Context, hermeneutics, Interpretation, Literature, poem, Poetry, Romantic Literature, Songs of Experience, To Tirzah, William Blake
This poem is a good example of how difficult it can be know what the poet intends, particularly when the poet is as deliberately ironic as William Blake.
This poem also raises the issue of what it means to read something “in context.” Shakespeare and the Bible are famously misused by people who take a particular line wildly out of context. There is a television commercial which advertises a luxury automobile and plays a song which – in its original context — attacks pretension and put-on with material goods. But by using only a portion of the song lyric, the song meant to attack pretension is used to sell pretension.
This short poem is standing by itself one context. In that context, this poem seems to convey a sort of Gnostic Jesus, the body is bad, the soul is good, the hope of life is to be released from the body. “Tirazh” is used as a name for the Northern Kingdom of Israel, following the division of the kingdom into two after the death of Solomon. It is contrast to “Jerusalem,” which would be the heavenly and best.
Tirazh is called a mother of our earthly body which reproduces by means of sexual union, which traps us into a world of sense. The goal of this life is to be finally freed from the body – which the poet claims has been made possible by the “death of Jesus”.
But the poem was a late addition to a collection of poems known as Songs of Experience, which is paired with another collection known as Songs of Innocence. The poems also exist in a larger corpus of poems which develop Blakes philosophy, such as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
To this difficulty of context, we must remember that Blake is often deliberately ironic. We can never take anything he says at “face value.”
While not at all exhaustive, the following simply raises some questions as to how to interpret this poem when it is put into the context of Blake’s remaining (and largely earlier) work and Blake’s ironic posture as a poet.
Whate’er is born of moral birth
Must be consuméd with the earth
To rise from generation free,
Then what have I do to with thee?
Whatever is born will die and return to the earth. The last line is an ironic reworking of Jesus’ words recorded in John 2:4, where Mary tells Jesus that the wedding has run out of wine and Jesus responds, “Woman, what have I to do with thee? My hour is not yet come.” So the poet, seeking to be freed from the enslaving earth says, “What have I to do with thee?”
It also seems to state the poet’s aspiration, to be freed from generation, to be freed from this mother.
He then turns to the manner in which life is continued in this world:
The sexes sprung from shame & pride
Blow’d [blossomed] in the morn: in evening died;
But mercy changed death into sleep;
The sexes rose to work & weep.
This poem was added in the latter versions of his poems, Songs of Experience, and seems to have been written around 1805. But the collection also contains poems such as The Garden of Love (1794) which contend that shame and sexual repression are the result of the “Chapel” whose doors were shut and the words “Thou shalt not” were written over the door.
Here the shame seems to be something inherent in the fact of mortality and the body. Is Blake now arguing that sexual shame is not the result of societal norms and oppressive morality, but rather something inherent in birth and death of the body? Was it shame and pride which gave rise to this problem prior to the body?
Thou, Mother of my Mortal part,
With cruelty didst mould my heart
And with false self-deceiving tears
Didst bind my nostrils, eyes & ears.
This stanza echoes the poem The Tyger, also from the same collection and also from 1794. The poet meditates upon the dangerous tiger, who is quite dangerous (“the fearful symmetry”).
This dangerous beast is blamed upon God
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?
[The lamb is addressed in a poem from Songs of Innocence.]
In that poem, Blake asks
And what shoulder & what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
In Tirzah, Blake blames the heart upon the earth – the physical part. Is God from Tyger the equivalent of mother in Tirzah? Is his heart cruel like the tigers, or is it merely the product of another’s cruelty? Does his heart give rise to the outrages elsewhere discussed in Songs of Experience?
This discussion of the senses in Tirzah also sits uneasily with Blake’s longer work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
In that poem, Blake praises physical desire as “energy” and writes such “Proverbs of Hell” as
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
This mortal body of energy is now the moulder of cruelty and death. Does he celebrate the energy of the body, or does he see it as destructive?
Didst close my tongue in useless clay
And me to mortal life betray
The death of Jesus set me free
Then what have I to do with thee?
Jesus, in a Gnostic vein, is used as a trope to argue for an utter freedom from the “useless clay” of the body. How exactly Jesus’ death performs this feat is not clearly stated.
The question then becomes, does this poem reflect a change in Blake’s thinking (it would not be accurate to say that his earlier position was purely a sex-drugs-rock-n-roll ethos, but it was certainly not conventional middle class anachronistically called Victorian piety)? Blake constantly writes with great irony. His poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell seeks a new negotiation of the body and soul along his idiosyncratic lines.
But in this poem, one could read it as a movement beyond his earlier position (which was written during the early days of the French Revolution) to more escapist, Gnostic vision — complete with the common aspect of Gnostic asceticism due to its distrust of the body.
And one final question, should the context of Blake’s personal life be used to answer the question of what Blake means by this poem?