24 APRIL 1915, Page 38


"A MADMAN'S head "—that is what his contemporaries said of Blake's portrait. Was he mad ? Mr. Yeats in his biography of the poet says that he was sane. Yet the man he depicted in his long and charming memoir had "a madman's head." His earlier biographer, Mr. William Rossetti, had frankly declared him mad. Blake's latest critic, M. Berger, does not answer for his sanity. All the same, we feel as we read that M. Berger is bringing us into the presence of a visionary, but not a madman. The awful repellence which is the worst curse of mania is absent. Both Mr. Yeats and Mr. Rossetti, the former no doubt without intention, make it felt. M. Berger emphatically does not. Every reader of his book may long to have known Blake, to have talked alone with him and • MM.. DIAL, Pad {la Nydic. By P. Berm. Treaulated by Dental M. Comer, Loudon; Chapman and Mal, (.11.. net.]

entered into his wild mind, even in his wildest moods when his day.dreams became nightmares :—

"And his world teem'd vast enormities

Frighening, faithless, fawning, Portions of life; similitudes Of a foot, or a band, or a head,

Or a heart, or an eye : they swam mischievous."

Yet a door from this confused world opened into Heaven, into the Christian Heaven whereinto a man must enter as a child. No one ever described the ideal land of childhood, whence is discernible the beatific vision, as Blake described it. " The Echoing Green," "Piping Down the Valleys Wild," and "A Cradle Song" seem almost inspired, so perfect is their lyric melody, so shining their clarity, so deep their knowledge of innocence. The "Songs of Experience" are limpid and melodious, too, utterly unlike the turgid picture "teeming vast enormities," but far, far removed from " Heaven's gate built in Jerusalem's wall" into which the poet enters piping to the children. "As I was walking among the fires of hell . . . I collected some of their Proverbs," he writes upon one occasion; and he talks of an "Angel, who is now become a Devil," who was "my particular friend." We can imagine the " Songs of Experience" to be the outcome of the "sweet converse" of those two. Truly the compass of Blake's genius is almost too wide for sanity.

Blake lived the blameless, uneventful life of a good, industrious member of the middle class—the life of a towns- man who must work with his head for his bread from morning to night. "His atmosphere was that of crowded London, his horizon the four hare walls of an engraver's shop ; he knew of the fields only that which he could see on his rare walks round London." Later in life he went for a few years to Felpbam. The country fascinated his imagination, but only for a while. The London of his childhood called him as, sooner or later, London seems to call all her children. Brought up in a hosier's shop on the outskirts of Bloomsbury, he began very early to see visions. As a boy "he beheld a tree filled with angels, who sang and waved their glittering wings in the branches." His later visions had generally some spiritual meaning—for instance, he believed that he saw his brother's soul leave his body at the moment of death—but now and then they seemed only beautiful. Here is one seen by him in middle life. It is a lovely picture, nothing more. "I saw a procession of creatures, of the size and colour of green and grey grass- hoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose-leaf, which they buried with songs and then disappeared. It was a fairy funeral." "Majestic shadows, grey but luminous, and superior

to the common height of men," appeared constantly to him. • He believed himself to have talked with Christ, with Socrates,

with Elijah, and a hundred others. M. Berger thinks these visions to have been nervous phenomena resembling the hallucinations of the majority of mystics. On the other hand, he admits that to Blake himself they were real. The natural world around him was to Blake simply the country of his captivity. His true home was elsewhere. He died—when after seventy years of remarkably good health he came to die —in a mood of intense exaltation. M. Berger applies to his hero the words which Blake himself had used upon the death of a friend. He went "to his own eternal house, leaving the delusions of Goddess Nature and her laws to get into freedom."

But if Blake saw visions as the saints saw them, he was yet no saint in any accepted sense. He was completely without the virtue of humility, and, indeed, he disliked it, Re never mortified the flesh. He was, in spite of his correct life, the poet of theoretic free love, and he hated seserdotaliem with a deadly hatred. Marriage was, he thought, a thing created by priests, and that, rather than any natural sensualism, appeared to be the reason of his wholly theoretic hatred of its bonds. He fell in love at first eight, married young, lived in complete harmony with his wife— who was something of an artist, and helped him with all his work—and died in her arms declaring with almost his last breath that she had been an angel to him and they could never be divided. There can be no doubt that, hard as Blake struck at the family, he was a very domeetio man, a good son, and a good brother. It was a great misfortune that he had no children. None of his relations were very interesting, but be did his duty by them all, and to his brother

Robert he was devoted. James, his elder by some years, he apparently liked, though he pestered the careless genius with " timid sentences of bread and cheese advice." There was a black sheep in the family, another brother, to whom Blake was accustomed to allude as " the evil one," but whom be treated always with much kindness. Had Blake a sense of humour ? There seems no other evidence of it than this strange dignification of that familiar type of nuisance, the Bad Brother.

Blake's philosophical writings are simply unreadable by the ordinary person, even though he or she may, so far as his poetry is concerned, be counted among his worshippers. If this part of his work is not mad, it yet betrays his hatred of reason and logic in a manner to repel all but the most devoted admirers. A French mind with the French instinct for clear expression is hardly, perhaps, the best instrument for revealing the meaning of a mystic. Yet M. Berger has succeeded in making the ordinary man understand at least as much as Blake's other biographers. True, be does not expect completely to understand ; for Blake, ho complains, "could neither write a coherent chapter, nor connect the different sections of an argument, nor put together his thoughts so as to form a whole." Probably he could not, yet now and then, as M. Berger points out, a trenchant sentence gives the reader pause. Was there something of intentional ambiguity in his work? There is a form of vanity peculiar to genius, and it tempts men to emphasize their separation from the herd by occasional speech in an unknown tongue. From the "Proverbs of Hell" M. Berger quotes with great admiration: "If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise." Certainly it is a sentence full of wisdom. Perhaps the inconsequence of "the evil one" inspired Blake to say it 1 M. Berger does not quote three others which are as worthy, we think, of quotation : "Joys impregnate, sorrow brings forth"; " What is now proved was once only imagined"; If others had not been foolish we should be so." A fourth struck the present writer as he turned the pages of Mr. Yeats's edition of Blake's works. It also is described as a "Proverb of Hell," and is, we think, the only one which deserves the appellation, "Damn braces, bless relaxes." That is rather a cruel saying.

Did Blake believe in his own inspiration ? It is very difficult to say. His words about Edward Irving throw a light upon the matter. "Irving is a highly gifted man; he is a sent man; but they who are sent go further sometimes than they ought."

As we have said, it is strange that a Frenchman should become a student of Blake, and should write about him a delightful and illuminating book—one more little proof of our ever-closening relation with France.