|Found on Internet|
Engraving by Blake
|National Portrait Gallery|
Pastel Drawing by Romney
When Blake was spending his three years sojourn in Felpham working along-side William Hayley he was involved in several projects. Hayley was writing a biography of the poet William Cowper who had died in 1800. Blake was recruited to produced engraving to illustrate the three volume book. Cowper, although a successful writer, had suffered from bouts of depression through much of his life. Hayley had befriended Cowper and was anxious to honor his memory by writing his biography.
Cowper seems to have had two opposed aspects of his personality. One was serious and spiritual the other shallow and worldly: the one expressed in the writing of hymns the other in writing trivial, comic poetry. Cowper had been a close associate of the writer of Amazing Grace, John Newton, who had been transformed from the captain of a slave ship to an ordained minister in the Church of England. Together they produced the hymnal Olney Hymns containing 348 hymns written by Newton and Cowper. G. E, Bentley, Jr. expressed the two sides of Cowper in his biography of Blake, The Stranger from Paradise: "Blake clearly loved Cowper the prophet, spending his soul in prophecy. This was dangerous ground for those who loved Cowper for his modest wit and mild spirits."
Hayley wrote to attract readers of the popular lighthearted poetry rather than to attract the enthusiastic religious contingent. Cowper's prestigious family were particularly interested in preventing any signs of mental illness from appearing in the biography including in the portrait of Cowper which Blake engraved from a pastel drawing by George Romney. Blake provided the six illustration which appeared in the biography.
Blake considered that the visionary state was feared by conventional people and confused with mental illness or 'madness.' Blake also understood depression because he had experienced it when he was struggling to discern the path which his life should follow. The internal life which Blake valued so highly and which he recognized in Cowper, was not amenable to proof by outward measurement, however, through it one might experience the healing of the Shepherd's tender care.
Songs of innocence, Night, (E 14) "The angels most heedful, Recieve each mild spirit, New worlds to inherit. And there the lions ruddy eyes, Shall flow with tears of gold: And pitying the tender cries, And walking round the fold: Saying: wrath by his meekness And by his health, sickness, Is driven away, From our immortal day." Satiric Verses and Epigrams, (E 506) "William Cowper Esqre For this is being a Friend just in the nick Not when hes well but waiting till hes sick He calls you to his help be you not movd Untill by being Sick his wants are provd You see him spend his Soul in Prophecy Do you believe it a Confounded lie Till some Bookseller & the Public Fame Proves there is truth in his extravagant claim For tis atrocious in a Friend you love To tell you any thing that he cant prove And tis most wicked in a Christian Nation For any Man to pretend to Inspiration" Annotations to Spurzheim's Observations on Insanity, (E 663) "Cowper came to me & said. O that I were insane always I will never rest. Can you not make me truly insane. I will never rest till I am so. O that in the bosom of God I was hid. You retain health & yet are as mad as any of us all--over us all--mad as a refuge from unbelief--from Bacon Newton & Locke" Letters, To Thomas Butts, (E 716) "I continue painting Miniatures & Improve more & more as all my friends tell me. but my Principal labour at this time is Engraving Plates for Cowpers Life a Work of Magnitude which Mr Hayley is now Labouring with all his matchless industry & which will be a most valuable acquisition to Literature not only on account of Mr Hayleys composition but also as it will contain Letters of Cowper to his friends Perhaps or rather Certainly the very best letters that ever were published" Letters, To James Blake, (E 726) "My Heads of Cowper for Mr H's life of Cowper have pleasd his Relations exceedingly & in Particular Lady Hesketh & Lord Cowper to please Lady H was a doubtful chance who almost adord her Cousin the poet & thought him all perfection & she writes that she is quite satisfied with the portraits & charmd by the great Head in particular tho she never could bear the original Picture" Letters, To Thomas Butts, (E 730) "I ought to tell you that Mr H. is quite agreeable to our return & that there is all the appearance in the world of our being fully employd in Engraving for his projected Works Particularly Cowpers Milton. a Work now on foot by Subscription & I understand that the Subscription goes on briskly. This work is to be a very Elegant one & to consist of All Miltons Poems with Cowpers Notes and translations by Cowper from Miltons Latin & Italian Poems. These works will be ornamented with Engravings from Designs from Romney. Flaxman & Yr hble Servt & to be Engravd also by the last mentiond. The Profits of the work are intended to be appropriated to Erect a Monument to the Memory of Cowper in St Pauls or Westminster Abbey." Letters, To William Hayley, (E 759) "Farewell Sweet Rose thou hast got before me into the Celestial City. I also have but a few more Mountains to pass. for I hear the bells ring & the trumpets sound to welcome thy arrival among Cowpers Glorified Band of Spirits of just Men made Perfect"