William Blake (1757-1827) has long been for me a favourite maker of poems. Blake was essentially a craftsmen in all senses of that word. He was a poet, a painter, a fine engraver and an excellent printer. I have referred to him many times in my posts over the years. See the following link for my previous posts on this weaver of words: Blake.
Blake appeals to me because he was rebellious in spirit and just did not like to conform. He was original to a fault. Having spent seven years as an apprentice engraver, he progressed to study art at the Royal Academy but quit after a year because he rebelled against the aesthetic doctrines of its president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. In writing his poetry he also broke with convention by rejecting the high neoclassical style and modes of thought then current, preferring a simple and direct style as exemplified in his lyrics. He was a nonconformist in religion, being born into a Dissenting tradition that encouraged extemporary hymn-singing. Hence much of his religious thoughts were unorthodox and even heretical by the standards of the more orthodox Christian churches.
I would characterise his work as being pre-Romantic, though some would say he marked the beginning of Romanticism. However, Blake was so unorthodox and sui generis that he defies categorization. While he had time for the Bible Reverent, he was singularly hostile to the established Church. I shall quote a favourite poem below which shows his sharp antipathy to the contemporary institutional Church. He was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of both the French and the American revolutions, and even at one stage in his life had a spy outside his house because they suspected that poor Blake was a revolutionary traitor. Added to that he loved the unique philosophies and spiritualism of thinkers like Jakob Boehme and Emanuel Swedenborg. I have written an extended essay on Blake's philosophy and spirituality and uploaded it in a previous entry. See the link above and scroll down to the post headed "William Blake" for this critical summary. As well as that Blake was unconventional in the way he wrote, paying little heed to standard punctuation or spelling - using capitals wherever he thought right and fitting. Now for him the silliness of convention. Our man Blake was convinced about his own truth. Mind you, he was not a zealot, because, belonging to no set religion, he did not seek to thrust his beliefs down another's throat. Blake believed in his own mystical vision - in angels, both good and bad. He felt very close to spiritual reality all through his life.
He also loved his wife (Catherine Boucher) dearly, taught her to read and write (an uncommon thing to do in those years as women of her class were practically chattels for their men folk) and then he also nursed his brother Robert who died from consumption. The story about his death is charming - after working on a poem, he told his wife Kate that he'd sketch her which he did. Then he sang several hymns and died. Peter Ackroyd's biography (1996), which I read about ten years ago is excellent. Therein, I read most of what I write here from memory. Perhaps one of the most unusual things I read in that book was that Will and Kate were so liberated that some visitors found them naked in their garden one summer's day. One can only marvel at their freedom of spirit and pure simplicity. Also Blake was very concerned with how the poor in London were treated, especially the chimney sweeps. Below I'll give a taste of a few poems by good old Will:
Holy Thursday (Experience)
Is this a holy thing to see.
In a rich and fruitful land.
Babes reduced to misery.
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!
And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill'd with thorns
It is eternal winter there.
For where-e'er the sun does shine.
And where-e'er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.
I love this poem for its righteous indignation and concern for others. Once again the highlighting is mine - the lines that jump out at me.
The Clod and the Pebble
'Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell's despair.'
So sung a little clod of clay,
Trodden with the cattle's feet;
But a pebble of the brook
Warbled out these meters meet:
'Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven's despite.'
This poem I love because Blake gives both sides of the coin - Good and Evil. In fact, theologically, it can be argued for sure that our man was Manichaean really, that is, believing that Good and Evil exist side by side - a sort of dual-Godhead.
The Garden of Love
I laid me down upon a bank,
Where Love lay sleeping;
I heard among the rushes dank
Then I went to the heath and the wild,
To the thistles and thorns of the waste;
And they told me how they were beguiled,
Driven out, and compelled to the chaste.
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut
And 'Thou shalt not,' writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
This has long been one of my favourite poems by Blake, because as a student of theology as well as of English literature and Philosophy, I relished critical voices, those with positions and opinions different to the mainstream church. You can see how such reading improved and sharpened one's theology. I loved Blake's heterodoxy and his ability to go against the flow or the tide of traditional opinion. He was a free spirit and like Coleridge, there is only one thing a reader can do and that is to love such a beautiful human being!
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 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?
This is a poem I love reading aloud to children. My friend's children love to hear me reading it. Indeed it appeals to the child in me and the words and the rhythm and the rhyme all make for such a magical experience. Again it's the sound of the words when read aloud that convey a meaning beyond the words. How could anyone fail to be moved by this wonderful, wonderful poem. Excuse the excess of praise in my doubling up on adjectives. I'm getting carried away.
A Poison Tree
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears
Night and morning with my tears,
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright,
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine -
And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning, glad, I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
This is a beautiful poem which shows an intuitive understanding of how anger grows. Blake was a good psychologist. There is a lot of truth in the above lines about unexpressed anger. I remember using this poem once when making up with a friend with whom I was angry. We both love poems. Needless to say we shook hands and continued in our friendship. As you can see Blake is far from being didactic or preachy. Rather he speaks in tremendously strong and powerfully evocative images. One would expect no less from a man who was so creative in so many ways and whose own world of imagination became for him the real one. Yet he never got so lost in his visions as to forget about his loved ones like his brother Robert or his dear wife Kate or the suffering little children of London.
I could go one, but there is no need. All of Blake's poems are widely available - and cheaply too - in bookshops or on the web. Read him out loud. Sing his songs. By the way he wrote the famous hymn "Jerusalem" which I'm not publishing here. Get a sung version of it and your hair will stand on edge at the beauty of it! Then, get his wonderful engravings which accompanied most of his earliest poems. You'll only be entranced. Finally, I love Blake so much that I have four prints of his framed for my study.
Above I have uploaded William Blake's self-portrait!