vocabulary of a language for the purpose of reading a great original author. He would declare that he learnt French, sufficient to read it, in a few weeks. By-and-by, at sixty years of age, he will set to learning Italian, in order to read Dante.
The references in our next extract to Cowper’s monu¬mental tablet at East Dereham, then under discussion, and Blake a party to it, are sufficiently amusing, surely, to warrant our staying to smile over the same. Consider what ‘the Design’ actually erected is. An oblong piece of marble, bearing an inscription, with a sculptured ‘Holy Bible’ on end at top; another marble volume, lettered ‘The Task,’ leaning against it; and a palm leaf inclined over the whole, as the redeeming ‘line of beauty.’ Chaste and simple!
February 25th, 1802. ‘I thank you heartily for your pleasant letter, and I am going to afford you, I hope, very high gratification in the prospect of our overcoming all the prejudices of our good Lady Hesketh against simple and graceful ornaments for the tomb of our beloved bard. I entreated her to suspend her decision till I had time to send for the simply elegant sketches that I expected from Flaxman. When these sketches reached me, I was not myself perfectly pleased with the shape of the lyre intro¬duced by the sculptor, and presumptuously have tried myself to out-design my dear Flaxman himself, on this most animating occasion. I formed, therefore, a device of the Bible upright supporting The Task, with a laurel leaf and Palms, such as I send you, neatly copied by our kind Blake. I have sent other copies of the same to her lady¬ship
and to Flaxman; requesting the latter to tell me frankly how he likes my design, and for what sum he can execute the said design, with the background,—a firm slab of dove-coloured marble, and the rest white. If her lady¬ship and Flaxman are as much pleased with my idea as the good Blake and Paulina of Lavant are, all our difficul¬ties on this grand monumental contention will end most happily. Tell me how you, my dear Johnny, like my device. To enable you to judge fairly, even against my-self I desired the kind Blake to add for you, under the copy of my design, a copy of Flaxman’s also, with the lyre whose shape displeases me.’
In the sequel the Lyre was eliminated, and the amateur’s emendation, in the main, adhered to; The Task, however, being made to prop the Bible, instead of vice versa, as at first the Hermit heedlessly suggests.
March 11th, 1802, * * * ‘The kind, indefatigable Blake salutes you cordially, and begs a little fresh news from the spiritual world’; an allusion to some feeble joke of Hayley’s on Johnson’s timorous awe of the public, which the latter makes believe to think has slain the bashful parson.
The Life of Cowper,—commenced January, 1801, finished the following January,—was, this March, in the hands of Seagrave, whom the author had, ‘for the credit of his native city,’ induced reluctant Johnson to accept as printer. The four copper-plates were entirely printed off by Blake and his wife at his own press, a very good one for that day, having cost 401. when new—a heavy sum for him. From March till December Hayley, after beginning the Memoir of his son, was busy getting his two quartos through the press.
The issue of The Ballads was not commenced till June; they were in quarto numbers, three engravings to each—a frontispiece and two vignettes. The first was The Elephant. A Series of Ballads. Number 1 . The Elephant. Ballad the First. Chichester: printed
by J. Seagrave, and sold by him and P. Humphry; and by R. H. Evans, Pall Mall, London, for W. Blake, Felpham, 1802. None of the plates to this ballad were republished in the subsequent duodecimo edition.
In May we hear, through Hayley, of illness:—
May 16th, 1802. * * * ‘You will feel anxious when I tell you that both my good Blakes have been confined to their bed a week by a severe fever. Thank heaven! they are both revived, and he is at this moment by my side, representing, on copper, an Adam, of his own, surrounded by animals, as a frontispiece to the projected ballads:’ a frontispiece which appeared in the first number.
In June, healthfully restored, ‘our alert Blake,’ scribbles Hayley, one ‘Monday afternoon,’ June 28th, 1802, ‘is pre¬paring, con spirito, to launch his Eagle, with a lively hope of seeing him superior to The Elephant, and
‘Sailing with supreme dominion
Through the azure deep of air.’
‘Lady Hesketh has received and patronised his Elephant with the most obliging benignity, and we hope soon to hear that the gentle and noble beast arrived safe at Dere¬ham, and finds favour with the good folks of your county. The ingenious maker of elephants and eagles, who is working at this instant on the latter, salutes you with kindest remembrance.’
A few days later, July 1st, 1802, The Eagle was pub¬lished, forming No. II. of The Ballads. The frontispiece is one of the finest designs in the series. The frantic mother, kneeling on the topmost verge of the over-hanging crag amid the clouds, who stretches forth passionate, out¬spread arms over her smiling babe below, as he lies and sports with his dread comrade in this perilous nest,—the blood-stained cranny in the rocks,—is a noble and eloquent figure. It was subsequently reproduced in the duodecimo edition, but without
either of the vignettes. In one of these, the eagle is swooping down on the child in its cradle outside the mother’s cottage. In the other, the liberated little one is standing upon the dead eagle among the mountains. Both have a domestic simplicity of sentiment, and both are good in drawing.
Between September, 1802, and January, 1804, occurs an unlucky hiatus in the printed letters of Hayley to Johnson; and we catch no further glimpses of the artist by that flickering rushlight.
The third number of The Ballads,—The Lion,—appeared in 1802: after which they were discontinued; the en¬couragement being too slender to pay for mere printing, in so expensive a form. Though Phillips’ name was added on the title-page, and copies, perhaps consigned to him, the book can hardly be said to have been published, as matters were managed down at Felpham and Chichester. Had it been efficiently made known, the illustrations ought to have commanded some favour with the public. The style of design and engraving, careful and finished, is, for once, not of a kind to repel the ordinary gazer; and the themes are quite within popular comprehension, though their treatment be unusually refined. I here speak of the quarto edition.
The whole fifteen windy ballads were, three years later, printed in duodecimo by Seagrave, for Phillips of London, the aim still being to benefit the artist, and still proving ineffectual. Hayley had not more power to help Blake with a public challenged now by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lamb, won by Crabbe, Campbell, Scott, than Blake had by his archaic conceptions, caviare to the many, to recall roving readers to an obsolete style of unpoetic verse,—a tame instead of a rattling one, such as had come into vogue. The engravings to the incomplete quarto Ballads are infinitely superior to the reduced ones; being far more delicate and careful.
November 15th, 1802, died Hayley’s old friend Romney, after a sad and lengthened twilight of his faculties; which solemn event set
Hayley ‘ composing an epitaph before the dawn of day and revolving in his mind pious intent of further biographic toil, in which Blake was to help. This autumn, too, died Blake’s old master, Basire.
Next year, in an extract from Hayley’s Diary, we again get sight of Blake for a moment:—26th and 29th of March, 1803—‘ Read the death of Klopstock in the newspaper of the day, and looked into his Messiah, both the original and the translation. Read Klopstock into English to Blake, and translated the opening of his third canto, where he speaks of his own death.’ Hayley was at this time trying to learn German, ‘finding that it contained a poem on the Four Ages of Woman,’ of which he, ‘for some time, made it a rule to translate a few lines’ daily; finding also, by the arrival of presentation copies in the alien tongue, that three of his own works had been translated into German: the Essay on Old Maids, the Life of Milton, and the Triumphs of Temper O Time! eater of men and books, what has become of these translations?
At the latter end of 1803, Hayley, prompted by the un¬expected success of Cowper’s Life, began preparing a third volume of Additional Letters, with ‘desultory remarks’ of his own on letter writing. The volume was finished and published by the spring of 1804, Blake executing for it two tame engravings of tame subjects. One is from a drawing by a Francis Stone, of the chancel of East Dereham Church,—Cowper’s burial-place; the other an etching of the mural tablet in the same chancel, as designed by Flaxman and Hayley.
Among other journeywork at this date, I may mention engravings finished May, 1803, after six original designs by Maria Flaxman (the sculptor’s sister), to the Triumphs of Temper,—the thirteenth edition, not published until 1807. These amateur designs, aiming at an idealized domesticity, are expressive and beautiful in the Flaxman-Stothard manner; abound in grace of line, elegance of composition, and other
artist-like virtues of a now obsolete sort. The engravings are interesting to admirers of Blake, though monotonous and devoid of ordinary charms, smoothness, and finish.
Uncommissioned work must also have been in course of production now. I mean the illustrated ‘prophecies’ in the old class, which will next year issue from Blake’s private press: Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion, very grandly designed, if very mistily written; also Milton, a Poem in two Books. Of these, more hereafter.