Blake and the Cottage

The cottage in 2021

Felpham Cottage: of Cottages the prettiest

The early months of 1800 in Lambeth weren’t Blake’s most cheerful, as he found himself at the bottom of a “Deep pit of Melancholy, Melancholy without any reason for it”. A change of air was imperative and William Hayley came in handy. A poet and biographer who enjoyed popularity in his day, Hayley was a landed gentleman from Sussex and a patron of the arts. Enthused by the talents of the London visionary, he invited his new friend to spend a few days in Felpham, a small country village with a population of 500 inhabitants on the scenic Sussex coast, to complete a few commissioned works, hoping that the sea breeze would to uplift Blake’s downhearted spirits.

Blake’s first visit to Felpham in the pleasant summer of 1800 made such an impression that Hayley’s idea of becoming his major patron seemed opportune. In letters to friends at the time, his enthusiasm was contagious. Blake judged that Felpham was “the sweetest spot on Earth”, a true “dwelling of immortals” where “Men are the mildest of the human race” and even “handsomer than the people about London”. Most importantly, as a place “propitious to the Arts”, Blake hoped that his own visionary projects would progress “with God speed”:

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 more distinctly heard & their forms more distinctly seen.

Convinced that Felpham would raise his spirits and stimulate his imagination, Blake found a seventeenth-century cottage that looked like a perfect home for his genius. He wrote to his friend George Cumberland: “I fell in love with my Cottage. I have now better prospects than ever (...) I can be Poet, Painter & Musician as the Inspiration comes”.

Rented for twenty pounds a year, the two-storey Cottage was composed of three rooms and a kitchen on the ground floor, and three bedrooms on the upper floor where Blake could contemplate the sea and see his visions taking form on the unobstructed horizon. He soon provided a detailed, and poetic description of his new residence:

We are safe arrived at our Cottage which is more beautiful than I thought it. & more convenient. It is a perfect Model for Cottages & I think for Palaces of Magnificence only Enlarging not altering its proportions & adding ornaments & not principals. Nothing can be more Grand than its Simplicity & Usefulness. Simple without Intricacy it seems to be the Spontaneous Effusion of Humanity congenial to the wants of Man. No other formed House can ever please me so well nor shall I ever be perswaded I believe that it can be improved either in Beauty or Use.

Blake and his wife Catherine were also enamoured with their flintstone-walled garden, where they grew vegetables and flowers and their kitten could prowl unbothered. It was the same garden where his altered eye saw trilling larks taking the form of Angels, and where he was visited by unheralded sublime creatures of his prophetic mythology, like Ololon, a “Virgin of Twelve years”, and Los, who appeared to him as a “terrible flaming Sun”. Eventually, he also saw the great poet Milton “clothed in black, severe & silent”, descending into his garden through a staircase “paved with precious stones”. 

In the course of three years, Blake concentrated on a number of commissioned works for Hayley, most notably, a series of 18 paintings to decorate his patron’s library, known as Heads of the Poets; the designing and engraving for the broadsheet ballad Little Tom the Sailor; the mock-epic poem The Triumphs of Temper; and the three-volume biography of William Cowper. At the time Blake was also busy producing miniature portraits, for which he became particularly well-known in the village.

Because of the overwhelming demand of commissions, Blake struggled to find some time for his own projects. Nevertheless, the magical atmosphere of Felpham provided him with the most singular visions which would later appear profusely in his last prophetic books. Blake himself thought the whole enterprise of moving to Felpham was predetermined by Providence, (or more accurately, Los), and believed that his last prophetic works were “the Grand Reason” for the sojourn:

For when Los joind with me he took me in his firy whirlwind

My Vegetated portion was hurried from Lambeths shades 

He set me down in Felphams Vale & prepard a beautiful 

Cottage for me that in three years I might write all these Visions 

To display Natures cruel holiness: the deceits of Natural Religion 

But none can know the Spiritual Acts of my three years Slumber on the banks of the Ocean unless he has seen them in the Spirit or unless he should read My long Poem descriptive of those Acts for I have in these three years composed an immense number of verses on One Grand Theme Similar to Homers Iliad or Miltons Paradise Lost the Person & Machinery intirely new to the Inhabitants of Earth (some of the Persons Excepted) I have written this Poem from immediate Dictation twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time without Premeditation & even against my Will. the Time it has taken in writing was thus renderd Non Existent. & an immense Poem Exists which seems to be the Labour of a long Life all producd without Labour or Study. I mention this to shew you what I think the Grand Reason of my being brought down here.

Blake dedicated his (scanty) spare time to the revision of Vala, or The Four Zoas considered by the critic Northrop Frye “the greatest abortive masterpiece in English literature”. Started in 1797, Vala was the basis for the preliminary drafts of Milton and Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, both conceived in his Cottage. In addition, most of the poems found in the Pickering Manuscript, including his aphoristic gem Auguries of Innocence are believed to be a product of those times. And the Cottage did not only inspire William but also his devoted companion Catherine. In a letter addressed to Mrs Flaxman, she laid down a few lines to persuade her friend and her husband to pay them a visit:

This Song to the flower of Flaxmans joy

To the blossom of hope for a sweet decoy

Do all that you can or all that you may

To entice him to Felpham & far away

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 does end

You stand in the village & look up to heaven

The precious stones glitter on flights seventy seven

And My Brother is there & My Friend & Thine

Descend & Ascend with the Bread & the Wine

The Bread of sweet Thought & the Wine of Delight

Feeds the Village of Felpham by day & by night

And at his own door the blessd Hermit does stand

Dispensing Unceasing to all the whole Land.

As time went by, however, the air of Felpham, that had been so sweet, grew tense and oppressive for the Blakes. Hayley’s endless demands distracted William from his creative pursuits and their friendship was gradually poisoned by resentment. Clearly, Blake was not the “Passive & Polite & Virtuous Ass: & obedient to Noblemens Opinions in Art & Science” type. On top of that, Catherine’s health was rapidly deteriorating with the ‘ague’ and rheumatism caused by the dampness of the Cottage:

Misery builds over our cottage roofs, and Discontent runs like a brook (...) When I came down here I was more sanguine than I am at present but it was because I was ignorant of many things which have since occurred & chiefly the unhealthiness of the place Yet I do not repent of coming, on a thousand accounts.

In the summer of 1803, an altercation with a soldier found drunk in his garden culminated in an accusation of sedition which could have put him in jail for many years. That was the last straw, and before the trial was over, in which he was tried and acquitted, he had already decided to return to London. The incident was traumatic and had a profound impact on his writing, especially on his late prophecies. The soldier concerned, John Schofield, and many of those involved in the trial gave their names to the dreadful and vile Sons of Albion presented in Milton and Jerusalem:

The manner in which I have routed out the nest of villains will be seen in a Poem concern [in] my Three years <Herculean> Labours at Felpham which I will soon Publish.

At the end of that bitter summer, the Blakes moved out of their beloved Cottage, where they believed their “spirits seem still to hover round”. They left Felpham on 18 September 1803, exactly three years after they had arrived. Many years after returning to London, Blake still thought of the Cottage with tenderness and kindness. Of all houses he lived in, it was surely the one which in the physical and spiritual environment mirrored his idiosyncratic inner world with the greatest perfection.

O that I could but bring Felpham to me or go to her in this World as easy as I can in that of Affection & Remembrance.

Camila Oliveira