Blake and Tradition The Bollingen Series XXXV: 11
Most readers acquainted with good poetry, if we want their opinion of William Blake, will cite Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Doubtless they will speak well of these pieces as being both “lyrical” and “original.” But I think few readers can make much conversation about Blake’s late and philosophical poems; these are not included within the common anthologies; and even if they were, they would probably seem too difficult to follow. Blake died in 1827 at the age of seventy. But it has taken more than a hundred years for competent scholars to know and appreciate him. As late as 1910, when the famous 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica appeared, the item about the poet Blake finished him off in a single sentence: “With the publication of Songs of Experience Blake’s poetic career, so far as ordinary readers are concerned, may be said to close.”
But all was not lost. His biographer went on to acknowledge that Blake at least survived in the role of a designer of books and a distinguished visual artist. It was said that he took so much interest in his drawings that he failed to make his texts intelligible; as if the elucidation of his meaning could be done better by a visual symbol than by a concatenation of words. I think we would have chosen to keep both channels open, the words and the pictures alike, because neither interfered with the other but they worked beautifully together. The words are highly charged with meaning; and incidentally they offer a visual pleasure too, being made by the poet’s own hand and therefore shapely and cursive, though etched in reverse upon the plate. Just often enough we are delighted to find some page-space used for an illustration appropriate to the text; it may be black-and-white, or water-colored, or even illuminated.
My two paragraphs, I believe, are not out of order; they are meant to introduce Miss Raine in her role of special distinction. She writes out of a most intensive reading of Blake, in a book of two volumes having seven parts and twenty-seven chapters; and she has also at her disposal special illustrations numbering up to 193, and averaging seven-plus per chapter. The texts to which the illustrations refer are not recited fully, but used as needed. I imagine that there is no other book about Blake which employs just these properties. It may now be surely declared that she is the one woman writer who ranks with the dozen-or-so gentlemen scholars who, during the last forty-five years, have raised a mighty poet from the dead. How sad it would have been if no fine woman had cared sufficiently for Blake’s verse!
Miss Raine’s book is sumptuously printed under the auspices of the Bollingen Foundation; and from it, upon the invitation of Mr. Paul Mellon and the Trustees of the National Gallery at Washington, she extracted and read six lectures in public. So her book is fully authorized. Miss Raine is very articulate in her prose, while Blake very properly is not at liberty to translate the grandeur of his inspired verse into common language. And we are not mistaken if we like to attribute to her an extra meed of pity for the unfortunate characters who must come to grief so often in Blake’s creations. But pity is a piety, and a woman has more of it than a man. Both poet and interpreter are Christian mystics who prefer to go a stage or two beyond the letter of orthodoxy This excess is the office of Poetry, which is Imagination, which sometimes rises into a Revelation that seems all but obligatory.
But who am I, addressing myself to the opulence and the sometime confusion of Blake, after nearly forty years in my comfortable wilderness? I was challenged in that period only by the book, William Blake: The Politics of Vision, 1946, which came from my friend Mark Schorer: and after a brief reading I chose not to exit from my familiar premises. But about seven months ago I was invited to review in these pages Miss Raine’s book. I was pleased by the invitation, if I could have sufficient time for my study; and I needed a change of scene. But what have I accomplished in seven months? Miss Raine has told us in her Introduction that she had studied Blake for nearly twenty years. I soon realized that any decisive judgment of mine must rest not so much on the earlier and briefer works, though they tease us to interpret them, but on what I could make of Blake’s overwhelming and final epics: The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem. In fine print they require some 260-odd large and close-packed pages of very long lines.
But many recent and helpful books have come to me, and kept coming. There is the nearly incredible Blake Dictionary, by that grand old-timer, S. Foster Damon, in 1965; it contains some 1200 entries within 460 pages. Then came Thomas Taylor the Platonist, 1968, edited by Miss Raine and George Mills Harper; Taylor brought Plato and Neoplatonism to Blake’s attention. Perhaps the most practical book for me was The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, 1969, edited for text by David V. Erdman, and for commentary by Harold Bloom; everything that Blake had done was there, except the illustrations. But now comes a final keepsake, William Blake, 1969, made up of essays by many able Blakeans in honor of Professor Damon; and the one by Professor Harper seems to me a compelling yet novel analysis of Blake’s final credo.
May I enter a brief notation about my own feeling toward the tall tales of the Romantics of Pure Imagination, such as Blake’s are when he ascends to his ultimate apogees? For instance, there is the matter about the aboriginal giant Albion, floundering helplessly on the Rock of Ages for six thousand years; yet it serves a purpose in the narrative, when Jesus descends incarnate and redeems the hateful man by tending him and forgiving his sins; and later hangs upon the Cross while Albion stands beneath him watching with arms outstretched in a gesture of defeat; see Plate 173 in Volume II, p. 191. (Miss Raine interprets his posture a little differently.) But Albion is important; and at this final stage he gives his name to England. Blake is equal to his responsibilities here and on many other occasions. I mean to say, in summary, that Blake succeeds in his intentions, and by stretching a little we cannot help wanting to confirm him.
But I am a Kantian of nearly forty years’ standing; and I must respect the ultimatum that beyond the field of mundane understanding, which Kant explored to the limit, we crave to know God and Freedom and Immortality; which is to desire a knowledge that is transcendental and therefore unknowable. During recent years that has been the posture of many Christian theologians. We observe that our bright children live first with Mother Goose and make-believe, and then with fairy tales; but as they age we expect of them an increasing sense of “reality.” Let us think for a moment of Shakespeare, who is no transcendentalist, yet has a sure sense of the God which he never controverts. His tragic passages must have seared his own mind with their villainy just as they do ours, only more so. For Shakespeare, Imagination rarely wanders far beyond natural possibility, which is imagination, uncapitalized. But we cannot disparage his power.
Blake was a bold and original psychologist. In his Four Zoas—so called after the Four Beasts in the Book of Revelations—he identifies the four persons or powers of the mind in an order from left to right, as follows. First there is Tharmas, to the West, who is Energy; and there is no energy without duality and opposition, and in this case it is the strife between the greedy desires of the body and the holiness of Imagination; between Evil and Good. Next, to the South, we have Urizen, or Reason, who deals with abstractions and the practical sciences, and is not interested in the Minute Particulars which Blake demands. Third, to the East, is Luvah, who is concerned with the passions of love, as the name indicates. Finally, in the North, there is Urthona-Los, or Imagination itself, who is responsible for Poetry and the fine arts. And Blake has anticipated precisely the quaternity of the Swiss psychologist Jung. Blake never finished this manuscript, and there are no pictures. Even so, it has many resplendent passages which are flawless; though the poet is willing to dart, temporarily, from one topic to another, as the spirit prompts him. That habit has been called the “dream-technique.”
Next comes Milton, in two Books. After a century in Heaven he means to redeem the error of Paradise Lost, where he took the part of the vengeant Messiah in preference to the miscalled Satan who is really the Savior who forgiveth sins and is willing to die on the Cross. The text shows him entering the world pursued by Los, who fears his influence. In his descent he falls through the heart of Albion, with such effect that he throws the grouping of the Zoas into immense confusion. But he has two motives; he will explain his error to Blake, though Blake knows his Paradise Regained and admires him above all poets. He does appear before Blake, who faints upon his path. (For me the two Books of Milton furnish the sweetest verse of the three epics; and Miss Raine has a number of quotations from Milton but otherwise does not deal with it very far.) The second sweetness involves the encounter with Ololon, who is the six-fold group of his three wives and their three daughters, plus their further emanations. I believe that the name Ololon could be from the Greek term for “the whole lot of them.” They meet Milton, and between them and him flows nothing but mutual good will. Miss Raine is well aware of all these details, but I think she is short of space; there is more material at hand than she can deal with.
The final epic is Jerusalem; and the great hero is Albion, in spite of his miserable health. He gave his name to his country; and he was indispensable in the building of Golgonooza, which was London. Blake was sorry that the seat of religion could not now be Jerusalem; but Albion’s wife was Britannia, and they called their daughter after that city. Jesus took her as his bride, and gave Vala, the daughter of Luvah, to Albion. There is tremendous detail here of the wonderful New Jerusalem.
Miss Raine’s final Chapter is entitled, “What is Man?” Many verses of Scripture try to complete this question by defining his expectations. In her conclusion she quotes what seems to be the most fantastic of all Blake’s visions, and I am far from sure that she endorses it fully. The passage must be quoted; it comes from Milton, Book I, where Blake composes grandly:
Thou seest the Constellations in the deep & wondrous Night/ They rise in order and continue their immortal courses/ Upon the mountains & in vales with harp & heavenly song/ With flute & clarion; with cups & measures filld with foaming wine./ Glittring the streams reflect the Vision of beatitude,/ And the calm Ocean joys beneath & smooths the awful waves!/ These are the Sons of Los, & these the labourers of the Vintage/ Thou seest the gorgeous clothed Flies that dance & sport in summer/ Upon the sunny brooks & meadows: every one the dance/ Knows in its intricate mazes of delight artful to weave:/ Each one to sound his instruments of music in the dance,/ To touch each other & recede; to cross & change & return/ These are the Children of Los; thou seest the Trees on mountains/ The wind blows heavy, loud they thunder thro’ the darksome sky/ Uttering prophecies & speaking instructive words to the sons/ Of men: These are the Sons of Los! These the Visions of Eternity/ But we see only as it were the hem of their garments/ When with our vegetable eyes we view these wond’rous Visions/
Blake is no purist in his punctuation and spelling; he knows that he is blameless with tough-minded men of his kind, who can read him well enough. But this composition is like a wonderful triple dream that passes far beyond credibility. We must reluctantly declare that it is a deliberate hallucination; yet it must stand, for its author is Blake, the unfettered visionary. I cannot but think now that Blake as a poet is destined to his immortality.
Miss Raine in her last paragraph seems more moderate in her expectations. She thinks, as Blake does, that materialism is destructive to our way of living, and drives us, if we have to be driven, to the pastoral or country life. But she does not expect miracles.
The final item in the book is Illustration 193, the woodcut designed and engraved by Blake as frontispiece for Vergil’s first Eclogue. A wise old counselor and a handsome youth with shepherd’s crook in his right hand are talking, and the sheep are already in the fold as the sun is setting behind them. The human attitudes are those of holy men. But in his picture-element Blake is superbly at his best and there is no flaw in his workmanship.
Copyright © 1969 by John Crowe Ransom.