William P. (William Perkes) Swainson.

William Blake, seer, poet, & artist online

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Online LibraryWilliam P. (William Perkes) SwainsonWilliam Blake, seer, poet, & artist → online text (page 1 of 2)
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TOilliam Blahe

Seer, Poet, 6f Artist



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W: p. SWAINSON



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LONDON
C. W. Daniel

ji, Cursltor Street, E.C



The object of these brief sketches on the
" Christian Mystics," is to arouse interest in
a subject but little known and still less under-
stood. It is hoped that they may lead to a
deeper study of the lives and works of those
men and women whose influence on the
world has been far greater than most people
unag^ine.



lOAN STACK



WILLIAM BLAKK— THE AGE IN WHICH HE
LIVED — BIRTH — PARENTAGE — POETIC AND
ARTISTIC POWERS — COUNTRY RAMBLES —
EARLY VISIONS — APPRENTICED AS ENGRA-
VER — INSTANCE OF SECOND SIGHT —
MARRIES CATHERINE BOUCHER.

ENGLAND has never been overburdened
with Mystics. The genius of her people
has always taken a more practical turn.
Yet no man is more truly entitled to that dis-
tinction than William Blake. To the ordinary
man he is not only visionary but incomprehen-
sible. He is too spiritual an artist and too
mystical a poet to be readily understood. One
needs almost to be born with a strong mystical
instinct to sympathise with, or even understand,
such a character.

His life covers the latter half of the eigh-
teenth — or what Carlyle terms the "godless" —
century, and the earlier part of the nineteenth.
In such an age he re-asserted long forgotten-
truths. The fire burned within him, and ever
struggled to manifest itself. The light shone
in the darkness, but the darkness comprehended
it not.

Amid the gloom of a London November, in
1757 — the year in which Swedenborg avers that
he witnessed the Judgment in the spirit world,
which was the precursor of the great changes
that have since "taken place in this — William
Blake was born in the neighbourhood of Golden
Square.



^^71



Willia})i Blake

His father, a fairly prosperous hosier, was
a dissenter of a religious, though rather severe,
turn of mind. Of his mother, Catherine, we
know but little, though, judging from liis nature,
one would imagine her to have been a deeply
spiritual woman. It was probably from her
that he inherited his mystical tendencies.

His education was somewhat neglected — in
fact, with the exception of reading and writing
it was self acquired.

As a boy he was of a strangely romantic habit
of mind, passing much of his time in imagina-
tive reverie. While other boys were playing
with their tops and marbles, he would be busy
with his pen or pencil. At ten he was an artist,
and at twelve a poet. The following verse,
taken from a song written when he was not
more than thirteen, shows how at that early
age the poetic faculty was developing :

"How sweet I roamed from field to field
And tasted all the summer's pride,
Till I the Prince of I^ove beheld.

Who in the sunny beams did glide !"

But his chief delight was to ramble through
the lanes and fields round Camberwell and Dul-
wich, in those days country villages, or over
Blackheath or the Norwood Hills to the old
rural town of Croydon. Sometimes he would
wander away to the verdant meadows of Wal-
ton-on-Thames.

His first vision took place when he was only
eight years of age. It happened while he was
on Peckham Rye. He saw a company of angels
in a tree the boughs of which were bright with
their wings. On his return home he told his
father, who, but for the mother's intercession,
would have thrashed him for telling a lie. Her
deeper spirituality enabled her to recognise as



William Blake

true that which his father's grosser theology
failed to comprehend. Lacking insight, he
denied its existence in others.

On another occasion, young William saw
angels walking among the haymakers in a field.

An attempt was made to apprentice him
to William Kyland, the Kind's engraver, but
the lad took a strong objection to the man.
"Fattier," he said, "I do not like the man's
face. It looks as if he will live to be hanged."
The affair fell through, which greatly pleased
the boy. The idea of so highly esteemed a man
as Ryland being hanged seemed not only highly
improbable, but even ludicrous, for he was then
at the zenith of his reputation. Twelve years
later he got into difficulties and was hanged for
forgery. This is a curious instance of the boy's
gift of second sight.

Blake was ultimately apprenticed to an
engraver named James Basire. He worked
industriously for some years. Much of his
spare time he spent in writing poetry and
drawing. He also saw visions from time to
time. His apprenticeship ended in 1778, when
he was twenty-one years of age, whereupon
he started as an engraver and artist.

In 1782 he married Catherine Boucher.
Although an illiterate woman, she made him
an excellent wife. She was in full sympathy
with him, entered heart and soul into all his
work, and humoured him in every way.

No man probably ever found a better or
truer helpmeet than Blake. Catherine worked
hard, and was a most careful housewife.
W^ithout her commonsense to guide him, he
would probably have starved, and we might
never have seen his mystical poems and his
inspired pictures. When the cupboard was
bare, she would place an empty plate before



William Blake

him as a gentle reminder that he must set to
work again. She believed implicitly in all
his visions, and even acquired the faculty, to
some extent, of seeing them herself. She
would even sit up with him night after night
when he was under his fierce inspirations.

During the earlier part of their married life
Mrs. Blake appears to have been somewhat
jealous of her husband. This arose from his
outspoken opinions with regard to the relations
of the sexes. A warm, impulsive, and affec-
tionate nature like his naturally bubbled over
with love. This seems to have made her
suspicious. But as she came to know and
understand him better her jealousy subsided,
and they passed their lives together in perfect
happiness.



II

BLAKE'S FIRST POF.M PRINTED— STARTS IN
BUSINESS — DEATH OF HIS BROTHER
ROBERT — MOVES TO POLAND STREET —
SONGS OF INNOCENCE ISSUED — HEAVEN
AND HELL PUBLISHED — WARNS TOM PAINE
— MOVES TO LAMr>ETH — PRODUCES OTHER
WORKS — ADAM AND EVE INCIDENT —
, A GHOST — PUBLISHES SONGS OF EXPERI-
ENCE BESIDES FURTHER WRITINGS —
REMOVES TO FELPHAM — TRIED FOR HIGH
TREASON — RETURNS TO LONDON.

DURING the year 17S3 Blake's first
volume of verse, '* Poetical Sketches,"
was printed. An attempt was made
about this time to lionise him, but as he
resented it it was short-lived.

On the death of his father, in 17S4, Blake
went into business with a former fellow-
apprentice. But he was too much of a dreamer
to take kindly to it, and after a few years the
venture came to an end.

In 17S7 he lost his younger brother Robert.
William tended him day and night, and at his
death saw "the released spirit of his brother
ascend heavenward through the matter-of-fact
ceiling, clapping its hands for joy." Although
absent from the body Robert still continued to
visit and converse with William.

Blake now moved to Poland Street, Oxford
Street, where he remained five years. He
had, by his outspokenness, offended his
patrons, and was unable to command the



Wi/Iiam Blake



services of either printer or publisher. In this
dilemma he discovered — or rather had revealed
to him by his deceased brother Robert, who
appeared to him — a method by which he coultl
multiply, not only his artistic designs in
various colours, but also letterpress copies of
his poems.

In 1789 he issued " Songs of Innocence,"
and shortly after "The Book of Thel," a
strange niystical allegory.

The following year " The Marriage of
Heaven and Hell" was published. It seems
to have been suggested by Swcdenborg's
" Heaven and Hell." In it Blake expresses
himself rather strongly regarding that seer.
He writes, " Any man of mechanical talents
may from the writings of Paracelsus or Jacob
Boehme produce ten thousand volumes of equal
value with Swcdenborg's." Although this
utterance of Blake's is far too sweeping, for
Swedenborg was undoubtedly a very great
seer, still it is quite possible to overrate
him.

The key to the " Marriage of Heaven and
Hell " is contained in the following sentences :
*' Without contraries is no progression.
Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy,
Love and Hate are necessary to human exist-
ence. From these contraries spring what the
religious call Good and Evil, Good is Heaven,
Evil is Hell." The capacity for enjoyment
necessarily involves the capacity for pain.

During the year 1792 Blake met Tom Paine
at a friend's house. He warned him against
returning home, telling him that if he did he
would be a dead man. Paine acted upon his
advice and started at once for France.
Scarcely had he set sail from Dover when an
order was received from the Government to



Wil/iaju Blake



detain him. This is one instance, out of many
that might be cited, of Blake's prevision.

In 1793 Blake removed to Hercules Build-
ings, Lambeth, where he spent the next seven
years of his life. From here he issued a
singularly beautiful little volume entitled "The
Gates of Paradise." It contains seventeen
emblematical designs with an explanatory
verse attached to each, and is weird and mys-
tical throughout. " Visions of the Daughters
of Albion" and "America, a Prophecy,"
appeared next.

At this period of his life Blake made the
acquaintance of Thomas Butts, who became,
and remained so for nearly thirty years, a most
generous patron.

On one occasion Butts unexpectedly entered
Blake's garden, and found him silting in his
little summer house with his wife. They were
both nude, for they had just been reciting
"Paradise Lost" in character. On Butts
appearing surprised, Blake simply remarked
" It's only Adam and Eve, you know." The
whole thing seemed perfectly natural to a mind
guileless and innocent like his.

It was while he was living at Hercules
Buildings that Blake saw, for the only time in
his life, a ghost. He describes it as "a
horrible grim figure, scaly, speckled, very
awful," stalking towards him. He was so
frightened that he ran out of the house.

Blake drew a distinction between ghosts
and visionary beings. Ghosts, he maintained,
seldom appeared to imaginative men. It was
to common minds, who did not see the finer
spirits, that they became visible. A ghost
was a thing seen by the gross bodily eye ;
a vision by the mental. The latter is on
a much higher level than the former.



William Blake

In 1794 "Songs of Experience "was issued.
" Europe, a Prophecy," followed. It con-
tained a remarkable frontispiece, entitled "The
Ancient of Days," which was inspired by
a vision Blake once had, and which left
a powerful impression on his mind. " The
Book of Urizen " next made its appearance.

"The Song of Los," dealing symbolically
with the various religions and pliilosophies,
came out in 1795. The same year saw also
"The Book of Ahania."

Blake now obtained a good deal of illustra-
tive work from various publishers. He was
thus in comparatively easy circumstances,
having plenty to do, though by no means
wealthy. Still out of his little he assisted
others.

In 1800 he moved to Felpham, near Bognor
in Sussex, whither he had Vieen invited by the
poet Hayley to assist him in his work. He
remained there four years. It was the only
part of his life passed in the country.

The change to the quiet seclusion of the
country was at first delightful to Blake. By
the sea shore he held visionary conversations
with Moses, the old Hebrew prophets. Homer,
Dante, Milton and others. He worked at his
engravings and lived quietly in his cottage
until an unfortunate incident occurred. A
drunken soldier broke into his little garden,
and, in the scuffle which ensued, and which
ended in the soldier being thrown out, Blake
made use of rather emphatic language. The
soldier, bent on revenge, with the assistance
of a comrade hatched up a story that Blake
had been guilty of seditious language, where-
npon he had to take his trial for high treason.
llayley appeared as a witness and Blake was
acquitted.

12



William Blake

But this incident in conjunction with other
things disturbed the peaceful flow of his life
at Felpham. Blake was too pure and honest
to barter his independence, or the exercise
of his imaginative faculty, for patronage or
money. Had he done so he might have made
his fortune, but he refused. His relationship
with Hayley became strained. The latter
was incapable of fully apjireciating Blake's
work. Lacking mystical insight he failed to
understand him.

At length, after a sojourn of four years in
the country, Blake returned to London and
took up his abode at South Molten Street,
where he remained for seventeen years. He
was so open to the spirit world that it seems
to have been almost a matter of indifference
to him where he lived. The change from the
quiet of the country to the noise of London
troubled him but little.



13



Ill

BLAKE rur>MSHFSJERUSAI-KM — IIXUSTRATES
BLAIR'S GRAVE — SHARP J'RACTICE OF
CROMEK — EARNS A PRECARIOUS LIVELI-
HOOD — HIS SPIRITUAL VISITORS — MOVES
TO FOUNTAIN COURT — ILLUSTRATES THE
BOOK OF JOB — POVERTY — DEATH.

BLAKE now issued "Jerusalem" and
*' Milton," two wonderful books. Speak-
ing of the former, he says, " I have
written this poem from immediate dictation :
twelve, or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at
a time without premeditation, and even against
my will." Elsewhere he adds, *' I may praise
it, since I do not pretend to be other than the
secretary : the authors are in eternity."

Blake now fell into sad straits, he and his
wife being "reduced so low as to be obliged
to live on half-a-guinea a week." A dealer
named Cromck, who was a keen business man,
happened to see some of Blake's drawings.
Thinking to make a handsome profit out of
the artist's needs, he agreed to pay Blake
twenty guineas for twelve drawings of Blair's
"Grave," a paltry sum for what Gilchrist styles
"the most original designs of the century."
To supplement tliis inadequate remuneration,
Cromek promised Blake that he should engrave
them, for which he was to be paid. But he
engaged someone else. As it was only a
verbal agreement, Blake, although greatly
incensed, was powerless.

But this was not the worst. Unable to
obtain a finished sketch from Blake of a
drawing of " Chaucer's Pilgrims on the road



VVtllia)n Blake



to Canterbury," in order that lie might employ
another artist to engrave it — for Blake was
not to be caught that way a second time —
Cromek suggested the subject to Stolhard, and
offered him sixty guineas for an oil painting of
it. Blake, in his innocence, had allowed
Cromek to sec his unfinished sketch, upon
which the latter pilfered the artist's ideas.
When Blaise saw how matters stood, his indig-
nation at Cromck's treachery knew no bounds.

Blake found other friends, and continued
to produce further designs. Some^especially
his " Illustrations to Blair's Grave" — are very
mystical. The invisible world was a reality
to Blake, which he was always striving to
express visibly.

For some years he earned a precarious live-
lihood. Often unable to find a publisher, the
bulk of his writings never got beyond the
manuscript stage. But he would console him-
self by remarking, " Well, it is published else-
where, and beautifully bound." That which
our earthly mankind failed to appreciate was
valued and preserved in the invisible world.

At length Blake was introduced to John
Varley, an astrologer. He was an imjilicit
believer in Blalce's visions, and a close friend-
ship sprang up between them. Blake would
often, at \'arley's request, malce sketches of
his spiritual visitors. At times he had to wait
for the vision : at others it would come at will.
Sometimes, in the midst of drawing, he would
suddenly leave off and exclaim, " I can't go
on — it is gone ! I must wait till it returns."
They included all kinds of historical and even
fabulous persons. One of the most remarkable
is the "Ghost of a Flea," a human head and
face in the likeness of a flea.

In 1S21 Blake moved to Fountain Court,
15



Willimii Blixke



Strand. One of bis last productions was a
series of twenty-one watcrcolour drawings
illustrating the " IJook of Job." These are
among the loftiest, noblest, and most original
of his designs. lie was now approaching
seventy, and on the verge of want. Thanks
to the aitist Linncll, the "Job" series provided
a means of subsistance when all others failed.
He engaged Blake to execute and engrave a
duplicate set.

Towards the end of his life Blake was in
the habit of spending Sunday with Linnell at
Hampstead, where he used to meet a congenial
circle. He would open his soul more freely
to the young than to their elders. The bond
of sympathy between them and Blake was
Stronger. Their minds were less set and rigid
than those of the older men.

Blake's health now began to fail rapidly,
though he continued his labours of love as
long as breath lasted. Towards the end he
was bolstered up in bed to enable him to
finish his drawings. His physical powers
gradually failed, but his mind remained strong
and clear to the last. At length, on Palm
Sunday, August 12th, 1S27, at the age of
sixty-nine, his released spirit entered the
invisible world. A humble woman who was
present at his death said, " I have been at the
death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel."

A friend wrote a few days later, "Just
before he (Blake) died his countenance
became fair, his eyes brightened, and he
burst into singing of the things he saw in
heaven. In truth he died like a saint."

His body was laid in a common grave in
Bunhill Fields, but the spot cannot now be
identified. He was one of those of whom the
world was not worthy.
16



IV



PERSONAL APPEARANCE — CHARACTER — AN
APPRECIATION — SECRET OF BI.AKE'S
HAPPINESS.

I LAKE was somewhat short in stature,
though broad-shouldered, upright, and
well-made. His bearing was dignified.
He possessed a massive head, and had
*' wonderful eyes," bright, spiritual and
visionary. His conversation was delightful,
kindling his listeners' imagination until nature
herself seemed spiritualised.

In spite of his poverty Blake always looked
a gentleman. His clothes, though old, were
neat. Often down to his last shilling his
faith never wavered. He always believed
that his needs would be supplied, and they
wer^.

As an instance of his loving thoughtfulness,
when he and his wife were getting old, he
would light the fire and boil the kettle " before
his Katie awoke." Still, while he was one of
the gentlest and most lovable of men, he was
inflexible where truth was concerned.

All who knew Blake loved him. Those
who knew him best loved him most. One of
his most intimate friends writes of him " Blake
once known could never be forgotten. His
knowledge was various and extensive. . . .
In him you saw at once the Maker, the Inven-
tor, one of the few in any age. ... He was
a man without a mask. . . . Above the tricks
17



William Blake



of littleness, or the least taint of affectation ;
loving to be with little children, and to talk
about them. ... lie thout'Jit no one could
be truly great who had not humbled himself,
'even as a little cliild.' . . . He united free-
dom of judgment witli reverence for all that is
great. . . . He fervently loved the Christian
Art. . . . He was fond of the works of Saint
Theresa, and often quoted them with other
writers on the interior life. . . . The Bihile,
he said, was the Book of liberty, and Chris-
tianity the sole regenerator of nations. In
politics a Platonist, he put no trust in dema-
gogues. . . . He had great powers of argu-
ment, and on general subjects was a very
patient and good-tempered disputant, but
materialism was his abhorrence. . . . He
was one of the few to be met with in our
passage through life who are not in some way
or other ' double-minded.' . . . Moving apart
in a sphere above the attraction of worldly
honours he did not accept greatness but con-
ferred it. He ennobled poverty and . . .
made two small rooms in Fountain Court
more attractive than the threshold of
princes."

External discords vanished before the spiri-
tual harmony of such a man. He was rich in
the midst of his poverty. He would sometimes
say of those who had their full share of this
world's goods, and who expressed pity for him,
•'They pity me, but 'tis they who are the just
objects of pity : I possess my visions and peace ;
they have bartered their birthright for a mess
of pottage." Had he wished he could hare
attained fi\me and fortune ; but he chose the
things which the world could neither give nor
take away. His spiritual vision more than
compensated for his lack of worldly goods.



William Blake

Like all true Mystics Blake never loved money,
though he was always careful with it.

The following story, told by a lady of her
first and only interview with Blake, throws
a flood of light on the secret of his happines.s.
As a child she was introduced to him. He
looked at her pretty face for a time without
speaking, then, stroking her head gently, said,
"May God make this world to you, my child,
as beautiful as it has been to me !" Slie won-
dered at the time how the v.orld could ever
have been as beautiful to the poor shabbily-
dressed old man as it was to her, nursed in
luxury ; but in after years she came to under-
stand plainly enough what he meant.



19



V



BLAKE'S CHRISTIANITY — FORGIVENESS OF
SINS — THE HUMAN FORM DIVINE— THE
DIVINE IMAGE — PRE -EXISTENCE — THE
SPIRIT WITHIN THE LETTER — INTERNAL
CONVICTION OE TRUTH— SPIRITUAL THINGS
SPIRITUALLY DISCERNED — NATURE WOR-
SHIP ATHEISTIC.

THE corner-stone of Blake's Christianity
was "forgiveness of sins." He beauti-
fully expresses this in the following
lines :

"Mutual forgiveness of each vice,
Such are the Gates of Paradise,
Against the Accuser's chief desire
Who walked among the stones of ftre.
Jehovah's fingers wrote the law :
He wept ! then rose in zeal and awe,
And in the midst of Sinai's heat.
Hid it beneath His Mercy Seat.
O Christians ! Christians ! tell me why
You rear it on your altars high?"

This truth — too seldom recognised — is the
clue which unravels the tangled web of exis-
tence. Following it in his childlike faith and
innocence, Blake penetrated right to the very
heart of the universe, where he found God
to be not a vague impersonal abstraction but
a personal loving Parent. He quotes with
approval the words of Lavater : "He who
adores an impersonal God, has none ; and
without guide or rudder launches on an im-



Williavi Blake

mense abyss, that first absorbs his powers and
next himself."

Blake saw that the visible form of God must
ever be the "human form divine." If the
Highest seemed otherwise it arose from de-
fective vision and lack of knowledge. The
Supreme reveals Himself to man as man, in
order that He may be understood by man. It
is only by realising his kinship with God that
man can rjse to his highest dignity. The
loftiest flights of speculation will never carry
him there. The true Mystic ever sees the
Divine in the human, as Blake did when he
wrote that exquisite little poem:

"The Divine Image.



To mercy, pity, peace, and love.
All pray in their distress;

And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For mercy, pity, peace, and love,
Is God our Father dear ;

And mercy, pity, peace, and love,
Is man. His child and care.

For mercy has a human heart ;

Pity, a human face;
And love, the human form divine ;

And peace, the human dress.

To every man, of every clime.
That prays in his distress.

Prays to the human form divine,
Love, mercy, pity, peace.

And all must love the human form
In heathen, Turk, or Jew ;

Where mercy, love, and pity dwell.
There God is dwelling too."
21



William Blake



Blake believed in a pre-existcnt state. He
once said, "We are all co-existcnt with God;
nieniliers of the Divine Body and partakers of
the Divine Nature."

Like all Mystics, he understood the Bible
spiritually. lie was a transcendental, not
a literal Christian. The "mere moral law"
was to him the letter that killeth. He held
that all who believed in the historical Christ
apart from the Christ within, in reality denied
Him.

With Blake every idea had a spiritual reality
underlying it. Mere mechanical science was
abhorrent to his soul. He held that education
— as generally understood — was the crowning


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Online LibraryWilliam P. (William Perkes) SwainsonWilliam Blake, seer, poet, & artist → online text (page 1 of 2)