Saturday, October 8, 2016

Poems I Journey With 22

Portrait of William Blake by Thomas Phillips
History has always thrown up amazing geniuses. There can be few more talented and extraordinary than William Blake (1757-1827). The list of his accomplishments is wide and varied: poet, artist, engraver, mystic and prophet. We are all acquainted with his simpler lyrics and even with his more popular engravings from our school days. However, behind these seemingly effortless and simple verses lies a complex and talented man of vision. Behind the popular engravings lurks a restless soul and talented artist.

Reading his poetry and studying his paintings and engravings can bring much pleasure and not a little insight into Blake's mystical and prophetic vision, both dimensions of which were so sui generis as to make his work in poetry and engraving individual and non-derivative to a fault. 

Before setting out to read Blake, one should realize that he was almost completely self-taught. This would probably account for much of his unconventional spelling and punctuation, and for his inconsistent use of terminology in his longer and more complex works. Also it is important to bear in mind that he was rebellious in spirit and just did not like to conform. He was original to a fault. Having spent seven years as an apprentice engraver, he progressed to study art at the Royal Academy but quit after a year because he rebelled against the aesthetic doctrines of its president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. 

In writing his poetry, Blake also broke with convention by rejecting the high neoclassical style and modes of thought then current, preferring a simple and direct style – the language of the ordinary people that prefigures by some twenty years Wordsworth’s pursuit of the same goal – as exemplified in his lyrics. He was a nonconformist in religion, being born into a Dissenting tradition that encouraged extemporary hymn-singing. Hence, much of his religious thoughts were unorthodox and even heretical by the standards of the more orthodox Christian churches. However, having borne these preliminary qualifications in mind, we can still find his writings inspiring and personally enriching.

This evening I wish to offer the reader a copy of William Blake’s wonderful and much anthologized lyric "The Tyger" to read and to reflect meditatively upon.  Immediately, if you are a lover of Blake’s poems you will be struck forcefully by the strong contrast with the poem "The Lamb." ("Little Lamb, who made thee? //Dost thou know who made thee?" The answer is, of course, God, who became incarnate as Jesus the Lamb.) Here in this lyric "The Tyger," Blake asks the rhetorical question, "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" And the answer is, of course, "Yes, God made the Tyger too."

A copy of the original engraving of Tyger by Blake

If we are to appreciate and understand "The Tyger" as fully as we possibly can, we need to know Blake's symbols. One of the central themes in his major works is that the Creator of the world is a great blacksmith. This is both God the Creator (personified in Blake's myth as Los) and Blake himself (again with Los as his alter-ego.) As an engraver and as an artist, Blake identified God's creative process with the work of anyone engaged in any artistic pursuits.

Blake's story of creation differs from the Genesis account – as I’ve already pointed out he is totally unorthodox in his personal beliefs, and this is something that endears him to the present writer as he had the courage to be wholly different at a time when it was simply anathema to be so. The familiar world was created only after a cosmic catastrophe according to Blake. The longer books that Blake wrote describe Los's creation of animals and people within the world of nature after that catastrophe. One particularly powerful passage in "Milton" describes Los's family weaving the bodies of each unborn child.

In believing that creation followed a cosmic catastrophe and a fall of spiritual beings into the atoms of matter, Blake recalls the early heresy of Gnosticism, a multi-faceted religious movement that had run parallel to mainstream Christianity. Unlike most other Gnosticizers, Blake considered our own world to be a fine and wonderful place, but one that would ultimately give way to a restored universe. Blake believed that his own visions, which included end-of-the-world or apocalyptic images and sometimes a sense of cosmic oneness, prefigured this restored world, and that his art would help raise others "to the perception of the infinite." For Blake as for St. Irenaeus, the purpose of creation is as a place for our own growth, where we are allowed to mature through our encountering very rough experiences of evil in its many manifestations in preparation for the beginning of our real lives. On the one hand, while the natural world contained much that is gentle and innocent (which we read about in the wonderful lyrics of "Songs of Innocence"), those who are experienced with life ("Songs of Experience") know that there is also much that is terrible and frightening. In other words, what I am getting at here is that the "fearful symmetry" we read about in “The Tyger” is the paradoxical contrast between the gentleness of the lamb and the fierceness of the  tiger – in other words we have here the paradoxical mix of innocence and experience in the one poem.
The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright, 
In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

In what distant deeps or skies 
Burnt the fire of thine eyes? 
On what wings dare he aspire? 
What the hand dare seize the fire? 

And what shoulder, & what art, 
Could twist the sinews of thy heart? 
And when thy heart began to beat, 
What dread hand? & what dread feet? 

What the hammer? what the chain? 
In what furnace was thy brain? 
What the anvil? what dread grasp 
Dare its deadly terrors clasp? 

When the stars threw down their spears, 
And water'd heaven with their tears, 
Did he smile his work to see? 
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright 
In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye 
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? 

No comments:

Post a Comment