WILLIAM BLAKE'S HOMES IN LAMBETH AND SUSSEX.
EVERY one knows the quickening of imagination which comes as the result of seeing the home and surroundings within which some life of great gifts or great achievements has been passed We feel it in Carlyle's house in Chelsea, in Dove Cottage at Grasmere, in the little Rectory house at Haworth:—each person can supply his own example. The colour seems to return wits
new vividness into all our thoughts, as we look round and tell ourselves that this was the very spot where a great mind lived and worked. And there is something specially moving when, as in Blake's case, the contrasts are so sharp between the outer world of narrow circumstance in which his life was passed and the boundless range and daring of its inner vision. He was a Londoner all his life—except for the three eventful years spent in a little Sussex village by the sea—and we can trace him, with scarcely a break, from one home to another. It is only a few years ago that the house in Fountain Court, Strand, where he died, was pulled down. His birthplace in Golden Square remains.
And there is the little red-brick house in Poland Street, No. 23— the Blakes' first settled married home—standing as Blake must have known it, shabby and dark now with the London smoke et a century and a half, a strange setting for the radiant beauty of the Songs of Innocence which were written and designed• within it. In 1793 Blake and his wife migrated to Lambeth, , to a house known now as 23 Hercules Road. It makes one of a terrace which has been condemned, and which waits, blackened, untenanted, glassless, behind its hoardings, for the coming of the housebreakers. Even in its present ruin it is worth -while to cross Westminster Bridge to gain a last sight of it before
it disappears, for it is without doubt the most interesting of all Blake's homes. The small brick Georgian houses of which No. 23 makes one are of a kind still often found in the older parts of London—well proportioned in their modest way, with bow windows at either end of the terrace which give a certain sense of design and dignity to the whole, whilst the mouldings and decorations round the doors and their small pediments are noticeable for what must have been once real grace and finish.
The front door of Blake's house is nailed up, and any one fortu- nate enough to gain an entrance must make his way through the passage of the house next it, and so into a tangled garden, all overgrown with vine and fig tree—the descendants, doubtless, of those trained by Mrs. Blake with so much loving care• into the arbour famous for its apocryphal legend of Adam and Eve, and for the prettier story of the Flaxman visits to the Blakes, and their tea-drinkings and music together. In summer time this jungle of greenery is thickened by a small forest of Jerusalem artichokes, left by later tenants, and by lilac bushes and bright double dahlias and marigolds. At every step the foot is caught by the trailing vine, and broken glass and waste rubbish lie everywhere underneath the tangle. And so we get to Blake's garden door, up a few shallow steps, and into the narrow passage with its little archway, which leads to the front door and the two rooms, back and front of the ground floor. Tatham, Blake's contemporary biographer, speaks of it as " a pretty, glean house of eight or ten rooms," where at first the Blakes lived in some comfort, keeping a servant. But finding—as Tatham puts it—" as Mrs. Blake declared, and as every one else knows, the more service the more inconvenience, she, like all sensible women who are possessed of health and industry, relinquished this incessant tax upon domestic comfort, did all the work herself, kept the house clean and herself tidy, besides printing Blake's numerous engravings, which was a task alone sufficient for any industrious woman."
" The Vale of Lambeth "—" Lambeth the Lamb's Bride," as Blake speaks of it in one of his prophecies—with fields and gardens, and open views over to the river and the towers of Westminster and the wide western sky, must have been a pleasant quarter at that time to live in. There is Wordsworth's Westminster Bridge sonnet, written in 1803, three years after the Blakes had left Lambeth, to bear witness to the beauty of London " open unto the fields and to the skies." It was in Hercules Buildings that they reached the high-water mark of their modest prosperity. Even now, the house, through its present decay, with ceilings and floors breaking
and doors hanging loose, shows its possibilities of comfort. The small square rooms are light and well proportioned ; there are still some pretty Georgian hob grates left, and the many roomy cup- boards suggest a use for Mrs. Blake's neat household skill, and for the housing of Blake's copperplates and engraving tools. The Songs of Experience belong to this time, and it was on the stairs here that Blake had the great vision of the Ancient of Days with the measuring compass which was to become one of the most famous of his designs. Here, too, his mind took its sudden turn of direction—his imagination running like a mill-stream—and began the immense series of prophetical writings, visions he called them, into which for ten or twelve years he poured all the force of his astonishing invention. Vision's of the Daughters of Albion, America : a Prophecy, Europe, Urizen, the Song of Los, Ahania, The Four Zoos, all bear on their title-pages the name Lambeth, and a date between 1793 and 1800. Milton and Jerusalem, the two final visions which
gather up and interpret all that have gone before, belong to a later time. No one can stand before this blackened shell of a home, once alive with so much fire and passionate vision, without a sense of awe, as they think of the " treasure in earthen vessels," of this great spirit.
It is not perhaps quite fanciful to think that the open skies and sunset clouds of Lambeth had their influence on this outburst of visionary power. And there followed a still greater experience, when Blake and his wife went down to Felpham in Sussex, and for the first time Blake came within sight of the sea. His letters and verses show how wonderful in its strength, and delight this new revelation was. The open sea, the low shore, the Sussex Downs, the freedom and solitude and crystal air, the unaccustomed sights—all seemed charged with new significance and wonder. Blake's cottage there still remains, secured now by the Blake Society from change or destruction. A turn from the village street brings you to the little wicket-gate, and 'through that to the low thatched veranda which shuts out light and sun from
the lower rooms. A strip of garden lies in front, and beyond, a minute's walk over rough grass brings you to the shore of shingle and the open sea itself, with views to Selsey and to the Downs five.
miles away. NO tiny six-roomed- cottage, with its " thatch of rusted gold," can surely ever have been so spiritually discerned' before :—
" We are safe arrived at our cottage," Blake writes toTlaxman, " which is more beautiful than I thought it, and more convenient. It is a.. perfect model for cottages, and I think, for palaces of magnificence, only enlarging, not altering its proportions, and adding ornaments, not principles. Nothing can be more grand than its simplicity and ,usefulness. Simple without intricacy, it seems to be the spontaneous expression of humanity, congenial to the wants of man."
And to Mr. Butts he writes, a day later:— "The villagers of Felpham are not mere rustics, they are modest' and polite. Meat is cheaper than in London, but the sweet air and the voices of winds, trees, and birds, and the odours of the happy ground, make it a dwelling for immortals. Work will go on here with God- speed. A roller and two harrows lie before my window. I met a plough on my first going out at my gate the first morning after my arrival, and the ploughboy said to the ploughman, ' Father, the gate is open.' " New inspiration came with these new surroundings, and he set himself passionately to work at the last and greatest of his visions, Milton and Jerusalem, pressing into their service all this wealth of fresh experience—the wonders of sea and sky and storm, the beauty of spring mornings, of birds and flowers, the homely country labour in the fields, all seen under the light of apocalypse, together, too,_ with the misunderstandings and quarrels and disillusions which by degrees took the place of the first rapture, and which in three years' time drove him back to London, with the terror in his heart that his powers were failing—" The visions were angry with me," he said,
as the longing grew to escape.
But it is to Lambeth and Felpham that we owe that mass of writing, so perplexing in its contrasts of violence and obscure allegory, and of delicate, touching beauty which seems Blake's special preroga- tive, and which in so many strange ways he used to set forth his message to the world—the redemption of humanity by the doming of the Lamb of God, and the building up of Jerusalem in peace and love and service, " in England's green and pleasant land.".