Category Archives: Blake, William

He put the Belt around my life

Dante and Virgil before the Angelic Guardian of the Gate of Purgatory, 1820s, William Blake
Background Image: Dante and Virgil before the Angelic Guardian of the Gate of Purgatory, 1820s, William Blake

The opening image of this poem is hard not to read in the 21st century as it being almost violent, as if the gift God has given her (to write poetry) isn’t just a simple “Belt” she wears, but is almost a form of oppression. She equates “He” with royalty and power and she wears that same belt they do and so she is both victim of oppression and a practitioner, too.

John Ruskin writes in On Modern Landscapes about how modern art, unlike medieval art, focuses on “things which momentarily change or fade” (V3, Ch16), such as how modern artists depict clouds in great detail, unlike the medieval artists whose art depicted a world of “stability, definiteness, and luminousness”. Much attention is paid to “the service of the clouds” and thus modern artists are quite unlike Aristophanes who saw clouds as “great goddesses to idle men” and “that they are mistresses of disputings, and logic, and monstrosities, and noisy chattering”.

What Ruskin (perhaps inadvertently) illuminates is an embedded sexism. Aristophanes describes clouds as female and employs the tired tropes of women who argue, lack the capacity for logic, gossip, and turn men idle. Ruskin also seems concerned with our modern penchant for “speaking ingeniously concerning smoke” and that we are preoccupied with our “ignorance respecting all stable facts”. And so what Emily is doing in this poem is addressing these issues by taking them head on.

Emily has been accepted (in this poem) as “A Member of the Cloud”, she sees herself as part of that great tradition of artists and perhaps even philosophers who try to understand and appreciate the fleeting beauty of life. Yet she is also beholden to the powers that be – men – and nobody is more male than God, but she is also referring, perhaps, to the publishing world which in her time was overwhelmingly male. And so she exists in a weird transition phase in which she is modern in her desire to consider the clouds, but also attached to the old, medieval worldview of rendering all things in exactness because God is stable and therefore so must the universe and all of human experience be stable (somehow) too.

In Emily’s time she was expected to “do the little Toils” which were considered ‘woman’s work’, a life of domestic servitude in which the best a woman could hope for was to get married, something she explores in “I’m “wife” – I’ve finished that“. Yet Emily has been gifted the talent to create art, to contemplate the clouds and see in the most fleeting and insignificant corners of the universe the forms of beauty. And she doesn’t want to be stuck having to perform “little Toils” because, like a member of royalty, she’s better than that, unlike those of the rest of us “That make the Circuit of the Rest” (of us commoners). Our days may be dull, but her’s are filled with a beauty only she can see in the clouds while we still hold onto the medieval thinking in which the clouds are just the road to idleness.

Thus Emily is not content to “deal occasional smiles” like a good girl who is expected to do the housework for a man, she “must decline” the authority of the stable world and live for the clouds because God himself has accepted her into the ranks. Though the irony that only God (a man) could grant this to her is probably not lost on her either.

The Poets light but Lamps

Newton, 1795, William Blake
Background Image: Newton, 1795, William Blake

Emily is talking about how “The Poets” even after they have died continue to illuminate the world through the “Suns” (and there’s a son’s pun in here too) of their art. However, the word “Wicks” as defined as “a corner of the mouth or eye” (OED) implies the phenomena of averted vision which is when you have to slightly look away from a star to actually see it (“The Poet’s influence) better.

In “We grow accustomed to the Dark” Emily gives us the image of the neighbor who, after saying good bye to us, extinguishes their lamp and thus we are left to stand out on the street in darkness where we will need to find our own way and travel by our own light, we must “fit our vision for the Dark”. This is what Emily is telling us her profession is, she is like the neighbor who holds the lamp and greets us in the night and who inspires us to continue on in the darkness to the next poet’s lodge in some vast wilderness.

The first line of the poem is both humble and speaks to the mortality of the poet. She describes “The Poets” as mere lamps whose flame will eventually “go out”. “The Poets” are instruments whose function is to cast “vital Light” and thus it is this “vital Light” which is important, not “The Poets” themselves, it was what “The Poets” illuminate which inspires and lights the way. If life were a vast wilderness, then “The Poets” are the residents of that landscape who guide us on our way towards dawn.

Yet though “The Poets” are only “but Lamps” who cast light into the darkness, they also amplify this “Light”, they are a “Lens” that disseminates the “circumference” of the smallest wick of light which allows those of us who are unable to see the light otherwise. “The Poets”, like the great scientists, such as Newton, capture some essence of truth and beauty and amplify it so that the rest of us can see it too. It’s not that “The Poets” invented beauty or the scientist invented gravity for they were there all along, but “The Poets” and the scientist give voice and language to these things, they cast light on what was already there but had been hidden in the wilderness. And once the light has been cast, “Each Age” of sons (and daughters) afterwards will be able to carry this light to each successive age, like a pilgrim carrying a horn of light through the darkest of winter storms so that they will be able to make camp at the next lodge.

Thus the poet sees the universe with inverted vision, they can see the light that escapes us because we only look directly at it, but “The Poets” are able to look slant, to look a little to the side to see the truth hiding in the halo of a distant star. “The Poets” then report back to us and give us the tools we need to see as they have.

What I see not, I better see

Beatrice Addressing Dante, 1824, William Blake
Background Image: Beatrice Addressing Dante, 1824, William Blake

Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 43, “When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see”. In his sonnet he describes the paradox of how when our eyes are closed (wink means to dream) that we see best in our dreams, that when it is dark it is actually most light and that in the light is when we can clearly see the absence of what we love. Emily agrees with Bill on this paradox, perhaps because no matter how well a poem can be written it can’t really do justice to the subject of the poem.

Emily begins by playing with the words “I” and ” Eye” and then makes a connection to the “Faith” which is something that can only truly occur when one cannot see; faith occurs in the absence of physical light (evidence) because it is its own source of light that can see past the darkness to reveal a greater truth. And to do so one must see with a different set of eyes, which Emily refers to as “My Hazel Eye” but not because her actual eyes were “Hazel” but because her “I” is “Hazel”, the “I” she truly sees with because the “I” has “Faith”.

However, I don’t believe she is limiting “Faith” to just a religious definition; she does not mention God or angles, rather she seems to be writing about the absolute form of “Grace”, not just any particular God’s “Grace” but pure “Grace”, the fullest expression of a benevolence that does not judge but rather grants an absolute salvation for anyone willing to accept it. And this “Grace” is, unlike the sun in “There came a Day – at Summer’s full” a light that can only be seen with “My Hazel Eye”, that “Eye” of the “I” which can “behold” the world which no physical light can illuminate.

For example, she writes that “my sense [is] obscured” when she is awake rather than when she is asleep during “periods of shutting” when the true “light” falls on “The Features so beloved”. She is saying that our senses are not capable of truly seeing the forms – such as the form of “Grace” – but that in our dreams we can comprehend them. Though she is asleep “in my Dream” she will “arise” which is a wonderful image and paradox of the sleeper arising, of being truly awake when one is asleep. No wonder she gets annoyed with her father when he tries to wake her up to early as in “Sleep is supposed to be” and “Where bells no more affright the morn” because to her the waking world is really when we are most oblivious to the wonder of “Grace”.

The same can also be said for the world of art and poetry. Dante wrote about his perfect love with Beatrice but could only express the pure form of that love by placing her in paradise, in other words by placing her in a work of art. And though he loved her when she was alive and could physically see her by the light of day, it was in his imagination and in art in which the fullest expression of his pure love to her could be expressed. The same holds true for Emily who sees the world must fully in her poetry and when her pen, not the actual sun in the summer’s sky, illuminates the world of the “perfectness” of the forms. Thus art is a form of “Grace” that we can see with both our “Eye” and our “I”, a “lid” which can be opened so that we can glimpse the beauty beyond. And this beauty is something she must “better see”, not just in the sense of it being more clear, but that she “better” do it because it is important, because to truly find one’s way to “Grace” one must learn to see with their “Hazel Eye”, with their “I” and not only their sensual “eye”.

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?