William Blake is the most baffling of men. He is both brilliant, ridiculous, and insane. From a book about him which I intend to read:
I live in a hole here, but God has a beautiful mansion for me elsewhere,” Blake once said. He knew that he was pitied by the occasional prosperous artist who visited, but he thought that it was he who should be pitying them. “I possess my visions and peace,” he argued. “They have bartered their birthright for a mess of pottage.” Robinson was struck on that first visit by how at ease the Blakes seemed with their poverty. “I should be sorry if I had any earthly fame, for whatever natural glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory,” Blake told him. Despite how the world had treated him he was quite happy, he insisted, because he wanted nothing other than to live for art and had no desire to do anything for profit.
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?
Schopenhauer now says that one must learn from experience:
To live a life that shall be entirely prudent and discreet, and to draw from experience all the instruction it contains, it is requisite to be constantly thinking back,–to make a kind of recapitulation of what we have done, of our impressions and sensations, to compare our former with our present judgments–what we set before us and struggle to achieve, with the actual result and satisfaction we have obtained. To do this is to get a repetition of the private lessons of experience,–lessons which are given to every one.
This is the sort of advice that sounds good until it is considered. It is remarkable how thin most wisdom becomes when it obtains some attention.
William Blake in the Proverbs of Hell from the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, we read:
Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
We all speak generically of having learned from our experience. But what and how precisely do we learn anything from experience? Experience alone cannot teach us anything. It certainly cannot teach us either contentment or happiness.
The learning takes place upon the basis of some basic structure, some values or propositions which tell me what to value and what to avoid. The experience can at most tell me the extent to which my suppositions about the world are work out in practice.
Let us say I learn that purposeful cruelty to other human beings results in their sorrow and pain. I see that happen on so many occasions that I conclude on the basis of induction that it will be true for all other persons I have never met. Now, experience has taught me a correlation between two events.
But experience alone does not tell me whether the pain I have inflicted is good or bad. I know that it is evil to purposefully provoke sorrow and pain, not on the basis of experience but upon some ethic which I had prior to my experience.
The infamous Marquis De Sade drew a very different conclusion from precisely the same experience. Experience did not teach the evil or cruelty. Experience can only demonstrate but not teach.
A life-long libertine learns nothing from the road of excess, except perhaps empirical facts about the results of his conduct. But nothing teaches him happiness or contentment. So, we first must begin by limiting our trust in experience as a teacher. It does teach some empirical information, but it does not teach us that means.
Let us take another comparison with Blake’s Proverbs. They both say that experience teaches – Blake in a much more memorable manner. But the next proverb of Blake proves the point that experience merely demonstrates or at best teaches facts but not values.
Schopenhauer commends experience as a way to learn prudence: Presumably we are to learn what sorts of things result in unpleasant experiences, and thereby avoid such experiences. Schopenhauer sees prudence as the goal of learning by experience.
But Blake commends precisely the opposite:
Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
Blake here turns Schopenhauer on his head. For Schopenhauer, experiences teaches prudence. Blake says that experience teaches – indeed the most excessive experiences are the surest are the surest paths to wisdom. The wisdom in Blake’s hellish proverbs is that prudence is a failure; it is lack and incapacity.
If we consider Blake and Schopenhauer from a distance, how do we decide between the two? Certainly not on the basis of experience, because the conclusion of both is made upon the basis of experience. And, an argument can be made that experience does teach both prudence and the painful constriction of prudence.
How does one choose between the two and conclude that one or the other is wisdom?
We will take a third voice in our consideration of experience as a basis to gain wisdom. In the second chapter of Ecclesiastes, we read of Solomon’s experience. He obtained all that the world could possibly provide; he rebuilt a veritable Eden from endless wealth and tremendous power:
Ecclesiastes 2:3–10 (ESV)
3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.
9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.
Solomon certainly took Blake’s advice to heart and full followed the road of excess. But what conclusion did Solomon gain?
Ecclesiastes 2:11 (ESV)
11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
This is the most negative evaluation in the entire book. Solomon learned that there was nothing of value in experience. He learned that experience amounts to nothing. In fact, he learned that wisdom adds nothing because it cannot save from death:
Ecclesiastes 2:14–15 (ESV)
14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity.
In fact, experience teaches that we die. What wisdom is there in seeing death? What would constitute wisdom in light of death? What does prudence provide if I will die? What does excess teach if it runs into death. What palace of wisdom stands before us?
This is a brutal poem by William Blake. But then everything in Songs of Experience is brutal. The sing-song rhythms, the clipped meter (for instance the “Crying”, with the accept falling on the first syllable seems almost insistant), the childish ‘weep (rather than “sweep”) all make the irony more bitter.
Moreover, the attack of Blake oddly runs in a manner consistent with Christianity (although not always ‘Christianity’ as practiced). Jesus forbad misuse of the weak. In perhaps the strongest section of such argument, Jesus said that on Judgment Day he will evaluate all human actions as if he were the recipient:
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’
45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. Matthew 25:41-46.
Jesus must never be thought of as one distant from human suffering, but rather as one who willingly entered into human suffering. Blake saw a God as wholly transcendent above his creation, merely shouting down rules and limitations. He was being deliberately subversive (which I thought very cool when I was in college); but it is a thought which doesn’t wear well.
That being said, The Chimney Sweeper is a remarkable poem.
A little black thing among the snow,
Crying “weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother? say?”
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.
Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.”