Hired to Depress: A Digital Scholarly Edition of William Blake's Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses

Interludes in Felpham, 1800-1803

As his letters indicate, Blake's enthusiasm continued once in Sussex. Hayley received him ‘with his usual brotherly affection’ and Felpham was certain to prove ‘propitious to the Arts’ (Blake, 710–11). In a letter to Butts of 2 October 1800 Blake included a poem in couplets testifying to his renewed ‘Vision’ by the sea (ibid., 713). Hayley provided ample employment: a series of portraits of poets to decorate his library; a broadside etched in relief and white-line of Hayley's poem, ‘Little Tom the Sailor’; portrait miniatures; illustrations for a series of ballads authored by Hayley and distributed (with scant success) by his friends; and engravings for Hayley's Life of William Cowper. In May 1801 Blake reported to Butts that ‘Hayley acts like a Prince’ and that Felpham remained ‘the sweetest spot on Earth’ (ibid., 715).

The first dissonant notes emerged from work associated with the biography of Cowper. Beginning in March 1801, Cowper's cousin Lady Harriet Hesketh criticized Blake's miniature, and later his engraving, based on George Romney's portrait of her beloved relation. More generally, Hayley tried to divert Blake from poetry and history painting and direct him into the practical crafts of copy engraving and miniature portraiture. As Blake later jotted in his notebook:

     When H—y finds out what you cannot do
     That is the Very thing hell set you to.
     (Blake, 506)

Although he assisted Blake in acquiring at least a little Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and thereby elevated the London artisan closer to the society of educated gentlemen, differences in class and taste persisted. Hayley treated Blake as a protégé possessing ‘admirable Talents’ and ‘uncommon powers of mind’, but also an ‘eccentric Soul’ evincing ‘Touches of nervous Infirmity’ verging on ‘Insanity’ (Hayley's letters in Bentley, Records, 83, 87, 106, 164). The decaying relationship with Hayley was compounded with poor health: Catherine Blake's recurring bouts of rheumatism began in November 1800; husband and wife were both ill in spring 1802 and again in January 1803.
Blake's distresses went beyond professional and medical inconvenience. Growing tensions with his patron created, or at least augmented, profound psychic disturbances; indeed, Hayley's characterizations of Blake's mental states may have been reasonably accurate. Blake initially suffered in silence from Hayley's ‘Genteel Ignorance & Polite Disapprobation’ (letter to Butts, July 1803, Blake, 730), in part because of pecuniary dependence on Hayley's patronage. Such repression produced anguish and a disruption of those extrasensory perceptions that Blake believed to be one with his imagination. He was increasingly torn between fulfilling commissions from Hayley and from Butts, between his calling as an artist and the advice of his more worldly companions (including Hayley, Flaxman, and possibly Catherine Blake), and between temporal and spiritual responsibilities. This fall into a divided consciousness—a dominant motif in much of Blake's poetry—emerges in his letters from the autumn of 1801 to 1803.
In September 1801 Blake confessed to Butts that his ‘Abstract folly hurries’ him away from ‘Duty & Reality’ (Blake, 716). If by ‘folly’ Blake meant his inner visions, then he had become alienated, however temporarily, from the wellsprings of his art. Unspecified distresses led Blake to write, in November 1802, that he had been ‘very unhappy’, having ‘traveld thro Perils & Darkness’, but that he had ‘again Emerged into the light of Day’ with renewed faith in ‘him who is the Express image of God’ (ibid., letter to Butts, 720). The restoration was short-lived; for several years, Blake's moods alternated between depression and hope, the former expressed in letters and poems through images of darkness, the latter through images of intense illumination and a turn toward Christ as saviour. By January 1803 Blake hinted that Hayley was the ‘source’ of his difficulties and stated his determination ‘not to remain another winter’ in Felpham (ibid., 724–5). This letter to Butts and an equally revelatory one to his brother James record Blake's most intimate observations on his practical circumstances and psychological state. Prompted (or excused) by ill health and the impending end of the lease on his cottage, Blake states his determination to distance himself from Hayley's friendship, now seen as malevolent. But why would Hayley, outwardly so mild, appear to Blake as a sneaking serpent?—Because he was ‘jealous’ of Blake's talents (ibid., 725). Surprisingly, Blake likens Hayley's motivation to similar feelings on Stothard's part. It is difficult to believe that either the popular author or successful illustrator coveted the abilities of a man they considered an engraver needful of their advice, but Blake became convinced that ‘Corporeal Friends are Spiritual Enemies’ (ibid., 98). Blake concluded that he could ‘alone carry on’ his ‘visionary studies in London unannoyd’ by ‘the Doubts of other Mortals’ (ibid., letter to Butts, 25 April 1803, 728).

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