From One Room to Another
William Blake, The Entombment, c. 1805
From Lapham’s Quarterly:
“I live in a hole here, but God has a beautiful mansion for me elsewhere,” Blake once said. He knew that he was pitied by the occasional prosperous artist who visited, but he thought that it was he who should be pitying them. “I possess my visions and peace,” he argued. “They have bartered their birthright for a mess of pottage.” Robinson was struck on that first visit by how at ease the Blakes seemed with their poverty. “I should be sorry if I had any earthly fame, for whatever natural glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory,” Blake told him. Despite how the world had treated him he was quite happy, he insisted, because he wanted nothing other than to live for art and had no desire to do anything for profit. But as Robinson also noted, “Though he spoke of his happiness, he spoke of past sufferings, and of sufferings as necessary. ‘There is suffering in heaven, for where there is the capacity of enjoyment, there is the capacity of pain.’ ”
During later visits, Blake’s failing health was clear. In December 1826 Robinson visited Blake to tell him about the death of their mutual friend the celebrated sculptor John Flaxman. Blake’s first reaction was a smile. “I thought I should have gone first,” he said, then remarked, “I cannot consider death as anything but a removing from one room to another.”
Blake died in that room the following August. The painter George Richmond reported that he died “in a most glorious manner. He said he was going to that country he had all his life wished to see and expressed himself happy…Just before he died his countenance became fair. His eyes brighten’d and he burst out singing of the things he saw in heaven.”
With Blake gone, Robinson could no longer hope to find the answers to the riddle of his strange but fascinating friend. Turning to the work he left behind usually caused more confusion. Perhaps there hadn’t ever been a coherent vision to be decoded in his work? The simplest explanation was that there was only madness there all along.
Five days after Blake died, he was given a pauper’s burial in an unmarked grave at the Bunhill Fields dissenters’ burial ground, beyond the northern boundary of the City of London. The name Bunhill derives from “bone hill”—the place had long been used to dispose of the unwanted dead.
“God Has a Beautiful Mansion for Me Elsewhere”, John Higgs, Lapham’s Quarterly