Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Brief Survey of William Blake’s Poetry

Saw Spiritual Presences
William Blake, though a poet and a mystic of the most extraordinary genius, had little or no influence on his generation. The greater part of his message was so obscure, so wild, so incoherently delivered, that even now, after much study, his commentators have succeeded in making clear only a portion of what he wrote. He belonged to that type of mind which in superstitious ages is described as being '"possessed". When a very young child he one day screamed with fear because, he said, he had seen God put His face to the window. In boyhood he saw several angels, very bright, standing in a tree by the roadside. In his manhood, the earth and the air were for him full of spiritual presences, all concerned with his fate or with that of his friends.

His Visual Imagination
With a metaphysical gift which made it natural for Blake to move in an ideal world, he combined a visual imagination of abnormal, almost miraculous power, which enabled him to give bodily form to abstractions, and to summon at any moment before him "armies of angels that soar, legions of demons that lurk.'' Outwardly he led a regular, quiet, laborious life, all the while pouring out poems, drawings, and vast "prophetical books" full of shadowy mythologies and mystical thought-systems which show that his inward life was one of perhaps unparalleled excitement and adventure.
His Fame as a Poet
Aside from the prophetical works, such as The Book of Thel and The French Revolution, his fame as a poet rests chiefly on his Poetical Sketches (1783) and on his Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794). These little volumes contain some of the simplest and sweetest as well as some of the most powerful short poems in the language. At his best, Blake has a simplicity as great as Wordsworth's, and a magic which reminds us of Coleridge, combined with a depth and pregnancy of meaning peculiar to himself. In him the whole transcendental side of the Romantic Movement was expressed by hint and implication, if not by accomplishment.
Poetical Sketches"
The most admirable of Blake's poems are to be found in his earlier volumes—Poetical Sketches (1783), Songs of Innocence (1789), and Songs of Experience (1794). These contain matchless lyrics, which show him as almost entirely apart from the 18th century influence and conventions. His models—as far as he has any—are the Elizabethans, though, in Poetical Sketches, there are some pieces of rhythmical, poetic prose, whose inspiration is Macpherson. In four lyrics on the seasons in this volume he describes Nature symbolically; others of the poems are ballads; others are dainty little poems which might almost have come from an Elizabethan; while others, again, with their talk of the "more than mortal fire (that) burns in (his) soul", sound the note of the visionary, a note to grow deeper and deeper later on.
"Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience"
Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are companion collections of lyrics, in which there are many pairs of poems, each in a different mood. In Blake's words they were meant to show "the two contrary states of the human soul". The tone of the first series is admirably sounded by the introductory "Piping down the valleys wild". The volume contains such lovely lyrics as The Lamb, Infant Joy, Cradle Song, and Holy Thursday, recording the happy procession of charity children to St. Paul's Cathedral, and the picture of The Chimney Sweeper in which little "Tom was happy and warm". But, in the companion series, the happy-songs are changed. The symbol is no more the Lamb, "woolly bright", image of Christ, but the Tiger, "burning bright in the forests of the night"; and Blake asks: "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" Holy Thursday is now viewed in the light of experience, and the procession of the children no longer gives the poet joy; but he is miserable to see so many poor babes "fed with cold and usurous hand". The Chimneysweeper, too, is nowseen "clothed in the clothes of death"; and Blake is bitter against those who go "up to the Church to pray" while the misery of the innocent is around them.
"Auguries of Innocence"
The rest of Blake's poetic work does not have the same appeal. Auguries of Innocence, found in manuscript, is not great poetry, but it is the expression of his love of all creatures which makes him hate those who put "a robin redbreast in a cage" or hunt the hare, and of his intense mysticism in which he sees all the world as symbolical of spiritual verities:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.
Thel, in unrhymed rhythmical lines, has much lyrical beauty. Thel, "youngest daughter of the Seraphim", laments until comforted by the Lily of the Valley, the Cloud, and the Worm.
Prophetic Books
The prophetic books were "dictated" to Blake by spirits. Some have seen a coherent symbolism in them, but to the ordinary reader they are a non- sensical chaos, broken by flashes of fine lyric or prose sentences enshrining in condensed expression deeply philosophical thoughts. There is the well-known lyric in Milton in which concludes thus:
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 strife,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built
In England's green and pleasant land.
Marriage of Heaven and Hell
In the prose work called Marriage of Heaven and Hell we have among the Proverbs of Hell the following: "He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star." "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom". "Exuberance is beauty." Though his oracular sayings are generally hard to interpret, intense spiritual thinking lies behind them.

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