1/18/2017 1 Comment
The paper is an investigation into the central techniques Blake employs in designing a world of redemptive promise. Its focus is on three world-making techniques he utilizes: metaphorical operation, apostrophic address and lyrical lamentation. Similar to the aim of Northrop Frye in Blake: A Collection of Critical Essays, a secondary goal of this paper is to directly “contend with resistance to the normality of Blake’s mind” (Frye 6). A focus on technicity assists in moving through his layered writings; for, one then is able to navigate each of Blake’s careful constructions as an example of a truth claim or deployment of literary device rather than getting entangled by hermeneutics. In doing so, my hope would be to join the cadre of scholars within literary criticism seeking to normalize Blake’s mind and poetry. Blake is a skilled practitioner of literary tradition whose technical ability in poésis served a higher purpose. Blake was able to bring “an almost superhuman energy and technical ingenuity to his desire to give concrete expression to his visions” (Blake, The Complete Illuminated Books 8). While admittedly, Blake’s writings are oblique even for scholars of his work, it cannot be overstated enough that Blake was writing during a time where radical sympathizers and critics of the British and French empire were examined as potential traitors or confined as lunatics. Blake—who condemned the materialism of the church and the economic oppression of children and slaves—felt very much in danger; and, thus, felt the need to code his texts.
Blake’s deployment of metaphor and myth was to construct a world of his imagination that would inspire readers to construct their own worlds. In that construction process the existence of a new order functions both as creating heaven on earth and a condemnation of the present condition.
 (Blake, The Complete Illuminated Books 9): Referencing the group of prophetic books by Blake such as The Book of Ahania (1795), The Book of Los (1795), and the Prophecies America and Europe, “The overwhelming note is of conflict, human despair and suffering, and the effects of malign power; the rhetoric is of disjunction – between text and design, between different authorial voices, and between matter and spirit. Some at least were clearly written and etched as news was breaking of the Terror and (almost as shocking to Blake) of Robespierre’s reinstatement of the cult of the ‘Supreme Being’ in France, and of the repression of radical sympathisers at home. There is no doubt that Blake felt in personal danger in this period; people who held similar views were examined as potential traitors, or were confined as lunatics like Richard Brothers.”
Discussion of mythopoesis, metaphor and promise land could very much be applicable to Blake’s work in general—as the above topics are present beyond his lyrics. However, I have chosen to focus on the Blakean lyric because of the role of the lyric “I” in aiding the construction of truth claims, which rely on metaphoric operation.
The paper sets the groundwork for future investigations into the technicity of Blake’s poetry. Robert Duncan shares, “All writing is always already implicated in the grounds of what has come before and that poetry takes place only when these sources are reworked, recast and renewed” (Maynard 11). In reevaluating Blake within technical terms, his larger aim for national and individual redemption move to the forefront.
Blake openly puts himself in the successions of Old Testament prophets and ancient British poets, according to David Bindman, in books such as America a Prophecy and Europe a Prophecy (Blake, The Complete Illuminated Books 9). During seventeenth century Britain, there was a resurgence in apocalyptic writing. As an astute student of literary tradition, this phenomenon would not have been lost on Blake; “almost everything he wrote or designed makes a direct or oblique reference to the Book of Revelation” (ibid). Central to the Book of Revelation is the fall of the material world and the coming of the promised New Jerusalem.
In studying the poetry of Hölderlin, Heidegger comes to the understanding that poetry is “the privileged site for the concealment of Being and the happening of Truth” (Culler 91). Via the lyrical imagination, Blake is able to fashion a promise land that feels as if it is a true field of experience. Kate Hämburger in The Logic of Literature declares that “the experience-field of the statement-subject” enables the poem to be experienced as a reality statement. The core operation involved in the composition of validity statements is the metaphor—since one cannot speak directly about nature or reality save by means of substituting for it, a name. A name is essentially a metaphor. Metaphorical
operation is a technical operation that makes it possible for the lyric “I” to exchange its categorically isolated experience of heaven to the “reality” of someone else’s experience.
In focusing on the language systems Blake employs, the paper ultimately maps Blake’s lyrical methodology for redemption. It does not subsume biographical or hermeneutic interpretations. While primarily discussing formalistic elements, at its core the paper holds structuralism and interpretative methods as two congruent lenses. Nonetheless, it is important to understand the perspectives of scholars making the argument for increased technical evaluations of Blake. For example, Jonathan Culler in the Theory of the Lyric believes that biographism has reigned in the French critical tradition and that interpretations in the Anglo tradition where the lyric “I” is viewed as a fictional persona would be a diversion from appreciating the poem (Culler 112). For, interpretation of the lyric “becomes a matter of reconstructing the characteristics of this persona, especially the motives and circumstances of this act of speech” (Culler 109). In Structuralist Poetics, Culler argues that “literary study should be devoted not to developing new and more intricate interpretations of literary works but exploring underlying structures and conventions that enable literary works to have the meanings and effects they do for readers—in short, that poetics should take precedence over hermeneutics.” In discussing the systems and devices Blake utilizes in his lyrics, I use the term “technicity.” Frye’s collection invites the reader into critical investigations of Blake utilizing a textual-formalist approach—again, foregrounding the primacy of a technical reading of the Blakean lyric. Given the structuralist perspective, the paper seeks instead to balance the close and critical reading styles.
Mythopoesis, World-making and Promise Land
Of the defining features of the Blakean lyric, the appeal to an “unresponsive” universe (invocation) and existential lamentation are among the most salient. “Unresponsive” is placed in
quotations because responsiveness or the lack thereof in the lyric often times is a temporary condition—for, the poet speaks to the inanimate or void hoping via name, it would come into being. This is a poet’s invocation.
Before discussing Blake, to further elucidate what an appeal to an “unresponsive” universe looks like, in The Theory of the Lyric, Culler introduces readers to the notion of apostrophic address. Culler defines apostrophic address as invocation of an absent or nonhuman addressee; and shares that the tension in apostrophic address within the Western lyric is “the lyrical positing of an addressable and potentially responsive universe as well as skepticism about the efficacy of lyrical discourse” (Culler 8).
In “Ode to Aphrodite,” Sappho writes: “Intricate, immortal Aphrodite, / snare-weaver, child of Zeus, I implore you, / … / But come to me now, if ever before you / heard my voice from afar” (Culler 11). In the passage, one hears Sappho reference that the goddess may have once heard or responded to her past lamentations. Sappho continues the invocation, “Who am I / to persuade, once again this time /… / release me from these mean anxieties / and do what my heart wants done / You yourself be my ally” (ibid). What appears as if the poet, troubled by “mean anxieties,” talks to herself in solitude is complicated by Aphrodite speaking in reply to Sappho via the poet’s quoted speech, “Who, O Sappho, does you wrong?” at the end of the third stanza. “Ode to Aphrodite” is exemplary of how appeal to an “unresponsive” force does not preclude subsequent responsiveness.
Invocation is a device tied to the origin of poetry’s historical function as prayer, of which Blake was certainly aware. Prayer is a tool to bring into the present world a mental picture or desire. This is part of the creation process and creative potential within poetry. Lyrical appeal is an attempt to give name to a desired outcome or reality. Naming is a crucial technical element in world-making.
The poet in apostrophic address provides the reader a mode of making one’s reality via language, literally speaking life into the void. The poet, here, presents a technique and model for
(re)making one’s world, changing one’s present condition. The reader, in receipt of that gift, enters the triangulated role of witness to divine miracle—the appearance of Aphrodite out of thin air.
Part of discussing the technicity of the lyric is discussing its efficacy. What effect on the reader does an appeal to the “unresponsive” have? In the poem Gwin, King of Norway, one sees Blake’s prayer for a messiah in multiplied form. The ability to bring the reader in as witness to world formation is the technicity of the Blakean lyric. In his poem Gwin, King of Norway, Blake makes an appeal to an “unresponsive” force—hoping that “Kings” would come against Gwin, “arise, and pull the tyrant down” who “tear[s] the poor man’s lamb, and drive / the needy from their door!” (Blake 417):
Come, Kings, and listen to my song,
When Gwin, the son of Nore,
Over the nations of the North
His cruel sceptre bore:
The Nobles of the land did feed
Upon the hungry Poor;
They tear the poor man’s lamb, and drive
The needy from their door!
The land is desolate; our wives
And children cry for bread;
Arise, and pull the tyrant down;
Let Gwin be humbled.
Gwin is a fictional character symbolic of the state and monarchy of England (Fraistat and Jones 2012). Similar to Hebraic accounts of the messiah as “King of kings” that would eventually come and deliver the Jewish people from outsider rule, Blake prays for “Kings” to rise and humble Gwin. The poet, here, manifests Gwin’s destroyer in the form of a giant of made men. Gordred, the giant that “rous’d himself from sleeping in his cave,” (ibid) represents the masses waking up to their power to affect change, who, at the end of the poem, defeat Gwin. It is symbolic of the will of the people coming up against English & French empires (ibid).
Fraistat and Jones in Norse Romanticism: Themes in British Literature, indicate that the giant figure here is “pointing forward to the giant Albion who rises to assert his ancient liberties against oppression, religious and political, in Blake’s later poetry” (ibid). Part of Blake’s world-making techniques is not solely the use of lyrical address. It also includes the making of mythical tale—his mythopoesis. In Gwin, King of Norway from line 15 to 35, one sees that Blake has already moved from lyrical to epic account; in detailing the “num’rous sons of blood” that are below the “troubl’d banners” of Gordred, he is making analogy to the present-day protest and social upheaval in England.
He shook the hills, and in the clouds
The troubl’d banners wave.
Beneath them roll’d, like tempests black,
The num’rous sons of blood;
Like lions’ whelps, roaring abroad,
Seeking their nightly food.
Down Bleron’s hills they dreadful rush,
Their cry ascends the clouds;
The trampling horse and clanging arms
Like rushing mighty floods!
Their wives and children, weeping loud,
Follow in wild array,
Howling like ghosts, furious as wolves
In the bleak wintry day.
“Pull down the tyrant to the dust,
“Let Gwin be humbled,”
They cry; “and let ten thousand lives
“Pay for the tyrant’s head.”
In comparing the energy under Gordred to a dark storm and the whelps of lions, Blake means to represent will—in the Christian sense—a force of action and righteousness. What is important to note, is that after the appearance of Gordred, the lyric “I” or first person in the poem completely disappears.
The first-person pronoun “my” appears in Line 1— “Come, Kings, and listen to my song”—and the last appeal by the lyric poet ends at Lines 11-12— “Arise, and pull the tyrant down; / Let Gwin be humbled.” In the Blakean lyric, there is often the movement from ontological world-making—the poet reporting on his sentience by giving name to it—to mythopoesis—the poet detailing a made world. The two are not mutually exclusive and are constitutive of Blake’s tendency to invert aspects of literary tradition. For this reason, Culler asserts the importance of using a poetics-based lens when examining the lyric as it “does not attempt to find a meaning but to understand the techniques that make meaning possible, techniques that belong to the generic tradition” (Culler 6). He takes lyric theory as a working hypothesis and an attempt to understand “the central features of poems [not only for] the reading and appreciation of these poems themselves” but also “an understanding of revolts against the tradition and the consequent modifications and expansions of it” (ibid).
It is true, that mythopoesis often lands within the genre of epic. However, it is important to return to the divine appearance of Aphrodite in Sappho’s lyric. Blake, like Sappho, calls out to a seemingly “unresponsive” universe: he to the “Kings” and she to a goddess. Thus, the poet in Gwin, King of Norway, moves from a prayer for change to a reveling in the answer to his prayers via epic recounting. Critics Gregory Nagy in Pindar’s Homer and Jeffery Walker in Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity surmise that epic potentially evolved out of archaic lyric. One could imagine that in a poem of 115 lines as the Gwin poem is, where only the first 11 lines can be unequivocally identified as lyrical, scholars may designate the poem as at least a dramatic monologue, which mixes first and third persons. The latter 100 or so lines read as an epic battle of David and Goliath proportions. Yet, Blake inverts the lyric in the same way he inverts the story of David and Goliath, for example, such that the giant is the hero and is made large by the will of the people while the king figure constitutes the world of illusion and nobility.
The Blakean lyric continues to subvert expectations. The poem is not disqualified as a lyric because of its movement into third person. It is a personal prayer, a symbolic expression of the people versus the state. For, if one understands, as Blake did, that the lyric’s technical properties extend beyond the repeated use of first person pronouns, one is less likely to mislabel it. Culler’s Theory of the Lyric is a call for a more capacious delineation of lyric poetry. Culler writes that his aim is to “investigate the inadequacies of current models [of the lyric] and to explore alternatives…[as] current models falsify the long tradition of lyric and encourage students to think about lyrics in ways that neglect some of the central features of lyric poetry, both present and past” (Culler 3). The strength of technical analysis is that it is highly empirical. Its elucidations depend heavily on what is actually taking place in a poem rather than what should be taking place.
The difficulty with Blake, I must concede, is that he intentionally complicates traditional forms and troupes for social ends. His lyrics are satirical—versus laudatory. They free the accused rather than blame. Blake broke rules and did so also within genre; he acted from desire and urge. Real virtue as Blake outlined in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell “cannot exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules” (Fyre 9). In presenting his lyrical world, Blake hoped the reader would also enter.
Part of the aim of this paper is to position Blake within his time and as an artist with mastery over technical practice. It would be an ahistorical read on Blake to make him extraordinarily unique or esoteric. He was experimenting in the same classroom as his peers. Stuart Curran in Poetic Form and British Romanticism and Paul M. Wiebe in Genre in British Romantic Poetry argue against ahistorical generic grouping in favor of delineations where “discovery not pragmatic imposition” is the rule of the day. Wiebe argues that “the British Romantics, particularly within the poetry of William Blake, Percy Shelley, and John Keats” routinely used the mythopoem form (O’Connor 351). It does not mean each of Blake’s lyrics will have mythic elements or apostrophic address. Wiebe characterizes “mythopoem” as
defined by “a particular relationship between the supernatural and the human in which the supernatural entities determine, shape or affect in some way the action of the human beings or the world in which humans dwell” (Wiebe 65). His technical approach to British Literature was to focus on mythic literature as implied models of the world (O’Connor 52). Although, the Romantics, Wiebe shared, “did not…to the extent of creating gods” think they “should displace the Christian God,” (W 106).
In the poem, Land of Dreams, one sees reference to the Blakean imagination via the lyrical “I.” In a desire to discover promise land, Blake organically moves between first and third persons such that when the lyric “I” is not used, one understands the other voices as quoted speech deriving from the lyrical imagination:
O what Land is the Land of Dreams
What are its Mountains & what are its Streams
O Father I saw my Mother there
Among the Lillies by waters fair
Among the Lambs clothed in white
She walkd with her Thomas in sweet delight
I wept for joy like a dove I mourn
O when shall I again return
(Blake, The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake 486)
In Blake’s model of the world, here, one sees that his land of dreams functions not only as an escape but also a condemnation of a present condition, a less delightful reality.
Father O Father what do we have here
In this Land of unbelief & fear
The Land of Dreams is better far
Above the light of the Morning Star
While the poem is ostensibly a recounting of a dream, it serves a technical and moralistic purpose: showcasing for the reader an available escape hatch through imagination when needing to flee from a society overrun by materialism and fear. Blake is treasure mapping. In the poem, Blake also acknowledges that in his efforts to bring peace on earth, manifest a promise land, in some ways, has eluded him: “But tho calm & warm the Waters wide / I could not get to the other side.” Blake’s use of the lyric is a portmanteau of existential lamentation and moralistic condemnation. What appears capricious is pointed and intentional.
Blake is not creating work for pure entertainment. He moved with similar energies to the biblical Noah in the building of an ark. Blake was writing to prepare for a new world. The songs, according to Robert Gleckner, were about returning to an inward divinity and “were not merely for our enjoyment, or even for our edification, but our salvation” (Gleckner 10). Blake was very intent that his lyrics were to give something tangible to his readers. He wanted the readers to “imagine as he imagined, to see as he saw, even to recreate as he created” (Gleckner 14). For Blake, poets have a solemn and prophetic character. His world-making in poetry is to assist the readers in (re)making their own world. In that modeled world is promised land.
Mythical Truth: The Technicity of Metaphorical Operation
Mythopoesis in the Blakean lyric is a technical device whose function is to deliver the reader into their inherent world-making potential via the imaginative faculties. While a structuralist or technical approach to literary scholarship is not novel, its import to examine Blake’s technical use of lyrical lamentation because his methodological deployment of literary devices was to assist in both coding and presenting a language of redemption. The dominant symbolic patterns Blake utilizes include the states
of innocence—the child, experience—the father and higher innocence—Christ. They are layered into his writing such that one does not need a requisite understanding, for example, of the Bible to access the redemptive quality of his work, even if some of the coded messages are lost. There are other tacit instructive or persuasive features accessible to the reader to assist in guiding him/her to illumination. Diane Christian in her essay Blake and the Classics, quotes Blake sharing: “The Wisest of the Ancients consider’d what is not too Explicit as the fittest for instruction, because it rouzes the faculties to act.” He, in a letter in 1799, was responding to being charged with creating obscure and difficulty poetry. Blake’s response points to an intention to design work that, at some levels, could be accessible to the multitude.
Contextual knowledge of Blake’s symbology, however, does aid in deepening one’s reading experience. Gleckner in his essay on “Point of View and Context in Blake’s Songs” is a more hardline proponent of the properly contextualizing Blake. He shares that the dominant symbols frame minor symbols and that “conceivably ignorance of or indifference to one’s world prohibits the imaginative perception and understanding of the structure” (Gleckner 10).
If mythopoesis is the molecule, then metaphor is the atom in the Blakean lyric. The archetypes emerge and serve to transport dominant symbology. Metaphorical operation is both at the level of the sentence and at the level of the word. The phrase, “Juliet is my sun” is a heliotropic metaphor as well as “orb.” In the case of Blake, his metaphorical construction is both at the level of the word and the level of the phrase, for example, “Jesus and the Apostles and the Disciples were artists.” “Urizen,” coming to stand for subscription to Cartesian logic and the edification of reason at the expense of body, is at the word level. It is here important to note that understanding the technicity of metaphoric operation is not an exercise in the taxonomy of comparison. It is crucial to understand how literary devices function in “truth” making; for, in the making of truth, one begins a world—view.
The central feature of the metaphor is shared between the disciplines of rhetoric and poesis. Paul Ricoeur in The Rule of Metaphor defines metaphor as marked by the troupe of resemblance within a theory of substitution such that the effect is the transposition of names (Ricoeur 1). For Aristole, genius is marked by mastery of metaphor, seeing similarity in the most disparate of things. In the case of Blake, he married the most diametrically opposed concepts: heaven and hell. The skill with which he did so showcases his mastery of metaphoric operation.
Discussion about metaphor in the context of Blake becomes a crucial element in delineating the technicity of his lyric. It places Blake within a tradition of artistic mastery of language devices. His work was not idiosyncratic, simplistic or a sign of mental illness but a well-worked system buttressed by the disciplines of rhetoric and mythopoesis popular in 17th and 18th Century British literature.
Framing Blake’s work as technically wrought also helps aid in recognizing the deep literary structures undergirding his deployment of myth, archetypes and metaphor within the lyric. His work is not purely esoteric—or meant to exclude the reader. Blake’s work was meant to be an invitation into promise land; he wanted his use of archetype to be traceable. Blake had discernable aim: building New Jerusalem, heaven on earth. His goal was to persuade the reader to join a truer reality.
The study of rhetoric through antiquity was to assist one with strategies of persuasion. It is important to frame persuasion via rhetoric not as something solely being within a theory of argumentation, style or composition. The resounding effect of rhetoric is a persuasive force with “a ‘quality’of truth itself” (Blumenberg 3). This “truthiness” is also found in poesis and most clearly in mythopoesis. The operative force shared by both rhetoric and poésis that grounds their truth-making abilities is the metaphor.
Ricoeur asserts that metaphor has two functions: One, rhetorical, which is its oratorical technique of skillful speech; and, two, poetics, which he defines as “the composing of poems, principally tragic poems…[and] does not depend of rhetoric, the art of defence [sic]…Poetry is not oratory. Persuasion is
not its aim; rather, it purges the feelings of pity and fear” (Ricoeur 12). Poetry for Ricoeur does not seek to prove anything at all but to compose an essential representation of human actions; “its appropriate method is to speak truth by means of fiction, fable and tragic muthos” or speech story (Ricoeur 13). The making of alternate reality is present in fable and epic poetry, which is marked by the use of third person. Within the individual mind, the designation between truth and fiction is more trepid—and the potential for claims of truth harder to parse. Thus, what I offer in treating the technique of making myth and metaphor in the Blakean lyric is to highlight the world of his mind: the Blakean imagination as a wellspring of metaphoric operation.
Blumenberg shares that world of imagination “could no longer be regarded solely as the substrate for transformations into conceptuality…but as the catalytic sphere from which the universe of concepts continually renews itself” (Blumenberg 4). Hegel, according to Culler, stresses that the poet works on imagination rather than on language (Culler 97). Hegel emphasizes the centrality of the lyrical imagination in the construction and dismantling of world views. Essentially, the imagination can produce innumerable truths and renew truth by bringing it into new light or relational construct; in addition, the imagination can present a blueprint for condemnation of a present order.
For Ricoeur the ‘productive imagination” must not be seen as the function of the image but as a “seeing as…”, verbal, active in constructing new relations (Ricoeur 4). Harold Bloom also mentions the notion of the “capable imagination” in his discussion of Blake’s Four Zoas, which is a myth about the fall of man and what he must do to regain his rightful divinity. Both writers are figuring the imagination as a kinetic, active sphere of creation and wellspring through which one must enter and continually renew oneself as the biblical Adam, a creative being who in naming the world and helps to set the ontological world in motion.
Blake’s poem, The Caverns of the Grave, deals with mental activity—which in Blake’s case is, here, reference to the lyrical imagination rather than the faculties of reason whose dominance and separation from the body he was against:
I have Mental Joy & Mental Health
And Mental Friends & Mental wealth
Ive a Wife I love & that loves me
Ive all But Riches Bodily
(Blake, The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake 480)
One sees in the mentioning of “Mental Friends,” Blake most likely is referencing his mythopoetic archetypes derived from his imagination; for, a reference to pure reason would not concede the presence of “Mental Friends.” By “all But Riches Bodily,” Blake is referring to his financial struggles in garnering work. Thus, in his lyrical imagination, there are two worlds: the material world of “Englands Queen,” “Egremonts Countess” and nobles with whom “the accuser of sins” resides and the world where Blake feels free and unencumbered, “On the Great Atlantic Mountains / In my Golden House on high” (ibid). The poem opens in the fourth line with existential lamentation in the form of a question, pondering to whom could he share his insights and the “places” he has visited; he wonders who would believe him:
The Caverns of the Grave Ive seen
And these I shewd to Englands Queen
But now the Caves of Hell I view
Who shall I dare to shew them to
What mighty Soul in Beautys form
Shall dauntless View the Infernal Storm
Egremonts Countess can control
The flames of Hell that round me roll
If she refuse I still go on
Till the Heavens & Earth are gone
Still admird by Noble minds
Followed by Envy on the winds
Reengravd Time after Time
Ever in their Youthful prime
My Designs unchangd remain
Time may rage but rage in vain
Regarding Blumenberg’s notion of the imagination as the well spring of forms through which one could continually enter the productive force of metaphor making, one sees here that Blake’s designs are “ever in their Youthful prime.” His lyrical imagination is a way to mitigate his economic struggles, “the flames of Hell that round him roll,” and construct a fortification where his values for more equitable social relations. Which world is more real for Blake? His reader? Blake in the poem seems to forgo the material world for the world of “Mental Joy” and in doing so highlights the power to “’redescribe reality” Ricoeur mentions redescribing reality as part of the rhetorical process, the internal organization unleashed in the metaphorical statement.
To make metaphor of ‘reality’ is the “heuristic power wielded by fiction” (Ricoeur 5). Is it the case that—if one takes The Caverns of the Grave literally—Blake has traveled from the caverns of the grave to the Queen of England and the back to the Atlantic mountains in a moment of existential lamentation? Or is Blake’s lyrical flight of fancy, for him, truer a reality than one gilded by nobles and economic constraints? The power of the lyrical “I” is its ability to refer both to an external and internal world. The reader justifiably comes away feeling as if he/she has encountered some sense of “truthfulness.”
The reader is more likely to suspend belief if the muthos or fable is told in the first person. Suspending belief is to trust a construction as a pathway to truth. One cannot get access to the truth of a person’s experience or their mental reality save through self-reporting—the lyric “I.” For example, in The Caverns of the Grave there is an encounter at the “Throne of Mammon” for which the veracity is contestable. However, it is also easily understood as a metaphorical reworking of an earthen condition:
I rose up at the dawn of day
Get thee away get thee away
Prayst thou for Riches away away
This is the Throne of Mammon grey
Said I this sure is very odd
I took it to be the Throne of God
For every Thing besides I have
It is only for Riches that I can crave
Blake shares that in his rising at “the dawn of day,” he prays to what he believes was the “Throne of God” but is that of a deity from hell—Mammon. Ultimately the poem elucidates an internal struggle the poet is having between his relational-spiritual values: a loving wife, his “Mental Joy” and his “Designs” and his craving of a steady income or monetary wealth. The poem is a rewriting of the temptation of the Christ and an allusion to the biblical parable of Job. The poet is signaling to the reader that one must resist material temptation in favor of relational joy. Even in a moment of existential crisis, Blake thinks about other people:
Then If for Richs I must not Pray
God knows I little of Prayers need say
So as a Church is known by its Steeple
If I pray it must be for other People
In his private lamentation, Blake shares what is prevalent throughout his works—that his poetry and art is a prayer for “other People” and their salvation—further evidence to contend the popular position of Blake as one who in his mystic gaze turned away from his neighbor. For Blake—and here is the intersection of rhetoric and poesis in his lyrics—the use of literary devices is a tool to lead the masses to promise land.
Intermedia Technique: Myth, Logos & Design
Placing Blake within the context of technical practice makes him intelligible, readable within an artistic tradition. Dick Higgins’ seminal text Pattern Poetry is helpful in locating Blake as an extension of the monastic-scholar artist. Higgins’ work assisted in revitalizing the study of intermedia text, a practice which goes back more than a millennium. Blake, who taught himself Hebrew, very well could have come across the Hebraic scrolls of monks writing poetry in the marginalia in the form of images. (See Figures 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 in the addendum featuring intermedia text in “The Word as Ikon” in Berjouhi Barsamian Bowler’s book Typographica ). Monastic pattern poetry does two things: moves us closer to logos—the image basis of the word for which pictographic languages remind us, and, two, showcases that there is a long line of writers who are both poet and artist combined. Northrop Frye also acknowledges this when he writes, that “the ability to paint and the ability to write have often belonged to the same person; but it is rare to find them equally developed” (Frye 119). While Frye notes that Blake’s development of art and writing is novel in its well-balanced practice, he simultaneously points out that Blake comes from a tradition of intermedia practitioners. The paper’s aim to position Blake as less exceptional in order to make him readable within an artistic and scholastic tradition rather than an enigmatic outlier.
The approach I select is both structuralist and heuristic. To discuss his technique in mythopoesis, I must also refer, contextually, to his engraving and painterly life. For, his artwork is also central to the success of his mythopoesis—which extends beyond his lyrical works—in the same ways the frescos served a vital function in legitimating Biblical myth. Interestingly, the Blakean lyric—unlike his more epic, mythical poetry—were not accompanied by images. This highlights the imaginative power in the use of the lyric “I.”
The technical (adapted intaglio) engraving process that Blake invented via careful application of acid on copper plates did two things with one goal: First, it allowed for “the dynamic integration of text and design on the same page” and, two, enabled “the artist to work on a book from start to finish, without the intervention of a professional printer” (Blake, The Complete Illuminated Books 7). Blake’s larger aim in his invented technique was to function, for the artist, redemptively—in similar fashion to his invention of mythical worlds. Blake believed that not only he but other artists would be freer and empowered in their creative process without heavy reliance on professional printers or third parties. If artists could have more control over the means of production, they, unencumbered, could create, Blake believed, controversial works. He often created theologically or politically charged art. In 1793 in a prospectus, Blake wrote: “The Labours of the Artist, the Poet, the Musician, have been proverbially attended by poverty and obscurity…Even Milton and Shakespeare could not publish their own works. This difficulty has been obviated by the Author…who has invented a method of Printing… [that produces] works at less than one fourth of the expense” (ibid). In the introduction to The Complete Illuminated Books, David Bindman shares that Blake’s engraving process allowed literature and art “to be universal, enabling the author-artist to pass on his vision of liberation to the world” (ibid). Blake’s work was very much grounded in the ability to provide unto the masses of people a promised land and greater freedom of expression.
Myth assists humanity in orienting itself. It is a focal point onto which one builds identity, a sense of reality. The intersection between image and text marries two methods for grounding us in reality. Thus, much of what is called reality, in actuality, is agreed-upon world views. As myth is a model of world, the intersection of image and text is a reinforced model of it. The agreement of image and text is a powerful tool. The aforementioned mediums converge to create the effect of what feels like heightened truth. William Bradley in Art: Magic, Impulse and Control, A Guide to Viewing, shares that
“no one can view the worlds in the same way as another. The agreed-upon reality of the visible world is by no means singular” (Bradley 14). A union of the arts assists in reinforcing one’s message.
In terms of its technicity, intermedia work is similar to lyric address: they both are a “daring attempt to produce a poetic event by exploiting the resources of the arts and direct address to the reader, boldly collapsing into one the time of articulation…and the time of reading” (Culler 187)—which feels like an instance of truthfulness. We concede to the poem’s claim of truth, granting it the power to make us imaginatively overcome the present condition. Readers temporarily sacrifice their sense of reality in allowing the poem to create for them a temporality in which the penning hand lives and, simultaneously, is held toward them (ibid).
To conclude, I do not believe that Blake was somehow out of touch with reality, pretentious or at a distance from society. His work was very much grounded in the materiality of his time and a broader artistic legacy. He was knowledgeable about poetry on a technical sense. Blake was a credible product of 18th century, middle class, Nonconformist England. He was Christian. His religious views intersected with his political views, which Frye, in the opening introduction, notes were in negative reaction to Bacon, Newton and Locke (Frye 4-5).
Gleckner notes “How easily, then, in reading Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience we can ignore Blake’s own individual method: Like many other artists Blake employed a central group of related symbols to form a dominant symbolic pattern.” What Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes about Wole Soyinka, I extend in comparison to Blake: “[His] greatest achievement is just this: the creation of a compelling world through language, in language and of language. He has mastered the power of language to create a reality, not merely to reflect reality (Gates 194).” The overall aim of the paper is to
highlight the technicity of Blake’s work and position Blake away from pejorative commentary of occultism, oddity or madness. He is an artist in a very technical sense—who sought, in his practice, to offer his neighbor a bit of promise land.
Berjouhi Barsamian Bowler: “Iconography was prohibited by religious law...Nevertheless, with all these prohibitions and with a need to preserve intact the deeply regarded scholarship of centuries of the book which commanded every Jew’s most profound commitment, we find these decorations. Some casual and comic, even very secular and sensuous. Cecil Roth describes a Rhineland manuscript in which there is drawn a banquet of the righteous regaling themselves with food and drink as they were being entertained with music by animal performers” (Bowler 22).
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Shayna S. Israel
Blog Mission: In the spirit of becoming , to provide iterative thoughts toward a deepened understanding of and experience with the intersection of literary and visual arts.