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The chief faculty that is apparent in his work is a marvellous power of imitation, even of the spirit of great, as well as of
Section 26. I. He stands quite alone in the history of English literature, and by this isolation has gained posthumously enough of that which in life he would have died to have. But he is approached if not surpassed in English poetry by another singular character as isolated and as close to madness_William Blake. He was only five years younger than Chatterton and he was as precocious in his poetical ambitions and achievements; yet he lived on into the heart of the succeeding age, till 1827. He is also contrasted with “the marvellous boy that perished in his pride" by the absence of receptivity and imitativeness even in his earliest work. Chatterton's poetry varied with every new fashion of the time, every new ambition of his restless mind, every new poet or age that he studied. The new but rapidly prevailing taste of his generation was for the sham-antique and the part of his work by which he is best known was written to gratify this. Blake had from the very first a note and character of his own; his Poetical Sketches published in 1783 stand apart from the common currents of his time though they unconsciously represent the best of them; and the isolation grew upon him until he lived at last in a world that ordinary men called madness. He had never any -overpowering literary influence to struggle against in order to reach his distinctive note, as most poets have. His only marked tendencies are towards Elizabethan models in his simpler and more lyrical poems, and towards Ossianesque expression in his later and prophetic books.
2. Yet he is as true a symptom of the coming time, as important a stage in the evolution of English poetry, as Cowper. In simple themes, and simple, unconventional treatment of themes and diction, he not only anticipates Wordsworth, but transcends him by his revolt against what was artificial and traditional from the Queen Anne age. He is as open and clear in his early work as a child. He is
as religious as Cowper, and represents the primitive devotion and enthusiasm of the new audience. He has the same keen sympathy as that poet with nature and especially with animal life, and recognises the hand of God in every feature of the world. He is as simple in his faith and is as unaffected by the sceptical doubts or deistic rationalism so fashionable with contemporary men of thought and culture. He has the same enthusiasm for freedom and sensitiveness to the revolutionary atmosphere of his day. He hates with the same fervour the tyranny of laws and customs, and the injustices that the conventions of man inflict upon man and beast. And he looks with the same ardent passion, the same Rousseau-like one-sidedness to an ideal intercourse with nature, a primitive Eden stripped of human sophistication and free from the taint of sin. Even his method of poetic art has something akin to Cowper's. Both felt the demand on the part of the new audience for picture. Cowper satisfied this by his satirical portraits of types, by his landscapes especially winter landscapes and his pictures of the interiors of the middle class dwelling and the cottage. Blake gratified it by his pictorial ornamentation and illustration of his verse; it is this that explains the rarity of the picturesque style in his earlier work and its vagueness in his later. He was more inspired by the lyrical and allegorical elements of the Bible and of the literature of the middle classes. He therefore anticipates the passionately lyrical mood of poetry that in the nineteenth century so deeply affected Shelley and Tennyson. The inspiration of a prerevolutionary age pressed heavily upon him as it did upon so many of the poets of his time; the ideas and emotions of such a period become at times too urgent for any articulate form of expression that it has ready for them; and so madness or approach to madness is singularly common amongst the poets of the latter half of last century, Collins, Cowper, Chatterton, Blake; it is only the sensitive spirits that feel in the aching tissues of their system the prognostics of the coming tempest; and the pressure of the conflicting thoughts and elements dams up the power of clear utterance, disorders the mind, or impels to the anodyne of death. After the Revolution the flood-gates of expression are opened, and every phase of the new ideas finds issue in passionate melody. Blake never got clear of the obstruction; his power of utterance grew more and more hazy both in picture and in verse till much of it seemed delirium. His later poems and prose writings are metaphysics and allegory gone mad.
3. Born in 1757 he did not print till 1783. He was too poor to publish his Poetical Sketches; but some friends, including Flaxman, had them printed. He continued poor through his whole life; but as he was an engraver and artist he wrote his poems upon plates and etched their illustrations and thus issued his later volumes, his Songs of Innocence in 1787, The Book of Thel in 1789, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in 1790, The Gates of Paradise (For Children), and Visions of the Daughters of Albion and America, a Prophecy, in 1793, Europe a Prophecy, The Book of Urizen Part I, and Songs of Experience, in 1794, The Song of Los (Africa and Asia, Prophecies), and The Book of Ahania, in 1795, Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion, and Milton a poem in Two Books, in 1804, and The Ghost of Abel in 1822. French Revolution, a Poem in Seven Books : Book I.” he published in 1791; but he never touched it again. He continued to write in the nineteenth century
more than Shakespeare and Milton combined”; but he did not issue these writings. Parts of them have found their way into print through his various biographers and critics. The Poetical Sketches, The Songs of Innocence, and The Songs of Experience are the only portion of his writings that are clear enough to be included in literature ; and many pieces in the last are obscure enough to represent all his mystical developments.
4. The Poetical Sketches are said in the Advertisement to have been written between his twelfth and his twentieth year, and show more originality than anything of Chatterton's. The first piece is a dramatic fragment called King Edward the Third depicting the feelings of the English soldiers and leaders before the Battle of Cressy. It is evidently inspired by study of Shakespeare's Henry the Fourth, though it is far from being an echo or imitation
like so many of Chatterton's. Some of the speeches are strong enough and Elizabethan enough to have been written by the best of Shakespeare's fellow-dramatists. The court scene is the least powerful, noteworthy only for the assertion by a Bishop of the superiority of the claims of industry and commerce in England. In the camp scenes some of the sayings of Dagworth, Manny, Chandos, the King, and the Black Prince are quite Shakespearian in their power; they express the sentiments that are so often combined in Cowper's Task, adoration of freedom, patriotism, and sorrow over the woes of war.
“O Liberty, how glorious art thou !
I see thee hovering o'er my army, with
Thy sons shout the strong shout of victory !
I'll weep and shout for glorious liberty."
Where he doth rend the vault of heaven,
And shake the gates of hell !” The minstrel's song that closes the piece is unrhymed and Ossianesque, like so many of his very earliest pieces and his later mystical productions ; they might all be printed, as some of them were, in prose, and lose none of their rhythmic effect. The next two pieces are Prologues, one to an unwritten drama of Edward the Fourth and one to King John, both bewailing the devastations of tyranny and war in Ossianic style. The six unrhymed pieces that follow sometimes echo the Song of Solomon, but generally Ossian; they are To Spring, To Summer, to Autumn, to Winter, To the Evening Star, To Morning; they are more picturesque than his later and are full of beautiful imagery. That To Winter is the most vigorous, and that To the Evening Star the most instinct with beauty, containing as it does many lines like these ;
“ Let thy west wind sleep on
Andjwash the dusk with silver". Of the three other unrhymed pieces in the book there are a ghastly ballad of death called Fair Eleanor and a poem called Samson in the style and verse of Milton's Samson
Agonistes. Both show great power and fine imagination. 'Two stanzas from the former will suffice ;
“ My lord was like a star in highest heaven
Drawn down to earth by spells and wickedness;
When western winds creep softly o'er the flowers”.
She took the gory head up in her arms;
She hugged it to her breast and groaned her last ”. The songs that follow this have caught the true lyrical spirit of the Elizabethan age without approaching to imitation; a stanza or two will show their quality ;-one of Cupid ; " He loves to sit and hear me sing,
Then laughing, sports and plays with me;
And mocks my loss of liberty”.
" His face is fair as heaven,
When springing buds unfold;
Whose heart is wintry cold?
Where all love's pilgrims come". “Gwin, King of Norway” is a ballad fierce with revolt against tyranny and with hatred of war; it is simple and vigorous as any of the border ballads; “The God of war is drunk with blood,
The earth doth faint and fail ;
Ghosts glut the throat of hell”. This verse shows how his age has led him quite away from the delight in bloodshed so often apparent in his models. Against it is to be set an unrhymed lyric called " A War Song, To Englishmen”, although it is clearly to be taken as merely dramatic. “An imitation of Spenser" is as unlike Spenser as a poem well could be ; it is full of Blake and his age, and yet deals more in personified abstractions than any other of his poems.
" Blind-man's Buff” is an attempt to be humorously descriptive in the style of Gay,
5. In the twenty brief lyrics of the Songs of Innocence we have a complete anticipation of the style and themes of