MAD OR NOT MAD?
IN his familiar conversations with Mr. Palmer and other disciples, Blake would speak in the most matter-of-fact way of recent spiritual visitors. Much of their talk was of the spirits he had been discoursing with, and, to a third person, would have sounded oddly enough. ‘Milton the other day was saying to me,’ so and so. ‘I tried to convince him he was wrong, but I could not succeed.’ ‘His tastes are pagan; his house is Palladian, not Gothic.’ Ingenuous listeners hardly knew sometimes whether to believe Blake saw these spirits or not; but could not go so far as utterly to deny that he did. It often struck them, however, that the spirits came under false pretences, and were not what they represented them¬selves; inasmuch as they spoke false doctrine, broached unsound opinions.
In society, again, Blake would give accounts of romantic appearances which had shown themselves to him. At one of Mr. Aders’ parties—at which Flaxman, Lawrence, and other leading artists were present—Blake was talking to a little group gathered round him, within hearing of a lady whose children had just come home from boarding school for the holidays. ‘The other evening,’ said Blake in his usual quiet way, ‘taking a walk, I came to a meadow, and at the farther corner of it I saw a fold of lambs. Coming nearer, the ground blushed with flowers; and
the wattled cote and its woolly tenants were of an exquisite pastoral beauty. But I looked again, and it proved to be no living flock, but beautiful sculpture.’ The lady, thinking this a capital holiday-show for her children, eagerly interposed, ‘I beg pardon, Mr. Blake, but may I ask where you saw this?’ ‘Here, madam,’ answered Blake, touching his forehead. The reply brings us to the point of view from which Blake himself regarded his visions. It was by no means the mad view those ignorant of the man have fancied. He would candidly confess they were not literal matters of fact; but phenomena seen by his imagination; realities none the less for that, but transacted within the realm of mind. A distinction which widely separates such visions from the hallucinations of madness, or of the victims of ghostly or table-turning delusions; and indicates that wild habit of talk (and of writing) which startled out¬siders, to have been the fruit of an excessive culture of the imagination, combined with daring licence of speech. No man, by the way, would have been more indifferent or averse than he (wide and tolerant as was his faith in super¬natural revelations) towards the table-turning, wainscot-knocking, bosh-propounding ‘Spiritualism’ of the present hour; the gross and puerile materialism which tries to pass itself off for its eternal opposite. He might not have disbelieved in the ‘communications’ in question; but they would not, in his eyes, have seemed worth attending to, or as proceeding from a higher world at all:—only, perhaps, as the witless pranks of very ignoble spirits from a lower one.
According to his own explanation, Blake saw spiritual appearances by the exercise of a special faculty—that of imagination—using the word in the then unusual, but true sense, of a faculty which busies itself with the subtler realities, not with fictions. He, on this ground, objected even to Shakspere’s expression—
‘And gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.’
He said the things imagination saw were as much realities as were gross and tangible facts. He would tell his artist-friends, ‘You have the same faculty as I (the visionary), only you do not trust or cultivate it. You can see what I do, if you choose.’ In a similar spirit was his advice to a young painter: ‘You have only to work up imagination to the state of vision, and the thing is done.’ After all, he did but use the word ‘vision’ in precisely the same sense in which Wordsworth uses it to designate the poet’s special endowment; as when he speaks of Chaucer as one
—‘whose spirit often dwelt
In the clear land of vision.’
The only difference is, that Blake was for applying the word boldly in detail, instead of merely as a general term. And why not? What word could more happily express the truth? In short, his belief in what he himself ‘ saw in vision’ was not as in a material, but a spiritual fact—to his mind a more real kind of fact. The greater import¬ance of the latter was one of his leading canons. He was, moreover, inclined, metaphysically, to be a follower of Bishop Berkeley,—a disbeliever in matter, as I have already said.
Extravagant and apocryphal stories have passed current about Blake. One—which I believe Leigh Hunt used to tell—bears internal evidence, to those who understand Blake, of having been a fabrication. Once, it is said, the visionary man was walking down Cheapside with a friend. Suddenly he took off his hat and bowed low. ‘What did you do that for?’ ‘Oh! that was the Apostle Paul.’’ A story quite out of keeping with the artist’s ordinary demeanour towards his spiritual visitants, though quite in unison with the accepted notions as to ghosts and other apparitions with whom the ghost-seer is traditionally supposed to have tangible personal relations. Blake’s was not that kind of vision. The spirits which appeared to him did not reveal themselves in
palpable, hand-shaking guise, nor were they mistaken by him for bodily facts. He did not claim for them an external, or (in German slang) an objective existence.
In Blake, imagination was by nature so strong, by himself had been so much fostered and, amid the solitude in which he lived, had been so little interfered with by the ideas of others, that it had grown to a disproportionate height so as to overshadow every other faculty. lie relied on it as on a revelation of the Invisible. The appearances thus summoned before his mental eye were implicitly trusted in, not dismissed as idle phantoms as an ordinary—even an imaginative—man dismisses them. Hence his bonâ fide ‘ portraits’ of visionary characters, such as those drawn for John Varley. And to this genuine faith is due the singular difference in kind between his imaginative work and that of nearly every other painter who has left a record of himself Such is the explanation which all who knew the man personally give of what seemed mere madness to the world.
And here let us finally dispose of this vexed question of Blake’s ‘madness’; the stigma which, in its haste to arrive at some decision on an unusual phenomenon, the world has fastened on him, as on many other notable men before. Was he a ‘glorious madman,’ according to the assumption of those who knew nothing of him per¬sonally, little of his works, nothing of the genesis of them—of the deep though wayward spiritual currents of which they were the unvarying exponent?
To Blake’s surviving friends—all who knew more of his character than a few casual interviews could supply— the proposition is (I find) simply unintelligible; thinking of him, as they do, under the strong influence of happy, fruitful, personal intercourse remembered in the past; swayed by the general tenor of his life, rather than by isolated extravagancies of speech, or wild passages in his writings. All are unanimous on the point. And I have taken the
opinions of many independent witnesses. ‘I saw nothing but sanity,’ declares one (Mr. Calvert); ‘saw nothing mad in his conduct, actions, or character.’ Mr. Linnell and Mr. Palmer express themselves in the same sense, and almost in the same words. Another very unbiassed and intelligent acquaintance—Mr. Finch— summed up his recollections thus: ‘He was not mad, but perverse and wilful; he reasoned correctly from arbitrary, and often false premises.’ This, however, is what madmen have been sometimes defined to do; grant them their premises, and their conclusions are right. Nor can I quite concur in it as characteristic of Blake, who was no reasoner, but pre-eminently a man of intuitions; and therefore more often right as to his premises than his deductions. But, at all events, a madman’s actions are not consonant with sound premises: Blake’s always were. He could throw aside his visionary mood and his para¬doxes when he liked. Mad people try to conceal their crazes, and in the long run cannot succeed.
‘There was nothing mad about him,’ emphatically exclaimed to me Mr. Cornelius Varley; ‘people set down for mad anything different from themselves.’ That vigorous veteran, the late James Ward, who had often met Blake in society and talked with him, would never hear him called mad. If mad he were, it was a madness which infected everybody who came near him; the wife who all but worshipped him, for one—whose sanity I never heard doubted; sensible, practical Mr. Butts, his almost life-long friend and patron, for another—who, I have reason to know, reckoned him eccentric but nothing worse. The high respect which Flaxman and Fuseli always entertained for him, I have already referred to. Even so well-balanced a mind as Cary’s (the translator of Dante) abandoned, after he came to know him, the notion he had taken up of his ‘madness,’ and simply pronounced him an ‘enthusiast.’ Evidently this was the light in which he was regarded, throughout life, by all who had personal relations
with him: Paine at one time, Cromek at another, Hayley at another; the first two, men of sufficiently un-visionary, the last of sufficiently common¬place, intellect. So, too, by honest, prosaic John Thomas Smith, who had known Blake as a young man. He commences his notice of Blake with the declaration apropos of what he calls this ‘stigma of eccentricity.’ ‘I believe it has been invariably the custom of every age, whenever a man has been found to depart from the usual mode of thinking, to consider him of deranged intellect, and not unfrequently, stark, staring mad.’ And he quotes Cowper’s words, when writing to Lady Hesketh, speaking of a dancing master’s advertisement: ‘The author of it had the good hap to be crazed, or he had never produced anything half so clever; for you will ever observe that they who are said to have lost their wits, have more than other people.’ ‘I could see in Blake’s wild enthusiasm and extravagance,’ writes another of his personal friends, ‘only the struggle of an ardent mind to deliver itself of the bigness and sublimity of its own conceptions.’ Even shrewd Allan Cunningham, a man who lived in an atmosphere of common sense, had, it is evident, spontaneously adopted a similar con¬clusion, and writes of Blake in a manner that tacitly assumes his sanity. ‘Blake’s misfortune,’ says he, ‘was that of possessing this precious gift (imagination) in excess. His fancy overmastered him, until he at length confounded the ‘mind’s eye’ with the corporeal organ, and dreamed himself out of the sympathies of actual life.’ And again: ‘Painting, like poetry, has followers, the body of whose genius is light compared to the length of its wings, and who, rising above the ordinary sympathies of our nature, are, like Napoleon, betrayed by a star which no eye can see save their own. To this rare class belonged William Blake.’
That the present writer shares the view of his prede¬cessors and of Blake’s personal intimates, is doubtless already apparent. And, perhaps, the deliberate opinion, on such a point, of a bio-
grapher who has necessarily devoted a bonâ fide slice of his life to deciphering the character of him he writes of, is entitled to some weight— to more, say, than the rough and ready decisions, which are based on an isolated anecdote or two, or on certain incoherent passages in a series of professedly mystical writings. So far as I am concerned, I would infinitely rather be mad with William Blake than sane with nine-tenths of the world. When, indeed, such men are nicknamed ‘mad,’ one is brought in contact with the difficult problem, ‘What is madness?’ Who is not mad—in some other person’s sense, himself, perhaps, not the noblest of created mortals? Who, in certain abstruse cases, is to be the judge? Does not prophet or hero always seem ‘mad’ to the respectable mob, and to polished men of the world, the motives of feeling and action being so alien and incomprehensible?
In a letter respecting Blake, addressed by the late James Ward, in June, to his son, George Raphael, the engraver, the venerable artist gave expression to an interest¬ing view of his own—itself, some may think, tinged by eccentricity. ‘There can be no doubt,’ he writes, ‘of his having been what the world calls a man of genius. But his genius was of a peculiar character, sometimes above, some¬times below the comprehension of his fellow-men, . . . I have considered him as amongst the many proofs I have witnessed, of men being possessed of different orders of spirits now, as well as in the time when the Saviour Christ was upon the earth,—although our Established Church (to their shame) set themselves against it—some good, some evil, in their different degrees. It is evident Blake’s was not an evil one, for he was a good man, the most harmless and free from guile. But men, and even our Church, set down every one who is eccentric as mad. Alas! how many, now in Bedlam, are there for disorders of soul (spirit), and not of the body?’ A similar suspicion to this Blake him¬self would sometimes hazard, viz, that ‘there are
probably men shut up as mad in Bedlam, who are not so: that possibly the madmen outside have shut up the sane people.’ Which, by the way, is not the kind of talk a mad¬man, or a man conscious of lying under such a suspicion among his friends, would indulge in. Madmen, and those suspected of madness, do not make common cause with the mad; they rather shun, or take side against them, as animals treat a diseased or wounded comrade. Above all, a madman, with his uneasy sense of his own true condition, has a sensitive horror of so personal a topic and cunningly avoids it.
One ground of the exaggerated misconception of Blake’s eccentricities prevalent among those who had heard about Blake rather than sat at his feet,—those strange ‘visions’ of his, we have accounted for quite consistently with sanity. As we said, he, in conversation with his friends, admitted so much,—viz. the inchoate power of others to see the same things he saw,—as to eliminate any outrageous extravagance from his pretensions as a sooth¬sayer. Bearing on this point, it is to be remarked that a madman insists on others seeing as he sees. But Blake did not expect his companion of the moment, John Varley, or Mrs. Blake, to behold the visionary spectres summoned from the void before his eyes, of prophet, king, and poet.
One curious but indubitable historical fact is worth remembrance here. It is full of suggestion in connexion with our present subject. For Blake was, in spirit, a denizen of other and earlier ages of the world than the present mechanical one to which chance had rudely trans¬planted him. It is within the last century or so, that ‘the heavens have gone further off,’ as Hazlitt put it. The supernatural world has during that period removed itself further from civilized, cultivated humanity than it was ever before—in all time, heathen or Christian. There is, at this moment, infinitely less practical belief in an invisible world, or even
apprehension of it, than at any previous historical era, whether Egyptian, classic, or mediæval. It is only within the last century and a half, the faculty of seeing visions could have been one to bring a man’s sanity into question. Ever before, by simple, believing Romanist, by reverent awestruck pagan, or in the fervent East, the exceptional power had been accepted as a matter of course in gifted men, and had been turned to serious account in the cause of religion. Even so late a manifestation of this abiding tendency (the visionary) in all spiritual persons, as that in the case of Jacob Boehmen in Lutheran time, excited, not sceptical disbelief, but pedantic hostility, as presumably a delusive gift from the Father of Evil rather than from the Author of all Good.
Another source of the false estimate formed of Blake by many, is traceable to the ‘wild and hurling words’ he would utter in conversation,—especially when provoked. In society, people would disbelieve and exasperate him, would set upon the gentle yet fiery-hearted mystic, and stir him up into being extravagant, out of a mere spirit of opposition. Then he would say things on purpose to startle, and make people stare. In the excitement of con¬versation he would exaggerate his peculiarities of opinion and doctrine, would express a floating notion or fancy in an extreme way, without the explanation or qualification he was, in reality, well aware it needed; taking a secret pleasure in the surprise and opposition such views aroused. ‘Often,’—to this effect writes Mr. Linnell,—’ he said things on purpose to puzzle and provoke those who teased him in order to bring out his strongest peculiarities. With the froward, he showed himself froward, but with the gentle, he was as amiable as a child, . . . His eccentricities have been enlarged upon beyond the truth. He was so far from being so absurd in his opinions, or so nearly mad as has been represented, that he always defended Christian truth against the attacks of infidels, and its abuse by the superstitious. . . . It must be con-
fessed, however, he uttered occasionally sentiments sadly at variance with sound doctrine.’
Some persons of a scientific turn were once discoursing pompously and, to him, distastefully, about the incredible distance of the planets, the length of time light takes to travel to the earth, &c., when he burst out, ‘‘Tis false! I was walking down a lane the other day, and at the end of it I touched the sky with my stick’; perhaps with a little covert sophistry, meaning that he thrust his stick out into space, and that, had he stood upon the remotest star, he could do no more; the blue sky itself being but the limit of our bodily perceptions of the Infinite which encompasses us. Scientific individuals would generally make him come out with something outrageous and unreasonable. For he had an indestructible animosity towards what, to his devout old-world imagination, seemed the keen polar atmosphere of modern science. In society, once, a cultivated stranger, as a mark of polite attention, was showing him the first number of The Mechanic’s Magazine. ‘Ah, sir,’ remarked Blake, with bland emphasis, ‘these things we artists HATE!’ The latter years of Blake’s life were an era when universal homage was challenged for mechanical science,—as for some new Evangel; with a triumphant clamour on the part of superficial enthusiasts, which has since subsided.
But, after all, no candid person would, even in society, have taken Blake for mad. Nor did he really believe his own vaunt say his friends, when he uttered such things as the above, or as, ‘I can reach the sun with my hand, if I stretch it out,’ &c. He believed them only in a non-natural sense. If it gave him pleasure to think of the welkin, as the old Hebrews did, as a smooth surface which he might feel with his hand, he would believe it as well as he could; contending (among friends) that the idea had a spiritual reality. For, to recur to the explanation of his
character I lately quoted, he was ‘not mad, but perverse and wilful’; believing a thing because he chose to do so. His reasoning powers were far inferior, as are, more or less, those of all artists, to his perceptive, above all to his perceptions of beauty. He elected his opinions because they seemed beautiful to him, and fulfilled ‘the desires of his mind.’ Then he would find reasons for them. Thus, Christianity was beautiful to him, and was accepted even more because it satisfied his love of spiritual beauty, than because it satisfied his religious and moral sense. Again, the notion was attractive and beautiful to him that ‘Chris¬tianity is Art,’ and conversely, that ‘Art is Christianity ’: therefore he believed it. And it became one of his standing theological canons, which, in his sybilline writings, he is for ever reiterating.
Both in his books, and in conversation, Blake was a vehement assertor; very decisive and very obstinate in his opinions, when he had once taken them up. And he was impatient of control, or of a law in anything,—in his Art, in his opinions on morals, religion, or what not. If artists be divided into the disciplined and undisciplined, he must fall under the latter category. To this, as well as to entire want of discipline in the literary art, was due much of the incoherence in his books and design; incoherence and wildness, which is another source of the general inference embodied by Wordsworth and Southey, who knew him only in his poems, when they described him as a man ‘of great, but undoubtedly insane genius.’ If for insane we read undisciplined or ill-balanced, I think we shall hit the truth.
I have spoken of Blake’s daring heterodoxy on religious topics. He not only believed in a pre-existent state, but had adopted, or thought out for himself, many of the ideas of the early Gnostics; and was otherwise so erratic in his religious opinions as to shock orthodox Churchmen. Once, in later years, a disputant got up and left his com¬pany. ‘Ah,’ said Blake, ‘we could not get on at all;
he wanted to teach me, and I to teach him.’ A transcen¬dental Christian rather than a literal one, he would often hazard wild assertions about the Sacred Person. Yet he would consider that a believer only in the historical character of Christ in reality denied Christ. ‘I have un¬speakable pleasure,’ says Smith, ‘in being able to state, that though I admit he did not, for the last forty years, attend any place of Divine worship, yet he was not a Free¬thinker, as some invidious detractors have thought proper to assert nor was he ever in any degree irreligious. Through life, his Bible was everything with him.’ And, to the same effect, another friend of Blake’s writes to me: ‘If it must be told, that he did not go to church, it should also be told that he was no scoffer at sacred mysteries; and, although thus isolated from the communion of the faithful, ever professed his preference of the Church to any sort of sectarianism. On one occasion, he expressed the uneasiness he should have felt (had he been a parent) at a child of his dying unbaptized. One day, rather in an opposing mood, I think, he declared that the Romish Church was the only one which taught the forgiveness of sins.’ ‘Forgiveness of sins’ was the corner-stone of Christianity to Blake’s mind. He was for ever inscribing the tenet over his Gates of Paradise and elsewhere. The English Church, as he thought, too little inculcated it. He had a sentimental liking for the Romish Church, and, among other paradoxes, would often try to make out that priestly despotism was better than kingly. ‘He believed no subjects of monarchies were so happy as the Pope’s’; which sounds still more absurd now, than in times nearer those of the First Napoleon, when the poor Pope had, for a while, seemed the victim of military force, and an object of legitimate sympathy. Blake’s friend may well add: ‘I fancy this was one of his wilful sayings, and meant that he believed priests to be more favourable to liberty than kings: which he certainly did. He loved liberty, and had no affection
for statecraft or standing armies, yet no man less resembled the vulgar radical. His sympathies were rather with Milton, Harrington, and Marvel—not with Milton as to his Puritanism, but his love of a grand ideal scheme of republicanism though I never remember him speaking of the American institutions: I suppose Blake’s republic would always have been ideal.’ We must as¬suredly number among his more ‘wilful’ assertions the curious hypothesis ‘that the Bonaparte of Italy was killed, and that another was somehow substituted from the exigent want of the name, who was the Bonaparte of the Empire! He referred to the different physiognomies (as he thought) in the earlier and later portraits. But, stranger still, he gave me the (forgotten) name of some public man—ambassador, or something of the sort—who assured him such was the case; and a very plausible story he made of it,’ says the same friend.
Similar latitude of speculation was, as we have seen, cultivated on ethics. Practically obedient to moral law, a faithful husband, and temperate in all his habits, Blake is for ever, in his writings, girding at the ‘mere moral law,’ as being the letter which killeth. His conversation on social topics, his writings, his designs, were equally marked by theoretic licence and virtual guilelessness; for he frankly said, described, and drew everything as it arose to his mind. ‘Do you think,’ he once said in familiar conversa¬tion, and in the spirit of controversy, ‘if I came home, and discovered my wife to be unfaithful, I should be so foolish as to take it ill ?‘ Mrs. Blake was a most exem¬plary wife, yet was so much in the habit of echoing and thinking right whatever he said that, had she been present, adds my informant, he is sure she would have innocently responded, ‘Of course not!’ ‘But,’ continues Blake’s friend, ‘I am inclined to think (despite the Philosophic boast) it would have gone ill with the offenders.’