Sunday, August 16, 2009

Week 01, Introduction and William Blake

Welcome to E212, British Literature since 1760

Fall 2009 at California State University, Fullerton

This blog will offer posts on all of the authors on our syllabus. I will post two kinds of notes: general and page-by-page. Both kinds are optional reading, but I encourage you to read the entries as your time permits. While they are not exactly the same as what I may choose to say during class sessions (i.e. these are
not usually exact copies of my lecture notes), they should prove helpful in your engagement with the authors and in arriving at paper topics and studying for the exam.

A dedicated menu at my Wiki site contains the necessary information for students enrolled in this course; when the semester has ended, this blog will remain online, and a copy of the syllabus will remain in the Archive menu.

Required Texts

Abrams, M. H. et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vols. DEF. 8th. ed. New York: Norton, 2006. Package 2 ISBN 0-393-92834-9.

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. Eds. Deidre Shauna Lynch and James Kinsley. 2nd. Edition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. ISBN 0-192-80263-1.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin, 2003. ISBN 0-142-43734-4.

Notes on William Blake, General Introduction

The romantic poets lived through a “crisis of authority” that stemmed from great social and political change—their work surely responds in part to the French Revolution that began in 1789, but also to the rapidly progressing scientific and commercial transformation of what had once been a mostly agrarian civilization. Romantic literature examines the human consequences of such events and alterations in the rhythm of life. Imagination is the central power in British romantic literature: great claims are made for it as an almost godlike agent of creation, of remaking the world anew and uniting the broken shards of self and community. We may find the Victorians more circumspect about such radical claims for imagination and the individual, but the romantics do not necessarily set them forth naively. Nothing shows the complexity of romantic poetics more fully than reading William Blake. Those interested in more detailed political and historical commentary on 19th Century may want to read my Introduction to C19 British Literature.

In Blake’s view, we shouldn’t assume rigidly either that God is a powerful authority figure outside of us, or that God “resides [only] in the human breast.” Both of these positions have negative consequences, intended or otherwise. We either cringe before a mysterious external authority, or we become arrogant and turn “Imagination” into a God with all the baggage of Blake’s white-bearded old God, “Nobodaddy” (a cipher who nevertheless wields the power of collective human barbarity). Instead, it would be best to say that “God” has to do with imaginative process—that the emphasis should lie on the necessity to externalize God in image and text and, even as we do so, to be constantly tearing our constructions down so they don’t become abstractions, parts of a rigid system of oppression. The building up and tearing down are one and the same act—look at the many stratagems Blake invents to keep his texts from sounding like the last word about anything: outrageous comic-book-style parodic humor, self-parody, nearly constant self-referentiality with regard to the creative process, workings-out of the impossibility of beginning or ending texts, character-voices that seem to be privileged (like the Devil in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) and then turn out to be just as flawed as other voices. Blake believes in free expression of all kinds, but the point of such expression isn’t to shore up a conception of the self as isolated from others. Expression should bring people together, not keep them apart. Blake may be eccentric, but he isn’t a “cowboy.” So the charge of solipsism (being wrapped up in one’s own head) would not make sense with regard to his work.

General Notes on Songs of Innocence & of Experience

Songs of Innocence was published in 1789, the year of the French Revolution. The Songs of Experience came out in 1794. They are separate but related works. Blake’s philosophy developed into what we see in Experience. But there is already a kind of “experienced” quality to the Songs of Innocence, as the ambivalent preposition “of” suggests. They are not childish or simple. The title of Blake’s poems, Songs of Innocence & of Experience, reminds us of the Christian Fall and its notion of prelapsarian and post-lapsarian states. But Blake’s terms are not the same because he isn’t setting forth a vision of the human condition before the Fall and then the human condition after the Fall. You can’t get back to prelapsarian innocence; you can, however, regard the concepts of innocence and experience as being in dynamic tension, with each commenting on the other. Even at birth, I think Blake would say, we have already entered into a state of experience. The important thing is not be subsumed and hardened by our awareness of that fact into cynicism and barren systemic thought.

Much of the action in Blake’s poetry has to do with what happens when characters get trapped by the production of their own minds or the productions of other people’s minds, right up to the level of society-wide practices and beliefs (religion, political economy, monarchism, etc.). As one of his characters says, “I must create my own system” to avoid being enslaved by anyone else’s. This does not mean that one should set up one’s own system and live by it as a rigid code—when Blake makes his characters address the creation of idea-systems, I believe we should understand him to mean that we are always simultaneously building up and destroying these “systems” of thought. The critical thing is that the imaginative process of creation and destruction seem to be one and the same act—they are not separate and successive acts, but one. That is so because Blake has an uncanny insight into the way any product of human imagination, any practice, quickly becomes a trap—something that comes from us but that seems to have been imposed by some external authority figure, call it “God” or whatever you will. But further, it isn’t enough just to say, as a character says in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that “all deities reside in the human breast.” That kind of statement quickly leads to arrogant solipsism (as in, “I am God” or “I need not regard the ideas and needs of others”) or outright nihilism (“why believe anything if there are no external absolutes and everything is only a product of the imagination?”). Such a state of affairs is just as bad as setting up an external authority figure and then cowering under its dread pronouncements, its endless litany of “Thou shalt nots.” A tyrant in the human breast is just as bad as one on Mount Olympus or anywhere else. A central image in Blake is the human figure who has created an image or an idea from which he or she then shrinks back in mystified horror or awe.

Blake is profoundly spiritual and seems to have known the Bible almost by heart, but he clearly is not comfortable with the linear time scheme of Christian narrative. For Blake, the Fall is always happening, and so is Redemption, and his vision of Heaven is something he calls “intellectual conversation,” which is not lamb-like bliss but rather intellect and emotion, reason and energy, existing together. That view is fully articulated in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I think that in Blake’s view, to posit a one-time Fall that occurred some thousands of years ago in a certain garden would be a profound mistake—just the kind of narratival trap he wants to avoid.

The Blake Digital Text Project offers further interpretations of the texts. See also The William Blake Archive.

Poem-by-Poem Notes on Songs of Innocence

Initial thoughts: while the purpose of Songs of Innocence isn’t to tell us that we can simply become innocent again, Blake will not violate Christ’s claim that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, one must become childlike. We must remain open to the possibility of redemption, of the eternal and the infinite. We must be able to interpret the physical reality around us in a spiritual way. For Blake, Jesus is the principle of imagination, and his is the most perfectly realized imaginative existence. The philosophies of the adult world, Blake finds, are French rationalism, with its arrogant reliance on the self-sufficient power of reason, and British empiricism, with its insistence that the mind is a passive recipient of sensory data and therefore “bound” to the natural world. Such philosophies lead us only to atheism and barren cynicism. The world of harsh reality and repression will become the grave of the adult’s spirit. The philosopher Walter Benjamin reminds us that for followers of Judaism, each moment is a portal through which the Messiah may enter. Blake’s view of redemption seems similar. Perhaps openness to that possibility is what Blake finds attractive about childhood: the capacity to imagine and feel one’s way out of the mind’s and the world’s snares. A child is at least in part capable of “looking thro’ the eye and not with it.” We are not reducible to fallen material reality, and not confinable to fallen temporal schemes—we are more than they allow us, and we must understand that fact. “Here and now” is our fallen medium; we must look into it through the eye and perceive the infinite and the eternal. To be in a fallen condition and not interpret our condition spiritually is to compound and perpetuate human error.

Childhood memories may seem distorted—things and people loom larger than life, but as children we don’t have the contextual awareness that would limit our senses and bind us to the Real. Kids have a stronger sense of infinity and eternity than adults—something that Wordsworth captures well with his line in the “Intimations of Immortality” ode about clinging to his “obstinate questionings / Of sense and outward things.” In emphasizing childhood, Blake’s narrator may be offering us a way to arrive at spiritual interpretations of suffering and the material realm that do not simply amount to denial or cynical acceptance. That may be the task of the Songs of Innocence in particular. The title’s sophistication is worth attending to: it could mean “songs sung in innocence,” but it could also mean “songs about the state of innocence, sung by someone who has transitioned out of such a state.” In Songs of Experience, we will often find speakers struggling with the curse of spatial and temporal boundedness and with the world’s demand that everything be subjected to systemic imperatives and interpretations, but in Songs of Innocence, the emphasis is different, at least in many of the poems: they bespeak the wellsprings of strength in childhood imaginings and understandings.

Lest we emphasize childhood too naively, we should remember that for Blake, being born is itself a kind of fall into materiality; so even childhood cannot be construed as a state of entire bliss, and are in fact children are subject to the world of experience. Still, perhaps they can offer a perspective that will help adults break out of the stalest, deadened perceptions of themselves and the world in which they live, lest those perceptions become a trap. Children possess an abundance of imagination, and they seem less aware than are adults of the limitations placed upon them by physical reality, cultural strictures, repression of various kinds—fetters upon the human mind. In his poem “London,” Blake uses the apt phrase “mind-forged manacles.” Children at least trust that they can find a way out, and they are able to offer a spiritual, even optimistic, perspective on the fallen reality into which they have been cast. But this childlike state of optimism must pass through the fires of experience—the world will not leave it alone; purification is fiery, energy is vital. “Without contraries is no progression”: terms like body and soul, reason and energy, are not mutually exclusive. Rather, we must put them into dynamic conversation. Otherwise, we end up “negating” both instead of marrying them in a fruitful union that moves the human spirit forward. We must put innocence and experience together as a married pair of states. Blake never “gets around” intellectual difficulties—he confronts them head-on, putting seemingly contradictory terms right alongside each other and dealing with the implications and potentialities of such “marriages.”


At the outset, there is already much affinity between the Shepherd and the child. The Shepherd’s pleasant songs apparently move the child sitting on a cloud to make himself visible. So the song leads to a visionary experience for the Shepherd. At first, the child is concerned only with his own delight, as is evident when he gently orders the Shepherd to “Pipe a song about a Lamb.” But then the child gives the Shepherd his real mission, which is to communicate first in the medium of song and then by the written word. At this point, the commanding child vanishes and the Shepherd is left to craft his writing instrument and begin his task. “I stain’d the water clear” is a paradoxical statement, at first meaning simply that the Shepherd has stained some water with pigment of some sort and is ready to use his hollow reed. There is always the possibility that the act of writing muddies what was once clear and capable of communicating pure joy. Does writing inherently stain the purity of what it sets forth? It is a medium for imagination, and no human medium is perfect since we are in a fallen or bodily state. But I would not place too much emphasis on such dark hints at this point because the poem ends on a note of confidence; we are told that the speaker has accomplished his task and has written “happy songs / Every child may joy to hear.”

“The Ecchoing Green”

A sense of temporal annulment, of gentle eternity, plays alongside the gathering energy of the friendly night. This poem welcomes time and experience. It welcomes the coming on of maturity and the workings of natural process. The guardians were children once, and they remember their former state without melancholy. The illustration shows plants—we don’t see growth occurring, but it happens in the night. The children in this poem are on the road to experience and sexual awareness, as the presence of what appear to be grapes suggests indirectly.

“The Lamb”

There is no sense of alienation here between the child and the highly charged Christian symbol of the Lamb; child and lamb are both innocent figures. The child simply extends his blessing to the Lamb, and the emphasis is on the beauty and promise of the symbol. One might pair this poem with “The Tyger,” in which nature is a fallen or alien thing that inspires dread rather than blessing.

“The Little Black Boy”

Where has the child learned that he is “bereaved of light”? This poem has a social theme. The boy’s painful story about racial differences must be displaced by his mother, who offers a spiritual interpretation. The child reads black and white in conventional terms, as good and evil. But his mother sees material creation as a divine mercy, to shield us from intense beams of divine light. So skin color doesn’t matter, or at least it will not matter ultimately. The mother is probably accommodating her words to the understanding of the child; she alters the meaning of symbols such as black and white, cloud and sunshine, even as she employs them. The “He” at the poem’s end is a white child. Water and vegetation surround Christ and the child in Blake’s illustration—heaven may be found on earth. Human differences, the physical, must be given a spiritual interpretation. We could read this poem as partly about the falling away of material limitations and the vulgar narratives that reinforce them, but the last few lines complicate things—they suggest that the little black boy wishes for a state in which he will lose his blackness, and only then will the little white boy love him.

“The Chimney Sweeper”

This poem does not, at first, seem to belong in songs dedicated to innocence. But upon reflection, it may be that the poem is among the most appropriate of all. The older boy and his companion have been sold into industrial slavery. In their innocence, they see their lives as a passage from the darkness to the light, from grayness to color and clarity. The dream that comforts the younger boy is bestowed in darkness, and he has somehow transmuted the blackness of his surroundings into a scenario that gives him hope for a better world. (This is the kind of consolation that made the later Marxists sneer at religion, with its promises of joy in the afterlife drowning out the present suffering of human beings.) The pun on “weeping” suggests that the older child has become one with his own appalling suffering and abuse, but his self-conscious reflections indicate that he is not bound or crushed by them. The child’s words are bleak, but his soul has not been destroyed altogether. Perhaps comfortless himself, he finds some consolation in little Tom’s ability to believe in his own dream of salvation. He remains human and is still “innocent,” but his situation is more complex and troubling than that of the speakers in some of Blake’s other poems in this collection. Is he by now complicit in perpetuating illusions to comfort the oppressed? How much good do these illusions do him? This older boy seems only halfway towards realizing the goal of a state of experience, which entails understanding how a system of oppression forms, how it is perpetuated, and whose interests the oppression serves.

“The Divine Image”

Human nature is divine, so mercy, pity, peace, and love are not abstractions but are indwelling in the soul. They must not be treated as conventional demands imposed from without by an oppressive system that demands suffering. One should not look down on others, but must identify the human with the divine. This poem should be compared to “The Human Abstract,” in which the speaker says, “Pity would be no more, / If we did not make somebody Poor; / And Mercy no more could be, / If all were as happy as we.”

“Holy Thursday”

This poem refers to an annual event in St. Paul’s Cathedral, wherein 6,000 charity children were led by beadles to the Cathedral to show patrons their gratitude. The children flow like the “charter’d Thames” in the poem “London.” From Songs of Experience. Why should anyone need to “guard” those living in poverty? (One might ask the same of other significant phrases—the health insurance industry’s phrase “managed care,” for example.) The guardians do not see the true nature of the children. What is their real relationship to those children? Blake is describing a full-bore system of oppression in which there must continue to be plenty of destitute children so that this “charitable” spectacle may be perpetuated. Still, the speaker divines the exalted spirits of the children, their superiority to the crushing abuse heaped on them by their elders.

“Nurse’s Song”

The Nurse “looks before and after”; she argues gently with her charges about the setting of the sun. The children don’t see this processive world. They are oriented towards eternity; they don’t see the fading of the light, but instead rejoice in the colors. Their very limitations open them up to the heavens, to a spiritual connection with what is around them. When we enter the adult world of experience, bitterness and narrowness set in. But a child’s inability to delimit and contextualize makes things loom large, detaches them from a fallen and narrow context.

Children’s glory is that their vision has not (to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth) “fade[d] into the light of common day.” Without even realizing it, they do what the mature William Blake says he tries to do: they “look through the eye and not with it.” Instead of closing down and limiting them, children’s vision opens them up to an intuition of the eternal and the infinite. Adult boundedness shuts us down, constricts us, limits our possibilities.

Blake may believe there is a way to return to this state of vision—the world of infinity and imagination, pure spirit. This vision is within us, and it can be cultivated; it coexists with the fallen productions of the mind. I’ll give you an instance from a childhood memory of mine—I remember standing outside a building that seemed impossibly huge, and next to me, holding my hand, was my mother, whose presence was as huge as the building, like a guardian spirit. I must have been very young, perhaps four or five years old. This image of my mother never left me—it remains in at least an intermittent way, detached from whatever its quotidian context may have been (a trip to the doctor’s office or the dentist?), devoid of any narrative sense. This vision, I think Blake would insist, is the spiritual and eternal understanding of a physical person central to my life—it is not less real or significant than my ordinary adult understanding of the same person, but more so. With Blake, it is vision that is primary, not the quotidian.

“Infant Joy”

Geoffrey Keynes says this poem is about birth. I would add that Joy’s “joy” precedes her naming. The poem playfully evades the trap of naming as an institutional act since we can’t say that the capital letter “J” is due to proper noun status or to the fact that the word begins a new line. Naming is a social convention—you don’t choose your name but instead it is given to you by others, and then it becomes part of your identity. But something about the child in this poem exceeds the song’s power to describe her. The Nurse (I presume that’s who the poem’s other speaker is) cannot be definitely said to initiate the child into the fallen world of social and linguistic convention and experience, either, since the word “joy” isn’t capitalized. Sweet joy befall thee—why should joy befall her if she is joy? The song blesses the child in a genuinely innocent way, but she already is what she has been sung to be. The Nurse sees the infant as all potential; the child does not perceive this processiveness at all. So what’s the difference in the way the child and the adult understand “joy”?

“The Divine Image”

Frye writes that “The universal perception of the general is the ‘divine image’ of the Songs of Innocence; the egocentric perception of the general is the ‘human abstract’ of the Songs of Experience” ( Fearful Symmetry 32). Furthermore, with regard to the notion of the divine as an abstraction, Frye writes that “If this idea of ‘pure perfection’ is pressed a little further it dissolves in negatives, as all abstract ideas do. God is infinite, inscrutable, incomprehensible—all negative words, and a negative communion with some undefined ineffability is its highest development” ( Fearful Symmetry 37). See Frye on Blake.

Poem-by-Poem Notes on Songs of Experience


Here we move to the prophetic voice of the Epic Bard and away from the Shepherd. The Norton editor says that this new speaker has heard God’s voice in the Garden of Eden. So he has heard God admonishing the fallen Adam and Eve. I think this is Blake’s way of introducing the theme of redemption, which of course he will redefine. Earth is a symbol of fallen materiality and unredeemed human nature. She is offered the outer edges of the material realm for a time, but as we see from the next poem, her answer to the Bard is not affirmative.

“Earth’s Answer”

Earth is not at all hopeful about her predicament. She is trapped in the clutches of Reason, that long-standing weapon of selfish men. Earth’s way is the way of free desire, but the wielders of reason cannot abide her liberty. The emphasis on Earth’s predicament, perhaps, suggests for one thing that Blake is setting himself firmly against materialism and rationalism as sufficient world views. The materialist would enslave us to the natural realm’s physical forces and to the realm of causal necessity, while the proponent of reason tends towards arrogant disdain for and alienation fro all things natural, asserting instead a barren mental freedom that soon appears as what it really is: another kind of slavery, the “mind-forged manacles” of system-building philosophical speculation.

“The Clod and the Pebble”

Are the clod and the pebble complete opposites? No, because of the third line—one gives its ease for another and plays the martyr, while the other appropriates all good things to itself. One speaks of giving up ease, the other of taking it. Either way, gaining something comes at somebody else’s expense. This viewpoint should not be accepted but rather transcended, but neither side is able to do so.

“Holy Thursday”

Connect to previous poem of innocence. Systemic perspective—what is the change in perspective; what enables the speaker to see what is wrong?

“The Chimney Sweeper”

Here Blake’s narrator offers a systemic view that suits the world it describes: the Church is an oppressive institution and the handmaiden of political economy, and the parents are to blame as well. They mutually reinforce one another and willfully misinterpret the child’s view of things. The child says that because he was happy and danced and sang, he has been made to suffer, and those who have wronged him are able to maintain a clear conscience.

“Nurse’s Song”

This is a companion poem to “The Ecchoing Green.” The Nurse gives an entirely different interpretation of the children playing; in her, they arouse only mean-spirited thoughts. She envies them because they still have the youth she has lost, and she construes the gap between their ages and hers as nothing but waste, as if she would say, “hurry up and grow old.” The pattern that has constituted the Nurse’s life is the only one she will allow for others.

“The Sick Rose”

This is a dark poem (its contrary is “The Blossom”) about sexual love in which the rose, symbolizing erotic awakening, is blighted and devoured by the caterpillar, which probably symbolizes the repressive, hypocritical priesthood and its ideology of shame. King Lear’s insights resemble those of Blake’s speakers in this and similar poems:

Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind
For which thou whipp’st her. The usurer hangs the cozener.
Through tattered clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furred gowns hide all. (4.5.162-66)

In the unhealthy sexual economy that the poem figures, the act of generation is shadowed by destructive ideology. One thing’s gain is another’s loss, as in the cruelest natural economies. Blake is almost Freudian when it comes to this area of life—he consistently suggests that any kind of repression of natural sexuality is bound to bring the most dreadful spiritual and social consequences.

“The Fly”

The narrator identifies with the fly who is part of the natural and perishing world. Is his realization that they are both time-bound and subject to death? “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport,” as Gloucester says in King Lear (4.1.38-39). Consider also the lines from Blake’s Milton: Seest thou the little winged fly, smaller than a grain of sand? / It has a heart like thee, a brain open to heaven and hell, / Withinside wondrous and expansive; its gates are not closed; / I hope thine are not.” I am not sure what the last four lines imply unless they reinforce the sense of identification between the speaker and the creature he describes: the latter lives in the shadow of death, but fears nothing and simply lives its life. Well, Blake is always telling us that we must look within to find immensity, so I don’t think the meaning of the poem is simply that death is oblivion. The fly carries its own little universe around with it, and is not to be dismissed lightly.

“The Tyger”

The tyger looks almost tame in most plates, and its appearance varies from one copy to the next. So perhaps Blake doesn’t want to pin himself down on its meaning. Keynes says the poem’s question is no less than the reconcilement of good with evil. The Tyger is not a natural being, or if it is, it is given a spiritual interpretation. Is it something in the human imagination altogether? Did God make the Tyger? Yes. The poem is about fallen nature, but this isn’t really a nature poem because “forest of the night” is not the description we would give of a natural forest.

Blake’s forest here is symbolic, and I believe the poem is at base about the terrors of the human imagination. We create something charged with symbolic power, and then shrink back from it in dread. It assumes fetishistic power over us, and renders us helpless. The things of the natural world have often been interpreted in this manner. At the same time, a real tiger might be said to possess “fearful symmetry,” and as such its existence is a challenge to our faith in the simple binary opposition good/evil. But Tiger simply is and lives; it is neither good nor evil but a creature possessed of great energy and grace. How does one reconcile its beauty with its violence, its affinity with the lamb it would devour?

“My Pretty Rose” / “Ah, Sunflower” / “The Lily”

The flower is a symbol of love, and these poems present three different love scenes: jealousy, self-denial, and innocent love.

“The Garden of Love”

The poem largely concerns the repression of sexual desire. The living flowers in the Garden of Love are replaced with tombstones, and priests bind the speaker’s desires just as they must have bound those of the dead buried beneath the tombstones. What should be in the garden of love, what should be happening there? That is what the poem reminds us to ask. As it stands now, the grounds have been consecrated as the sterile province of death, a place to be tended by officious clerics making their daily rounds—to them, death is life, and they replace the freer sort of plant growth with killing “briers.” I think we might construe this scene somewhat literally by imagining the robed priests walking around a cemetery tending to the thickets. Briers, after all, often form such thickets. In this way, perhaps, they further bind the speaker’s “joys and desires” by tending and perfecting the cemetery that has replaced a lovely and flourishing garden.


The poem evokes a city trapped in a cycle of wretchedness. London here is a real city filled with material oppression and suffering, but at the same time it represents a spiritual state of enslavement brought about by the repression of healthy desires and impulses and the systemic encouragement of unhealthy and selfish ones: a cannibalistic universe ruled by necessity and economy, in which one person’s poverty is another’s wealth, and one person’s sexual desperation is another’s livelihood. This is a world made by humans that has become inhuman and inhumane. The poem echoes with sounds of despair—sighs, cries and curses testify against the mute, sullen, inscrutable architecture of the great City, and in the final stanza, the “youthful harlot’s curse” strikes the newborn child and the carriage of the newlywed alike, dooming them to perpetuate the spectacle around them for yet another generation. All is marked, hemmed in (“chartered”), enchained as if by fiendish design.

“The Human Abstract”

The Human Abstract is a tangle created by the human mind, a world created by repression of basic instincts. See “The Divine Image” as a companion or contrary poem. Abstract thinking and repression creates a dismal system of misery, one in which religion is mystery, and the priesthood acts like the parasitical fly and the plant-devouring caterpillar. The raven, I believe, symbolizes death and perhaps the deceit humans weave around death. The bottom line seems to be that human beings have created this wall of abstractions to seal themselves off from their own humanity.

“Infant Sorrow”

In this poem, whose contrary is “Infant Joy,” a cloud symbolizes earthly experience, and the angry child bounds into that realm, only to become weary and sullen. The perspective is that of a child with the mind of an adult who makes a sad, rational choice at the poem’s end: “I thought best / To sulk upon my mother's breast.” What should be a place of contentment and nourishment is perceived only in terms of tired necessity.

“A Poison Tree”

At base this poem is about the difference between dialog and repression. The speaker does not engage in dialog with the foe but rather generates some kind of trap—the poison fruit that the foe cannot resist trying to steal. We end up with a deadly competition between two selfish enemies, and the speaker rejoices to be the victor beholding the outstretched body of the foe.

“To Tirzah”

See Song of Solomon 4:6 and I Corinthians 15:44. “It is sown a natural body. It is raised a spiritual body.” What is the source of human misery? I believe the speaker suggests that we must not be bound by a notion of materiality into seeing the body as purely physical and alienated from spirit. What is the relation between the child and nature? On the various interpretations of this difficult poem, see the Blake Digital Text Archive’s Comments. Northrop Frye’s reading is no doubt the most widely accepted; here is a paragraph from the above-mentioned web site’s summary of it: “Following from his explication of the sources of ‘Tirzah,’ In Fearful Symmetry, Frye suggests that the meaning of ‘To Tirzah’ lies in the human dependence on the five senses. Frye argues that this dependence is symbolized by the ‘Mother’ figure. Since all are born of a mortal mother, all are ‘passively dependent’ on the ‘sense experience’ of embodiment. The lamentation of the speaker implicitly represents a revolt against this sensual constraint.”

Notes on The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The Fall.
The Fall of Satan and then of Adam and Eve should not simply be condemned, much less considered one-time events. Just as you can’t return to a state of innocence prior to experience, so you can’t return to some mythic state of prelapsarian (“before the fall”) life in the earthly paradise or (in Satan’s case) heaven. Heaven and Hell are contraries—they are perspective-states that require each other. The Angels tend to be creatures of reason, and the devils creatures of passion or energy—notice how Blake’s Devil describes the intimate relationship between the two qualities: “reason is the outward bound or circumference of energy.”

Emanuel Swedenborg.
Delightful as his Memorable Relations are, Swedenborg the mystic resorts to mutually exclusive opposites in dealing with the eternal realms, and doesn’t grasp Blake’s notion of “contraries.” (A contrary like reason/energy is what it is because both sides of the term have something going for them and can be put in a meaningful relationship with their partner term. The interaction or marriage of contraries poses a challenge to the mind and works against passivity.) Blake’s narrator says that Swedenborg talked only to angels, so his visions came out one-sided. Blake, by contrast, doesn’t turn away from thoughts of Hell or conversations with “Satans” as Swedenborg does. But Swedenborg still has the right idea—he seeks to engage in conversation about the fundamental things, even if he comes up short. I think Blake makes his narrator underestimate Swedenborg somewhat; the narrator seems cocky in saying that Swedenborg talked second-rate rubbish. Blake’s own view probably differs—after all, why honor one’s predecessor with such parody? Any press is good press, we might say, and the C18 prophet is in good company, with the Unholy Trinity of Bacon, Newton & Locke, and, of course, Milton.

Blake dislikes Bacon and Newton because of their scientific mindset, and Locke because of his mechanical tabula rasa or blank slate conception of the mind. Locke, that is, says we get our ideas from sensory perception; simple perceptions are combined into ever more complex and abstract clusters called ideas and concepts, and finally these are used to grind out whole philosophical systems and world views. To Blake, this seems like atheism and a complete failure to understand the power of human imagination. And as for poor old John Milton, he has real genius but has somehow managed to turn the Bible upside down—his God is a vacuous, nattering patriarch, and his Devil has the self-respect to try to take him down. (Shelley reads Milton much the same way—see his “Essay on the Devil and Devils.” This is on the most obvious level a misreading of Paradise Lost, but it is what Harold Bloom would call a “strong misreading”—a misinterpretation that is necessary to overcome the “anxiety of influence” besetting romantic poets writing in the wake of such a towering pre-romantic godfather as Milton.)

Emanuel Swedenborg.
One thing that Blake must have liked about Swedenborg is the exuberance of this religious enthusiast—see, for example, the outrageous snorts and declarations of the satan or adversary in Swedenborg’s Fifth Memorable Relation. The Devil sends up pious views about heaven and hell—well, so do Blake’s narrator and his own devils. Swedenborg’s methods and perspective may be limited, but at times the attitude of characters in his visions is right on target. Moreover, characters in Swedenborg—at least the satans—keep being reminded of things and then forgetting them because the things they are told don’t suit their nature. They just can’t retain the corrected perspective offered them by the angels and the narrator. Again, this is insightful on Swedenborg’s part, and I suppose Blake adapts the back-and-forth motions of intellect and spirit we find in Swedenborgian devils and in his visions’ very structure. What might be interpreted as a flaw in perspective—the fact that Swedenborg’s satans can’t arrive at a “true” contrarian view with which to oppose his angels—must be turned into a strength, a display of the need for contraries and perpetual conversation.

Swedenborg’s characters are too facile and fall too easily back into their erroneous views, which are something like “default buttons” for them. They confront and are confronted, but the results don’t really stick, so they go back to square one. Swedenborg’s devils and angels do not come together in genuine conversation; there is no play of contrary perspectives, and thus “no progression.”

Blake a True Poet and Therefore of the Devil’s Party?
Anyhow, Blake reads the dialogue in Swedenborg and sees that while the Angels say the universe is spiritual and comes from God, and the Devils that it is reducible to nature (nature is its own author), we should accept neither of these positions as they stand—they must be put into conflict, “married,” as it were. The one side overemphasizes spirit at the expense of the body and nature, while the other makes the same mistake in reverse. But to make matters more complex, I should think that we are not to accept even the Blakean Devil’s view that “there is no spirit distinct from body.” It’s easy to see that he’s against simple-minded dualism (body/soul; mind/matter, etc.), but it’s also possible to see that assertions like “spirit and body are the same” can be set forth too easily. Wouldn’t getting rid of one of the terms put an end to the very idea that there must be conflict and not just reconciliation? You can’t have “contraries” without terms that don’t simply amount to the same thing. Blake knows this, but I’m not sure his devil does. The trick is not to let the terms wander off into mutually exclusive territory—saying body and soul are an undifferentiated unity might not be any better than privileging soul over body or body over soul. Either way, we would be letting abstract concepts tyrannize over us and paralyze us—”name your poison,” as they say.

In general, Blake’s Devil must think himself dreadfully clever with his Proverbs of Hell—it’s a kind of wisdom literature as in the Old Testament. But the Devil is perhaps too fond of having the last well-rounded word. He offers something like paradox, which certainly challenges the mind, but I’m not sure we are to trust his motives in challenging us. Blake’s narrator may be too close to him—I don’t know.

Infernal Suggestion. The way to read Blake is to “argue” with him, not to accept his words as making up a system of thought. If you’re not challenging his “diabolical” readings, then you’re probably going to arrive at mistaken views. I think the Devil’s voice has a certain priority in MHH, but it isn’t the last word. There isn’t any last word, so far as I can understand. For example, isn’t the idea of “corroding fires” that reveal the infinite contradictory? How can you invoke a medium (writing) and then say it opens out like a “cleansed” door of perception to the infinite? I think Blake knew well that the concept of a medium—even a clear one—always entails barriers to perception of the infinite and absolute. He struggles against this, but to say you can ever do away with the struggle would be simplistic. So we can’t entirely trust his narrator when he pictures himself propounding the Bible of Hell as if it were the genuine new article and the way to read everything. We have to realize that Blake is not his narrator—there are affinities between the Devils and narrator and Blake, but they don’t reduce to one another. The ending of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell goes against this reconciliation—Jesus, the principle of imagination, thrives on perpetual intellectual conflict—not reconciliation into undifferentiated unity and spineless agreement.

Writing with Corroding Fires.
(See the interesting web article An Inquiry into Blake’s Method of Color Printing.) Since Blake comments on his own medium in MHH, we should realize that he never really trusted to any one medium. He is not strictly a writer, but a visionary who worked was apprenticed as an engraver—engraving or etching is a highly skilled endeavor that is sort of like painting on metal and sort of like writing. The word isn’t just “a word on paper,” but something etched with the assistance of acid, etc. This isn’t to say Blake believed he was transcending the very concept of “a necessary medium.” In fact, the communication between his figures and the etched words adds another dimension of complexity to what only appears as a “poem” when it’s printed in something like the Norton Anthology. What we really have is an argument between various media—not reconciliation into a perfect and transparent medium. Blake has that strange capacity to be both exuberant and cautious at the same time: as he is when he says “I stain’d the water clear” in the opening plate of Innocence. Does that mean that he is staining with his pen-reed something that was clear, though still an opaque medium as water is? Is writing not only revelation but also at the same time pollution? Those who dismiss such media-related problems and put all their eggs in one basket are fooling themselves, Blake would probably insist. The question is, what is the relationship between thought, language (written or spoken), image, and imagination?

Consider the relationship between engraved text and the accompanying images. The very first plate of MHH shows that the images can’t simply be “explanations” of the words. Otherwise, I suppose we would be treated to an image of Rintrah and the hungry clouds “swagging” on the deep, or successive images showing the developmental stages to which the words refer. (to swag = to sway from side to side, sink down, vacillate, etc.) But we don’t get that at all.