I’ve been walking around town after dark. It’s pretty quiet, a small town and not much going on. Down the street is a tree still in full autumnal glory. The one next to it is completed denuded. I’m walking on leaves much of the time and there aren’t many sounds better than that.
I know what I want to write, but it seems beyond me. I’m no scholar, I only know the bare bones of the story. The guts of the story no one can really tell, because it’s a story known only to a husband and a wife, both long dead.
It’s William Blake’s birthday. He’s popped up in my life a lot lately, and in the strangest places. He’s known as a visionary, a painter, a poet, a seer. But in his lifetime, according to the standards of his day, and ours for that matter, he was a printer. Then as now, we’re identified by our source of income, not our passions. Blake didn’t sell much when he was alive, and then to mainly a small group of patrons who saw his genius and supported him.
His biggest patron though, was his wife Catherine. For it was her who not only stood by him by all accounts in a domestic manner, but became his partner in his printing and engraving business. Illiterate before she met Blake, and with no prior training, she eventually was adept enough that he allowed her to print his own work, and left her in charge of it after his death. She became his curator, his salesman and as much as anyone, is responsible for the fact that we know his work today. When you see the earlier editions of his publications, those amazing pieces of art in print, you’re quite often seeing her work as well as his.
This makes sense. Life was harder back then and couples worked together. They lived in London, where Blake spent most of his life. Living in London there wasn’t the same work you’d have in the countryside. In London, work was making a living, earning income. Catherine Blake dove into that work and excelled at it. There are those who find fault in some of it, the hand coloring of engravings that might have been beyond her skill. But William trusted her, and if he did, I do as well. She was completing his vision.
It’s not easy loving an artist, and especially in the beginning, it wasn’t easy loving Blake. He was a man, and let’s face it, a lot of men can be real dicks. Even if we don’t try to be. But I don’t care to speculate on their sexual proclivities. They worked out their problems without a lot of detail being known. And it’s like Charlie Rich said, “no one knows what goes on behind closed doors.” To speculate on that is simply voyeurism, and that’s unbecoming to people who were passionate about their art, and each other.
Angus Whitehead and Joel Gwynne writes that “If the gossip about early dissensions, for which there is but a slender basis, be accepted, it only shows the greater victory for love and imagination. Blake’s own words but prove that the doubts and mental distress, which had for a time clouded his life, had cast a shadow over hers also, and that they were both the freer and the happier for his renewed confidence in himself. His love for her was no selfish dependence, the love ‘that drinks another as a sponge drinks water’, but that friendship of which he speaks so often as outlasting sexual love. The woman who had signed her name with a cross in the marriage register at Battersea Church had learnt from him, aided by her own love and belief in him, to share his work and to be his constant stay in spiritual as well as in material things. Even when he was away from her in a visionary Paradise, her bodily presence was necessary to him. Her life was one with his.”
I know how it feels to start believing in yourself because someone else believes in you. It allows you not to look back, but continue looking forward. The self confidence she instilled in him is one of the factors that allowed his mind to wander free, to those mad places it visited.
Sanity isn’t always about staying level, because some people aren’t born to be constantly level. Blake certainly wan’t. To be inspired is to be somewhat mad, somewhat manic, somewhat obsessive. When you love someone with vision, you feed that vision. Because when part of an artist dies away there’s something missing in that person. They might be more stable, more consistent, but it shows, and for them, that’s not sanity.
To love an artist, you have to love their vision. It’s who they are. Most artists go through periods of frustration and failure, days, months or years where they can’t create anything. To love an artist is to keep their vision going when they can’t see it themselves, or in Catherine’s case, when her husband was no longer around to promote that vision.
Though in their case, Blake said he’d be around after death. There’s every indication that Catherine believed he was. It was a concept of undying love which both believed in. That they’d love each other through this life, through all the difficulties, so they could love each other beyond this life. I can believe that myself.
But I’m not that kind of artist. I’m a craftsperson. I don’t have a vision, but I’ve been with artists that do. In that respect, I’m more Catherine than William. Encouraging artists, helping them get their work out there is part of my job. The best part of my job. To do it for someone I love has been my obsession. It’s part of what you do to keep a love alive.
Catherine was a visionary herself. She had long held a belief that she’d know her husband on first sight, and when she first met Blake, she knew instantly she’d be spending the rest of her life with him. Catherine and William never seemed to doubt each other in this. They accepted this was the love of their lives, and did what they had to do to make it work.
It was their faith in each other, that faith in something beyond themselves that held them together through all the adversity, the lack of money, the lack of success. Because no matter else, they had that love. That was as much a vision as anything Blake wrote, drew or painted.
It was that love, that sense that someone shares that soul with you that allowed Blake to be free enough to pursue his vision. It’s said that when his mind was flying into the heavens, he insisted that Catherine be near him, his connection to the earth and to this life. There was a mutual reliance on each other, which unfortunately today is rare.
Many of us long for the past, we idealize it. But it was hard, even for those in love. Walking away, calling it quits wasn’t the easy option it is now. To be joined then, was to be truly joined together. To be joined at the soul meant it had to go on, solutions had to be found. Because as Blake learned, to hurt the one you love is more than you can bear yourself.
Catherine and William were married for nearly forty five years, and on his death she received little but some unsold and unfinished works, and the charity of friends. From that she finished the unfinished business of his life, work that likely never would have existed without her hand in it, helped secure his legacy and shared her knowledge of the man, and achieving some degree of independence.
Her story can never be really told, because there was no one there to tell it.
On his deathbed, Blake drew Catherine, whom he had often called his Shadow of Delight, and said “you have ever been an angel to me.”
I stop into the old graveyard here in town and ponder that. I wonder what will be going through my mind at my death. I look at the old tombstones and notice most of the people here are couples. Families. Today we’re all scattered about in life, and it’s very uncertain we’ll be close together in death. We lose something from that.
I lay for a while atop one of the tombs, staring up at the half moon in the sky, dreaming of alternate endings, new beginnings and I think of a photo I’ve seen of William and Catherine’s tombstone. One stone, one grave, one shared heart and soul. A connection that I hope still lives today, somewhere out there in the ether, where all lovers are visionaries, and love and life is their art.