Friday, February 18, 2011

William Blake Primer Part 1

For the uninitiated, William Blake's poetry can be daunting. His masterpieces, epic poems like Milton and the unfinished Vala or: The Four Zoas, present an impenetrable canon of mythology and an equally enigmatic syntax. So if you're a newcomer, it is best to start off with his famous collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience. But don't be fooled by these relatively reader friendly poems, they are merely the tip of Blake's colossal berg of thought. Let this, my first entry in the Dan Roe Thinks blog and the first part of my ongoing William Blake Primer, serve as your gateway to understanding Blake's poetry and ideas.

At first glance Songs of Innocence and of Experience is a somewhat maudlin and then rueful meditation on the loss of innocence. Taken from this perspective the poems are insufferably sentimental. However, if one is at all familiar with any of Blake’s other writings or at least willing to go beneath the surface, it is clear that Songs is much more than a cloying elegy. Songs of Innocence and of Experience in fact covers the spectrum of Blake’s thought. Through satire and irony, Blake ruthlessly strips away the common notions of innocence and experience and presents a view of the “Two Contrary States of the Human Soul” that is both complicated and fundamental. Blake's name may now be synonymous with visionary poetic insanity and he would soon plunge into an ocean of epic hyperbole, but Songs is executed with the lightest touch and the wryest British wit.

The dual nature of this collection, in both content and form, suggests that Blake’s universe is an interaction between two states of being where the one naturally follows the other. Innocence in Christian terms refers to the state of man before the Fall and so it is safe to assume that Blake uses Experience to denote the state of man after. Of course life begins in a state of innocence, then we are forced into a state of experience no matter how ignorant we might remain. With only these associations in mind, it is easy to understand that Blake is internalizing the language of the Fall and expanding the theme to include micro- and macrocosmic arenas. Furthermore, both sections (Innocence and Experience) include complimentary titles and subjects that invite, or rather force the reader to compare and contrast the parallels. This creates a pattern of “cyclical interpretation” in which comparison of two complimentary poems from both sections leads the reader through a circular representation of existence. Blake, however, is not “mechanically systematic” as S. Foster Damon notes in his indispensable A Blake Dictionary, and this somewhat quaint view of the universe hardly calls for a collection of poems from one of the greats. Upon closer inspection, the reader notices that Blake has throughout planted little limpet mines that disrupt the symmetrical balance of such a reading. Songs then becomes a monkey wrench in the works of the cyclical depiction of existence; the reader is ashamed that he ever ascribed such an idyllic and innocent vision to Blake. It is then that the seemingly naïve structure of Songs becomes a merciful guide to its many guiles.

Take for instance the two introductory poems from each section both titled simply “Introduction.”  The first from Songs of Innocence seems innocent enough and describes a piper entertaining a child who is on a cloud. The vocabulary and poetic syntax are superficially blissful and picturesque: “Piping down the valleys wild/ Piping songs of pleasant glee.” The happy piper, without question or reflection, plays his gay song solely, it is implied, for the pure pleasure of it. This piper, at least at the beginning of the poem, is in a state of innocence or more specifically, in Blakean terms, the state of Beulah. Damon calls Beulah “the realm of the Subconscious. It is the source of poetic inspiration and of dreams” and Northrop Frye describes it in his awe-inspiring book on Blake, Fearful Symmetry, as being representative of the “‘sexual,’ the region of passive pleasure” and claims “All life is born in Beulah." In other words, it is akin to the state of wonder of a young child when it first experiences the unfettered imaginative pleasures of being. You might compare it to those moments when the brain is swamped with Norepinephrine and unquestionably pursues the object of its desire. While it is also similar to the Edenic notion of Paradise, there is one crucial difference: Beulah can go sour. As Frye points out, “In the state of love the divine imagination is passive, contemplating and adoring, and in such passivity there is deadly danger if it is persisted in too long… If dwelt in too long, Beulah will soon turn into Ulro” or Hell. To use a far baser comparison, Beulah is like a narcotic: when used, one is temporarily freed from the exacting demands of existence, but if one depends upon it the respite becomes a new, stronger form of torment. In a word, it is the torturing cycle of desire and fulfillment. Eden is an eternal state of innocence while Beulah is a transient one. Likewise, Ulro is a transient state of torment while Hell is eternal. Eventually, Beulah is transformed into Ulro as Innocence is to Experience. Of course some of these associations do not become apparent until one has been immersed in Blakeology, but for now note the distinction between the eternal and the transient. Our existence is transient and experience tells us that nothing good lasts for ever, while the eternal is a constant state of being. Also keep in mind the innocence of the piper.

Our good piper soon spots one of Songs’ infamous tots riding a cloud: “On a cloud I saw a child.” If the kid were not on a cloud it would be easy take him as merely representative of the innocence of children. If this were the case the piper and his song would have far different connotations. It is crucial to consider the cloud when interpreting this poem for it is the piper who is innocent, not the cloud-child. The cloud, in the work of Blake, has many different albeit connected meanings. In The Book of Thel, a poem that deals with the same issues as Songs, the cloud is one of several anthropomorphized beings that the innocent Thel interviews. In Thel the cloud symbolizes, to quote Damon again, “the male principle, the fructifier," elsewhere the immortal Antamon, symbolic of the fertile male or the male seed and referred to as the “prince of pearly dew” (yuck), is associated with the cloud. The cloud, however, appears several more times in Songs of Innocence and of Experience: once in “The Little Black Boy” as a metaphor for the body, the corporeal shell that separates the spirit from eternity (“And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face/ Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove”); again when Blake compares a newborn babe to “a fiend hid in a cloud” in “Infant Sorrow;” and once more in “The Voice of the Ancient Bard” as the “clouds of reason” (Blake's feelings toward Reason with a capital R are a topic for a future post). The cloud, then, seems to have two primary functions: to symbolize male fertility or any obfuscating force. We must now consider the child in relation to the cloud.

Children are the central symbol in Songs and could denote many different things, but most obviously innocence. According to Damon (I told you his book was indispensable), however, “Children symbolize the fecundity of imagination” and for Blake the human imagination is the Poetic Genius, the Divine Humanity, God, which Jesus represents. It is therefore no great stretch to interpret the child (unfettered imagination) as symbolizing the Poetic Genius, the cloud as an obscuring physical manifestation (specifically a seed-planting male, subject to bodily impulses), and the two together as the earthly incarnation of Jesus (who took on sin only when born of an earthly mother). The child asks the piper to “Pipe a song about a Lamb” twice, alternately laughing and crying in response. Here again we see two contrasting emotional states, laughing and crying. If Jesus for Blake is the Poetic Genius or human imagination then he exists in an Edenic state until manifested in a physical vegetative form where he is subject to the natural transformations of being, i.e. innocence to experience, separating good from evil, laughing then crying. However, when the piper sings his song a third time, the child weeps with joy. Here Blake is suggesting a third state of being in which the two dueling qualities are fused. This perhaps is the aim of art: to take the inspiration of Beulah and to obey the command of the Poetic Genius in order to ascend to an Edenic state where all contrarieties exist harmoniously, or in other words, to reach the eternal. Finally the child tells the piper to write his songs “In a book that all may read” and he does so by making a “rural pen” (rural meaning natural, pen being a phallic symbol) and by staining “the water clear” (water being associated with Tharmas and the body and clear denoting purity and then innocence). By associating the cloud-child and the tools the piper uses in inscribing his songs with sexual or reproductive imagery, Blake is hinting at the natural impulses behind creative activity and of the imperative quality of creation (here one could explore Blake's ideas on sexuality and its relation to creativity and God, but again that is for another post). The book the piper writes by direct order of the cloud-child brings to mind the Bible as it is taken to be the word of God. In any case the piper is doing the work of a prophet.

According to the 1911 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, Bard was a title given to an ancient class of poets in Celtic cultures and Damon describes a bard as a “poet-prophet.” The poem “Introduction” from Songs of Experience opens with the line “Hear the voice of the Bard!” When read in relation to “Introduction” from Songs of Innocence it is easy to assume that the Bard in question is none other than our friend the piper, now older, wiser and more experienced. Damon claims that the Bard is Blake himself, which doesn’t undermine the assumption that the Bard and the Piper are one and the same. The poem continues, “Who Present, Past, & Future sees / Whose ears have heard, / The Holy Word, / That walk’d among the ancient trees.” The Bard or “poet-prophet” is one who is privy to the ways of eternity and whose duty it is to teach others (I refer you to the quote on the back of Penguin’s The Complete Poems of William Blake: “I rest not from great task! To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought”). Being able to see the present, past, and future is another way of saying this Bard has his eye on eternity where all three exist at once. To have heard the Holy Word is to have heard the voice of the Poetic Genius. The ancient trees are obviously those in the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Mystery. Walking amongst these trees infers that the Bard has made contact with the eternal state of Eden.

The Bard is “Calling the lapsed Soul” who is Earth and begging her to bring back the daylight, if in fact she has the power to do so (“That might control, / The starry pole; / And fallen fallen light renew!”). He goes on to beg the Earth to “Turn away no more.” This hits a desperate note and suggests that the Bard is weary of the incessant course of generation. This reading may sound reductive, but we must remember that Beulah eventually turns into Ulro. Being complementary to the first “Introduction” poem from Songs of Innocence, this “Introduction” may be its flip side. The catalyst for creation having been sparked in Beulah, the once innocent Piper has transformed into a poet-prophet Bard and looked upon Eternity. However, the earth continues its cumbrous course, spinning on its fixed axis, and renders eternity elusive thus driving the spirit of the Bard to despair (or near despair at least). It is only in such a state that one may ask the big questions: “Why wilt thou turn away / The starry floor / The watry shore / Is giv’n thee till the break of day.”

It should now be clear that Blake rendered Songs of Innocence and of Experience in such a lyrical and bucolic fashion with his tongue fixed firmly in his cheek. Once the reader finds this fissure in the overly-idyllic façade and is able to tear through, they may find below a sea of meaning. More importantly, however, they may discover Blake’s sense of humor so that his Songs then go from being saccharine, stale, and trite to hilarious, revelatory, and sly.