Meeting Blake for the First Time, by Henry Crabb Robinson

Seeing Blake Plain

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Life mask of Blake, taken in 1823

“Of all the records of his latter years,” the poet and critic Swinburne once noted of Blake, “the most valuable, perhaps, are those furnished by Mr. Crabb Robinson, whose cautious and vivid transcription of Blake’s actual speech is worth more than much vague remark, or than any commentary now possible to give.” Others may have understood Blake better than Crabb Robinson – by profession a lawyer and journalist – but no one else was so attentive to his speech, which he carefully recorded in his private diaries (eventually published in 1869 as Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence).

The extraordinary accounts of his meetings with Blake help to answer some key questions: What did Blake sound like? How did he engage with others – what was it like to be in Blake’s company? Thanks to Crabbe Robinson’s remarkable and meticulously recorded entries, we can gain entry and access into Blake’s private world – a sense of what it was like to be the same room as Blake. And also to hear his thoughts – “on art, and on poetry, and on religion” as Crabb Robinson summarises it – including Blake’s view of the nature of imagination, the two Suns, having met Socrates, why there is suffering as well as joy in heaven, his criticism of Jesus, the prelapsarian union of the sexes, Wordsworth’s atheism, and why education is the great sin.

 

EXTRACTS FROM THE DIARY, REMINISCENCES, AND CORRESPONDENCES OF HENRY CRABB ROBINSON

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10th December 1825 … Dined with Aders [Karl and Elizabeth Aders, who owned the most important collection of northern European painting in London at that time]. A very remarkable and interesting evening. The party, Blake the painter, and Linnell—also a painter and engraver—to dinner. In the evening came Miss Denman and Miss Flaxman.

by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

Portrait of Thomas Phillips, 1807

I will put down as they occur to me without method all I can recollect of the conversation of this remarkable man. Shall I call him Artist or Genius—or Mystic—or Madman? Probably he is all. He has a most interesting appearance. He is now old—pale with a Socratic countenance, and an expression of great sweetness, but bordering on weakness—except when his features are animated by expression, and then he has an air of inspiration about him.

The conversation was on art, and on poetry, and on religion; but it was my object, and I was successful, in drawing him out, and in so getting from him an avowal of his peculiar sentiments. I was aware before of the nature of his impressions, or I should at times have been at a loss to understand him.

He was shewn soon after he entered the room some compositions of Mrs. Aders which he cordially praised. And he brought with him an engraving of his Canterbury Pilgrims for Aders. One of the figures resembled one in one of Aders’s pictures. ‘They say I stole it from this picture, but I did it 20 years before I knew of the picture—however, in my youth I was always studying this kind of painting. No wonder there is a resemblance.’ In this he seemed to explain humanly what he had done, but he at another time spoke of his paintings as being what he had seen in his visions. And when he said my visions it was in the ordinary unemphatic tone in which we speak of trivial matters that every one understands and cares nothing about.

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“he brought with him an engraving of his Canterbury Pilgrims”

 

My Visions

In the same tone he said repeatedly, the ‘Spirit told me.’ I took occasion to say—You use the same word as Socrates used. What resemblance do you suppose is there between your spirit and the spirit of Socrates?  ‘The same as between our countenance.’ He paused and added—’I was Socrates.’ And then, as if correcting himself, ‘A sort of brother. I must have had conversations with him. So I had with Jesus Christ. I have an obscure recollection of having been with both of them.’

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“A sort of brother”: Blake had a “snub nose” (as he put it) – as indeed Socrates also famously had

It was before this, that I had suggested on very obvious philosophical grounds the impossibility of supposing an immortal being created—an eternity a parte post without an eternity a parte ante. This is an obvious truth I have been many (perhaps 30) years fully aware of. His eye brightened on my saying this, and he eagerly concurred—’To be sure it is impossible. We are all co-existent with God—members of the Divine body. We are all partakers of the Divine nature.’

In this, by the bye, Blake has but adopted an ancient Greek idea—query of Plato? As connected with this idea I will mention here (though it formed part of our talk, walking homeward) that on my asking in what light he viewed the great question concerning the Divinity of Jesus Christ, he said ‘He is the only God.‘ But then he added—’And so am I and so are you.’

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“He was wrong in suffering Himself to be crucified”

Now he had just before (and this occasioned my question) been speaking of the errors of Jesus Christ—He was wrong in suffering Himself to be crucified. Connecting as well as one can these fragmentary sentiments, it would be hard to give Blake’s station between Christianity, Platonism, and Spinozism. Yet he professes to be very hostile to Plato, and reproaches Wordsworth with being not a Christian but a Platonist.

It is one of the subtle remarks of Hume on certain religious speculations that the tendency of them is to make men indifferent to whatever takes place by destroying all ideas of good and evil. I took occasion to apply this remark to something Blake said. If so, I said, there is no use in discipline or education, no difference between good and evil.

He hastily broke in on me—’There is no use in education. I hold it wrong. It is the great sin. It is eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That was the fault of Plato—he knew of nothing but of the virtues and vices and good and evil. There is nothing in all that. Every thing is good in God’s eyes.’

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“The great sin”: Blake believed that what “education” actually teaches us is obedience, conformity, and a perverse form of intellectual superiority – of needing to be “right”

On my putting the obvious question—Is there nothing absolutely evil in what men do? ‘I am no judge of that. Perhaps not in God’s Eyes.’ Though on this and other occasions he spoke as if he denied altogether the existence of evil, and as if we had nothing to do with right and wrong. It being sufficient to consider all things as alike the work of God. [I interposed with the German word objectively, which he approved of.]

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“‘Do you think there is any purity in God’s eyes?” Blake believed that the idea of “purity” was a toxic left-brain (Urizenic) concept, as in its obsession with “pure” mathematics, “pure” logic, and “pure” reason. Bodies aren’t pure, thank God.

Yet at other times he spoke of error as being in heaven. I asked about the moral character of Dante in writing his Vision: was he pure?’ ‘Pure’ said Blake. ‘Do you think there is any purity in God’s eyes? The angels in heaven are no more so than we—”he chargeth his angels with folly.”‘ He afterwards extended this to the Supreme Being—he is liable to error too. Did he not repent him that he had made Nineveh?

It is easier to repeat the personal remarks of Blake than these metaphysical speculations so nearly allied to the most opposite systems. He spoke with seeming complacency of himself—said he acted by command. The spirit said to him, ‘Blake, be an artist and nothing else.’ In this there is felicity. His eye glistened while he spoke of the joy of devoting himself solely to divine art. ‘Art is inspiration. When Michael Angelo or Raphael or Mr. Flaxman does any of his fine things, he does them in the spirit.’ Blake said, ‘I should be sorry if I had any earthly fame, for whatever natural glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory. I wish to do nothing for profit. I wish to live for art. I want nothing whatever. I am quite happy.’

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“Swedenborg corrected many errors of Popery, and also of Luther and Calvin”

Among the more remarkable sentiments which he was continually expressing is his distinction between the natural and the spiritual world. The natural world must be consumed. Incidentally Swedenborg was spoken of. He was a divine teacher—he has done much good, and will do much good—he has corrected many errors of Popery, and also of Luther and Calvin. Yet he also said that Swedenborg was wrong in endeavouring to explain to the rational faculty what the reason cannot comprehend: he should have left that.

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“Does Mr. Wordsworth think his mind can surpass Jehovah?”

As Blake mentioned Swedenborg and Dante together I wished to know whether he considered their visions of the same kind. As far as I could collect, he does. Dante he said was the greater poet. He had political objects. Yet this, though wrong, does not appear in Blake’s mind to affect the truth of the vision. Strangely inconsistent with this was the language of Blake about Wordsworth. Wordsworth he thinks is no Christian but a Platonist. He asked me, ‘Does he believe in the Scriptures?’ On my answering in the affirmative he said he had been much pained by reading the introduction to the Excursion. It brought on a fit of illness. The passage was produced and read:

‘Jehovah—with his thunder, and the choir

Of shouting Angels, and the empyreal thrones,

I pass them unalarmed.’

This pass them unalarmed greatly offended Blake. ‘Does Mr. Wordsworth think his mind can surpass Jehovah?’ I tried to twist this passage into a sense corresponding with Blake’s own theories, but failed, and Wordsworth was finally set down as a pagan. But still with great praise as the greatest poet of the age.

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“There is suffering in heaven, for where there is the capacity of enjoyment, there is the capacity of pain”

Jacob Boehmen was spoken of as a divinely inspired man. Blake praised, too, the figures in Law’s translation as being very beautiful. Michael Angelo could not have done better. Though he spoke of his happiness, he spoke of past sufferings, and of sufferings as necessary. ‘There is suffering in heaven, for where there is the capacity of enjoyment, there is the capacity of pain.’

I have been interrupted by a call from Talfourd in writing this account—and I can not now recollect any distinct remarks—but as Blake has invited me to go and see him I shall possibly have an opportunity again of noting what he says, and I may be able hereafter to throw connection, if not system, into what I have written above.

I feel great admiration and respect for him—he is certainly a most amiable man—a good creature —and of his poetical and pictorial genius there is no doubt, I believe, in the minds of judges. Wordsworth and Lamb like his poems, and the Aders his paintings.

 

Detached Thoughts

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“Dante saw Devils where I see none”

A few other detached thoughts occur to me:

Bacon, Locke, and Newton are the three great teachers of Atheism or of Satan’s doctrine.

 

Every thing is Atheism which assumes the reality of the natural and unspiritual world.

 

Dante saw Devils where I see none. I see only good. I saw nothing but good in Calvin’s house—better than in Luther’s; he had harlots.

 

Swedenborg. Parts of his scheme are dangerous. His sexual religion is dangerous.

 

I do not believe that the world is round. I believe it is quite flat. I objected the circumnavigation. We were called to dinner at the moment, and I lost the reply.

 

The Sun. ‘I have conversed with the Spiritual Sun—I saw him on Primrose hill. He said, “Do you take me for the Greek Apollo?” “No,” I said, “that” [and Blake pointed to the sky] “that is the Greek Apollo. He is Satan.”’

 

‘I know what is true by internal conviction. A doctrine is told me—my heart says it must be true.’ I corroborated this by remarking on the impossibility of the unlearned man judging of what are called the external evidences of religion, in which he heartily concurred.

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The Great Sleepwalkers: “Bacon, Locke, and Newton are the three great teachers of Atheism”

I regret that I have been unable to do more than set down these seeming idle and rambling sentences. The tone and manner are incommunicable. There is a natural sweetness and gentility about Blake which are delightful. And when he is not referring to his Visions he talks sensibly and acutely. His friend Linnel seems a great admirer.

 

Fountain Court

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Blake’s room in Fountain Court. “I live in a hole here,’ he once said, ‘but God has a beautiful mansion for me elsewhere.”

17th December. For the sake of connection I will here insert a minute of a short call I this morning made on Blake. He dwells in Fountain Court in the Strand. I found him in a small room, which seems to be both a working-room and a bedroom. Nothing could exceed the squalid air both of the apartment and his dress, but in spite of dirt—I might say filth—an air of natural gentility is diffused over him. And his wife, notwithstanding the same offensive character of her dress and appearance, has a good expression of countenance, so that I shall have a pleasure in calling on and conversing with these worthy people.

infernoc03l1-10_lgI found him at work on Dante. The book (Cary) and his sketches both before him. He shewed me his designs, of which I have nothing to say but that they evince a power of grouping and of throwing grace and interest over conceptions most monstrous and disgusting, which I should not have anticipated.

Our conversation began about Dante. ‘He was an “Atheist,” a mere politician busied about this world as Milton was, till in his old age he returned back to God whom he had had in his childhood.’

I tried to get out from Blake that he meant this charge only in a higher sense, and not using the word Atheism in its popular meaning. But he would not allow this. Though when he in like manner charged Locke with Atheism and I remarked that Locke wrote on the evidences of piety and lived a virtuous life, he had nothing to reply to me nor reiterated the charge of wilful deception. I admitted that Locke’s doctrine leads to Atheism, and this seemed to satisfy him.

From this subject we passed over to that of good and evil, in which he repeated his former assertions more decidedly. He allowed, indeed, that there is error, mistake, etc., and if these be evil—then there is evil, but these are only negations. Nor would he admit that any education should be attempted except that of cultivation of the imagination and fine arts. ‘What are called the vices in the natural world are the highest sublimities in the spiritual world.’

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“the empire of nothing”: 96% of the universe is missing, and the rest of it is composed of quantum probabilities

We spoke of the Devil, and I observed that when I was a child I thought the Manichæan doctrine or that of the two principles a rational one. He assented to this, and in confirmation asserted that he did not believe in the omnipotence of God. ‘The language of the Bible on that subject is only poetical or allegorical.’  Yet soon after he denied that the natural world is anything. ‘It is all nothing, and Satan’s empire is the empire of nothing.’

He reverted soon to his favourite expression, my Visions. ‘I saw Milton in imagination, and he told me to beware of being misled by his Paradise Lost. In particular he wished me to show the falsehood of his doctrine that the pleasures of sex arose from the fall. The fall could not produce any pleasure.’ I answered, the fall produced a state of evil in which there was a mixture of good or pleasure. And in that sense the fall may be said to produce the pleasure. But he replied that the fall produced only generation and death. And then he went off upon a rambling state of a union of sexes in man as in Ovid, an androgynous state, in which I could not follow him.

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The division of man from his emanation which seems to have so confused Crabb Robinson

As he spoke of Milton’s appearing to him, I asked whether he resembled the prints of him. He answered, ‘All.’ Of what age did he appear to be? ‘Various ages—sometimes a very old man.’ He spoke of Milton as being at one time a sort of classical Atheist, and of Dante as being now with God.

Of the faculty of Vision, he spoke as one he has had from early infancy. He thinks all men partake of it, but it is lost by not being cultivated. And he eagerly assented to a remark I made, that all men have all faculties to a greater or less degree. I am to renew my visits, and to read Wordsworth to him, of whom he seems to entertain a high idea.

Saturday 24th. A call on Blake. My third interview. I read him Wordsworth’s incomparable ode, which he heartily enjoyed.  Again he repeated today, ‘I fear Wordsworth loves Nature—and Nature is the work of the Devil. The Devil is in us, as far as we are Nature.’ On my enquiring whether the Devil would not be destroyed by God as being of less power, he denied that God has any power—asserted that the Devil is eternally created not by God, but by God’s permission. And when I objected that permission implies power to prevent, he did not seem to understand me. It was remarked that the parts of Wordworth’s ode which he most enjoyed were the most obscure and those I the least like and comprehend. . . .

 

1826

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Blake’s extraordinary engravings of the Book of Job, which he began in 1823 (aged 66) and completed in 1826. They show him at the highest of his powers, and are widely considered his masterpiece in the medium of engraving

6th. January. A call on Blake.  He was very cordial to-day. I had procured him two subscriptions for his Job from Geo. Procter and Bas. Montague. I paid £1 on each. This, probably, put him in spirits, more than he was aware of—he spoke of his being richer than ever on having learned to know me, and he told Mrs. A. he and I were nearly of an opinion. Yet I have practised no deception intentionally, unless silence be so. He renewed his complaints, blended with his admiration of Wordsworth. The oddest thing he said was that he had been commanded to do certain things, that is, to write about Milton, and that he was applauded for refusing—he struggled with the Angels and was victor. His wife joined in the conversation. . . .

18th February. Jos. Wedd breakfasted with me. Then called on Blake. He gave me, copied out by himself, Wordsworth’s preface to his Excursion. At the end he has added this note:—

‘Solomon, when he married Pharaoh’s daughter, became a convert to the Heathen Mythology, talked exactly in this way of Jehovah as a very inferior object of man’s contemplations; he also passed him by unalarmed, and was permitted. Jehovah dropped a tear and followed him by his Spirit into the abstract void. It is called the divine Mercy. Satan dwells in it, but mercy does not dwell in him.’

Of Wordsworth he talked as before. Some of his writings proceed from the Holy Ghost, but then others are the work of the Devil. However, I found on this subject Blake’s language more in conformity with Orthodox Christianity than before. He talked of the being under the direction of Self; and of Reason as the creature of man and opposed to God’s grace. And warmly declared that all he knew was in the Bible, but then he understands by the Bible the spiritual sense.

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Blake’s ‘visionary head’ of Voltaire, c. 1820.

For as to the natural sense, that Voltaire was commissioned by God to expose. ‘I have had much intercourse with Voltaire, and he said to me “I blasphemed the Son of Man, and it shall be forgiven me. But they (the enemies of Voltaire) blasphemed the Holy Ghost in me, and it shall not be forgiven them.”‘ I asked in what language Voltaire spoke—he gave an ingenious answer. ‘To my sensation it was English. It was like the touch of a musical key. He touched it probably French, but to my ear it became English.’ I spoke again of the form of the persons who appear to him. Asked why he did not draw them, ‘It is not worth while. There are so many, the labour would be too great. Besides there would be no use. As to Shakespeare, he is exactly like the old engraving—which is called a bad one. I think it very good.’

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‘GENESIS”: the remarkable work Blake was working on when he died

I enquired about his writings. ‘I have written more than Voltaire or Rousseau—six or seven epic poems as long as Homer, and 20 tragedies as long as Macbeth.’ He showed me his Vision (for so it may be called) of Genesis—’as understood by a Christian Visionary,’ in which in a style resembling the Bible the spirit is given. He read a passage at random. It was striking. He will not print any more. ‘I write,’ he says, ‘when commanded by the spirits, and the moment I have written I see the words fly about the room in all directions. It is then published, and the spirits can read. My MSS. of no further use. I have been tempted to burn my MSS., but my wife won’t let me.’ She is right, said I—and you have written these, not from yourself, but by a higher order. The MSS. are theirs and your property. You cannot tell what purpose they may answer unforeseen to you. He liked this, and said he would not destroy them. His philosophy he repeated—denying causation, asserting everything to be the work of God or the Devil—that there is a constant falling off from God—angels becoming devils. Every man has a devil in him, and the conflict is eternal between a man’s self and God, etc. etc. etc. He told me my copy of his songs would be 5 guineas, and was pleased by my manner of receiving this information. He spoke of his horror of money—of his turning pale when money had been offered him, etc. etc. etc.

The Good and Evil Angels 1795-?c. 1805 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05057

‘The Good and Evil Angels, c. 1795. Interestingly, Blake usually had more sympathy with the devils than for the self-righteous ‘angels’

Thursday 7th December. I sent Britt. to enquire after Mr. Flaxman’s health, etc., and was engaged looking over the Term Reports while he was gone. On his return, he brought the melancholy intelligence of his death early in the morning!!! The country has lost one of its greatest and best of men.

by Henry Howard, oil on panel, circa 1797

Flaxman, c. 1797

I walked out and called at Mr. Soane’s. He was from home. I then called on Blake, desirous to see how, with his peculiar feelings and opinions, he would receive the intelligence. It was much as I expected—he had himself been very ill during the summer, and his first observation was with a smile—’I thought I should have gone first.’ He then said, ‘I cannot consider death as anything but a removing from one room to another.’

 

[in August 1827 Blake himself died]

1828

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Linnell (1792-1882)

8th January. Breakfasted with Shott—Talfourd and B. Field there. Walked with Field to Mrs. Blake. The poor old lady was more affected than I expected, yet she spoke of her husband as dying like an angel. She is the housekeeper of Linnell the painter and engraver, and at present her services might well pay for her board. A few of her husband’s works are all her property. We found that the Job is Linnell’s property, and the print of Chaucer’s pilgrimage hers. Therefore Field bought a proof and I two prints at 2 guineas each. I mean one for Lamb. Mrs. Blake is to look out some engravings for me hereafter. . . .

This is an edited version of Crabb Robinson’s Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence. To read the full text please click here.

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