Contemplating Blake

For quite sometime now, William Blake’s Poems and Prophecies had been Everyman's Library Editionstaring at me from my bookshelf. Therefore, I finally have started reading it. I have finished the Songs of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Each word of Blake seems to be worth contemplating for ages.

My first introduction to Blake’s words was through Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Colin Wilson in this masterpiece not only described the social problem of ‘the outsider’, but also studied the various solutions lived by certain outsiders. One of the solutions was Blake. Blake happens to be one of those first artists who lived what has today become famous as the ‘spiritual religion’. His poems deal quite often with life’s ultimate questions, but with majestic simplicity. Like all artists, ‘truth’ holds a special position for him and after some arguments, he declares as a primary truth – Energy is eternal delight. Complete dismissal of all dogmatic religious practices, Blake lives in his own world where “Man has no body distinct from his soul“. “If the doors of perception are cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Blake probably was the first of the Prophets amongst the artists.

Every single poem in the collection titled Songs of Experience is a human portrait painted in beautiful words with Blake’s extraordinary insight into human condition. Some lines from the collection as evidence:

(Nurse’s Song): Your spring & your day are wasted in play, / And your winter and night in disguise.

(The Garden of Love): And Priests in black gown were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars my joys & desires.

(A Little Girl Lost): Know that in a former time / Love! Sweet Love! Was thought a crime.

I was amazed while reading The Marriage of Heaven and Hell for its surprising parallels with Nietzsche’s thought. Energy is eternal delight. Pure Will, without the confusions of intellect – how happy, how free. Blake’s Energy is Nietzsche’s Pure Will. As Blake says, Energy is the only life and is from the Body, and reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.

Finally I leave you with a few lines from my favourite poem by Blake called The Fly. Interpretation of these are mysteriously wide and vague – insights into which are welcome:

If thought is life
And strength & breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly
If I live
Or if I die.

8 responses to “Contemplating Blake

  1. Beautiful post. I read Blake in college and then again within a Catholic setting in 1998. I think it was entitled The Biblical Vision of William Blake or something like that and was led by a priest who was a professor of literature. I don’t remember where he was from or what his expertise was. But I very much enjoyed the discussion.

    This is one of my favorite quotes: “If the doors of perception are cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

    It’s interesting that you found correlations between Nietzsche’s thought and Blake’s.

    I don’t remember reading “The Fly”. I really like that poem, too. Seems like he was anticipating we meaning junkies. Happiness transcends thought?

  2. On the interpretation of ‘Fly’, there are two ways I can read it and both lead to contradictory interpretations.
    First is similar to yours where you read ‘want of thought’ as ‘looking for thought’ or meaning. Something similar to Kipling’s lines, “If you can think but not let thoughts be your aim.”.
    Second possible way to read ‘want of thought’ is to read it as a lack of any thought. Plus, because of the last couple of lines, can’t gel the poem together.

    I went back to read the portion where Colin Wilson discusses Blake and found that he has also mentioned the similarities between him and Nietzsche. Actually he traces the similarities in a very interesting way. Should write a post on that soon.

  3. I read “want” of thought as absent of thought. As in, I think therefore I am. If I don’t think, I am not and therefore dead. (Anti-Cartesian?)

  4. I assume you know exactly what it is mean by my quick comment based on all of our discussion but thought I should clarify just to be sure.

    The way I read it is that contrary to Descarte, “thought” has nothing to do with our existence. Therefore we can be just as happy with thought as without it. If I remember correctly, Blake wrote specifically against the Mind/Body split that had been originally proposed by Descartes and was becoming a very big deal in Blake’s day. (Age of Reason, etc.)

  5. A possible interpretation : if thought is of primary importance in life, and thought is missing from me, then is it better for me to die? Very unlikely interpretation to suit Blake.

    Read the interpretation on this page (google books). I think the interpretation here is correct. Simplest poem ever with deepest meaning possible!,M1

  6. No!!!! That is not what I mean at all!!!!!!

    Not that it is better to die. That is not what I mean.

    What I’m saying is that our ability to think or not to think has nothing whatsoever to do with life or death whatsoever. That’s the stuff of Paine’s dualism in his Age of Reasoning that is based on Descartes interpretation of St. Augustine. It’s a human interpretation but isn’t necessarily the meaning we need accept. If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would be perceived as it is -infinite.(Can’t remember the exact wording at the moment – but to me the quote has everything to do with the poem.)

    I’ll read the link you provided tomorrow. My son and I are just finishing watching Waking Life by Richard Linklater. (My son took a bathroom break so have to be quick. 🙂 )

    • Was reading this today and laughed at your reaction to my reply above. I winced at my reply myself. We grow. I was naive. I see the poem very clearly now. I am amazed that I did not even see any possibility of this when I wrote this post. You were correct and I absolutely did not get you then.
      I think Blake starts with a statement that is considered a universal truth by the ‘meaning junkies’, as you call it. He demolishes that presumption by a rhetoric about a ‘thoughtless’ fly.

  7. No Arulba, never meant that was your interpretation. I was only saying that it could be a possible interpretation but has to be rejected as it does not gel with Blake’s ideas. Don’t worry. I know at least enough not to presume that you would interpret it that way 🙂

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