Category Archives: Blake, William

Baffled for just a day or two

God Judging Adam, 1795, William Blake
Background Image: God Judging Adam, 1795, William Blake

The line “An unexpected Maid” made me think she was writing from Adam’s point of view waking up and discovering Eve in “my garden”. And when she “beckons” him it’s the image of her telling him to come to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and when she “nods” it’s her telling him it’s ok to eat the fruit. I love how she says the “woods start” – you can almost feel he trees and creatures gasp as these humans are about to eat the fruit.

The last two lines are him still “baffled” for not remembering Eden and these lines work as a sort of couplet (as in a sonnet which is supposed to ‘resolve’ the poem) but here instead of a resolution it’s the transformation from child of Eden to mortal man who can possess all knowledge of good and evil yet still be”baffled” because he no longer has that intimate connection to the divine and has forgotten (how to find) Eden. The use of “baffled” also follows the previous poem’s use of “bewildered” in another biblical story from Genesis. Is she struggling with coming to some sort of understanding with the nature of faith and love?

She’s dealt with a similar theme three poems ago in “I keep my pledge” where she equates a distance from coming home to God with being still a part of the natural world of the “Rose”, “Bee”, “Daisy”, “hillside”, “Bobolink”, and “Blossom” and thus with death not coming it’s a Eden since death did not exist before the fall. And so “such a country” that she (or Adam) is “surely” a place they were “never in” (as in forgetting which also recalls the river Lethe from “Lethe” in my flower) is that place where humanity can never go back to until death comes with it’s “simple gravity“.

I might need to start looking at each of her fascicles as part of a larger work of interconnected poems and images.

We lose – because we win

The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ's Garments, 1800, William Blake
Background Image: The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ’s Garments, 1800, William Blake

Assuming the story of the Roman soldiers casting lots for Christ’s garnets is true, while Jesus died on the cross for humanity’s sins, humanity remained engaged in sinful activity right at his feet. And what of the soldier who did win the garments? Did he really win anything of value or did he give up his salvation for a good roll of the dice with his friends?

Emily is saying that when we win at sin, we lose at everything else. We are like gamblers who are addicted to winning whatever we can here in this world while remaining ignorant of the gifts being given to us from the next life.

What stands out the most in this poem is her use of the word “recollecting”. She is playing on the idea of “collecting” a debt won while gambling, but she ties it together with memory, as in “recollecting” a thought or idea as well as “recollecting” one’s composure. This is a very unusual connection to make and it does not seem obvious at first what she is attempting to do, but I believe she is playing with the idea of how easily we can forget what game we should be winning at and so we slip back into comfortable / bad habits and thus “we lose” because we forgot what is most important.

Yet she is also expressing the problem with being human and that we are incapable of, from the Christian point of view, to be free of vice and sin. We will always struggle and gamble and lose, but we keep playing the game. From this point of view, it is a testament to our perseverance that we keep playing even though we keep losing. We know the game is rigged – we’re all going to die one day – yet we keep rolling the dice and going on about our day as if the game will never end. There is a sort of simple and idiotic simplicity to this which is, in a way, endearing about human nature.

Formal Differences in “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”

The formal differences between Blake’s “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” highlight the poet’s conflicting ideas concerning the dual nature of a creator. In both poems Blake uses rhymed couplets which suggests an overall order being imposed upon nature by a creator/artist, however, the assonance of the end rhymes in “The Lamb”, such as “thee” and “mead” (long e), “lamb” (long a), and “child” (long i), contrast in tonality with the harsher consonant end rhymes of “night” (short i, sharp t), “beat” (short e, sharp t), and “grasp” (short a, sharp p), found in “The Tyger”. The softer, soothing vowels of the former poem evoke a sense of comfort and reassurance which is also representative in the structure of the individual stanzas. While “The Lamb” has only two stanzas with indentations highlighting the comforting repetitions of “Little Lamb …”, in contrast, “The Tyger” uses violent, warlike vocabulary and is fragmented consisting of 6 stanzas whose only repetition is found in the lines “What immortal hand or eye / Could [Dare] frame thy fearful symmetry,” which creates an overwhelming sense of discomfort. Blake has also structured both poems to act as a sort of dialectic, however unlike “The Lamb” which has an answer for the question of “who made thee”, “The Tyger” offers no such reassurance, the question is left unanswered and the poem concludes with a question mark. While both poems ask similar questions about the nature of a creator, Blake reveals a complicated relationship he may have had with this creator, one in which the creator can both be “mild” but who can also “twist the sinews of thy heart”.

The Garden of Love

What drew me to this poem was not only the pervasiveness of melancholy, “Where I used to play on the green,” but also how it is fraught with frustrated desire, “And Thou shalt not writ over the door.” I found it impossible not to wonder what Blake must have been thinking when he wrote this. Had he suffered a great loss, “And I saw it was filled with graves,” was he doubting the empathy of the clergy, “Priests … binding with briars,” or perhaps he longed for his youth when he “used to play”? Perhaps he mourns the death of a friend, the scorn of a lover, the inevitable creeping of his own mortality, or perhaps even sexual frustration?

Religious imagery is a dominant motif in the poem, such as the allusion to the Garden of Eden in “the Garden of Love,” or to Jesus’ crown of thorns seen with the “briars,” and to mortality and mourning through the imagery of the “tombs” and “black gowns.” As we have learned, Blake was highly spiritual while also remaining critical of the institution of religion, and perhaps this is his attempt to address the church’s oppressiveness? In the first stanza, “A Chapel” he “never had seen” before has been built where he “used to play” perhaps suggesting that his carefree days of youth and freedom (perhaps alluding to Adam and Eve) have been replaced with a rigid, imposing, and uninvited structure. And instead of this “play” he is now locked out, “the gates of this Chapel were shut,” from those activities. In fact it seems he’s being explicitly commanded not to play, “Thou shalt not” being written much like one of Moses’ commandment tablets. Is he angry with the church, or with growing older, or is he frustrated that for whatever reason he first decided to go to “the Garden of Love” has now turned into a sad, oppressive occasion?

I also find it interesting how he uses the line break between the second and third stanza to transform the image of “so many sweet flowers” into “graves / And tomb-stones.” Is he suggesting a passage of time over which beautiful things (the flowers) wither and die? Or is the blank space between the stanzas representative of the freedom he once enjoyed “on the green” but that now sees a “Chapel” commanding that open space? Is he suggesting that where there is freedom an oppressive institution inevitably commandeers this space for its own purposes?

In the third stanza I identified with his image of the “briars” combining (“binding”) with his “joys & desires.” I wonder if he is feeling the pull of earthly (even base) desire struggling against the opposing force of what society proclaims is acceptable? The garden not only has a chapel “in the midst” but there are also present “Priests in black gowns” suggesting that he must share this once free space with a community who judge him. After all, Jesus was judged by the Romans and forced to wear a crown of thorns (“briars”), so perhaps Blake, too feels a similar oppressive judgment demanding he conform to what is socially acceptable by locking up his “desires” and want of “play”?

And so, is the whole poem alluding to his desire for a sexual freedom being at odds with the sacrament of marriage in the eyes of the church? After all, he does not say a church or cathedral has been built in the “Garden of Love,” rather it’s a “Chapel”, a term often associated with the location a couple would be married in. The flower, too is often symbolic of the woman’s sexuality, so perhaps Blake’s “play” was akin to the modern expression of “playing the field” before marriage, and that this poem is his expression of sadness that the freedom of sexual expression must be “shut” behind the rules of society and the church? Perhaps he’s saying there is nothing inherently wrong with sexuality and the enjoyment of sexuality, that there is life in sexual freedom – life is dependent on sex, after all – and to deny sexuality, to build institutions and rules around such beautiful freedom actually invites death?