THE DESIGNS TO ‘BLAIR’. 1804—8. [ÆT. 47—51]
FROM July, 1805, to May, 1808, the twelve admirable etchings after Blake’s designs had been in progress under the skilful and con¬scientious hands of the Italian workman,— etchings which have not a line too much nor too little. They were, as I have said, a really favourable medium for introducing Blake to the many; although admirers might prefer the artist’s own characteristic expression of himself with the graver. There were no such thorough-paced admirers then, perhaps there are not above half a dozen now. Schiavonetti’s version is, in fact, a graceful trans¬lation, and, as most would think, an improvement.
The boldly-engraved portrait of Blake after Phillips’ fine drawing, prefixed to The Grave, was considered like. We in it recognise the high visionary brow, the speculative eyes, characteristic of William Blake. But the aspect is a too idealized and made-up one, too studiously inspired, and does not therefore convey a wholly reliable impression. You would hardly, for instance, suspect its original to have been short in stature, as he really was.
In the autumn of 1808, the book was published by Cro¬mek, in alliance with Cadell and Davies, Johnson, Payne, and other leaders in the trade. It was beautifully printed in quarto by Bensley, the best printer of his day, and was indorsed with Fuseli’s testimonial, and the credentials from the R.A.’s again. Cromek had certainly worked hard for his own profit and Blake’s fame, in obtaining subscriptions. His list comprises no less than five hun¬dred and eighty-
nine names, from London and the chief provincial towns,—Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Newcastle. Native Yorkshire,—Leeds, Wakefield, Halifax,—contributes a large contingent There are, however, only one or two titled subscribers. The artists, always best appreciators of one another, muster in strength as supporters of the enterprise, not without importunity on busy Cromek’s part. We particularize with interest the names of Bewick, from far Newcastle, and ‘Mr. Green, landscape draughtsman, Ambleside.’ A few literary men came forward; among them Holcroft and Hayley, bringing with him Mrs. Poole, of Lavant, and printer Seagrave. Vigilant Cromek had at the outset taken care not to neglect these old friends of the designer’s. The subscriptions at two and a half guineas amount to above £1,800; besides proof copies at four guineas, and a margin of unsubscribed-for copies on sale. This makes Cromek pretty sure of a good profit by his protégé’s genius and his own activities, after all outlay to designer (twenty guineas), engraver (perhaps £500), printing, advertising, puffing, travelling expenses, and allowances to the trade.
While the engravings were in progress, the name of the Queen as a subscriber had been somehow obtained, and permission to dedicate the designs to her; of which Blake availed himself in the following simple and earnest stanzas,—a mere enigma, I should fancy, to ‘old Queen Charlotte.’ The vignette which was to have accompanied it Cromek, as we saw, returned on his hands:—
The door of death is made of gold,
That mortal eyes cannot behold;
But when the mortal eyes are clos’d,
And cold and pale the limbs repos’d,
The soul awakes, and, wond’ring, sees
In her mild hand the golden keys.
The grave is heaven’s golden gate,
And rich and poor around it wait:
O Shepherdess of England’s fold,
Behold this gate of pearl and gold!
To dedicate to England’s Queen
The visions that my soul has seen,
And, by her kind permission, bring
What I have borne on solemn wing
From the vast regions of the grave,
Before her throne my wings I wave,
Bowing before my sov’reign’s feet:
The Grave produced these blossoms sweet,
In mild repose from earthly strife;
The blossoms of eternal life!
When Blake speaks of—
The visions that my soul has seen,
* * * * *
borne on solemn wing
From the vast regions of the grave,
it is no metaphorical flourish, but plain fact he means and feels. This is cultivating ‘the Arts’ in a high spirit indeed.
The simple beauty and grandeur of the Illustrations to Blair’s Grave are within the comprehension of most who possess any feeling for what is elevated in art. Fuseli’s evidence in their favour, despite turgid Johnsonianism, which, as usual with him, fails to conceal the uneasy gait of a man not at home in our language, is, in part, lucid and to the purpose.
‘The author of the moral series before us,’ he writes, after some preliminary generalizing on the triteness of the ordinary types employed in art, ‘endeavoured to awake sensibility by touching our sympathies with nearer, less ambiguous, and less ludicrous imagery than what mytho¬logy, Gothic superstition, or symbols as far-fetched as inadequate, could supply. His invention has been chiefly employed to spread a familiar and domestic atmosphere round the
most important of all subjects; to connect the visible and the invisible world, without provoking prob¬ability; and to lead the eye from the milder light of time to the radiations of eternity.
‘Such is the plan and the moral part of the author’s invention. The technic part and the execution of the artist though to be examined by other principles, and addressed to a narrower circle, equally claim approbation, sometimes excite our wonder, and not unseldom our fears, when we see him play on the very verge of legitimate invention. But wildness so picturesque in itself, so often redeemed by taste, simplicity, and elegance, what child of fancy, what artist would wish to discharge? The groups and single figures, on their own basis, abstracted from the general composition and considered without attention to the plan, frequently exhibit those genuine, unaffected atti¬tudes, those simple graces, which nature and the heart alone can dictate, and only an eye inspired by both dis¬cover. Every class of artists, in every stage of their progress or attainments, from the student to the finished master, and from the contriver of ornament to the painter of history, will find here materials of art and hints of im¬provement.’
The designs to Blair are in the same key as those to The Night Thoughts of eight years previous; but are more mature, purer, and less extravagant. Both sets of designs occupy, to some extent, the same ground. And thus similar motives occur, and even compositions, as already noticed. Blake’s previous etching, by the way, of the Skeleton Re¬animated, compares favourably with the present one by Schiavonetti, showing, as do all the etchings to Young, that he could have executed his own designs to The Grave. The chief want of those etchings was what engravers call colour.
Blair’s Grave, a poem written before the Night Thoughts, though published the same year (1743), was, sixty-two years later, still a popular English classic. Blake’s designs form a strangely spiritual commentary on the somewhat matter-of-fact homily of the dry, old
Scottish divine: they belong to a more heavenly latitude. Running parallel to the poem rather than springing out of it, they have, in some cases, little foundation in the text, in others abso¬lutely none; as, for instance, the emblematic ‘Soul explor¬ing the recesses of the Tomb.’ The Series in itself forms a poem, simple, beautiful, and exalted: what tender eloquence in ‘The Soul hovering over the Body’; in the passionate ecstasy of ‘The Re-union of Soul and Body’; the rapt felicity of mutual recognition in ‘ The Meeting of a Family in Heaven.’ There meet husband and wife, little brothers and sisters; two angels spread a canopy of loving wings over the group, one remarkable for surpassing sculptur-esque beauty. Such designs are, in motive, spirit, manner of embodiment, without parallel, and enlarge the boundaries of art. Equally high meaning has the oft-mentioned alle¬gory, Death’s Door, into which ‘Age on crutches is hurried by a tempest,’ while above sits a youthful figure, ‘the ‘renovated man in light and glory,’ looking upwards in joyful adoration and awe. And again, the Death of the Strong Wicked Man: the still-fond wife hanging over the convulsed body, in wild, horror-struck sympathy, the terrified daughter standing beside, with one hand shutting out the scene from her eyes; while the wicked soul is hurried amid flames through the casement. What unearthly sur-prise and awe expressed in that terrible face, those uplifted deprecating hands! The Last Judgment, unlike the other designs, is a subject on which great artists had already lavished imagination and executive skill. But Blake’s conception of it is an original and homogeneous one, worthy of the best times of art. What other painter since Michael Angelo could have really designed anew that tremendous scene?
These are not mere exercises of art, to be coldly measured by the foot-rule of criticism, but truly inventions to be read and entered into with something of the spirit which conceived them. The oftener I have looked into them, the more meaning and eloquence
I have discovered, and the more freshness. Never, surely, were the difficulties of human speech (whether with word or outline) more fearlessly encountered. A poor designer moves in shackles, when handling such topics; has, for instance, but the same tangible flesh and blood wherewith to express material body and immaterial soul. And that anomaly alone leads many a practical person to dismiss the designs at once, as absurd and puerile. But if we stay to consider how this allegorical mode is a necessary convention to symbolize a meaning beyond the reach of art, we are soon reconciled to the discrepancy, and begin to value aright the daring and the suggestive beauty with which these mean¬ings are indicated. That shuddering awe of the strong wicked man’s naked soul (even though a material form express it), as he enters the unknown world; the living grace of the draped feminine figure, emblem of a purer human soul, which lingers a moment yearningly over the stiffening mortal frame it has forsaken, its mute eloquence so strangely enhanced by that utterly lonely mountain land¬scape into which it is about to vanish, seen through the open casement: I say such art ranks with that of the greatest eras; is of the same sublime reach and pure quality. What signifies it that these drawings cover but a few inches, and are executed in water-colours instead of oils or fresco?
Now, in maturity, as when in youth producing the Songs of Innocence, or in age the Inventions to Job, we see Blake striking always the same mystic chord. The bridge thrown across from the visible to the invisible world was ever firm and sure to him. The unwavering hold (of which his ‘Visions’s were a result) upon an unseen world, such as in other ways poetry and even science assure us of, and whose revelation is the meaning underlying all religions,—this habitual hold is surely an authentic attain¬ment, not an hallucination; whether the particular form in which the faith clothes itself, the language of Blake’s mind,—souls entering and departing from material
forms, angels hovering near poor human creatures, and the like emblems,—be adequate or not. In such intensity as Blake’s, it was truly a blissful possession; it proved enchanted armour against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and all their sordid influences.
I have still a word to say àpropos of one of these twelve designs, and a water-colour drawing formerly in Mr. Butts’ collection, illustrative of the verse—
‘But Hope rekindled only to illume
The shades of death, and light her to the tomb.’
It is a duplicate, probably, of one of the unengraved designs from Young. The main feature, a descending precipice broken into dark recesses, is the same as in that grand and eloquent tableau in the Blair, of the Descent of Man into the Vale of Death. The figures are different, but the same motive pervades both designs.
Of the composition in the Blair, an intelligible summary occurs in Cromek’s Descriptive List at the end of the volume. ‘The pious daughter, weeping and conducting her sire onward; age, creeping carefully on hands and knees; an elder, without friend or kindred; a miser; a bachelor, blindly proceeding, no one knows whither, ready to drop into the dark abyss; frantic youth, rashly devoted to vice and passion, rushing past the diseased and old who totter on crutches; the wan declining virgin; the miser¬able and distracted widow; the hale country youth; and the mother and her numerous progeny, already arrived in this valley, are among the groups which, &c.—are, in fact, all the groups.’
The fate of the original copper-plates has been some¬what singular. After being used by Ackermann to illus¬trate a Spanish Poem, Meditaciones Poeticas por Jose Janquin de Mora: Londres: asemismo en Colombia, Buenos Ayres, Chili, Pero y Guatemala, 1826, they, at a more recent period, I have been told, found their way across the Atlantic, serving for an American edition—not of Blair’s poem, but of Martin Tupper’s Proverbial Philosophy.
In the unengraved drawing I have referred to, we have the Soul departing from the dying Narcissa, over whose lifeless form her lover, with lamenting outstretched arms, is bending; the bright figure of Hope, with lighted lamp, beckons to the shades below; down the rocky stairs lead-ing to which old and young are wending, as in the Blair design: the timid, hesitating girl, the strong man hurrying, age creeping, the tender mother (a very beautiful figure) leading her infant children. In the recesses of the tomb below, we again encounter emblematic, sorrowful death-beds. On the hills in the background above, are faintly seen the dim populations of the earth, all journeying to the same bourne. The principal figures are of exceeding grace and loveliness; as, in particular, the heavenly one of Hope, and that of the little girl who accompanies her youthful brothers, with reluctant step, with drooping head and face hidden in her hand, shuddering and sad to ex¬change the fair daylight for the gloomy tomb—a figure which, for its expressive beauty, Raphael himself might have sketched.