The Angel that presided o'er my birth
Said, "Little creature formed of Joy and Mirth,
Go love without the help of any Thing on Earth."
— William Blake in MS. Notebook.
And so was born William Blake, who became known to the world certainly as artist, poet, and prophet, but who was vaguely conceived by his generation to be a madman for all that. Whether it was he or his generation that merited the title, remains still to be seen. Those who knew him not, but knew of him, were the ones who shared in this opinion. Certain it is that his life is coming to be studied more and more widely, more and more intently, not for the mere scrutiny of details but for an understanding of those implications of spiritual greatness that are found at every turn in any study of Blake.
This is the magic of Biography: it gives the picture of a life from birth to death, but all through the narrative there are hints of something greater that is unexpressed, an unseen background, the field of play of a Personage far lordlier than the humble individual whose story we have followed through one brief chapter of experience.
Our first thanks for this book (1) go to the Editor, Mr. Ruthven Todd, for a new edition of the famous Life of Blake by Alexander Gilchrist, published in 1863. The book is really a composite, and is Gilchrist's only in part, for he died in 1861, leaving the work only two-thirds completed. His wife then took up the thread and spun it out to the end, assisted by several writers of the day, among them the brothers Dante Gabriel and William Michael Rossetti, who of course left their unmistakable stamp upon it. Nevertheless, through its pages shines like a benignant sun the kindly and appreciative understanding of Alexander Gilchrist for his then hardly known and still less understood subject. He perceived the shining track of genius in the pattern of this obscure life, and consequently wrote as one friendly and favorable.
In the present Edition, Mr. Todd has drawn largely from subsequent research to make emendations and corrections which of course add greatly to the value of the whole. Within the compass of an Everyman volume he has given us the connected story of Blake's outer life: his inspired and prophetic boyhood, when the early lyrics were composed; his years of apprenticeship with Basire the engraver, when Blake acquired a medium or vehicle both for his subsequent livelihood and for the expression of his genius; his marriage to the untaught girl who became his perfect companion, formed by him; his brief emergence into polite society, followed again by the years of poverty and unremitting labor while reproducing his own and others" designs; the tardy recognition of his genius by a few — a very few — friends and young ardent disciples; his friendships; his visions, and his achievement in his chosen art. This was the outer life: the inner life illumined it but existed apart, not cramped by poverty, nor troubled by lack of recognition.
To go back to Gilchrist for a moment: perhaps he is happiest in his descriptions of Blake's designs, which he was able to speak of with the discerning and appreciative judgment of the real critic of art. The book is full of these happy descriptions, which actually teach the layman what to look for in the designs, interpret their meanings and point out their beauties, at least to a limited degree. Gilchrist's interpretations have been greatly amplified by the hundreds of critiques of Blake's art which have appeared since his day, during which time there has been a general and almost revolutionary development in comprehension, in taste, in appreciation of symbolism; and this has been a tremendous factor in Blake appreciation, both as regards the designs and the texts of the prophetic books.
The direct stamp of genius is in all his art — it carries the fire and supernal energy of something more than human. Like Albrecht Durer and the early masters, his "aim was to give ideas, not pretty language," to make men conscious of the spiritual invisible powers guiding and supporting the visible universe. "Blake's art," remarks Elisabeth Luther Gary, "has made abstract ideas and emotions take on a visible aspect," and in this respect, in this spiritual quality of direct symbolism, it far outstrips much of the technically perfect art of his time which was more nearly concerned with faithful portrayal of the material form, or of some agreeable human emotion.
We have to think of Blake in various aspects: as the author of the lovely early lyrics, and the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, some of these approaching Shakespeare's themselves in spontaneity and purity of literary form; as the Revolutionary, friend of Thomas Paine; as the creator of the thunderous Prophetic Books; as the incredibly industrious engraver; as the originator of a unique method of reproduction which he used in bringing out many of his own works; and lastly, as the spiritual mystic who had insight into the inner worlds.
It is in this last aspect, perhaps, that Blake will be most interesting to Theosophists. There are evidences which suggest that Blake was intuitively conscious of his life's inner pattern and purpose, and that he remained true to that purpose — which was, as far as a mere sympathetic student is qualified to express it, to continue to give forth his own peculiar message through his art, and not to digress into pleasant by-paths. The one episode in his life when he came nearest to such a digression occurred towards the end of the pleasant years at Felpham, whither he had been brought from London by William Hayley, "a literary country gentleman, an amateur, whose words flowed a thousand times faster than his thoughts." Blake with his wife and sister was settled in a cottage in the lovely little seaside village. Blake was to be engraver, designer, and general associate in a series of literary projects which Hayley's lively brain had conceived. The association prospered, the schemes went forward, but when Blake found himself being introduced to half the neighboring gentry, and in a fair way to being launched on a career of (to him) cheap popularity as a painter of fashionable miniatures, the warning note was sounded in his inner consciousness. He broke off the contract and went back to London, to his engraver's bench and penury — but peace of mind. On another occasion (Arthur Symons' Blake) he declined an invitation to become art instructor to the Royal Family, ". . . for that I cannot live without doing my duty to lay up treasure in heaven is Certain and Determined," as he wrote to his friend Mr. Butts. "The Thing I have most at Heart — more than life, or all that seems to make life comfortable without — Is the Interest of True Religion and Science, and whenever any thing appears to affect that Interest (Especially if I myself omit any duty to my Station as a Soldier of Christ) It gives me the greatest of torments."
Years of "deepening neglect" were to follow, but Blake's inner serenity was never shaken. "Grim poverty had throughout life, stared him in the face," says Gilchrist. "Throughout life he had calmly looked back into her eyes." He had always believed — and his belief was borne out — that if he did his part he would have all he needed. Thus he was supremely free from the tyranny of objective things. As one of his intimates said of him in later years: "I never look upon him as an unfortunate man of genius. He knew every great man of his day, and had enough." And Arthur Symons says: "He lived in poverty because he did not need riches, but he died without leaving a debt."
"Go love, without the help of any Thing on Earth," had said his Guardian Angel. And in the undoubted neglect that was his lot during the greater part of his life, and in his manner of meeting it, there are intimations that this quaint jotting of his expressed the inmost purpose of that incarnation — something that every esotericist will recognise as a feat to be accomplished if he would attain the power to help his fellows. "Give light to all, but take from none," is the beautiful passage in The Voice of the Silence that expresses much the same ideal.
At last, towards the end, came those few years of greater outward tranquility and comfort, made possible through the noble friendship of John Linnell, at that time a rising young artist. Then it was that a few disciples, young men of character and aspiration, "fresh-hearted youths," sought Blake out, and listened with a sort of reverence to his discourse — their whole subsequent lives influenced for good by that brief association.
There is the impression, too, that Blake had intuitive knowledge of certain truths and rules of living that will be curiously familiar to some of our readers who have worked under a Theosophical Teacher.
"He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star," is one of his aphorisms from "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." He must have been unique among his contemporaries in believing the Sun to be the dwelling of a god. (See "The Little Black Boy" in his Songs of Innocence.) He told a friend that he conversed with the Spiritual Sun on Primrose Hill. In talking with Crabb Robinson (that curiosity-seeker in the realms of humankind) Blake remarked that it was not Jehovah, but the Elohim who created the heavens and the earth in the beginning, and went on to expound the doctrine of the Gnostics with great consistency. When Crabb Robinson asked him:
Now what affinity or resemblance do you suppose was there between the Genius which inspired Socrates, and your Spirits? [i.e., the inner voices which Blake maintained guided his life] he paused and replied: "I was Socrates" — and then as if he had gone too far in that — "or a sort of brother. I must have had conversations with him. . ." — Crabb Robinson's Reminiscences.
Blake's criticism of Swedenborg is interesting: he thought him a great Seer indeed, and that he had done, and would do, much good, but remarked that "he did wrong in endeavoring to explain to the reason what it could not comprehend." Jacob Boehme "he placed among the divinely inspired men." A familiar teaching in everyday occultism will be recognised in his remark that he could not "previously describe in words" what he meant to design, for fear that he should "evaporate the spirit" of his invention.
From all this it may be seen that Blake lived in an entirely different world from that of most of his contemporaries. These thoughts were habitual with him, and he expressed them in the most casual manner. No wonder then that most of those who heard him went away tapping their foreheads. Yet it has been well attested that in all the transactions of ordinary life Blake showed an adequate, indeed, a rare, sense of responsibility, and was particular to discharge all obligations promptly and completely — which is more than can be said of some of those with whom he had business dealings.
He continued to grow in power and faculty to the end. In his last illness, (1827) propped up in bed, he was working on his designs to Dante's "Divina Commedia" almost to the last day.
A word about the strange Prophetic Books and poems. As in the case of the drawings, these grand poems have to be considered in the mood of interpretation, as generating in their thunderous lines a sense of the immensity of things, of the play of cosmic forces, titanic and dread and impersonal — the handiwork of the Divine. Those who look for a coherent and logical sense in these writings are non-plussed; Swinburne saw and pointed out their real character, and called "The Four Zoas" "a storehouse of ideas." "The Four Zoas," which was never published, even in the way that any of Blake's poems were published, namely, by his own handiwork, exists in 70 sheets of manuscript. It embodies Blake's philosophy of the emanational progress of the stream of entities in a Universe, from the bosom of the Supreme, down into "individuality," as he expressed it, and back again into Unity, or union with the Divine.
This Edition of the "Life" is illustrated by reproductions of the set of wood-cuts (the only ones he ever did) that Blake made for Thornton's "Vergil" — seventeen luminous pastorals, enchanting with their "mystic and dreamy glimmer" of sunset light and moonrise - — so true to the mood of the archaic inspired by the poems.
Mr. Ruthven Todd could not have been more thorough in his scholarly job of research. Painstaking and thorough to the last, he has provided us with copious Notes, a good Index, and a Bibliographical list of every one of Blake's own works, when and how produced; of all works illustrated by Blake, or with illustrations of his engraving, or his own designs engraved by others, and so on, including the various editions; and lastly, a list of Books about Blake, numbering seventy-odd, by all the great Blake scholars.
William Blake's other-worldly genius has hitherto been the study of the few; Mr. Todd has here enabled the many to become familiar with his extraordinary life-story and achievement — which they will do to their very great advantage.
1. The Life of William Blake. By Alexander Gilchrist, Edited by Ruthven Todd. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd. New York, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1942. Price 3s. 420 pp. No. 971 of Everyman's Library. (return to text)
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