Blake as a Poet Or Critical Approaches to Blake’s Poetry

Ruled by Instinct
As a writer, Blake is much less occupied with theory than Wordsworth, Blake’s new departures follow no set programme. No reformer was ever more thoroughly ruled by instinct. That is why in certain directions, and at the very first attempt, he goes farther than Wordsworth. He surpasses Wordsworth in the wealth of his prophetic gospel and in the simple purity of his inspiration. But he lacks Wordsworth’s sense of balance. Wordsworth is still in our eyes the leader of a school; Blake remains a solitary figure.

Originality: Intuition; Symbolism
Blake’s extreme originality kept him apart from the general public, and from official recognition. Only a small group knew his genius or dimly felt his greatness. Never did a temperament show greater individuality. He did feel some influences: but in his mode of thinking, in his imagination, and in his artistic tastes, all his main decisions are solely his own. His drawings bear the stamp of an inimitable vision. His poetry deals in the subtlest kind of symbolism with a matchless skill. His philosophy is a series of intuitive flights into the regions of the Absolute. To our minds his philosophic intuitions are presented as a group of strange, complicated symbols which to him are the clearest, the most familiar realities. His mind works in open defiance of all the normal laws of logic. The language which he speaks, in the latter part of his work, is sometimes unintelligible.
Elements of Romanticism in his Early Poems
The first poems of Blake form a body of poetry different from every other. They show the working of an inner light, and they show the working of mysticism. The predominant theme of this poetry is the feelings of a child’s impassioned soul. The language of this poetry is that of a moving simplicity. Its emotions possess a pure ardour. These short poems have in them the essence of Romanticism, whether the main subject be love and happiness, as in the “Poetical Sketches” and the “Songs of Innocence”; or the note of grief and rebellion against a world given over to evil be more pronounced, as in the “Songs of Experience”. The universe is here seen through the eyes of a child, felt through the senses of a child, and judged through the heart of a child. The child is here the symbol of the most delicate and courageous intuitions in the human mind. The elements of Romanticism are present in these poems, some of them in the highest degree, such as the sense of wonder, the contemplation of Nature through fresh eyes, an intimate sympathy with the varieties of existence most distant from the reach of our intelligence. Other elements of Romanticism are found in a much lesser degree, such as the obsession with the past, or the absorbing sense of self. The clear eyes which questioningly look at Nature, animals, and man, show a single acuity of vision; but everything they see is bathed in a halo of mystery and beauty; there radiates from them meek pity no less than holy anger. Blake’s first style is in a way a juvenile form of Romanticism.
Simple but Expressive Words
The words in these poems are as smoothly joined as the molecules of a liquid. They are perfectly adapted to the thought because they are as simple as possible, and the thought itself is simple. They do not strive after elegance, and yet they achieve it by means of their perfect adaptation. They do not aim at being intense, and yet are expressive because they are soaked in the feeling from which they sprang. They have the cadenced flow of natural music. Here is the melody, somewhat thin but supremely spontaneous, of the soul in its moments of emotion. In the poetry of Blake the dried-up spring of Elizabethan lyricism may be said to have flowed again.
Prosaic Touches
These first poems, however, are not all of an equal quality. They are not free from prosaic touches. Jarring or weak notes are heard, traceable to the over-impatient ardour of the poet. Here and there a painful feverishness invades and disturbs the quiet outburst of thought.
The Gospel of Liberty
The doctrine of Blake is a confused assemblage of desires and impulses. It may be compared to a vast gospel of liberty. It shows a daring outlook, and embraces all the political ideas of the French Revolution. It even goes so far as the bounds of anarchic individualism, free mysticism, and the modern criticism of moral values. All established standards and beliefs are upset by Blake at one stroke. Whether it be the orthodox religion of Christ, or the traditional notion of good and evil, or again, rational and scientific beliefs, the same revolutionary spirit reverses the previous order of things. On one hand, it reaches and even goes beyond the religion of a Swedenborg and the beliefs of the mystics of the Puritan Republic; on the other, it foretells all the work of liberation by which modern psychology has tried to overthrow moral inhibitions and restraints. Blake is the prince of spiritual revolt, but his doctrinal ideas have wielded no influence.
Mythical Vision
A manifold and yet coherent symbolism expresses these ideas. The mythical vision of Blake creates an original cosmogony. The metaphysical or religious concepts are imbued with life, given a form, and clothed in a gigantic humanity. The work of Blake is an apocalypse, a realm of darkness peopled by supernatural beings, where one and the same idea develops throughout a continued series of signs and conventional equivalents, but where any attempt at a precise interpretation would be risky.
Style in the Prophetic Books
Blake does not, in the “Prophetic Books”, conform to any of the normal conditions of literary or picturesque expression. To find a close connectedness between the successive terms is well-nigh impossible. The style has often a biblical grandeur. The rhythm of the verse is ample, free, rugged, but sometimes highly majestic. But the language, to be understood, demands a sight practised and trained in interpreting it. And the “Prophetic Books” have had no influence except on a small group of faithful admirers.
 As a Lyrical Poet
“As a poet Blake is perhaps greater than he is as an artist. The small-scale and technical limitations of his work as an artist must always make him seem provincial—not in vision, but in achievement—in comparison with the great masters of Italy or France or Spain; but as a poet, in the tradition of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton, he was working in a linguistic medium that helped, rather than hindered, his genius. Blake, as a lyrical poet, is unsurpassed. His Songs have often been compared to those of Shakespeare; and one might say that lyrical form in poetry is what outline is in drawing, or melody in music—the contour drawn by imagination, the trace of spiritual life. His vocabulary is as simple as that of a child, and his symbols—rose, sun-flower, lion, lamb, beetle, ant, little girl, or little boy—are few, and universal. Every lyric is a window into the imaginative world, and even in these early poems, his roses and lambs are more than metaphorical; they are archetypal, symbols that focus multiple meanings, soundings into the universal source of myth and oracle; hence their power. Simple as nursery-rhymes, they are as profound as the Gospels, whose symbolism of corn, bread, wine, and fish was enough foundation for an enduring civilization. Indeed the symbols upon which great religions and enduring civilizations are founded are always of Blake-like simplicity and universality, as common as the sun and stars, comprehensible to the unlearned, but for ever incomprehensible to the unwise.”
The Lyrical Impulse
“There is a certain kind of lyric poetry which appears to require some bond with popular poetry and with the traditional literary heritage of the common people, if it is to exist. After the medieval period, there seem to have been only three English poets who have achieved greatness in this way. Shakespeare whose link as a lyric poet is with the folk-song; Wordsworth whose was with ballad in one of its kinds or another; and Blake who drew upon the wealth of the English Bible and the Protestant hymn. In Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads there is sometimes a strangeness, a sense of the mysterious and uncomprehended, to which Blake’s more decided mind seems to have been closed; but Blake was before Wordsworth, and his lyrical work has a fullness and variety, and also a whole-heartedness and absence of the reflective and diluted moralizing, which is not to be found in Wordsworth. He has come slowly to be seen for what he is; but it is now surely clear that it was he, more than any other poet of his period or just after, who recovered the lyric powers that had largely been lost between Traherne’s time and his own. Blake has only Hardy as something of a successor in English. Perhaps this is because England is now a country virtually without a rich literature of the common people such as it had in the past. Hardy aside, the only great poet of a kind comparable to Blake has been Yeats, whose work belongs to another country where popular culture still held the place it lost in our own.”
The Value of His Poetry
“But lyricism such as Blake’s is not a technical success. It arises out of a certain sense—buoyant, joyous, and yet serene— of life itself; and of course, from one point of view, the lyric product of that sense of life veritably constitutes what it embodies. It is the sense of life which I value most of all in Blake, and why I should therefore put “Songs of Innocence”, as a whole, above “Songs of Experience”. There is another point of view, though, and its strength shouts to be seen. Blake not only had that vision; he smarted under a searing awareness of how the great ones of the world rejected it or never glimpsed it. As a result, despite how the cruel time he lived in stifled his work, he is incomparably our most important poet of social and political comment. Here again, he has had no real followers; and our literature, and our present resources for writing, are lamentably the poorer for that fact. On all these counts, Blake’s value and importance are such that they warrant the highest praise. It is not easy to think of a half-dozen English poets whose work is more precious than his, or of many more than that, who are his equals.”
Not to be Taken Literally
To the dull, unimaginative mind such a simple and sublime poem as “Little Lamb, who made thee”? is almost idiotic. Literally speaking no child in its senses would think of addressing such a question to a beast of the field, for the youngest child knows that the only articulate reply the lamb could make would be “Baa”. So that we have not very far to go in our reading of Blake before we find that the literal use of words which suffices for newspaper and novel reading breaks down altogether, and Blake is a sealed book to us unless we are prepared for a finer use of words.
Spiritual Truth
Blake drew and wrote to reveal spiritual truth. Spiritual truth does not lie on the surface of appearances: indeed, it is often contradicted by appearances, and where Blake found that contradiction he did not acruple to sacrifice the apparent fact for the unapparent truth.
His Influence
It has been said that Blake left no disciples and founded no school. But Blake’s spiritual disciples have been the most numerous and the most potent forces in art since his day. Blake freed western art from slavish adherence to Nature. On poetry his influence is perhaps even more obvious. Descriptive poetry has vanished. Poetry as rhyming journalism is a thing of the past. Even poetry as a criticism of life no longer holds sway, but the trend of modern poetry is in the direction first pointed by Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”, towards the creation of images. Modern poetry endeavours, by suggestion, by implication, to create a reverie in which mental images are presented. The prevailing style favours an economy of words and simplicity of manner that is derived straight from Blake’s earlier poems.
Poetry of Sight and Sound
“There is something of the medieval magician about Blake’s manner of presenting his poetry. Beautiful to both ear and eye, this poetry is for the first time the poetry of sight and sound. Each poem is a jewel-casket, beautiful in itself. Open the casket a little way and you are dazzled by the wealth within. Look long and you will see that every jewel has its place, and the casket within and without is itself an image of something yet more beautiful and emits rays of light brighter than the sun at noontide.
Blake’s poems and pictures are not flat surfaces. Like the landscapes of Cezanne, it is their depth that interests us, and the deeper we look the more the images come forth.”
His Lyrical Faculty
Blake’s position in the history of the art of England is peculiar owing to his double achievement. It is moreover impossible to determine his place in either poetry or painting separately, the two being inter-dependent both in his own mind and in the forms he used for their expression. His impulse as a lyrical poet had shown itself before the age of fourteen and was not quite exhausted until more than thirty years later. It is seen at its best in the volume of Poetical Sketches, printed in 1783, in the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, produced in the years 1789 to 1794, and in some of the later poems from manuscripts and letters; and this part of his writings has justly been the chief source of his present popularity.
His Mysticism and Symbolism
Gradually this faculty gave way, as his mind developed, before a rising tide of mysticism which strove to find expression through an increasingly complex system of symbolism. In the Songs some symbolism and simple pictorial designs were added to lyrical poetry. In his latest poems, Milton and Jerusalem, the symbolism became predominant and its pictorial representation more elaborate.
His Gift of Painting
As a painter Blake was entirely uninterested in realism, his favourite subjects being taken from the Bible or from writers such as Shakespeare and Milton. He sought to express in a picture the thing of the mind as much as in a poem, and it is to the mind of the observer that they appeal. It is useless therefore to look in Blake’s pictures for accuracy of detail. He laid great store by firmness of outline, but hated to copy nature. His pictures live by their qualities of design, colouring, and imaginative content, and his mystical poetry by the vigour of the intellect which produced it.
 The Appeal of His Poetry
“The poetry of Blake is a poetry of the mind, abstract in substance, concrete in form; its passion is the passion of the imagination, its emotion is the emotion of thought, its beauty is the beauty of idea. When it is simplest, its simplicity is that of some ‘infant joy’ too young to have a name, or of some ‘infant sorrow’ brought aged out of eternity into the dangerous world. There are no men and women in the world of Blake’s poetry, only primal instincts and the energies of the imagination.”
“His work begins in the garden of Eden, or of the childhood of the world, and there is something in it of the naivete of beasts: the lines gambol awkwardly, like young lambs. His utterance of the state of innocence has in it something of the grotesqueness of babies, and enchants the grown man, as they do. Humour exists unconscious of itself, in a kind of awed and open-eyed solemnity. He stammers into a speech of angels, as if just awakening out of Paradise.
It is the primal instincts that speak first, before riper years have added wisdom to intuition. He is the only poet who has written the songs of childhood, of youth, of mature years, and of old age; and he died singing.”
He Stands Alone
“He stands, and must always stand, eminently alone. The
fountain of thought and knowledge to others, he could never be
the head of a school. What is best in him is wholly inimitable.
‘The fire of God was in him’. And as, all through his works,
this subtle element plays and penetrates, so in all he did and
said, the ethereal force flamed outward, warming all who know
how to use it aright, scorching or scathing all who come
impertinently near it. He can never be popular in the ordinary
sense of the word, write we never so many songs in his praise,
simply because the region in which he lived was remote from
the common concerns of life, and still more by reason of the
truth of the ‘mystic sentence’ uttered by his own lips ……….
Nor is it possible to thought
A greater than itself to know.”
A Modern Figure
“And certainly Blake is a modern figure, so much so that to relegate him to the ancient world seems like sheer paradox. He has more to say to the present world than any other poet of his time, and more to say about the issues of life than most poets of whatever time. He lived in an era when modern problems were beginning to take shape. He brought to bear upon them a mind capable of original and profound interpretation of the cosmic drama, richly endowed with irony, shrewdness, and common sense, undeceived by the solemn plausibilities of the world, possessed, above all, of keen psychological insight. The solutions which he reached are still cogent. His own age, which he rejected except as it showed signs of regeneration, had the inestimable value of acting as an irritant to his imagination:
I turn my eyes to the schools and universities of Europe, And there behold the loom of Locke, whose woof rages dire Washed by the water-wheels of Newton; black the cloth
In heavy wreaths folds over every nation.
Beholding this, he turned his eyes to the past and the future, so that finally, after long contemplation, he was able to say: ‘I see the past, present and future existing all at once’. The myth corroborates this assertion. It embraces the whole of human life, from the Fall to the Last Judgment.”
An Adverse Comment
In order that the student may have some idea of that is meant by hostile or adverse criticism, here is a comment written in 1809 and published anonymously in a periodical called The Examiner.
“When the ebullitions of a distempered brain are mistaken for the sallies of genius by those whose works have exhibited the soundest thinking in art, the malady has attained a pernicious height, and it becomes a duty to endeavour to arrest its progress. Such is the case with the productions and admirers of William Blake, an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement and, consequently, of whom no public notice would have been taken, if he was not forced on the notice and animadversion of The Examiner, in having been held up to public admiration by many esteemed amateurs and professors as a genius in some respect original and legitimate. The praises which these gentlemen bestowed last year on or) this unfortunate man’s illustrations of Blair’s Grave have, in feeding his vanity, stimulated him to publish his madness more largely, and thus again exposed him, if not to the derision, at least to the pity of the public.
“The poor man fancies himself a great master, and has painted a few wretched pictures, some of which are unintelligible allegory, others an attempt at sober characters by caricature representation, and the whole blotted and blurred, and very badly drawn. These he call an Exhibition; of which he has published a catalogue, or rather a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity, the wild effusions of a distempered brain.”
Blake’s imagery is the product of his vision which is the most private of all experiences. This fact has two important consequences. At their best, his images are fresh and illuminating and embody brilliant insights, but at their worst, they are cloudy, vague, and perverse, and they obscure his meaning. With the double development of the sense of a prophetic function and of the idea of the uniqueness of all things, the imagery more and more consistently operated as symbolism.
Blake’s Poetical Sketches, in their imagery as in their diction, are Blake’s attempt to free himself from the conventional, and there is at least as much of early seventeenth-century and of eighteenth-century stock imagery as there is of the kind of original perceptions which are generally associated with Blake. And among the conventional images (“flaming cars”, “pale deaths”, and “deeps of Heaven”) we come across his extraordinary innovations with a shock of discovery:
Let thy west wind sleep on
The Lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver—
This image, one of the most astonishing in this volume, really represents a whole new way of seeing in poetry. It is a way that his visions enabled him to explore, for he derived such boldness in his pictorializations not from any traditional elements in poetry, but from his own early visionary experiences. They supplied him, too with ready pictures. The lines in To Autumn:
…… joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees—
may intend to comment on birds, but they are also reminiscent of that childhood experience recounted by his biographer Gilchrist, when Blake saw “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” It is impossible to tell what proportion of Blake’s images simply reproduce what he had beheld in his visions. But the fact that many of the images were derived from his visions is corroborated by his pictures and drawings.
The content of Blake’s vision is normally pastoral, with a Christian emphasis. In the Poetical Sketches, even ships are sheep, and stars are already angels. From this primary inclination, Blake moves in two directions. The imagery of pastoralism includes animals, but animals are wild as well as mild, and the idyllic scene suggests its opposite. In other words, the vision darkens from idyllic reverie to observation of natural fact. The Christian concern has its other side too, inevitably suggesting mortality and the melodrama of death. It is from this concern that Blake’s apocalyptic imagery takes its start.
Blake’s use of the device of the pathetic fallacy deserves notice. Such a line as “And the vale darkens at my pensive woe” gives the clue to the real meaning of the imagery in the second stanza of Mad Song where a dislocation of mind results in a dislocation of Nature:
Lo! to the vault
Of paved heaven,
With sorrow fraught
My notes are driven:
They strike the ear of night,
Make weep the eyes of day;
They make mad the roaring winds,
And with tempests play.
The ease with which Blake animated the inanimate and mixed the animate with the inanimate resulted in some of his happiest pictorial effects, but it was also the particular ingredient in his talent that passed most rapidly out of his control and which then resulted in cloudy rhetoric.
The imagery of pastoral vision was apparently without such dangers for Blake. Here something, perhaps the simplification inherent in all idealizations, kept the imagery pure and clear. Consequently the Songs of Innocence and The Book of Thel, which expand this single strain of imagery, are works without a single infelicity. The Songs, however, have a defect of resonance, a kind of attenuation which indicates that the visionary experience requires an infusion of something from nearer home. That infusion comes in the Songs of Experience, poems that are correspondingly richer. The visionary experience never ceases to operate but now it collaborates beautifully with intellect:
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
That is, one would think, a Blakean vision in the most exact sense. Likewise, The Sun-flower.
Where the Youth pined away with desire
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their grave, and aspire
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
Yet in this example, and throughout the Songs of Experience, there is a new intellectual element, observations on psychic friction and social pain that express themselves in the deliberately developed imagery of sex, and of commerce, industrialism, and science. These intellectual figurations lie outside the pastoral realm, and even outside the undiluted vision. They are Blake’s most original contribution to the history of English poetry. They are poetry’s debt to his determined independence—whole new fields of human experience relatively untouched by imagery before him; and in these poems they sharpen his vision and weight it with meaning. Without this further element, he could not have written London, certainly not these particular lines which are among his greatest:
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.
And without them he could not have conjured up his “system”. When, in his prophetic poems, these elements enter into his visionary experience, the imagery is successful, and when they are neglected and the visionary experience operates alone, the imagery is unsuccessful. For it is the intellectual element that keeps our general human experience in view, and that maintains the balanced relationship between the world and the particularities of identity that is even more essential to art than it is to happiness.
Hypocrisy: Its Symbolic Expression
One of Blake’s remarkable symbols is good and evil wedded as one, and always loathed but always fascinating. This symbol is the hypocrite. The hypocrite is the wrong-doer who knows his wrong, and is therefore the silent witness to the knowledge of right. There is a poem by Blake in which the hypocrite appears as an angel:
I asked a thief to steal me a peach:
He turned up his eyes.
I ask’d a little lady to lie her down:
Holy and meek she cries.
As soon as I went an angel came:
He wink’d at the thief
And smil’d at the dame,
And without one word spoke
Had a peach from the tree,
And ‘twist earnest and joke
Enjoy’d the Lady.
Blake rewrote this poem in a number of ways, to underline the hypocrisy of its story. Here is another poem by him, with the same theme:
Never seek to tell thy love
Love that never told can be;
For the gentle wind does move
Silently, invisibly.
I told my love, I told my love,
I told her all my heart,
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears—
Ah, she doth depart.
Soon as she was gone from me
A traveller came by Silently invisibly—
O, was no deny.
In both the poems, the writer himself fails because he makes love too honestly: he speaks. He does not think himself wrong in this; yet neither is the traveller wrong, to play the hypocrite angel. This is not merely how the world is: it is how the world must be—unyielding to those who remain “trembling, cold”.

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