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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

IX. Blake.

§ 17. Blake and the Romantic Revival.


Blake’s peculiar method of reproducing his writings, and the comparative seclusion in which he lived, prevented his works from exercising any influence on their age, though Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey and Lamb knew and admired portions of them. Yet, few responded so directly and in so many ways to the quickening impulse of the romantic revival. It is true that his early years coincided with an awakened interest in our older literature, which was already exercising a limited influence on contemporary work; and, moreover, as has been seen, his juvenile reading was in this field. But the root of the matter seems to have lain deeper. The whole temper of his genius was essentially opposed to the classical tradition, with its close regard to intellectual appeal and its distrust of enthusiasm. In the Laocoon sentences and in the engraved notes On Homer’s Poetry and On Virgil, he identifies it with the devastating errors of materialism and morality, and, in the Public Address, he is vehement in denouncing Dryden’s presumption in “improving” Milton, and Pope’s “niggling” formalism: as he puts it, the practitioners of this school “knew enough of artifice, but little of art.” Such a judgment, though not wholly just to classicism at its best, was the fighting creed of the romantics, and Blake maintained it more uncompromisingly than most. His mystical faith freed him from the barren materialism of his age, and opened to him in vision the world lying beyond the range of the physical senses. Hence, the greater warmth of his ethical creed; and his preoccupation with the supernatural, which he never consciously shaped to literary ends, is yet the source of the peculiar imaginative quality of his work. It also looks forward to the use of the supernatural in such works as The Ancient Mariner and Christabel. Though he probably intended it otherwise, the effective and complete revelation of the new spirit within him is made, not in his definitely dogmatic writing, but in his verse, which he seems to have rated below his other work; he scarcely ever speaks of it as he does of his art or his mystical writings. Yet, his lyric poetry, at its best, displays the characteristics of the new spirit some years before it appeared elsewhere. His first volume of poems contained songs such as had not been sung for more than a century; the nearest parallel in time is Burns. While Wordsworth was still a schoolboy, Blake had found, and was using with consummate art, a diction almost perfect in its simplicity, aptness and beauty. His earlier attitude to nature, as has already been noticed, has none of the complacency that distinguishes his age: to him, it was the revelation of a universal spirit of love and delight, the Divine Image, less austere than Wordsworth’s “overseeing power.” It has also been seen that he had the romantic sympathy with quaint or terrible imaginings, such as appeared later in Keats and Shelley. His passion for freedom was, also, akin to that which moved Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey in their earlier years, though, in its later form, it came nearer to Shelley’s revolt against convention. There is, indeed, an unusual degree of fellowship between these two: the imagery and symbolism, as well as the underlying spirit, of The Revolt of Islam, Alastor and Prometheus Unbound find their nearest parallel in Blake’s prophetic books. Both had visions of a world regenerated by a gospel of universal brotherhood, transcending law; though, perhaps, the firmer spirit of Blake brought his faith in imagination nearer to life than Shelley’s philosophic dream of intellectual beauty. For the final note of Blake’s career is not one of tragedy: his own works and the record of others show that he had subdued the world to his own spirit; he died singing.   35

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