Monday, 25 September 2017

Looking for Blake and Joyce in Bognor: Blake's Cottage

After the Whaleway Train dropped us at Butlins, Lisa and I walked into the pretty village of Felpham (which I learn is pronounced 'Felfham') to look for Blake's cottage.

Here's Blake's own picture of his cottage, which shows him walking in the garden, where he is visited by one of his Daughters of Inspiration. This comes from Milton, the poem he wrote here, which begins with the famous verses 'And did those feet in ancient times...'

In Lambeth, on 14 September 1800, two days before he moved down to Sussex, Blake wrote a poem in which he imagined his life in the country:

Away to sweet Felpham, for Heaven is there;
The Ladder of Angels descends thro’ the air;
On the turret its spiral does softly descend,
Thro’ the village then winds, at my cot it does end.

You stand in the village and look up to Heaven;
The precious stones glitter on flights seventy-seven;
And my brother is there, and my friend and thine
Descend and ascend with the bread and the wine.

The bread of sweet thought and the wine of delight
Feed the village of Felpham by day and by night,
And at his own door the bless’d Hermit does stand,
Dispensing unceasing to all the wide land...

The cottage, at 1 Blake's Road, is easy to find. Here I am standing at the western end, which would be on the left side of Blake's picture.

Blake had lived his whole life in London, and this was the first time he'd seen the sea, which his wife was soon splashing about in. Here's his first description of his new home, in a letter of 23 September to Thomas Butts:

Our cottage is more beautiful than I thought it, and also more convenient, for though small it is well proportioned, and if I should ever build a palace it would only be my cottage enlarged....The sweet air and the voices of winds, trees, and birds, and the odours of the happy ground, make it a dwelling for immortals. Work will go on here with God-speed. A roller and two harrows lie before my window. I met a plough on my first going out at my gate the first morning after my arrival, and the ploughboy said to the ploughman, "Father, the gate is open."

On the same day, he wrote to John Flaxman:

Felpham is a sweet place for study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapours; voices of celestial inhabitants are most distinctly heard, and their forms more distinctly seen; and my cottage is also a shadow of their houses. My wife and sister are both well, courting Neptune for an embrace.

The Big Blake Project has created a beautiful virtual tour of the cottage and garden, which is populated by the celestial beings Blake saw here, through the golden gates of heaven.

It was in this very garden that Blake saw a fairy funeral. He described it to a lady he met at a social gathering in Felpham:

I was walking alone in my garden, there was great stillness among the branches and flowers and and more than common sweetness in the air; I heard a low and pleasant sound, and I knew not whence it came. At last I saw the broad leaf of a flower move, and underneath I saw a procession of creatures of the size and colour of green and grey grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose leaf, which they buried with songs and then disappeared. It was a fairy funeral.

Look out for fairies in the virtual tour!

Blake's poem Milton describes a vision he had of the spirit of Milton, falling from heaven like a comet and landing in his Felpham garden, and entering Blake through his left foot!

And all this Vegetable World appeared on my left Foot,
As a bright sandal formed immortal of precious stones & gold:
I stopped down & bound it on to walk forward thro' Eternity

This kind of stuff didn't go down well with Blake's local patron, William Hayley, who had invited him to come to Felpham to illustrate his books. Hayley was a minor poet, well known at the time as the friend and biographer of the poet and hymnodist William Cowper (If you haven't read Cowper I recommend 'The Castaway', which may be the most anguished poem in the English language).

Hayley lived a hundred yards north of Blake, in a 'Marine Villa' called Turret House. You can see the top of it in the background in Blake's picture of his cottage. It's long gone, but there's a plaque.

Here's one of Blake's engravings for the Cowper biography. This was his bread and butter work while he was in Felpham.

Hayley also got Blake work painting miniature portraits of local people. Blake, who would rather have been recording his epic visions of Milton, hated this sort of work. He expressed his impatience with Hayley in his notebooks:

When H–y finds out what you cannot do
That is the very thing he'll set you to

We had a drink in the garden of the Fox Pub, which is just down the road from the cottage.  Blake rented his cottage from Mr and Mrs Grinder, hosts of the Fox.

Photo by Fred Pipes

 The pub has Blake's verses written on the wall.

We were joined by Fred, who'd taken the bus rather than the Seafront Whaleway train. We drank Pullman's bitter.

While I had a second pint of Pullman's with Fred, Lisa went off to explore the church, where she found this Blakean stained glass window.

It includes Blake's picture of his cottage

Lisa also found the memorial to Hayley, which names him as the friend and biographer of Cowper rather than the patron of Blake, who was an obscure figure in his lifetime.

Looking from the pub up the road to Blake's cottage, we could imagine the event which brought his time in Felpham dramatically to an end. On 12 August 1803, the poet found a dragoon called John Scofield lounging in his garden. Blake physically ejected him, marching him down the lane to the Fox Inn, where the soldier was billeted.

According to Scofield, Blake said, 'Damn the king. His soldiers are all slaves.' Scofield, backed up by a fellow soldier, Private Cock, complained to a magistrate, and Blake found himself charged with sedition.

In January 1804, Blake was tried in the Guildhall in Chichester. He was acquitted after several Felpham locals, including Hayley, testifed that he was a peaceable man. In fact, Blake did hold seditious opinions, but Scofield was shown to be an unreliable witness.

I don't know if Joyce visited Blake's cottage when he was staying here in 1923.  But he did know the story of Blake's encounter with the soldier. In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus has a similar experience, when he meets two drunk British soldiers in Nighttown:

STEPHEN: (He taps his brow) But in here it is I must kill the priest and the king.....
PRIVATE CARR (Pulls himself free and comes forward.) What's that you're saying about my king?.....
PRIVATE CARR (Tugging at his belt.) I'll wring the neck of any bugger says a word against my fucking king....
PRIVATE COMPTON Go it, Harry. Do him one in the eye. He's a proboer.....
STEPHEN The harlot's cry from street to street Shall weave old Ireland's windingsheet.
PRIVATE CARR (Loosening his belt, shouts.) I'll wring the neck of any fucking bastard says a word against my bleeding fucking king.
There are two quotations from Blake in there!

Three British soldiers also reappear in Finnegans Wake, as hostile witnesses against HCE.

Slander, let it lie its flattest, has never been able to convict our good and great and no ordinary Southron Earwicker, that homogenius man, as a pious author called him, of
any graver impropriety than that, advanced by some woodwards or regarders, who did not dare deny, the shomers, that they had, chin Ted, chin Tam, chinchin Taffyd, that day consumed their soul of the corn, of having behaved with ongentilmensky immodus opposite a pair of dainty maidservants in the swoolth of the rushy hollow....

By the time of the trial, the Blakes had moved back to London.

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