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The Productions of Time: Stanley Kunitz on William Blake

by Jason Shinder


Stanley Kunitz
recently became the tenth U.S. Poet Laureate, and his Collected Poems is forthcoming from W. W. Norton in fall 2000. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bollingen Prize, Kunitz is also co-founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., and Poet's House in New York City. He and his wife, painter Elise Asher, live in both cities.


London*

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh,
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

Stanley Kunitz: When I first read this poem from William Blake’s Songs of Experience as an adolescent, I didn’t fully understand the word “charter’d.” I found little help in the dictionary. I didn’t really grasp the meaning of the work until I moved from my native Worcester, Massachusetts, where I was born and raised, and came to New York. In Manhattan I saw particular buses parked in the street that were not available to the public, that had a “chartered” sign on the windshield. They had been hired. Blake was saying that the streets of London, even the Thames, were bought and paid for by the newly rising merchant class. They no longer belonged to the common people.

Jason Shinder: You’ve often referred to Blake, in fact, as “The Poet of London.” Why?

SK: You cannot separate Blake from London. He was born there in 1757, and he died there in 1827, seventy years later. In the course of his lifetime he had observed the evolution of London: its development from a fairly provincial capital to a bustling metropolis with enormous mills and factories looming over the landscape. At that time, London emerged as the capital of the world, particularly significant in that Britain was becoming a great empire in the forefront of the whole Industrial Revolution.

JS: So Blake observed the changes occurring in his city, and their effects on his fellow citizens.

SK: Precisely. Blake saw in each face the loss, as he perceived it, of his fellow citizen’s individual imagination. People were in “manacles” as a result of the restrictions placed on them by Church, State, and the oppressive conditions of the newly rising factories. In his poem “London,” you observe him walking the streets of London, observing all that is going on, while assuming the prophetic voice to give warning to individuals who were being drawn into the web of the new Industrial life.

JS: “London,” as part of Songs of Experience, was written in 1794, when Blake was thirty-seven. He had already written a good deal, including his first book, Poetical Sketches, most of the poems in Songs of Innocence, “The Book of Thel,” “The French Revolution,” and the beginning of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He seemed quite ambitious as an artist early in his life.

SK: That’s very true. At the age of ten he had already left formal school to pursue his interest in drawing at one of the best art schools in London, the Henry Pars Drawing School. He was already having visionary experiences and was determined to be a painter. Fortunately his father, a shopkeeper, recognized Blake’s determination and genius. He allowed him to focus on learning his art. By the age of fifteen, Blake was already apprenticed to a master engraver, James Basire.

JS: I remember reading how Basire sent Blake into churches and churchyards and the tombs of Westminster Abbey to draw careful copies of the effigies of kings, queens, warriors, bishops, and so forth.

SK: Yes, and you know even then Blake proved to be too original to please his teacher.

JS: I’m wondering if Blake ever found it comfortable with his teachers and educational institutions—given his early and strong commitment to the individual spirit and imagination?

SK: He was never that comfortable with any authority. After drawing school, for example, he attended the Royal Academy, and it was an unhappy, brief time. He felt like a stranger, despising the painters who were the favorites of the faculty of the Royal Academy. When he was told by his teacher to give up copying from Michelangelo, and to substitute Reuben instead, he blew up. The teacher said Reuben was a much more finished artist than Michelangelo. And Blake responded, “How could he be finished when he never began?” He picked up his brush and palate and left the Academy, never to return.

JS: Would you say his devotion to his own work and vision created a sense of isolation from his contemporaries—Keats, Shelley, and Byron, for example?

SK: Yes. That’s very true. He was definitely not a part of the literary community. He was not really acquainted with the poets of his time. He was not recognized as a poet. In fact, he was considered something of a crank, an inspired madman.

JS: So who were his friends? What community, if any, did he feel close to?

SK: He was better acquainted with the visual artists, if any group. Remember, he began as an engraver. And he did have some friends in political circles, the working revolutionaries of the period. Instead of concerning himself with the literary life, he spent a good deal of his time in social protest.

JS: What was he advocating for?

SK: You have to remember he was born into a very violent period. There were three revolutions that influenced him: the American, French, and Industrial Revolutions. He was engaged in all of them. He cared about the poor, wanted reform legislation, that sort of thing. He used to walk around the streets he talks about in the poem “London” wearing a red cap of the French Revolution.

JS: Wasn’t his reason for finally leaving London—for a brief period—to fight in the French Revolution?

SK: It was the only time he left his native soil. The French Revolution—all the revolutions—were symbolic of Blake’s lifetime fight against oppression of any kind. He believed religiously in the freedom of the individual for self-expression. He believed it was absolutely necessary to preserve the innocence of the child.

JS: Which he does mAGNIficently in Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

SK: Indeed. They are central to the understanding of Blake. They are the poems, of course, most familiar to the world, especially to the young and the child in all of us. Their speech is universal. They are so simple, so lucid, almost transparent in their style, from the very first poem, “Introduction”:

Introduction

Piping down the valleys wild
Piping songs of pleasant glee
On a cloud I saw a child.
And he laughing said to me.

Pipe a song about a Lamb;
So I piped with merry chear,
Piper, pipe that song again —
So I piped: he wept to hear.

Drop thy pipe thy happy pipe
Sing thy songs of happy chear,
So I sung the same again,
While he wept with joy to hear

Piper, sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read —
So he vanish’d from my sight,
And I pluck’d a hollow reed.

And I made a rural pen,
And I stain’d the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.

JS: Whom is he addressing in this poem?

SK: He’s addressing not only children, but the child in man and woman, the child among us. The last line, “Every child may joy to hear,” is a very prophetic statement. It sets the tone for the poems to come.

JS: Why does the child in the poem instruct the speaker to “write a song about a lamb”?

SK: Blake is thinking of the Lamb of God as a child, as a playmate. Of course, the lamb also implies the Christ figure. And it’s also symbolic of childhood itself, the child in us that speaks of the innocence of the heart. The lamb is an essential image for Blake. As in one of Blake’s best-loved poems in Songs of Innocence, “The Lamb.”

The Lamb

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb, who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

SK: One of the beautiful things about this poem is the way the speaker lovingly identifies with the lamb, with the Christ figure.

JS: As you mentioned, the lamb is an image throughout. It surfaces again in the poem “The Little Black Boy,” where the voice of God invites the souls of men and women to rejoice “like lambs” around his “golden tent.”

SK: Once again the lamb is the angel of innocence and childhood. The lamb is an even more striking image in “The Little Black Boy” because the backdrop of the poem is so dark. You have to remember that this was a very early poem to be written about slavery. At that time the British were slave masters and traders. But slavery appalled Blake. He sees the black boy not only as representative of the victims of the slave trade, but of the victims of slave labor in the mills of England as well. These mills were largely worked by children and women, fifteen hours a day. So the black boy in the poem exploited by slavery is associated with the blackened face of the exploited chimney sweeper or the blackened hands of the children in the mills, or his own hands as an engraver. He imaginatively associates the little black boy with everyone who is oppressed.

The Little Black Boy

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.

My mother taught me underneath a tree
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east began to say:

Look on the rising sun: there God does live,
And gives his light, and gives his heat away;
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noon day.

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.

For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear,
The cloud will vanish we shall hear his voice,
Saying: ‘Come out from the grove my love & care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.

Thus did my mother say, and kissed me;
and thus I say to little English boy:
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:

Ill shade him from the heat, till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our fathers knee;
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.

JS: Blake’s empathy must in some way have resulted from his identification with his own sense of being neglected and oppressed—of his struggle against the artistic and industrial fashion of his time that kept him unrecognized as an artist and in poverty.

SK: It’s one of the reasons why his poems ring so true. His imagination was steeped in compassionate feelings for all those who were oppressed, victimized, or exploited, because he himself felt that way. You have to remember he made whatever living he could with his own hands as an engraver. But his engravings of his own poems did not sell; nobody wanted them. He had to farm out his services as a journeyman engraver doing hack work for others. And like other members of the working class, he was a victim of the newly rising industrial age. Engraving was becoming a dying art. He hoped to survive on his own, independently, but the struggle became more and more difficult, often desperate. His wife, Catherine Boucher, would sometimes place an empty plate on the table to remind him of their circumstances, but he never lost faith in himself in his mission as a poet. Indeed, the humiliation, rage, and frustration underlying these circumstances fueled, in part, the fierceness of his imagination.

JS: Didn’t Blake—in the midst of his lack of success as an engraver—invent a new process of etching poems?

SK: Yes. While Blake was readying the manuscript for his Songs of Innocence, the spirit of his younger brother—who had recently died—allegedly returned to impart to him the secret of how to make Illuminated Books by a process that involved etching in relief the poem and its accompanying illustration by applying acid on copper, then corroding with acid the blank areas of the plate, and finally coloring each impression by hand. It was a difficult and time-consuming process. The plates of his own work were produced only when they were ordered, and, as I mentioned, there weren’t many orders. It is believed he had only thirty orders for Songs of Innocence, of which there are only twenty-six in existence today. But each was individually produced, and so no two copies could be identical. It also meant that the books are of unsurpassed beauty and today, ironically, priceless. He was, in fact, one of the great engravers in the whole history of the art.

JS: You’ve mentioned both Blake’s younger brother and his wife, Catherine Boucher. Were these the most important people in his life, in helping him keep his faith in himself and in his mission as a poet?

SK: Blake’s younger brother, Robert, died in 1787, when Blake was thirty. He was Blake’s closest friend, whom he had taken in as an apprentice. When Robert fell gravely ill, Blake attended him night and day, to the point of exhaustion. At the moment of Robert’s death, Blake saw the released spirit of his brother “ascend heavenwards, clapping its hands of joy.” Afterwards, Robert became one of Blake’s “Messengers from Heaven” from whom he received poems, visions, and secrets like how to produce Illuminated Books. His younger brother was forever an influence and a source of support.

JS: And his wife?

SK: His wife provided Blake not only with support throughout his life, but with absolute devotion. Blake was twenty-five when he married her. She was the illiterate daughter of a market gardener. In place of a signature their marriage certificate bears her mark. But with exemplary patience Blake taught her to read and write, as well as how to paint and draw in a style indistinguishable from his own. Throughout the years she became his collaborator, lending a hand in the execution of prints. Though their marriage produced no children, it was a rare companionship, as of two lovebirds. She died three years after Blake, at the age of seventy, the same age Blake was when he died. It was a rather long life at that time.

JS: His wife doesn’t specifically surface in Songs of Innocence, but his affection for her seems evident in poems like “The Divine Image” that proclaim the beauty of the naked body and sexual expression.

SK: Yes. Blake was against oppression of any kind, including repression of our sexual desires. “The Divine Image” is a tribute to all human possibilities.

The Divine Image

To Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is God, our father dear:
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is Man his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk, or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

JS: It’s lovely, but a little darker than the earlier poems in Songs of Innocence.

SK: The poems in Songs of Innocence get a little darker as they move into Songs of Experience, which begin to concentrate on the evils of the world, the hardening of the soul, the afflictions of life. Blake felt that we were born in a state of innocence—in the image of the lamb—but that the experience of the world tended to corrupt and defile us, and to blight the natural innocence of the soul.

JS: Are you saying he was opposed to experience?

SK: No. He was not opposed to learning the ways of the world. He felt, in fact, that innocence could be fortified by knowing how to live with others in the environment. He wanted one’s education in the ways of the world to strengthen the child within one, not to kill the child.

JS: Why do individual poems in Songs of Innocence have a counter poem in Songs of Experience?

SK: One poem does counterpoint another to highlight the contraries of innocence and experience, good and evil, to represent all the contradictions of one’s life. For example, the first poem of Songs of Experience, “Introduction,” counterpoints the first poem of the same title in Songs of Innocence. The voice is more prophetic and stern. It’s very different from the naive and relaxed voice in the “Introduction” to Songs of Innocence.

Introduction

Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future sees;
Whose ears have heard,
The Holy Word,
That walk’d among the ancient trees;

Calling the lapsed Soul
And weeping in the evening dew:
That might controll
The starry pole,
And fallen fallen light renew!

O Earth O Earth return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.

Turn away no more:
Why wilt thou turn away
The starry floor,
The watry shore,
Is giv’n thee till the break of day.

JS: Now that the speaker of the poem is wiser, he claims that he is going to give us God’s word so that we may correct our ways. It’s a greater challenge for Blake than in the Songs of Innocence, and his voice seems stronger because of it.

SK: He assumes a more powerful voice in order to reinforce his conviction that man—in the midst of the ills of the world—is still capable of representing the divine spirit.

JS: He seems to become more forthright about opposing institutions that oppress, that would restrict his freedom. In “The Garden of Love,” for example, he speaks of Priests “binding with briars my joys and desires.”

SK: That’s one of my favorite poems of Blake’s. It’s certainly an exceptionally strong attack on the institutions of church and state. Blake believed in the free play of the body and the senses. He felt such expression was as much an expression of God as religious thought was, and he makes his point in “The Garden of Love.”

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love.
And saw what I had never seen:
A Chapel was built 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 turn’d to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;

And I saw it was fillèd with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

SK: Here Blake argues against the forces of religion and law that would bind the human spirit with “briars.” He affirms once again the beauty of self-expression, the joy of the instinctual life, and the belief that the five senses are the chief inlets of the soul.

JS: The image of the chapel in the midst of the garden of love reminds me of the image of the worm in the midst of a rose in “The Sick Rose.”

SK: It’s the same theme in a more metaphorical vein. It’s only eight lines, but they are among the most exquisite in English poetry.

The Sick Rose

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

JS: The rose is the rose of love.

SK: And the worm is the worm of guilt.

JS: What do you love most about the poem?

SK: There are many things, including the way this very poignant song lingers on the breath like a sigh, with its own intrinsic music.

JS: I’m always taken aback by the urgency in the first line.

SK: It’s also there in his most famous poem, “The Tyger.”

The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes!
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

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

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger, Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

JS: There have been many interpretations of “The Tyger”—certainly as many interpretations of the poem as there are versions of it. It’s certainly a very haunting, mysterious poem about the mystery of creation. What is the poem’s primary glory?

SK: There are many versions of the poem. It was one that Blake worked on. He knew it was a central poem. And, yes, there are many interpretations, but somehow I think they all fail. The poem comes out of deep sources that cannot always be articulated. But without any doubt it is a poem—as you say—dealing with the whole mystery of creation, the awesome force, the principle of energy that gave us the cosmos in the beginning that still breathes within the human imagination. And that is one of the main glories of the poem.

JS: How would you briefly define the image of the tyger, for high school students?

SK: The tyger is an image of infinite power and dread not to be described as either good or evil.

JS: In the many versions of the poem, sometimes the tyger appears as an angel.

SK: Not exactly an angel. If you are referring to the illustrations that Blake drew for the poem—the ones that appear on the copper plates he engraved and then hand-colored afterwards—the tyger does take on different appearances because each copy of the poem is somewhat different from the others. There are a few copies in which the tyger looks like a tame pussycat. This might indicate a certain ambiguity in Blake’s mind as to how he wanted the tyger to be seen. But in almost all the illustrations, the tyger is, as you would expect, a fierce creature, a raging beast of sorts.

JS: It’s curious to note that Blake had several versions of the poem although he often claimed to have received his poems directly from God, or the voice of his dead brother.

SK: You don’t expect a poet to be absolutely consistent. It is true, however, that Blake firmly believed he received his poems from sources other than himself. He wrote: “I am under the direction of messengers from heaven, daily and nightly.” And in a letter he declared, “I have written this poem from immediate dictation, twelve sometimes thirty lines at a time without premeditation and even against my will.” He also said—and this is his classic statement on his understanding of the sources of his poetry—”I dare not pretend to be any other than the secretary, the authors are in eternity.”

JS: Blake maintained that he was writing as a vehicle of the divine spirit?

SK: At the same time that he accepted these gifts from heaven, he felt he couldn’t help but improve upon them. “The Tyger” is a good example of this.

JS: Have you seen the original drafts of the poem?

SK: Yes. It should be noted that Blake left his manuscripts in a terrible mess, a state of chaos. In fact, it was really impossible to read Blake, that is the whole compass of his work, until the twentieth century, when serious work was done in examining the manuscripts and selecting the final versions, or what seemed the final versions, and trying to arrange them in some sort of meaningful order. It was a heroic task.

JS: A poem whose imagery seems intimately connected with that of “The Tyger” is “A Divine Image”—

SK: You can see the connection immediately. The title itself is an ironic response to “The Tyger.” It’s one of the darkest poems Blake ever wrote.

A Divine Image

Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror, the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

The Human Dress is forged Iron,
The Human Form a fiery Forge,
The Human Face a Furnace seal’d,
The Human Heart its hungry Gorge.

JS: In this poem, and throughout Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake seems to speak to us through symbols.

SK: It is true that Blake lived by symbols and lived in a world of myth. At the same time, however, he believed that the discovery of symbols rests on clarity of perception, on looking at the world with the closest possible scrutiny. There is a wonderful passage in his prophetic work Jerusalem in which he says, “Labour well the minute particulars; attend to the Little Ones. . . . He would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer, for Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars.” I think that is an observation that every poet, every artist, and every scientist needs to pay attention to.

JS: That passage is one of the many illuminating parts from his long, prophetic works, some of which I find difficult to understand. What do you see as the importance of these long, ambitious works?

SK: His prophetic books are extraordinarily difficult poems, representing his late work. Even scholars who have gone over every word and syllable have had a hard time interpreting them. It has to be understood that when Blake wrote these he was not—and never would be—a recognized poet. In addition, you have to remember Blake was a revolutionary spirit, a rebel. In fact, he was arrested once for speaking against the King. So as an unrecognized, poor poet and rebel, he began to feel—and rightly so—at odds with the government, with King George. This feeling motivated his need to write symbolically, to cover his tracks. Remember, there were extradition laws that were very harsh, and there was no doubt that Blake was frightened at the thought of being jailed.

JS: So the difficulty we encounter in Blake’s prophetic works was in part his need to be secretive—to thwart those who might punish him for his views?

SK: He felt it necessary to invent a new mythology in order to be able to express his true feelings. It is part of the real difficulty of these poems. They have an elaborate architecture which is hard to grasp. And yet, Blake’s prophetic works contain some of his greatest utterances.

JS: Blake created a world of his own in these long works.

SK: It reminds me of a significant statement Blake made in Jerusalem: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” I think it explains a good deal about Blake’s motivations and spirit behind his work—that fierce, independent spirit that he translated into the very fabric of his poetry.

JS: While working on his prophetic books, Blake continued to write lyrics. What are some of your favorite lyric poems by Blake not printed in Songs of Innocence and of Experience?

SK: There are many—some have actually been extracted from longer poems but have been printed as separate pieces. A lyric that anyone who has ever felt out-of-step or out-of-tune with the world can appreciate is “Why Was I Born With a Different Face?” It’s actually one of those jottings that first appeared in his notebooks, obviously written in a rush and not intended for publication.

Why Was I Born With a Different Face?

O why was I born with a different face?
Why was I not born like the rest of my race?
When I look, each one starts! when I speak, I offend;
Then I’m silent and passive and lose every Friend.

Then my verse I dishonor, My pictures despise,
My person degrade and my temper chastise;
And the pen is my terror, the pencil my shame;
All my Talents I bury, and dead is my Fame.

I am either too low or too highly priz’d;
When Elate I am Envy’d When Meek I’m despis’d.

JS: What about the poem is most appealing to you?

SK: You can see Blake is feeling pretty sorry for himself, while at the same time he’s a bit self-mocking. The poem reveals a tender and vulnerable side of him.

JS: Another lyric you’ve often mentioned as a favorite of yours is “And Did Those Feet.”

SK: That lyric is actually from Blake’s epic work Milton. It’s a wonderful poem. It consolidates all the major themes of Blake. It represents what he stands for as a poet:

And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountain green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among those dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

JS: I’ve always found Blake’s prophetic voice most engaging in his “Auguries of Innocence.”

SK: In those verses Blake is trying to sum up his comprehension of the nature of the universe—so his voice would necessarily be prophetic in nature. In fact, “Auguries of Innocence” was one of the early poems of his that I read in my youth, and it has had a great influence on my own perspective of the world. Here are some of my favorite couplets:

To see a 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

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage

A dog starvd at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State

The Strongest Poison ever known
Came from Ceasars Laurel Crown

If the Sun & Moon should doubt
Theyd immediately Go out

I see all creation—and this stems in part from these couplets from Blake—as a single continuous web, all of whose single filaments are interconnected. If you touch the web at any point, certainly the whole web shudders. Everything that lives stands in connection with everything else on this planet. That is something Blake taught me.

JS: Would you say that that theme—of the marriage of opposites—is best developed in his epic satire The Marriage of Heaven and Hell?

SK: All of Blake’s work deals with this theme—but in different ways. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell—a foundation stone of Blake’s canon, a masterpiece—the concept of the marriage of contraries is fulfilled as a philosophical argument. In the beginning of the poem, in the section entitled “The Argument,” Blake makes his point very clear: “Without contraries there can be no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.”

JS: The poem seems unusually full of the senses.

SK: In order to see the whole world as he tried to see it in the poem, Blake felt it necessary to go back to the world of senses. He always begins with sensory experience. There is a sentence of Blake’s which makes this point: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” That’s a sentence that has lasted throughout history, certainly among the poets. What he is saying is open your eyes, open all your senses, become as a child again and you will see the world as it is—its infinite and eternal perspectives.

JS: Does the sentence you quoted come from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell?

SK: Yes, from a section in the poem called “Proverbs of Hell.” You have to remember that when he speaks of the proverbs of hell he means heaven, and when he speaks of heaven he means hell. It’s an attempt to reconcile the concept of heaven and hell, of good and evil. So these are actually heavenly proverbs. Here are some that are essential to the understanding of the poem:

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.

He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.

Eternity is in love with the productions of time.

No bird soars too high. if he soars with his own wings.

If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.

What is now proved was once, only imagin’d.

The cistern contains: the fountain overflows

Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.

The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

Expect poison from standing water.

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

Damn. braces: Bless relaxes.

Exuberance is Beauty.

Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement are roads of Genius.

JS: The proverbs remind me of your writings in the section “Seedcorn and Windfall” in your book Next To Last Things: New Poems.Here are some of my favorites:

Anyone who forsakes the child he was is already too old for poetry.

Be prepared for everything—even spontaneity.
We have all been expelled from the Garden, but the
ones who suffer the most in exile are those who
are still permitted to dream of perfection.

SK: Blake is a great model for anyone who wants to write aphoristically, and he has no rival in that sphere.

JS: When did you first discover Blake?

SK: I first read Blake as a teenager, beginning with Songs of Innocence and of Experience. I became addicted to him and read everything of his I could get my hands on.

JS: Wasn’t the title of your first book taken from a poem of Blake’s?

SK: Yes. When I was twenty-three years old and preparing my first book of poems, which was published in 1930 (when I was twenty-five), I gave it the title Intellectual Things. It’s a phrase I took from Blake, which reads: “the tear is an intellectual thing.” Nobody understood what I meant by it. They thought I was setting up the intellect, the mind, as superior to the body. Of course, that is exactly the opposite of what I intended and what Blake intended.

JS: Are there any poems from Intellectual Things which you feel have been particularly influenced by Blake?

SK: Yes, the poem “Single Vision.” Blake gave me the title. But in a rather willful way I changed its meaning. He used it to attack the rational basis of science, particularly that of Newton with his theory of optics. Blake said, “[M]ay God keep us from single vision and Newton’s sleep.” I used “single vision” in a different way. My reference is to that single-minded determination to look honestly at the world and to be what one wants to be.

Single Vision

Before I am completely shriven
I shall reject my inch of heaven.

Cancel my eyes, and, standing, sink
Into my deepest self; there drink

Memory down. The banner of
My blood, unfurled, will not be love,

Only the pity and the pride
Of it, pinned to my open side.

When I have utterly refined
The composition of my mind,

Shaped language of my marrow till
Its forms are instant to my will

Suffered the leaf of my heart to fall
Under the wind, and, stripping all

The tender blanket from my bone,
Rise like a skeleton in the sun,

I shall have risen to disown
The good mortality I won.

Directly risen with the stain
Of life upon my crested brain,

Which I shall shake against my ghost
To frighten him, when I am lost.

Gladly, as any poison, yield
My halved conscience, brightly peeled;

Infect him, since we live but once,
With the unused evil in my bones.

I’ll shed the tear of souls, the true
Sweat, Blake’s intellectual dew,

Before I am resigned to slip
A dusty finger on my lip.

SK: It’s a typical young man’s poem. It has a lot of bravura in it.

JS: It’s a powerful poem. Is there a poem from your later books which you feel has a particular affinity with Blake?

SK: “The Knot.” If you have any experience as a house painter you know that it is difficult to paint out a knot. I used to stare at these knots in wood. And it wasn’t too long after I had written the poem that I came across a letter of Blake’s in which he said he would stare at a knot in a piece of wood until it frightened him.

The Knot

I’ve tried to seal it in,
that cross-grained knot
on the opposite wall,
scored in the lintel of my door,
but it keeps bleeding through
into the world we share.
Mornings when I wake,
curled in my web,
I hear it come with a rush of resin
out of the trauma
of its lopping-off.
Obstinate bud,
sticky with life,
mad for the rain again,
it racks itself with shoots
that crackle overhead,
dividing as they grow.
Let be! Let be!
I shake my wings
and fly into its boughs.

JS: Stanley, above all, what matters most to you about William Blake?

SK: I suppose that above all what I learn from Blake is that the imagination is a portion of the divine principle, that energy is eternal delight, and that everything that lives is holy. I don’t think that human liberty and imagination have ever been better served than by William Blake, and that’s why I love him. Here’s what he says in Jerusalem, a passage I keep posted over my writing desk:

Trembling I sit day and night, my friends are astonish’d at me, Yet they forgive my wanderings. I rest not from my great task! To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought, into Eternity Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination. O Savior pour upon me thy Spirit of meekness and love! Annihilate the Selfhood in me; be thou all my life! Guide thou my hand, which trembles exceedingly upon the rock of ages, While I write . . .

_________________

* Blake’s poems cited from William Blake: The Complete Poems, Ostriker, Alicia, ed., New York: Penguin, 1977.

 

Jason Shinder’s second book of poems, Among Women, is forthcoming from Graywolf press in April 2001. His other books include several poetry anthologies, the annual series Best American Movie Writing, and, forthcoming in December 2000 from Harper Collins, Tales from the Couch: Writers on Therapy. He is on the faculty of graduate writing programs at Bennington College and the New School University. (2000)


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