Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 2. Poetical Sketches

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

IX. Blake

§ 2. Poetical Sketches

At the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to James Basire, the engraver, who sent him to make drawings of monuments in Westminster abbey and other ancient churches in and about London. Thus, he came under the direct influence of Gothic art, which increased its hold upon his imagination, till it finally appeared to him the supreme expression of all truth, while classicism was the embodiment of all error. After leaving Basire, he studied for a time in the antique school of the Royal Academy, and then began work as an engraver on his own account. Shortly after his marriage in 1782, Flaxman introduced him to Mrs. Mathew, a famous blue-stocking. The outcome of this was the printing of Poetical Sketches (1783) at the expense of these two friends. In the Advertisement, by another hand than Blake’s, the contents of this slight volume are said to have been written between the ages of twelve and twenty; while Malkin, apparently quoting Blake, asserts that the song “How sweet I roam’d from field to field” was composed before his fourteenth year. But his earliest writings seem to have been in the distinctly rhythmical prose of the fragment known as The Passions, which, like similar pieces included in Poetical Sketches, is a juvenile essay in the inflated style and overstrained pathos that gave popularity to Gesner’s Death of Abel.

But Blake’s early verse stands in quite another class. Much of it, indeed, is more directly imitative than his later work; yet this is due less to slavish copying than to an unconscious recognition of the community between his own romantic spirit and that of our older poetry. Spenserian stanza, early Shakespearean and Miltonic blank verse, ballad form, octosyllabics and lyric metres, all are tried, with least success in the blank verse, but often with consummate mastery in the lighter measures. One who met Blake in these years says that he occasionally sang his poems to melodies of his own composing, and that “these were sometimes most singularly beautiful.” It is, therefore, not improbable that these lyrics were composed to music, like the songs of Burns or of the Elizabethans.

His genuine delight in the older verse preserved him from the complacency with which his age regarded its own versification. Like Keats, but with more justice, he laments, in his lines To the Muses, the feeble, artificial and meagre achievement of the time. His notes are neither languid nor forced, but remarkably varied and spontaneous. Even in his less perfect work, there is not any abatement of fresh enthusiasm, but, rather, an overtasking of powers not yet fully equipped for high flights. So, in the midst of Fair Elenor, a tale of terror and wonder, and sorry stuff in the main, occur passages like the stanza beginning

  • My lord was like a flower upon the brows
  • Of lusty May! Ah life as frail as flower!
  • while there is something more than promise in the youth who could capture the sense of twilight and evening star so completely as Blake in the lines
  • Let thy west wind sleep on
  • The lake: speak silence with thy glimmering eyes
  • And wash the dusk with silver.
  • The six songs, which include almost all Blake’s love-poetry, illustrate the versatility of his early genius. “How sweet I roam’s” anticipates, in a remarkable way, the spirit and imagery of La Belle Dame, though, perhaps, it has less of romantic strangeness and the glamour of faerie than of sheer joy, the Elizabethan wantonness of love, so wonderfully re-embodied in My silks and fine array. The remaining four pieces are in a homelier vein, and more closely personal in tone. Like his poems on the seasons, they reveal, in spite of a slight conventionality in expression, a sincere delight in nature, quickening rural sights and sounds into sympathy with his own mood. Yet, he was so far of his age that he shrank from the idea of solitude in nature; knowing only the closely cultivated districts of Middlesex and Surrey, he held that “where man is not, Nature is barren.” But, apart from their freer, if still limited, appreciation of natural beauty, these songs are noteworthy by reason of their revelation of a new spirit in love. Burns was to sing on this theme out of pure exuberance of physical vitality; in Blake, love awes passion to adoration in the simple soul.

    The wide range of poetic power in Blake is proved by the distance between the gentleness of these pieces and the tense emotion of Mad Song. Saintsbury has dealt at length with its prosodic excellence: particularly, in the first stanza, the sudden change in metre carries a vivid suggestion of frenzy breaking down, at its height, into dull despair. Stricken passion seems bared to the nerves; each beat of the verse is like a sharp cry, rising to the haunted terror of the closing lines.

    The incomplete chronicle-play King Edward the Third is chiefly of interest as indicating Blake’s juvenile sympathies and the limitations of his genius. He had little of the dramatic instinct, as his “prophetic” writings prove, while his vehement denial of the validity of temporal existence cut him off from the ordinary themes of tragedy and comedy. And, even in this early work, he is chiefly occupied, not with any development of the plot, but with the consideration of abstract moral questions. His characters are all projections of his own personality, and the action halts while they discourse on points of private and civic virtue. Yet, the spirit behind the work is generous, and occasional passages come nearer to Shakespeare than most of the more pretentious efforts of the time. So, too, A War Song to Englishmen, though over-rhetorical in parts, is a stirring thing in an age that produced little patriotic verse.