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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Blake (1757–1827)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
POET-PAINTER, visionary, and super-mystic in almost all capacities, William Blake was born in London in 1757. He was the second son of humble people—his father but a stocking merchant. An “odd little boy,” he was destined to be recognized as “one of the most curious and abnormal personages of the later eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries.” Allan Cunningham describes him by saying that Blake at ten years of age was an artist and at twelve a poet. He seems really to have shown in childhood his double gift. But the boy’s education was rudimentary, his advantages not even usual, it would seem. To the end of his life, the mature man’s works betray a defective common-schooling, a lamentable lack of higher intellectual training—unless we suspect that the process would have disciplined his mind, to the loss of bizarre originality. Most of what Blake learned he taught himself, and that at haphazard. The mistiness and inexplicability of his productions is part of such a process, as well as of invincible temperament.  1
  In 1767 Blake was studying drawing with Mr. Pars, at the sometime famous Strand Academy, where he was reckoned a diligent but egotistical pupil. At fourteen he became apprenticed, for a livelihood,—afterward exchanged for the painter’s and illustrator’s freer career,—to James Basire, an academic but excellent engraver, whose manner is curiously traceable through much of Blake’s after work. Even in the formal atmosphere of the Royal Academy’s antique school, Blake remained an opinionated and curiously “detached” scholar, with singular critical notions, with half-expressed or very boldly expressed theories as to art, religion, and most other things. In 1782 he married a young woman of equally humble derivation, who could not even sign the marriage register. He developed her character, educated her mind, and made her a devoted and companionable wife, full of faith in him. Their curious and retired ménage was as happy in a practical and mundane aspect as could be hoped from even a normal one.  2
  In 1780 he began to exhibit, his first picture being ‘The Death of Earl Godwin.’ After exhibiting five others, however, ending with ‘Jacob’s Dream,’ he withdrew altogether from public advertisement. Several devoted patrons—especially Mr. Linnell, and a certain Mr. Thomas Butts, who bought incessantly, anything and everything,—seized upon all he drew and painted. In his literary undertakings he was for the most part his own editor and printer and publisher. His career in verse and prose began early. In 1783 came forth the charming collection ‘Poetical Sketches,’ juvenile as the fancies of his boyish days, but full of a sensitive appreciation of nature worthy of a mature heart, and expressed with a diction often exquisite. The volume was not really public nor published, but printed by the kindly liberality of two friends, one of them Flaxman. In 1787, “under the direction of the spirit of his dead brother,” Robert, he decided on publishing a new group of lyrics and fancies, ‘Songs of Innocence,’ by engraving the text of the poems and its marginal embellishments on copper—printing the pages in various tints, coloring or recoloring them by hand, and even binding them, with his wife’s assistance. The medium for mixing his tints, by the by, was “revealed to him by Saint Joseph.”  3
  With this volume—now a rarity for the bibliophile—began Blake’s system of giving his literary works and many of his extraordinary artistic productions their form and being. Like a poet-printer of our own day, Mr. William Morris, Blake insisted that each page of text, all his delicate illustrations, every cover even, should pass through his own fingers, or through those of his careful and submissive helpmeet. The expense of their paper was the chief one to the light purse of the queerly assorted, thrifty pair.  4
  In 1789 appeared another little volume of verses, ‘Songs of Innocence.’ This also was ushered into existence as a dual book of pictures and of poetry. In 1794 came the ‘Songs of Experience,’ completing that brief lyrical trio on which rests Blake’s poetical reputation and his claim on coming generations of sympathetic readers. To these early and exquisite fruits of Blake’s feeling succeeded a little book ‘For Children,’ the mystic volume ‘The Gates of Paradise,’ ‘The Visions of the Daughters of Albion,’ ‘America, a Prophecy,’ Part First of his ‘Book of Urizen,’ and a collection of designs without text, treated in the methods usual with him, besides other labors with pencil and pen.  5
  But the wonderful and disordered imagination of the artist and poet now embodied itself in a strange group of writings for which no parallel exists. To realize them, one must imagine the most transcendent notions of Swedenborg mingled with the rant of a superior kind of Mucklewrath. Such poems as ‘The Book of Thel,’ in spite of beautiful allegoric passages; ‘The Gates of Paradise’; ‘Tiriel,’ an extended narrative-fantasy in irregular unrhymed verses; even the striking ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell,’—may be reckoned as mere prologues to such productions as ‘Jerusalem,’ ‘The Emanation of the Giant Albion,’ ‘Milton,’ and the “prophecies” embodied in the completed ‘Urizen,’ the ‘Europe,’ ‘Ahania,’ and ‘The Book of Los.’ Such oracular works Blake put forth as dictated to him by departed spirits of supreme influence and intellectuality, or by angelic intelligences, quite apart from his own volition; indeed, only with his “grateful obedience.” Such claims are not out of place in the instance of one who “saw God”; who often “conversed familiarly with Jesus Christ”; who “was” Socrates; who argued conclusions for hours at a time with Moses, with Milton, with Dante, with the Biblical prophets, with Voltaire; who could “see Satan” almost at will—all in vivid conceptions that sprang up in his mind with such force as to set seemingly substantial and even speaking beings before him. In his assumption of the seer, Blake was not a charlatan: he believed fully in his supernatural privileges. To him his modest London lodging held great company, manifest in the spirit.  6
  Blake’s greater “prophetic” writings ended, he busied himself with painting and illustration. He was incessant in industry; indeed, his ordinary recreation at any time was only a change of work from one design to another. So were wrought out the (incomplete) series of plates for Young’s ‘Night Thoughts’; the drawings for Hayley’s ‘Life of Cowper,’ and for the same feeble author’s ‘Ballads on Anecdotes relating to Animals’; the ‘Dante’ designs; the ‘Job’ series of prints; a vast store of aquarelle and distemper paintings and plates, and a whole gallery of “portraits” derived from sitters of distinction in past universal history. These sitters, it is needless to say, were wholly invisible to other eyes than Blake’s. The subjects vary from likenesses of Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary to those of Mahomet and Shakespeare. Sundry of the old masters, Titian included, reviewed his efforts and guided his brush! Such assertions do not ill accord with the description of his once seeing a fairy’s funeral, or that he first beheld God when four years old.  7
  But all his fantasies did not destroy his faith in the fundamentals of orthodoxy. He never ceased to be a believer in Christianity. His convictions of a revealed religion were reiterated. While incessant in asserting that he had a solemn message-spiritual to his day and generation, he set aside nothing significant in the message of the Scriptures. There is something touching in the anecdote of him and his devoted Kate told by the portrait-painter Richmond. Himself discouraged with his imperfect work, Richmond one day visited Blake and confessed his low mood. To his astonishment, Blake turned to his wife suddenly, and said, “It is just so with us, is it not, for weeks together, when the visions forsake us! What do we do then, Kate?” “We kneel down and pray, Mr. Blake.”  8
  So passed Blake’s many years, between reality and dream, labors and chimeras. The painter’s life was not one of painful poverty. He and his Kate needed little money; and the seer-husband’s pencils and burin, or the private kindness so constantly shown him, provided daily bread. Despite the visions and inspirations and celestial phenomena that filled his head, Blake withal was sane enough in everyday concerns. He lived orderly, even if he thought chaos. Almost his last strokes were on the hundred water-colors for the ‘Divina Commedia,’ the ‘Job’ cycle, the ‘Ancient of Days’ drawing, or a “frenzied sketch” of his wife which he made, exclaiming in beginning it, “Stay! Keep as you are! You have ever been an angel to me. I will draw you.” Natural decay and painful chronic ailments increased. He seldom left his rooms in Fountain Court, Strand, except in a visit to the Linnells, at Hampstead. He died gently in 1827, “singing of the things he saw in Heaven.” His grave, to-day unknown, was a common one in Bunhill Fields Cemetery. Many friends mourned him. With all his eccentricities and the extravagances of his “visions” and “inspirations,” he was loved. His ardor of temperament was balanced by meekness, his aggressiveness by true politeness. He was frank, abstemious, a lover of children,—who loved him,—devout in prayer, devoid of vice. Yet whenever he was in contact with his fellow-men, he was one living and walking apart. As an influence in literature he is less considerable than in painting. In the latter art, a whole group of contemporary notables, intellectualists, and rhapsodists of greater or less individuality have to do with him, among whom Dante Gabriel Rossetti was in much his literary child, still more his child in art.  9
  A brief and early ‘Life’ of Blake, prepared by his intimate friend Allan Cunningham, appeared in 1829. In 1839, for the first time, his works were really given to the public. Mr. Gilchrist’s invaluable biography and study appeared in 1863; revised and enlarged in an edition of 1880. Mr. Swinburne’s critical essay on him is a notable aid to the student. The artist-poet’s complete works were edited by Mr. William Michael Rossetti in 1874, with a complete and discriminating memoir. More recent contributions to Blake literature are the Ellis and Yeats edition of his works, also with a Memoir and an Interpretation; and Mr. Alfred J. Story’s volume on ‘The Life, Character, and Genius of William Blake.’ Some of the rarest of his literary productions, as well as the scarcest among his drawings, are owned in America, chiefly by two private collectors in the Eastern States.  10
 
 
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