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 The Poetry of Blake

[This is taken from Lytton Strachey's Books & Characters.]


The new edition of Blake's poetical works, published by the Clarendon Press, will be welcomed by every lover of English poetry. The volume is worthy of the great university under whose auspices it has been produced, and of the great artist whose words it will help to perpetuate. Blake has been, hitherto, singularly unfortunate in his editors. With a single exception, every edition of his poems up to the present time has contained a multitude of textual errors which, in the case of any other writer of equal eminence, would have been well-nigh inconceivable. The great majority of these errors were not the result of accident: they were the result of deliberate falsification. Blake's text has been emended and corrected and 'improved,' so largely and so habitually, that there was a very real danger of its becoming permanently corrupted; and this danger was all the more serious, since the work of mutilation was carried on to an accompaniment of fervent admiration of the poet. 'It is not a little bewildering,' says Mr. Sampson, the present editor, 'to find one great poet and critic extolling Blake for the "glory of metre" and "the sonorous beauty of lyrical work" in the two opening lyrics of the Songs of Experience, while he introduces into the five short stanzas quoted no less than seven emendations of his own, involving additions of syllables and important changes of meaning.' This is Procrustes admiring the exquisite proportions of his victim. As one observes the countless instances accumulated in Mr. Sampson's notes, of the clippings and filings to which the free and spontaneous expression of Blake's genius has been subjected, one is reminded of a verse in one of his own lyrics, where he speaks of the beautiful garden in which—

Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briers my joys and desires;  

and one cannot help hazarding the conjecture, that Blake's prophetic vision recognised, in the lineaments of the 'priests in black gowns,' most of his future editors. Perhaps, though, if Blake's prescience had extended so far as this, he would have taken a more drastic measure; and we shudder to think of the sort of epigram with which the editorial efforts of his worshippers might have been rewarded. The present edition, however, amply compensates for the past. Mr. Sampson gives us, in the first place, the correct and entire text of the poems, so printed as to afford easy reading to those who desire access to the text and nothing more. At the same time, in a series of notes and prefaces, he has provided an elaborate commentary, containing, besides all the variorum readings, a great mass of bibliographical and critical matter; and, in addition, he has enabled the reader to obtain a clue through the labyrinth of Blake's mythology, by means of ample quotations from those passages in the Prophetic Books, which throw light upon the obscurities of the poems. The most important Blake document—the Rossetti MS.—has been freshly collated, with the generous aid of the owner, Mr. W.A. White, to whom the gratitude of the public is due in no common measure; and the long-lost Pickering MS.—the sole authority for some of the most mystical and absorbing of the poems—was, with deserved good fortune, discovered by Mr. Sampson in time for collation in the present edition. Thus there is hardly a line in the volume which has not been reproduced from an original, either written or engraved by the hand of Blake. Mr. Sampson's minute and ungrudging care, his high critical acumen, and the skill with which he has brought his wide knowledge of the subject to bear upon the difficulties of the text, combine to make his edition a noble and splendid monument of English scholarship. It will be long indeed before the poems of Blake cease to afford matter for fresh discussions and commentaries and interpretations; but it is safe to predict that, so far as their form is concerned, they will henceforward remain unchanged. There will be no room for further editing. The work has been done by Mr. Sampson, once and for all.

In the case of Blake, a minute exactitude of text is particularly important, for more than one reason. Many of his effects depend upon subtle differences of punctuation and of spelling, which are too easily lost in reproduction. 'Tiger, tiger, burning bright,' is the ordinary version of one of his most celebrated lines. But in Blake's original engraving the words appear thus—'Tyger! Tyger! burning bright'; and who can fail to perceive the difference? Even more remarkable is the change which the omission of a single stop has produced in the last line of one of the succeeding stanzas of the same poem.

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?  

So Blake engraved the verse; and, as Mr. Sampson points out,'the terrible, compressed force' of the final line vanishes to nothing in the 'languid punctuation' of subsequent editions:—'What dread hand and what dread feet?' It is hardly an exaggeration to say, that the re-discovery of this line alone would have justified the appearance of the present edition.

But these considerations of what may be called the mechanics of Blake's poetry are not—important as they are—the only justification for a scrupulous adherence to his autograph text. Blake's use of language was not guided by the ordinarily accepted rules of writing; he allowed himself to be trammelled neither by prosody nor by grammar; he wrote, with an extraordinary audacity, according to the mysterious dictates of his own strange and intimate conception of the beautiful and the just. Thus his compositions, amenable to no other laws than those of his own making, fill a unique place in the poetry of the world. They are the rebels and atheists of literature, or rather, they are the sanctuaries of an Unknown God; and to invoke that deity by means of orthodox incantations is to run the risk of hell fire. Editors may punctuate afresh the text of Shakespeare with impunity, and perhaps even with advantage; but add a comma to the text of Blake, and you put all Heaven in a rage. You have laid your hands upon the Ark of the Covenant. Nor is this all. When once, in the case of Blake, the slightest deviation has been made from the authoritative version, it is hardly possible to stop there. The emendator is on an inclined plane which leads him inevitably from readjustments of punctuation to corrections of grammar, and from corrections of grammar to alterations of rhythm; if he is in for a penny, he is in for a pound. The first poem in the Rossetti MS. may be adduced as one instance—out of the enormous number which fill Mr. Sampson's notes—of the dangers of editorial laxity.

I told my love, I told my love,
I told her all my heart;
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears,
Ah! she doth depart.

This is the first half of the poem; and editors have been contented with an alteration of stops, and the change of 'doth' into 'did.' But their work was not over; they had, as it were, tasted blood; and their version of the last four lines of the poem is as follows:

Soon after she was gone from me,
A traveller came by,
Silently, invisibly:
He took her with a sigh.

Reference to the MS., however, shows that the last line had been struck out by Blake, and another substituted in its place—a line which is now printed for the first time by Mr. Sampson. So that the true reading of the verse is:

Soon as she was gone from me,
A traveller came by,
Silently, invisibly—
O! was no deny.

After these exertions, it must have seemed natural enough to Rossetti and his successors to print four other expunged lines as part of the poem, and to complete the business by clapping a title to their concoction—'Love's Secret'—a title which there is no reason to suppose had ever entered the poet's mind.

Besides illustrating the shortcomings of his editors, this little poem is an admirable instance of Blake's most persistent quality—his triumphant freedom from conventional restraints. His most characteristic passages are at once so unexpected and so complete in their effect, that the reader is moved by them, spontaneously, to some conjecture of 'inspiration.' Sir Walter Raleigh, indeed, in his interesting Introduction to a smaller edition of the poems, protests against such attributions of peculiar powers to Blake, or indeed to any other poet. 'No man,' he says, 'destitute of genius, could live for a day.' But even if we all agree to be inspired together, we must still admit that there are degrees of inspiration; if Mr. F's Aunt was a woman of genius, what are we to say of Hamlet? And Blake, in the hierarchy of the inspired, stands very high indeed. If one could strike an average among poets, it would probably be true to say that, so far as inspiration is concerned, Blake is to the average poet, as the average poet is to the man in the street. All poetry, to be poetry at all, must have the power of making one, now and then, involuntarily ejaculate: 'What made him think of that?' With Blake, one is asking the question all the time.

Blake's originality of manner was not, as has sometimes been the case, a cloak for platitude. What he has to say belongs no less distinctly to a mind of astonishing self-dependence than his way of saying it. In English literature, as Sir Walter Raleigh observes, he 'stands outside the regular line of succession.' All that he had in common with the great leaders of the Romantic Movement was an abhorrence of the conventionality and the rationalism of the eighteenth century; for the eighteenth century itself was hardly more alien to his spirit than that exaltation of Nature—the 'Vegetable Universe,' as he called it—from which sprang the pantheism of Wordsworth and the paganism of Keats. 'Nature is the work of the Devil,' he exclaimed one day; 'the Devil is in us as far as we are Nature.' There was no part of the sensible world which, in his philosophy, was not impregnated with vileness. Even the 'ancient heavens' were not, to his uncompromising vision, 'fresh and strong'; they were 'writ with Curses from Pole to Pole,' and destined to vanish into nothingness with the triumph of the Everlasting Gospel.

There are doubtless many to whom Blake is known simply as a charming and splendid lyrist, as the author of Infant Joy, and The Tyger, and the rest of the Songs of Innocence and Experience. These poems show but faint traces of any system of philosophy; but, to a reader of the Rossetti and Pickering MSS., the presence of a hidden and symbolic meaning in Blake's words becomes obvious enough—a meaning which receives its fullest expression in the Prophetic Books. It was only natural that the extraordinary nature of Blake's utterance in these latter works should have given rise to the belief that he was merely an inspired idiot—a madman who happened to be able to write good verses. That belief, made finally impossible by Mr. Swinburne's elaborate Essay, is now, happily, nothing more than a curiosity of literary history; and indeed signs are not wanting that the whirligig of Time, which left Blake for so long in the Paradise of Fools, is now about to place him among the Prophets. Anarchy is the most fashionable of creeds; and Blake's writings, according to Sir Walter Raleigh, contain a complete exposition of its doctrines. The same critic asserts that Blake was 'one of the most consistent of English poets and thinkers.' This is high praise indeed; but there seems to be some ambiguity in it. It is one thing to give Blake credit for that sort of consistency which lies in the repeated enunciation of the same body of beliefs throughout a large mass of compositions and over a long period of time, and which could never be possessed by a, madman or an incoherent charlatan. It is quite another thing to assert that his doctrines form in themselves a consistent whole, in the sense in which that quality would be ordinarily attributed to a system of philosophy. Does Sir Walter mean to assert that Blake is, in this sense too, 'consistent'? It is a little difficult to discover. Referring, in his Introduction, to Blake's abusive notes on Bacon's Essays, he speaks of—

The sentimental enthusiast, who worships all great men indifferently, [and who] finds himself in a distressful position when his gods fall out among themselves. His case [Sir Walter wittily adds] is not much unlike that of Terah, the father of Abraham, who (if the legend be true) was a dealer in idols among the Chaldees, and, coming home to his shop one day, after a brief absence, found that the idols had quarrelled, and the biggest of them had smashed the rest to atoms. Blake is a dangerous idol for any man to keep in his shop.

We wonder very much whether he is kept in Sir Walter Raleigh's.

It seems clear, at any rate, that no claim for a 'consistency' which would imply freedom from self-contradiction can be validly made for Blake. His treatment of the problem of evil is enough to show how very far he was from that clarity of thought without which even prophets are liable, when the time comes, to fall into disrepute. 'Plato,' said Blake, 'knew of nothing but the virtues and vices, and good and evil. There is nothing in all that. Everything is good in God's eyes.' And this is the perpetual burden of his teaching. 'Satan's empire is the empire of nothing'; there is no such thing as evil—it is a mere 'negation.' And the 'moral virtues,' which attempt to discriminate between right and wrong, are the idlest of delusions; they are merely 'allegories and dissimulations,' they 'do not exist.' Such was one of the most fundamental of Blake's doctrines; but it requires only a superficial acquaintance with his writings to recognise that their whole tenour is an implicit contradiction of this very belief. Every page he wrote contains a moral exhortation; bad thoughts and bad feelings raised in him a fury of rage and indignation which the bitterest of satirists never surpassed. His epigrams on Reynolds are masterpieces of virulent abuse; the punishment which he devised for Klopstock—his impersonation of 'flaccid fluency and devout sentiment'—is unprintable; as for those who attempt to enforce moral laws, they shall be 'cast out,' for they 'crucify Christ with the head downwards.' The contradiction is indeed glaring. 'There is no such thing as wickedness,' Blake says in effect, 'and you are wicked if you think there is.' If it is true that evil does not exist, all Blake's denunciations are so much empty chatter; and, on the other hand, if there is a real distinction between good and bad, if everything, in fact, is not good in God's eyes—then why not say so? Really Blake, as politicians say, 'cannot have it both ways.'

But of course, his answer to all this is simple enough. To judge him according to the light of reason is to make an appeal to a tribunal whose jurisdiction he had always refused to recognise as binding. In fact, to Blake's mind, the laws of reason were nothing but a horrible phantasm deluding and perplexing mankind, from whose clutches it is the business of every human soul to free itself as speedily as possible. Reason is the 'Spectre' of Blake's mythology, that Spectre, which, he says,

Around me night and day
Like a wild beast guards my way.

It is a malignant spirit, for ever struggling with the 'Emanation,' or imaginative side of man, whose triumph is the supreme end of the universe. Ever since the day when, in his childhood, Blake had seen God's forehead at the window, he had found in imaginative vision the only reality and the only good. He beheld the things of this world 'not with, but through, the eye':

With my inward Eye, 'tis an old Man grey,
With my outward, a Thistle across my way.

It was to the imagination, and the imagination alone, that Blake yielded the allegiance of his spirit. His attitude towards reason was the attitude of the mystic; and it involved an inevitable dilemma. He never could, in truth, quite shake himself free of his 'Spectre'; struggle as he would, he could not escape altogether from the employment of the ordinary forms of thought and speech; he is constantly arguing, as if argument were really a means of approaching the truth; he was subdued to what he worked in. As in his own poem, he had, somehow or other, been locked into a crystal cabinet—the world of the senses and of reason—a gilded, artificial, gimcrack dwelling, after 'the wild' where he had danced so merrily before.

I strove to seize the inmost Form
With ardour fierce and hands of flame,
But burst the Crystal Cabinet,
And like a Weeping Babe became—
A weeping Babe upon the wild....

To be able to lay hands upon 'the inmost form,' one must achieve the impossible; one must be inside and outside the crystal cabinet at the same time. But Blake was not to be turned aside by such considerations. He would have it both ways; and whoever demurred was crucifying Christ with the head downwards.

Besides its unreasonableness, there is an even more serious objection to Blake's mysticism—and indeed to all mysticism: its lack of humanity. The mystic's creed—even when arrayed in the wondrous and ecstatic beauty of Blake's verse—comes upon the ordinary man, in the rigidity of its uncompromising elevation, with a shock which is terrible, and almost cruel. The sacrifices which it demands are too vast, in spite of the divinity of what it has to offer. What shall it profit a man, one is tempted to exclaim, if he gain his own soul, and lose the whole world? The mystic ideal is the highest of all; but it has no breadth. The following lines express, with a simplicity and an intensity of inspiration which he never surpassed, Blake's conception of that ideal:

And throughout all Eternity
I forgive you, you forgive me.
As our dear Redeemer said:
'This the Wine, & this the Bread.'

It is easy to imagine the sort of comments to which Voltaire, for instance, with his 'wracking wheel' of sarcasm and common-sense, would have subjected such lines as these. His criticism would have been irrelevant, because it would never have reached the heart of the matter at issue; it would have been based upon no true understanding of Blake's words. But that they do admit of a real, an unanswerable criticism, it is difficult to doubt. Charles Lamb, perhaps, might have made it; incidentally, indeed, he has. 'Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society, and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fire-side conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself'—do these things form no part of your Eternity?

The truth is plain: Blake was an intellectual drunkard. His words come down to us in a rapture of broken fluency from impossible intoxicated heights. His spirit soared above the empyrean; and, even as it soared, it stumbled in the gutter of Felpham. His lips brought forth, in the same breath, in the same inspired utterance, the Auguries of Innocence and the epigrams on Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was in no condition to chop logic, or to take heed of the existing forms of things. In the imaginary portrait of himself, prefixed to Sir Walter Raleigh's volume, we can see him, as he appeared to his own 'inward eye,' staggering between the abyss and the star of Heaven, his limbs cast abroad, his head thrown back in an ecstasy of intoxication, so that, to the frenzy of his rolling vision, the whole universe is upside down. We look, and, as we gaze at the strange image and listen to the marvellous melody, we are almost tempted to go and do likewise.

But it is not as a prophet, it is as an artist, that Blake deserves the highest honours and the most enduring fame. In spite of his hatred of the 'vegetable universe,' his poems possess the inexplicable and spontaneous quality of natural objects; they are more like the works of Heaven than the works of man. They have, besides, the two most obvious characteristics of Nature—loveliness and power. In some of his lyrics there is an exquisite simplicity, which seems, like a flower or a child, to be unconscious of itself. In his poem of The Birds—to mention, out of many, perhaps a less known instance—it is not the poet that one hears, it is the birds themselves.

O thou summer's harmony,
I have lived and mourned for thee;
Each day I mourn along the wood,
And night hath heard my sorrows loud.

In his other mood—the mood of elemental force—Blake produces effects which are unique in literature. His mastery of the mysterious suggestions which lie concealed in words is complete.

He who torments the Chafer's Sprite
Weaves a Bower in endless Night.

What dark and terrible visions the last line calls up! And, with the aid of this control over the secret springs of language, he is able to produce in poetry those vast and vague effects of gloom, of foreboding, and of terror, which seem to be proper to music alone. Sometimes his words are heavy with the doubtful horror of an approaching thunderstorm:

The Guests are scattered thro' the land,
For the Eye altering alters all;
The Senses roll themselves in fear,
And the flat Earth becomes a Ball;
The Stars, Sun, Moon, all shrink away,
A desart vast without a bound,
And nothing left to eat or drink,
And a dark desart all around.

And sometimes Blake invests his verses with a sense of nameless and infinite ruin, such as one feels when the drum and the violin mysteriously come together, in one of Beethoven's Symphonies, to predict the annihilation of worlds:

On the shadows of the Moon,
Climbing through Night's highest noon:
In Time's Ocean falling, drowned:
In Aged Ignorance profound,
Holy and cold, I clipp'd the Wings
Of all Sublunary Things:
But when once I did descry
The Immortal Man that cannot Die,
Thro' evening shades I haste away
To close the Labours of my Day.
The Door of Death I open found,
And the Worm Weaving in the Ground;
Thou'rt my Mother, from the Womb;
Wife, Sister, Daughter, to the Tomb:
Weaving to Dreams the Sexual strife,
And weeping over the Web of Life.

Such music is not to be lightly mouthed by mortals; for us, in our weakness, a few strains of it, now and then, amid the murmur of ordinary converse, are enough. For Blake's words will always be strangers on this earth; they could only fall with familiarity from the lips of his own Gods:

above Time's troubled fountains,
On the great Atlantic Mountains,
In my Golden House on high.

They belong to the language of Los and Rahab and Enitharmon; and their mystery is revealed for ever in the land of the Sunflower's desire.










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