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Module 1: Romantic Poetry

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We will now look at a figure whose work begins much before the official Romantic period but who was in many ways a precursor to the Romantics, William Blake (1757 to 1827), arguably the greatest English poet since John Milton. We will be looking at some of his more famous poems “London”, “The Human Abstract”, “The Schoolboy” and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. William Blake like Coleridge and Wordsworth was very much interested in the conflict or tension between passion and rationality. His work has almost always been an attempt to discover the softer emotions of pity, mercy and peace, but also to trace revolutionary passions and their consequences. Blake believed that one could not separate passion or divinity from the corporeal. So, the assumption that there is a purer form of passion or the divine as distinct from the corporeal is something Blake rejected outright. Indeed much of his writing therefore was directed at demonstrating that there is no distinction between the material body and the divine or the soul. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell for instance, Blake would posit the following: All Bibles or sacred codes, have been the causes of the following Errors. 1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul. 2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul. But the following Contraries to these are True. 1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age. 2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. Elsewhere, Blake would state: The Eternal Body of Man is the Imagination; that is God Himself, the Divine Body, [Hebrew] Jesus; we are His Members. For Blake therefore energy and the soul are rooted in the body itself. The soul cannot be marked out as separate from the body. According to Matthew Green, Blake's work embodies a “visionary materialism”. Green explains visionary materialism as “the grounding of knowledge in a mode of experience derived through the body conceived alternately as spiritual or material”. Blake thus rejects the idea that the body and the senses are secondary to the soul or the divine. In doing so, he makes moves against the mind/body dualism, famously inaugurated by René Descartes to prove that anything we identify as soul must be embedded in the material body in the material world. This is why Matthew Green refers to it as “visionary materialism”. We cannot think of something as sophisticated as the soul unless we see it as rooted in the body. In taking this particular stance, Blake is a precursor to the Romantics, clearly rebelling against the empiricism of John Locke and others in giving primacy to imagination, vision, passion and the material. In his poem “The Tyger”, the questioner envisions a fearful Framer; the reader's eye focuses on what the poetry is framing. Fearful symmetry may inhere in the fabulous tiger or it may inhere in the imagination. Blake asks: “What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?” And he concludes with the same question, but with one important variation: “What immortal hand or eye dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” For Blake, there have been two key traditions: of divinity (which is abstract) that works with the law and prophecy. The law is supposedly divinely endorsed and seeks to regulate human conduct, notably passions. But prophecy works in an entirely different way. The Prophet uses imaginative and even symbolic means to show the operations and follies of human conduct. Prophecy works through inspiration and imagination. Blake would therefore reject attempts to limit desire or passion or what he would repeatedly describe as “energy”. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he writes: Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling. This emphasis on imagination, passion and energy is recurrent throughout Blake’s work. In Auguries of Innocence, Blake would formulate what can be only thought of as a manifesto for the entire Romantic age. Here are Blake's opening lines from the Auguries of Innocence, much quoted, much quarrelled over, but in many ways a manifesto for what the Romantics eventually set out to do. 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 What is Blake doing here? He illuminates what he writes here in a letter from which we shall now quote: I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike… Some see Nature all Ridicule & Deformity & by these I shall not regulate my proportions, & Some Scarce see Nature at all[.] But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is So he Sees. As the Eye is formed such are its Powers. And in Laocoon, he writes: To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination. For Blake, art is important because it transforms a reader's mental condition. It changes the way we see the world. It should be noted here that Blake was an engraver and illustrated many of his own texts as well as those of Dante, Thomas Gray and others. In Blake's view, the artistic vision is very powerful and he equates it with the spiritual. That is, artistic vision possesses both aesthetic and divine components. The question of regulation, constraints and the “Law”, which may be led as both religious and juridical laws, appears famously in Blake's “London”, a poem from Songs of Innocence and Experience. I wander thro' each charter'd street, Near where the charter'd Thames does flow. And mark in every face I meet Marks of weakness, marks of woe. In every cry of every Man, In every Infants cry of fear, In every voice: in every ban, The mind-forg'd manacles I hear How the Chimney-sweepers cry Every blackning Church appalls, And the hapless Soldiers sigh Runs in blood down Palace walls But most thro' midnight streets I hear How the youthful Harlots curse Blasts the new-born Infants tear And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse And the following is Blake’s own illustration of the poem. Image source: The British Library https://www.bl.uk/romantics-andvictorians/articles/looking-at-the-manuscript-of-william-blakes-london Blake’s radicalism and location within a tradition of dissent has been extensively studied (see, for instance, a comprehensive attempt to trace his multiple locations in Steve Clark and David Worrall’s Historicizing Blake, 1994). As the introduction to the volume notes, Blake was appropriating and responding to multiple traditions. When we look at the illustration, I think we should pay close attention to the old man tottering along being led somewhere. What is this poem doing? The loss of freedoms including the freedom of space is Blake's theme. These freedoms are taken away by institutions; that is why the emphasis on the word “chartered”. “Chartered” as in organized for business or approved for business. The soldier who sacrifices his limbs and his body for the state, the boy who performs slave labour, and the harlot who provides services to the men are all, finally abandoned in the city. Note the attention to the working classes. The three principal institutions that Blake targets are marriage, monarchy and the church/ religion. Blake would repeat this image of manacles and chains elsewhere: “chains […] of weak and tame minds” in The Marriage (16; E40), the “mental chains” in America (13.3;E56) and the “chains of the mind” in Urizen. Blake's radicalism and location within a tradition of dissent has been extensively studied. As the introduction to the volume notes, Blake was appropriating and responding to multiple traditions. Blake’s protestations of “Contempt and Abhorrence” (E660) have been taken at face value a little too readily. The dinner-party in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, with “the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel” (MHH 12, E38) is adapted from Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique; the tirades in Jreusalem, “O Woman-Born/ And Woman-nourishd & Woman-educated & Woman-scornd!” (Jerusalem 64: 16-17 E213) from Rousseau’s Emile; and the “visionary” spaces to be found within a “red Globule of Mans Blood” in Milton (29 [31]:19-23 E127) from Locke’s comments on the “wonders” in the “Figure and Motion of the minute Particles in the Blood”. As we can see, we can trace many of the influences in Blake. The emphasis on energy and dynamism ensure that his representation of nature was very different from that of, say, Wordsworth. Wordsworth’s nature was calm, pleasing, quiet. Blake’s nature is energetic, furious, dynamic. There is always something not quite pastoral about his representation of nature. We have just looked at his famous “Tyger” where the energy of the tiger is something which we cannot comprehend. And hence the question, “do you dare create a tiger?” is also a question directed at us: “do you dare see a tiger?” Poems like the “Sick Rose” and “The Tyger” are more akin to sublime nature, not quite the placid pastoral of Wordsworth. Let us have a look at Blake’s own manuscript of “The Tyger”. Image source: The British Library https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/an-introduction-to-the-tyger Let us turn to another major Blake theme. Blake argued that divinity and goodness are not abstract, they exist within us, within the humans themselves. So, we cannot say that mercy, evil or goodness are all elsewhere, they are in us. They are all rooted in the human. As we said earlier, there is no such thing as a soul which is distinct from the corporeal. In one of his famous poems, “The Human Abstract”, Blake would write this. Let us look at the poem and its illustration. The Human Abstract Pity would be no more, If we did not make somebody Poor: And Mercy no more could be, If all were as happy as we; And mutual fear brings peace; Till the selfish loves increase. Then Cruelty knits a snare, And spreads his baits with care. He sits down with holy fears, And waters the ground with tears: Then Humility takes its root Underneath his foot. Soon spreads the dismal shade Of Mystery over his head; And the Catterpiller and Fly. Feed on the Mystery. And it bears the fruit of Deceit. Ruddy and sweet to eat; And the Raven his nest has made In its thickest shade. The Gods of the earth and sea, Sought thro' Nature to find this Tree But their search was all in vain; There grows one in the Human Brain Image Source: The William Blake archive http://www.blakearchive.org/images/songsie.b.p38-47.100.jpg He contends here that we cannot think of showing pity or mercy to someone, until we have made them poor. To help someone, we have to keep them at a level lower than us. Critics have argued that the illustration is deeply ambiguous: is the old man tying himself up or trying to free himself from the ropes? This extends the old Blake theme of limited movement and restrictions. The poem proposes that all that we claim about the goodness of mankind – mercy, pity, compassion – depend on keeping somebody poor and in suffering. Our human values therefore are founded on hypocrisy and social inequalities. Even when we plant a tree with Humility as its root, Mystery is its foliage/ leaves. The fruit is of deceit, nothing more, and the raven, a symbol of death is associated with this tree. Thus Blake demolishes the idea of innate goodness of mankind by pointing to the social injustices humanity creates, first, in order to show humanitarian work. The poem proposes that all that we claim about the goodness of mankind is actually quite hypocritical because it is founded on social inequalities. His key point is that it is the injustices that we create which necessitate having to show mercy. That is Blake's radicalism. Physical suffering is a constant theme in Blake, the Holy Thursday poems, the Chimney Sweeper poems and all of that. Even schoolchildren are subjected to endless restraints in Blake's “The Schoolboy”. The Schoolboy I love to rise in a summer morn When the birds sing on every tree; The distant huntsman winds his horn, And the skylark sings with me. O! what sweet company. But to go to school in a summer morn, O! it drives all joy away; Under a cruel eye outworn, The little ones spend the day In sighing and dismay. Ah! then at times I drooping sit, And spend many an anxious hour, Nor in my book can I take delight, Nor sit in learning’s bower, Worn thro’ with the dreary shower. How can the bird that is born for joy Sit in a cage and sing? How can a child, when fears annoy, But droop his tender wing, And forget his youthful spring? O! father and mother, if buds are nipp’d And blossoms blown away, And if the tender plants are stripp’d Of their joy in the springing day, By sorrow and care’s dismay, How shall the summer arise in joy, Or the summer fruits appear? Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy, Or bless the mellowing year, When the blasts of winter appear? Blake would argue that schools act like military regimes placing limitations on the imagination of the child. The Holy Thursday poems, “The Schoolboy”, the Chimney Sweeper poems all situate the child as being obstructed in their desires by the constraints of education, religion and the family. Blake's contribution has been to provide a different view of nature but also to call the bluff on questions of divinity and the idea of the soul. He argues that all of these are rooted in the human. The visionary materialism that Matthew Green conceptualises in his reading of William Blake is central to our understanding of his work. Blake's Romanticism does anticipate that of Wordsworth and others, though his views on nature are radically different from everyone else’s. But more than anything else, what we need to keep in mind is Blake's radicalism as social critique.