THE intelligent sympathy and candour animating the life-like portraiture of the Letter which con-cludes the foregoing chapter need no comment on my part. I will here simply add a few additional details, characteristic of Blake personally, and of his manner of life in Fountain Court, gleaned from the recollections of others who knew him there.
Blake’s two rooms on the first floor were approached by a wainscoted staircase, with handsome balustrades, such as we find in houses of Queen Anne’s date, and lit by a window to the left, looking out on the well-like back yard below. Having ascended, two doors faced you, opening into the back and front rooms. That in front, with the windows looking out on Fountain Court, its panelled walls hung with frescos, temperas, and drawings of Blake’s, was used as a reception room. From it a door opened into the smaller back room, the window of which (a side one) looked down a deep gap between the houses of Fountain Court and the parallel street; in this way commanding a peep of the Thames with its muddy banks, and of distant Surrey hills beyond. This was, at once, sleeping and living room, kitchen and studio. In one corner was the bed; in another, the fire at which Mrs. Blake cooked. On one side stood the table serving for meals, and by the window, the table at which Blake always sat (facing the light), designing or engraving. There was an air of poverty as of an artisan’s room; but everything was clean and neat nothing sordid. Blake himself, with his serene, cheerful,
dignified presence and manner, made all seem natural and of course. Conversing with him, you saw or felt nothing of his poverty, though he took no pains to conceal it; if he had, you would have been effectually re¬minded of it. What in description sounds mean and miserable wore, to Blake’s intimates, a delightful aspect. Such an expression as his ‘wretched rooms,’ as by some they have been described, is to them quite unintelligible. ‘I should only like to go in this afternoon!’ declared one friend, while talking of them to me. ‘And, ah! that divine window!’ exclaimed another. Charming and poetic the view from it seemed to those accustomed to associate Blake’s person and conversation with it. While a third with brisk emphasis affirms, ‘There was no ‘misery’ in Blake’s rooms, for men who love art, a good table (not, of course, in the epicure’s sense), and warmth.’ ‘I never look upon him as an unfortunate man of genius. He knew every great man of his day, and had enough.’
Happening to read to the author of the letter lately quoted a passage from a MS. in which the word ‘squalor’ was used in connexion with Blake’s home, the following quaint remonstrance was elicited:—
‘May 3d, 1860.
‘MY DEAR SIR,
‘Late as we parted last night, I awaked at dawn with the question in my ear, Squalor?—squalor?
‘Crush it; it is a roc’s egg to your fabric.
‘I have met with this perverse mistake elsewhere. It gives a notion altogether false of the man, his house, and his habits.
‘No, certainly;—whatever was in Blake’s house, there was no squalor. Himself, his wife, and his rooms, were clean and orderly; everything was in its place. His delightful working corner had its implements ready—tempting to the hand. The millionaire’s upholsterer can furnish no enrichments like those of Blake’s enchanted rooms.
‘Believe me, dear Sir,
‘Yours most truly,
Simplicity and natural dignity such as Blake’s can confer refinement on any environment. External dis¬cordances vanished before the spiritual concords of the man. ‘There was a strange expansion,’ says one of his friends, ‘and sensation of FREEDOM in those two rooms very seldom felt elsewhere.’ Another who, as a little girl, visited the rooms with her father, can only remember the beautiful things she saw on the walls, and Blake’s kind manner to herself. Had there been anything sordid or poverty-stricken to remember, she would have done so, for children are keenly sensitive to such impressions. Blake, I may here mention, was especially fond of children, and very kind to them; his habitual quiet gentleness assuming a new beauty towards them. He was kind to the young generally; and, as a lady (Miss Maria Denman), to whom in youth this fostering behaviour had been, in slight ways, shown, observed to me with some emotion, ‘One remembers even in age the kindness of such a man.’
‘Blake knew nothing,’ writes the valued correspondent whom I have so frequent occasion to quote, ‘of dignified reserve, polite hauteur, “bowings out, or condescension to inferiors,” nor had he dressed himself for masquerade in unassuming manners.’ Somewhere in his writings occur these lines, droll, but full of meaning—
‘“The fox, the owl, the spider, and the bat,
By sweet reserve and modesty grow fat.’’’
The courtly and politic were denied Blake. But he was not among those who fancy genius raises them above the courtesies and humanities of life. Competent judges describe him as essentially ‘the politest of men:’ To this gentlemanliness, and to what I may call the originality of his manners or mental dress, observers of various habits agree in speaking. ‘Very courteous,’ ‘very polite’; and ‘withal there was great meekness and retirement of manner, such as belong to the true gentleman and com¬manded respect,’ says one. In society he was more urbane than many of greater pretension, and
in the face often of uncourteous opposition. At Hampstead, one day, Collins the painter—after having said very rude things such as people of the world, under the conscious¬ness of superior sense and sanity, will indulge in towards those they call ‘enthusiasts ‘—was obliged to confess Blake had made a very gentlemanly and temperate return. Nobody, to look at or listen to him in society, would have taken him for the knock-me-down assertor he was in his writings. Crudities there may, in fact, be set down to his never having won real ease or freedom in that mode of expression. In more intimate relations again, his own goodness and sweetness of nature spoke still more eloquently. And if he had received a kindness, the tender heart was so sensitive, he could hardly do enough to show his consciousness of it.
Nor was Blake one of that numerous class who reserve their civility for their social superiors or mental equals, the distinguished and celebrated—those recommended, in short, by the suffrages of others. ‘He was equally polite (and that is rare indeed) to men of every age and rank; honouring all men.’ In which he resembled Flaxman, who addressed his carvers and workmen as ‘friends,’ and made them such by his kindness. Of this spontaneous courtesy to all, the following is an instance:—Once, while his young friend Calvert was with him in Fountain Court, a man brought up a sack of coals, knocked at the door, and asked, ‘Are these coals for here?’ ‘No, Sir,’ answered Blake, in quiet, courteous tones, as to an equal; ‘but I’ll ask whose they are.’ Blake’s fellow-lodgers were humble but respectable. The court did not, in those days, present, as now, its idle groups of women, hanging about outside the doors, with free-and-easy, not to say unfinished, toilets. There was no excessive noise of children in the court. Children at play there doubtless often were, as one of Mr. Palmer’s anecdotes would indicate.
Vehement and outrageous as Blake could at times be (in words), his ordinary habit of mind was—at all events in these
latter years—one of equable gentleness. He was no longer angry with the world and its often unworthy favourites, or rebellious against its awards; jostled though he were in his quiet course by thousands of coarse, eager men, ‘famous’ and prosperous in their day. ‘I live in a hole here,’ he would say, ‘but God has a beautiful mansion for me elsewhere.’ ‘Poor, dear man,’ exclaimed one of his friends to me, ‘to think how ill he was used, and yet he took it all so quietly.’ Surely ‘the world;’ if it had a conscience to be pricked, might blush at a few of its awards. ‘The public;’ say some, ‘may be compared to a reigning beauty, whose favour is hard to win, and who often gives it to a fool in the end.’
Blake, however, was rich in poverty. ‘They pity me,’ he would say of Lawrence and other prosperous artists, who condescended to visit him; ‘but ‘tis they who are the just objects of pity: I possess my visions and peace. They have bartered their birthright for a mess of pottage.’ For he felt that he could have had fame and fortune, if he had chosen; if he had not voluntarily, and with his eyes open, cleaved to the imaginative life. ‘If asked;’ writes Mr. Palmer, ‘whether I ever knew among the intellectual a happy man, Blake would be the only one who would immediately occur to me.’ And this feeling of happiness communicated itself as a serene, beneficent influence to others. His disciples would often wonder thereat, and wish they had within themselves the faculty, unhelped by him, to feel as he did.
There is a short poem in the MS note-book which speaks eloquently on this head of unworldliness with its resultant calm elevated joy. Let us listen to it:—
I rose up at the dawn of day:
‘Get thee away! get thee away!
Prayest thou for riches? away! away!
This is the throne of Mammon grey
Said I: ‘This, sure, is very odd;
I took it to be the throne of God.
Everything besides I have:
It’s only riches that I can crave.
‘I have mental joys and mental health,
Mental friends and mental wealth
I’ve a wife that I love, and that loves me,
I’ve all but riches bodily.
‘Then if for riches I must not pray,
God knows, it’s little prayers I need say.
I am in God’s presence night and day;
He never turns His face away.
‘The accuser of sins by my side doth stand,
And he holds my money bag in his hand;
For my worldly things God makes him pay;
And he’d pay for more, if to him I would pray.
‘He says, if I worship not him for a god,
I shall eat coarser food, and go worse shod;
But as I don’t value such things as these,
You must do, Mr. Devil, just as God please.’
A lady tells a pretty and very characteristic story of her first and only interview with the spiritual man, which illus¬trates, in another way, how he came by this happiness. The lady was thought extremely beautiful when a child, and was taken to an evening party and there presented to Blake. He looked at her very kindly for a long while, without speaking; and then, stroking her head and long ringlets, said: ‘May God make this world to you, my child, as beautiful as it has been to me I’ She thought it strange, at the time—vain little darling of Fortune!—that such a poor old man, dressed in shabby clothes, could imagine that the world had ever been so beautiful to him as it must be to her, nursed in all the elegancies and luxuries of wealth. But, in after years, she understood
plainly enough what he meant, and treasured the few words he had spoken to her. Well might he sweetly and touch¬ingly say of himself (I draw from the note-book again):—
The Angel who presided at my birth
Said: ‘Little creature formed of joy and mirth,
Go, love without the help of anything on earth.’
Blake’s mind was so sensitively strung, as in intercourse with others to give immediate response to the right appeals. All speak of his conversation as most interest¬ing, nay enchanting, to hear. Copious and varied, the fruit of great, but not morbid, intellectual activity, it was, in its ordinary course, full of mind, sagacity, and varied information. Above all, it was something quite different from that of other men: conversation which carried you ‘from earth to heaven and back again, before you knew where you were.’ Even a young girl would feel the fasci¬nation, though sometimes finding his words wild and hard to follow. To conventional minds, it often seemed a mix¬ture of divinity, blasphemy, and licence; but a mixture not even by them to be quickly forgotten. In a walk with a sympathetic listener, it seldom flagged. He would have something pertinent to say about most objects they chanced to pass, were it but a bit of old wall. And such as had the privilege of accompanying him in a country walk felt their perception of natural beauty greatly en¬hanced. Nature herself seemed strangely more spiritual. Blake’s mind warmed his listener’s, kindled his imagina¬tion; almost creating in him a new sense. Nor was his enjoyment of all that is great in Art, of whatever school or time, less genuine and vivid: notwithstanding an appear¬ance to the contrary in some passages of his writings, where, in doing battle energetically for certain great prin¬ciples, random blows not a few, on either side the mark, come down on unoffending heads; or where, in the con¬sciousness that a foolish world had insisted on raising the less great above the greatest, he delighted
to make matters even by thrusting them as much too far below. ‘I think I hear him say,’ writes one of those friends whose con¬geniality ensured serene, wise moods on Blake’s part, ‘‘As fine as possible, Sir. It is not given to man to do better’ (this when talking of the great examples of Art, whether antique or modern). ‘He delighted to think of Raphael, Giulio Romano, Polidoro, and others, working together in the chambers of the Vatican, engaged, without jealousy, as he imagined, in the carrying out of one great common object; and he used to compare it (without any intentional irreverence) to the co-labours of the holy Apostles. He dwelt on this subject very fondly. . . . Among spurious old pictures, he had met with many “Claudes,” but spoke of a few which he had seen really untouched and unscrubbed, with the greatest delight; and mentioned, as a peculiar charm, that in these, when minutely examined, there were, upon the focal lights of the foliage, small specks of pure white which made them appear to be glittering with dew which the morning sun had not yet dried up. . . . His description of these genuine Claudes, I shall never forget. He warmed with his subject, and it continued through an evening walk. The sun was set; but Blake’s Claudes made sunshine in that shady place.’ . . . ‘Of Albert Dürer, he remarked that his most finished woodcuts, when closely examined, seemed to consist principally of outline;—that they were ‘everything and yet nothing.’. . . . None but the finest of the antiques, he held, equalled Michael Angelo.’
As we have seen, Blake’s was no ‘poetic poverty,’ of a kind to excite the pensive interest of sentimental people without shocking their nerves but real, prosaic poverty. Such ‘appearances’ as I have described tasked his whole income to maintain. And his was an honourable code: he was never, amid all his poverty, in debt. ‘Money,’ says Mr. Palmer, ‘he used with careful frugality, but never loved it; and believed that he should be always supplied
with it as it was wanted; in which he was not disappointed. And he worked on with serenity when there was only a shilling in the house. Once (he told me) he spent part of one of these last shillings on a camel’s hair brush. . . . He would have laughed very much at the word status, which has been naturalized into our language of late years.’ Last shillings were, at all periods of Blake’s life, a frequent incident of his household economy. For, while engrossed in design¬ing, he had often an aversion to resuming his graver, or to being troubled about money matters. It put him out very much when Mrs. Blake referred to the financial topic, or found herself constrained to announce, ‘The money is going, Mr. Blake.’ ‘Oh, d— the money!’ he would shout ‘it’s always the money!’ Her method of hinting at the odious subject became, in consequence, a very quiet and expressive one. She would set before him at dinner just what there was in the house, without any comment until, finally, the empty platter had to make its appearance: which hard fact effectually reminded him it was time to go to his engraving for awhile. At that, when fully embarked again, he was not unhappy; work being his natural element.
Allan Cunningham has talked of Blake’s living on a crust. But in these latter years he, for the most part, lived on good, though simple fare. His wife was an excellent cook—a talent which helped to fill out Blake’s waistcoat a little, as he grew old. She could even prepare a made dish, when need be. As there was no servant, he fetched the porter for dinner himself, from the house at the corner of the Strand. Once, pot of porter in hand, he espied coming along a dignitary of Art—that highly respectable man, William Collins, R.A., whom he had met in society a few evenings before. The Academician was about to shake hands, but seeing the porter, drew up, and did not know him. Blake would tell the story very quietly, and without sarcasm.
Another time, Fuseli came in, and found Blake with a little cold mutton before him for dinner; who, far from being disconcerted, asked his friend to join him. ‘Ah! by G—!’ exclaimed Fuseli, ‘this is the reason you can do as you like. Now I can’t do this.’ His habits were very temperate. It was only in later years he took porter regularly. He then fancied it soothed him, and would sit and muse over his pint after a one o’clock dinner. When he drank wine, which, at home, of course, was seldom, he professed a liking to drink off good draughts from a tumbler, and thought the wine-glass system absurd: a very heretical opinion in the eyes of your true wine drinkers. Frugal and abstemious on principle, and for pecuniary reasons, he was sometimes rather imprudent, and would take anything that came in his way. A nobleman once sent him some oil of walnuts he had had expressed purposely for an artistic experiment. Blake tasted it, and went on tasting, till he had drunk the whole. When his lordship called to ask how the experiment had prospered, the artist had to confess what had become of the in¬gredients. It was ever after a standing joke against him.
In his dress, there was a similar triumph of the man over his poverty, to that which struck one in his rooms. Indoors, he was careful, for economy’s sake, but not slovenly: his clothes were threadbare, and his grey trousers had worn black and shiny in front, like a mechanic’s. Out of doors, he was more particular, so that his dress did not, in the streets of London, challenge attention either way. He wore black knee breeches and buckles, black worsted stockings, shoes which tied, and a broad-brimmed hat. It was something like an old-fashioned tradesman’s dress. But the general impression he made on you was that of a gentleman, in a way of his own.
In person, there was much in Blake which answered to the remarkable man he was. Though low in stature, not quite five
feet and a half, and broad-shouldered, he was well made, and did not strike people as short. For he had an upright carriage and a good presence; he bore himself with dignity, as not unconscious of his natural claims. The head and face were strongly stamped with the power and character of the man. There was great volume of brain in that square, massive head, that piled-up brow, very full and rounded at the temples, where, according to phrenologists, ideality or imagination resides. His eyes were fine—’ wonderful eyes,’ some one calls them; promi¬nently set, but bright, spiritual, visionary;—not restless or wild, but with ‘a look of clear heavenly exaltation.’ The eyes of some of the old men in his Job recall his own to surviving friends. His nose was insignificant as to size, but had that peculiarity which gives to a face an expres¬sion of fiery energy, as of a high-mettled steed,—’ a little clenched nostril; a nostril that opened as far as it could, but was tied down at one end.’ His mouth was wide, the lips not full, but tremulous, and expressive of the great sen¬sibility which characterized him. He was short-sighted, as the prominence of his eyes indicated; a prominence in keeping with his faculty for languages, according to the phrenologists again. He wore glasses only occasionally.
Mrs. Blake, the artist’s companion at almost every hour of the twenty-four, now, as of old, cheerfully accepted the lot of a poor man s wife as few gifted men’s wives are prepared to do. ‘Rigid, punctual, firm, precise,’ and, as I have said, a good housewife, she extracted the utmost possible amount of domestic comfort out of their slender means, which she, like her husband, was scrupulously careful never to exceed. She shared his destiny and softened it, ministering to his daily wants. Not that he put off everything menial upon her, willing though she were. ‘For many years,’ writes J. T. Smith, who knew both well, ‘ he made a constant practice of lighting the fire, and putting on the kettle for breakfast
before his Kate awoke.’ Smith speaks of the uninterrupted harmony in which Blake and ‘his beloved Kate’ lived. Such harmony there really was; but, as we saw, it had not always been unruffled. There had been stormy times in years long past, when both were young; discord by no means trifling while it lasted. But with the cause (jealousy on her side, not wholly unprovoked,) the strife had ceased also. In age and affliction each grasped the reward of so wise a reconciliation, in an even, calm state of companionship and mutual helpfulness. And ‘his Kate’ was capable of sharing to some extent, at all events, the inner life too, and of yielding true sympathy. ‘Having never been a mother,’ says the same cordially appreciative friend, who saw much of her in later years, and whose words I have already often borrowed, ‘to this devoted wife Blake was at once lover, husband, child. She would get up in the night, when he was under his very fierce inspirations, which were as if they would tear him asunder, while he was yielding himself to the Muse, or whatever else it could be called, sketching and writing. And so terrible a task did this seem to be, that she had to sit motionless and silent; only to stay him mentally, without moving hand or foot: this for hours, and night after night. Judge of the obedient, unassuming devotion of her dear soul to him!’
Mrs. Blake’s spirit, in truth, was influenced magnetically, if one may so speak, by her husband’s. She appears to have had the same literal belief in his visions as John Varley; and when he, in his wild way, would tell his friends that King Alfred, or any great historical personage, had sat to him, Mrs. Blake would look at her husband with an awestruck countenance, and then at his listener to confirm the fact. Not only was she wont to echo what he said, to talk as he talked, on religion and other matters— this may be accounted for by the fact that he had educated her; but she, too, learned to have visions;—to see proces¬sions of figures wending along the river, in broad daylight; and would give a
start when they disappeared in the water. As Blake truly maintained, the faculty for seeing such airy phantoms can be cultivated. I have mentioned that she coloured Blake’s designs under his direction, and success¬fully. One drawing, undoubtedly designed as well as executed by herself, is now in Mr. Linnell’s possession. It is so like a work of Blake’s, that one can hardly believe it to have been the production of another hand. Captain Butts has also one, of small size, in pen and ink: a seated figure of a woman, which I would not hesitate, at first sight, to call a Blake; and even on inspection it proves a very fair drawing. I have no doubt of this too being bonâ fide Mrs. Blake’s.’ Some of the characteristics of an originally uneducated mind had clung to her, despite the late culture received from her husband:—an exaggerated suspiciousness, for instance, and even jealousy of his friends. But vulgarity there was none. In person, the once beautiful brunette had, with years, grown—as we have elsewhere observed—common and coarse-looking, except ‘in so far,’ says one who knew her, ‘as love made her otherwise, and spoke through her gleaming black eyes.’ This appearance was enhanced by the common dirty dress, poverty, and perhaps age, had rendered habitual. In such cases, the traces of past beauty do but heighten the melancholy of its utter ruin. Amid so much that was beautiful in her affectionate, wifely spirit, these externals were little noticed. To friends who remember Blake in Fountain Court, those calm, patriarchal figures of Job and his Wife in the artist’s own designs, still recall the two, as they used to sit together in that humble room.
ALL I have met, who at any period of the poet-artist’s life knew much of Blake, speak with affection of him. A sweet, gentle, lovable creature, say all; courageous too, yet not bitter. Of course, casual acquaintances were more startled than pleased by his extravagances and vehemences of speech. To men of the world, his was a mind which, whether judged by his writings or his talk,
inevitably seemed scarcely a sane, still less a trustworthy one. The impression he made on others varied in propor¬tion to the community of sentiment which existed; and, as I said, he showed his best self only to such as had this bond of sympathy; namely, a certain innocence and even humility of heart, a certain virgin freshness of mind. In society he was often brought into contact with men, superior and intellectual, but occupying widely different spheres of thought to his own; who, if they admired, marvelled still more, and could not accept him and his strange, novel individuality in the frank, confiding spirit of those to whom we have been lately hearkening. We shall have evidence of this in a later chapter.