Though both Goldsmith and Grey are well worth reading, they are not in the league of the other great poet of the 18th century, William Blake. His genius was unique. The intensity of his emotions is overpowering, but at the same time he subjects whatever he writes of to his shaping intelligence – even though it is not always analytical.
Some of his poetry, I should note, is incomprehensible, and not worth trying to understand either. This is when he moves into esoteric religious fervor, involving intense questioning of a deity he created for himself. A brief example of what he could produce in this mood is worth looking at, though there is no point in trying to analyse it
Earth was not: nor globes of attraction
The will of the Immortal expanded
Or contracted his all flexible senses.
Death was not, but eternal life sprung
The sound of a trumpet the heavens
Awoke & vast clouds of blood roll’d
Round the dim rocks of Urizen, so nam’d
That solitary one in Immensity
Blake was at his best when he wrote simply. Had he written nothing else, the Songs of Innocence and Experience would have secured him a place in the canon, with their vivid explorations of the nature of the vicious but wonderful world in which we live, and his subtle understanding of the problems of human interaction.
London is perhaps the most succinct social critique we find in all poetry
I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:
How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.
But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.
In 16 lines, Blake covers religion and work and power and sex and imbues all of this with enormous sympathy for the vulnerable. Conversely A Poison Tree is about the inner man, a startling account of the consequences of allowing wounds to fester
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears
Night and morning with my tears,
And I sunnèd it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright,
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,—
And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning, glad, I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
Another startling use of nature occurs in Ah, Sunflower, with its rather sad summation of human experience
Ah, sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun;
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sunflower wishes to go!
All these poems are Songs of Experience, but Songs of Innocence have their dark side, as in The Chimney Sweeper –
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘Weep! weep! weep! weep!’
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved; so I said,
‘Hush, Tom! never mind it, for, when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’
And so he was quiet, and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight!—
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.
And by came an angel, who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins, and set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing, they run
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.
Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind:
And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.
And so Tom awoke, and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm:
So, if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
Blake’s bleak vision of life comes out too in his love poetry, or rather his poetry about the loss of innocence through love.
Never seek to tell thy love
Love that never told can be;
For the gentle wind does move
I told my love, I told my love,
I told her all my heart,
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears–
Ah, she doth depart.
Soon as she was gone from me
A traveller came by
O, was no deny.
What seems a passing reference to life ending with the end of love becomes more explicit in another wryly titled Song
My silks and fine array,
My smiles and languish’d air,
By love are driv’n away;
And mournful lean Despair
Brings me yew to deck my grave:
Such end true lovers have.
His face is fair as heav’n,
When springing buds unfold;
O why to him was’t giv’n,
Whose heart is wintry cold?
His breast is love’s all worship’d tomb,
Where all love’s pilgrims come.
Bring me an axe and spade,
Bring me a winding sheet;
When I my grave have made,
Let winds and tempests beat:
Then down I’ll lie, as cold as clay.
True love doth pass away!
while Love’s Prisoner, with its reference to the Prince of Love, could be seen as a critique of the limitations religion entails, as love does
How sweet I roam’d from field to field,
And tasted all the summer’s pride,
‘Till I the prince of love beheld,
Who in the sunny beams did glide!
He shew’d me lilies for my hair,
And blushing roses for my brow;
He led me through his gardens fair,
Where all his golden pleasures grow.
With sweet May dews my wings were wet,
And Phoebus fir’d my vocal rage;
He caught me in his silken net,
And shut me in his golden cage.
He loves to sit and hear me sing,
Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;
Then stretches out my golden wing,
And mocks my loss of liberty.
Yet even as Blake registered life’s regrettable aspects, he could also celebrate the wonder of creation. His most famous poem, The Tiger, is awesome in the original meaningful sense of the word before it became common slang for anything out of the ordinary –
Tiger, tiger, 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 and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And, when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and 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 watered heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Blake asserts a similar grandeur in the preface to his poem on Milton, where he creates a new ideal of Christian simplicity in opposition to what he sees as the destruction wrought by the Industrial Revolution
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these 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 England’s green & pleasant Land
This all-encompassing vision led Blake to an equilibrium that is a more comprehensive expression of his world view than the mournful critiques of his better known poems. Ideas of Good and Evil has several memorable lines that suggest his range of feeling
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 dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.
I will conclude with a little known poem that seems to me to express both his melancholia and the comforts he could turn to in mitigation
Memory, hither come,
And tune your merry notes;
And, while upon the wind,
Your music floats,
I’ll pore upon the stream,
Where sighing lovers dream,
And fish for fancies as they pass
Within the watery glass.
I’ll drink of the clear stream,
And hear the linnet’s song;
And there I’ll lie and dream
The day along:
And, when night comes, I’ll go
To places fit for woe,
Walking along the darken’d valley,
With silent Melancholy.
Ceylon Today 15 Feb 2015 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-84833-news-detail-william-blake.html