by the suffrages of others. * He was equally polite (and that
is rare indeed) to men of every age and rank ; honouring all
men.' In which he resembled Flaxman, who addressed his
carvers and workmen as ' friends,' and made them such by his
kindness. Of this spontaneous courtesy to all, the following
is an instance : ā Once, while his young friend Calvert was
with him in Fountain Court, a man brought up a sack of
coals, knocked at the door, and asked, * Are these coals for
here .'' ' ' No, Sir,' answered Blake, in quiet, courteous tones,
as to an equal ; ' but I'll ask whose they are.' Blake's fellow
lodgers were humble but respectable. The court did not, in
those days, present, as now, its idle groups of women, hanging
about outside the doors, with free and easy, not to say un-
finished, toilets ; there was no excessive noise of children.
Children at play there doubtless often were, as one of Mr.
Palmer's anecdotes would indicate.
Vehement and outrageous as Blake could at times be (in
words), his ordinary habit of mind was ā at all events in these
latter years ā one of equable gentleness. He was no longer
352 LIFE OF WILLIAM BLAKE.
angry with the world and its often unworthy favourites, or
rebellious against its awards ; jostled though he were, in his
quiet course, by thousands of coarse, eager men, ' famous '
and prosperous in their day. ' I live in a hole here,' he would
say, ' but God has a beautiful mansion for me elsewhere. '
' Poor, dear man,' exclaimed one of his friends to me, ' to
think how ill he was used, and yet he took it all so quietly.'
Surely ' the world,' if it had a conscience to be pricked, might
blush at a few of its awards. ' The public,' say some, ' may
' be compared to a reigning beauty, whose favour is hard to
' win, and who often gives it to a fool in the end.'
Blake, however, was rich in the midst of poverty. ' They
pity me,' he would say of Lawrence and other prosperous
artists, who condescended to visit him ; ' but 'tis they. are the
' just objects of pity : I possess my visions and peace. They
* have bartered their birthright for a mess of pottage.' For
he felt that he could have had fame and fortune, if he had
chosen ; if he had not voluntarily, and with his eyes open,
cleaved to the imaginative life. ' If asked,' writes Mr. Palmer,
' whether I ever knew, among the intellectual, a happy man,
'Blake would be the only one who would immediately occur
' to me.' And this feeling of happiness communicated itself
as a serene, beneficent influence to others. His disciples
would often wonder thereat, and wish they had within them-
selves the faculty, unhelped by him, to feel as he did.
There is a short poem in the MS, note-book which speaks
eloquently on this head of unworldliness with its resultant
calm, elevated joy. Let us listen to it : ā
I rose up at the dawn of day :
' Get thee away ! get thee away !
Prayest thou for riches ? away ! away !
This is the throne of Mammon grey ! '
Said I : ' This, sure, is very odd ;
I took it to be the throne of God.
Everything besides I have :
It's only riches that I can crave.
PERSONAL DETAILS. 353
I have mental joys and mental health,
Mental friends and mental wealth ;
I've a wife that I love, and that loves me,
I've all but riches bodily.
Then if for riches I must not pray,
God knows it's little prayers I need say.
I am in God's presence night and day ;
He never turns His face away.
The accuser of sins by my side doth stand,
And he holds my money bag in his hand ;
For my worldly things God makes him pay ;
And he'd pay for more, if to him I would pray.
He says, if I worship not him for a god,
I shall eat coarser food, and go worse shod ;
But as I don't value such things as these.
You must do, Mr,, Devil^ just as God please.
A lady tells a pretty and very characteristic story of her
first and only interview with the spiritual man, which illus-
trates, in another way, how he came by this happiness. The
lady was thought extremely beautiful when a child, and was
taken to an evening party and there presented to Blake. He
looked at her very kindly for a long while, without speaking ;
and then, stroking her head and long ringlets, said : ' May
* God make this world to you, my child, as beautiful as it has
'been to me ! ' She thought it strange, at the time ā vain little
darling of Fortune ! ā that such a poor old man, dressed in
shabby clothes, could imagine that the world had ever been so
beautiful to him as it must be to her, nursed in all the ele-
gancies and luxuries of wealth. But, in after years, she
understood plainly enough what he meant, and treasured the
few words he had spoken to her. Well might he sweetly and
touchingly say of himself (I draw from the note-book
again) : ā
The Angel who presided at my birth
Said : ' Little creature formed of joy and mirth,
Go, love without the help of anything on earth.'
VOL. I. A A
354 LIFE OF WILLIAM BLAKE.
Blake's mind was so sensitively strung as, in intercourse
with others, to give immediate response to the right appeals.
All speak of his conversation as most interesting, nay, en-
chanting to hear. Copious and varied, the fruit of great,
but not morbid, intellectual activity, it was, in its ordinary
course, full of mind, sagacity, and varied information.
Above all, it was something quite different from that of
other men : conversation which carried you 'from earth to
heaven and back again, before you knew where you were.'
Even a young girl would feel the fascination, though some-
times finding his words wild and hard to follow. To con-
ventional minds, it often seemed a mixture of divinity,
blasphemy, and licence ; but a mixture, not even by them,
to be quickly forgotten. In a walk with a sympathetic
listener, it seldom flagged. He would have something per-
tinent to say about most objects they chanced to pass, were
it but a bit of old wall. And such as had the privilege of
accompanying him in a country walk felt their perception
of natural beauty greatly enhanced. Nature herself seemed
strangely more spiritual. Blake's mind warmed his listener's,
kindled his imagination ; almost creating in him a new
sense. Nor was his enjoyment of all that is great in Art,
of whatever school or time, less genuine and vivid : notwith-
standing an appearance to the contrary in some passages
of his writings, where, in doing battle energetically for
certain great principles, random blows not a few, on either
side the mark, came down on unoffending heads; or where,
in the consciousness that a foolish world had insisted on
raising the less great above the greatest, he delighted to
make matters even by thrusting them as much too far
below. ' I think I hear him say,' writes one of those friends
whose congeniality ensured serene, wise moods on Blake's
part, 'As fine as possible, Sir. It is not given to man to do
better ' (this when talking of the great examples of Art,
whether antique or modern). ' He delighted to think ot
'Jlaphael, Giulio Romano, Polidoro, and others, working
PERSONAL DETAILS. 355
< together in the chambers of the Vatican, engaged, without
'jealousy, as he imagined, in the carrying out of one great
' common object ; and he used to compare it (without
* any intentional irreverence) to the co-labours of the holy
'Apostles. He dwelt on this subject very fondly. . . . Among
* spurious old pictures, he had met with many " Claudes," but
* spoke of a few which he had seen, really untouched and
' unscrubbed, with the greatest delight ; and mentioned, as
' a peculiar charm, that in these, when minutely examined,
* there were, upon the focal lights of the foliage, small specks
* of pure white which made them appear to be glittering with
' dew which the morning sun had not yet dried up. . . . His
* description of these genuine Claudes, I shall never forget.
' He warmed with his subject, and it continued through an
* evening walk. The sun was set ; but Blake's Claudes made
' sunshine in that shady place.' . . . . ' Of Albert Diirer,
' he remarked that his most finished woodcuts, when closely
' examined, seemed to consist principally of outline ; ā that
'they Avere "everything and yet nothing." .... None but
' the finest of the antiques, he held, equalled Michael Angelo.'
As we have seen, Blake's was no ' poetic poverty,' of a
kind to excite the pensive interest of sentimental people
without shocking their nerves ; but real, prosaic poverty.
Such ' appearances ' as I have described tasked his whole
income to maintain. And his was an honourable code : he
was never, amid all his poverty, in debt. ' Money,' says
Mr. Palmer, 'he used with careful frugality, but never loved
'it; and believed that he should be always supplied with
' it as it was wanted : in which he was not disappointed.
'And he worked on with serenity when there was only a
' shilling in the house. Once (he told me) he spent part of
'one of these last shillings on a camel's hair brush He
' would have laughed very much at the word status, which has
'been naturalised into our language of late years.' Last
shillings were, at all periods of Blake's life, a frequent
incident of his household economy. For, while engrossed in
A A 2
356 LIFE OF WILLIAM BLAKE.
designing, he had often an aversion to resuming his graver,
or to being troubled about money matters. It put him
out very much when Mrs. Blake referred to the financial
topic, or found herself constrained to announce, 'The money
' is going, Mr, Blake.' ' Oh, d the money ! ' he would
shout ; * it's always the* money ! ' Her method of hinting
at the odious subject became, in consequence, a very quiet
and expressive one. She would set before him at dinner
just what there was in the house, without any comment
until, finally, the empty platter had to make its appearance :
which hard fact effectually reminded him it was time to go
to his engraving for a while. At that, when fully embarked
again, he was not unhappy ; work being his natural element.
As every slightest anecdote of Blake has its degree of per-
sonal value, I may give the following one. A historical painter
of the class endlessly industrious yet for ever unknown,
was one day pointing out to a visitor some favourite specimen
of hopeless hugeness, and said : ' Mr. Blake once paid me
a high compliment on that picture. It was on the last occa-
sion when the old gentleman visited me, and his words were,
" Ah ! that is what I have been trying to do all my life ā to
paint roimd and never could." ' This may be taken as an
instance of the courteous care with which Blake would find
some agreeable word for an inoffensive inferior in Art. Had
such a charge been brought against himself by an aggressor,
how instant a spark would have been struck from him !
Allan Cunningham has talked of Blake's living on a crust.
But, in these latter years he, for the most part, lived on good,
though simple fare. His wife was an excellent cook ā a
talent which helped to fill out Blake's waistcoat a little, as
he grew old. She could even prepare a made dish, when
need be. As there was no sei-vant, he fetched the porter
for dinner himself, from the house at the corner of the
Strand. Once, pot of porter in hand, he espied coming
along a dignitary of Art ā that highly respectable man,
William Collins, R.A., whom he had met in society a few
PERSONAL DETAILS. 357
evenings before. The Academician was about to shake
hands but, seeing the porter, drew up and did not know
him. Blake would tell the story very quietly, and without
sarcasm. Another time, Fuseli came in and found Blake
with a little cold mutton before him for dinner; who, far
from being disconcerted, asked his friend to join him. * Ah !
by G ā !' exclaimed P'useli, 'this is the reason you can do
as you like. Now I cant do this! His habits were very
temperate. It was only in later years he took porter
regularly. He then fancied it soothed him, and would sit
and muse over his pint after a one o'clock dinner. When he
drank wine, which, at home, of course, was seldom, he
professed a liking to drink off good draughts from a tumbler,
and thought the wine glass system absurd : a very heretical
opinion in the eyes of your true wine drinkers. Frugal
and abstemious on principle, and for pecuniary reasons, he
was sometimes rather imprudent, and would take anything
that came in his way. A nobleman once sent him some oil
of walnuts he had had expressed purposel}'- for an artistic
experiment. Blake tasted it, and went on tasting, till he had
drunk the whole. When his lordship called to ask how
the experiment ^ had prospered, the artist had to confess
what had bebme of the ingredients. It was ever after a
standing joke against him.
In his dress there was a similar triumph of the man over
his poverty to that which struck one in his rooms. In-
doors, he was careful, for economy's sake, but not slovenly :
his clothes were threadbare, and his grey trousers had worn
black and shiny in front, like a mechanic's. Out of doors,
he was more particular, so that his dress did not, in the
streets of London, challenge attention either way. He
wore black knee breeches and buckles, black worsted
stockings, shoes which tied, and a broad-brimmed hat. It
was something like an old-fashioned tradesman's dress. But
the general impression he made on you was that of a
gentleman, in a way of his own.
358 LIFE OF WILLIAM BLAKE.
In person, there was much in Blake which ansvv^ered to the
remarkable man he was. Though low in stature, not quite
five feet and a half, and broad shouldered, he was well made,
and did not strike people as short. For he had an upright
carriage and a good presence ; he bore^himself with dignity,
as not unconscious of his natural claims. The head and
face were strongly stamped with the power and character
of the man. There was great volume of brain in that square,
massive head, that piled up brow, very full and rounded at
the temples, where, according to phrenologists, ideality or
imagination resides. His eyes were fine ā ' wonderful eyes,'
some one calls them ; prominently set, but bright, spiritual,
visionary; ā not restless nor wild, but with 'a look of clear
heavenly exaltation.' The eyes of some of the old men
in his Job, recall his own, to surviving friends. His nose
was insignificant as to size, but had that peculiarity which
gives to a face an expression of fiery energy, as of a high
mettled steed, ā ' a little clenched nostril ; a nostril that opened
as far as it could, but was tied down at one end.' His mouth
was wide, the lips not full, but tremulous, and expressive of
the great sensibility which characterised him. He was short-
sighted, as the prominence of his eyes indicated ; a prominence
in keeping with his faculty for languages, according to the
phrenologists again. He wore glasses only occasionally.
Mrs, Blake, the artist's companion at almost every hour of
the twenty-four, now, as of old, cheerfully accepted the lot of
a poor man's wife as few gifted men's wives are prepared to
do. * Rigid, punctual, firm, precise,' and, as I have said, a
good housewife, she extracted the utmost possible amount of
domestic comfort out of their slender means, which she, like
her husband, was scrupulously careful never to exceed. She
shared his destiny and softened it, ministering to his daily
wants. Not that he put off everything menial upon her,
wiUing though she were. ' For many years,' writes J, T.
Smith, who knew both well, *he made a constant practice of
' lighting the fire, and putting on the kettle for breakfast
PERSONAL DETAILS. 359
' before his Kate awoke.' Smith speaks of the uninterrupted
harmony in which Blake and * his beloved Kate ' lived. Such
harmony there really was ; but, as we saw, it had not always
been unruffled. There had been stormy times in years long
past, when both were young ; discord by no means trifling
while it lasted. But with the cause (jealousy on her side, not
wholly unprovoked), the strife had ceased also. In age and
affliction each grasped the reward of so wise a reconciliation,
in an even, calm state of companionship and mutual helpful-
ness. And * his Kate ' was capable of sharing, to some
extent at all events, the inner life too, and of yielding true
sympathy, ' Having never been a mother,' says the same
cordially appreciative friend, who saw much of her in later
years, and w^hose words I have already often borrowed, 'to
' this devoted wife Blake was at once lover, husband, child.
' She would get up in the night, when he was under his very
* fierce inspirations, which were as if they would tear him
' asunder, while he was yielding himself to the Muse, or
'whatever else it could be called, sketching and writing.
' And so terrible a task did this seem to be, that she had to
' sit motionless and silent ; only to stay him mentally, with-
' out moving hand or foot : this for hours, and night after
' night. Judge of the obedient, unassuming devotion of her
' dear soul to him ! '
Mrs. Blake's spirit, in truth, was influenced magnetically, if
one may so speak, by her husband's. She appears to have
had the same literal belief in his visions as John Varley ; and
when he, in his wild way, would tell his friends that King
Alfred or any great historical personage, had sat to him, Mrs.
Blake would look at her husband with an awe-struck counte-
nance, and then at his listener to confirm the fact. Not only
was she wont to echo what he said, to talk as he talked, on
religion and other matters ā this may be accounted for by the
fact that he had educated her ; but she, too, learned to have
visions ; ā to see processions of figures wending along the
river, in broad daylight ; and would give a start when they
360 LIFE OF WILLIAM BLAKE,
disappeared in the water. As Blake truly maintained, the
faculty for seeing such airy phantoms can be cultivated. I
have mentioned that she coloured Blake's designs under his
direction, and successfully. One drawing, undoubtedly
designed as well as executed by herself, is now in Mr, Lin-
nell's possession. It is so like a work of Blake's, that one
can hardly believe it to have been the production of another
hand. Captain Butts has also one, of small size, in pen and
ink : a seated figure of a woman, which I would not hesitate,
at first sight, to call a Blake ; and even on inspection it proves
a very fair drawing. I have no doubt of this too being bond
fide Mrs. Blake's. Some of the characteristics of an originally
uneducated mind had clung to her, despite the late culture
received from her husband : ā an exaggerated suspiciousness,
for instance, and even jealousy of his friends. But vulgarity
there was none. In person, the once beautiful brunette had,
with years, grown ā as we have elsewhere observed ā common
and coarse-looking, except ' in so far,' says one who knew her,
' as love made her otherwise, and spoke through her gleaming
* black eyes.' This appearance was enhanced by the common,
dirty dress, poverty, and perhaps age, had rendered habitual.
In such cases, the traces of past beauty do but heighten the
melancholy of its utter ruin. Amid so much that was beauti-
ful in her affectionate, wifely spirit, these externals were little
noticed. To friends who remember Blake in Fountain Court,
tho.se calm, patriarchal figures of Job and his Wife in the
artist's own designs, still recall the two, as they used to sit
together in that humble room.
All I have met, who at any period of the poet-artist's life
knew much of Blake, speak with affection of him. A sweet,
gentle, lovable creature, say all ; courageous too, yet not
bitter. Of course, casual acquaintances were more startled
than pleased by his extravagances and vehemences of speech.
To men of the world, his was a mind which, whether judged
by his writings or his talk, inevitably seemed scarcely a sane,
still less a trustworthy one. The impression he made on
PERSONAL DETAILS. 36 1
others varied in proportion to the community of sentiment
which existed ; and, as I said, he showed his best self only to
such as had this bond of sympathy ; namely, a certain inno-
cence and even humility of heart, a certain virgin freshness of
mind. In society he was often brought into contact with
men, superior and intellectual, but occupying widely different
spheres of thought to his own ; who, if they admired, mar-
velled still more, and could not accept him and his strange,
novel individuality in the frank, confiding spirit of those to
whom we have been lately hearkening. We shall have
evidence of this in a later chapter.
From a pencil drawing by her husband.
MAD OR NOT MAD ?
In his familiar conversations with Mr. Palmer and other
disciples, Blake would speak in the most matter-of-fact way
of recent spiritual visitors. Much of their talk was of the spirits
he had been discoursing with and, to a third person, would
have sounded oddly enough. ' Milton the other day was
* saying to me,' so and so. ' I tried to convince him he was
' wrong, but I could not succeed.' ' His tastes are Pagan ; his
* house is Palladian, not Gothic' Ingenuous listeners hardly
knew, sometimes, whether to believe Blake saw these spirits
or not ; but could not go so far as utterly to deny that he
did. It often struck them, however, that the spirits came
under false pretences, and were not what they represented
themselves ; inasmuch as they spoke false doctrine, broached
In society, again, Blake would give accounts of romantic
appearances which had shown themselves to him. At one
of Mr. Aders' parties ā at which Flaxman, Lawrence, and
other leading artists were present ā Blake was talking to a
little group gathered round him, within hearing of a lady
whose children had just come home from boarding school for
the holidays. ' The other evening,' said Blake, in his usual
quiet way, ' taking a walk, I came to a meadow and, at the
' farther corner of it, I saw a fold of lambs. Coming nearer,
MAD OR NOT MAD ? 363
' the ground blushed with flowers ; and the wattled cote and
' its woolly tenants were of an exquisite pastoral beauty. But
* I looked again, and it proved to be no living flock, but
' beautiful sculpture.' The lady, thinking this a capital holi-
day-show for her children, eagerly interposed, * I beg pardon?
' Mr. Blake, but may I ask tvhere you saw this } ' ' Here,
' madam,' answered Blake, touching his forehead. The reply
brings us to the point of view from which Blake himself re-
garded his visions. It was by no means the mad view those
ignorant of the man have fancied. He would candidly confess
they were not literal matters of fact ; but phenomena seen by
his imagination : realities none the less for that, but transacted
within the realm of mind. A distinction which widely
separates such visions from the hallucinations of madness, or
of the victims of ghostly or table-turning delusions ; and in-
dicates that wild habit of talk (and of writing) which startled
outsiders to have been the fruit of an excessive culture of
the imagination, combined with daring licence of speech. No
man, by the way, would have been more indifferent or averse
than he (wide and tolerant as was his faith in supernatural
revelations) towards the table-turning, wainscot-knocking,
bosh-propounding ' Spiritualism ' of the present hour ; the
gross and puerile materialism which tries to pass itself ofl" for
its eternal opposite. He might not have disbelieved in the
' communications ' in question ; but they would not, in his
eyes, have seemed worth attending to, or as proceeding from
a higher world at all : ā only, perhaps, as the witless pranks
of very ignoble spirits from a lower one. ' Blake never dreamed
of questioning the correctness of his impressions,' to borrow
Mr. Smetham's sagacious and discriminating words, ā 'To
' him all thought came with the clearness and veracity of
'vision. The conceptive faculty working with a perception
' of outward facts, singularly narrow and imperfect, projected
* every idea boldly into the sphere of the actual. What he
' thought, that he saw to all intents and purposes. It was this
' sudden and sharp crystallisation ot inward notions into
364 LIFE OF WILLIAM BLAKE.
* outward and visible signs which produced the impression,
' on many beholders, that reason was unseated.'
According to his own explanation, Blake saw spiritual
appearances by the exercise of a special faculty ā that of
imagination ā using the word in the then unusual, but true
sense, of a faculty which busies itself with the subtler reali-