William Blake: a Visionary.
No poet of all the poets we will explore was quite as enigmatic, visionary and, well, far-out as William Blake. Although he ranks as one of the most important and influential of all romantic poets, he had very little (if any) contact with romantic poetry or philosophy. In fact, from a very early age, Blake felt that he had a “Divine Vision,” a spiritual calling which meant for him a life of isolation in which to pursue poetry and art. Throughout most of his life, his brilliant poetry and illustrations gained little, if any, public recognition, and he lived in loneliness and abject poverty. He is, in many respects, one of the first British individuals to choose writing and art as a profession, and, therefore, one of the first stereotypical “starving artists,” someone who sacrifices a social and material life for the sequestered life of creation.
Blake’s Creation of a Romantic Christian Epic.
Particularly in his later career, Blake’s poetry grows in tremendous length as he creates phantasmagorical epics in which he creates a byzantine and fantastic world that allegorizes Christianity, creating poetic narratives out of the Fall of Man, the Passion story, the struggle between good and evil. He follows in the shadow of his precursor, John Milton and Paradise Lost, the one great British Christian epic poem that you will have to suffer through some day if you are an English major. Blake, however, suffuses the Christian narrative with his own wild, visionary, allegorical and, quite often, bizarre poetry.
Blake as an Artist.
As you can see by my inclusion of some of his illustrations, no less important than his poetry was Blake’s art. In fact, the illustrations and prints that he created for all of his volumes of poetry are as influential on romanticism (if not more so) than his poetry itself. He created wild, swirling illustrations of angels, devils, scenes from the Bible and brilliantly colorful prints showing scenes form his own poems. These are truly incredible pieces of art. Blake’s poetry is meant to be read with their accompanying illustrations. Thankfully, your anthology includes a few of the illustrations along with the poems.
Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.
The short poems you have read are from his two collections of poems, The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience. Both books are companion pieces. Blake writes the poems in the former from the point of view of childlike innocense, and generally represent both a perspective that has not gained knowledge and experience concerning evil, i.e., poems that derive from experience before the Fall of Man and Original Sin. Blake writes poems in the latter from the point of view of adult experience in the world, or, more aptly, adulterated experience, the perspective from human experience with sin, i.e, poems that represent experience after the Fall of Man and when sin becomes wrapped up in life.
Generally, each poem in each collection has its analog in its opposite. In other words, a poem from the Songs of Innocense has its companion poem in the Songs of Experience. The most clear and famous example of this poetic dichotamy is “The Lamb” from Innocense, and “The Tyger” from Experience. Read the two side by side. Notice how the first mirrors a sort of nursery-rhyme voice of a child (of course, really, an adult creating the world as it might be seen by the child). “The Lamb” explores the Christian mystery of God’s unconditional love evidenced through Christ with complete and simple closure. All of the poems questions in stanza one are answered with Christian but child-like affirmation in the second stanza. “The Tyger,” from Experience, however, is a comparatively dark and terrifying experience. In contrast to the innocent cuddliness of the Lamb, and the sweet question-answer between the child and the lamb, the Tyger depicts a fiery, powerful and dangerous creature. Notice the evident imagery of fire, darkness and hell. Importantly, whereas “The Lamb” answers all of the questions posed, “The Tyger” consists entirely of unanswered questions. Of course, a majority of the theological questions posed in the poem do not have answers.
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