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through a long life he toiled laboriously for a bare pittance, and that he was blessed with a most affectionate and exemplary wife. Through life he lived habitually in two worlds-a world of fact and a world of fancy. While his body was chained down to earth, his mind enjoyed the utmost liberty, his soul looked through his material eye as through a window, and saw glorious, ineffable visions, compared with which the conceptions of Emanuel Swedenborg were cold and earthy. These mystical sights were his realities; while the world, as beheld by grosser eyes, was a mere panorama of fleeting shadows, and it was these sights which he saw, and these words which he heard spoken, that he engraved on his copper tablets in such works as the "Jerusalem," or the "Marriage of Heaven and Hell." When a boy, he was nearly thrashed by his father for declaring that he had seen a tree full of angels, while later in life he used to summon up visionary faces, and commit them to paper as if drawing from an actual substance. He gravely asked a lady if she ever saw a fairy's funeral. Never, sir." "I have," he auswered, "but not before last night. There was great stillness among the branches and flowers, and a more than common sweetness in the air. I heard a low and pleasant sound, and knew not whence it came. At last I saw the broad leaf of a flower move, and underneath I saw a procession of creatures of the size and colour of grey and green grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose leaf, which they buried with songs, and then disappeared." Once, when a pretty little girl was introduced to Blake, he looked at her very kindly for a long while without speaking, and then, stroking her long ringlets, said, "May God make this world to you, my child, as beautiful as it has been to me." She wondered how the world of this shabby old man could be more attractive than her childish world of elegance and luxury; but in after years she understood his meaning. Blake, though eccentric, was by no means mad, for he knew that his visions were not matters of fact, but phenomena seen by his imagination, nor did he expect other people to see what he saw. Insane persons, on the contrary, believe in the Literal existence of their visionary fancies.
The star of a hitherto neglected genius must be in the ascendant when the most distinguished of our youthful poets devotes a volume of 300 pages to a careful analysis of his various compositions. Mr. Swinburne had already proved in his Essay on Byron that he could write excellent prose and criticise keenly, and his reputation in both these respects will be materially increased by the present work; but although his essay deserves much praise, the reader is advised not to accept all
Under Mr. Swin
its dogmatic assertions of indisputable truths. burne's impetuous patronage, Blake runs some risk of being injuriously overrated. The essayist begins by boldly styling him “the single Englishman of supreme and simple poetic genius, born before the closing years of the eighteenth century." Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron, were all born some time before the end of the eighteenth century; but possibly Mr. Swinburne did not intend to include them in his comparison.
Blake's portrait, prefixed to Mr. Gilchrist's memoir, is aptly described as an "eager old face, keen and gentle, with a preponderance of brow and head, clear, bird-like eyes, elegant, excitable mouth, with a look of nervous and fluent power." The first few pages of the volume contain a clever, tersely-written summary of Blake's chief characteristics, without an appreciation of which it is hopeless to attempt to penetrate the meaning of his subtler compositions. He was a determined rebel against all precedent and authority, but his heresy was of a peculiar sort. In religion he was equally hostile to "the teapot pieties of Cowper, and the tapeyard infidelities of Paine." In a period of universal doubt and scepticism, he was possessed with a fervour and fury of belief, and he believed a thing only insomuch as it was incapable of proof. "In crude practical language," says Mr. Swinburne, "his creed amounted to this: as long as a man believes all things, he may do anything; scepticism (not sin) is alone damnable, being the one thing purely barren and negative; do what you will with your body, so long as you refuse it leave to disprove or deny the life inherent in your soul." This is pure antinomianism of a very mischievous sort. Blake was such an exceptional being, whose life was pure in spite of the laxity of his creed, but such doctrines would lead ordinary men into the grossest excesses. It is right to observe that Mr. Swinburne nowhere expresses his adherence to Blake's religious dogmas, he simply endeavours to expound his meaning, and in nowise avows himself as a disciple.
Let us quit Blake's creed, and turn to his "Poetical Sketches," the latest of which was written before the author was twenty. Of many of these Mr. Swinburne justly speaks in terms of the warmest admiration. "My silks and fine array," is sweet enough to recall the lyrics of Beaumont and Fletcher; Webster might have written the "Mad Song," while the verses headed "To Spring," and "To the Evening Star," are worthy of Tennyson. Mr. Swinburne is rather hard on Ossian, speaking of the "evil influence which an early reading of the detestable
pseudo-Ossian seems to have exercised on Blake," and styling those hotly-disputed compositions "lank and lamentable counterfeits of the poetical style." Mr. Matthew Arnold's estimate of Ossian appears fairer and more discriminating. "Make the part," he says, "which is forged, modern, tawdry, spurious, as large as you please, there will still be left a residue, with the very soul of the Celtic genius in it, which has enriched all our poetry." Turning to another topic, at the beginning of the second section of his book, Mr. Swinburne devotes several pages to a passionate denunciation of those persons who would wed Art and Religion, or Art and Utility together, declaring that it is the business of Art to be good on her own ground, and on no other. The essayist here speaks with unnecessary heat and violence concerning a very simple matter, and has apparently, by reason of his vehemence, fallen into some confusion of thought. Any one, after five minutes' reflection, can see that morality has no more to do with excellence in Art than it has to do with the multiplication table. But the same laws which govern Art apply to every action predicable of man. There is a right and wrong way of doing everything, quite independent of morality. You may whet a knife to cut bread for a starving beggar, or to commit a murder, but the question whether the knife is well or ill sharpened has nothing to do with its subsequent use. You may paint an immoral picture admirably, a moral picture execrably; the question of merit is a purely technical affair. But we cannot allow that this sort of merit is to condone the offence of immoral production; otherwise, the murderer might plead for mercy on the ground that he compounded the poison with consummate skill. We are rather tired of this sort of cant about Art (with a large A), as if artists, and artists only, were free from the conditions which bind other men. But though disagreeing with Mr. Swinburne in some of these minor points, we cordially sympathize with his ardent yet subtle appreciation of the "Lyrical Poems." We cannot condense his criticisms: they must be read in his own glowing and enthusiastic periods; but we should observe that he has gone carefully over Blake's disordered mass of manuscripts, and has thus made clear several obscure and obviously imperfect readings. He justly points out how utterly and entirely Blake's poems differ from the other poems of his day-a day which stretched from the age of Mason to the age of Moore; but surely one may allow great merit in Blake, without abusing every other unfortunate verseman who existed during his lifetime. When Mr. Swinburne talks of the era of plaster and the era
of pinchbeck, or raves about "a bovine public, staring at some dim, sick planet of the Mason system," or sneers at some "Irish melodist," "when the female will of 'Albion' thought fit to inhale, with wide and thankful nostril, the rancid flavour of rotten dance-roses and mouldy musk," our antagonism is aroused; we feel that he is speaking narrowly and dogmatically. Even if we grant that Blake's lines beginning "Silent, silent night," are "grains of solid gold, and flakes of perfect honey," we need not characterize poor Tom Moore's musical ditties as "the sodden offal of perfumed dog's-meat." Such highly-seasoned phrases as these indicate boyish petulance, rather than critical acumen. There is too much of this froth and fury in Mr. Swinburne's essay, and he will never induce other critics to adopt his views by sneering at their "Arcadian virtue and Boeotian brains."
Blake's "Prophetic Books" do not pretend to be "predictions;" they rather profess to be inspired expositions of material things. Mr. Swinburne has devoted much pains to the analogies of these strange utterances, which, though wild and chaotic, afford a valuable insight into their author's character.
Blake regarded these works as his greatest, as containing the sum of his achieved ambitions and fulfilled desires; as, in effect, inspired matter, of absolute imaginative truth and eternal import. It would be impossible, in the space here at command, to give the reader, who is totally unacquainted with these singular compositions, any clear notion concerning them, but he may imagine the sort of work which would be put forth by an artist whose hand was equally skilful with the pencil and the graver, whose education had been fitful and irregular, whose mind was saturated with repeated perusals of the old Hebrew prophecies, who possessed a consummate lyrical faculty, who was gifted with an extraordinarily vivid imagination, and who believed that he was commissioned by invisible beings to write down the things which he had heard and seen. The only proper way to study these "Prophecies" is in the original copies, where Blake's flowingly-engraved words are aided by his wondrously fanciful and suggestive designs. Separated from these designs, the letter-press loses more than half its fervency and strength. The nomenclature of the characters introduced in these books is as strange as anything else contained in them. Hellenic, Semitic, and Celtic mythologies are recklessly mingled up together. We read of Urizen, Orc, Enitharmon, Leutha, Rintrah, Golgonooza; while every now and then familiar modern names—those, for example, of London streets and suburbs—
are introduced with an effect that borders on the ludicrous. But all these names, whether actual or invented, are allegorical. They are used as symbols of spiritual conceptions. As a specimen of one of these compositions, which from its name is likely to excite the curiosity of trans-Atlantic readers, the "Vision of America" may be cited. But those who expect to find anything actual and material in it will be disappointed. According to the joint testimony of Mr. Swinburne, and the editor of Mr. Gilchrist's posthumous memoir, it displays a redundance of mere invention; there is too much tossing about of ideas and words. The action is wholly swamped by the allegory; it is, for the most part, a clamorous lyrical chaos. The real, material America appears but dimly in the author's mind, although the thirteen States are spoken of; and such weird appellations as Orc, Urthona, and Enitharmon are mingled with the familiar names of Washington, Franklin, and Paine. The War of Independence is ostensibly the theme, but its events are transacted by vast mythical beings, whose movements are accompanied by tremendous elemental commotions"red clouds and raging fire, black smoke, thunder, and plagues creeping on the burning winds." Mr. Swinburne quotes the following as "the finest and clearest passage in the book :"
"Must the generous tremble, and leave his joy to the idle, to the pestilence, That mock him? Who commanded this? What God? what Angel ?
To keep the generous from experience, till the ungenerous
Are unrestrained performers of the energies of nature,
Till pity is become a trade, and generosity a science
That men get rich by; and the sandy desert is given to the strong?
Strange and incoherent as most of these prophetic books are, and difficult as it is to unravel Blake's precise intention in writing them, they abound in passages of remarkable power and beauty. Had Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, set his eyes on these writings, he would assuredly have adopted them as the sacred canon of his new revelation, in place of the heavy and prosaic history of the Indian tribes, which he rechristened the "Book of Mormon."
In his concluding pages Mr. Swinburne draws an elaborate parallel between the writings of Blake and those of the much-talked-of American poet, Walt Whitman. The points of contact between them he considers to be so many, as to afford some countenance to those who