William Blake is remembered today as a poet and artist, but failed to receive popular recognition in his lifetime, and even struggled to make a living in his trade as an engraver. His work was often inspired by celestial visions, but he also suffered debilitating periods of depression and was considered by some to be mad. In 1800, at the age of 43, Blake was given an opportunity to work under the patronage of William Hayley. This was to be an inspirational period, providing some financial security, but sadly ended in disillusionment and Blake facing a prison term.
The arrangement came following a commission from Hayley, a man of independent means with many connections in the literary circles of the day; a patron to struggling artists and a well know poet (although fellow poets, including Blake, had little regard for his work). Hayley had originally asked Blake to create some illustrations for his dying son. However, this did not go well, as the illustrations were late, not to Hayley’s satisfaction and his son sadly died before they were completed. Blake sent Hayley a letter of condolence, telling of his belief that those who had passed away were still with us, and telling of his own dead brother whom he said was constantly by his side. Such words would have been a great comfort to Hayley and may have helped form a bond of respect and even friendship between the two men.
Blake visited Hayley at his home in Felpham (on the south coast of England) in the summer of 1800 to work on a portrait of the dead son. At the end of his time there it was agreed that Blake would move down from London to work for Hayley. Blake could see that with Hayley’s connections and patronage there would be financial and creative opportunities. The beauty of the surrounding countryside and coastline had also inspired Blake during his visit, so he returned home to his wife Catherine full of enthusiasm. The move would mean giving up her home, her friends, family, and moving to a location that she had never seen before so this could not have been easy for her to accept. However, in September they moved with their belongings some 70 miles to a cottage that can still be seen in Felpham. It was rented from the landlord of The Fox inn, being not far from the beach, nor from Hayley’s residence. Having lived in London all their lives, this must have seemed like a great adventure, with the sights, sounds and smell of the ocean, the openness of the country and the rolling hills of the South Downs.
Blake was the son of a hosier, schooled at home and apprenticed to an engraver for 7 years from the age of 14, so his education was limited. The well meaning Hayley, who in contrast had attended Eton and Cambridge, took it upon himself to improve Blake’s education and taught him to read Latin, Greek and Hebrew and gave him access to his library. There followed a fruitful period in Blake’s creative life but he came to resent Hayley’s stifling influence and found his own work starting to suffer as a result. To add to his problems, both he and his wife were often ill due to the damp conditions of the cottage. So in 1803 and before the onset of another winter, Blake decided to move back to London. But before he left, an incident was to put at risk both his reputation and his liberty.
In August of 1803 Blake found a trespasser in his garden – a soldier by the name of Private John Scofield – who was billeted at The Fox. He requested that Scofield leave and after some heated discussions, forcibly ejected him. Strong words obviously passed between the two men and Scofield later claimed that Blake had used seditious language, damning the King and indicating support for the French. This was the equivalent of treason at a time when the country was on high alert, fearing an invasion from Napoleon’s forces across the English Channel. Scofield later made a statement to a magistrate (with fellow witness John Cox) to this effect that resulted in Blake being charged with High Treason and bailed to appear in court at Chichester.
There is no evidence that Scofield made a habit of accusing people of sedition, so it does seem likely that Blake, who was a republican and anti-monarchist, did make some unwise remarks during their quarrel. Blake denied this and believed that the events of the day were a conspiracy, orchestrated by the authorities to entrap him. He was to become paranoid and even started to suspect his friends of treachery. At his trial however, the prosecution failed to raise the issue of Blake’s radical views, so his conspiracy fears seems to have been groundless.
So why was Scofield in Blake’s garden? Some have suggested that Scofield was there to assist William the gardener (who was also the ostler at The Fox), but it is unlikely that in a well tended garden William would have needed help. However, if the garden had been neglected during Blake’s tenancy William may have sought assistance to help clear it. Alternatively Scofield may have stopped by to chat with William, whom he knew from the inn. There is also the possibility that Scofield, a serving soldier far from home, entered the garden hoping to see and talk to Catherine (Blake’s wife) or her sister Sarah for some female company. If this was the case it may explain why Blake became so angry.
Hayley helped organise Blake’s bail and engaged the services of prominent barrister and friend Samuel Rose; the trial took place in the Guildhall at Chichester in the middle of winter (January 1804). Rose addressed the court and painted a picture of Blake as a loyal subject and supporter of the king. Rose was either blissfully unaware of Blake’s radical
views, or confident that the prosecution knew nothing of them. The witnesses for the defence were local people from Felpham who had been in the vicinity of the quarrel; they confirmed that they had not heard Blake make seditious remarks. Hayley, trying to be as helpful as ever, wanted to appear in court as a character witness but had he been questioned about Blake’s political views he may have been forced to contradict what Rose had already told the court. Fortunately for Blake this did not happen but there must have been some anxious moments.
The prosecution’s case depended on the evidence given by Cox and Scofield, but their story of events appeared to be conflicting. The jury took a short time to reach their verdict of not guilty and many in the court, and elsewhere, must have wondered why such a case had been brought in the first place. When Scofield made his accusations back in August, he had little concept of how events would unfold, but by the time he was in the witness stand he realised he was isolated, totally out of his depth and his story in shreds. His only consolation (if he ever knew) was to be immortalised later in verse by Blake.
Samuel Rose the barrister became ill during the trial; he had never been a well person, but the cold winter conditions in court and the journey from London may have proved too much for him; he failed to recover and died later that year. It is possible that Hayley felt some blame for exposing a person with such a delicate constitution to these conditions. Both Blake and his wife Catherine had been made ill by the events at Felpham and although they recovered, Blake probably carried the mental scars for the rest of his life.
With his strong radical views, his outspokenness and short temper it was always likely that Blake would end up in trouble with the authorities. That it happened whilst he was under the protection of his benefactor Hayley was probably for the best, and it seems that the lessons learnt from this episode made Blake a more cautious person. However, his financial situation failed to improve and he continued to struggle to make a living. In his later years he was ‘rediscovered’ by a new generation referred to as the Shoreham Ancients; they helped the couple financially and showed Blake the greatest respect until his death in 1827.
William Hayley died in 1820 aged 75. Although little respected for his poetry, he led an extraordinary life, being one of the great characters of his age. He was generous and enthusiastic but could be a destructive influence (without intention) to the creative spirit of others, which pretty much sums up his relationship with Blake. But without Hayley’s support, the story of Blake’s brush with the law would almost certainly have ended differently.
Whilst at Felpham Blake probably wrote the draft for the poem “And did those feet in ancient time” influenced by the beauty of the South Downs. Set to music by Hubert Parry over 100 years later as the hymn “Jerusalem”, it has become an anthem in the United Kingdom. The story assumes that Jesus visited England’s shores with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea who was a tin merchant. The South Downs of Sussex being the green and pleasant Land and the dark Satanic Mills representing the industrial revolution.
And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land