Friday, 1 March 2013

“I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create:” or my failure at reading the poetry of William Blake

The name of William Blake (1757-1827) conjures many images, roles and titles, so varied and strange: the mad Bard of England, the prophetic poet, the visionary artist; tigers and chimney-sweepers and scaly ghosts; tight, nearly unreadable handwriting adorning apocalyptic engravings; a pantheon of gods busy with the creation of the universe. English literature, with its magnificent poetic tradition of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and John Milton whose shadow loomed forever over him, had never come across anything like and indeed was not ready for William Blake. Printer, engraver, poet, genius. Nearly unknown in his own time, except when he was known as a madman, his reputation gradually rose after his death, with Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake coming out in 1863, and Algernon Swinburne’s William Blake: A Critical Essay following in 1868, and then skyrocketed in the 20th century. Writers W. B. Yeats and G.K. Chesterton, and painter and art critic Roger Fry, were amongst the earliest to rehabilitate Blake from the claims that he was a mere odd curiosity. Writers were the first to see his greatness, no surprise there, and then the Academy took notice of him too: Northrop Fry, S. Foster Damon, Harold Bloom and David V. Erdman, who all wrote seminal works on the work and ideas of Blake, cemented the consecration and Blake, if he’s not a widely popular poet, is one whose genius is not discussed or doubted.

And yet I can’t think of a poet other than William Blake who’s so well known for so little. When we think of the author of “The Tyger” we basically think of… “The Tyger…” and… well, we he was the author of “The Tyger.” For my sins I love the poem Sir Hubert Parry adapted to music in 1916, transforming a second-rate poem called “And did those feet in ancient time” lost in the rambling preface of Milton into a beautiful anthem called “Jerusalem."

Very well, the whole Songs of Innocence and Experience is probably reasonably well-known amongst readers of poetry. There’s no surprise as to its popularity and enduring role as gateway into William Blake’s poetry. The poems are straightforward, clear and rather beautiful in their lyricism. But what about Jerusalem? Milton? The Four Zoas? Does anyone actually read those poems? No one does it, right?

There are many kinds of poetry: confessional poetry, descriptive poetry, the slant-viewed poetry that at things from unusual perspectives, first-person poetry, bucolic poetry. At a first glance it seems Blake’s poetry is too grand too concern itself with the mundane and ephemeral, but I believe the cosmic scope works against it, especially when Blake sets out to create from the ground a whole new mythology. Blake didn’t reveal himself, in the autobiographical meaning of the word, through his poetry, his wasn’t a poetry of depressions, aspirations, impressions, travels. If the legends are true, demons and angels and spirits dictated his quill, and they had higher ideas for his art. The man had a purpose and whatever may be said of his work, the prophetic books, read as a whole, form an impressive vision of vocabulary, syntactic, thematic unity. Outside the prophetic books, his lyrical and satirical poetry seems uneventful and by it wouldn’t have immortalized him. 

His prophetic books may be extraordinary, but I took so little from them. How my interest in William Blake coalesced is one of those archaeological mysteries that is now lost. Like many I probably first discovered “The Tyger,” then read the Songs in college. My interest in the visual arts probably also led me to Blake via his paintings and engravings. Jorge Luis Borges’ inclusion in his Personal Library, a list of books I’ve challenged myself to read, had also given me a strong motive to read it. Of course Borges is biased because he loved tigers, and poems, and poems about tigers, and if he loved to write them he likely loved to read them even more. Unfortunately I not only find his poetry difficult, but also think the rewards from enduring said difficulties leave much to be desired. Poetry hasn’t left me so perplexed since I made the ill-advised choice of venturing into James Merrill’ The Changing Light at Sandover.

William Blake’s poetry was unusual and perhaps difficulty to understand from the start, but from his earliest one also emanated a rare beauty due to its incomprehensibility. For instance from “All Religions are one” we get such stimulating aphorisms:

PRINCIPLE 1st That the Poetic Genius is the true Man. and that the body or outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic Genius. Likewise that the forms of all things are derived from their Genius. which by the Ancients was call'd an Angel & Spirit & Demon.


PRINCIPLE 4. As none by trave ling over known lands can find out the unknown. So from already acquired knowledge Man could not acquire more. therefore an universal Poetic Genius exists

PRINCIPLE. 5 The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nations different reception of the Poetic Genius which is every where call'd the Spirit of Prophecy

Then in “There is No Natural Religion:”

III From a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth

IV None could have other than natural or organic thoughts if he had none but organic perceptions

This was his earliest poetry, written in 1788. To this aphoristic style we can also include the 1790 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell



   All Bibles or sacred codes, have been the causes of the following Errors.
   1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
   2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul.
   3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
   But the following Contraries to these are True.
   1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
   2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
   3. Energy is Eternal Delight.

Marriage contains this strange which is as amusing as it is true:

Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.

From my own reading of Paradise Lost I have no reason to disagree with Blake. Milton, whom I consider a superior poet to Blake, wrote his best verses when focusing on Satan and his rebellion. But there’s a gradual loss of energy, sublimity and majesty as the poem moves away from him to concentrate on Adam and Eve.

In 1889 Blake writes what may be his most accessible poetry (barring the lyrical poetry of Poetical Sketches, 1883): Songs of Innocence and Experience and The Book of Thel. The first one includes poems as famous as “The Tyger:”

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

And “The Sick Rose:”

O Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

This was the third time I read this book and the pleasure did not diminish. These poems alone could have made Blake one of the most remarkable poets of the English language.

The Book of Thel is no less interesting and beautiful, as an allegory for the passage of innocence into experience, from youth into maturity. A virgin maiden Thel worries about growing up because life to her is synonymous with death, and to grow up is the same as dying. Thel meets several characters that try to dissuade her fears:

The Lilly of the valley breathing in the humble grass
Answer’d the lovely maid and said: I am a watry weed,
And I am very small, and love to dwell in lowly vales;
So weak, the gilded butterfly scarce perches on my head.
Yet I am visited from heaven and he that smiles on all.
Walks in the valley. and each morn over me spreads his hand
Saying, rejoice though humble grass, thou new-born lilly flower,
Thou gentle maid of silent valleys. and of modest brooks;
For thou shall be clothed in light, and fed with morning manna:
Till summers heat melts thee beside the fountains and the springs
To flourish in eternal vales: then why should Thel complain.

Thel then asks the Cloud to explain “Why thou complainest not when in one hour thou fade away,” and the Cloud replies:

O virgin know’st thou not. our steeds drink of the golden springs
Where Luvah doth renew his horses: look’st thou on my youth,
And fearest thou because I vanish and am seen no more.
Nothing remains; O maid I tell thee, when I pass away,
It is to tenfold life, to love, to peace, and raptures holy:

And finally she speaks with a worm. It’s a bucolic poem almost, rich for its descriptions of nature and metaphors. With this and Songs, one believes William Blake could have had an excellent life as a poet of lyrical poetry had he cultivated this style, no different from a William Wordsworth (whom he did care for) or a Samuel Coleridge.

But then he started on his life-long project, the prophetic books, which consumed some thirty years of his life and have single-handedly contributed to his reputation as a mystic, madman, and difficult poet. It’s as if a completely different man were writing. From the light and delicate tone of Songs and Thel he launched into the biblical, dense tone of America A Prophecy and he never looked back again:

The shadowy daughter of Urthona stood before red Orc.
When fourteen suns had faintly journey'd o'er his dark abode;
His food she brought in iron baskets, his drink in cups of iron;
Crown'd with a helmet & dark hair the nameless female stood;
A quiver with its burning stores, a bow like that of night,
When pestilence is shot from heaven; no other arms she need:
Invulnerable tho' naked, save where clouds roll round her loins,
Their awful folds in the dark air; silent she stood as night;
For never from her iron tongue could voice or sound arise;
But dumb till that dread day when Orc assay'd his fierce embrace.

Dark virgin; said the hairy youth, thy father stern abhorr'd;
Rivets my tenfold chains while still on high my spirit soars;
Sometimes an eagle screaming in the sky, sometimes a lion,
Stalking upon the mountains, & sometimes a whale I lash
The raging fathomless abyss, anon a serpent folding

Around the pillars of Urthona, and round thy dark limbs,
On the Canadian wilds I fold, feeble my spirit folds.
For chaind beneath I rend these caverns; when thou bringest food
I howl my joy! and my red eyes seek to behold thy face
In vain! these clouds roll to & fro, & hide thee from my sight.

From here on Blake’s poetry became progressively, not only stranger, but hermetic, as he started creating his personal mythopoeia. But at this point I also stopped understanding the ideas he wanted to transmit because his language becomes more and more impenetrable, with occasional passages surprising me with their full lucidity in the midst of so much confabulation:

O Urizen! Creator of men! mistaken Demon of heaven!
Thy joys are tears, thy labour vain to form men to thine image.
How can one joy absorb another? Are not different joys
Holy, eternal, infinite? and each joy is a Love.

(Visions of the Daughters of Albion)

Then tell me, what is the material world, and is it dead?
He laughing answer’d: I will write a book on leaves of flowers,
If you will feed me on love-thoughts, & give me now and then
A cup of sparkling poetic fancies; so when I am tipsie,
I’ll sing to you to this soft lute; and shew you all alive
The world, when every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.

I took him home in my warm bosom: as we went along
Wild flowers I gatherd; & he shew’d me each eternal flower:
He laugh’d aloud to see them whimper because they were pluck’d.
They hover’d round me like a cloud of incense: when I came
Into my parlour and sat down, and took my pen to write:
My Fairy sat upon the table, and dictated EUROPE.
(Europe A Prophecy)

6. And Urizen craving with hunger
Stung with the odours of Nature
Explor’d his dens around

7. He form’d a line & a plummet
To divide the Abyss beneath.
He form’d a diving rule:

8. Je formed scales to weigh;
He formed massy weights;
He formed a brazen quadrant;
He formed golden compasses
And began to explore the Abyss
And he planted a garden of fruits

(The Book of Urizen)

So spoke they as in one voice! Silent Milton stood before
The darkend Urizen; as the sculptor silent stands before
His forming image; he walks round it patient labouring
Thus Milton stood forming bright Urizen, while his Mortal part
Sat frozen in the rock of Horeb: and his Redeemed portion,
Thus form’d th Clay of Urizen; but within that portion
His real Human walkd above in power and majesty
The darkend; and the Seven Angels of the Presence attended him.

(Milton, A Poem)

I see the Four-fold Man. The Humanity in deadly sleep
And its fallen Emanation The Spectre & its cruel Shadow.
I see the Past, Present & Future, existing all at once
Before me; O Divine Spirit sustain me on thy wings!
That I may awake Albion from his long & cold repose.
For Bacon & Newton sheathd in dismal steel, their terrors hang
Like iron scourges over Albion, Reasonings like vast Serpents
Infold around my limbs, bruising my minute articulations.

I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
Wheel within wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.


What is the price of Experience do men buy it for a song
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath his house his wife his children
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy
And in the witherd field where the farmer plows for bread in vain

(The Four Zoas)

A problem I have with Blake’s mythopoetic poetry is that his characters are, to me, just pompous, odd-sounding, bombastic names: Los, Urizen, Orc, etc. They’re no more complex than the letters that compose their names, behind them there’s nothing. Any read can go read Homer and enumerate ten facts about Hector or Prim or Achilles. Ten facts one can also easily get about Milton’s Satan, so enduring his vision has been in popular fiction. But to find a narrative, a life, any substance at all for these figures is looking for chimera. For poetry so concerned with the ultimate great drama of the creation of the universe, Blake created a rather vapid dramatis personae. They certainly have nothing on the vitality of the Roman and Greek gods, on the many-angled personality of the biblical god. They’re words that don’t transcend the fact they’re words to emerge as fully-formed creations.

Still I don’t begrudge William Blake his choices, methods and solitary path. “Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius” the quotable-for-all-purposes Marriage declares. And in the same book, “No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.” And so did William Blake and he didn’t do too badly for himself. Rather than hating Blake, I lament my enjoyment of his poetry is miniscule. The number and talent of William Blake’s scholars is remarkable, and perhaps in them lies the key to decipher his work. For that reason I have been assembling a list of books about his life and work that I intend to read:

Alexander Gilchrist: The Life of William Blake
Algernon Swinburne: William Blake: A Critical Essay
G.K. Chesterton: William Blake
Northrop Frye: Fearful Symmetry
S. Foster Damon: A Blake Dictionary
David V Erdman: Blake: Prophet Against Empire
Kathleen Raine: William Blake
Kathleen Raine: Golgonooza
Kathleen Raine: Blake and Antiquity
Peter Ackroyd: Blake
G.E. Bentley: The Stranger From Paradise

I shall continue to report as I make progress in each book.


  1. I really need to read more William Blake.

    The quotations on good and evil, energy, etc. are fascinating though common to some other viewpoints out there.

    The issue with Milton being more enthusiastic concerning the Satanic is something that I have often pondered. I love the quote regarding the Angels and Devils.

    1. "I really need to read more William Blake."

      Ha ha, I used to think the same! Then I made the mistake of reading more ;)

      Whatever be said, his poetry an had energy, a fierceness, an aura of something unnameable on the threshold of revelation, similar to Conrad's Heart of Darkness but painted on a far greater canvas; the vocabulary he repeated - anvil, hammer, fire, stars, etc. - in his hands did conjure strange, arousing images.

      Today I ordered Gilchrist and Swinburne's books, at last breaking my oath not to buy more books. All in all I persevered more than I expected, and I think it's for a good cause.

  2. Now you have got we all jazzed for a Four Zoas readalong. Together, we can defeat it!

    Blake, the visionary Blake, is enormously difficult. It is a serious question whether it is worth deciphering the mythological Blake. I don't know. I enjoyed the struggle, even though I was defeated. And the art, I love his images.

    But I think Sandover is brilliant, so discount appropriately.

    I should look at the Swinburne book, too. I wonder what it is like?

    1. Tom, his art also fascinates me! The colours, the themes, the odd anatomy, it's all so mysterious and awe-inspiring.

      You've read Merrill's book? You need to start a blog on your contemporary readings!

      Don't worry, Swinburne's book is on the way, I'll write about it when I get it.

    2. That's a good idea. The current blog, a contemporary literature blog, that early modern blog I wish someone else would start, and a music blog. Good, good idea.

  3. I've been meaning to go back and look at Blake again for years. I keep forgetting about him though. He doesn't get talked about much these days. Perhaps he has gone out of fashion. Most of your critical list is fairly old (although includes the classic interpretations). Here is a list of more recent interpretation:
    Perhaps it is time to take a new look at this extraordinary and somewhat neglected poet.

    1. Thanks, that's a good list. I'm curious about Eliot's The Sacred Wood now; if it has an essay on Blake it's one more reason to buy it.

  4. "Milton, whom I consider a superior poet to Blake, wrote his best verses when focusing on Satan and his rebellion. But there’s a gradual loss of energy, sublimity and majesty as the poem moves away from him to concentrate on Adam and Eve."

    Yes, this is exactly how I feel about Paradise Lost. Some of it is electric, magical, the absolute best stuff imaginable, but then it gets dull and the angels chat with Adam and Eve and I began to think of reading something else. I can't even remember how the thing ends. But gosh, can I remember Satan's expulsion from Heaven.

    Blake I know mostly through Songs. Everything else of his that I've tried to read is opaque to me, seeming self-contradictory, or just spoken in a private language Blake was mad enough to think we could all understand if we set aside our prejudices, maybe. Right this second I'm thinking suddenly that Blake was fighting the same battle against the limits of language as was fought by Wittgenstein and Beckett. And sometimes, I confess, I think Blake's metaphysics come down to little more than "William Blake is sexy; come worship him." But his art is fantastic, especially his illustrations of Milton.

    1. Well, I'm still on the fence about Blake. Like I wrote, he has periods of clarity amidst his abstruse poetry, and it's magnificent like few other poetry I've ever read. But it is a lot like digging for diamonds.

      As for Milton, all this talk is making anxious to read Paradise again. It's been a long time.