DECLINING HEALTH: DESIGNS TO DANTE. 1824—27. [ÆT. 67—70]
WHILE the Job was in progress, Blake had, among other work, assisted, from August to December, 1824, in engraving a portrait from his friend Linnell’s hand, of Mr. Lowry, and perhaps in some other plates. It was during this period, also, Mr. Linnell introduced him to the knowledge of Dante, and commissioned a series of drawings from the Divina Commedia, to be hereafter engraved; justly thinking Blake ‘the very man and the only’ to illustrate the great medieval master of supernatural awe and terror. While still engaged over the engravings to Job, Blake set to work full of energy, sketching, while confined to bed by a sprained foot, the first outlines of the whole, or nearly the whole, of this new series, in a folio volume of a hundred pages, which Mr. Linnell had given him for the purpose. This was during the years 1824 to 1826. With character¬istic fervour and activity of intellect, he, at sixty-seven years of age, applied himself to learning Italian, in order to read his author in the original. Helped by such com¬mand of Latin as he had, he taught himself the language in a few weeks; sufficiently, that is, to comprehend that difficult author substantially, if not grammatically: just as, earlier in life, he had taught himself something of Latin, French, and even Greek.
The drawings after Dante, at first dividing Blake’s time with the engravings of the Job, engrossed nearly the whole of it during the brief remnant of his life. They amount to a hundred in all,
many unfinished; presenting his con¬ceptions in all stages, in fact, from the bare outline to high finish.
These designs (which will be found catalogued, with a few remarks, in List No. 1, of the Appendix) form the largest series ever undertaken by Blake, except the one from Gray, which numbers 118 subjects; and, from the profound interest and the variety and special nature of the subject, not to speak of the merits of the designs them¬selves, they maintain a high rank among his performances. It was a great labour for a man of ‘threescore years and ten’ to undertake; and a labour which, in its result, exhibits no symptom of age or feebleness, The designs, it is true, are scarcely ever carried to full completion, and are often extremely slight: but the power of mind, eye, hand—the power of grappling with a new subject matter, and making all its parts, so to speak, organic—is in no wise dimmed. The conception is not always such as most students of Dante will be willing to admit as Dantesque, though certainly much more Dantesque than the refined performance of Flaxman, or than any other known to rue; it is, at any rate, the highly creative mind of Dante filtered through the highly creative, sympathetic mind of Blake.
Blake lived to engrave only seven, published in 1827. These seven, all from the Hell, are—
1. The Circle of the Lustful—Paolo and Francesca.
2. The Circle of the Corrupt Officials—The Devils tormenting Ciampolo.
3. Same Circle—The Devils mauling each other.
4. The Circle of the Thieves—Agnolo Brunnelleschi attacked by the serpent.
5. Same Circle—Buoso Donati attacked by the serpent.
6. The Circle of the Falsifiers.
7. The Circle of the Traitors—Dante’s foot striking Bocca degli Abati.
These engravings are, like the designs, uncompleted works. They are executed in Blake’s strict, sharp-lined manner; and, though they are more than outlines, do not aim at entire finish of light and shade, or at any strong effects. It will be observed, in the list of engravings, that the two circles of the Corrupt Officials and of the Thieves receive a more than proportionate share of illustration, and the same is still more strikingly apparent in the list of the complete series of designs. Blake flapped, like a moth round a candle, time after time at the grotesqueness of the pitchforked devils, and the horror of the transforming serpents.
The agreement between the two friends as to the Dante was, that Mr. Linnell should go on paying Blake 2l. or 3l. a week, as he wanted money, Blake doing as little or as much as he liked in return. The payments on account amounted in the end to 150l. By this truly genial and friendly arrangement, the ease and comfort of Blake’s declining years were placed on a sure footing; which was the object Mr. Linnell had at heart.
These drawings are unique, no duplicates having been executed; two of them (as shown in the Appendix), are known in a preparatory stage also. They still remain in the congenial keeping of their first owner, and have never been engraved, except the seven just mentioned, nor otherwise made use of.
While, in 1825, the designs from Dante were progressing, I find Mr. Linnell a purchaser also of twelve drawings from Milton’s Paradise Regained, a sequel to those from the Paradise Lost, executed for Mr. Butts, which are now scattered in various hands. Mr. Linnell had unsuccessfully endeavoured to persuade the jovial, affluent Chantrey, to buy the Paradise Regained for 20l. They are of great beauty, refined in execution, especially tender and pure in colour, and pervading feeling. Like all Mr. Linnell’s other purchases from Blake, they have been retained by him.
A letter from Blake, in November, 1825, shows him still adding final touches to the plates of the Job. It is addressed ‘John Linnell, Esq., Cirencester Place, Fitzroy Square, and is dated Thursday Evening, 10th Nov., 1825, from Fountain Court, Strand:—
‘I have, I believe, done nearly all that we agreed on. And if you should put on your considering cap, just as you did last time we met, I have no doubt that the plates would be all the better for it. I cannot get well, and am now in bed, but seem as if I should be better to-morrow. Rest does me good. Pray take care of your health this wet weather; and though I write, do not venture out on such days as to-day has been. I hope a few more days will bring us to a conclusion.
‘I am, dear Sir,
Among the new friends to whom Mr. Linnell had intro¬duced Blake, was Mr. Aders, a wealthy merchant of an old German
family; a liberal and art-loving man, whose doors were always open to literary men and artists. To his house came Coleridge and Lamb, and as we saw, Lawrence, James Ward, Stothard, Linnell; finally Blake, with whom, I think, Coleridge here became acquainted. Of Blake, Mr. Aders bought copies of the Songs of Innocence and Experience, and a few others of the illustrated books. His house in Euston Square was filled with pictures, chosen with excellent judgment, of a class not commonly selected in those days, viz, examples of the early Italian and, above all, early Flemish and German schools. It was as much a picture gallery as a house. The walls of drawing-room, bed-rooms, and even staircase, were all closely covered; with gallery railings in front to protect the pictures from injury. The collection was a remarkable and celebrated one, and has left lasting traces of itself in the history of picture-collecting. It comprised many works deeply interesting in the annals of painting. Among these was a fine old copy of the famous Adoration of the Lamb, of Hubert and Jan Van Eyck; one of the chief landmarks in the history of Art (Hubert’s sole surviving composition). In this copy—formerly in the Hotel de Ville, Ghent—could be alone seen the effect of the altar-piece as a whole; for the various compartments, both of the original and of Coxcie’s copy, are widely scattered. There were several other precious and authentic pictures of the school of the Van Eycks: a very interesting small altar-piece, attributed to Margaretta Van Eyck, but since assigned to Quintin Matsys; the Portrait of an Artist, by Hans Memling, or, as some say, Dierick Stuerbout, afterwards in Mr. Rogers’s collection; one or two undoubted small pieces from the hand of Hans Memling, some in the school of Roger Van der Weyden, and one of the dozen (or fewer) certain examples of Martin Schön known to exist.
The collection was visited by Passavant, the biographer of Raphael, during his visit to England in 1831, and the Flemish
and German portion of it is described at length in his Tour of a German Artist It is characteristic of our National Gallery management, that not one of these often invaluable examples of rare masters was secured for the nation (it was the regime of Seguier, of liquorice-brown varnish fame), when the opportunity arose. For, in a subsequent year,—1836,—a terrible reverse in trade shat¬tered the fabric of the munificent merchant’s prosperity, and involved the dispersion of this interesting collection.
Mrs. Aders, a daughter of Raphael Smith, the engraver and painter, was herself an amateur artist, sufficiently mistress of painting to execute clever copies after the old masters, and original pictures, which extorted the praise of Blake—always candid to amateur merit. She was a beautiful and accomplished lady, of much conversational power, able to hold her own with the gifted men who were in the habit of frequenting her house. It is to her Cole¬ridge’s poem of The Two Founts was addressed.
After the ruin of her husband’s fortunes, she withdrew from society, dying only a few years since. She remem¬bered Blake with especial interest, and to the last delighted to talk of him.
At Mr. Aders’ house the German painter, Gotzenberger, met Blake. On his return to Germany, he declared: ‘I saw in England many men of talent, but only three men of genius—Coleridge, Flaxman, and Blake; and of these Blake was the greatest.’ There, too, a gentleman first saw Blake, whom, so long ago as 1809, we beheld a solitary visitor to the abortive exhibition in Broad Street; and, in 1810, writing an account of the memorable man for the Patriotische Annalen of good Dr. Perthes, of Hamburg. Mr. Crabb Robinson, a gentleman who began life as a barrister, but who, throughout his career, cultivated the acquaintance of distinguished men of letters, had, during twenty years, heard much of Blake from Flaxman. The sculptor, if he did not go so far as to speak of him as an actual seer, was still further from joining in
the ordinary derision of him as a madman. But it was not till 1825 that Mr. Crabb Robinson met the visionary man, at Mr. Aders’ table, in the company of Mr. Linnell. ‘This was on the 10 December,’ writes Mr. Robinson, in the very interesting Reminiscences (based on his Journals), with the sight of a portion of which I have been kindly favoured. His account of Blake is from a point of view widely different from those of the artist’s enthusiastic young disciples, yet, in all essentials, corroborates them. Many of the extravagances and incoherences recorded as falling from Blake’s lips at these interviews indicate, to one familiar with his habits of mind, that he was often, in the course of them, ruffled by his friendly but very logical and cool-headed interlocutor, into extreme statements. He allowed himself to be drawn out pretty considerably, but not with closed eyes.
‘. . . I was aware of his idiosyncrasies, and therefore I to a great degree prepared for the sort of conversation which took place at and after dinner; an altogether unmethodical rhapsody on art, poetry, religion; he saying the most strange things in the most unemphatic manner, speaking of his visions as any man would of the most ordinary occurrence. He was then sixty-eight years of age. He had a broad pale face, a large full eye, with a benignant expression,—at the same time a look of languor, except when excited; and then he had an air of inspiration; but not such as, without previous acquaintance with him, or attending to what he said, would suggest the notion that he was insane.’
The italics are mine. Mr. Robinson, I should mention, is among those who think Blake to have been an ‘insane man of genius,’ or, at any rate, a victim of monomania; and is the only one to think so of all I have met who actually knew anything of him.
‘There was nothing wild about his looks. Though very ready to be drawn out to the assertion of his favourite ideas, yet there was no warmth, as if he wanted to make proselytes. In-deed, one of the
peculiar features of his scheme, as far as it was consistent, was indifference, and a very extraordinary degree of tolerance and satisfaction with what had taken place—a sort of pious and humble optimism; not the scornful optimism of Candide. But, at the same time that he was very ready to praise, he seemed incapable of envy, as he was of discontent. He warmly praised some compositions of Mrs. Aders’; and having brought for A. an engraving of his Canterbury Pilgrims, he remarked that one of the figures resembled a figure in one of the works then in Aders’ room, and that he had been accused of having stolen from it. But he added that he had drawn the figure in question twenty years before he had seen the original picture. ‘However, there is no wonder in the resemblance, as in my youth I was always studying that class of paintings.’ I have forgotten what the figure was. But his taste was in close conformity with the old German school. This was somewhat at variance with what he said, both this day and afterwards,—implying that he copied his visions.
‘It was at this first meeting that, in answer to a question from me he said, ‘The Spirits told me.’ This led me to say: ‘Socrates used pretty much the same language—he spoke of his Genius. Now, what affinity or resemblance do you suppose was there between the Genius which inspired Socrates and your Spirits 7’ He smiled, and for once it seemed to me as if he had a feeling of vanity gratified. ‘The same as in our countenances.’ He paused and added: ‘I was Socrates, or a sort of brother. I must have had conversations with him. So I had with Jesus Christ; I have an obscure recollection of having been with both of them.’ As I had for many years been familiar with the idea that an eternity a parte post was inconceivable without an eternity a parte ante, I was naturally led to express that thought on this occasion. His eye brightened on my saying this. He eagerly assented—’ To be sure! We are all coexistent with God; members of the Divine Body, and partakers of the Divine Nature.’ . . .
‘. . . From something Blake said, drawing the inference, then there is no use in education,—he hastily rejoined: “There is no use in education—I hold it wrong—it is the great Sin; it is eating of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. That was the fault of Plato: he knew of nothing but the virtues and vices. There is nothing in all that. Everything is good in God’s eyes.” On my asking whether there is nothing absolutely evil in what man does, he answered: ‘I am no judge of that—perhaps not in God’s eyes.’ Notwithstanding this,
he, however, at the same time, spoke of error as being in Heaven; for on my asking whether Dante was pure in writing his Vision,—’ Pure!’ said Blake, ‘is there any purity in God’s eyes? No! He chargeth His angels with folly.’ He even extended this liability to error to the Supreme Being. ‘Did He not repent Him that He had made Nineveh?’ My Journal here has the remark, that it is easier to retail his personal remarks than to reconcile those which seemed to be in conformity with the most opposed abstract systems.’
Perhaps, indeed, the attempt to methodise them into a system was so much labour lost? The key to the wild and strange rhapsodies Blake would utter can be supplied by love, but not by the intellect. To go with Blake, it almost required that a man should have the mind of an artist—and an artist of a peculiar kind—or one strongly in unison with that class of mind.
‘He spoke with seeming complacency of his own life in connexion with art. In becoming an artist he acted by com¬mand: the Spirits said to him, ‘Blake, be an artist!’ His eye glistened while he spoke of the joy of devoting himself to divine art alone. ‘Art is inspiration. When Michael Angelo, or Raphael, in their day, or Mr. Flaxman, does one of his fine things, he does them in the spirit.’ Of fame he said: “I should be sorry if I had any earthly fame, for whatever natural glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory. I wish to do nothing for profit; I want nothing; I am quite happy.” This was confirmed to me on my subsequent interviews with him. His distinction between the natural and spiritual worlds was very confused. Incidentally, Swedenborg was mentioned:—he declared him to be a divine teacher; he had done, and would do, much good: yet he did wrong in endeavouring to explain to the Reason what it could not comprehend. He seemed to consider—but that was not clear—the visions of Swedenborg and Dante as of the same kind. Dante was the greater poet. He, too, was wrong,—in occupying his mind about political objects. Yet this did not appear to affect his estimation of Dante’s genius, or his opinion of the truth of Dante’s visions. Indeed, when he even declared Dante to be an atheist, it was accompanied by expres¬sion of the highest admiration; “though,” said he, “Dante saw devils where I saw none.”
‘I put down in my Journal the following insulated remarks:—Jacob Boehmen was placed among the divinely inspired men. He praised also the designs to Law’s Translation of Boehmen. ‘Michael Angelo could not have surpassed them.’—’ Bacon, Locke, and Newton, are the three great teachers of atheism, or Satan’s doctrine.’—’ Irving is a highly gifted man: he is a sent man; but they who are sent sometimes go further than they ought.’ ‘I saw nothing but good in Calvin’s house; in Luther’s there were harlots.’ . . . He declared his opinion that the earth is flat, not round, and just as I had objected,—the circumnaviga¬tion—dinner was announced. Objections were seldom of any use. The wildest of his assertions was made with the veriest indifference of tone, as if altogether insignificant. It respected the natural and spiritual worlds. By way of example of the difference between them, he said: ‘You never saw the spiritual Sun? I have. I saw him on Primrose Hill. He said, Do you take me for the Greek Apollo? No! That (pointing to the sky), that is the Greek Apollo: he is Satan.’ Not everything was thus absurd. There were glimpses and flashes of truth and beauty: as when he compared moral with physical evil.—’ Who shall say what God thinks evil? That is a wise tale of the Mahomedans—of the angel of the Lord who murdered the Infant.’ (The Permit of Parnell, I suppose.) ‘Is not every infant that dies a natural death in reality slain by an angel?’ And when he joined to the assurance of his happiness that of his having suffered, and that it was necessary, he added: ‘There is suffering in Heaven; for where there is the capacity of enjoy¬ment, there is the capacity of pain.’ I include among the glimpses of truth this assertion: ‘I know what is true by internal conviction;—a doctrine is stated; my heart tells me it must be true.’ I remarked, in confirmation of it, that, to an unlearned man, what are called the external evidences of religion can carry no conviction with them; and this he assented to.
‘After my first evening with him at Aders’, I made the remark in my Journal, that his observations, apart from his visions and references to the spiritual world, were sensible and acute. In the sweetness of his countenance and gentility of his manner, he added an indescribable grace to his conversation. I added my regret, which I must now repeat, at my inability to give more than incoherent thoughts—not altogether my fault, perhaps.
‘On the 17th, I called on him at his house in Fountain Court in the Strand. The interview was a short one, and what I saw
was more remarkable than what I heard. He was at work, engraving, in a small bedroom,—light, and looking out on a mean yard—everything in the room squalid and indicating poverty, except himself. There was a natural gentility about him, and an insensibility to the seeming poverty, which quite removed the impression. Besides, his linen was clean, his hand white, and his air quite unembarrassed when he begged me to sit down as if he were in a palace. There was but one chair in the room, besides that on which he sat. On my putting my hand to it, I found that it would have fallen to pieces if I had lifted it. So, as if I had been a Sybarite, I said, with a smile, ‘Will you let me indulge myself?’ and sat on the bed near him. During my short stay there was nothing in him that betrayed that he was aware of what to other persons might have been even offensive,— not in his person, but in all about him. His wife I saw at this time, and she seemed to be the very woman to make him happy. She had been formed by him; indeed otherwise she could not have lived with him. Notwithstanding her dress, which was poor and dirty, she had a good expression in her countenance, and, with a dark eye, remains of beauty from her youth. She had an implicit reverence for her husband. It is quite certain that she believed in all his visions. On one occasion—not this day— speaking of his visions, she said: ‘You know, dear, the first time you saw God was when you were four years old, and He put His head to the window, and set you screaming.’ . . .
‘He was making designs, or engraving—I forget which. Cary’s Dante was before him. He showed me some of his designs from Dante of which I do not presume to speak. They were too much above me. But Gotzenberger, whom I afterwards took to see them, expressed the highest admiration . . . Dante was again the subject of our conversation. Blake declared him a mere politician and atheist, busied about this world’s affairs; as Milton was till, in his old age, he returned back to the God he had abandoned in childhood. I in vain endeavoured to obtain from him a qualification of the term atheist, so as not to include him in the ordinary reproach. Yet he afterwards spoke of Dante’s being then with God. I was more successful when he also called Locke an atheist, and imputed to him wilful decep¬tion. He seemed satisfied with my admission, that Locke’s philosophy led to the atheism of the French school. He reiterated his former strange notions ‘on morals—would allow of no other education than what lies in the cultivation of the fine arts and the imagination.
‘As he spoke of frequently seeing Milton, I ventured to ask, half ashamed at the time, which of the three or four portraits in Hollis’s Memoirs was the most like? He answered: ‘They are all like, at different ages. I have seen him as a youth, and as an old man, with long flowing beard. He came lately as an old man. He came to ask a favour of me; said he had committed an error in his Paradise Lost, which he wanted me to correct in a poem or picture. But I declined; I said I had my own duties to perform.’ ‘It is a presumptuous question,’ I replied, ‘but might I venture to ask what that could be?’ ‘He wished me to expose the falsehood of his doctrine taught in the Paradise Lost, that sexual intercourse arose out of the Fall.’ . . . At the time that he asserted his own possession of the gift of vision, he did not boast of it as peculiar to himself: ‘All men might have it if they would.’
‘On the 24th December I called a second time on him. On this occasion it was that I read to him Wordsworth’s Ode on the supposed pre-existent state (Intimations of Immortality). The subject of Wordsworth’s religious character was discussed when we met on the 18th of February, and the 12th of May (1826). I will here bring together Blake’s declarations concerning Wordsworth. I had been in the habit, when reading this marvellous Ode to friends, of omitting one or two passages, especially that—
—“But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”
‘lest I should be rendered ridiculous, being unable to explain precisely what I admired. Not that I acknowledged this to be a fair test. But with Blake I could fear nothing of the kind. And it was this very stanza which threw him almost into an hysterical rapture. His delight in Wordsworth’s poetry was intense. Nor did it seem less, notwithstanding the reproaches he continually cast on his worship of nature; which, in the mind of Blake, constituted atheism. The combination of the warmest praise with imputations which, from another,
would assume the most serious character, and the liberty he took to interpret as he pleased, rendered it as difficult to he offended as to reason with him. The eloquent descriptions of nature in Wordsworth’s poems were conclusive proofs of atheism: ‘For whoever believes in nature,’ said B., disbelieves in God; for Nature is the work of the devil.’ On my obtaining from him the declara¬tion that the Bible was the Word of God, I referred to the commencement of Genesis, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ But I gained nothing by this; for I was triumphantly told that this God was not Jehovah, but the Elohim; and the doctrine of the Gnostics was repeated with sufficient consistency to silence one so unlearned as myself. The Preface to The Excursion, especially the verses quoted from Book I of The Recluse, so troubled him as to bring on a fit of illness. These lines he singled out:—
“Jehovah—with His thunder, and the choir
Of shouting angels, and the empyreal thrones—
I pass them unalarmed.”
‘‘‘Does Mr. W. think he can surpass Jehovah?” There was a copy of the whole passage in his own hand in the volume of Wordsworth’s poems returned to my chambers after his death. There was this note at the end—“Solomon, when he married Pharaoh’s daughter, and became a convert to the heathen mythology, talked exactly in this way of Jehovah—as a very inferior object of man’s contemplations: he also passed Him “unalarmed,” and was permitted. Jehovah dropped a tear and followed him by His spirit into the abstract void. It is called the Divine mercy. Sarah dwells in it, but mercy does not dwell in him.” Some of the poems he maintained were from the Holy Ghost, others from the Devil. I lent him the 8vo edition, in two vols. (1815), of W.’s poems, which he had in his possession at the time of his death. They were returned to me then. I did not recognise the pencil notes he had made in them to be his for some time, and was on the point of rubbing them out when I made the discovery; and they were preserved.’
Mr. Crabb Robinson was not only a friend and admirer of Wordsworth, but among the believers,—fewer then than now,—in the new poetic revelation to be found in his works. The edition
of 1815 was the first in which Words¬worth’s poems were arranged into classes; and contained the celebrated new Preface on the various distinctive characteristics of poetry, as well as the celebrated Preface and Supplementary Essay, first printed in the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads. Blake’s notes extend over the first volume only: they are characteristic itera¬tions, according to his wont, of favourite dogmas.
In the Preface to the edition of 1815, Wordsworth writes, ‘The powers requisite for the production of poetry are, first, those of observation and description.’ ‘One power alone makes a poet,’ answers Blake,—’ Imagination; the Divine Vision.’ On the line—
‘Bound each to each by natural piety,’
Blake comments—‘There is no such thing as natural piety, because the natural man is at enmity with God.’ And again, on the fly-leaf, under the heading,—Poems referring to the Period of Childhood—’ I see in Words¬worth the natural man rising up against the spiritual man continually; and then he is no poet, but a heathen philosopher, at enmity with all true poetry or inspiration.’ At the end of the divine poem, To H. C. Six Years Old he exclaims: ‘This is all in the highest degree imaginative, and equal to any poet, but not superior. I cannot think that real poets have any competition. None are greatest in the kingdom of heaven. It is so in poetry.’ Against the heading, ‘On the Influence of Natural Objects,’—to the frost scene from the then unpublished Prelude, we have the singular, yet (to one who has the key to Blake’s peculiar temperament) not unintelligible avowal: ‘Natural objects always did, and now do, weaken, deaden, and obliterate imagination in me. Wordsworth must know that what he writes valuable is not to be found in nature. Read Michael Angelo’s Sonnet, Vol. ii. page 179’ (of this edition).
‘No mortal object did these eyes behold
When first they met the placid light of thine,
And my Soul felt her destiny divine,
And hope of endless peace in me grew bold:
Heaven-born, the Soul a heavenward course must hold;
Beyond the visible world she soars to seek
(For what delights the sense is false and weak)
Ideal Form, the universal mould.
The wise man, I affirm, can find no rest
In that which perishes: nor will he lend
His heart to aught which doth on time depend.
‘Tis sense, unbridled will, and not true love,
That kills the soul: love betters what is best,
Even here below, but more in heaven above.’
In the margin of the Essay Supplementary to the Preface, against the words, ‘By this time I trust the judicious reader,’ Blake audaciously writes, 2 I do not know who wrote these Prefaces: they are very mischievous, and directly contrary to Wordsworth’s own practice.’ At p. 341: ‘This is not the defence of his own style in opposition to what is called poetic diction, but a sort of historic vindication of the unpopular poets.’ Blake’s disparaging view of the Prefaces is not shared by myself; but no less a critic than Shelley, one of Wordsworth’s warmest contemporary admirers—though outraged by the poet’s political and other delinquencies—in his wicked, random skit of Peter Bell the Third (1819)’ also disrespectfully describes Words¬worth, as in these Prefaces—
‘Writing some sad stuff in prose:
It is a dangerous invasion
When poets criticise; their station
Is to delight, not pose.’
At the end of the Supplementary Essay, Blake again breaks out: ‘It appears to me as if the last paragraph, beginning with ‘Is it the result of the whole that, in the opinion of the writer,
the judgment of the people is not to be respected?’ was writ by another hand and mind from the rest of these Prefaces. Perhaps they are the opinion of a landscape-painter. Imagination is the divine vision, not of the world, nor of man, nor from man,—as he is a natural man. Imagination has nothing to do with memory.’
In these years Blake’s health was rapidly failing. He was a perpetual sufferer from intermittent attacks of cold and dysentery (evidently), as his letters to Mr. Linnell show. The letters would never, in fact, have been written, but for illness on his part, and Mr. Linnell’s residence at Hampstead. So long as their writer was well, and Mr. Linnell always in Cirencester Place, there had been no occasion for letters. They are characteristic, and explain what he suffered from. Here is one:—
February 1st, 1826.
‘I am forced to write, because I cannot come to you. And this on two accounts. First, I omitted to desire you would come and take a mutton chop with us the day you go to Cheltenham, and I will go with you to the coach. Also, I will go to Hampstead to see Mrs. Linnell on Sunday, but will return before dinner (I mean if you set off before that). And second, I wish to have a copy of Job to show to Mr. Chantrey.
‘For I am again laid up by a cold in my stomach. The Hampstead air, as it always did, so I fear it always will do this, except it be the morning air: and that, in my cousin’s time, I found I could bear with safety, and perhaps benefit. I believe my constitution to be a good one, but it has many peculiarities that no one but myself can know. When I was young, Hamp¬stead, Highgate, Hornsey, Muswell Hill, and even Islington, and all places north of London, always laid me up the day after, and sometimes two or three days, with precisely the same complaint, and the same torment of the stomach; easily removed, but excruciating while it lasts, and enfeebling for some time after. Sir Francis Bacon would say, it is want of discipline in moun¬tainous places. Sir Francis flacon is a liar: no discipline will turn one man into another, even in the least particle; and such discipline I call presumption and
folly. I have tried it too much not to know this, and am very sorry for all those who may be led to such ostentatious exertions against their eternal existence itself because it is a mental rebellion against the Holy Spirit, and fit only for a soldier of Satan to perform.
‘Though I hope in a morning or two to call on you in Ciren¬cester Place, I feared you might be gone, or I might be too ill to let you know how I am, and what I wish.
‘I am, dear Sir,
Let us look over Mr. Crabb Robinson’s shoulder again, and (with his courteous permission) glance at a few more entries:—
‘Feb. 19, 1826.—It was this day, in connexion with the assertion that ‘the Bible is the Word of God, and all truth is to be found in it,’—he using language concerning men’s reason being opposed to grace, very like that used by the orthodox Christian, that he qualified, and as the same orthodox would say, utterly nullified all he said, by declaring that he understood the Bible in a spiritual sense. As to the natural sense, “Voltaire was commissioned by God to expose that. I have had,” he said, “much intercourse with Voltaire, and he said to me: I blasphemed the Son of Man, and it shall be forgiven me, but they (the enemies of Voltaire) blasphemed the Holy Ghost in me, and it shall not be forgiven them.”’
All the Spirits, it is worth notice, talk in the Blake manner. To resume:—
‘I asked in what language Voltaire spoke. His answer was ingenious, and gave no encouragement to cross-questioning: “To my sensations it was English. It was like the touch of a musical key: he touched it probably French, but to my ear it became English.” I also inquired, as I had before, about the form of the persons who appeared to him, and asked why he did not draw them? “It is not worth while. Besides, there are so many, the labour would be too great; and there would be no use in it.”’
Blake evidently began to feel himself a little badgered, and not insensible that he was under the hands of a cross-examining, though courteous, lawyer. For, as we know, he did, at times, make portraits of spiritual visitants.
‘In answer to an enquiry about Shakespeare: “He is exactly like the old engraving—which is said to be a bad one; I think it very good.” I inquired about his own writings. “I have written,” he answered, “more than Rousseau or Voltaire; six or seven epic poems as long as Homer’s, and twenty tragedies as long as Macbeth.” He showed me his Version of Genesis, for so it may be called, as understood by a Christian Visionary. He read a wild passage in a sort of Biblical style. “I shall print no more,” he said. “When I am commanded by the spirits, then I write; and the moment I have written, I see the words fly about the room in all directions. It is then published. The spirits can read, and my MS. is of no further use. I have been tempted to burn my MSS., but my wife won’t let me.” “She is right,” I answered. “You wrote not from yourself, but from higher order. The MSS., are their property, not yours. You cannot tell what purpose they may answer.” This was addressed ad hominem, and indeed amounted only to a deduction from his own premises. He incidentally denied causation: everything being the work of God or Devil. “Every man has a devil in himself; and the conflict between this Self and God perpetually carrying on.” I ordered of him to-day a copy of his Songs for five guineas. My manner of receiving his mention of price pleased him. He spoke of his horror of money, and of turning pale when it was offered him. And this was certainly unfeigned.’
Blake’s visitor made the purchase simply as a delicate means of assisting the artist. From the same motive, he bought some other books and drawings; but, though he had expressly asked for them, experienced the greatest difficulty in getting Blake to accept money. The latter wished to present them. Poor Blake!
Next in order of date comes another letter to Mr. Linnell:—
‘19th May, 1826.
‘I have had another desperate shivering fit. It came on yesterday afternoon—after as good a morning as I ever ex¬perienced. It began
by a gnawing pain in the stomach, and soon spread a deathly feel all over the limbs, which brings on the shivering fit; when I am forced to go to bed, where I contrive to get into a little perspiration, which takes it quite away. It was night when it left me; so I did not get up. But just as I was going to rise this morning, the shivering fit attacked me again, and the pain with the accompanying deathly feel. I got again into a perspiration, and was well again, but so much weakened that I am still in bed. This entirely prevents me from the pleasure of seeing you on Sunday at Hampstead, as I fear the attack again when I am away from home.
‘I am, dear Sir,
An entry in Mr. Crabb Robinson’s Journal, a few weeks later, refers to Blake—
‘13th June, 1826.
‘I saw him again. He was as wild as ever, says my Journal But he was led today to make assertions more palpably mischievous, if capable of influencing other minds, and immoral, supposing them to express the will of a responsible agent, than anything he had said before.’
Which must be taken to signify that Blake and his visitor were at cross purposes, and the former not in a serene frame of mind; but in a mood to kick out, leaving his listener to make sense of his wild speech as best be could.
During the summer Mr. Linnell, who showed a truly filial solicitude for his friend, proposed taking lodgings for him in the neighbourhood of his own cottage at Hamp¬stead, which his growing family pretty well filled. To this project and its postponement the three following letters refer:—
‘2d July, 1826.
‘MY DEAREST FRIEND,
‘This sudden cold weather has cut up all my hopes by the roots. Every one who knows of our intended flight into your delightful country concurs in saying, Do not venture till summer appears again. I also feel myself weaker than I was aware, being not able as yet to sit up longer than
six hours at a time; and also feel the cold too much to dare venture beyond my present precincts. My heartiest thanks for your care in my accommo¬dation, and the trouble you will yet have with me. But I get better and stronger every day, though weaker in muscle and bone than I supposed. As to pleasantness of prospect, it is all pleasant prospect at North End. Mrs. Hurd’s (the lodgings of Mr. Linnell before he went to Collins’ Farm) I should like as well as any; but think of the expense, and how it may be spared, and never mind appearances.
‘I intend to bring with me, besides our necessary change of apparel, only my book of drawings from Dante, and one plate shut up in the book. All will go very well in the coach, which at present would be a rumble I fear I could not go through. So that I conclude another week must pass before I dare venture upon what I ardently desire,—the seeing you with your happy family once again, and that for a longer period than I had ever hoped in my healthful hours.
‘I am, dear Sir,
‘Yours most gratefully,
‘DEAR SIR,— ‘5th July, 1826.
‘I thank you for the receipt of five pounds this morning, and congratulate you on the receipt of another fine boy. Am glad to hear of Mrs. Linnell’s health and safety.
‘I am getting better every hour. My plan is diet only; but if the machine is capable of it, shall make an old man yet. I go on just as if perfectly well, which indeed I am, except in those paroxysms which I now believe will never more return. Pray let your own health and convenience put all solicitude concerning me at rest. You have a family; I have none: there is no comparison between our necessary avocations.
‘Believe me to remain, dear Sir,
‘16th July, 1826.
‘I have been, ever since taking Dr. Young’s addition to Mr. Fincham’s prescription for me (the addition is dandelion), in a species of delirium, and in pain too much for thought. It is now past: as I hope. But the moment I got ease of body began pain of mind, and that not a small one. It is
about the name of the child, which certainly ought to be Thomas, after Mrs. Linnell’s father. It will be brutal, not to say worse, in my opinion and on my part. Pray reconsider it, if it is not too late. It very much troubles me, as a crime in which I shall be the principal. Pray excuse this hearty expostulation, and believe me to be,
‘P.S.—Fincham is a pupil of Abernethy’s. This is what gives me great pleasure. I did not know it before yesterday,—from Mr. Fincham.’
The child was to have been named after the artist as a mark of friendly respect; but was eventually called James, and the fulfilment of the intention postponed till the birth of the next boy, who did take Blake’s name. Both brothers were destined to become famous in the picture-loving world. The art of landscape-painting will be in¬debted not only to the John Linnell whom two generations have delighted, and many more will delight to honour, but to the Linnell family collectively. Time after time, James and William Linnell have evinced capabilities which might carry them onward to almost any point of attainment in the art. In both we recognise keen, fresh, strong feeling, vivid perception, plenteous, expressive, sometimes startling realization; qualities which they are able to develop and combine in a form equally grateful to the ruralist and to the lover of art.
‘1st August, 1826.
‘If this notice should be too short for your convenience, please to let me know. But finding myself well enough to come, I propose to set out from here as soon after ten as we can on Thursday morning. Our carriage will be a cabriolet (a vehicle now,—1860,—like the hackney coach, extinct these twenty years, in which the driver sat on a sort of perch beside his fare). For though getting better and stronger, I am still incapable of riding in the stage, and shall be, I fear, for some time; being only bones and sinews, all strings and bobbins like a weaver’s loom. Walking to and from
the stage would be to me impossible; though I seem well, being entirely free both from pain and from that sickness to which there is no name. Thank God! I feel no more of it, and have great hopes that the disease is gone.
‘I am, dear Sir,
The visit to Hampstead was paid, but with little of the anticipated benefit to Blake s health, who was then suffer¬ing from diarrhoea, or, perhaps, dysentery. As he had truly said, that bracing air ill agreed with his constitution. But he cherished a wilful dislike to Hampstead, and to all the northern suburbs of London, despite his affection for the family who made Hampstead a home for him, and the happy hours he had spent there. He, perhaps from early associations, could only tolerate the southern suburbs. They who are accustomed to the varied loveliness of Surrey, Sussex, and Kent, with their delightful mixture of arable, pasture, woodland, waste, and down, one shading off into the other, cannot but find the unvaried pastures and gentle hills of Middlesex and Hertfordshire weari¬somely monotonous in their prevailing heavy tints and ever-recurring bounding lines; monotonous and unexhilarating, however agreeable they may be to the escaped Londoner. Mrs. Collins, of the Farm, still remembers Blake as ‘that most delightful gentleman!’ His amiable qualities and ordinarily gentle manner left a lasting impression on the most humble. During this visit be was at work upon the Dante. A clump of trees on the skirts of the heath is still known to old friends as the ‘Dante wood.’
At the close of this year died another associate in the circle of the gifted, with whom Mr. and Mrs. Blake had still, in Fountain Court, been in the habit of exchanging visits as of old: John Flaxman, whose always feeble frame had, for some time, been visibly affected for the worse. After a few days’ illness from an inflammatory cold which gave his friends little warning of danger, he
passed peace¬fully away, on the 7th December, 1826, in his seventy-second year: somewhat more than six years after the death of his devoted helpmate ‘Nancy,’ who had been his companion on equal terms; a woman of real gifts and acquirements, of classic accomplishments and sympathies like himself. Not till this biography was almost completed, in January, 1860, did the last member of Flaxman’s re¬fined, happy household,—Mrs. Flaxman’s sister, Maria Denman,—follow her beloved friends to the tomb. She also was a cultivated lady, of much energy and devotion of character, worshipping Flaxman’s memory with a sisterly enthusiasm to the last. She had lived to fulfil one cherished object,—the housing of a fine selection of Flax¬man’s original models in the safe keeping of London University College; to which institution she had presented them. My own obligations to her appear in more than one page of this volume. As a girl she had seen and reverenced Blake, so long ago as when he was living in Hercules Buildings.
Under the date of December occurs mention, by Mr. Crabb Robinson, of another call on Blake:—
‘It was, I believe, on the 7th of December (1826) that I saw him. I had just heard of the death of Flaxman, a man whom he admired, and was curious how be would receive the intelligence. He had been ill during the summer, and he said with a smile, “I thought I should have gone first.” He then added, “I cannot think of death as more than the going out of one room into another.” He relapsed into his ordinary train of thinking. . . . This day he said, “Men are born with an angel and a devil.” This he himself interpreted as soul and body. . . . He spoke of the Old Testament as if it were the evil element—“Christ took much after His mother.” . . . He digressed into a condemna¬tion of those who sit in judgment on others: “I have never known a very bad man who had not something very good about him.” . . . I have no account of any other call; but this is probably an omission. I took Gotzenberger to see him, and he met the Masqueriers in my chambers. Masquerier was not the man to meet him. He could not humour B., nor understand the peculiar sense in which B. was to be received.’
One kind scheme of Mr. Linnell’s was the proposal that Blake should live in his town-house in Cirencester Place, now only used professionally. Blake and his wife were to take charge of the house and live rent free. To which proposal the following letter (Feb. 1827) refers:—
‘I thank you for the five pounds received to-day. Am getting better every morning; but slowly, as I am still feeble and tottering; though all the symptoms of my complaint seem almost gone. The fine weather is very beneficial and comfortable to me. I go on, as I think, improving my engravings of Dante more and more; and shall soon get proofs of these four which I have; and beg the favour of you to send me the two plates of Dante which you have, that I may finish them sufficiently to make some show of colour and strength.
‘I have thought and thought of the removal. I cannot get my mind out of a state of terrible fear at such a step. The more I think, the more If feel terror at what I wished at first, and thought a thing of benefit and good hope. You will attribute it to its right cause—intellectual peculiarity that must be myself alone shut up in myself or reduced to nothing. I could tell you of visions and dreams upon the subject. I have asked and entreated Divine help; but fear continues upon me, and I must relinquish the step that I had wished to take, and still wish, but in vain.
‘Your success in your profession is, above all things to me, most gratifying. May it go on to the perfection you wish, and more. So wishes also
Our next letter is dated 15th March, 1827:—
‘This is to thank you for two pounds, now by me received on account. I have received a letter from Mr. Cumberland, in which he says he will take one copy of Job for himself, but cannot, as yet, find a customer for one; but hopes to do some¬what by perseverance in his endeavours. He tells me that it is too much finished, or overlaboured, for his Bristol friends, as they think. I saw Mr. Tatham, senior, yesterday. He sat with me above one hour, and looked over the Dante. He
expressed himself very much pleased with the designs as well as the engravings, and hopes soon to get proofs of what I am doing.
‘I am, dear Sir,
This Mr. Cumberland, of Bristol, was one of the few buyers from Blake during these years. For him the artist now executed a slight, but interesting commission—an artistic plate-card; no infrequent thing in former days. Reynolds had such an one, and Hogarth also. Graceful little airy figures hover round the name and point to it. The inscription below is, W. Blake, inv. & sc. æt. 70. 1827. The Mr. Tatham, senior, was the architect I have already mentioned as father of a young sculptor then among Blake’s most enthusiastic followers.
The little bundle of letters to Mr. Linnell—too soon, alas! to be exhausted—will best continue to tell the story of Blake’s fluctuating health, his sanguine hopes of re¬covery, and zealous devotion to his beloved task of finish¬ing and engraving the Designs from Dante—task never to be completed by his faltering hands.
‘25th April, 1827.
‘I am going on better every day, as I think, both in health and in work. I thank you for the ten pounds which I received from you this day, which shall be put to the best use; as also for the prospect of Mr. Ottley’s advantageous acquaintance. I go on without daring to count
on futurity, which I cannot do without doubt and fear that ruin activity, and are the greatest hurt to an artist such as I am. As to Ugolino, &c. I never supposed that I should sell them. My wife alone is answerable for their having existed in any finished state. I am too much attached to Dante to think much of anything else. I have proved the six plates, and reduced the fighting devils ready for the copper. I count myself sufficiently paid if I live as I now do, and only fear that I may be unlucky to my friends, and especially that I may be so to you.
‘I am, sincerely yours,
The Mr. Ottley, whose ‘advantageous acquaintance’ as a likely buyer, or recommender of buyers, is here anticipated, must have been the celebrated connoisseur of that day, author of an elaborate History of Engraving, somewhile Keeper,—and a very slovenly one,—of the British Museum Prints; a crony of Sir George Beaumont’s. The reader of Constable’s Life may remember how ill that original artist took Ottley’s meddlesome condescension. The conventional, old-world connoisseur little had it in his trivial mind to apprehend the significance of Blake’s works.
Mr. Linnell still continued indefatigable in endeavours to obtain buyers for his friend’s works, and recommended him to all he thought likely purchasers: Chantrey, who (as we said) declined the Paradise Regained, but took a highly finished copy of the Songs of Innocence and Experience, at 20l. Lord Egremont, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Mr. Tatham, and others. They considered it almost giving the money, even when they chose copies of the obviously beautiful Songs. Some of the last drawings executed, or at least finished by Blake, were two com¬missioned by Sir Thomas Lawrence,—’ that admirable judge of art;’ as he was then considered, and, in a certain fastidious way, was; certainly the enthusiastic accumulator of a princely and matchless collection of drawings by the old masters. Sir Thomas gave fifteen guineas apiece for these designs of Blake’s. One was The Wise and Foolish Virgins, the other The Dream of Queen
Katherine both repetitions, though not literal ones, of careful drawings made for Mr. Butts. The Dream of Queen Katherine is among Blake’s most highly finished and elaborate water¬colour drawings, and one of his most beautiful and imaginative.
During these last years, Blake lavished many finishing touches on his large fresco of the Last Judgment, of which subject we had to mention, twenty years back, two water¬colour drawings—one for Blair’s Grave, and the other for the Countess of Egremont. The fresco was a very different and much fuller composition than either, con¬taining some thousand figures. It was an especial favourite with the artist, and, according to Smith, would have been exhibited at the Academy, had Blake lived another year. Nobody could be found to give twenty-five guineas for it then. I have been unable to discover in whose possession this singularly interesting and important work now is, and only know it from hearsay. Smith had seen the picture, and hands down a word or two on its executive peculiarities. ‘The lights of this extraordinary performance,’ writes he, ‘have the appearance of silver and gold; but, upon Mrs. Blake assuring me that there was no silver used, I found, upon a closer examination, that a blue wash had been passed over those parts of the gilding which receded; and the lights of the forward objects, which were also of gold, were heightened with a warm colour, to give the appearance of two metals.’ Blake, on looking up one day at this fresco as it hung in his front room, candidly exclaimed, as one who was present tells me, ‘I spoiled that—made it darker; it was much finer, but a Frenchwoman here (a fellow-lodger) didn’t like it.’ Ill advised indeed, to alter colour at a fellow-lodger and Frenchwoman’s suggestion! Blake’s alterations were seldom improvements.