In 1969, Northrop Frye introduced the new edition of his groundbreaking study of the works of the poet William Blake, with some offhand comments about its genesis: “The doctoral thesis is useful for encouraging intensive reading, but of very little use for gaining literary perspective, which takes years to develop and cannot be hurried. The present book never went through the thesis stage, and my interest in Blake had from the beginning been of the extensive kind.” He does not go into specifics as to the nature of that involvement, but a later edition does the courtesy of reprinting a 1935 letter from Frye to his fiancée, in which he details something of that encounter — an immersion really, precipitated (to use Ian Singer’s words) by a paper on Blake’s epic Milton — as anything but casual:
I don’t know what dimension I’m working in any more. Nothing has mattered, nothing has even existed, for the past six weeks, but Blake, Blake, Blake: I’ve spun the man around like a teetotum, I’ve torn him into tiny shreds and teased and atomized him with pincers, I’ve stretched my mind over passages as though it were on a rack, I’ve plunged into darkness and mist, out again into the clear light — where I started from in the first place — rushed up blind alleys of comparison and sources, broken down completely from sheer inertia, worked all night on a paragraph no better in the morning. . . But what I have done is a masterpiece. . . the best, clearest and most accurate exposition of Blake’s thought yet written. If it’s no good I’m no good. There isn’t a sentence, and there won’t be a sentence, in the whole work that hasn’t gone through purgatory.
It is the kind of involvement one might expect Blake to elicit, and the eventual book, Fearful Symmetry (which was published in 1947), was instantly recognized as something of a classic in its field.
Frye’s book represents the culmination of a style of writing about literature that, reaching its apex, would gradually be superseded by other modes: “Academic literary criticism has. . . become hung up on ‘textuality’: intertextuality, paratextuality, subtextuality, contextuality — count the ways”, writes John Sutherland in Literary Review: “‘Text’ is a noumenon” which “does not exist materially, and as such “can be materialized in an infinite variety of ways.” “The whole [academic] profession is following the pipes of Pan” in what might be considered its wholesale subscription to Jacques Derrida’s motto: “Il n’ya pas de hors-texte (‘there is nothing outside the text’).”
This of course dovetails neatly with the academic need of teaching to students who, by virtue of their youth (in the main), have not had the time to gain the requisite “literary perspective”. One easily stumbles upon sentences like, “In the transition from the era of Classicism into the era of Romanticism there was a time in English literature when there were artists who showed the first signs of incoming time in their writings marked with romantic attitude towards the world, respect for individualism and awakening of the idea of Rousseau’s ‘natural man’.” This is taken from a work titled William Blake: Dichotomy of Existence in Songs of Experience vs [sic] Songs of Experience by Bojana Stretenovic, which was done “for the purpose of obtaining a Master’s degree in English literature” according to the publisher’s description at Amazon.com. I take it to be representative.
It is hard, when one is struggling to achieve a literary (or even a historical) perspective, to realize that the classifying names by which we, in hindsight, recognize our forbears, can only perhaps be loosely applied to them, and that the transition from one “era” to another usually does not occur so cleanly or abruptly, as though it were the changing from a Republican administration to a Democratic one. A poet like Blake, peripheral to the power bases of society, witnessed power relations shifting, such as that between wages and labor, and responded accordingly.
The New Pelican Guide to English Literature (From Blake to Byron) summarizes the transition from the weirdly named Augustan era to the Romantic period by noting new “conditions which created the demand for writers of a higher standard of performance than the Grub Street hack of Pope’s day.” This is Edgell Rickword, acknowledging an “increase in the literate and relatively well-to-do sections of the population” which transformed the economics of publishing entirely. Moreover, “none of [the new breed of] writers was intimately associated with those holding political power, none had moved so close to the control-room of the State as had Swift and Prior, Milton, Marvell, or Donne.”
He is reporting a general trend, not easy to simplify, vaguely derived from the insertion of machines into industry, which disrupted “the social order [which] had been fixed most sharply in England in the subservience of the villager to the landed gentleman”, to quote Joseph Bronowski from the introduction to his book on Blake, William Blake and the Age of Revolution. He titles that first chapter, “A Turbulent Age.”
It is too much to try to encompass the whole period into a few glib sentences, but I cannot refrain from mentioning that I’ve never liked the appellation of “Romantic” to describe the broad spectrum of individuals it envelops. A swath of the English population — including Blake among other notables — greeted the coming of the French Revolution with romantic idealism, only to be crushed when it was betrayed. That is how I understand the term. Blake was not crushed — but that was perhaps owed to the strength of his vision: his wife said “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise”, and Paradise for Blake meant the imagination.
He said, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s”. Keeping to the realm of “textuality,” it might be suggested that Blake was deliberately raising a fist at the rationalism of John Locke, positing instead “his own system of values such as creative power, imagination, intuition, spiritual development all united in ‘poetic genius'” (Stretenovic) or even a “Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision” to quote a recent popular title. However, Blake’s next sentence is telling: “I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.”
It would be apropos to say “Blake opposes the exploitative industrial system he sees around him in London.” In Rickover’s summary of the social milieu, he describes recently introduced “mechanical contrivances” such as James Watt’s improved steam engine: “Although steam-power is the most spectacular of the innovations of the time, it was not the effective instrument of the great change, though these engines’ clangour and belching of smoke and flame made them appropriate symbols of a baleful modernity.” One such machine “operated the Albion Flour Mills in Southwark” (before it burned down) and “was certainly familiar to Blake. The snorting, ear-shattering monster must have been impressive in action, and may have helped to condition the [Romantic] poets’ attitude to the new technology.”
Sven Birkerts, in the wake of 9/11, suggested “[p]oetry does not. . . defeat trauma”. Rather, it “is the reverse of the terrorist act, its antithesis” creating “something to hold against horror. . .that is equally persistent.” In such a way poetry offers a means to “[help] restore the delicate inner balance we call sanity.” The irony there is that it is hard to find a poet labeled “insane” by his peers more frequently than Blake, even when meant as a backhanded compliment from a discerning reader like Wordsworth: “the insanity of this man interests me more than the sanity of Byron and Moore.” (I take my quote from E. de Selincourt, though I believe it to be more meaningful than precise: the Blake Records have it slightly different.)
The Industrial Revolution was beginning in Europe. “Only in England had there been, by 1873, any substantial progress towards the large-scale introduction of labour-saving machinery,” wrote George Rudé in his history, Revolutionary Europe. “In England alone a distinct class of industrial entrepreneurs was arising in the wake of the technical innovations introduced by the Darbys, Hargreaves, Cort, Arkwright and Watt. . . . Its leaders, new men sprung from farming and commercial stock, were rapidly amassing fortunes and finding a place in society.” This was the class Blake was born into.
Though his father, a hosier, would not have been as successful as some, his shop commanded prime Golden Square real estate (a corner with double frontage) at 28 Broad Sreet. The family lived upstairs, and it was here when he was age four Blake famously saw God peek through the window.
Thanks to biographical work found in books such as The Stranger in Paradise, by G.E. Bentley, Jr., compiler of the Blake Records, we know quite a lot about Blake’s life. For example, the poverty and isolation for which Blake is renowned definitely did not obtain at least during the first half of his life. Not disposed toward the family trade, Blake, with the indulgence of his father (the word is Bentley’s and is the right word), was able to attend Pars Drawing School, from the age of ten, for four years. It was his wish, and evidently the family could afford both the tuition and the sacrifice of a boy’s labor for that duration. It was a blessing for the young and would-be artist, for it gained him entry to some of the best collections in private hands, usually only accessible with presentation of “a suitable douceur.”
At age fifteen, he apprenticed to an engraver, which would become his life’s profession. The contract agreement of his seven-year indenture deserves reprinting. “During that term”, runs the standard legalistic jargon,
the said Apprentice his said Master faithfully shall serve, his Secrets keep, his lawful Commandments every where gladly do. . .. He shall not waste the Goods of his said Master, nor lend them unlawfully to any. He shall not commit Fornication, nor contract Matrimony within the said Term. He shall not play at Cards, Dice, Tables, or any other unlawful Games, whereby his said Master may have any loss. With his own Goods or others, during the Said Term, without License of his said Master he shall neither buy nor sell. He shall not haunt Taverns, or Play-Houses, nor absent himself from this said Master’s Service Day nor Night unlawfully. . .. And the said Master. . . his said Apprentice in the same Art and Mystery which he useth, by the best Means that he can, shall teach and instruct, or cause to be taught and instructed, finding unto his said Apprentice, Meat, Drink, Apparel, Lodging, and all other Necessaries, according to the Custom of London, during the said Term.
A consideration of fifty guineas was paid by Blake’s father (I have followed Bentley’s ellipses throughout).
Upon successful completion of his indenture, Blake moved home, and then became a student at the Royal Academy, “the obvious step for any Londoner aspiring to be an artist.” Blake was not without his admirers, but the requisite funds for a “finishing” trip to Rome (“the greatest ambition of every serious European artist”) lay beyond his means, and so, after a time, he set up shop, and he married.
The origins of Blake’s literary art remain a mystery. He would say that it was inspired. While we know so much about his life, the interior details of Blake’s intellectual development are woefully lacking. Where did he get his books? Possibly at his Master’s when he was an Apprentice. Perhaps his mother encouraged his early reading of poetry. We do not know, and speculation is fruitless. Blake became a highly educated man, and was probably self-taught, but more than that we cannot say. His antipathy toward formalized education is well known:
Thank God I never was sent to School
To be Flogd into following the Style of a Fool[.]
A Blake follower wrote after his death that “his theories wanted solidity”. In Matthew Arnold’s phrase, “The less a literature has felt the influence of a supposed centre of correct information, correct judgment, correct taste, the more we shall find in it this note of provinciality.” T.S. Eliot takes it further: “We have the same respect for Blake’s philosophy. . . that we have for an ingenious piece of home-made furniture: we admire the man who has put it together out of the odds and ends about the house. . .. What his genius required, and what it sadly lacked, was a framework of accepted and traditional ideas which would have prevented him from indulging in a philosophy of his own”. In other words, compelled to create his own system, the ad hoc resultant conurbation precluded Blake from reaching the consistency and cohesion of Dante’s Commedia.
Yet, to return to Frye, the poems “make a vivid impact on the reader at once,” indisputably. Blake has “the peculiar quality of a definitive poet [in] that he always seems to have a special relevance to the preoccupations of one’s own age, whatever they may be.” Especially in his lyrics, “Blake makes an immense appeal to a great variety of people outside the academic profession,” as Frye puts it.
In his influential essay “An Introduction to William Blake”, Alfred Kazin suggests some reasons as to why. “His theme is always the defense of the integral human personality,” Kazin writes. “Blake’s fight is against secrecy, unnatural restraint, the fear of life — the distortions of the personality that follow from deception and resignation to it.” What themes could be more universal, or have more resonance — not just with the downtrodden public, but with “members of the elite” as we today would call such eminent personages as Wordsworth and Coleridge, Walter Savage Landor, Edward FitzGerald, to name a few of the better-known poetic voices who immediately recognized Blake’s talent.
The assault against integrity — spurred on by the Industrial Revolution which was only just beginning to make itself felt — seems akin to ours today (brought on by the Information Revolution, I suppose) in its ferocity. Kazin writes:
Blake’s need of certainty, whatever its personal roots, is also one of the great tragedies of modern capitalist society; particularly of that loss of personal status that was the immediate fate of millions in the industrial England of the “dark satanic mills.” Blake was only one of many Englishmen who felt himself being slowly ground to death, in a world of such brutal exploitation amid such inhuman ugliness, that the fires of the new industrial furnaces and the cries of the child laborers are always in his work. His poems and designs are meant to afford us spiritual vision; a vision beyond the factory system, the hideous new cities, the degradation of children for the sake of profit, the petty crimes for which children could still be hanged.
Not just children, I might add. The economics surrounding Blake — and he was no Dickens waif — must have made an impression. An economic tract — something of a national survey but done in a Q&A format — was published in 1757, the year of Blake’s birth, and offers a glimpse into that world. Its author, Josiah Tucker, was “[a]n acute observer”, and my Pelican Guide quotes him from his Instructions for Travellers: “Few countries are equal, perhaps none excel, the English in the Numbers and Contrivances of their Machines to abridge Labour. . .” His argument runs deeper than that, however. After a passage in which he makes the case — convincingly, I might add — that this influx of labor-abridging machines will increase overall consumption (and thereby employment) by putting low-cost goods into the hands of many more consumers, Tucker embarks on a marvelous discourse to explain, ideally, how well the system might function. I quote at length, beyond what is strictly necessary, because of the delicious insight it affords into economic policy at the time of Blake’s birth:
Q. Is that Labour, which is still to be performed by the human Kind, so judiciously divided, that Men, Women and Children have their respective Shares in Proportion to their Strength, Sex, and Abilities? And is every Branch so contrived, that there is no Waste of Time, or unnecessary Expence of Strength or Labour? Moreover, what good Consequences attend these Circumstances in such Parts of the Kingdom, where they are observed, and what bad ones in other Parts, where they are not?
A. In many Provinces of the Kingdom, particularly, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, and certain Districts of Yorkshire, with the Town of Manchester, Norwich, and some others, the Labour, for the most Part, is very properly proportioned, and great Judgment appears in the Methods and Contrivances for bringing the several Parts of the Manufacture so within the Reach of each other, that no Time should be wasted in passing the Goods to be manufactured from Hand to Hand, and that no unnecessary Strength should be employed. For instance of both Kinds, take one among a Thousand at Birmingham, viz. When a Man stamps a metal Button by means of an Engine, a Child stands by him to place the Button in readiness to receive the Stamp, and to remove it when received, and then to place another. By these means the Operator can stamp at least double the Number, which he could otherwise have done, had he been obliged to have stopped each Time to have shifted the Buttons: And as his Gettings may be from 14d. to 18d. and the Child’s from a Penny to 2d. per Day for doing the same Quantity of Work, which must have required double the Sum, had the Man alone been employed; this single Circumstance saves above 80, or near 100 per Cent. At the same Time that it trains up Children to an Habit of Industry, almost as soon as they can speak. And hence it is, that the Bijoux d’ Angleterre, or the Birmingham Toys, are rendered so exceedingly cheap as to astonish all Europe; and that the Roman Catholic Countries are supplied with such vast Quantities of Crucifixes, Agnus Dei’s, &c. from England. A Dozen of these Crucifixes, as I am informed, being to be sold, in the wholesale Way, for 7-1/2d. — But the good Effects of this proportioning of Labour to different Strengths and Sexes, is still more extensive than it at first appears. For in Birmingham the Numbers of poor Women on the Pay Bill, compared to those of poor Men, are hardly as three to two; whereas in Bristol, where no such good Politics obtain, the Numbers are upwards of four to one; and in many Parts of London, it is still much worse: So great is the Difference, and such the Expensiveness and heavy Burdens of a wrong Conduct even in this Respect: not to mention, that Prostitution and Debauchery seem to be an unavoidable Consequence in the female Sex of Poverty and Idleness, when they are young, and when they grow old, what Refuge can they have, if they do not soon rot with their Diseases, but the Parish Pay?
Further on he asks, “What Politics are established by the Constitution to prevent the monopolizing of landed Property into a few Hands?” When one “Master of the whole Manufacture from first to last. . . employs perhaps a thousand Persons under him. . .”
will they not also sometimes look upon him as their Tyrant? And as great Numbers of them work together in the same Shop, will they not have it the more in their Power to vitiate and corrupt each other, to cabal and associate against their Masters, and to break out into Mobs and Riots upon every little occasion?
After some rigamarole, the answer comes down to something like, “the Tenant who pays his Rent, has as little to fear from his Landlord, as from any other person”, which sounds curiously like Blake’s line from “The Chimney Sweeper”: “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.”
Working conditions were no picnic. Yet Frye discounts “portrayal[s] of Blake as a mystical snail who retreated from the hard world of reality into the refuge of his own mind, and evolved his beautifully obscure visions there in contemplative loneliness”. Circumscribed by circumstance, writes Kazin, “his ability to hit back ended in his notebook.”
This is not entirely true. The historical record belies Kazin’s assertion — just look up the incident when Blake ejected the dragoon from his garden. He more than capable of interfering actively when he witnessed an injustice. Frederick Tatham, an early biographer, reports “an anecdote showing his courage” in which Blake intervenes upon seeing a boy maltreated: “Blakes blood boiled & his indignation surpassed his forebearance, he sallied forth & demanded in no very quiescent terms that the Boy should be loosed. . .” and so forth; an anecdote which is matched by others.
What Blake was not, however, was foolhardy: “To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life” he scribbled, but did not publish. At question were “perversions of Christ’s words & acts” by those in authority — but then Blake was raised “in the Dissenting tradition of private devotion and private Bible reading rather than public catechism and public worshippers” whose adherents “believed that all truth lies in the Bible and that the proper interpreter of that truth is the individual conscience, not the priest or the church” (Bentley). Regarding one such occasion, Bronowski points out: “Neither Wordsworth nor Blake printed their [privately written] attacks, and both remained free all their lives. Wakefield printed his, and was imprisoned for it from 1799 to 1801.”
Though he later fell away from it — and how! — Blake and his wife signed a charter in 1789 affirming, “We whose names are hereunto subscribed, do each of us approve of the Theological Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, believing that the Doctrines contained therein are genuine Truths, revealed from Heaven, and that the New Jerusalem Church ought to be established, distinct and separate from the Old Church”, which demonstrates, incidentally, that the lines “Till we have built Jerusalem / In England’s green and pleasant land” were more than a metaphor idiosyncratic to Blake.
In 1795 Blake published Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the work which provides most of us our introduction to his poetry. Songs of Innocence had been published five years earlier as a stand-alone work, but Songs of Experience (including a few poems shifted from Innocence) never existed independently. One of the better-known lyrics is “The Garden of Love”:
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was build 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 tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys and desires.
The theme is a common one in Blake. In “The Little Vagabond” he contrasted the “cold” church with the “Ale-house [which] is healthy & pleasant & warm”. In “The School-Boy” he makes explicit, in contrast to the lovely “summer morn / When the birds sing on every tree”, that “to go to school on a summer morn, / O! it drives all joy away.”
Here we get into territory of Blake’s philosophy. As Robert Gleckner writes (in “Point of View and Context in Blake’s Songs”), “Blake created a system in which innocence and experience are vital parts” — though this “basic symbology” draws interpretation manifold in variety. “Innocence is belief and experience is doubt”, Kazin tells us. Frye says, “The fallen world is the world of the Songs of Experience: the unfallen world is the world of the Songs of Innocence.” For Bronowski, “the Songs of Experience are, at bottom, songs of indignation”, whereas the Songs of Experience reflect “that happy child mood which the French Revolution seemed to fulfill” before the British government entered the fray in opposition. Gleckner distinguishes between the piper and the bard who host (or introduce) their respective sections: “for the piper the past can only be the primal unity, for the present is innocence and the immediate future is experience; for the Bard the past is innocence, the present experience, and the future a higher innocence.”
This last strikes to the core of what Blake is attempting: reconciliation, if you will, of “the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.” He was not, as Keats, “ambitious of doing the world some good”, so much as demarcating the good, as Frye indicates:
In reading about child labor and slavery in Blake’s time (or their equivalents in our time) we hardly know which is more detestable: the cruelty involved or the complacency with which that cruelty was rationalized in pamphlets, Parliamentary debates, newspapers, and sermons. Blake was struck with this too, and never failed to see the rationalizing of evil as an essential part of the evil itself. . . .
The stultifying classroom may have been a crime against the childish spirit yearning to breathe free in the summertime; but how much more so the button factory, wherein one earned (if we believe Josiah Tucker) perhaps a tenth of the adult machinist for the privilege of having inculcated “the Habit of Industry”. The economics of it must have seemed astounding; though never so staggering as the even wider disparities we know about today, in America — especially taking the perspective of global commerce. And yet, Blake’s words ring no less true now: “Pity would be no more / If we did not make somebody Poor.”
If expedience and high profit justified the employment of young boys (and sometimes girls) as low-wage factory drudges, necessity did the same for their use as chimney sweepers. Mark Edmundson explains: “the need for the sweeps was strong. Chimney fires could beget larger blazes that would destroy blocks and blocks of wooden houses.” Blake biographer Peter Ackroyd likewise write, “The average size of these vents was something like seven inches square, and the small child was prodded or pushed into the even smaller spaces within; sometimes they were encouraged with poles, or pricked with pins, or scorched with fire to make them climb with more enthusiasm.” Martin K. Nurmi writes, “Blake does not really describe the living and working conditions of the sweeps; he presupposes a knowledge of them.” The poem succeeds because of meticulous understatement:
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!’ ”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
From the ritualistic head shearing to the “coffins of black”, Blake details the conditions of degradation inherent to the profession. In our minds the lines might evoke imagery from Auschwitz — which in the individual “worst case scenario” would probably not be far from wrong. Yet the underpinning of the system depended on an aversion, or a looking away from, those basic conditions on the part of a public that knew, nevertheless, all too well what those were.
In Songs of Experience, Blake’s corresponding poem (also titled “The Chimney Sweeper”) takes a different tack: he notes the underpinning rationale, or malign rationalization, and rubs people’s faces in it:
A little black thing among the snow,
Crying ” ‘weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother? say?” —
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.
“Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
“And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.”
The poem closes not with a pious platitude, but with an acute irony: the case against religious hypocrisy could not be plainer. “Both poems,” writes Robert Pinsky, “dramatize the way religion, government, and custom collaborate in social arrangements that impose cruel treatment on some people while enhancing the lives of others.”
Blake considered “the Eye of Imagination [to be] the Real Man.” This being the case, Blake — a businessman himself, by force of circumstance predominantly — yet recognized, reportedly, “Were I to love money, I should lose all power of original thought”. Moreover, he was not shy about intoning: “Christianity is Art & not Money. Money is its Curse.” That may account for Blake’s estrangement from both philosophical creeds and the New Church, or, as Frye puts it, “Blake’s conception of art is not only central in his thinking, but distinctive of him as a thinker, and though he reminds us frequently of [George] Berkeley or Swedenborg, he was what neither Berkeley nor Swedenborg was, a practicing artist.”
In a phrase which enraged T.S. Eliot, Matthew Arnold defined one aspect of the functionality of poetry: “Poetry is, at bottom, a criticism of life.” Eliot rejoined, “At bottom: that is a great way down; the bottom is the bottom” in a rant that continued several more sentences over a seemingly innocuous figure of speech. Sometime Blake scholar Mark Edmundson, well-known for his attacks against college students (in the main) and the university system (overall), must accept enough of Arnold’s definition to enable him to render them this stinging judgement: “What they will not generally do. . . is indict the current system. They won’t talk about how the exigencies of capitalism lead to a reserve army of the unemployed and nearly inevitable misery.” This is strong stuff, if remarkably selective in his singling out “the unemployed.”
Eliot also finds fault with Arnold’s subsequent assertion — not original to Arnold but extrapolated directly from Epictetus — “that the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life.” To this, Eliot storms: “Not a happy way of putting it, as if ideas were a lotion for the inflamed skin of suffering humanity.” Yet both by Arnold’s measurement and by general consensus, I think there can be no doubt that Blake qualifies as a “great poet,” one of the greatest in the English tradition — if only of the “second tier” as Eliot would have it (“Dante is a classic, and Blake only a poet of genius”).
That time has not vitiated the trenchancy of Blake’s moral vision is amply attested by references in contemporary media reports “exposing” labor practices at factories making goods for the American market, such as this last year from China Daily (August 19, 2011): “Workers toil in the heat and noise inside the grim workshop that conjures up images of Dickensian conditions and William Blake’s ‘dark, satanic mills'”. Eliot’s grousing aside, Blake conjures in the human conscience a righteous indignation against inhumane labor practices where they are found, much as Oscar Wilde said that fogs and sunsets exist “because poets and painters have taught [people to see] the mysterious loveliness of such effects.” Frye finds an affinity in Blake’s Vision of the Last Judgment with George Berkeley’s phrase esse est percipi (“to be is to perceive”), citing this passage: “Mental Things alone are Real; what is call’d Corporeal, Nobody Knows of its Dwelling Place: it is in Fallacy, & its Existence an Imposture.” This also forms the basis of Blake’s Wordsworthian criticism: “Wordsworth must know that what he Writes Valuable is Not to be found in Nature.”
The moral sense in Blake, almost a stridency, reaches out across the generations to shape our image of the past; however less certain its application to ourselves. David V. Erdman writes, “In an age when Luxury was still a sin and every fat man was a living comment on the inequitable distribution of a meager food supply, Blake shared the popular belief that the drone or waster was the wolf at the door.” How popular this actually was then, it is hard to gauge. I suppose it is possible for our peers abroad to have a better sense of America’s “luxury” and spendthrift profligacy than we have ourselves — though such a connection might not be drawn in some “self-enclosed” critical system.
Blake was not, however, a poet of social reform. While he may have signed petitions — he opposed slavery as well — his poems operated on another level. His work educated consciousness, in the Wildean sense. The real question to be asked is, why did so many of his peers not appear to take notice? The answers are already obvious from contemporary analogy: some are “being slowly ground to death, in a world of. . . brutal exploitation” and others occupy themselves climbing the flues of intellectual systems designed “to debunk wordviews” that they may find untenable. In this sense, as Eliot said, Blake was an artist of exceptional honesty.
All language is reducible to symbol. But to say that, and nothing more, is not saying much. The symbolism of Blake’s poems may be extrapolated — stretched and teased and atomized (to echo Frye’s letter to his fiancée) — for the betterment of understanding. Yet that is not all. “No symbol in Blake is single and fixed”, writes Bronowski. Moreover, the chimney sweeper in Blake’s poems, was not, and cannot ever be, merely a symbol, any more than a subsistence worker in Wenzhou, China’s “Button City” wherein “almost two-thirds of all the buttons in the world are made”, can be a symbol. The chimney sweeper was a real person.
In a sense, Blake had it wrong. There is no need for students in “School / To be Flogd into following the Style of a Fool”. When it comes to justifying the policies of empire, our students may be pinpricked, poled, or even scorched (by verbal admonition) to get them to climb. What holds true for university students increasingly applies to grammar school students as well. Tailored to become a cog in the machine, children are deprived of their opportunity to bask in the “summer morn/When the birds sing on every tree”. They are even sold into an economic system of drudgery by their very parents (with the best of intentions). In a process which he cited as “the pathetic surrender of babes” (the phrase is from sociologist Jules Henry), psychiatrist R.D. Laing explained: “Children do not give up their innate imagination, curiosity, dreaminess easily. You have to love them to get them to do that.” Psychology had not yet been invented in Blake’s day; but it is hard to see that he would have disagreed with that.
David X. Novak is a poet and playwright living in Chicago. His books include Against Holy War and Sonnets, published by Non Fit Press, as well as several titles at Lulu.com. He is a member of The Society of Midland Authors, and a former contributing editor for The Chicago Poetry Letter News.