[Boston—Sunday, 3 January 1864]

Sunday. Snow so we stayed quietly at home. Finished reading Wm. Blake. Pictor Ignotus.

In a recent letter from George Sand copied in our daily journals addressed to a young poet who had asked for her advice and criticism. She tells him after describing the vast amount of poetry published yearly in France alone, “Poetry can never become a profession or a means of livelihood.”

This truth was experienced during a long life by William Blake. A prophet, poet, painter, a man rich in unspeakable content. There were very few rifts in his sunshine through which the dark face of the world peered through and Robert Browning could hardly have had a memory of him when he wrote

 

“Oh, thus to live, I and my picture, linked

With love about, and praise, till life should end,

And then not go to Heaven but linger here,

Here on my earth, earth’s every man my friend,—

The thought grew frightful, t’was so wildly dear.”

The subject of these two volumes lately published in England was born under the mists of London November 1757 and after seventy years of a life “thoroughly lived” was buried unhonored and unknown in the old burial place of Bunhill Fields Finsbury where lie the earthly remains of Bunyan, DeFoe and Stothard. There was no head-stone to mark the grave of Blake and it is impossible now to identify it.

The man lives for us purely then, in his pictures, in his visions, and in his songs.

At a very early age he discov[er]ed so decided a love for drawing and such originality in design that his father apprenticed him to the engraver Basire. There are early verses too of this period often faulty in execution and even in grammar but full of the grand simplicity of true poetry—almost simultaneously too was discov[er]ed something of his inseeing faculty because while his father was seeking among distinguished engravers of the time one to whom his son should be apprenticed and having visited Ryland for this purpose the strange boy remarked when leaving the studio “Father, I do not like that mans face! it looks as if he will live to be hanged”. And the judgment proved to be prophetic.

Steadily, earnestly then he set himself to the task-work of his life—a labor never to be wholly laid aside during the long coming years. Often the engraver’s labors proved but a dreary refrain after weeks or months passed among prophetic dreaming of the poem or in the conception of his grand design yet he must always turn to that when he wanted bread. Poetry brought him little and designing as little; it was only when his styles abased itself to follow the tamer lines of Flaxman, Stothard or artists greatly inferior to them that the platter was filled upon his humble table.

At the early age of 24 he married “a dark-eyed generous-hearted girl” poor and of more lowly lineage even than his own. She had no education as X her mark in the Parish Register avouches but the open tablet of her mind lay reverently open before Blake who taught her everything he knew.

Mrs Blake used to say he never wished to have her speak to him of money: she finally made it a custom to put what there was to eat in the house upon the table so long as it lasted and when it was gone, the empty platter. Then her husband would finish a job of engraving and they would be relieved for the time.

The strenuous activity of genius belonged to William Blake. Even while he engraved, the book he was interested to read, would lie open, where the mark of the engraving plate may be seen. In this way the amount of labor he performed was prodigious, the simple catalogue of his paintings, drawings and engravings in these volumes covering 64 octavo pages.

From the earliest years his verses are worthy of notice. Before he attained the age of thirty he wrote the Songs of Innocence. A few years later followed the Songs of Experience and in all the bright heavens of poetry nothing more beautiful or more adamantine in their divine purity and perfection can be found than two or three of his songs. This is not the place to grade them, but there are one or two verses which so enclose the secrets of his life they should not be omitted as,

 

“He who binds to his life a joy

Does the wingèd life destroy,

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

and again,

 

Since all the riches of this world

May be gifts from the devil & earthly kings,

I should suspect that I worshipped the devil

If I thanked my God for worldly things.

 

The countless gold of a merry heart,

The rubies and pearls of a loving eye,

The idle man never can bring to the mart

Nor the cunning hoard up in his treasury.”

 

But the divine faculties of poetry and design were insufficient for this Seer.

The power of beholding visions was greater in him than in any man of his age. The fringe of the mantle of Isaiah once the prophets had touched his soul. Long books exist written and illustrated by himself descriptive of these visions and filled with prophetic sayings but the key seems to be wanting by which they can be made intelligible to us. He would be awakened in the night-time by the coming of the spirit and would rise from his bed and sit for hours writing as the vision dictated while his watchful wife arose also to gently guard him from the cold and to describe up the mysteries of his words in glowing faith and enthousiasm. Men called him mad and do so call him now nor should the question be disputed here. Yet for such lives and such madness let us be devoutly thankful. Sometimes he would be moved to sketch the figures which appeared. Many of these drawings exist. They are full of character. There is an interesting description of a friend of William Blake’s, John Varley, who could never see anything but believed devoutly in the visions—often the two would sit together far into the night William busily drawing one head after another and looking up occasionally as if a palpable sitter were before him while honest John peered earnestly forward asking questions of [illegible word] which were never answered. One of these sketches is highly fantastic and tickling to the humor. It is the ghost of a flea and is so fine a likeness that the flea family should have been converted at once to the new faith.

William Blake’s designs are a rare possession. If we except the illustrations of “Blair’s Grave” published by the rascal Cromek none of them were ever in any true sense of the word, published. His works were written, designed, illuminated, engraved and sold by himself and his wife who became a most useful assistant in his labors. He had small faith in the artists of his time. He believed in the integrity of outline and was a devout student of Michael Angelo and Raphael but Sir Joshua Reynolds and his school were an abhorrence to him nor could he ever much praise Flaxmann, though they were always friends. Stothard he bitterly accused of theft.

Fuseli, who was fond of Blake, used to say in his own blunt way, “Blake is damned good to steal from.”

The busy world of London swept past his humble door and would sometimes threaten to carry all good fortune with it leaving him to nakedness and oblivion. Yet he seldom knew discontent or depression. He went on designing to the last. A few days before his death as he watched his wife moving quietly about the room, “Keep as you are!” he said. “You have ever been an angel to me. I will draw you!” As he lay in his quiet room—overlooking the Thames but a few yards remove[d] from the roaring heart of London 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 these are not mine. No! they are not mine!”

In August 1827 his spirit left his body. He told his wife they would not be parted; he should always be about to take care of her and during the four remaining years of her life she seemed to feel the continued solace of his unseen presence.

Mr Ticknor’s life of William H. Prescott has just been issued. Mr Ticknor is delighted to have completed the work and to see it in so beautiful a dress. He comes often to see Mr Fields and talks perhaps a little garrulously now of his eventful life. He never speaks uninterestingly to us however. He has lived near many of the great men whose career has been parallel to his own and although a certain narrow–heartedness has prevented him or his family from large sympathy with his neighbours, he has never ceased to be generous too with his most precious possession, namely his library. At present we owe the great pleasure of enjoying the engravings by William Blake of “Blair’s Grave” and the “Job” to Mr Ticknor and we have always had access to his books. It has been the same with all who have applied and not infrequently 20 have been absent at one time from his library. It has been the same also with the loan of money in small sums. No one has been refused.

Jan. 3. Excessively cold. The luxury inside is a perpetual cause for gratitude and the warmth of friendship shining out from the lovely proofs the new year has brought to us. A rare Brazilian butterfly, a Menelaus, came in last night, gorgeous beyond belief.


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