My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Angel that presided o’er my birth
Said, ‘Little creature, form’d of Joy & Mirth,
Go love, without the help of any Thing on Earth.’
As I’ve said before, I feel a bit uncomfortable reviewing poetry. I don’t have the proper tools; I lack the vocabulary. Critiquing poetry, to me, is like critiquing a human body. I don’t know why one face pleases me, and another pleases me not; I simply couldn’t say why I find one shape shapely, and another shape misshapen. When I see a pleasing face or an attractive form, I respond automatically; and the same might be said for my reactions to poetry.
William Blake makes this job even more difficult, as he was, in the truest sense of the word, an individual. How does one evaluate a totally idiosyncratic artist? It seems impossible; all evaluations, either explicitly or implicitly, involve comparison. But when somebody is so aloof and peculiar as was Blake, comparisons seem somehow inappropriate. Well, I’ll stop caviling, and on with it.
There is a childlike innocence to many of Blake’s poems. Some of them have the gentle sing-song rhythm of a lullaby; the words seem to rock you back and forth, lulling you into a dreamy peace. Blake’s early poems, in particular, are totally free of cynicism and disenchantment; rather, they are direct, honest, wide-eyed.
To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Married to this total innocence, however, is an intense spirituality. Blake is a textbook mystic. Perhaps the closest poet to Blake that I’ve read is Whitman. Like Whitman, Blake is scornful of organized, traditional, Puritanical religion. Rather, he sees God in every blade of grass, and considers the body a source of delight, rather than of sin.
All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.
1. That Man has two real existing principles, Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his energies.
In terms of pure poetic skill, Blake is no match for a Milton, a Donne, or a Whitman. Indeed, that sort of thing seems not to interest him. He has not a great talent for aphorism; he is not eminently quotable. The poems are not meant to be unraveled or chewed; you will not be left puzzled or bewildered. Verbal ingenuity is not, in short, Blake’s strength; and if Blake is read with that purpose in mind, you are sure to be disappointed. His aim is instead to disarm you, to make you let down your guard; his poetry is, in fact, almost conversational. Blake knew he was something of an oddball; but he was too wise to think himself any the worse for it. His poetry, then, is a kind of invitation into his personal world.
My mother groan’d! my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt,
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
And indeed, this world gets more odd and fanciful the longer you stay with him. Blake’s later poetry is considerably more obscure than his earlier work. He seems, in fact, to have invented his own mythology; and the poems from this period are little more than tales and visions of his personal gods and heroes and demons. It is certainly odd; but it is oddly alluring.
If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
Part of the reason books are so fascinating is because people are so fascinating. Right before reading this collection, I read a collection of Donne’s poetry. The juxtaposition is telling. Both men are mystics, both men are sensualists, both men are aloof individuals. Yet Donne is intellectual, anguished, and strained; Blake is direct, joyful, effortless. At least, this is my impression. It is odd trying to get to know somebody purely through their poetry; it is rather like trying to get to know somebody by rummaging through their trash. We are forced to guess at what’s locked inside by shifting through what’s shed.