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Title: William Blake
Author: G. K. Chesterton
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Title: William Blake
Author: G. K. Chesterton






[not included in this text version]

THE LILLY (1789)
THE SWAN (1789)
SPACE (1793)
OOTHOON (1793)
THE TYGER (1794)
A GROUP (1804)
THE EAGLE (1804)
THE TOMB (1806)


WILLIAM BLAKE would have been the first to understand that the biography
of anybody ought really to begin with the words, "In the beginning God
created heaven and earth." If we were telling the story of Mr. Jones of
Kentish Town, we should need all the centuries to explain it. We cannot
comprehend even the name "Jones," until we have realised that its
commonness is not the commonness of vulgar but of divine things; for its
very commonness is an echo of the adoration of St John the Divine. The
adjective "Kentish" is rather a mystery in that geographical
connection; but the word Kentish is not so mysterious as the awful and
impenetrable word "town." We shall have rent up the roots of prehistoric
mankind and seen the last revolutions of modern society before we really
know the meaning of the word "town." So every word we use comes to us
coloured from all its adventures in history, every phase of which has
made at least a faint alteration. The only right way of telling a story
is to begin at the beginning--at the beginning of the world. Therefore
all books have to be begun in the wrong way, for the sake of brevity. If
Blake wrote the life of Blake it would not begin with any business about
his birth or parentage.

Blake was born in 1757, in Carnaby Market--but Blake's life of Blake
would not have begun like that. It would have begun with a great deal
about the giant Albion, about the many disagreements between the spirit
and the spectre of that gentleman, about the golden pillars that covered
the earth at its beginning and the lions that walked in their golden
innocence before God. It would have been full of symbolic wild beasts
and naked women, of monstrous clouds and colossal temples; and it would
all have been highly incomprehensible, but none of it would have been
irrelevant. All the biggest events of Blake's life would have happened
before he was born. But, on consideration, I think it will be better to
tell the tale of Blake's life first and go back to his century
afterwards. It is not, indeed, easy to resist temptation here, for there
was much to be said about Blake before he existed. But I will resist the
temptation and begin with the facts.

WILLIAM BLAKE was born on the 28th of November 1757 in Broad Street,
Carnaby Market. Like so many other great English artists and poets, he
was born in London. Like so many other starry philosophers and naming
mystics, he came out of a shop. His father was James Blake, a fairly
prosperous hosier; and it is certainly remarkable to note how many
imaginative men in our island have arisen in such an environment.
Napoleon said that we English were a nation of shopkeepers; if he had
pursued the problem a little further he might have discovered why we are
a nation of poets. Our recent slackness in poetry and in everything else
is due to the fact that we are no longer a nation of shopkeepers, but
merely a nation of shop-owners. In any case there seems to be no doubt
that William Blake was brought up in the ordinary atmosphere of the
smaller English bourgeoisie. His manners and morals were trained in the
old obvious way; nobody ever thought of training his imagination, which
perhaps was all the better for the neglect. There are few tales of his
actual infancy. Once he lingered too long in the fields and came back to
tell his mother that he had seen the prophet Ezekiel sitting under a
tree. His mother smacked him. Thus ended the first adventure of William
Blake in that wonderland of which he was a citizen.

His father, James Blake, was almost certainly an Irishman; his mother
was probably English. Some have found in his Irish origin an explanation
of his imaginative energy; the idea may be admitted, but under strong
reservations. It is probably true that Ireland, if she were free from
oppression, would produce more pure mystics than England. And for the
same reason she would still produce fewer poets. A poet may be vague,
and a mystic hates vagueness. A poet is a man who mixes up heaven and
earth unconsciously. A mystic is a man who separates heaven and earth
even if he enjoys them both. Broadly the English type is he who sees the
elves entangled in the forests of Arcady, like Shakespeare and Keats:
the Irish type is he who sees the fairies quite distinct from the
forest, like Blake and Mr. W. B. Yeats. If Blake inherited anything from
his Irish blood it was his strong Irish logic. The Irish are as logical
as the English are illogical. The Irish excel at the trades for which
mere logic is wanted, such as law or military strategy. This element of
elaborate and severe reason there certainly was in Blake. There was
nothing in the least formless or drifting about him. He had a most
comprehensive scheme of the universe, only that no one could comprehend

If Blake, then, inherited anything from Ireland it was his logic. There
was perhaps in his lucid tracing of a tangled scheme of mysticism
something of that faculty which enables Mr. Tim Healy to understand the
rules of the House of Commons. There was perhaps in the prompt pugnacity
with which he kicked the impudent dragoon out of his front garden
something of the success of the Irish soldier. But all such speculations
are futile. For we do not know what James Blake really was, whether an
Irishman by accident or by true tradition. We do not know what heredity
is; the most recent investigators incline to the view that it is nothing
at all. And we do not know what Ireland is; and we shall never know
until Ireland is free, like any other Christian nation, to create her
own institutions.

Let us pass to more positive and certain things. William Blake
grew up slight and small, but with a big and very broad
head, and with shoulders more broad than were natural to his stature.
There exists a fine portrait of him which gives the impression of a
certain squareness in the mere plan of his face and figure. He has
something in common, so to speak, with the typically square men of the
eighteenth century; he seems a little like Dan ton, without the height;
like Napoleon, without the mask of Roman beauty; or like Mirabeau,
without the dissipation and the disease. He had abnormally big dark
eyes; but to judge by this plainly sincere portrait, the great eyes were
rather bright than dark. If he suddenly entered the room (and he was
likely to have entered it suddenly) I think we should have felt first a
broad Bonaparte head and broad Bonaparte shoulders, and then afterwards
realised that the figure under them was frail and slight.

His spiritual structure was somewhat similar, as it slowly built itself
up. His character was queer but quite solid. You might call him a solid
maniac or a solid liar; but you could not possibly call him a wavering
hysteric or a weak dabbler in doubtful things. With his big owlish head
and small fantastic figure he must have seemed more like an actual elf
than any human traveller in Elfland; he was a sober native of that
unnatural plain. There was nothing of the obviously fervid and futile
about Blake's supernaturalism. It was not his frenzy but his coolness
that was startling. From his first meeting with Ezekiel under the tree
he always talked of such spirits in an everyday intonation. There was
plenty of pompous supernaturalism in the eighteenth century; but Blake's
was the only natural supernaturalism. Many reputable persons reported
miracles; he only mentioned them. He spoke of having met Isaiah or Queen
Elizabeth, not so much even as if the fact were indisputable, but rather
as if so simple a thing were not worth disputing. Kings and prophets
came from heaven or hell to sit to him, and he complained of them quite
casually, as if they were rather troublesome professional models. He was
angry because King Edward I. would blunder in between him and Sir
William Wallace. There have been other witnesses to the supernatural
even more convincing, but I think there was never any other quite so
calm. His private life, as he laid its foundations in his youth, had the
same indescribable element; it was a sort of abrupt innocence.
Everything that he was destined to do, especially in these early years,
had a placid and prosaic oddity. He went through the ordinary fights and
flirtations of boyhood; and one day he happened to be talking about the
unreasonable ways of some girl to another girl. The other girl (her name
was Katherine Boucher) listened with apparent patience until Blake used
some phrase or mentioned some incident which (she said) she really
thought was pathetic or, popularly speaking, "hard on him." "Do you?"
said William Blake with great suddenness. "Then I love you." After a
long pause the girl said in a leisurely manner, "I love you too." In
this brief and extraordinary manner was decided a marriage of which the
unbroken tenderness was tried by a long life of wild experiments and
wilder opinions, and which was never truly darkened until the day when
Blake, dying in an astonishing ecstasy, named her only after God.

To the same primary period of his life, boyish, romantic, and untouched,
belongs the publication of his first and most famous books, "Songs of
Innocence and Experience." These poems are the most natural and juvenile
things Blake ever wrote. Yet they are startlingly old and unnatural
poems for so young and natural a man. They have the quality already
described--a matured and massive supernaturalism. If there is anything in
the book extraordinary to the reader it is clearly quite ordinary to the
writer. It is characteristic of him that he could write quite perfect
poetry, a lyric entirely classic. No Elizabethan or Augustan could have
moved with a lighter precision than--

"O sunflower, weary of time,
That countest the steps of the sun."

But it is also characteristic of him that he could and would put into
an otherwise good poem lines like--

"And modest Dame Lurch, who is always at church,
Would not have handy children, nor fasting nor birch;"

Lines that have no sense at all and no connection with the poem
whatever. There is a stronger and simpler case of contrast. There is the
quiet and beautiful stanza in which Blake first described the emotions
of the nurse, the spiritual mother of many children.

"When the voices of children are heard in the vale,
And laughter is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still."

And here is the equally quiet verse which William Blake afterwards wrote
down, equally calmly--

"When the laughter of children is heard on the hill,
And whisperings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale."

[Image. Page 11]

That last monstrous line is typical. He would mention with as easy an
emphasis that a woman's face turned green as that the fields were green
when she looked at them. That is the quality of Blake which is most
personal and interesting in the fixed psychology of his youth. He came
out into the world a mystic in this very practical sense, that he came
out to teach rather than to learn. Even as a boy he was bursting with
occult information. And all through his life he had the deficiencies of
one who is always giving out and has no time to take in. He was deaf
with his own cataract of speech. Hence it followed that he was devoid of
patience while he was by no means devoid of charity: but impatience
produced every evil effect that could practically have come from
uncharitableness: impatience tripped him up and sent him sprawling
twenty times in his life. The result was the unlucky paradox, that he
who was always preaching perfect forgiveness seemed not to forgive even
imperfectly the feeblest slights. He himself wrote in a strong epigram--

"To forgive enemies Hayley does pretend,
Who never in his life forgave a friend."

But the effect of the epigram is a little lost through its considerable
truth if applied to the epigrammatist. The wretched Hayley had himself
been a friend to Blake--and Blake could not forgive him. But this was not
really lack of love or pity. It was strictly lack of patience, which in
its turn was due to that bursting and almost brutal mass of convictions
with which he plunged into the world like a red-hot cannon ball, just as
we have already imagined him plunging into a room with his big bullet
head. His head was indeed a bullet; it was an explosive bullet.

Of his other early relations we know little. The parents who are often
mentioned in his poems, both for praise and blame, are the abstract and
eternal father and mother and have no individual touches. It might be
inferred, perhaps, that he had a special emotional tie with his elder
brother Robert, for Robert constantly appeared to him in visions and
even explained to him a new method of engraving. But even this inference
is doubtful, for Blake saw the oddest people in his visions, people with
whom neither he nor any one else has anything particular to do; and the
method of engraving might just as well have been revealed by Bubb
Doddington or Prester John or the oldest baker in Brighton. That is one
of the facts that makes one fancy that Blake's visions were genuine. But
whoever taught him his own style of engraving, an ordinary mortal
engraver taught him the ordinary mortal style, and he seems to have
learnt it very well. When apprenticed by his father to a London
engraving business he was diligent and capable. All his life he was a
good workman, and his failures, which were many, never arose from that
common idleness or looseness of life attributed to the artistic
temperament. He was of a bitter and intolerant temper, but not otherwise
unbusiness-like; and he was prone to insult his patrons, but not, as a
rule, to fail them. But with this part of his character we shall
probably have to deal afterwards. His technical skill was very great.
This and a certain original touch also attracted to the young artist the
attention and interest of the sculptor Flaxman.

The influence of this great man on Blake's life and work has been
gravely underrated. The mistake has arisen from causes too complex to be
considered, at any rate at this stage; but they resolve themselves into
a misunderstanding of the nature of classicism and of the nature of
mysticism. But this can be said decisively: Blake remained a Flaxmanite
to the day of his death. Flaxman as a sculptor and draughtsman stood, as
everybody knows, for classicism at its clearest and coldest. He would
admit no line into a modern picture that might not have been on a Greek
bas-relief. Even foreshortening and perspective he avoided as if there
were something grotesque about them--as, indeed, there is. Nothing can
be funnier, properly considered, than the fact that one's own father is
a pigmy if he stands far enough off. Perspective really is the comic
element in things. Flaxman vaguely felt this; Flaxman shrank from the
almost insolent foreshortenings of Rubens or Veronese as he would have
shrank from the gigantic boots in the foreground of an amateur
photograph. For him high art was flat art in painting or drawing,
everything could be done by pure line upon a single plane. Flaxman is
probably best known to the existing public by his illustrations in line
to Pope's "Homer,"--which have certainly copied most exquisitely the
austere limitations of Greek vases and reliefs. Anger may be uttered by
the lifted arm or sorrow by the sunken head, but the faces of all those
gods and heroes are, as you may think them, beautiful or foolish, like
the faces of the dead. Above all, the line must never falter and come to
nothing; Flaxman would regard a line fading away in such a picture as we
should regard a railway line fading away upon a map.

This was the principle of Flaxman; and this remained to the day of his
death one of the firmest principles of William Blake. I will not say
that Blake took it from the great sculptor, for it formed an integral
part of Blake's individual artistic philosophy; but he must have been
encouraged to find it in Flaxman and strengthened in it by the influence
of an older and more famous man. No one can understand Blake's pictures,
no one can understand a hundred allusions in his epigrams, satires, and
art criticism who does not first of all realise that William Blake was a
fanatic on the subject of the firm line. The thing he loved most in art
was that lucidity and decision of outline which can be seen best in the
cartoons of Raphael, in the Elgin Marbles, and in the simpler designs of
Michael Angelo. The thing he hated most in art was the thing which we
now call Impressionism--the substitution of atmosphere for shape, the
sacrifice of form to tint, the cloudland of the mere colourist. With
that cyclopean impudence which was the most stunning sign of his
sincerity, he treated the greatest names not only as if they were
despicable, but as if they were actually despised. He reasons mildly
with the artistic authorities, saying--

"You must admit that Rubens was a fool,
And yet you make him master in your school,
And give more money for his slobberings
Than you will give for Raphael's finest things."

And then, with one of those sudden lunges of sense which made him a
swordsman after all, he really gets home upon Rubens--

"I understood Christ was a carpenter
And not a brewer's drayman, my good sir."

In another satire he retells the fable of the dog, the bone, and the
river, and permits (with admirable humour) the dog to expatiate upon the
vast pictorial superiority of the bone's reflection in the river over
the bone itself; the shadow so delicate, suggestive, rich in tone, the
real bone so hard and academic in outline. He was the sharpest satirist
of the Impressionists who ever wrote, only he satirised the
Impressionists before they were born.

[Image: Page 19]

The ordinary history of Blake would obviously be that he was a man who
began as a good engraver and became a great artist. The inner truth of
Blake could hardly be better put than this: that he was a good artist
whose idea of greatness was to be a great engraver. For him it was no
mere technical accident that the art of reproduction had to cut into
wood or bite into stone. He loved to think that even in being a
draughtsman he was also a sculptor. When he put his lines on a
decorative page he would have much preferred to carve them out of marble
or cut them into rock. Like every true romantic, he loved the
irrevocable. Like every true artist, he detested india-rubber. Take, for
the sake of example, all the designs to the Book of Job. When he gets
the thing right he gets it suddenly and perfectly right, as in the
picture of all the sons of God shouting for joy. We feel that the sons
of God might really shout for joy at the excellence of their own
portrait. When he gets it wrong he gets it completely and incurably
wrong, as in the preposterous picture of Satan dancing among
paving-stones. But both are equally final and fixed. If one picture is
incurably bad, the other picture is incurably good. Courage (which is,
with kindness, the only fundamental virtue in man), is present and
prodigious in both. No coward could have drawn such pictures.

The chief movement of Blake either in art or literature was the first
publication of the batch of his own allegorical works. "The Gates of
Paradise" came first, and was followed by "Urizen" and the "Book of
Thel." With these he introduced his own mode of engraving and began his
own style of decorative illustration. That style was steeped in the
Blake and Flaxman feeling for the hard line and the harsh and heroic
treatment. There were, of course, many other personalities besides that
of Flaxman which were destined to influence the art of William Blake.
Among others, the personality of William Blake influences it not
inconsiderably. But no influence ever disturbed the love of the absolute
academic line. If the reader will look at any of the designs of Blake,
many of which are reproduced in this book, he will see the main fact
which I mention here. Many of them are hideous, some of them are
outrageous, but none of them are shapeless; none of them are what would
now be called "suggestive"; none of them (in a word) are timid. The
figure of man may be a monster, but he is a solid monster. The figure of
God may be a mistake, but it is an unmistakable mistake. About this same
time Blake began to illustrate books, decorating Blair's "Grave" and
the Book of Job with his dark but very definite designs. In these plates
it is quite plain that the artist, when he errs, errs not by vagueness
but by hardness of treatment. The beauty of the angel upside down who
blows the trumpet in the face of Blair's skeleton is the beauty of a
perfect Greek athlete. And if the beauty is the beauty of an athlete, so
the ugliness is the ugliness of an athlete--or perhaps of an acrobat. The
contortions and clumsy attitudes of some of Blake's figures do not arise
from his ignorance of the human anatomy. They arise from a sort of wild
knowledge of it. He is straining muscles and cracking joints like a
sportsman racing for a cup.

[Image page 25]

These book illustrations by Blake are among the simplest and strongest
designs of his pencil, which at its best (to do him justice) tended to
the simple and the strong. Nothing (for instance) could well be more
comic or more tragic than the fact that Blake should illustrate Blair's
elephantine epic called "The Grave." It was as well that Blake and
Blair should meet over the grave. It was about all they had in common.
The poet was full of the most crushing platitudes of eighteenth century
rationalism. The artist was full of a poetry that would have seemed
frightful to the poet, a poetry inherited from the mystics of all ages
and handed on to the mystics of to-day. Blake was the child of the Rosy
Cross and the Eleusinian Mysteries; he was the father of the
Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and even of the "Yellow Book." But of all
this the excellent Mr. Blair was innocent, and so, indeed, in all
probability was the excellent Mr. Blake. But the really interesting point
is this: that the illustrations were efficient and satisfactory, from
the Blair as well as the Blake point of view. The cut, for instance,
with the figure of the old man bowing his head to enter the black grotto
of the grave is a fine piece of drawing, apart from its meaning, and is
all the finer for its simplicity. But wherever he errs it is always in
being too hard and harsh, not too faint or fanciful. Blake was a greater
man than Flaxman, though a less perfectly poised man. He was harder than
his master, because he was madder. The figure upside down blowing the
trumpet is as perfect as a Flaxman figure: only it is upside down.
Flaxman upside down is almost a definition of Blake.

SUCH an elementary statement of Blake's idea of art is not out of place
at this stage; for his convictions had formed and hardened unusually
early, and his career is almost unintelligible apart from his opinions.
It is fairly eccentric even with them. Flaxman had introduced him to
literary society, especially to the evening parties of a Blue-stocking
named Mrs Matthews. Here his force of mind was admitted; but he was not
personally very popular. Most of his biographers attribute this to his
"unbending deportment," and a certain almost babyish candour which
certainly belonged to him. But I cannot help thinking that the fact that
he was in the habit of singing his own poems to tunes invented by
himself may perhaps have had something to do with it. His opinions on
all subjects were not only positive but aggressive. He was a fierce
republican and denouncer of kings. But Mrs Matthews was probably
accustomed to fierce republicans who denounced kings. She may have been
less accustomed to a gentleman who insisted on wearing a red cap of
liberty in ordinary society. It is due to Blake to say that his politics
showed nevertheless that eccentric practicality which was mixed up with
his unworldliness; it was certainly through his presence of mind that
Tom Paine did not perish on the scaffold.

But Blake had none of the marks of the poetical weakling, of the mere
moon-calf of mysticism. If he was a madman, one can emphasise the word
man as well as the word mad. For instance, in spite of his sedentary
trade and his pacific theories, he had extraordinary physical courage.
Not that reasonable minimum of physical courage which is guaranteed by
certain conventional sports, but intrinsic contempt of danger, a
readiness to put himself into unknown perils. He would suddenly attack
men much bigger and stronger than himself, and that with such violence
that they were often defeated by their own amazement. He attacked a huge
drayman who was harsh to some women and beat him in the most excited
manner. He leapt upon a Lifeguardsman who came into his front garden,
and ran that astonished warrior into the road by the elbows. The
vivacity and violence of these physical outbreaks must be remembered and
allowed for when we are judging some of his mental outbreaks. The most
serious blot (indeed, the only serious blot) on the moral character of
Blake was his habit of letting his rage get the better not only of
decency but of gratitude and truth. He would abuse his benefactors as
virulently as his enemies. He left epigrams lying about in which he
called Flaxman a blockhead and Hayley (as far as the words can be
understood) a seducer and an assassin. But the curious thing is that he
often did justice to the same people both before and after such
eruptions. The truth is, I fancy, that such writings were like sudden
attitudes or bodily movements. We talk of a word and a blow; with Blake
a word had the same momentary character as a blow. It was not a
judgment, but a gesture. He had little or no feeling of the idea that
_litera scripta manet_. He did not see any particular reason why he
should not be fond of a man merely because he had called the man a
murderer a few days before. And he was innocently surprised if the man
was not fond of him. In this he was perhaps rather feminine than

He had many friends and acquaintances of distinction besides Flaxman.
Among them was the great Priestley, whose speculations were the life of
early Unitarianism and whose Jacobin sympathies led to something not far
from martyrdom; other friends were the wild optimist Godwin and his
daughter Mary Woolstonecroft. But although he gained many new
acquaintances he gained only one new helper. This was a Mr. Thomas Butts,
who lived in Fitzroy Square, and ought to have a statue there, for he is
an eternal model and monument for all patrons of art. While in all other
respects apparently a sane and rational British merchant, he conceived
an affection for Blake's allegorical designs. But he gave no commissions
for pictures; he simply gave Blake money for pictures as fast as Blake
chose to paint them. The subject and size and medium were left entirely
to the artist. One day Blake might leave at Fitzroy Square a little
water-colour of the "Soul of a Porcupine"; the next day a gorgeous and
intricate illumination in gold of the obstetrics and birth of Cain; the
next day an enormous mural painting of Hector capturing the arms of
Patroclus; the following day a simple pen and ink drawing of the prophet
Habbakuk taken from life. All these Mr. Thomas Butts of Fitzroy Square
received with solid benevolence and paid for in solid coin. Many modern
writers and painters may think of I such a patron somewhat dreamily. He
had his reward, though it was unique rather than particularly
practical. Blake regarded him with a serene affection which was never
ruffled by the flying storms that were too frequent in his friendships.
No allusions can be found in his poetry to the effect that Thomas Butts
was a Spectre from Satan's Loins. No epigram was discovered among
Blake's papers accusing Mr. Butts of bereaving anybody's life. If to
have kept one's own temper with Blake was a large achievement (and it
was not a small one), it was certainly a truly noble achievement to have
kept Blake's temper for him. And this Mr. Butts and Mrs Blake can alone
really claim to have done. For Blake was to pass under a patron who
showed him how different is kindness from sympathy.

In the year 1800 he effected a change of residence which was in many
ways an epoch in his life. He was a Londoner, though doubtless a
Londoner of the time when London was small enough to feel itself on
every side to be on the edge of the country. Still Blake had never in
any true sense been in the heart of the country. In his earliest poems
we read of seraphs stirring in the trees; but we have somehow a feeling
that they were garden trees. We read of saints and sages walking in the
fields, and we almost have the feeling that they were brickfields. The
perfect landscape is pastoral to the point of conventionality; it has
not in any sense the actual smell of England. The sights of the town are
evidently as native (one might say vital) with him as any of the sights
of the country. The black chimney-sweep is as obvious as the white lamb.
What is worse still, the white lamb of England is no more natural or
native than the alien golden lion of Africa. He was, in fact, a Cockney,
like Keats; and Cockneys as a class tend to have too poetical and
luxuriantly imaginative a view of life. Blake was about as little
affected by environment as any man that ever lived in this world. Still
he did change his environment, and it did change him.

[Image page 33]

There lived about this time near the little village of Eartham, in
Sussex, a simple, kindhearted but somewhat consequential squire of the
name of Hayley. He was a landlord and an aristocrat; but he was not one
of those whose vanity can be wholly fulfilled by such functions. He
considered himself a patron of poetry; and indeed he was one; but, alas!
he had a yet more alarming idea. He also considered himself a poet.
Whether any one agreed with that opinion while he still ruled the
estates and hunted the country it is difficult now to discover. It is
sufficiently certain that nobody agrees with it now. "The Triumphs of
Temper," the only poem by Hayley that any modern person can remember, is
probably only remembered because it was used to round off scornfully one
of the ringing sentences in Macaulay's Essays. Nevertheless in his own
time Hayley was a powerful and important man, quite unshaken as yet as a
poet, quite unshakeable as a landed proprietor. But like almost all
quite indefensible English oligarchs, he had a sort of unreasonable good
nature which somehow balanced or protected his obvious unfitness and
ineptitude. His heart was in the right place, though he was in the wrong
one. To this blameless and beaming lord of creation, too self-satisfied
to be arrogant, too solemnly childish to be cynical, too much at his
ease to doubt either others or himself, to him Flaxman introduced, at
him rather Flaxman threw, the red-hot cannon-ball called Blake. I wonder
whether Flaxman laughed. But laughter convulses and crumples up the pure
outline of the Greek profile.

Hayley, who was in his way as munificent as Maecenas (and I suspect that
Maecenas was quite as stupid as Hayley), gave Blake a cottage in
Felpham, a few miles from his own house, a cottage with which Blake
almost literally fell in love. He writes as if he had never seen an
English country cottage before; and perhaps he never had. "Nothing," he
cries in a kind of ecstasy, "can ever be more grand than its simplicity
and usefulness. Simple and without intricacy, it seems to be the
spontaneous expression of humanity, congenial to the wants of man. No
other formed house can ever please me so well." It is probably true that
none ever did. All that was purest and most chivalrous in his poetry and
philosophy flowered in the great winds that pass and repass between the
noble Sussex hills and the sea. He was always a happy man, since he had
a God. But here he was almost a contented man.

By this time had passed over Blake's head first the beginning and then
the growing blackness of the great French terror. Blake was now in a
world in which even he could not venture to walk about in a red cap.
Moreover, like most of the men of genius of that age and school, like
Coleridge and like Shelley, he seems to have been slightly sickened with
the full sensational actuality of the French tragedy; and somewhat
unreasonably having urged the rebels to fight, complained because they
killed people. If sincere revolutionists like Blake and Coleridge were
disappointed at the Revolution, the English Government and governing
class were against it with a solidity of desperation. People talk about
the reign of terror in France; but allowing for the difference of
national temperament and national peril, the two things were twin; there
was a reign of terror in England. A gentleman was sent to penal
servitude (which some gentlemen find worse than the guillotine) if he
said that the Prince Regent was fat. Our terror was as cruel as
Robespierre's, but more cowardly, just as our press-gang was as cruel as
conscription, only more cowardly. Everywhere that the Government could
knock down an enemy as if by accident, could brain a Jacobin with some
brutal club of legal coincidence, the thing was done. Many such blows
were struck in that time, and one of them was struck at Blake.

[Image page 39]

On a certain morning in the August of 1803 Blake walked out into his
garden and found standing there a trooper of the 1st Dragoons
in a scarlet coat, surveying the landscape with a satisfied air of
possession. Blake expressed a desire that the dragoon should leave the
garden. The dragoon expressed a desire to knock out Blake's eyes, "with
many abominable imprecations." Blake sprang upon the man with startling
activity, and catching him from behind by both elbows ran him out of the
garden as if he were a perambulator. The man, who was probably drunk and
must certainly have been surprised, went off with many verbal
accusations, but none of a political nature. A little while afterwards,
however, he turned up with a grave legal statement to the effect that
Blake had taken the opportunity to utter these somewhat improbable
words: "Damn the king, damn all his subjects, damn his soldiers, they
are all slaves: when Bonaparte comes it will be cut-throat for
cut-throat. I will help him." The impartial critic will be inclined to
say that few persons would have even the breath to utter such political
generalisations while at the same time running one of the Dragoon Guards
bodily out of the gate; and it was not alleged that the incident took
more than half a minute. Blake may possibly or even probably have said
"damn" but the rest of the sentence originated, I imagine, in the mind
of someone else. But although most of Blake's biography treats the case
as a mere clumsy accident, I can hardly think that it was so. It
involves too much of a coincidence. Why did not the dragoon wander into
some other garden? Why did not some other poet have to deal with the
dragoon? It seems odd that the man of the red cap should be the one man
to wrestle with the man of the red coat. It was a time of tyranny, and
tyranny is always full of small intrigues. It is not at all impossible
that the police, as we should now put it, really tried to entrap Blake.
But there entered upon the scene something which in England is stronger
even than the police. Hayley, not the small Hayley who was the author of
the "Triumphs of Temper," but the colossal Hayley, who was the squire of
Eartham and Bognor, entered the court with the extra aristocratic charm
of an accident in the hunting-field. He defended Blake with generosity
and good sense, such as seldom fail his class on such occasions; and
Blake was acquitted. It was said that the evidence was incomplete; but I
fancy that if Hayley had not come the evidence would have been complete

It is unfortunate that this excellent attitude of Hayley nevertheless
coincides to a great extent with the solution of the bonds that bound
him to Blake. "The Visions were angry with me at Felpham," said the
poet, which was his way of stating that he was somewhat bored with the
benevolence of the English gentry. "Voices of celestial inhabitants were
_not_ more distinctly heard, nor their forms more distinctly seen" in the
neighbourhood of the Squire of Eartham than in that of Mr. Butts of
Fitzroy Square; and Blake abruptly returned to London, taking lodgings
just off Oxford Street. He started at once on a work with the promising
title, "Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion." I say there is a
certain pathos in this parting from Hayley, for he was now to fall into
the power of a much more unpleasant kind of capitalist. Poor Blake fell
indeed from bad to worse in the matter of patrons. Butts was sensible
and sympathetic, Hayley was honest and silly. And his last protector
seems to have been something very like a swindler.

The name of this benevolent being was Richard Hartley Cromek, a
Yorkshireman, and a publisher. He found Blake in bitter poverty after
his breach with Hayley (he and his wife lived on 10s. a week), and his
method of sweating was of the simplest and most artistic character. He
used to go to Blake, tell him that he would give him the engraving of a
number of designs; he would easily make Blake talk enthusiastically,
show his sketches and so on; then having got the sketches he would go
away and give the engraving to somebody else. This annoyed Blake. It is
pleasant to reflect that it was about Cromek that the best of his
epigrams was written--

"A petty sneaking knave I knew...
Oh, Mr. Cromek, how do you do?"

Blake's irritation broke out, as was common with him, not over the
clearest but over the most confused case of Cromek's misconduct. The
publisher had seen a design by Blake of Chaucer's _Canterbury Pilgrims_,
and commissioned Blake to complete it. A few days afterwards Cromek
found himself in the studio of the popular painter Stothard, and
suggested the subject to him. Stothard finished his picture first and it
appeared before Blake's. Blake went into one of his worst rages and
wrote one of his best pieces of prose.

A BROTHER artist said of Blake, with beautiful simplicity, "He is a
good man to steal from." The remark is as philosophical as it is
practical. Blake had the great mark of real intellectual wealth;
anything that fell from him might be worth picking up. What he dropped
in the street might as easily be half-a-sovereign as a halfpenny.
Moreover, he invited theft in this further sense, that his mental wealth
existed, so to speak, in the most concentrated form. It is easier to
steal half-a-sovereign in gold than in halfpence. He was literally
packed with ideas--with ideas which required unpacking. In him and his
works they were too compressed to be intelligible; they were too brief
to be even witty. And as a thief might steal a diamond and turn it into
twenty farms, so the plagiarist of Blake might steal a sentence and turn
it into twenty volumes. It was profitable to steal an epigram from Blake
for three reasons--first, that the original phrase was small and would
not leave a large gap; second, that it was cosmic and synthetic and
could be applied to things in general; third, that it was unintelligible
and no one would know it again. I could give innumerable instances of
what I mean; I will let one instance stand for the rest. In the middle
of that long poem which is so disconnected that it may reasonably be
doubted whether it is a long poem at all (I mean that commonly bearing
the title "The Auguries of Innocence"), he introduces these two lines:

"When gold and gems adorn the plough,
To peaceful arts shall envy bow."

A careless and honest man would read these lines and make nothing of
them. A careful thief might make out of them a whole entertaining and
symbolic romance, like "Gulliver's Travels" or "Erewhon." The idea
obviously is this;--that we still for some reason admit the tools of
destruction to be nobler than the tools of production, because
decorative art is expended on the one and not on the other. The sword
has a golden hilt; but no plough has golden handles. There is such a
thing as a sword of state; there is no such thing as a scythe of state.
Men come to court wearing imitation swords; few men come to court
wearing imitation flails. It is fascinating to reflect how fantastic a
story might be written upon this hint by Blake. But Blake does not write
the story; he only gives the hint, and that so hurriedly that even as a
hint it may hardly be understood.

[Image page 47]

Most of Blake's quarrels were trivial, and some were little short of
discreditable. But in his quarrel with Cromek and Stothard he does
really stand as the champion of all that is heroic and ideal, as against
all that is worldly and insincere. The celebrated .Stothard was at this
time in the height of his earlier success; he occupied somewhat the same
relation to art and society that has been occupied within our ow r n
time by Frederic Leighton. He was, like Leighton, an accomplished
draughtsman, a man of slight but genuine poetic feeling, an artist who
thoroughly realised that the aim of art was to please. Ruskin said of
him very truly (I forget the exact words) that there were no thorns to
his roses. At the same time, his smoothness was a smoothness of
innocence rather than a smoothness of self-indulgence; his work has a
girlish timidity rather than any real conventional cowardice; he was a
true artist in a somewhat effeminate style of art. Nor is there any
reason to doubt that his personal character was as clean and good-natured
as his pictures. It may be that he began his _Canterbury Pilgrims_ without
any commission from Cromek, or it may be that he took the commission
from Cromek without the least idea that the conception had been borrowed
from Blake. That Cromek treated Blake badly is beyond dispute; that
Stothard treated him badly is unproved; but Blake was not much in the
habit of waiting for proof in such cases. Stothard, I say, may not have
been morally in the wrong at all. But he was intellectually and
critically very much in the wrong; and Blake pointed this out in a
pamphlet which, though defaced here and there with his fantastic malice,
is a solid and powerful contribution to artistic and literary criticism.

Stothard, the elegant gentleman, the man of sensibility, the eighteenth
century aesthete, cast his condescending eye upon the Middle Ages. He
was of that age and school that only saw the Middle Ages by moonlight.
Chaucer's Pilgrims were to him a quaint masquerade of hypocrisy or
superstition, now only interesting from its comic or antiquated costume.
The monk was amusing because he was fat, the wife of Bath because she
was gay, the Squire because he was dandified, and so on. Blake knew as
little about the Middle Ages as Stothard did; but Blake knew about
eternity and about man; he saw the image of God under all garments. And
in a rage which may really be called noble he tore in pieces Stothard's
antiquarian frivolity, and asked him to look with a more decent
reverence at the great creations of a great poet. Stothard called the
young Squire of Chaucer "a fop." Blake points out forcibly and with
fine critical truth that the daintiness of the Squire's dress is the
mere last touch to his youth, gaiety, and completeness; but that he was
no fop at all, but a serious, chivalrous, and many-sided gentleman who
enjoyed books, understood music> and was hardy and prompt in battle.
Moreover, he is definitely described as humble, reverent, and full of
filial respect. That such a man should be called a fop because of a
frill or a feather Blake rightly regarded as a sign of the mean
superficiality of his rival's ideas. Stothard spoke of "the fair young
wife of Bath"; Blake placidly points out that she had had four
husbands, and was, as in Blake's picture, a loud, lewd, brazen woman of
quite advanced age, but of enormous vitality and humour. Stothard makes
the monk the mere comic monk of commonplace pictures, shaped like a wine
barrel and as full of wine. Blake points out that Chaucer's monk was a
man, and an influential man; not without sensual faults, but also not
without dignity and authority. Everywhere, in fact, he reminds his
opponent that in entering the world of Chaucer he is not entering a
fancy-dress ball, but a temple carved with colossal and eternal images
of the gods of good and evil. Stothard was only interested in Chaucer's
types because they were dead; Blake was interested in them
because they cannot die. In many of Blake's pictures may be found one
figure quite monotonously recurrent--the figure of a monstrously muscular
old man, with hair and beard like a snowstorm, but with limbs like young
trees. That is Blake's root conception; the Ancient of Days; the thing
which is old with all the awfulness of its past, but young with all the
energies of its future.

[Image page 53]

I make no excuse for dwelling at length on this in a life of Blake; it
is the most important event. It is worth while to describe this quarrel
between Blake and Stothard, because it is really a symbolic quarrel,
interesting to the whole world of artists and important to the whole
destiny of art. It is the quarrel between the artist who is a poet and
the artist who is only a painter. In many of his merely technical
designs Blake was a better and bolder artist than Stothard; still, I
should admit, and most people who saw the two pictures would be ready to
admit, that Stothard's _Canterbury Pilgrims_ as a mere piece of drawing
and painting is better than Blake's. But this if anything only makes the
whole argument more certain. It is the duel between the artist who
wishes only to be an artist and the artist who has the higher and harder
ambition to be a man--that is, an archangel. Or, again, it might be put
thus: whether an artist ought to be a universalist or whether he is
better as a specialist. Now against the specialist, against the man who
studies only art or electricity, or the violin, or the thumbscrew or
what not, there is only one really important argument, and that, for
some reason or other, is never offered. People say that specialists are
inhuman; but that is unjust. People say an expert is not a man; but that
is unkind and untrue. The real difficulty about the specialist or expert
is much more singular and fascinating. The trouble with the expert is
never that he is not a man; it is always that wherever he is not an
expert he is too much of an ordinary man. Wherever he is not
exceptionally learned he is quite casually ignorant. This is the great
fallacy in the case of what is called the impartiality of men of
science. If scientific men had no idea beyond their scientific work it
might be all very well--that is to say, all very well for everybody
except them. But the truth is that, beyond their scientific ideas, they
have not the absence of ideas but the presence of the most vulgar and
sentimental ideas that happen to be common to their social clique. If a
biologist had no views on art and morals it might be all very well. The
truth is that a biologist has all the wrong views of art and morals that
happen to be going about in the smart set in his time. If Professor
Tyndall had held no views about politics, he could have done no harm
with his views about evolution. Unfortunately, however, he held a very
low order of political ideas from his sectarian and Orange ancestry; and
those ideas have poisoned evolution to this day. In short, the danger of
the mere technical artist or expert is that of becoming a snob or
average silly man in all things not affecting his peculiar topic of
study; wherever he is not an extraordinary man he is a particularly
stupid ordinary man. The very fact that he has studied machine guns to
fight the French proves that he has not studied the French. Therefore he
will probably say that they eat frogs. The very fact that he has learnt
to paint the light on medieval armour proves that he has not studied the
medieval philosophy. Therefore he will probably suppose that medieval
barons did nothing but order vassals into the dungeons beneath the
castle moat. Now all through the eighteenth and early nineteenth
centuries art, that is, the art of painting, suffered terribly from this
conventional and uncultured quality in the working artist. People talk
about something pedantic in the knowledge of the expert; but what ruins
mankind is the ignorance of the expert. In the period of which we speak
the experts in painting were bursting with this ignorance. The early
essays of Thackeray are full of the complaint, that the whole trouble
with painters was that they only knew how to paint. If they had painted
unimportant or contemptible subjects, all would have been well; if they
had painted the nearest donkey or lamp-post no one would have
complained. But exactly because they were experts they fell into the
mere snobbish sentimentalism of their times; they insisted on painting
all the things they had read about in the cheapest history books and the
most maudlin novels. As Thackeray has immortally described in the case
of Mr. Gandish, they painted Boadishia and declared that they had
discovered "in their researches into 'istry" the story of King Alfred
and the Cakes. In other words, the expert does not escape his age; he
only lays himself open to the meanest and most obvious of the influences
of his age. The specialist does not avoid having prejudices; he only
succeeds in specialising in the most passing and illiterate prejudices.

Of all this type of technical ignorance Stothard is absolutely typical.
He was an admirable instance of the highly cultivated and utterly
ignorant man. He had spent his life in making lines swerve smoothly and
shadows creep exactly into their right place; he had never had any time
to understand the things that he was drawing except by their basest and
most conventional connotation. Somebody suggested that he should draw
some medieval pilgrims--that is, some vigorous types in the heyday of
European civilisation in the act of accepting the European religion. But
he who alone could draw them right was especially likely to see them
wrong. He had learnt, like a modern, the truth from newspapers, because
he had no time to read even encyclopedias. He had learnt how to paint
armour and armorial bearings; it was too much to expect him to
understand them. He had learnt to draw a horse; it was too late to ask
him to ride one. His whole business was somehow or other to make
pictures; and therefore when he looked at Chaucer, he could see nothing
but the picturesque.

Against this sort of sound technical artist, another type of artist has
been eternally offered; this was the type of Blake. It was also the type
of Michael Angelo; it was the type of Leonardo de Vinci; it was the type
of several French mystics, and in our own country and recent period, of
Rossetti. Blake, as a painter among other things, belongs to that small
group of painters who did something else besides paint. But this is
indeed a very inadequate way of stating the matter. The fuller and
fairer way is this: that Blake was one of those few painters who
understood his subject as well as his picture. I have already said that
I think Stothard's picture of the _Canterbury Pilgrims_ in a purely
technical sense better than his. Indeed, there is nothing to be said
against Stothard's picture of the _Canterbury Pilgrims_, except that it
is not a picture of the _Canterbury Pilgrims_. Blake (to summarise the
whole matter as simply as it can be summarised) was in the tradition of
the best and most educated ideas about Chaucer; Stothard was the
inheritor of the most fashionable ideas and the worst. The whole
incident cannot be without its moral and effect for all discussions
about the morality or unmorality of art. If art could be unmoral it
might be all very well. But the truth is that unless art is moral, art
is not only immoral, but immoral in the most commonplace, slangy, and
prosaic way. In the future, the fastidious artists who refuse to be
anything but artists will go down to history as the embodiment of all
the vulgarities and banalities of their time. People will point to a
picture by Mr. Sargent or Mr. Shannon and say, "See, that man had caught
all the most middle class cant of the early twentieth century."

We can now recur, however, to the general relations of Blake with his
later patron. In a phrase of singular unconscious humour Mr. Cromek
accused Blake of "a want of common politeness." Common politeness
certainly can hardly be said to have been Blake's strong point. But
Cromek's politeness was certainly an uncommon sort of politeness. One is
tempted to be thankful that it is not a common sort. Cromek's notion of
common politeness was to give the artist a guinea a drawing on the
understanding that he should get some more for engraving them, and then
give the engraving to somebody else who cost him next to nothing. Blake,
as we have said, resented this startling simplicity of swindling. Blake
was in such matters a singular mixture of madness and shrewdness in the
judgment of such things. He was the kind of man whom a publisher found
at one moment more vague and viewless than any poet, and at the next
moment more prompt and rapacious than any literary agent. He was
sometimes above his commercial enemy, sometimes below him; but he never
was on his level; one never knew where he was. Cromek's letter is a
human document of extraordinary sincerity and interest. The Yorkshire
publisher positively breaks for once in his life into a kind of poetry.
He describes Blake as being "a combination of the serpent and the dove."
He did not quite realise, perhaps, that according to the New Testament
he was paying Blake a compliment. But the truth is, I fancy, that the
painter and poet had been one too many for the publisher. I think that
on any occasion Cromek would have willingly forgiven Blake for showing
the harmlessness of the dove. I fancy that on one occasion Blake must
have shown the wisdom of the serpent.

From the mere slavery of this sweater Blake was probably delivered by
the help of the last and most human of his patrons, a young man named
John Linnell, a landscape painter and a friend of the great Mulready. It
is extraordinary to think that he was young enough to die in 1882; and
that a man who had read in the Prophetic Books the last crusades of
Blake may have lived to read in the newspapers some of the last
crusades of Gladstone. This man Linnell covers the last years of Blake
as with an ambulance tent in the wilderness. Blake never had any ugly
relations with Linnell, just as he had never had any with Butts. His
quarrels had wearied many friends; but by this time I think he was too
weary even to quarrel. On Linnell's commission he began a system of
illustrations to Dante; but I think that no one expected him to live to
finish it.

HIS last sickness fell upon him very slowly, and he does not seem to
have taken much notice of it. He continued perpetually his pictorial
designs; and as long as they were growing stronger he seems to have
cared very little for the fact that he was growing weaker himself. One
of the last designs he made was one of the strongest he ever made--the
tremendous image of the Almighty bending forward, foreshortened in a
colossal perspective, to trace out the heavens with a compass. Nowhere
else has he so well expressed his primary theistic ideas--that God,
though infinitely gigantic, should be as solid as a giant. He had often
drawn men from the life; not unfrequently he had drawn his dead men from
the life. Here, according to his own conceptions, he may be said to have
drawn God from the life. When he had finished the portrait (which he
made sitting up in his sick-bed) he called out cheerfully, "What shall I
draw after that?" Doubtless he racked his brain for some superlative
spirit or archangel which would not be a mere bathos after the other.
His rolling eyes (those round lustrous eyes which one can always see
roll in his painted portraits) fell on the old frail and somewhat ugly
woman who had been his companion so long, and he called out, "Catherine,
you have been an angel to me; I will draw you next." Throwing aside the
sketch of God measuring the universe, he began industriously to draw a
portrait of his wife, a portrait which is unfortunately lost, but which
must have substantially resembled the remarkable sketch which a friend
drew some months afterwards; the portrait of a woman at once plain and
distinguished, with a face that is supremely humorous and at once harsh
and kind. Long before that portrait was drawn, long before those months
had elapsed, William Blake was dead.

[Image page 67]

Whatever be the explanation, it is quite certain that Blake had more
positive joy on his death-bed than any other of the sons of Adam.
One has heard of men singing hymns on their death-beds, in low
plaintive voices. Blake was not at all like that on his death-bed:
the room shook with his singing. All his songs were in praise of God,
and apparently new: all his songs were songs of innocence. Every now and
then he would stop and cry out to his wife, "Not mine! Not mine!" in a
sort of ecstatic explanation. He truly seemed to wait for the opening of
the door of death as a child waits for the opening of the cupboard on
his birthday. He genuinely and solemnly seemed to hear the hoofs of the
horses of death as a baby hears on Christmas eve the rheindeer-hooves of
Santa Claus. He was in his last moments in that wonderful world of
whiteness in which white is still a colour. He would have clapped his
hands at a white snowflake and sung as at the white wings of an angel at
the moment when he himself turned suddenly white with death.

AND now, after a due pause, someone will ask and we must answer a
popular question which, like many popular questions, is really a
somewhat deep and subtle one. To put the matter quite simply, as the
popular instinct would put it, "Was William Blake mad?" It is easy
enough to say, of course, in the non-committal modern manner that it all
depends on how you define madness. If you mean it in its practical or
legal sense (which is perhaps the most really useful sense of all), if
you mean was William Blake unfit to look after himself, unable to
exercise civic functions or to administer property, then certainly the
answer is "No." Blake was a citizen, and capable of being a very good
citizen. Blake, so far from being incapable of managing property, was
capable (in so far as he chose) of collecting a great deal of it. His
conduct was generally business-like; and when it was unbusiness-like it
was not through any subhuman imbecility or superhuman abstraction, but
generally through an unmixed exhibition of very human bad temper. Again,
if when we say "Was Blake mad?" we mean was he fundamentally morbid,
was his soul cut off from the universe and merely feeding on itself,
then again the answer is emphatically "No." There was nothing defective
about Blake; he was in contact with all the songs and smells of the
universe, and he was entirely guiltless of that one evil element which
is almost universal in the character of the morbidly insane--I mean
secrecy. Yet again, if we mean by madness anything inconsistent or
unreasonable, then Blake was not mad. Blake was one of the most
consistent men that ever lived, both in theory and practice. Blake may
have been quite wrong, but he was not in the least unreasonable. He was
quite as calm and scientific as Herbert Spencer on the basis of his own
theory of things. He was vain to the last degree; but it was the gay and
gusty vanity of a child, not the imprisoned pride of a maniac. In all
these aspects we can say with confidence that the man was not at least
obviously mad or completely mad. But if we ask whether there was not
some madness about him, whether his naturally just mind was not subject
to some kind of disturbing influence which was not essential to itself,
then we ask a very different question, and require, unless I am
mistaken, a very different answer.

When all Philistine mistakes are set aside, when all mystical ideas are
appreciated, there is a real sense in which Blake was mad. It is a
practical and certain sense, exactly like the sense in which he was not
mad. In fact, in almost every case of his character and extra ordinary
career we can safely offer this proposition, that if there was something
wrong with it, it was wrong even from his own best standpoint. People
talk of appealing from Philip drunk to Philip sober; it is easy to
appeal from Blake mad to Blake sane.

When Blake lived at Felpham angels appear to have been as native to the
Sussex trees as birds. Hebrew patriarchs walked on the Sussex Downs as
easily as if they were in the desert. Some people will be quite
satisfied with saying that the mere solemn attestation of such miracles
marks a man as a madman or a liar. But that is a short cut of sceptical
dogmatism which is not far removed from impudence. Surely we cannot take
an open question like the supernatural and shut it with a bang, turning
the key of the mad-house on all the mystics of history. To call a man
mad because he has seen ghosts is in a literal sense religious
persecution. It is denying him his full dignity as a citizen because he
cannot be fitted into your theory of the cosmos. It is disfranchising
him because of his religion. It is just as intolerant to tell an old
woman that she cannot be a witch as to tell her that she must be a
witch. In both cases you are setting your own theory of things
inexorably against the sincerity or sanity of human testimony. Such
dogmatism at least must be quite as impossible to anyone calling himself
an agnostic as to anyone calling himself a spiritualist. You cannot take
the region called the unknown and calmly say that though you know
nothing about it, you know that all its gates are locked. You cannot
say, "This island is not discovered yet; but I am sure that it has a
wall of cliffs all round it and no harbour." That was the whole fallacy
of Herbert Spencer and Huxley when they talked about the unknowable
instead of about the unknown. An agnostic like Huxley must concede the
possibility of a gnostic like Blake. We do not know enough about the
unknown to know that it is unknowable.

[Image page 75]

If, then, people call Blake mad merely for seeing ghosts and angels, we
shall venture to dismiss them as highly respectable but very bigoted
people. But then, again, there is another line along which the same
swift assumption can be made. While he was at Felpham Blake's
eccentricity broke out on another side. A quality that can frankly be
called indecency appeared in his pictures, his opinions, and to some
extent in his conduct. But it was an idealistic indecency. Blake's
mistake was not so much that he aimed at sin as that he aimed at an
impossible and inhuman sinlessness. It is said that he proposed to his
wife that they should live naked in their back garden like Adam and Eve.
If the husband ever really proposed this, the wife succeeded in averting
it. But in his verse and prose, particularly in some of the Prophetic
Books, he began to talk very wildly. However far he really meant to go
against common morality, he certainly meant (like Walt Whitman) to go
the whole way against common decency. He professed to regard the veiling
of the most central of human relations as the unnatural cloaking of a
natural work. He was never at a loss for an effective phrase; and in one
of his poems on this topic he says finely if fallaciously--

"Does the sower sow by night
Or the ploughman in darkness plough?"

But his speculations went past decorum and at least touched the idea of
primary law. In some parts of the Prophetic Books (written in the period
which may fairly be called a paroxysm) he really seems to be preaching
the idea that sin is sometimes a good thing because it leads to
forgiveness. I cannot think this idea does much credit to Blake's power
of logic, which was generally good. The very fact of forgiveness implies
that what led up to it was evil. But though the position is hardly
rational, it is quite unfair to say that it is insane. It is no sillier
or more untenable than a hundred sophistries that one may hear at every
tea-table or read in every magazine. A little while ago the family of a
young lady attempted to shut her up in an asylum because she believed in
Free Love. This atrocious injustice was stopped; but many people wrote
to the papers to say that marriage was a very fine thing--as indeed it
is. Of course the answer was simple: that if everyone with silly
opinions were locked up in an asylum, the asylums of the twentieth
century would have to be somewhat unduly enlarged. The same common-sense
applies to the case of Blake. That he did maintain some monstrous
propositions proves that he was not always right, that he had even a
fine faculty for being exceedingly wrong. But it does not prove that he
was a madman or anything remotely resembling one. Nor is there any
reason to suppose that he was carried into any practice inconsistent
with his strong domestic affections. Indeed, I think that much of
Blake's anarchy is connected with his innocence. I have noticed the
combination more than once, especially in men of Irish blood like Blake.
Heavy, full-blooded men feel the need of bonds and are glad to bind
themselves. But the chaste are often lawless. They are theoretically
reckless, because they are practically pure. Thus Ireland, while it is
the island of rebels is also the island of saints, and might be called
the island of virgins.

BUT when we have reached this point--that this ugly element in Blake was
an intrusion of Blake's mere theory of things--we have come, I think,
very close to the true principle to be pursued in estimating his madness
or his sanity. Blake the mere poet, would have been decent and
respectable. It was Blake the logician who was forced to be almost
blackguardly. In other words, Blake was not mad; for such part of him as
was mad was not Blake. It was an alien influence, and in a sense even an
accidental one; in an extreme sense it might even be called antagonist.
Properly to appreciate what this influence was, we must see the man's
artistic character as a whole and notice what are its biggest forces and
its biggest defects when taken in the bulk--in the whole mass of his
poetry, his pictures, his criticism and his conversation. Blake's
position can be summed up as a sufficiently simple problem. Blake could
do so many things. Why is it that he could do none of them quite right?
Blake was not a frail or fairy-like sort of person; he had not the light
unity, the capering completeness of the entirely irresponsible man. He
had not the independence, one might almost say the omnipotence, that
comes from being hopelessly weak. There was nothing in him of Mr.
Skimpole; he was not a puff of silver thistledown. He was not a reed
shaken in the wind in Jordan. He was rather an oak rooted in England,
but an oak half killed by the ivy. The interesting question
of spiritual botany is--What was the ivy that half killed him?
Originally his intellect was not only strong but strongly rational--one
might almost say strongly sceptical. There never was a man of whom it
was less true to say (as has been said) that he was a light sensitive
lyrist, a mere piper of pretty songs for children. His mind was like a
ruined Roman arch; it has been broken by barbarians; but what there is
of it is Roman. So it was with William Blake's reason; it had been
broken (or cracked) by something; but what there was of it was
reasonable. In his art criticism he never said anything that was not
strictly consistent with his first principles. In his controversies, in
the many matters in which he argued angrily or venomously, he never lost
the thread of the argument. Like every great mystic he was also a great
rationalist. Read Blake's attack upon Stothard's picture of the
_Canterbury Pilgrims_, and you will see that he could not only write a
quite sensible piece of criticism, but even a quite slashing piece of
journalism. By nature one almost feels that he might have done anything;
have conducted campaigns like Napoleon or studied the stars like Newton.
But something, when all is said and done, had eaten away whole parts of
that powerful brain, leaving parts of it standing like great Greek
pillars in a desert. What was this thing?

[Image page 81]

MADNESS is not an anarchy. Madness is a bondage: a contraction. I will
not call Blake mad because of anything he would say. But I will call him
mad in so far as there was anything he _must_ say. Now, there are notes
of this tyranny in Blake. It was not like the actual disease of the mind
that makes a man believe he is a cat or a dog; it was more like the
disease of the nerves, which makes a man say "dog" when he means "cat."
One mental jump or jerk of this nature may be especially remarked in
Blake. He had in his poetry one very peculiar habit, a habit which
cannot be considered quite sane. It was the habit of being haunted, one
may say hag-ridden by a fixed phrase, which gets itself written in ten
separate poems on quite different subjects, when it had no apparent
connection with any of them. The amusing thing is that the omnipresent
piece of poetry is generally the one piece that is quite
incomprehensible. The verse that Blake's readers can understand least
seems always to be the verse that Blake likes best. I give an ordinary
instance, if anything connected with Blake can be called ordinary.

The harmless Hayley, who was a fool, but a gentleman and a poet (a
country gentleman and a very minor poet), provoked Blake's indignation
by giving him commissions for miniatures when he wanted to do something
else, probably frescoes as big as the house. Blake wrote the epigram--

"If Hayley knows the thing you cannot do,
That is the very thing he'll set you to."

And then, feeling that there was a lack of colour and warmth in the
portrait, he lightly added, for no reason in particular, the lines--

"And when he could not act upon my wife,
Hired a villain to bereave my life."

There is, apparently, no trace here of any allusion to fact. Hayley
never tried to bereave anybody's life. He lacked even the adequate
energy. Nevertheless I should not say for a moment that this startling
fiction proved Blake to be mad. It proved him to be violent and
recklessly suspicious; but there was never the least doubt that he was
that. But now turn to another poem of Blake's, a merely romantic and
narrative poem called "Fair Eleanor" which is all about somebody
acting on somebody else's wife. Here we find the same line repeated word
for word in quite another connection--

"Hired a villain to bereave my life."

It is not a musical line; it does not resemble English grammar to any
great extent. Yet Blake is somehow forced to put it into a poem about a
real person exactly as he had put it into an utterly different poem
about a fictitious person. There seems no particular reason for writing
it even once; but he has to write it again and again. This is what I do
call a mad spot on the mind. I should not call Blake mad for hating
Hayley or for boiling Hayley (though he had done him nothing but
kindness), or for making up any statements however monstrous or mystical
about Hayley. I should not in the least degree think that Blake was mad
if he had said that he saw Hayley's soul in hell, that it had green
hair, one eye, and a serpent for a nose. A man may have a wild vision
without being insane; a man may have a lying vision without being
insane. But I should smell insanity if in turning over Blake's books I
found that this one pictorial image obsessed him apart from its
spiritual meaning; if I found that the arms of the Black Prince in
"King Edward III." were a cyclops vert rampant, nosed serpentine; if I
found that Flaxman was praised for his kindness to a one-eyed animal with
green bristles and a snaky snout; if Albion or Ezekiel had appeared to
Blake and commanded him to write a history of the men in the moon, who
are one-eyed, green-haired, with long curling noses; if any flimsy
sketch or fine decorative pattern that came from Blake's pencil might
reproduce ceaselessly and meaninglessly the writhing proboscis and the
cyclopean eye. I should call that morbidity--or even madness; for it
would be the triumph of the palpable image over its own intellectual
meaning. And there is something of that madness in the dark obstinacy or
weakness that makes Blake introduce again and again these senseless
scraps of rhyme, as if they were spells to keep off the devil.

In four or five different poems, without any apparent connection with
those poems, occur these two extraordinary lines--

"The caterpillar on the leaf
Repeats to thee thy mother's grief."

In the abstract this might perhaps mean something, though it would, I
think, take most people some time to see what it could mean. In the
abstract it may perhaps involve some allusion to a universal law of
sacrifice in nature. In the concrete--that is, in the context--it involves
no allusion to anything in heaven or earth. Here is another couplet that
constantly recurs--

"The red blood ran from the grey monk's side,
His hands and his feet were wounded wide."

[Image page 89]

This is worse still; for this cannot be merely abstract. The ordinary
rational reader will naturally exclaim at last, with a not unnatural
explosion, "Who the devil is the grey monk? and why should he be always
bleeding in places where he has no business?" Now to say that this sort
of thing is not insanity of some kind is simply to play the fool with
the words. A madman who writes this may be higher than ordinary
humanity; so may any madman in Hanwell. But he is a madman in every
sense that the word has among men. I have taken this case of actual and
abrupt irrelevance as the strongest form of the thing; but it has other
forms almost equally decisive. For instance, Blake had a strong sense of
humour, but it was not under control; it could be eclipsed and could
completely disappear. There was certainly a spouting fountain of fierce
laughter in the man who could write in an epigram--

"A dirty sneaking knave I knew...
Oh, Mr. Cromek, how do you do?"

Yet the laughter was as fitful as it was fierce; and it can suddenly
fail. Blake's sense of humour can sometimes completely desert him. He
writes a string of verses against cruelty to the smallest creature as a
sort of mystical insult to the universe. It contains such really fine
couplets as these--

"Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain can tear."

"A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing."

Or again, in a more fanciful but genuinely weird way--

"He who torments the chafer's sprite
Weaves a bower in endless night."

And then, after all this excellent and quite serious poetry, Blake can
calmly write down the following two lines--

"He who the ox to wrath has moved
Shall never be by woman loved."

One could hardly find a more Gilbertian absurdity in the conjunction of
ideas in the whole of the "Bab Ballads" than the idea that the success
of some gentleman in the society of ladies depends upon whether he has
previously at some time or other slightly irritated an ox. Such sudden
inaccessibility to laughter must be called a morbid symptom. It must mean
a blind spot on the brain. The whole thing, of course, would prove
nothing if Blake were a common ranter incapable of writing well, or a
common dunce incapable of seeing a joke. Such a man might easily be sane
enough; he might be as sane as he was stupid. If Blake had always
written badly he might be sane. But a man who could write so well and
did write so badly must be mad.

What was it that was eating away a part of Blake's brain? I venture to
offer an answer which in the eyes of many people will have nothing to
recommend it except the accident of its personal sincerity. I firmly
believe that what did hurt Blake's brain was the reality of his
spiritual communications. In the case of all poets, and especially in
the case of Blake, the phrase "an inspired poet" commonly means a good
poet. About Blake it is specially instinctive. And about Blake, I am
quite convinced, it is specially untrue. His inspired poems were not his
good poems. His inspired poems were very often his particularly bad
ones; they were bad by inspiration. If a ploughman says that he saw a
ghost, it is not quite sufficient to answer merely that he is a madman.
It may have been seeing the ghost that drove him mad. His lunacy may not
prove the falsehood of his tale, but rather its terrible truth. So in
the same way I differ from the common or sceptical critics of a man like
Blake. Such critics say that his visions were false because he was mad.
I say he was mad because his visions were true. It was exactly because
he was unnaturally exposed to a hail of forces that were more than
natural that some breaches were made in his mental continuity, some
damage was done to his mind. He was, in a far more awful sense than
Goldsmith, "an inspired idiot." He was an idiot because he was inspired.

When he said of "Jerusalem" that its authors were in eternity, one can
only say that nobody is likely to go there to get any more of their
work. He did not say that the author of "The Tyger" was in eternity; the
author of that glorious thing was in Carnaby Market. It will generally
be found, I think, with some important exceptions, that whenever Blake
talked most about inspiration he was actually least inspired. That is,
he was least inspired by whatever spirit presides over good poetry and
good thinking. He was abundantly inspired by whatever spirit presides
over bad poetry or bad thinking. Whatever god specialises in unreadable
and almost unpronounceable verse was certainly present when he invented the
extraordinary history of "William Bond" or the maddening metre of the
lines "To Mr. Butts." Whatever archangel rules over utter intellectual
error had certainly spread his wings of darkness over Blake when he came
to the conclusion that a man ought to be bad in order to be pardoned.
But these unthinkable thoughts are mostly to be found in his most
unliterary productions; notably in the Prophetic Books. To put my
meaning broadly, the opinions which nobody can agree with are mostly in
the books that nobody can read. I really believe that this was not from
Blake, but from his spirits. It is all very well for great men, like Mr.
Rossetti and Mr. Swinburne, to trust utterly to the seraphim of Blake.
They may naturally trust angels--they do not believe in them. But I do
believe in angels, and incidentally in fallen angels.

[Image page 95]

THERE is no danger to health in being a mystic; 3 but there may be
some danger to health in I' being a spiritualist. It would be a very
poor pun to say that a taste for spirits is bad for the health;
nevertheless, oddly enough, though a poor pun it is a perfectly correct
philosophical parallel. The difference between having a real religion
and having a mere curiosity about psychic marvels is really very like
the difference between drinking beer and drinking brandy, between
drinking wine and drinking gin. Beer is a food as well as a stimulant;
so a positive religion is a comfort as well as an adventure. A man
drinks his wine because it is his favourite wine, the pleasure of his
palate or the vintage of his valley. A man drinks alcohol merely because
it is alcoholic. So a man calls upon his gods because they are good or
at any rate good to him, because they are the idols that protect his
tribe or the saints that have blessed his birthday. But spiritualists
call upon spirits merely because they are spirits; they ask for ghosts
merely because they are ghosts. I have often been haunted with a fancy
that the creeds of men might be paralleled and represented in their
beverages. Wine might stand for genuine Catholicism and ale for genuine
Protestantism; for these at least are real religions with comfort and
strength in them. Clean cold Agnosticism would be clean cold water, an
excellent thing, if you can get it. Most modern ethical and idealistic
movements might be well represented by soda-water--which is a fuss about
nothing. Mr. Bernard Shaw's philosophy is exactly like black coffee--it
awakens but it does not really inspire. Modern hygienic materialism is
very like cocoa; it would be impossible to express one's contempt for
it in stronger terms than that. Sometimes, very rarely, one may come
across something that may honestly be compared to milk, an ancient and
heathen mildness, an earthly yet sustaining mercy--the milk of human
kindness. You can find it in a few pagan poets and a few old fables; but
it is everywhere dying out. Now if we adopt this analogy for the sake of
argument, we shall really come back to the bad pun; we shall conclude
that a taste for spiritualism is very like a taste for spirits. The man
who drinks gin or methylated spirit does it only because it makes him
super-normal; so the man who with tables or planchettes invokes
supernatural beings invokes them only because they are supernatural. He
does not know that they are good or wise or helpful. He knows that he
desires the deity, but he does not even know that he likes him. He
attempts to invoke the god without adoring him. He is interested in
whatever he can find out touching supernatural existence; but he is not
really filled with joy as by the face of a divine friend, any more than
anyone actually likes the taste of methylated spirit. In such psychic
investigations, in a word, there is excitement, but not affectional
satisfaction; there is brandy, but no food.

Now Blake was in the most reckless, and sometimes even in the most
vulgar, sense a spiritualist. He threw the doors of his mind open to
what the late George Macdonald called in a fine phrase "the canaille of
the other world." I think it is impossible to look at some of the
pictures which Blake drew, under what he considered direct spiritual
dictation, without feeling that he was from time to time under
influences that were not only evil but even foolishly evil. I give one
case out of numberless cases. Blake drew, from his own vision a head
which he called _The Man who built the Pyramids_. Anyone can appreciate
the size and mystery of the idea; and most people would form some sort
of fancy of how a great poetical painter, such as Michael Angelo or
Watts, would have rendered the idea; they can conceive a face swarthy
and secret, or ponderous and lowering, or starring and tropical, or
Apollonian and pure. Whatever was the man who built the pyramids, one
feels that he must (to put it mildly) have been a clever man. We look at
Blake's picture of the man, and with a start behold the face of an
idiot. Nay, we behold even the face of an evil idiot, a leering,
half-witted face with no chin and the protuberant nose of a pig. Blake
declared that he drew this face from a real spirit, and I see no reason
to doubt that he did. But if he did, it was not really the man who built
the pyramids; it was not any spirit with whom a gentleman ought to wish
to be on intimate terms. That vision of swinish silliness was really a
bad vision to have, it left a smell of demoniac silliness behind it. I
am very sure that it left Blake sillier than it found him.

In this way, rightly or wrongly, I explain the chaos and occasional
weakness which perplexes Blake's critics and often perplexed Blake
himself. I think he suffered from the great modern loneliness and
scepticism which is the root of the sorrows of the mere spiritualist.
The tragedy of the spiritualist simply is that he has to know his gods
before he loves them. But a man ought to love his gods before he is sure
that there are any. The sublime words of St John's Gospel permit of a
sympathetic parody; if a man love not God whom he has not seen, how
shall he love God whom he has seen? If we do not delight in Santa Claus
even as a fancy, how can we expect to be happy even if we find that he
is a fact? But a mystic like Blake simply puts up a placard for the
whole universe, like an old woman letting lodgings. The mansion of his
mind was indeed a magnificent one; but no one must be surprised if the
first man that walked into it was "the man who built the pyramids," the
man with the face of a moon-calf. And whether or no he built the
pyramids, he unbuilt the house.

[Image page 103]

But this conclusion touching Blake's original sanity but incidental
madness brings us abruptly in contact with the larger question
of how far his soul and creed gained or suffered from his whole
position; his heterodoxy, his orthodoxy, his attitude towards his age.
Properly to do all this we must do now at the end of this book what
ought (but the form of the book forbade) more strictly to have been done
at the beginning; we must speak as shortly as possible about the actual
age in which Blake lived. And we cannot do it without saying something,
which we will say as briefly as possible, of that whole great western
society and tradition to which he belonged and we belong equally; that
Christendom or continent of Europe which is at once too big for us to
measure and too close for us to understand.

What was the eighteenth century? Or rather (to speak less mechanically
and with more intelligence), what was that mighty and unmistakable phase
or mood through which western society was passing about the time that
William Blake became its living child? What was that persistent trend or
spirit which all through the eighteenth century lifted itself like a
very slow and very smooth wave to the deafening breaker of the French
Revolution? Of course it meant something slightly different to all its
different children. Let us here ask ourselves what it meant to Blake,
the poet, the painter, and the dreamer. Let us try to state the thing as
nearly as possible in terms of his spirit and in relation to his unique
work in this world.

Every man of us to-day is three men. There is in every modern European
three powers so distinct as to be almost personal, the trinity of our
earthly destiny. The three may be rudely summarised thus. First and
nearest to us is the Christian, the man of the historic church, of the
creed that must have coloured our minds incurably whether we regard it
(as I do) as the crown and combination of the other two, or whether we
regard it as an accidental superstition which has remained for two
thousand years. First, then, comes the Christian; behind him comes the
Roman, the citizen of that great cosmopolitan realm of reason and order
in the level and equality of which Christianity arose. He is the stoic
who is so much sterner than the anchorites. He is the republican who is
so much prouder than kings. He it is that makes straight roads and clear
laws, and for whom good sense is good enough. And the third man--he is
harder to speak of. He has no name, and all true tales of him are
blotted out; yet he walks behind us in every forest path and wakes
within us when the wind wakes at night. He is the origins--he is the man
in the forest. It is no part of our subject to elaborate the point; but
it may be said in passing that the chief claim of Christianity is
exactly this--that it revived the pre-Roman madness, yet brought into it
the Roman order. The gods had really died long before Christ was born.
What had taken their place was simply the god of government--Divus
Caesar. The pagans of the real Roman Empire were nothing if not
respectable. It is said that when Christ was born the cry went through
the world that Pan was dead. The truth is that when Christ was born Pan
for the first time began to stir in his grave. The pagan gods had become
pure fables when Christianity gave them a new lease of life as devils. I
venture to wager that if you found one man in such a society who
seriously believed in the personal existence of Apollo, he was probably
a Christian. Christianity called to a kind of clamorous resurrection all
the old supernatural instincts of the forests and the hill. But it put
upon this occult chaos the Roman idea of balance and sanity. Thus,
marriage was a sacrament, but mere sex was not a sacrament as it was in
many of the frenzies of the forest. Thus wine was a sacrament with
Christ; but drunkenness was not a sacrament as with Dionysus. In short,
Christianity (merely historically seen) can best be understood as an
attempt to combine the reason of the market-place with the mysticism of
the forest. It was an attempt to accept all the superstitions that are
necessary to man and to be philosophic at the end of them. Pagan Rome
has sought to bring order or reason among men. Christian Rome sought to
bring order and reason among gods.

GIVEN these three principles, the epoch we discuss can be denned. The
eighteenth century was primarily the return of reason--and of Rome. It
was the coming to the top of the stoic and civic element in that triple
mixture. It was full, like the Roman world, of a respect for law. Note
that the priest still wears, in the main, the popular garb of the Middle
Ages: but the lawyer still wears the head-dress of the eighteenth
century. Yet while the Roman world was full of rule it was also full of
revolution. But indeed the two things necessarily go together. The
English used to boast that they had achieved a constitutional
revolution; but every revolution must necessarily be a constitutional
revolution, in so far that it must have reference to some antecedent
theory of justice. A man must have rights before he can have wrongs. So
it may be constantly remarked that the countries which have done most to
spread legal generalisations and judicial decisions are those most
filled with political fury and potential rebellion--Rome, for instance,
and France. Rome planted in every tribe and village the root of the
Roman law at the very time when her own town was torn with faction and
bloody with partisan butcheries. France forced intellectually on nearly
all Europe an excellent code of law, and she did it when her own streets
were hardly cleared of corpses, when she was in a panting pause between
two pulverising civil wars. And, on the other hand, you may remark that
the countries where there is no revolution are the countries where there
is no law; where mental chaos has clouded every intelligible legal
principle--such countries as Morocco and modern England.

[Image page 109]

The eighteenth century, then, ended in revolution because it began in
law. It was the age of reason, and therefore the age of revolt. It is
needless to say how systematically it revived all the marks and motives
of that ancient pagan society in which Christianity first arose. Its
greatest art was oratory, its favourite affectation was severity. Its
pet virtue was public spirit, its pet sin political assassination. It
endured the pompous, but hated the fantastic; it had pure contempt for
anything that could be called obscure. To a virile mind of that epoch,
such as Dr. Johnson or Fox, a poem or picture that did not at once
explain itself was simply like a gun that did not go off or a clock that
stopped suddenly: it was simply a failure, fit for indifference or for a
fleeting satire. In spite of their solid convictions (for which
they died) the men of that time always used the word "enthusiast" as a
term of scorn. All that we call mysticism they called madness. Such was
the eighteenth century civilisation; such was the strict and undecorated
frame from which look at us the blazing eyes of William Blake.

So far Blake and his century are a mere contrast. But here we must
remember that the three elements of Europe are not the strata of a rock,
but the strands of a rope; since all three have existed not one of them
has ever appeared entirely unmixed. You may call the Renascence pagan,
but Michael Angelo cannot be imagined as anything but a Christian. You
may call Thomas Aquinas Christian, but you cannot say exactly what he
would have been without Aristotle the pagan. You may, even in calling
Virgil the poet of Roman dignity and good sense, still ask whether he
did not remember something older than Rome when he spoke of the good
luck of him who knew the field gods and the old man of the forest. In
the same way there was even in the eighteenth century an element of the
purely Christian and an element of the purely primitive. And, as it
happens, both these non-rational (or non-Roman) strains in the
eighteenth century are particularly important in considering the mental
make-up of William Blake. For the first alien strain in this century
practically represents all that is effective and fine in this great
genius, the second strain represents without question all that is
doubtful, all that is irritating, and all that is ineffective in him.

IN the eighteenth century there were two elements not taken from the
Roman stoic or the Roman citizen. The first was what our century calls
humanitarianism--what that century called "the tear of sensibility." The
old pagan commonwealths were democratic, but they were not in the least
humanitarian. They had no tears to spare for a man at the mercy of the
community; they reserved all their anger and sympathy for the community
at the mercy of a man. That individual compassion for an individual case
was a pure product of Christianity; and when Voltaire flung himself with
fury into the special case of Calas, he was drawing all his energies
from the religion that he denied. A Roman would have rebelled for Rome,
but not for Calas. This personal humanitarianism is the relic of
Christianity--perhaps (if I may say so) the dregs of Christianity. Of
this humanitarianism or sentimentalism, or whatever it can best be
called, Blake was the enthusiastic inheritor. Being the great man that
he was, he naturally anticipated lesser men than himself; and among the
men less than himself I should count Shelley, for instance, and Tolstoy.
He carried his instinct of personal kindness to the point of denouncing
war as such--

"Naught can deform the human race
Like the Armourer's iron brace."

Or, again--

"The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar's iron crown."

[Image page 115]

No pagan republican, such as those on whom the eighteenth century ethic
was founded, could have made head or tail of this mere humanitarian
horror. He could not even have comprehended this idea--that war is
immoral when it is not unjust. You cannot find this sentiment in the
pagans of antiquity, but you can find it in the pagans of the eighteenth
century; you can find it in the speeches of Fox, the soliloquies of
Rousseau and even in the sniggering of Gibbon. Here is an element of the
eighteenth century which is derived darkly but indubitably from
Christianity, and in which Blake strongly shares. Regulus has returned
to be tortured and pagan Rome is saved; but Christianity thinks a little
of Regulus. A man must be pitied even when he must be killed. That
individual compassion provoked Blake to violent and splendid lines--

"And the slaughtered soldier's cry
Runs in blood down palace walls."

The eighteenth century did not find that pity where it found its pagan
liberty and its pagan law. It took this out of the very churches that it
violated and from the desperate faith that it denied. This irrational
individual pity is the purely Christian element in the eighteenth
century. This irrational individual pity is the purely Christian element
in William Blake.

And second, there was another eighteenth century element that was
neither of Christian nor of pagan Rome. It was from the origins; it had
been in the world through the whole history of paganism and
Christianity; it had been in the world, but not of it. This element
appeared popularly in the eighteenth century in an extravagant but
unmistakable shape; the element can be summed up in one word--Cagliostro.
No other name is quite so adequate; but if anyone desires a nobler name
(a very noble one), we may say--Swedenborg. There was in the eighteenth
century, despite its obvious good sense, this strain of a somewhat
theatrical thaumaturgy. The history of that element is, in the most
literal sense of the word, horribly interesting. For it all works back
to the mere bogey feeling of the beginnings. It is amusing to remark
that in the eighteenth century for the first time start up a number of
societies which calmly announce that they have existed almost from the
beginning of the world. Of these, of course, the best known instance is
the Freemasons; according to their own account they began with the
Pyramids; but according to everyone else's account that can be
effectively collected, they began with the eighteenth century.
Nevertheless the Freemasons are right in the spirit even if they are
wrong in the letter. There is a tradition of things analogous to
mystical masonry throughout all the historic generations of Paganism and
Christianity. There is a definite tradition outside Christianity, not of
rationalism, but of paganism, paganism in the original and frightful
forest sense--pagan magic. Christianity, rightly or wrongly, always
discouraged it on the ground that it was, or tended to be, black magic.
That is not here our concern. The point is that this non-Christian
supernaturalism, whether it was good or bad, was continuous in spite of
Christianity. Its signs and traces can be seen in every age: it hung
like a huge fume, in many monstrous forms, over the dying Roman Empire:
it was the energy in the Gnostics who so nearly captured Christianity,
and who were persecuted for their pessimism; in the full sunlight of the
living Church it dared to carve its symbols upon the tombs of the
Templars; and when the first sects raised their heads at the
Reformation, its ancient and awful voice was heard.

[Page 121 image]

Now the eighteenth century was primarily the release (as its leaders
held) of reason and nature from the control of the Church. But when the
Church was once really weakened, it was the release of many other
things. It was not the release of reason only, but of a more ancient
unreason. It was not the release of the natural, but also of the
supernatural, and also, alas! of the unnatural. The heathen mystics
hidden for two thousand years came out of their caverns--and Freemasonry
was founded. It was entirely innocent in the manner of its foundation;
but so were all the other resurrections of this ancestral occultism. I
give but one obvious instance out of many. The idea of enslaving another
human soul, without lifting a finger or making a gesture of force, of
enslaving a soul simply by willing its slavery, is an idea which all
healthy human societies would regard and did regard as hideous and
detestable, if true. Throughout all the Christian ages the witches and
warlocks claimed this abominable power and boasted of it. They were
(somewhat excusably) killed for their boasting. The eighteenth century
rationalist movement came, intent, thank God, upon much cleaner things,
upon common justice and right reason in the state. Nevertheless it did
weaken Christianity, and in weakening Christianity it uplifted and
protected the wizard. Mesmer stepped forward, and for the first time
safely affirmed this infamous power to exist: for the first time a
warlock could threaten spiritual tyranny and not be lynched.
Nevertheless, if a mesmerist really had the powers which some mesmerists
have claimed, and which most novels give to him, there is (I hope) no
doubt at all that any decent mob would drown him like a witch.

The revolt of the eighteenth century, then, did not merely release
naturalism, but a certain kind of supernaturalism also. And of this
particular kind of supernaturalism, Blake is particularly the heir. Its
coarse embodiment is Cagliostro. Its noble embodiment is Swedenborg. But
in both cases it can be remarked that the mysticism marks an effort to
escape from or even to forget the historic Christian, and especially the
Catholic Church. Cagliostro, being a man of mean spirituality, separated
himself from Catholicism by rearing against it a blazing pageant of
mystical paganism, of triangles, secret seals, Eleusinian initiation,
and all the vulgar refinements of a secret society. Swedenborg, being a
man of large and noble spirituality, marked his separation from
Catholicism by inventing out of his own innocence and genius nearly all
the old Catholic doctrines, sincerely believing them to be his own
discoveries. It is startling to note how near Swedenborg was to
Catholicism--in his insistence on free will, for instance, on the
humanity of the incarnate God, and on the relative and mystical view of
the Old Testament. There was in Blake a great deal of Swedenborg (as he
would have been the first to admit), and there was, occasionally, a
little of Cagliostro. Blake did not belong to a secret society: for, to
tell the truth, he had some difficulty in belonging to any society. But
Blake did talk a secret language. He had something of that haughty and
oligarchic element in his mysticism which marked the old pagan secret
societies and which marks the Theosophists and oriental initiates to
this day. There was in him, besides the beneficent wealth of Swedenborg,
some touch of Cagliostro and the Freemasons. These things Blake did
inherit from that break up of belief that can be called the eighteenth
century: we will debit him with these as an inheritance. And when we
have said this we have said everything that can be said of any debt he
owed. His debts are cleared here. His estate is cleared with this
payment. All that follows is himself.

[Image page 127]

If a man has some fierce or
unfamiliar point of view, he must, even when he is talking about his
cat, begin with the origin of the cosmos; for his cosmos is as private
as his cat. Horace could tell his pupils to plunge into the middle of
the thing, because he and they were agreed about the particular kind of
thing; the author and his readers substantially sympathised about the
beauty of Helen or the duties of Hector. But Blake really had to begin
at the beginning, because it was a different beginning. This explains
the extraordinary air of digression and irrelevancy which can be
observed in some of the most direct and sincere minds. It explains the
bewildering allusiveness of Dante; the galloping parentheses of
Rabelais; the gigantic prefaces of Mr. Bernard Shaw. The brilliant man
seems more lumbering and elaborate than anyone else, because he has
something to say about everything. The very quickness of his mind makes
the slowness of his narrative. For he finds sermons in stones, in all
the paving-stones of the street he plods along. Every fact or phrase that
occurs in the immediate question carries back his mind to the ages and
the initial power. Because he is original he is always going back to the

Take, for instance, Blake's verse rather than his pictorial art. When
the average sensible person reads Blake's verse, he simply comes to the
conclusion that he cannot understand it. But in truth he has a much
better right to offer this objection to Blake than to most of the
slightly elusive or eccentric writers to whom he also offers it. Blake
is obscure in a much more positive and practical sense than Browning is
obscure--or, in another manner, Mr. Henry James is obscure. Browning is
generally obscure through an almost brutal eagerness to get to big
truths, which leads him to smash a sentence and leave only bits of it.
Mr. Henry James is obscure because he wishes to trace tiny truths by a
dissection for which human language (even in his exquisite hands) is
hardly equal. In short, Browning wishes almost unscrupulously to get to
the point. Mr. James refuses to admit (on the mere authority of Euclid)
that the point is indivisible. But Blake's obscurity is startlingly
different to both, it is at once more simple and more impenetrable. It
is not a different diction but a different language. It is not that we
cannot understand the sentences; it is that we often misunderstand the
words. The obscurity of Blake commonly consists in the fact that the
actual words used mean one thing in Blake and quite another thing in the
dictionary. Mr. Henry James wants to split hairs; Browning wants to tear
them up by the roots. But in Blake the enigma is at once plainer and
more perplexing; it is simply this, that if Blake says "hairs" he may
not mean hairs, but something else--perhaps peacocks' feathers. To quote
but one example out of a thousand; when Blake uses the word "devils"
he generally means some particularly exalted order of angels such as
preside over energy and imagination.

A VERBAL accident has confused the mystical with the mysterious.
Mysticism is generally felt vaguely to be itself vague--a thing of clouds
and curtains, of darkness or concealing vapours, of bewildering
conspiracies or impenetrable symbols. Some quacks have indeed dealt in
such things: but no true mystic ever loved darkness rather than light.
No pure mystic ever loved mere mystery. The mystic does not bring doubts
or riddles: the doubts and riddles exist already. We all feel the riddle
of the earth without anyone to point it out. The mystery of life is the
plainest part of it. The clouds and curtains of darkness, the
confounding vapours, these are the daily weather of this world. Whatever
else we have grown accustomed to, we have grown accustomed to the
unaccountable. Every stone or flower is a hieroglyphic of which we have
lost the key; with every step of our lives we enter into the middle of
some story which we are certain to misunderstand. The mystic is not the
man who makes mysteries but the man who destroys them. The mystic is one
who offers an explanation which may be true or false, but which is
_always_ comprehensible--by which I mean, not that it is always
comprehended, but that it always can be comprehended, because there is
always something to comprehend. The man whose meaning remains mysterious
fails, I think, as a mystic: and Blake, as we shall see, did, for
certain peculiar reasons of his own, often fail in this way. But even
when he was himself hard to be understood, it was never through himself
not understanding: it was never because he was vague or mystified or
groping, that he was unintelligible. While his utterance was not only
dim but dense, his opinion was not only clear, but even cocksure. You
and I may be a little vague about the relations of Albion to Jerusalem,
but Blake is as certain about them as Mr. Chamberlain about the relations
of Birmingham to the British Empire. And this can be said for his
singular literary style even at his worst, that we always feel that he
is saying something very plain and emphatic, even when we have not the
wildest notion of what it is.

[Image page 133]

There is one element always to be remarked in the true mystic, however
disputed his symbolism, and that is its brightness of colour
and clearness of shape. I mean that we may be doubtful about the
significance of a triangle or the precise lesson conveyed by a crimson
cow. But in the work of a real mystic the triangle is a hard
mathematical triangle not to be mistaken for a cone or a polygon. The
cow is in colour a rich incurable crimson, and in shape unquestionably a
cow, not to be mistaken for any of its evolutionary relatives, such as
the buffalo or the bison. This can be seen very clearly, for instance,
in the Christian art of illumination as practised at its best in the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Christian decorators, being
true mystics, were chiefly concerned to maintain the reality of objects.
For the highest dogma of the spiritual is to affirm the material. By
plain outline and positive colour those pious artists strove chiefly to
assert that a cat was truly in the eyes of God a cat and that a dog was
preeminently doggish. This decision of tint and outline belongs not only
to Blake's pictures, but even to his poetry. Even in his descriptions
there is no darkness, and practically, in the modern sense, no distance.
All his animals are as absolute as the animals on a shield of heraldry.
His lambs are of unsullied silver, his lions are of flaming gold. His
lion may lie down with his lamb, but he will never really mix with him.

Really to make this point clear one would have to go back to the twelfth
century, or perhaps to Plato. Metaphysics must be avoided; they are too
exciting. But the root of the matter can be pretty well made plain by
one word. The whole difference is between the old meaning and the new
meaning of the word "Realist." In modern fiction and science a Realist
means a man who begins at the outside of a thing: sometimes merely at
the end of a thing, knowing the monkey only by its tail or the motor by
its smell. In the twelfth century a Realist meant exactly the opposite;
it meant a man who began at the inside of a thing. The mediaeval
philosopher would only have been interested in a motor because it moved.
He would have been interested (that is) only in the central and original
idea of a motor in its ultimate motorishness. He would have been
concerned with a monkey only because of its monkeyhood; not because it
was like man but because it was unlike. If he saw an elephant he would
not say in the modern style, "I see before me a combination of the
tusks of a wild boar in unnatural development, of the long nose of the
tapir needlessly elongated, of the tail of the cow unusually
insufficient," and so on. He would merely see an essence of elephant. He
would believe that this light and fugitive elephant of an instant, as
dancing and fleeting as the May-fly in May, was nevertheless the shadow
of an eternal elephant, conceived and created by God. When you have
quite realised this ancient sense in the reality of an elephant, go back
and read William Blake's poems about animals, as, for instance, about
the lamb and about the tiger. You will see quite clearly that he is
talking of an eternal tiger, who rages and rejoices for ever in the
sight of God. You will see that he is talking of an eternal and
supernatural lamb, who can only feed happily in the fields of Heaven. It
is exactly here that we find the full opposition to that modern tendency
that can fairly be called "Impressionism." Impressionism is scepticism.
It means believing one's immediate impressions at the expense of one's
more permanent and positive generalisations. It puts what one notices
above what one knows. It means the monstrous heresy that seeing is
believing. A white cow at one particular instant of the evening light
may be gold on one side and violet on the other. The whole point of
Impressionism is to say that she really is a gold and violet cow. The
whole point of Impressionism is to say that there is no white cow at
all. What can we tell, it cries, beyond what we can see? But the essence
of Mysticism is to insist that there is a white cow, however veiled with
shadow or painted with sunset gold. Blessed are they who have seen the
violet cow and who yet believe in the white one. To the mystic a white
cow has a sort of solid whiteness, as if the cow were made out of frozen
milk. To him a white horse has a solid whiteness as if he were cut out
of the firm English chalk, like the White Horse in the valley of King
Alfred. The cow's whiteness is more important than anything except her
cowishness. If Blake had ever introduced a white cow into one of his
pictures, there would at least have been no doubt about either of those
two elements. Similarly there would have been no doubt about them in
any old Christian illumination. On this point he is at one with all the
mystics and with all the saints.

[Image page 139]

This explanation is really essential to the understanding of Blake,
because to the modern mind it is so easy to understand him in the
opposite sense. In the ordinary modern meaning Blake's symbols are not
symbols at all. They are not allegories. An allegory nowadays means
taking something that does not exist as a symbol of something that does
exist. We believe, at least most of us do, that sin does exist. We
believe (on highly insufficient grounds) that a dragon does not exist.
So we make the unreal dragon an allegory of the real sin. But that is
not what Blake meant when he made the lamb the symbol of innocence. He
meant that there really is behind the universe an eternal image called
the Lamb, of which all living lambs are merely the copies or the
approximation. He held that eternal innocence to be an actual and even
an awful thing. He would not have seen anything comic, any more than the
Christian Evangelist saw anything comic, in talking about the Wrath of
the Lamb. If there were a lamb in one of Aesop's fables, Aesop would
never be so silly as to represent him as angry. But Christianity is more
daring than .Aesop, and the wrath of the Lamb is its great paradox. If
there is an immortal lamb, a being whose simplicity and freshness are
for ever renewed, then it is truly and really a more creepy idea to
horrify that being into hostility than to defy the flaming dragon or
challenge darkness or the sea. No old wolf or world-worn lion is so
awful as a creature that is always young--a creature that is always newly
born. But the main point here is simpler. It is merely that Blake did
not mean that meekness was true and the lamb only a pretty fable. If
anything he meant that meekness was a mere shadow of the everlasting
lamb. The distinction is essential to anyone at all concerned for this
rooted spirituality which is the only enduring sanity of mankind. The
personal is not a mere figure for the impersonal; rather the impersonal
is a clumsy term for something more personal than common personality.
God is not a symbol of goodness. Goodness is a symbol of God.

Some very odd passages in Blake become clear if we keep this in mind. I
do not wish in this book to dwell unduly on the other side of Blake, the
literary side. But there are queer facts worth remarking, and this is
one of them. Blake was sincere; if he was insane he was insane with the
very solidity and completeness of his sincerity. And the quaintest mark
of his sincerity is this, that in his poetry he constantly writes things
that look like mere mistakes. He writes one of his most colossal
convictions and the average reader thinks it is a misprint. To give only
one example not connected with the matter in hand, the fine though
somewhat frantic poem called "The Everlasting Gospel" begins exactly as
the modern humanitarian and essential Christian would like it to begin--

"The vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my vision's greatest enemy."

It goes on (to the modern Christian's complete satisfaction) with
denunciations of priests and praise of the pure Gospel Jesus; and then
comes a couplet like this--

"Thine is the friend of all mankind,
Mine speaks in parables to the blind."

And the modern humanitarian Christian finds the orthodox Christ calmly
rebuked because he is the friend of all mankind. The modern Christian
simply blames the printer. He can only suppose that the words "Thine"
and "Mine" have been put in each other's places by accident. Blake,
however, as it happens, meant exactly what he said. His private vision
of Christ was the vision of a violent and mysterious being, often
indignant and occasionally disdainful.

"He He acts with honest disdainful pride,
And that is the cause that Jesus died;
Had he been Antichrist, creeping Jesus,
He would have done anything to please us,
Gone sneaking into their synagogues,
And not use the elders and priests like dogs."

When the reader has fully realised this idea of a fierce and mysterious
Jesus, he may then see the sense in the statement that this Jesus speaks
in parables to the blind while the lower and meaner Jesus pretends to be
the friend of all men. But you have to know Blake's doctrine before you
can understand two lines of his poetry.

[Image page 145]

Now in the point which is here prominently before us there is a
quotation (indeed there is more than one) which follows this same
fantastic line. Let the ordinary modern man, who is, generally speaking,
not a materialist and not a mystic, read first these two lines from the
poem falsely called "The Auguries of Innocence"--

"God appears and God is light
To those poor souls that dwell in night."

He will not find anything objectionable in that, at any rate; probably
he will bow his head slightly to a truism, as if he were in church. Then
he will read the next two lines--

"But does a human form display
To those that dwell in realms of day."

And there the modern man will sit down suddenly on the sofa and come
finally to the conclusion that William Blake was mad and nothing else.

But those last two lines express all that is best in Blake and all that
is best in all the tradition of the mystics. Those two lines explain
perfectly all that I have just pointed out concerning the palpable
visions and the ponderous cherubim. This is the point about Blake that
must be understood if nothing else is understood. God for him was not
more and more vague and diaphanous as one came near to Him. God was more
and more solid as one came near. When one was far off one might fancy
Him to be impersonal. When one came into personal relation one knew that
He was a person. The personal God was the fact. The impersonal God of
the Pantheists was a kind of condescending symbol. According to Blake
(and there is more in the mental attitude than most modern people will
willingly admit) this vague cosmic view is a mere merciful preparation
for the old practical and personal view. God is merely light to the
merely unenlightened. God is a man to the enlightened. We are permitted
to remain for a time evolutionary or pantheist until the time comes when
we are worthy to be anthropomorphic.

Understand this Blake conception that the Divine is most bodily and
definite when we really know it, and the severe lines and sensational
literalism of his other and more pictorial work will be easily
understood. Naturally his divinities are definite, because he thought
that the more they were definite, the more they were divine. Naturally
God was not to him a hazy light breaking through the tangle of the
evolutionary undergrowth, nor a blinding brilliancy in the highest place
of the heavens. God was to him the magnificent old man depicted in his
dark and extraordinary illustrations of "Job," the old man with the
monstrous muscles, the mild stern eyebrows, the long smooth silver hair
and beard. In the dialogues between Jehovah and Job there is little
difference between the two ponderous and palpable old men, except that
the vision of Deity is a little more solid than the human being. But
then Blake held that Deity is more solid than humanity. He held that
what we call the ideal is not only more beautiful but more actual than
the real. The ordinary educated modern person staring at these "Job"
designs can only say that God is a mere elderly twin brother of Job.
Blake would have at once retorted that Job was an image of God.

ON consideration I incline to think that the best way to summarise the
art of Blake from its most superficial to its most subtle phase would be
simply to take one quick characteristic picture and discuss it fully;
first its title and subject, then its look and shape, then its main
principles and implications. Let us take as a good working example the
weird picture which is reproduced 011 one of the pages of Gilchrist's
"Life of Blake."

[Page 151 image]

Now the obvious, prompt, and popular view of Blake is very well
represented by the mere title of the picture. The first thing any
ordinary person will notice about it is that it is called "The Ghost of
a Flea"; and the ordinary person will be very justifiably amused. This
is the first fact about William Blake--that he is a joke; and it is a
fact by no means to be despised. Simply considered as a puzzle or
parlour game, Blake is extraordinarily entertaining. I have known many
cultivated families made happy on winter evenings by trying to
understand the poem called "The Mental Traveller," or wondering what can
be the significance of the stanza that runs:

"Little Mary Bell had a fairy in a nut,
Long John Brown had the devil in his gut;
Long John Brown loved little Mary Bell,
And the fairy drew the devil into the nutshell."

The first fact is that we are puzzled and also honestly amused. It is as
if we had a highly eccentric neighbour in the next garden. Long before
we like him we like gossiping about him. And the mere title, "The Ghost
of a Flea," represents all that makes Blake a centre of literary gossip.

And now, having enjoyed the oddity of the title, let us look at the
picture. Let us attempt to describe, so far as it can be done in words
instead of lines, what Blake thought that the ghost of a flea would be
like. The scene suggests a high and cheerless corridor, as in some
silent castle of giants. Through this a figure, naked and gigantic, is
walking with a high-shouldered and somewhat stealthy stride. In one hand
the creature has a peculiar curved knife of a cruel shape; in the other
he has a sort of stone basin. The most striking line in the composition
is the hard long curve of the spine, which goes up without a single
flicker to the back of the brutal head, as if the whole back view were
built like a tower of stone. The face is in no sense human. It has
something that is aquiline and also something that is swinish; its eyes
are alive with a moony glitter that is entirely akin to madness. The
thing seems to be passing a curtain and entering a room.

With this we may mark the second fact about Blake--that if his only
object is to make our flesh creep, he does it well. His bogeys are good
reliable bogeys. There is really something that appeals to the
imagination about this notion of the ghost of a flea being a tall
vampire stalking through tall corridors at night. We have found Blake an
amusing madman and now an interesting madman; let us go on with the

The third thing to note about this picture is that for Blake the ghost
of a flea means the idea or principle of a flea. The principle of a flea
(so far as we can see it) is bloodthirstiness, the feeding on the life
of another, the fury of the parasite. Fleas may have other nobler
sentiments and meditations, but we know nothing about them. The vision
of a flea is a vision of blood; and that is what Blake has made of it.
This is the next point, then, to be remarked in his makeup as a mystic;
he is interested in the ideas for which such things stand. For him the
tiger means an awful elegance; for him the tree means a silent strength.

If it be granted that Blake was interested, not in the flea, but in the
idea of the flea, we can proceed to the next step, which is a
particularly important one. Every great mystic goes about with a
magnifying glass. He sees every flea as a giant--perhaps rather as an
ogre. I have spoken of the tall castle in which these giants dwell; but,
indeed, that tall tower is the microscope. It will not be denied that
Blake shows the best part of a mystic's attitude in seeing that the soul
of a flea is ten thousand times larger than a flea. But the really
interesting point is much more striking. It is the essential point upon
which all primary understanding of the art of Blake really turns. The
point is this: that the ghost of a flea is not only larger than a flea,
the ghost of a flea is actually more solid than a flea. The flea himself
is hazy and fantastic compared to the hard and massive actuality of his
ghost. When we have understood this, we have understood the second of
the great ideas in Blake--the idea of ideas.

[Page 157 image]

To sum up Blake's philosophy in any phrase sufficiently simple and
popular for our purpose is not at all easy. For Blake's philosophy was
not simple. Those who imagine that because he was always talking about
lambs and daisies, about Jesus and little children, that therefore he
held a simple gospel of goodwill, entirely misunderstand the whole
nature of his mind. No man had harder dogmas; no one insisted more that
religion must have theology. The Everlasting Gospel was far from being a
simple gospel. Blake had succeeded in inventing in the course of about
ten years as tangled and interdependent a system of theology as the
Catholic Church has accumulated in two thousand. Much of it, indeed, he
inherited from ancient heretics who were much more doctrinal than the
orthodoxy which they opposed. Notable among these were the Gnostics, and
in some degree the mad Franciscans who followed Joachim de Flor. Very
few modern people would know an Akamoth or an Mon if they saw him. Yet
one would really have to be on rather intimate terms with these old
mystical gods and demons before one could move quite easily in the
Cosmos which was familiar to Blake.

Let us, however, attempt to find a short and popular statement of the
position of Blake and all such mystics. The plainest way of putting it,
I think, is this: this school especially denied the authority of Nature.
Some went the extreme length of the mad Manichaeans, and declared the
material universe evil in itself. Some, like Blake, and most of the
poets considered it as a shadow or illusion, a sort of joke of the
Almighty. But whatever else Nature was, Nature was not our mother. Blake
applies to her the strange words used by Christ to Mary, and says to
Mother-Earth in many poems: "What have I to do with thee?" It is
common to connect Blake and Wordsworth because of their ballads about
babies and sheep. They were utterly opposite. If Wordsworth was the Poet
of Nature, Blake was specially the Poet of Anti-Nature. Against Nature he
set a certain entity which he called Imagination; but the word as
commonly used conveys very little of what he meant by it. He did not
mean something shadowy or fantastic, but rather something clear-cut,
definite, and unalterable. By Imagination, that is, he meant images; the
eternal images of things. You might shoot all the lions on the earth;
but you could not destroy the Lion of Judah, the Lion of the
Imagination. You might kill all the lambs of the world and eat them; but
you could not kill the Lamb of the Imagination, which was the Lamb of
God, that taketh away the sins of the world. Blake's philosophy, in
brief, was primarily the assertion that the ideal is more actual than
the real: just as in Euclid the good triangle in the mind is a more
actual (and more practical) than the bad triangle on the blackboard.

Many of Blake's pictures become intelligible (or as intelligible as they
can become) if we keep this principle in mind. For instance, there is a
fine design representing a naked and heroic youth of great beauty
tracing something on the sand. The reader, when he looks at the title of
it, is interested to discover that this is a portrait of Sir Isaac
Newton. It was not so much of an affectation as it seems. Blake from his
own point of view really did think that the Eternal Isaac Newton as God
beheld him was more of an actuality than the terrestrial gentleman who
happened to be elderly or happened by some sublunary accident to wear
clothes. Therefore, when he calls it a "portrait" he is not, from his
own point of view, talking nonsense. It is the form and feature of
someone who exists and who is different from everyone else, just as if
it were the ordinary oil-painting of an alderman.

The most important conception can be found in one sentence which he let
fall as if by accident, "Nature has no outline, but imagination has."
If a clear black line when looked at through a microscope was seen to be
a ragged and confused edge like a mop or a doormat, then Blake would
say, "So much the worse for the microscope." If pure lines existed
only on the human mind, then Blake would say, "So much the better for
the human mind." If the real earth grew damp and dubious when it met and
mixed itself with the sea, so much the worse for the real earth. If the
idea of clean-cut truth existed only in the intellect, that was the most
actual place in which anything could exist. In short, Blake really
insisted that man as the image of God had a right to impose form upon
nature. He would have laughed to scorn the notion of the modern
evolutionist--that Nature is to be permitted to impose formlessness upon
man. For him the lines in a landscape were boundaries which he drew like
frontiers, by his authority as the plenipotentiary ambassador of heaven.
When he drew his line round Leviathan he was drawing the divine net
around him; he tamed his bulls and lions even by creating them. And when
he made in some picture a line between sea and land that does not exist
in Nature, he was saying by supernatural right, "Thus far shalt thou
come, and no farther, and here shall thy proud waves be stayed."

I SELECT the symbol of the sea partly because Blake was himself fond of
such elemental images, and partly because it is an image especially
appropriate to Blake's great conception of the outline in the eternal
imagination. Nearly all phrases about the sea are specially and
spiritually false. People talk of the sea as vast and vague, drifting
and indefinite; as if the magic of it lay in having no lines or
boundaries. But the spell of the sea upon the eye and the soul is
exactly this: that it is the one straight line in nature. They talk of
the infinite sea. Artistically it would be far truer to talk of an
infinite haystalk; for the haystalk does slightly fade into a kind of
fringe against the sky. But the horizon line is not only hard but
_tight_, like a fiddle-string. I have always a nervous fear that the
sea-line will snap suddenly. And it is exactly this mathematical
decision in the sea that makes it so romantic a background for fighting
and human figures. England was called in Catholic days the garden of
Mary. The garden is all the more beautiful because it is enclosed in
four hard angular walls of sapphire or emerald. Any mere tuft or twig
can curve with a curve that is incalculable. Any scrap of moss can
contain in itself an irregularity that is infinite. The sea is the one
thing that is really exciting because the sea is the one thing that is

[Page 163 image]

Whether, however, these conclusions can be accepted by the reader as
true, they can at least be accepted as typifying the kind of thing which
William Blake believed to be true. He would have felt the sea not as a
waste but as a wall. Nature had no outline, but imagination had. And it
was imagination that was trustworthy.

This definition explains other things. Blake was enthusiastically in
favour of the French Revolution; yet he enthusiastically hated that
school of sceptics which, in the opinion of many, made the Revolution
possible. He did not mind Marat; but he detested Voltaire. The reason is
obvious in the light of his views on Nature and Imagination. The
Republican Idealists he liked because they were Idealists, because their
abstract doctrines about justice and human equality were abstract
doctrines. But the school of Voltaire was naturalistic; it loved to
remind man of his earthly origin and even of his earthly degradation.
The war, which Blake loved, was a war of the invisible against the
visible. Valmy and Arcola were part of such a war; it was a war between
the visible kings and the invisible Republic. But Voltaire's war was
exactly the opposite; it was a discrediting of the invisible Church by
the indecent exhibition of the real Church, with its fat friars or its
foolish old women. Blake had no sympathy with this mere flinging of
facts at a great conception. In a really powerful and exact metaphor he
describes the powerlessness of this earthly and fragmentary sceptical

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau,
Mock on, mock on, 'tis all in vain,
You throw the sand against the wind
And the wind blows it back again.

An excellent image for a mere attack by masses of detail.

There were some of Blake's intellectual conceptions which I have not
professed either to admire or to defend. Some of his views were really
what the old mediaeval world called heresies and what the modern world
(with an equally healthy instinct but with less scientific clarity)
calls fads. In either case the definition of the fad or heresy is not so
very difficult. A fad or heresy is the exaltation of something which,
even if true, is secondary or temporary in its nature against those
things which are essential and eternal, those things which always prove
themselves true in the long run. In short, it is the setting up of the
mood against the mind. For instance: it is a mood, a beautiful and
lawful mood, to wonder how oysters really feel. But it is a fad, an ugly
and unlawful fad, to starve human beings because you will not let them
eat oysters. It is a beautiful mood to feel impelled to assassinate Mr.
Carnegie; but it is a fad to maintain seriously that any private person
has a right to do it. We all have emotional moments in which we should
like to be indecent in a drawing-room; but it is faddist to turn all
drawing-rooms into places in which one is indecent. We all have at times
an almost holy temptation suddenly to scream out very loud; but it is
heretical and pedantic really to go on screaming for the remainder of
your natural life. If you throw one bomb you are only a murderer; but if
you keep on persistently throwing bombs you are in awful danger of at
last becoming a prig. It has been this trouble that has partly poisoned
the people from which William Blake inherited, if not his blood, at
least his civilization. The real trouble with Puritanism was not that it
was a senseless prejudice nor yet altogether (as would seem
superficially obvious) that it was a mere form of devil-worship. It was
none of these things in its first and freshest motive.

[Page 169 image]

Puritanism was an honourable mood; it was a noble fad. In other words,
it was a highly creditable mistake. We have all felt the frame of mind
in which one wishes to smash golden croziers and mitres merely because
they are golden. We all know how natural it is at certain moments to
feel a profound thirst to kick clergymen simply because they are
clergymen. But if we seriously ask ourselves whether in the long run
humanity is not happier with gold in its religion rather than mere drab,
then we come to the conclusion that the gold on cross or cope does give
more pleasure to most men than it gives pain, for a moment, to us. If we
really ask ourselves if religions do not work better with a definite
priesthood to do the drudgery of religion, we come to the conclusion
that they do work better. Anti-clericalism is a generous and ideal mood;
clericalism is a permanent and practical necessity. To put the matter in
an easier and more everyday metaphor, it is natural for any poor
Londoner to feel at times an abstract aspiration to beat the Lord Mayor
of London. But it does not follow that it would really have been a
kindness to poor Londoners to abolish the Lord Mayor's Show.

Now it is in this sense that we may truly say that Blake (upon one side
of his mind) was something worse than a maniac--he was a faddist. He did
permit aspirations or prejudices which are accidental or one-sided to
capture and control him at the expense of things really more human and
enduring: things which he shared with all the children of men. I do not
allude to his supernaturalism; for on that he is in no sense alone, nor
even specially eccentric. I do not refer to his love of the gorgeous,
the terrible or even the secretive of temples, initiations, and
hieroglyphic religion. For that sort of mystery is really quite popular
and even democratic. That sort of secrecy is a very open secret.

It is usual to hear a man say in modern England that he has too much
common sense to believe in ghosts. But common sense is in favour of a
belief in ghosts, the common sense of mankind. It is usual to hear a man
say that he likes common sense and does not like the mummeries and
flummeries of church ritual. But common sense is in favour of mummery
and ritualism, the common sense of mankind. The man who attempts to do
without symbols is a prophet so austere and isolated as to be
dangerously near to a madman. The man who does not believe in ghosts is
a solitary fanatic and lonely dreamer among the sons of men. Therefore I
do not in any sense count even his craziest visions or wildest symbols
among the real fads or eccentricities of Blake. But he had mental
attitudes which were really fads and eccentricities, in this essential
sense, that they were not exaggerations of a general human feeling but
definite denials of it. He did not lead humanity, but attacked or even
obstructed it. Many instances might be given of the kind of thing I
mean; there was something of it in Blake's persistent and even pedantic
insistence that war as war is evil. There was something of Tolstoy in
Blake; and that means something that is inhuman as well as something
that is heroic. But his allusions to this were occasional and perhaps
even accidental, and better cases could certainly be found. The
essential of all the cases is, however, that when he went wrong it was
as an intellectual and not as a poet.

Take, for example, his notion of going naked. Here I think Blake is
merely a sort of hard theorist. Here, in spite of his imagination and
his laughter, there was even a touch of the prig about him. He was
obscene on principle. So to a great extent was Walt Whitman. A
dictionary is supposed to contain all words, so it has to contain coarse
words. "Leaves of Grass" was planned to praise all things, so it had
to praise gross things. There was something of this pedantic perfection
in Blake's escapades. As the hygienist insists on wearing Jager clothes,
he insisted on wearing no clothes. As the aesthete must wear sandals, he
must wear nothing. He is not really lawless at all; he is bowing to the
law of his own outlawed logic.

[Image page 175]

There is nothing at all poetical in this revolt. William Blake was a
great and real poet; but in this point he was simply unpoetical. Walt
Whitman was a great and real poet; but on this point he was prosaic and
priggish. Two extraordinary men are not poets because they tear away the
veil from sex. On the contrary it is because all men are poets that they
all hang a veil over sex. The ploughman does not plough by night,
because he does not feel specially romantic about ploughing. He does
love by night, because he does feel specially romantic about sex. In
this matter Blake was not only unpoetical, but far less poetical than
the mass of ordinary men. Decorum is not an over-civilised convention.
Decorum is not tame, decorum is wild, as wild as the wind at night.

"Mysterious as the moons that rise
At midnight in the pines of Var."

Modesty is too fierce and elemental a thing for the modern pedants to
understand; I had almost said too savage a thing. It has in it the joy
of escape and the ancient shyness of freedom. In this matter Blake and
Whitman are merely among the modern pedants. In not admiring sexual
reticence these two great poets simply did not understand one of the
greatest poems of humanity.

I have given as an instance his disregard of the idea of mystery and
modesty as involved in dress; it was an unpoetical thought that
there should be no curtains of gold or scarlet round the shrine of the
Holy Spirit. But there is stronger instances in his theology and
philosophy. Thus he imbibed the idea common among early Gnostics and not
unknown to Christian Science speculators of our day, that it was a
confession of weakness in Christ to be crucified at all. If he had
really attained divine life (so ran the argument) he ought to have
attained immortal life; he ought to have lived for ever upon the earth.
With an excess of what can only be called impudence, he even turned
Gethsemane into a sort of moral breakdown; the sudden weakness which
accepted death. The general claim that vices are poetical is largely
unfounded; and this is an excellent example of how unpoetical is the
vice of profanity. Blasphemy is not wild; blasphemy is in its nature
prosaic. It consists in regarding in a commonplace manner something
which other and happier people regard in a rapturous and imaginative
manner. This is well exemplified in poor Blake and his Gnostic heresy
about Jesus. In holding that Christ was weakened by being crucified he
is certainly a pedant, and certainly not a poet. If there is one point
on which the spirit of the poets and the poetic soul in all peoples is
on the side of Christianity, it is exactly this one point on which Blake
is against Christianity--"was crucified, dead and buried." The spectacle
of a God dying is much more grandiose than the spectacle of a man living
for ever. The former suggests that awful changes have really entered the
alchemy of the universe; the latter is only vaguely reminiscent of
hygienic octogenarians and Eno's Fruit Salts. Moreover, to the poet as
to the child, death must be dreadful even if it is desirable. To talk
(as some modern theosophists do) about death being nothing, the mere
walking into another room, to talk like this is not only prosaic and
profoundly un-Christian; it is decidedly vulgar. It is against the whole
trend of the secret emotions of humanity. It is indecent, like
persuading a decent peasant to go without clothes. There is more of the
song and music of mankind in a clerk putting on his Sunday clothes than
in a fanatic running naked down Cheapside. And there is more real
mysticism in nailing down a coffin lid than in pretending, in mere
rhetoric, to throw open the doors of death.

I have given two cases of the presence in Blake of these anti-human
creeds which I call fads--the case of clothes and the case of the
crucifixion. I could give a much larger number of them, but I think
their nature is here sufficiently indicated. They are all cases in which
Blake ceased to be a poet, through becoming entirely, instead of only
partially, separated from the people. And this, I think, is certainly
connected with that quality in him to which I referred in analysing the
eighteenth century; I mean the element of oligarchy and fastidiousness
in the mystics and masonries of that epoch. They were all founded in an
atmosphere of degrees and initiations. The chief difference between
Christianity and the thousand transcendental schools of to-day is
substantially the same as the difference nearly two thousand years ago
between Christianity and the thousand sacred rites and secret societies
of the Pagan Empire. The deepest difference is this: that all the
heathen mysteries are so far aristocratic, that they are understood by
some, and not understood by others. The Christian mysteries are so far
democratic that nobody understands them at all.

[Image page 181]

When we have fairly stated this doubtful and even false element in
Blake's philosophy, we can go on with greater ease and thoroughness to
state where the solid and genuine value of that philosophy lay. It
consisted in its placid and positive defiance of materialism, a work
upon which all the mystics, Pagan and Christian, have been employed from
the beginning. It is not unnatural that they should have fallen into
many errors, employed dangerous fallacies, and even ruined the earth for
the sake of the cloudland. But the war in which they were engaged has
been none the less the noblest and most important effort of human
history, and in their whole army there was no greater warrior than

One of the strange and rooted contradictions of the eighteenth century
is a combination between profound revolution and superficial
conventionality. It might almost be said that the men of that time had
altered morals long before they thought of altering manners. The French
Revolution was especially French in this respect, that it was above all
things a respectable revolution. Violence was excused; madness was
excused; but eccentricity was inexcusable. These men had taken a king's
head off his shoulders long before they had thought of taking the powder
off their own heads. Danton could understand the Massacres of September,
but he could not understand the worship of the Goddess of Reason or all
the antics of the German madman Clootz. Robespierre grew tired of the
Terror, but he never grew tired of shaving every morning. It is
impossible to avoid the impression that this is rather a characteristic
of the revolutions which really make a difference and defy the world.
The same is true of that fallacious but most powerful and genuine
English monument which was covered by the words Darwin and Evolution. If
there was one striking thing about the fine old English agnostics, it
was that they were entirely indifferent to alterations in the externals
of pose or fashion, that they seem to have supposed that the huge
intellectual overturn of agnosticism would leave the obvious
respectability of life exactly as it was. They thought that one might
entirely alter a man's head without in the least altering his hat. They
thought that one might shatter the twin wings of an archangel without
throwing the least doubt upon the twin whiskers of a mid-Victorian
professor. And though there was undoubtedly a certain solemn humour
about such a position, yet, on the whole, I think the mid-Victorian
agnostics were employing the right kind of revolution. It is broadly a
characteristic of all valuable new-fashioned opinions that they are
brought in by old-fashioned men. For the sincerity of such men is proved
by both facts--the fact that they do care about their new truth and the
fact that they do not care about their old clothes. Herbert Spencer's
philosophy is all the more serious because his appearance (to judge by
his photographs) was quite startlingly absurd. And while the Tory
caricatures were deriding Gladstone because he introduced very
new-fangled legislation, they were also deriding him because he wore
very antiquated collars.

But though this strange combination of convention in small things with
revolt in big ones is not uncommon in hearty and human reformers, there
is a quite special emphasis on this combination in the case of the
eighteenth century. The very men who did deeds which were more dreadful
and daring than we can dream to achieve, were the very men who spoke and
wrote with a mincing propriety and almost effeminate fastidious
distinction such as we should scarcely condescend to employ. The
eighteenth century man called the eighteenth century woman "an elegant
female"; but he was quite capable of saving her from a mad bull. He
described his ideal republic as a place containing all the refined
sensibilities of virtue with all the voluptuous seductions of pleasure.
But he would be hacked with an axe and blown out of a gun to get it. He
could pursue new notions with a certain solid and virile constancy, as
if they were old ones. And the explanation is partly this: that however
revolutionary, they were old ones in this sense at least, that they
involved the pursuit of some primary human hope to its original home.
They powdered their hair because they really thought that a civilized
man should be civilized--or, if you will, artificial. They spoke of "an
elegant female" because they really thought, with their whole souls,
that a female ought to be elegant. The old rebels preserved the old
fashions--and among others the old fashion of rebelling. The new rebels,
the revolutionists of our time, are intent upon introducing new fashions
in boots, beds, food or furniture; so they have no time to rebel. But if
we have once grasped this eighteenth century element of the insistence
upon the elegant female because she is elegant, we have got hold of a
fundamental fact in the relation of that century to Blake.

[Image page 187]

It is instinctive to describe Blake as a fantastic artist; and yet there
is a very real sense in which Blake is conventional. If any reader
thinks the phrase paradoxical, he can easily discover that it is true;
he can discover it simply by comparing Blake even in his most wild and
arbitrary work with any merely modern artist who has the name of being
wild; with Aubrey Beardsley or even with Rossetti. All Blake's heroes
are conventional heroes made unconventionally heroic. All Blake's
heroines are elegant females without their clothes. But in both cases
they exaggerate and insist upon the traditional ideal of the sexes--the
broad shoulders of the god and the broad hips of the goddess. Blake
detested the sensuality of Rubens. But if he had been obliged to choose
between the women of Rubens and the women of Rossetti, he would have
flung himself on the neck of Rubens. For we have a false conception of
what constitutes exaggeration. The end of the eighteenth century (being
a dogmatic period) believed in certain things and exaggerated them. The
end of the nineteenth century simply did not know what things to
exaggerate; so it fell back upon merely underrating them. Blake tried to
make Wallace look even bolder and fiercer than Wallace can possibly have
looked. That was his exaggeration of Wallace. But Burne-Jones'
exaggeration of Perseus is not an exaggeration at all. It is an
under-statement; for the whole fascination of Burne-Jones' Perseus is
that he looks frightened. Blake's figure of a woman is aggressively and
monstrously womanly. That is its fascination, if it has any. But the
fascination of a Beardsley woman (if she has any) is exactly that she is
not quite a woman. So much of what we have meant by exaggeration is
really diminution; so much of what we have meant by fancy is simply
falling short of fact. The Burne-Jones' man is interesting because he is
not quite brave enough to be a man. The Beardsley woman is interesting
because she is not quite pretty enough to be a woman. But Blake's men
are brave beyond all decency: and Blake's women are so swaggeringly bent
on being beautiful that they become quite ugly in the process. If anyone
wishes to know exactly what I mean, I recommend him to look at one of
those extraordinary designs of nymphs in which a woman (or, as Blake
loved to call it, the Female Form) is made to perform an impossible feat
of acrobatics. It is impossible, but it is quite female; perhaps the
words are not wholly inconsistent. A living serpent might perform such a
piece of athletics; but even then only a female living serpent. But
nobody would ask a Burne-Jones or Beardsley female to perform any
athletics at all.

Blake in pictorial art was not a mere master of the moonstruck or the
grotesque. On the contrary, he was, as artists go, exceptionally a
champion of the smooth and sensible. In so far as being "modern" means
being against the great conventions of mankind, indifferent to the
difference of the sexes, or inclined to despise doctrinal outline, then
there was never any man who was so little of a modern as Blake. He may
have been mad; but there are varieties even in madness. There are
madmen, like Blake, who go mad on health, and there are madmen who go
mad on sickness.

[Image page 193]

The distinction is a solid one. You may think the queerly and partially
clothed women of Aubrey Beardsley ugly. You may think the naked women of
William Blake ugly. But you must perceive this peculiar and
extraordinary effect about the women of William Blake, that they are
women. They are exaggerated in the direction of the female form; they
swing upon big hips; they let out and loosen long and luxuriant hair.
Now the queer females of Aubrey Beardsley are queerest of all in this,
that they are not even female. They are narrow where women have a curve
and cropped where women have a head of hair. Blake's women are often
anatomically impossible. But they are so far women that they could not
possibly be anything else.

This comparison between Blake's art and such art as Aubrey Beardsley's
is not an invidious impertinence, it is really an important distinction.
Blake's work may be fantastic; but it is a fantasia on an old and
recognisable air. It exaggerates characteristics. Blake's women are too
womanish, his young men are too athletic, his old men are too
preposterously old. But Aubrey Beardsley does not really exaggerate; he
understates. His young men have less than the energy of youth. His women
fascinate by the weakness of sex rather than by its strength. In short,
if one is really to exaggerate the truth, one must have some truth to
exaggerate. The decadent mystic produces an effect not by exaggerating
but by distorting. True exaggeration is a thing both subtle and austere.
Caricature is a serious thing; it is almost blasphemously serious.
Caricature really means making a pig more like a pig than even God has
made him. But anyone can make him not like a pig at all; anyone can
create a weird impression by giving him the beard of a goat. In Aubrey
Beardsley the artistic thrill (and there is an artistic thrill) consists
in the fact that the women are not quite women nor the men quite men.
Blake had absolutely no trace of this morbidity of deficiency. He never
asks us to consider a tree magical because it is a stunted tree; or a
man a magician merely because he has one eye. His form of fantasy would
rather be to give a tree more branches than it could carry and to give a
man bigger eyes than he could keep in his head. There is really a great
deal of difference between the fantastic and the exaggerative. One may
be fantastic by merely leaving something out. One might call it a
fantasy if the official portrait of Wellington represented him without a
nose. But one could hardly call it an exaggeration.

There is an everlasting battle in which Blake is on the side of the
angels, and what is much more difficult and dangerous, on the side of
all the sensible men. The question is so enormous and so important, that
it is difficult to state even by reason of its reality. For in this
world of ours we do not so much go on and discover small things; rather
we go on and discover big things. It is the details that we see first;
it is the design that we only see very slowly; and some men die never
having seen it at all. We all wake up on a battle-field. We see certain
squadrons in certain uniforms gallop past; we take an arbitrary fancy to
this or that colour, to this or that plume. But it often takes us a long
time to realise what the fight is about or even who is fighting whom.
One may say, to keep up the metaphor, that many a man has joined the
French army from love of the Horse Guards Blue; many an old-fashioned
eighteenth century sailor has gone over to the Chinese merely because
they wore pigtails. It is so easy to turn against what is really
yourself for the sake of some accidental resemblance to yourself. You
may envy the curled hair of Hercules; but do not envy curly hair until
you wish that you were a nigger. You may regret that you have a short
nose; but do not dream of its growing longer and longer till it is like
the trunk of an elephant. Wait until you know what the battle is broadly
about before you rush roaring after any advancing regiment. For a battle
is a complicated thing; each army contains coats of different colour;
each section of each army advances at a different angle. You may fancy
that the Greens are charging the Blues exactly at the moment when both
are combining to effect a fine military manoeuvre. You may conceive that
two similar-looking columns are supporting each other at the very
instant when they are about to blaze at each other with cannon, rifle,
and revolver. So in the modern intellectual world we can see flags of
many colours, deeds of manifold interest; the one thing we cannot see is
the map. We cannot see the simplified statement which tells us what is
the origin of all the trouble. How shall we manage to state in an
obvious and alphabetical manner the ultimate query, the primordial pivot
on which the whole modern problem turns? It cannot be done in long
rationalistic words; they convey by their very sound the suggestion of
something subtle. One must try to think of something in the way of a
plain street metaphor or an obvious analogy. For the thing is not too
hard for human speech; it is actually too obvious for human speech.

[Image page 199]

The fundamental fight in which, despite all this heat and headlong
misunderstanding, William Blake is on the right side, is one which would
require a book about the battle and not about William Blake. By an
accident at once convenient and deceptive, it can largely be described
as geographical as well as philosophical. It is crudely true that there
are two types of mysticism, that of Christendom and that of Orientalism.
Now this scheme of east and west is inadequate; but it does happen to
fit in with the working facts. For the odd thing is this, not only are
most of the merely modern movements of idealism Oriental, but their
Orientalism is all that they have in common. They all come together, and
yet their only apparent point of union is that they all come from the
East. Thus a modern vegetarian is generally also a teetotaller, yet
there is certainly no obvious intellectual connection between consuming
vegetables and not consuming fermented vegetables. A drunkard, when
lifted laboriously out of the gutter, might well be heard huskily to
plead that he had fallen there through excessive devotion to a vegetable
diet. On the other hand, a man might well be a practised and polished
cannibal and still be a strict teetotaller. A subtle parallelism might,
doubtless be found; but the only quite obvious parallelism is that
vegetarianism is Buddhist and teetotalism is Mahometan. In the same way,
it is the cold truth that there is no kind of logical connection between
being an Agnostic and being a Socialist. But it is the fact that the
Chinese are as agnostic as oxen; and it is the fact that the Japanese
are as socialistic as rats. These appalling ideas, that a man has no
divine individual destiny, that making a minute item in the tribe or
hive, is his only earthly destiny, these ideas do come all together out
of the same quarter; they do in practise blow upon us out of the East,
as cold and inhuman as the east wind.

Nevertheless, I do not accept this dull definition by locality; I think
it is a spirit in Asia, and even a spirit that can be named. It is
approximately described as an insane simplicity. In all these cases we
find people attempting to perfect a thing solely by simplification; by
obliterating special features: this cosmos is full of wingless birds, of
hornless cattle, of hairless women, and colourless wine, all fading into
a formless background. There is a Christian simplicity, of course,
opposed to this pessimist simplicity. Both the western and eastern
mystic may be called children; but the eastern child treads the
sand-castle back into sand, and enjoys seeing the silver snow man melt
back into muddy water. This return to chaos and a comfortless simplicity
is the only intelligent meaning of the words reaction and reactionary.
In this sense much of modern science is reaction, and most modern
scientists are reactionaries. But where this reversion to the void can
be seen most clearly is in all the semi-oriental sects to which I have
referred. Teetotalism is a simplification; its objection to beer is not
really that beer makes a man like a beast. On the contrary, its real
objection is that beer most unmistakably separates a man from a beast.
Vegetarianism is a simplification; the herb-eating Hindoo saint does not
really dislike the carnivorous habit because it destroys an animal.
Rather, he dislikes it because it creates an animal; renews the special
aims and appetites of the separate animal, man. Agnosticism, the ancient
creed of Confucius, is a simplification; it is a shutting out of all the
shadowy splendours and terrors; an Arcadian exclusiveness; _il faut
cultiver son jardin_. Japanese patriotism, the blind collectivism of the
tribe, is a simplification; it is an attempt to turn our turbulent and
varied humanity into one enormous animal, with twenty million legs, but
only one head. There is an utterly opposite kind of simplicity that
springs from joy; but this kind of simplicity certainly is rooted in

[Image page 205]

Now, for practical purposes, there is an antagonistic order of
mysticism; that which celebrates personality, positive variety, and
special emphasis: just as in broad fact the mystery of dissolution is
emphasized and typified in the East, so in practice the mystery of
concentration and identity is manifest in the historic churches of
Christendom. Even the foes of Christianity would readily agree that
Christianity is "personal" in the sense that a vulgar joke is
"personal": that is corporeal, vivid, perhaps ugly. This being so, it has
been broadly true that any mystic who broke with the Christian tradition
tended to drift towards the eastern and pessimist tradition. In the
Albigensian and other heresies the East crawled in with its serpentine
combination of glitter and abasement, of pessimism and pleasure. Every
dreamer who strayed outside the Christian order strayed towards the
Hindu order, and every such dreamer found his dream turning to a
nightmare. If a man wandered far from Christ he was drawn into the orbit
of Buddha, the other great magnet of mankind--the negative magnet. The
thing is true down to the latest and the most lovable visionaries of our
own time; if they do not climb up into Christendom, they slide down into
Thibet. The greatest poet now writing in the English language (and it is
surely unnecessary to say that I mean Mr. Yeats) has written a whole
play round the statement, "Where there is nothing there is God." In this
he sharply and purposely cuts himself off from the real Christian
position, that where there is anything there is God.

But though, by an almost political accident, Oriental pessimism has been
the practical alternative to the Christian type of transcendentalism,
there is, and always has been, a third thing that was neither Christian
in an orthodox sense nor Buddhistic in any sense. Before Christianity
existed there was a European school of optimist mystics; among whom the
great name is Plato. And ever since there have been movements and
appearances in Europe of this healthier heathen mysticism, which did not
shrink from the shapes of things or the emphatic colours of existence.
Something of the sort was in the Nature worship of Renaissance
philosophers; something of the sort may even have been behind the
strange mixture of ecstacy and animality in the isolated episode of
Luther. This solid and joyful occultism appears at its best in
Swedenborg; but perhaps at its boldest and most brilliant in William

The present writer will not, in so important a matter, pretend to the
absurd thing called impartiality; he is personally quite convinced that
if every human being lived a thousand years, every human being would end
up either in utter pessimistic scepticism or in the Catholic creed.
William Blake, in his rationalist and highly Protestant age, was
frequently reproached for his tenderness towards Catholicism; but it
would have surprised him very much to be told that he would join it. But
he would have joined it--if he had lived a thousand years, or even
perhaps a hundred. He was on the side of historic Christianity on the
fundamental question on which it confronts the East; the idea that
personality is the glory of the universe and not its shame; that
creation is higher than evolution, because it is more personal; that
pardon is higher than Nemesis, because it is more personal; that the
forgiveness of sins is essential to the communion of saints; and the
resurrection of the body to the life everlasting. It was a mark of the
old eastern initiations, it is still a mark of the grades and planes of
our theosophical thinkers, that as a man climbs higher and higher, God
becomes to him more and more formless, ethereal, and even thin. And in
many of these temples, both ancient and modern, the final reward of
serving the god through vigils and purifications, is that one is at last
worthy to be told that the god doesn't exist.

Against all this emasculate mysticism Blake like a Titan rears his
colossal figure and his earthquake voice. Through all the cloud and
chaos of his stubborn symbolism and his perverse theories, through the
tempest of exaggeration and the full midnight of madness, he reiterates
with passionate precision that only that which is lovable can be
adorable, that deity is either a person or a puff of wind, that the more
we know of higher things the more palpable and incarnate we shall find
them; that the form filling the heavens is the likeness of the
appearance of a man. Much of what Blake thus wildly thundered has been
put quietly and quaintly by Coventry Patmore, especially in that
delicate and daring passage in which he speaks of the bonds, the
simpleness and even the narrowness of God. The wise man will follow a
star, low and large and fierce in the heavens; but the nearer he comes
to it the smaller and smaller it will grow, till he finds it the humble
lantern over some little inn or stable. Not till we know the high things
shall we know how lowly they are. Meanwhile, the modern superior
transcendentalist will find the facts of eternity incredible because
they are so solid; he will not recognise heaven because it is so like
the earth.


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