LAST DAYS. 1827. [ÆT. 69—70]
THE last letter Mr. Linnell received from Blake dates nearly three months after that which closed the previous chapter:—
‘3d July, 1827
‘I thank you for the ten pounds you are so kind as to send me at this time. My journey to Hampstead on Sunday brought on a relapse which has lasted till now. I find i am not so well as I thought; I must not go on in a youthful style. However, I am upon the mending hand today, and hope soon look as I did; for I have been yellow, accompanied by all the old symptoms.
‘I am, dear Sir,
He was not to mend; though still, so long as breath lasted, to keep on at his life-long labours of love. This letter was written but six weeks before his death.
In the previous letter of the 25th April, Blake had said of himself, ‘I am too much attached to Dante to think much of anything else.’ In the course of his lingering illness, he was frequently bolstered up in his bed, that he might go on with these drawings. The younger Tatham had commissioned a coloured impression of that grand conception in the Europe, the Ancient of Days, already noticed as a singular favourite with Blake and as one it was always a
happiness to him to copy. Tatham gave three guineas and a half for this specimen; a higher rate of payment than Blake was accustomed to. This being so, of course Blake finished it to the utmost point, making it as beautiful in colour as already grand in design; patiently working on it till within a few days of his death. After he ‘had frequently touched upon it,’ says Tatham, as reported by Smith, ‘and had frequently held it at a distance, he threw it from him, and with an air of exulting triumph exclaimed, ‘There! that will do! I cannot mend it.’’
As he said these words, his glance fell on his loving Kate, no longer young or beautiful, but who had lived with him in these and like humble rooms, in hourly companion¬ship, ever ready helpfulness, and reverent sympathy, for now forty-five years. August forty-five years ago (back into a past century), they had wedded at Battersea Church, on the other side the river. August, 1827, he lies in failing strength in the quiet room looking out over the river, yet but a few yards’ remove from the roaring Strand: she beside his bed, she alone. He has no other servant, nor nurse, and wants no other. As his eyes rested on the once graceful form, thought of all she had been to him in these years filled the poet-artist’s mind. ‘Stay!‘ he cried, ‘keep as you are! you have been ever an angel to me: I will draw you!‘ And a portrait was struck off by a hand which approaching death—few days distant now—had not weakened nor benumbed. This drawing has been de¬scribed to me by Mr. Tatham, who once possessed it, as ‘a phrenzied sketch of some power; highly interesting, but not like.’
Blake still went on designing as of old. One of the very last shillings spent was in sending out for a pencil. For his illness was not violent, but a gradual and gentle failure of physical powers, which no wise affected the mind. The speedy end was not foreseen by his friends.
The final leave-taking came he had so often seen in vision; so
often, and with such child-like, simple faith, sung and designed. With the very same intense, high feeling he had depicted the Death of the Righteous Man, he enacted it—serenely, joyously. For life and design and song were with him all pitched in one key, different expressions of one reality. No dissonances there! It happened on a Sunday, the 12th of August; 1827, nearly three months before completion of his seventieth year. ‘On the day of his death,’ writes Smith, who had his account from the widow, ‘he composed and uttered songs to his Maker, so sweetly to the ear of his Catherine, that when she stood to hear him, he, looking upon her most affectionately, said, ‘My beloved! they are not mine. No! they are not mine!’ He told her they would not be parted; he should always be about her to take care of her.’
A little before his death, Mrs. Blake asked where he would be buried, and whether a dissenting minister or a clergyman of the Church of England should read the service. To which he answered, that as far as his own feelings were concerned, she might bury him ‘where she pleased.’ But that as ‘father, mother, aunt, and brother were buried in Bunhill Row, perhaps it would be better to lie there. As to service, he should wish for that of the Church of England.’
In that plain, back room, so dear to the memory of his friends, and to them beautiful from association with him— with his serene cheerful converse, his high personal in¬fluence, so spiritual and rare—he lay chaunting Songs to Melodies, both the inspiration of the moment, but no longer as of old to be noted down. To the pious Songs followed, about six in the summer evening, a calm and painless withdrawal of breath; the exact moment almost unperceived by his wife, who sat by his side. A humble female neighbour, her only other companion, said afterwards: ‘1 have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel.’
A letter written a few days later to a mutual friend by a now distinguished painter, one of the most fervent in that enthusiastic
little band I have so often mentioned, ex¬presses their feelings better than words less fresh or authentic can.
‘MY DEAR FRIEND,
‘Lest you should not have heard of the death of Mr. Blake, I have written this to inform you. He died on Sunday night at six o’clock, in a most glorious manner. He said he was going to that country he had all his life wished to see, and expressed himself happy, hoping for salvation through Jesus Christ. Just before he died his countenance became fair, his eyes brightened, and he burst out into singing of the things he saw in heaven. In truth, he died like a saint, as a person who was standing by him observed. He is to be buried on Friday, at twelve in the morning. Should you like to go to the funeral? If you should, there will be room in the coach.