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was rewarded by a shower of scurrilous epigrams, one of which imputed that he had“ hired” the accuser. Stothard, a friend of many years' standing, Blake suddenly charged, on grounds which Mr. Gilchrist admits to have been imaginary, with having stolen his design for the “ Canterbury Pilgrimage,” and proceeded to vilify as an ignorant blunderer who owed everything to him except a “heart of iron," a “head of wood," and a “face of brass." This coarse abuse of his friends might be excused as the language of passion, but in the invective which he employed against his compeers and antagonists it is difficult to avoid seeing a deliberate animus. Sir Joshua Reynolds and Gainsborough were stigmatized as rival blotters and blurrers, whose popularity was a national disgrace. Of the former especially Blake entertained a fanatical hatred, alike as artist, critic, and man. His copy of the “Discourses on Art” is annotated with such comments as these upon the opinions with which he disagreed—“ villainy;" “a lie;" "damned fool;” “a liar, he never was abashed in his life and never felt his ignorance ;" "pitiful and pitiable imbecility;" “the simulation of the hypocrite who smiles particularly when he means to betray;" “ Such artists as Reynolds are at all times hired by the Satans for the depression of art; a pretence of art, to destroy art.” Elsewhere he accuses his successful contemporary of having hired “a gang of cunning ruffians” to oppress his genius and prevent it from obtaining recognition.
His professional competitors, the engravers Strange, Woolett, Heath, and Bartolozzi, he described as “ blunderers," " imitators, or worse; the two first were reviled as “heavy lumps of cunning ignorance," and their works as proceeding from “ignorant journeymen like those of Titian and Correggio.” It will be seen that the most reverend names in the annals of Art fared no better than the humblest if they had the misfortune to differ from him in theory or practice. « Titian and the Venetians were idiots, not artists."
The unorganized blots and blurs of Rubens and Titian are not art, neither can their method ever express ideas or imagination.
I do not condemn Rubens, Rembrandt, or Titian because they did not understand drawing, but because they did not understand colouring. Talk no
more then of Correggio or Rembrandt or any other of these plagiaries of Venice or Flanders. They were but the lame imitators of lines drawn by their predecessors, and their works prove themselves contemptible, disarranged imitations, and blundering, misapplied copies."*
* Mr. William Rossetti's attempt (Memoir, p. 107) to excuso this drivelling on the plea of Blake's ignorance of tho genuine works of the masters whom he reviled, will not bear examination. Malkin oxpressly states that he had had early in life “opportunities of seeing pictures in the houses of noblemen and gentlemen, ard in the King's palaces." He had at least the same means of access to Titian and Correggio as to Raffaelle and Michel Angelo, yiz., through engravings. If, however, it be true that “ Blake had never yet seen a genuine (or at any rato a first-class) Titian," his violent dogmatism was the more unwarrantable,
Side by side with these estimates of others must be read Blake's valuation of himself.
“He knows that what he does is not inferior to the grandest antiques. Superior it cannot be, for human power cannot go beyond either what he does or what they have done ; it is the gift of God; it is inspiration and vision.” “Rubens, Titian, Correggio, and all of that class, are like leather and chalk; their men are like leather, and their women liko chalk, for the disposition of their forms will not admit of grand colouring. In Mr. Blake's Britons * the blood is seen to circulate in the limbs; he defies competition in colouring.” Of his exhibited works generally he writes :
" It is not the want of genius that can hereafter be laid to our charge ; the artist who has done these pictures and drawings will take care of that: let those who govern the nation take care of the other.” “I do not pretend to paint better than Raphael or Michel Angelo or Giulio Romano or Albert Dürer, but I do pretend to paint finer than Rubens or Rembrandt or Correggio or Titian.”+
After these specimens of Blake's “constant decisive words,” the reader is in a position to say whether Mr. D. G. Rossetti's confidence in them as justifying the charge of plagiarism against Flaxman and Stothard be well-founded or otherwise. In later life Blake's acerbities seem to have considerably abated, and he became the centre of a small circle of reverential disciples, of whom the survivors testify to his lovable character; but the language above quoted is that of his middle age, when he underwent the “neglect” of which he complained so bitterly. I Is there not a manifest connection between the two ? Can any one be surprised that an artist so self-asserting and disdainful of others, so loose of affirmation, and vituperative in condemnation, should have been the object of animosity and aversion? We doubt if Blake's advocates have been wise in challenging the evidence for a supposition which would afford the one effectual excuse for his aberrations of thought, act, and speech. But their policy of elevating his merits into high light, and sinking his defects into shadow, has been consistently pursued. Mr. Gilchrist's gushing enthusiasm, Mr. D. G. Rossetti's confident admiration, Mr. Swinburne's reckless championship, and Mr. William Rossetti's deferential criticism, though differing in degree, are alike in kind, and animated by a common impulse.
The question proposed at starting must now be answered. Is there any special attraction in Blake's gifts which may explain the fascination he has exercised? The charm of tender sentiment and musical verse, allied to graceful illustration, would legitimately account for the value set upon “ The Songs of Innocence.” The
* In his picture of the Ancient Britons. # Descriptive Catalogue, and Public Address, passim ; Gilchrist, vol. ii. pp. 120-176.
As usual with men who are their own worst enemies, ho believed the world to be in. a conspiracy to injure him. See the verses “Why was I born with a different face ?" &c.
- Poetical Works, p. 233.
. occasional grandeur and beauty of conception and execution shown in the designs to “ The Grave,” the “ Night Thoughts,” and “ Job,” would be sufficient to win for them the approbation of discerning students, in spite of their many shortcomings. The grotesqueness and unreality of the designs to the prophetic books might arouse curiosity, and afford matter for a nine days' wonder. But all this is inadequate to explain the passionate zeal with which a small number of men distinguished in art and letters have proclaimed Blake as an original genius, a prophet and martyr of whom the world was not worthy while he lived, and whose sepulchre it behoves the present generation to build. We would rather suggest than impute a motive that seems adequate to account for it, but the operation of which they cannot themselves have recognized. Is it a fact without significance that those by whom the Blake-cultus has been most actively diffused are members of a coterie which has identified itself with extreme views in theology, ethics, and politics? Does any one believe that if Blake had been, say, a Calvinist and Conservative, we should have heard of his artistic and prophetic inspiration from those who now avouch it? If the doubt does them injustice, they have none but themselves to thank for it. The prominent relief into which Mr. Swinburne brings the prophet's “rebellion " against the most sacred codes and creeds of his time and our own; the inordinate space and elaborate attention devoted to expounding his oracles and manifestoes, and helping to plant their blows most effectively against “«that twice-battered god of Palestine, round which all Philistia rallies” (p. 136); the tolerance extended to their worst defects of expression, provided the thought be sufficiently heretical; what construction but one can be put upon these symptoms? Would an artist so impatient of bad verse, “a thing not in the least bearable," be so lenient to the
doggrel” of “ The Everlasting Gospel,” than much of which he admits none “ can be rougher, looser, heavier-weighted” (p. 159), were it not useful as a sling wherewith to slay the Philistine? Would a poet's sensitive ear find a “supremely noble and enjoyable effect of verse,” a “cadence hardly to be matched anywhere,” (p. 137) in two such lines as
"Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs and flaming hair,"
of which the first absolutely hisses with sibilants, unless the sentiment itself had been the real source of the music? Would Mr. William Rossetti, whose impartiality as a biographer is otherwise unimpeachable, refer so often to Blake's having retained his
“ republican and liberty-loving” opinions to the last, but pass by in silence the conflicting evidence on the subject cited in our first paper, unless he were biassed by his own love of those opinions to idealize his hero's? If this prepossession were not unusually pronounced, he would hardly be so careful to assure us, à propos de bottes, in how much honour he holds “the survivors of the muchmaligned Parisian Commune” (p. 81). Why such pains, again, to prove, on the strength of one or two isolated expressions, that Blake was really a Pantheist, in the teeth of his repeated avowals of Theism, unless the necessity had presented itself of bringing the opinions of a deceased teacher, whose name was still good to conjure with, into some sort of harmony with the current philosophy of his party? We shall be glad to be set right if we are wrong, but the impression forced upon us by the tone of Blake's most zealous advocates, that he has chiefly been commended to their acceptance by his serviceableness as a stalkinghorse for revolutionary propaganda, is so distinct that it would be uncandid to conceal it. That sympathy with the teacher should influence the judgment respecting the artist would not be surprising in ordinary men, but that the apostles of “art for art's sake" should thus violate their own canon is a crowning proof of human frailty.
“Be to his virtues very kind,
Be to his faults a little blind," however admirable as a rule in friendship, is absolutely fatal in criticism.
When a grocer advertises his second-rate tea as “the finest in the world,” one condones his deceptive language on the ground of the impossibility that it should really deceive. But attempts, with or without motive, to elevate inferior art to the rank of the greatest by all the pomp and splendour of rhetoric, loading it with excessive eulogy, and selecting the most illustrious comparisons to do it honour, cannot be so lightly forgiven. Proceeding from writers to whom many look up as authoritative leaders of asthetic opinion, they are calculated to work grave mischief. After reading some of Mr. Gilchrist's or Mr. Swinburne's sentences, wherein the loftiest superlative adjectives are employed to glorify performances of Blake's which shrink into insignificance when measured by the highest standards, one is obliged to ask, what words of praise are henceforth available for Shakespeare and Raffaelle? Their truest lovers must be silent if language is to be expended in such a reckless fashion. No doubt, extravagant attempts of this kind generally defeat themselves, and are doomed to certain failure as soon as public intelligence is rightly informed, but meantime much useful enthusiasm, of which the supply is never too abundant, has been misdirected and wasted. Nor does the mischief end here; for the intellectual, like the bodily taste, is but too liable to depravation, and may become so accustomed to the monstrous or the bizarre in art that, in spite of better knowledge, it can relish no other. There is but one remedy for such a case—viz., rigid abstinence from the beloved dainties, and a long course of wholesome diet. Or, to revert to a former illustration, let any one who has habituated himself to an idolatry which he cherishes but cannot justify, try the experiment of forsaking it for a while, and worshipping exclusively at shrines indisputably consecrated, divinities removed from the risk alike of undue exaltation and depreciation, the types of perfect genius with which it is the vain ambition of imperfect genius to be comparable. Their quiet dignity and simplicity may at first repel him, but if he persevere long enough in his devotion, he will come to wonder that vehemence, grotesqueness, and incoherence could ever have had any charm for him.
* CONTEMPORARY REVIEW, October, 1876, p. 777, note.