William Blake, Blake’s Poetry and Designs

Blake's Poetry and DesignsBlake’s Poetry and Designs by William Blake

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

William Blake is several different poets to several different kinds of reader. To popular culture, or perhaps popular counterculture, he is an inspiration as outcast and dissident, visionary self-publisher and spiritual and political radical, the forerunner of Ginsberg and the Beats and Patti Smith and rock and roll, the engraver of picture-poetry epics that make him the patron saint of the graphic novel, who moved Alan Moore to proclaim, “It’s not enough to study or revere him, only be him.”

Then there is modernism’s Blake, the Blake of Yeats and Joyce, modernity’s first impossible-to-read avant-grade writer, the deviser of a private myth in his prophetic books, especially the epics Milton and Jerusalem, about which the editors of this Norton Critical Edition say, “most of the plot is almost impossible to follow,” and “long stretches of the poem offer scarcely any readerly amenities,” respectively.

Finally, there is the rumored common reader of poetry, for whom Blake is the author of those anthology staples, the delicate lyrics of Songs of Innocence and Experience and the startlingly modern aphorisms of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; for this last reader, the complexities of the early poetry remain unfathomable because they are so simple, while the labyrinth of the prophetic books is merely complicated rather than complex and therefore justifiably ignored, like Joyce’s first three novels vis-à-vis Finnegans Wake (itself obviously modeled on Blake’s Jerusalem, the dream of a sleeping giant who is also a city).

The minimalist Blake of Songs is no less a proto-modern than the author of the prophetic books. These compressed lyrics, dramatizing “Two Contrary States of the Human Soul,” look forward in their provocative simplicity to Emily Dickinson and the Imagists and our own Louise Glück. A poem like “Infant Joy” both demands and frustrates commentary:

I have no name
I am but two days old—
What shall I call thee?
I happy am,
Joy is my name,—
Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!
Sweet joy, but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee:
Thou dost smile.
I sing the while
Sweet joy befall thee!

Are there one or two voices here? Who is saying what to whom? Why the ominous “befall” in reference to joy? Blake often criticizes innocence’s naïveté as much as he does experience’s cynical despair; “The Little Black Boy,” with its implicit paternalist racism, not Blake’s but that of his satirical target behind the poem, is an obvious political example. If anything, the Songs of Experience can be less thoughtful, as in the rather obvious nihilism of “Infant Sorrow”: “My mother groaned, my father wept: / Into the dangerous world I leapt,” etc.

But the famous “Tiger” (of “fearful symmetry” fame) and the dystopic “London” (with its “mind-forg’d manacles”) and the obscurely frightening, erotic, and somehow grotesque “Sick Rose” indicate the depths of experience. And as every critic admonishes, the text should not merely be read but viewed, since for the innovative engraver Blake text and image were one artistic whole.


The Songs hint at the coming religious didacticism of the prophetic books, especially in the paired poems “The Divine Image” and “The Human Abstract.” The innocent “Image” shows the beauty of the incarnated virtues, since for Blake only the human imagination is real, and only its shaping, holistic vision can create moral realities:

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

The experiential “Abstract,” by contrast, exemplifies the scientific nihilism—“Single vision & Newton’s sleep,” as he calls it elsewhere—Blake almost obsessively attributes to his Enlightenment enemies (not only Newton but also Bacon, Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau):

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

And mutual fear brings Peace,
Till the selfish loves increase;
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

The didacticism that will later intrude as Blake passes from poet to prophet doesn’t harry us through the Songs, however, which usually solicit our free emotional response as we judge innocence and experience by our own inclinations. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which ends with Blake’s promise to give us “the Bible of Hell, which the world shall have whether they will or no,” also allows room for readerly responsiveness, despite its startlingly futuristic appearance as a modern manifesto, a cascade of aphorisms and parables so quotable you’ve been hearing some of them all your life without knowing their source.

Blake, with an epigrammatic compression comparable to Wilde’s, anticipates Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud as he overturns conventional morality, denounces repression, insists on conflict and contradiction, and transvalues Christian values. A non-consecutive sampler:

Without contraries is no progression.

Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling.

Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion.

The nakedness of woman is the work of God.

What is now proved was once only imagined.

Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth.

One law for the lion and ox is Oppression.

His epic ambition, later richly fulfilled, to re-write Milton’s Paradise Lost is first stated here:

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.

Blake’s gnostic insight is that Milton’s God—the God of the Christians and the Jews—might better be regarded as the devil, since He insists on the suppression of energy and desire, even though “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul.” The briefer prophetic books or gnostic gospels surrounding and subsequent to Heaven and Hell begin to develop Blake’s private mythology. They are a transit or way-station between the early poetry and the later prophecy, as they dramatize Blake’s fictional figures in intelligible moral dilemmas that contain lyric interest and feeling. They also show Blake at his most politically radical, ambivalently praising the necessary—or in any case inevitable—violence of the American and French Revolutions, even as he knows a spiritual transfiguration must succeed the mere physical “strife of blood.”

Visions of the Daughters of Albion shows how these political ideas might also be personal ones. The Wollstonecraft-influenced poet stages the aftermath of a mythical rape, whose victim, Oothoon, denounces the Enlightenment’s rationalist tyranny, which reduces humanity to nothing more than the five senses and the material world. She pronounces instead a utopian counter-gospel, in energetic free verse that will later echo in the ecstatic chants of Whitman and Ginsberg:

They told me that the night & day were all that I could see;
They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up.
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red round globe hot burning
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased.


…the youth shut up from
The lustful joy shall forget to generate, & create an amorous image
In the shadows of his curtains and in the folds of his silent pillow.
Are not these the places of religion? the rewards of continence!
The self enjoyings of self denial?


I cry, Love! Love! Love! happy happy Love! free as the mountain wind!


Arise and drink your bliss, for every thing that lives is holy!

The Book of Urizen, by contrast, is less a political parable than a gnostic myth equating the creation with the fall. Blake’s Urizen—his name a pun on “reason” among other things—is his version of the “god of this world,” a mere geometer who falls into matter from the once and future wholeness. His fall separates male from female, reason from imagination, and in all other ways inaugurates our limited world of the senses. This myth leads into Blake’s vast epics Milton and Jerusalem, apocalyptic gospels about the redemption of man. The preface to Milton shows how Blake’s ambition now fully exceeds poetry—a merely aesthetic pagan revel derived from the degenerate Greeks and Romans—to encompass Biblical prophecy, a calling on the nation to regenerate itself:

The Stolen and Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid, of Plato & Cicero, which all Men ought to contemn, are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible: but when the New Age is at leisure to Pronounce, all will be set right & those Grand Works of the more ancient & consciously & professedly Inspired Men will hold their proper rank & the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration. Shakspeare & Milton were both curb’d by the general malady & infection from the silly Greek & Latin slaves of the Sword.

Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against lo the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call. Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fashionable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman Models if we are but just & true to our own Imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live for ever, in Jesus Our Lord.

In Blake’s epic, the eponymous Milton recants his own epic’s piety as well as his spiteful private behavior toward his wives and daughters; he returns to earth by literally entering Blake to herald the new age. Meanwhile, his spiritual enemies invent the Enlightenment (“this Newtonian Phantasm…This Natural Religion; this impossible absurdity”) to replace conventional Christianity as repressive force. Milton’s culminating speech is among the sublimest poetry in Blake:

To bathe in the Waters of Life; to wash off the Not Human,
I come in Self-annihilation & the grandeur of Inspiration;
To cast off Rational Demonstration by Faith in the Saviour
To cast off the rotten rags of Memory by Inspiration,
To cast off Bacon, Locke & Newton from Albion’s covering
To take off his filthy garments & clothe him with Imagination,
To cast aside from Poetry, all that is not Inspiration
That it no longer shall dare to mock with the aspersion of Madness…

As for Jerusalem, double the length of Milton, it narrates the awakening of Albion, Blake’s personified England, to an Edenic spiritual reality that will rejoin humanity with the godly oneness in Christ from which we’ve fallen. But “narrates” is the wrong word for both poems, since they do not quite take place in time but rather in eternity. In Blake’s “mental war,” the personae are variations on one another (since we all began and will end as one man), and all the events allegorical.

Line after line after line falls as an incomprehensible blizzard of uninterpretable, unpronounceable pseudo-Hebrew names, the names of Blake’s invented allegorical characters and places, none of whose nature or role is ever fully explained: Tirzah, Rahab, Los, Enitharmon, Golgonooza, and more, not to mention a persistent and extremely enervating numerological idiom. Washing off the not-human—by inhabiting a world completely made over in Blake’s image rather than comprised of anything the odious Greeks or Romans might have called “nature”—throws us into a completely unrecognizable and rather alienating cosmos.

I grant that Blake’s overlay of the Biblical landscape onto his own late-18th-century London is a beautiful gesture, looking back to Dante’s projection of Florence into eternity and forward to Joyce’s Homeric Dublin; it lends an occasional autobiographical poignance to the inscrutable proceedings. Likewise, there is an implicit counter-history in the prophetic books, nerve-wrackingly fascinating in the manner of online conspiracy-theory videos, according to which the ancient Hebrews and the ancient Druids were one, a chosen people who fell to human sacrifice and therefore require redemption. This imaginary geography justifies the equation of Jerusalem and London, here called Golgonooza, the city of art and science.

But Blake’s exclamation early in Jerusalem, “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s,” completes the questionable transit from poet to prophet. More patient minds than mine—Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom—have fully mapped out Blake’s system in the prophetic books. In “Blake’s Treatment of the Archetype,” collected in the Norton Critical Edition, Frye explains that, because of “an overwhelming impulse to tell the whole poetic truth about what he saw,” Blake “was not allowed the double talk of the sophisticated poet, who can address several levels of readers at once by using familiar conceptions ambiguously.”

What Frye stigmatizes as “double talk” is otherwise known as the open-ended use of imagery and symbolism, the resonant depiction of common reality or common myth, a practice enjoyed by poets from Shakespeare to Wordsworth to Keats to Dickinson to Stevens to Bishop to Heaney to Walcott—in fact the main tradition of English-language poetry, bypassed only by such Dante-descended determined allegorists as Blake and Yeats. Blake’s is “a poetry which consisted almost entirely in the articulation of archetypes,” Frye continue, which is to say not poetry at all, but rather philosophy, psychology, literary theory.


In a cruel paradox illustrating the occult identity of opposites, Blake’s visionary poetry is so densely schematic that it fails even to be engaging prose. The radical who complained of the “charter’d Thames” in “London” requires all manner of charts and graphs even to begin to enjoy his largest works.

Later critics in this Norton Edition try to bring Blake back down to earth by recalling the actual experience of reading his poetry. In “Dangerous Blake,” W. J. T. Mitchell wishes to rescue the poet from Frye’s schematism and offer him instead as a fractious candidate for deconstruction as a Foucauldian madman; he emphasizes, therefore, “the solipsistic absorption in the silent, solitary obsession with ‘Writing’ for no audience but oneself” and reminds us “that religious justification of Blake’s strange and difficult art is not the same thing as an aesthetic justification. To demonstrate that Blake is a great prophet is not equivalent to showing that he is a first-rate English poet.”

Alicia Ostriker’s feminist analysis in “Desire Gratified and Ungratified: William Blake and Sexuality” pays tribute to the poet’s obscure numerology favoring the quaternity over the trinity. She enumerates “four Blakes” with respect to gender and sexuality:

First, the Blake who celebrates sexuality and attacks repression, whom we may associate with Freud and even more with Reich. Second, a corollary Blake whom we may associate with Jung, whose idea of the emanation—the feminine element within man—parallels Jung’s concept of the anima, and who depicts sexual life as a complex web of gender complementarities and interdependencies. Third, a Blake apparently inconsistent with Blake number one, who sees sexuality as a tender trap rather than a force of liberation. Fourth, and corollary to that, the Blake to whom it was necessary, as it was to his patriarch precursor Milton, to see the female principle as subordinate to the male.

This declension mimics Blake’s fall from broad lyric poet to narrow and sectarian prophet, and echoes, too, the gradual draining of concrete detail and comprehensible emotion from his work as his creed against nature hardens and a severe dualism replaces his earlier monism. “General Forms have their vitality in Particulars,” he writes near the end of Jerusalem, but his particulars are abstract idiosyncrasies, not the aesthetically transformed details of the world or the stories we know, as we tend to expect from poetry, however original. Best of all in this vein, V. A. De Luca’s essay “A Wall of Words: The Sublime as Text” provides an accurate phenomenology of the reader’s experience in confronting the unreadable Jerusalem:

Suddenly, at the turn of a page, row upon row of verses piled high strike the reader’s eye, each row composed of discrete horizontal slabs of letters, like so many bricks. The text presents itself, in short, as a solid wall of words over which the eye slips, unable to find fastening. A second glance discriminates bristling ranks of capital letters, verse without syntax, nouns without predication, names without context (“Levi. Middlesex Kent Surrey. Judah Somerset Glouster Wiltshire. / Dan. Cornwal Devon Dorset, Naphtali” [J 16.45-46]). At the very start, then, the reader feels fatigue, a vertigo, and even though he may proceed through the text word by word, his ordinary, or corporeal understanding, never succeeds in comprehending or retaining the whole. The reader experiences something like Kant’s sublime of magnitude, “for there is here a feeling of the inadequacy his Imagination [a purely sense-related capacity in Kant] for presenting the Idea of a Whole, wherein the Imagination reaches its maximum, and in striving to surpass it, sinks back into itself.” Frequently in Jerusalem, the alternative for the Corporeal Understanding to the text as spatial barrier is the text as linear labyrinth, which leads the imagination, after much travail, back to the cold and obdurate exterior of the universe.

Reading Milton and especially Jerusalem reminds me of Blake’s own Experience lament, “The Garden of Love,” where “priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars my joys and desires”—in this case my desire for a less obscure drama and for a poetry of what Blake himself ironically extols as “Minute Particulars” rather than the endless catalogues of neologistic abstractions he actually produces in his titanic, acid-reeking, copper-scented engraver’s workshop. (In fairness, Blake’s power as a visual artist only gets stronger and stronger as he goes; he gives us ambiguously immense images for a modern Bible that posterity has indeed interpreted without reference to their confusing poetic glosses.)


His aim, stated in a letter: “Allegory addressed to the Intellectual powers while it is altogether hidden from the Corporeal Understanding is My Definition of the Most Sublime Poetry.” The poet who began by insisting that the body and the soul are indivisible in a generous celebration of human desire becomes a punitive prophet mortifying the flesh. There is an undeniable hostility in this non-communicative use of language that vitiates its claim to a universal vision of human emancipation.

Blake’s career foreruns the modern revolutionary’s in general, from open-hearted reformer to dictatorial dogmatist. I can’t in the end assent to Blake’s procedure in the prophetic epics. I can’t recommend the long poems to anyone not looking for a new religion or a lifetime’s puzzle. And considering the different sensibilities Blake attracts, I can’t even censure the fabled common reader’s customary habit of reading the Songs of Innocence and Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and then going no further in Blake’s oeuvre—no further, that is, than the garden where some of the greatest English poetry may most reliably be found.