Thy friendship oft has made my heart to ache Pray be my enemy for friendship’s sake.

In the literature of the late eighteenth century, ideas of friendship – like the one embodied in the creative collaboration between Wordsworth and Coleridge – acquired a new cultural significance. Enlightenment writers, deploying a discourse of secular individualism, identified friendship as an important testing ground for their values of sympathy, virtue and benevolence. It was a discourse many regarded with suspicion. ‘Rousseau thought Men Good by Nature,’ reflected William Blake; then added, ‘he found them Evil & found no friend’. Romantic models of friendship were also important in forging new narratives of self-understanding. Wordsworth’s autobiographical masterpiece, ‘The Prelude’ (1804), began life as ‘a long poem to Coleridge’ before evolving into the ultimate apotheosis of what Keats called ‘the egotistical sublime’.

While Wordsworth was at work on ‘The Prelude’ an even more extraordinary friendship was unfolding in the coastal village of Felpham in West Sussex. Struggling to make a living as an engraver, artist and poet, William Blake had moved there from London in 1800 to begin a period of intense collaboration with the gentleman poet, biographer and scholar, William Hayley. Unlike Wordsworth and Coleridge, Blake and Hayley were not drawn together by youth, political enthusiasm and similar backgrounds but by the exigencies of experience: debts, bereavement and misfortune. The elegant, genial and polite Hayley was fifty-five – twelve years older than Blake. He was a member of the Anglican gentry with close links to the deanery of Chichester Cathedral. With his splendid library and outstanding conversational gifts, Hayley had turned his main estate in the village of Eartham into something of a cultural centre, playing host to leading artists, intellectuals and writers as well as the Whig aristocracy who were their patrons.

Hayley had established himself as one of the leading literary figures of the 1780s for both poetry and drama. His mock-epic, The Triumphs of Temper, which encouraged its extensive female readership to replace spleen and peevishness with cheerfulness and good temper, had become an influential bestseller. Industrious, well-connected and ambitious, as well as a dedicated champion of the arts, Hayley had also published highly readable verse Essays and Epistles on Painting, History, Epic Poetry and Sculpture. Each carried a dedication to a friend eminent in that field and all celebrated the emergent achievements of British culture. Hayley’s biography of John Milton (1794) had countered Samuel Johnson’s Tory attack on the great republican poet, reconstructing Milton in his own democratic image as a man of sensibility, benevolence and patriotism. The imaginative reach of Milton’s genius, however, was something Hayley knew himself to lack; his chose his closest friends as a partial remedy for this. Hayley had lost both his father and his older brother as a small child and was particularly drawn to characters such as George Romney, Charlotte Smith and William Cowper whose creative gifts were closely allied to hypochondria, melancholy and madness. He had chosen his own wife, Eliza, on the same principle. Her loquacity, nervous irritation and independence of spirit, however, proved too much for him. The couple separated in 1789.

Eliza’s independence had been manifest in an essay she wrote in 1796, sardonically entitled ‘The Triumph of Acquaintance over Friendship’. Like Eliza, William Blake was also inclined to cast a cold eye occasionally on the contemporary vogue for intimate friendships:

Friends were quite hard to find, old authors say;
But now they stand in everybody’s way.

Hayley’s friendship with Blake remained curiously haunted by the spirit of Eliza who had died in 1797. Planning to deed his Eartham estate to his illegitimate son, Thomas Alphonso, whose mother had been a housemaid there, Hayley had built the smaller Turret House for himself in Felpham inspired by happy memories of earlier visits there both with Eliza and with his mother. This generous scheme was thwarted when the nineteen year old Tom died of a spinal injury from which he had suffered two years of agonising pain.

Tom’s death occurred in May 1800, only a week after that of Hayley’s most loved and valued friend, the poet, William Cowper. To compound Hayley’s desolation, his intimate associate of over twenty years, the painter George Romney, had finally succumbed to chronic depression and returned to his family in the Lake District to die there two years later. Hayley’s world had fallen to pieces and, as usual, he was inspired by grief. William Blake, whom he had known slightly through the sculptor John Flaxman for over twenty years, instinctively understood this. In one of his kindest and most expressive letters written immediately after Tom’s death, Blake reminded Hayley that ‘The ruins of Time build mansions in Eternity’. Hayley responded by giving Blake Tom’s own copy of The Triumphs of Temper. It carried a verse inscription to his ‘gentle visionary, Blake’ which ended with the line: ‘So from an Angel it descends to thee’. John Flaxman, to whom Tom had been apprenticed, was a life-long mutual friend of both men. It was he who had first sent Hayley a copy of Blake’s Poetical Sketches in 1784 and through him too that Blake had come to know and love Tom. Hayley commissioned Blake to engrave two of Tom’s designs for his Essay on Sculpture as well as a medallion image of Tom himself. Recreating Tom’s likeness in a form the critical Hayley could approve cost Blake some effort. He was to become Tom’s successor in Hayley’s emotional life too.

According to Hayley’s version, ‘the good, the gentle, the affectionate Blake’, with his ‘dangerously acute sensibilities’ and his obvious genius, had attached himself strongly to the older, more famous literary man and moved to Felpham to be near him. As neighbours and close friends, these two strongly individual and eccentric men spent more and more time in each other’s company. Despite their lack of social equality, they had many literary, artistic and spiritual interests in common. Hayley took on a joint responsibility, extending Blake’s literary education – we hear of them sitting together each evening translating Klopstock’s Messiah or discussing Cowper, Milton, Dante and Homer – while also providing him with regular employment. Lacking artistic prestige, engraving was a notoriously demanding and precarious trade. Blake had his hard-working and devoted wife as a domestic anchor but Catherine often became ill during this period, finding less benefit than he, perhaps, in their new situation.

All intimacy carries jeopardy with it and both men, in their different ways, had a gift for intimacy. Hayley was a man of sympathetic sensibility while Blake had the engraver’s ability to absorb and copy the designs of others. His Songs of Innocence and Experience had already explored – in poems like ‘The Clod and the Pebble’, ‘The Poison Tree’ and ‘The Sick Rose’ – the predatory symbiosis of ‘dark secret love’, of attraction and revulsion and the interplay of admiration, envy and anger. Blake is the poet of dynamic energy and the dialectics of spiritual consciousness: ‘Man is born a Spectre…’ he wrote, ‘& requires a new Selfhood continually, & must continually be changed into his direct Contrary’. Hayley, on the other hand, was a civic poet, primarily interested in Occasional Verse and the lapidary inscriptions of epitaphs, name-making and biography. As the collaboration between them intensified, Felpham, like other villages along the south coast, was gradually being occupied by the troops of George III preparing for the invasion of Napoleon after the failed Peace of Amiens.

Hayley was now at work on his ground-breaking biography of Cowper. Blake listened and learned, absorbing the details of the poet’s troubled life while engraving the illustrations for it. His engraving of Romney’s definitive portrait of Cowper, painted while both were at Eartham, proved problematic. Cowper’s cousin, the courtier Lady Hesketh, objected strongly to it, wanting all signs of mental instability removed from the features of her relative. Madness was a sensitive issue at the court of George III – almost as sensitive as the republicanism of John Milton. Hayley, meanwhile, continued to invite Blake into most intimate emotional spaces, commissioning a series of poets’ heads to decorate his new library in Felpham. There was work, too, on yet another edition of The Triumphs of Temper; ‘a little thing of Mr Hayley’s’ Blake was now calling it. Hayley was introducing him to the titled art patrons of the county, most notably to the fifth Earl of Egremont at Petworth House. Blake tried his hand at both portrait and miniature painting, initially enthusiastic about his progress in both arts. Hayley has been much criticised for directing so sublime an artist as Blake towards the miniature, but his visionary talent for seeing ‘a world in a grain of sand’ makes it an obvious choice.

For all his genius, Blake, Hayley had noted, had no instinct for making money. In an attempt to remedy this, they began to collaborate on a collection of Animal Ballads for young readers. No aspect of their friendship has been more ridiculed than this although, once again, the rationale behind the project seems clear enough. Hayley’s time was taken up with his biography of Cowper; there was little to spare for additional work. Though the Ballads were a mode of grieving for Hayley, the vogue for children’s literature made them a popular form and one to which Blake, with his Songs, had already successfully contributed. Blake, too, was privately engaged on his long nocturnal poem ‘Vala’ or, in its second title, ‘The Four Zoas’ (partly inspired, perhaps, by the zoo kept by the Duke of Richmond at nearby Goodwood which included in its menagerie ‘a woman tiger’). This poem shows Blake both processing and resisting Hayley’s influence as his own alter ego, Los, engages in a power struggle beside the ocean with the over-controlling Urizen. Los issues him a direct identity challenge:

Art thou one of those who when most complacent
Mean mischief most? If you are such, Lo! I am also such.
One must be Master. Try thy arts. I also will try mine,
For I perceive thou hast Abundance which I claim as mine.

A murderous element enters their friendship at this point – one not confined to the realm of Blake’s poetry. Hearing stories of his past, Lady Hesketh became convinced that Blake was a serious danger to Hayley, that he would murder him if he could. Her attempts to alienate Hayley from his friend proved counterproductive and she bemoaned the fact that Hayley seemed fonder of Blake than ever. As the French Invasion grew closer, murder was clearly in the air. When Lady Hesketh asked Hayley to modify some of Cowper’s political opinions in case they upset the king, Hayley replied he would rather be beheaded instantly than misrepresent his hero.

Signs of growing conflict in Blake’s mind were becoming apparent from his letters to his other patron, Thomas Butts, to whom he complained in 1801 of being distracted from the work in hand: ‘my Abstract folly hurries me often away … carrying me over Mountains and Valleys, which are not Real, in a Land of Abstraction where Spectres of the Dead wander.’ Blake was once again heading towards what he called ‘the full fury of a spiritual existence’. Caught up in a powerful inner drama of his own, he preemptively demanded higher rates of pay for his engravings. Though the shocked Hayley immediately conceded, it was less money than ‘treasures in heaven’ that Blake wanted to accumulate: the recognition of himself as a greater poet than Hayley, or even than William Cowper. Blake, as he was later to realise, was gradually becoming possessed by the prophetic genius of John Milton. He could no longer bear to be ‘pester’d’, as he so vividly put it, with Hayley’s ‘Genteel Ignorance & Polite Disapprobation’. When Hayley’s Life of William Cowper came out to instant public acclaim in 1803, Blake perversely insisted that Hayley was jealous of him as a poet. He had chosen the wrong moment to show Hayley The Four Zoas, a daunting piece at the best of times.

‘As a Poet he is frightened at me & as a Painter his views and mine are opposite’, he wrote to his brother James, describing a battle with Hayley in which he finally asserted his ‘just rights as a man and as a artist’ and ‘got everything so under my thumb’ that he was now in a position of power: ‘Mr H approves of my Designs as little as he does of my Poems, and I have been forced to insist on his leaving me in both to my Own Self Will … I know myself to be both Poet & Painter … Indeed by my late Firmness I have brought down his affected Loftiness, & he begins to think I have some Genius: as if Genius & Assurance were the same thing!’

Blake’s sense of revolutionary triumph was to prove short-lived. Having announced his decision to return to London, he suddenly fell victim to a counter-revolution. John Schofield, a soldier in the 1st Dragoons billeted in the village, entered his cottage grounds on an errand to the gardener there and provoked a quarrel. Violently expelled from Blake’s garden, Schofield retaliated in a vengeful deposition in which he claimed that Blake had spoken treasonably of the king, damning him and his soldiery in favour

of Napoleon. Schofield insisted further that Blake’s cottage should be searched in case he, as a military painter, had been making maps of the country to assist the French in their invasion. As Blake, in his own psychic world, had been doing exactly that – transposing Chichester into the imaginary city of Golgonooza – it is impossible not to wonder how much of what he claimed Schofield knew to be true. Six months later, in January 1804, Blake found himself standing trial before the Duke of Richmond (he of the exotic zoo) in Chichester Guild Hall accused of Seditious Words and assault. After the initial charge, Hayley had immediately roused himself on Blake’s behalf, standing bail for him and hiring Cowper’s friend, Samuel Rose, as his defence barrister. In the months before the trial, Blake returned to London. He was torn between believing himself the victim of a conspiracy led either by government spies or by Hayley himself and gratitude to Hayley for his staunch support through the most dangerous crisis of his life. In this dilemma, Blake found himself standing at a spiritual crossroads which would define his artistic identity for the next two hundred years. He was simultaneously England’s most loyal poet and her greatest spiritual revolutionary.

There is no doubt that the dramatist Hayley could, in extremis, be remarkably devious. He had proved this a few years earlier with his elaborate stratagem to convince Cowper that God had not finally cast him out into eternal damnation. If Blake’s suspicions of Hayley were right (and it is generally assumed they were not) Hayley had suddenly played a masterstroke. Certainly, Blake’s boast that he had brought down Hayley’s ‘affected loftiness’ was confirmed when, a week before the trial, Hayley had another of his extraordinary riding accidents: he was thrown headlong from a trooper’s horse onto a sharp flint. He arrived in court with his head bandaged to provide a character reference for Blake and to listen in alarm as Samuel Rose, proclaiming Blake’s loyalty to the king, suddenly lost his voice and was unable to finish his speech. This particular sick Rose was to pay heavily for his involvement in Blake’s trial. His cold turned to consumption and he died within the year, leaving a wife and young family behind him. Despite this untoward development, Blake was acquitted of the charge. After the trial he wrote gratefully to Hayley, still obviously uneasy about that trooper’s horse but acknowledging the immense debt he owed him and guiltily aware that his ‘evil star’ had dealt Hayley ‘a double blow’. Hayley included a memorial tribute to Rose in the next edition of his Life of Cowper before wearily starting work on his biography of George Romney.

Though Blake helped with the research for this and contributed one engraving, and though their correspondence continued for another two years, the ‘Happy Christmas’ with which Blake concluded his letter of December 1805 are the last of his words that Hayley preserved. Blake himself recorded their ‘contentions of friendship’ in Milton, his spiritual autobiography of the Felpham years, to which the famous hymn, Jerusalem, provides the preface. As autobiography, Blake’s Milton does not resemble Wordsworth’s The Prelude in anything other than its epic scale. Its model of selfhood is the very opposite of Wordsworth’s egotistical sublime. Milton deals instead with the annihilation of selfhood that was to be the chief lesson of Blake’s life. It was the most important of the lessons he had learned from Hayley who, in their nightly conversations and through his repeated self abnegation and inability to fear death, had finally reconciled Blake to Christianity. A famous passage from Milton shows Blake wiping off his worldly inferiority and asserting the absolute genius of his prophetic and poetic gifts. Hayley, of course, appears as Satan in this poem – the essential opponent of Los and Blake who rescue the spirit of Milton from his control. On Blake’s first arrival in Felpham he had inscribed Hayley and himself as two paradoxical figures in the same landscape: the generous hermit and the spiritual revolutionary. At the end of Milton, their place has been taken by the composite figure of Christ who concludes Blake’s spiritual journey. Though Blake’s re-conversion was Hayley’s masterpiece, he may, like Milton in Paradise Lost, have had to join the devil’s party in order to achieve it. Blake alone would have understood this. ‘Friendship,’ he was to write in his final work, Jerusalem, ‘cannot exist without forgiveness of sins continually.’

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