Monday, May 1, 2017
Every Reader’s Blake
This is the seventh of a series of essays meant to introduce (or re-introduce) non-scholarly readers to the work of important poets. In this series I limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography, eschewing most byways and all footnotes.
Though every poet is one of a kind, William Blake is more dramatically singular than most. Though he owed little debt to the literary fashions of his day and enjoyed scant readership during his lifetime, Blake developed a mystical style of writing and graphic art that has become immensely influential. His grand prophetic books can be bewildering. Anecdotes from him and his contemporaries indicate that he kept people guessing even in his own time.
Perhaps the most convenient entry to Blake’s work is through his political convictions. Though hardly a systematic or pragmatic activist, Blake was possessed with prophetic rage like that of ancients like Amos when he evaluated the contemporary scene. In 1802 Blake drove off a drunken soldier from his garden in Felpham. The trespasser then accused him of high treason, claiming that he had cursed the king and declared all soldiers to be slaves. As it happens, British democracy had advanced just far enough that a jury of twelve acquitted the poet. Blake’s lyric from the preface to Milton: A Poem beginning “And did those feet in ancient times” denounces the manufacturers’ “dark Satanic mills” and looks forward to a new Jerusalem in “England’s green and pleasant land.” The verse, set to music at the time of WWI, has become one of the country’s most popular patriotic songs, particularly popular at Labour Party events.
In the brief four stanzas of “London” Blake raises some of the most significant social questions of the era of the Industrial Revolution.
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
The use of the word “charter’d” in the first stanza, though its precise meaning is not altogether certain, clearly criticizes capitalist private property which has parceled out resources which properly belong to all. The fundamental source of oppression is thus identified at the outset. The ruling class has assigned rights and privileges over both land and water, producing inequity, alienation, and pain, evident in the “marks of woe” evident in the citizens’ faces. I have often reflected on this line when boarding a New York City subway late at night. I fancy the stricken urban faces have not changed in two hundred years. Though the ultimate aim of the ruling class is wealth, for Blake the most oppressive chains are “mind-forg'd,” internalized habits of thought that render the slave compliant.
The third stanza identifies two of his principal complaints: the rapacious exploitation of workers, in particular such lowly workers as the chimney sweeps, whose suffering cries are ignored by established religion. The churches, their own walls blackening with pollution, ignore their own teachings as they ignore the complaints of the humblest among them, the very people with whom Christ would have stood. Likewise soldiers, willing to die for their country, are merely cannon fodder to the indifferent ruling class, sheltered behind palace walls far from any battlefield.
To Blake the most horrifying aspect of the social order must be the perversion of love. The woe he feels “most,” exciting his most heart-felt protest, arises with the transformation of love itself into a commodity. With the Industrial Revolution favoring the cultivation of wool for sale rather than food for consumption and the enclosure laws that facilitated the change, many rural families found themselves in urban areas with no means of support, leading to a dramatic increase in prostitution. Apart from Blake’s implication of venereal disease (“blights with plagues”), to him a husband who would purchase sex can hardly be a true lover, and thus his marriage is also a funeral. Blake considered the very institution of marriage to be fatally linked to power relations and restraint of the divine energy of desire, though he himself was an apparently monogamous and happily married man whose wife took an active role in his creative endeavors. Alexander Gilchrist described coming to call and finding Blake and his wife naked in a small summer house reading Paradise Lost aloud. “Come in,” cried Blake, “It’s only Adam and Eve, you know.”
He claimed to have visionary experiences beginning when God looked in his window when he was only four. Angels and prophets appeared to him in the sky or in trees, and he eventually developed a highly personal and complex mythology. Apparently to him, as to some other mystics, a deep gaze into anything may reveal the divine. The world provided an endless field every object in which is an aspect of god in myriad disguises.
In what is perhaps his most well-known poem, “The Tyger,” Blake insists that the imagery of Christ as a lamb represents only one side of god. For him, as for Hindus, every benevolent deity has a malevolent or frightening figure to balance. Ultimate Reality is beyond good and evil and must contain both. In Blake’s theory of contraries, there can be no privilege to the more agreeable vision; it is inevitably accompanied by its terrifying transformation.
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 seize 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 water'd 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?
The deeper implication of the poem is the ultimate identity of opposites, the explosion of dualism in what is called in one tradition Advaitism. If, as the hymn of another tradition says “In Christ there is no east and west, in him no north and south,” then there is likewise no temporal/divine, mind/body, life/death, or other dualities. The enlightened view is monistic.
The very title of his “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” suggests the identity or interdependence of opposites. In it the devil expounds the “error” that body and soul are distinct. Yet it is also a devil whom he witnesses writing the profound words: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,/ is an immense World of Delight, clos’d by your senses five?” and the following are among what he calls “the proverbs of Hell.”
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
The cut worm forgives the plough.
Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
Prisons are built with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
One thought fills immensity.
Exuberance is Beauty.
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
He sounds like a Zen master when he advises “Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.”
The reader to whom such sayings make Blake a didactic poet, will, at the same time, find him avoiding reductive themes, often through the use of paradox and ambiguity. In “The Sick Rose” the rose’s virtue and the worm’s malignity seem clear at first glance, but to many the poem’s implications remain elusive.
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.
Rather than prescribe a single reading of this brief poem, I shall indicate some of the directions which a reading might take. The likeliest initial interpretation would see the rose as a lovely and wholly admirable thing whose love, his “bed of crimson joy” is destroyed by a monster, malicious invisible flying worm. This approach is not only consistent with general poetic usages of rose (beautiful, desirable) and worm (associated with death and decay) but also might well be supported with parallel passages from other Blakean texts.
On the other hand, it is the rose that is described at the outset as “sick,” while the worm has “love,” albeit a dark and secret variety. Might it be that the worm is as wholesome as a medicinal leech and that the “crimson joy,” sensational as it sounds, might arise from a bed of dysfunction? Some have read the final lines “And his dark secret love/ Does thy life destroy” to mean, not that the worm destroys the rose, but rather that the worm’s love is destroyed by the rose’s life. The fact is that, while Bromion’s assault on Oothoon in Visions of the Daughters of Albion is analogous to the worm’s on the rose, in the Book of Thel the title character is told “Then if thou art the food of worms, O virgin of the skies, How great thy use, how great thy blessing.” Her reluctance seems there to be a sign of inhibition and limitation.
The illustration Blake made for “The Sick Rose” also complicates the interpretation. What can the viewer make of the fact that the artist depicts no storm at all, but a clear and sunny day? While the upper flowers seem to be wilting, the one associated with the worm is healthy-looking. Do these details suggest that the persona of the poem has an inaccurate subjective view?
Such underdetermined signification, far from indicating the author’s confusion, is characteristic of the aesthetic text. The role of the paradoxical and mysterious is foregrounded in William Blake, whose visionary insights often challenged and contradicted received ideas. A poet who celebrated the joy of the creation, he no less embraced the tumultuous and stressful, aiming to place his ultimate focus beyond good and evil. A prescient critic of the already failing feudal system and of the nascent capitalism replacing it, of the institutional church which seemed to him to veer sharply from Christ’s teaching, he was perhaps most profoundly a critic of everyday perception. Another line in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” notes "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." Human senses may block perception as well as permit it. Blake was ambitious enough to construct in his art, both verbal and visual, new objects for mental contemplation designed to extend human vision and to bring others in the direction of enlightenment.