Life of William Blake (1880), Volume 2/Ideas of good and evil
IDEAS OF GOOD AND EVIL.
In the MS. Note-book, to which frequent reference has been made in the Life, a page stands inscribed with the heading given above. It seems uncertain how much of the book's contents such title may have been meant to include; but it is now adopted here as a not inappropriate summarizing endorsement for the precious section which here follows. In doing so, Mr. Swinburne's example (in his Essay on Blake) has been followed, as regards pieces drawn from the Note-book.
The contents of the present section are derived partly from the Note-book in question, and partly from another small autograph collection of different matter, somewhat more fairly copied. The poems have been reclaimed, as regards the first-mentioned source, from as chaotic a mass as could well be imagined; amid which it has sometimes been necessary either to omit, transpose, or combine, so as to render available what was very seldom found in a final state. And even in the pieces drawn from the second source specified above, means of the same kind have occasionally been resorted to, where they seemed to lessen obscurity or avoid redundance. But with all this, there is nothing throughout that is not faithfully Blake's own.
One piece in this series (The Two Songs) may be regarded as a different version of the Human Abstract, occurring in the Songs of Experience. This new form is certainly the finer one, I think, by reason of its personified character, which adds greatly to the force of the impression produced. It is, indeed, one of the finest things Blake ever did, really belonging, by its vivid completeness, to the order of perfect short poems,—never a very large band, even when the best poets are ransacked to recruit it. Others among the longer poems of this section, which are, each in its own way, truly admirable, are Broken Love, Mary, and Auguries of Innocence.
It is but too probable that the piece called Broken Love has a recondite bearing on the bewilderments of Blake's special mythology. But besides a soul suffering in such limbo, this poem has a recognisable body penetrated with human passion. From this point of view, never, perhaps, have the agony and perversity of sundered affection been more powerfully (however singularly) expressed than here.
The speaker is one whose soul has been intensified by pain to be his only world, among the scenes, figures, and events of which he moves as in a new state of being. The emotions have been quickened and isolated by conflicting torment, till each is a separate companion. There is his 'spectre,' the jealous pride which scents in the snow the footsteps of the beloved rejected woman, but is a wild beast to guard his way from reaching her; his 'emanation' which silently weeps within him, for has not he also sinned? So they wander together in 'a fathomless and boundless deep,' the morn full of tempests and the night of tears. Let her weep, he says, not for his sins only, but for her own; nay, he will cast his sins upon her shoulders too; they shall be more and more till she come to him again. Also this woe of his can array itself in stately imagery. He can count separately how many of his soul's affections the knife she stabbed it with has slain, how many yet mourn over the tombs which he has built for these: he can tell, too, of some that still watch around his bed, bright sometimes with ecstatic passion of melancholy and crowning his mournful head with vine. All these living forgive her transgressions: when will she look upon them, that the dead may live again? Has she not pity to give for pardon? nay, does he not need her pardon too? He cannot seek her, but oh! if she would return! Surely her place is ready for her, and bread and wine of forgiveness of sins.
The Crystal Cabinet and the Mental Traveller belong to a truly mystical order of poetry. The former is a lovely piece of lyrical writing, but certainly has not the clearness of crystal. Yet the meaning of such among Blake's compositions, as this is, may sometimes be missed chiefly through seeking for a sense more recondite than was really meant. A rather intricate interpretation was attempted here in the first edition of these Selections. Mr. W. M. Rossetti has probably since found the true one in his simple sentence: "This poem seems to me to represent, under a very ideal form, the phenomena of gestation and birth" (see the Aldine edition of Blake's Poems, page 174). The singular stanza commencing "Another England there I saw," &c., may thus be taken to indicate quaintly that the undeveloped creature, half sentient and half conscious, has a world of its own akin in somewise to the country of its birth.
The Mental Traveller seemed at first a hopeless riddle; and the editor of these Selections must confess to having been on the point of omitting it, in spite of its high poetic beauty, as incomprehensible. He is again indebted to his brother for the clear-sighted, and no doubt correct, exposition which is now printed with it, and brings its full value to light.
The poem of Mary appears to be, on one side, an allegory of the poetic or spiritual mind moving unrecognised and reviled among its fellows; and this view of it is corroborated when we find Blake applying to himself two lines almost identically taken from it, in the last of the Letters to Mr. Butts printed in the Life. But the literal meaning may be accepted, too, as a hardly extreme expression of the rancour and envy so constantly attending pre-eminent beauty in women.
A most noble, though surpassingly quaint example of Blake's loving sympathy with all forms of created life, as well as of the kind of oracular power which he possessed of giving vigorous expression to abstract or social truths, will be found in the Auguries of Innocence. It is a somewhat tangled skein of thought, but stored throughout with the riches of simple wisdom.
Quaintness reaches its climax in William Bond, which may be regarded as a kind of glorified street-ballad. One point that requires to be noted is that the term 'fairies' is evidently used to indicate passionate emotions, while 'angels' are spirits of cold coercion. The close of the ballad is very beautiful. It is not long since there seemed to dawn on the present writer a meaning in this ballad not discovered before. Should we not connect it with the line In a Myrtle Shade (page 118), the meaning of which is obvious to all knowers of Blake as bearing on marriage? And may not 'William Bond' thus be William Blake, the bondman of the 'lovely myrtle tree'? It is known that the shadow of jealousy, far from unfounded, fell on poor Catherine Blake's married life at one moment, and it has been stated that this jealousy culminated in a terrible and difficult crisis. We ourselves can well imagine that this ballad is but a literal relation, with such emotional actors, of some transfiguring trance and passion of mutual tears from which Blake arose no longer 'bond' to his myrtle-tree, but with that love, purged of all drossier element, whose last death-bed accent was, "Kate, you have ever been an angel to me!"
The ballad of William Bond has great spiritual beauties, whatever its meaning; and it is one of only two examples, in this form, occurring among Blake's lyrics. The other is called Long John Brown and Little Mary Bell, and perhaps the reader may be sufficiently surprised without it.
The shorter poems, and even the fragments, afford many instances of that exquisite metrical gift and rightness in point of form which constitute Blake's special glory among his contemporaries, even more eminently perhaps than the grander command of mental resources which is also his. Such qualities of pure perfection in writing verse, as he perpetually, without effort, displayed, are to be met with among those elder poets whom he loved, and such again are now looked upon as the peculiar trophies of a school which has arisen since his time; but he alone (let it be repeated and remembered) possessed them then, and possessed them in clear completeness. Colour and metre, these are the true patents of nobility in painting and poetry, taking precedence of all intellectual claims; and it is by virtue of these, first of all, that Blake holds, in both arts, a rank which cannot be taken from him.Of the Epigrams on Art, which conclude this section, a few are really pointed, others amusingly irascible,—all more or less a sort of nonsense verses, and not even pretending to be much else. To enter into their reckless spirit of doggrel, it is almost necessary to see the original note-book in which they occur, which continually testifies, by sudden exclamatory entries, to the curious degree of boyish impulse which was one of Blake's characteristics. It is not improbable that such names as Rembrandt, Reubens, Correggio, Reynolds, may have met the reader's eye before in a very different sort of context from that which surrounds them in the surprising poetry of this their brother artist; and certainly they are made to do service here as scarecrows to the crops of a rather jealous husbandman. And for all that, I have my strong suspicions that the same amount of disparagement of them uttered to instead of by our good Blake, would have elicited, on his side, a somewhat different estimate. These phials of his wrath, however, have no poison but merely some laughing gas in them so now that we are setting the laboratory a little in order, let these, too, come down from their dusty upper shelf.
He. Where thou dwellest, in what grove,
Tell me, fair one, tell me, love,
Where thou thy charming nest dost build,
O thou pride of every field!
She. Yonder stands a lonely tree,
There I live and mourn for thee;
Morning drinks my silent tear,
And evening winds my sorrow bear.
He. O thou summer's harmony,
have lived and mourned for thee;
Each day I mourn along the wood,
And night hath heard my sorrows loud.
She. Dost thou truly long for me?
And am I thus sweet to thee
Sorrow now is at an end,
O my lover and my friend!
He. Come! on wings of joy we'll fly
To where my bower is hung on high;
Come, and make thy calm retreat
Among green leaves and blossoms sweet.
My Spectre around me night and day
Dost thou not in pride and scorn
When wilt thou return, and view
THE TWO SONGS.
I heard an Angel singing
When the day was springing:
'Mercy, Pity, and Peace
Are the world's release.'
So he sang all day
Over the new-mown hay,
Till the sun went down,
And haycocks looked brown.
I heard a Devil curse
Over the heath and the furze:
'Mercy could be no more
If there were nobody poor.
And Pity no more could be
If all were happy as ye:
And mutual fear brings Peace.
Are Mercy, Pity, Peace.'
At his curse the sun went down,
And the heavens gave a frown.
THE DEFILED SANCTUARY.
I saw a chapel all of gold
That none did dare to enter in,
And many weeping stood without,
Weeping, mourning, worshipping.
I saw a serpent rise between
The white pillars of the door,
And he forced and forced and forced
Till he the golden hinges tore:
And along the pavement sweet,
Set with pearls and rubies bright,
All his shining length he drew,
Till upon the altar white
He vomited his poison out
On the bread and on the wine.
So I turned into a sty,
And laid me down among the swine.'
Why was Cupid a boy,
And why a boy was he?
He should have been a girl,
For aught that I can see.
For he shoots with his bow,
And the girl shoots with her eye,
And they both are merry and glad,
And laugh when we do cry.
Then to make Cupid a boy
Was surely a woman's plan.
For a boy never learns so much
Till he has become a man:
And then he's so pierced with cares
And wounded with arrowy smarts.
That the whole business of his life
Is to pick out the heads of the darts
THE WOMAN TAKEN IN ADULTERY.
(Extracted from a Fragmentary Poem, entitled 'The Everlasting Gospel.')
The vision of Christ that thou dost see
* * * * *
Jesus sat in Moses' chair;
'To be good only, is to be
Never seek to tell thy love,
Love that never told can be!
For the gentle wind doth move
I told my love, I told my love,
I told her all my heart,
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears.
Ah! she did depart.
Soon after she was gone from me
A traveller came by,
He took her with a sigh.
THE WILD FLOWER'S SONG.
As I wandered in the forest
The green leaves among,
I heard a wild-flower
Singing a song.
'I slept in the earth
'In the silent night,
'I murmured my fears
'And I felt delight.
'In the morning I went,
'As rosy as morn,
'To seek for new joy,
'But I met with scorn.'
The maiden caught me in the wild,
I strove to seize the inmost form
There is a smile of Love,
And there is a smile of Deceit,
And there is a smile of smiles
In which the two smiles meet.
And there is a frown of Hate,
And there is a frown of Disdain,
And there is a frown of frowns
Which you strive to forget in vain.
For it sticks in the heart's deep core.
And it sticks in the deep backbone.
And no smile ever was smiled
But only one smile alone
(And betwixt the cradle and grave
It only once smiled can be),
That when it once is smiled
There's an end to all misery.
Beneath a white-thorn's lovely May,
Three virgins at the break of day:—
'Whither, young man, whither away?
Alas for woe! alas for woe!'
They cry, and tears for ever flow.
The first was clothed in flames of fire,
The second clothed in iron wire;
The third was clothed in tears and sighs,
Dazzling bright before my eyes.
They bore a net of golden twine
To hang upon the branches fine.
Pitying I wept to see the woe
That love and beauty undergo—
To be clothed in burning fires
And in ungratified desires,
And in tears clothed night and day;
It melted all my soul away.
When they saw my tears, a smile
That might heaven itself beguile
Bore the golden net aloft,
As on downy pinions soft,
Over the morning of my day.
Underneath the net I stray,
Now intreating Flaming-fire,
Now intreating Iron-wire,
Now intreating Tears-and-sighs.—
O when will the morning rise!
'Awake, awake, my little boy!
Thou wast thy mother's only joy;
Why dost thou weep in thy gentle sleep?
O wake! thy father doth thee keep.
'O what land is the land of dreams?
What are its mountains and what are its streams?
'O father! I saw my mother there,
Among the lilies by waters fair.
'Among the lambs clothed in white,
She walked with her Thomas in sweet delight.
I wept for joy, like a dove I mourn—
when shall I again return!'
'Dear child! I also by pleasant streams
Have wandered all night in the land of dreams.
But, though calm and warm the waters wide
I could not get to the other side.'
'Father, O father! what do we here,
In this land of unbelief and fear?
The land of dreams is better far,
Above the light of the morning star.'
Sweet Mary, the first time she ever was there,
'To be weak as a lamb and smooth as a dove,
To see a world in a grain of sand
Naught can deform the human race
He who replies to words of doubt
The 'Mental Traveller' indicates an explorer of mental phænomena. The mental phænomenon here symbolized seems to be the career of any great Idea or intellectual movement—as, for instance, Christianity, chivalry, art, &c.—represented as going through the stages of—1. birth, 2. adversity and persecution, 3. triumph and maturity, 4. decadence through over-ripeness, 5. gradual transformation, under new conditions, into another renovated Idea, which again has to pass through all the same stages. In other words, the poem represents the action and re-action of Ideas upon society, and of society upon Ideas.
Argument of the stanzas: 2. The Idea, conceived with pain, is born amid enthusiasm. 3. If of masculine, enduring nature, it falls under the control and ban of the already existing state of society (the woman old). 5. As the Idea develops, the old society becomes moulded into a new society (the old woman grows young). 6. The Idea, now free and dominant, is united to society, as it were in wedlock. 8. It gradually grows old and effete, living now only upon the spiritual treasures laid up in the days of its early energy. 10. These still subserve many purposes of practical good, and outwardly the Idea is in its most flourishing estate, even when sapped at its roots. 11. The halo of authority and tradition, or prestige, gathering round the Idea, is symbolized in the resplendent babe born on his hearth. 13. This prestige deserts the Idea itself, and attaches to some individual, who usurps the honour due only to the Idea (as we may see in the case of papacy, royalty, &c.); and the Idea is eclipsed by its own very prestige, and assumed living representative. 14. The Idea wanders homeless till it can find a new community to mould ('until he can a maiden win'). 15 to 17. Finding whom, the Idea finds itself also living under strangely different conditions. 18. The Idea is now "beguiled to infancy"—becomes a new Idea, in working upon a fresh community, and under altered conditions. 20. Nor are they yet thoroughly at one; she flees away while he pursues. 22. Here we return to the first state of the case. The Idea starts upon a new course—is a babe; the society it works upon has become an old society—no longer a fair virgin, but an aged woman. 24. The Idea seems so new and unwonted that, the nearer it is seen, the more consternation it excites. 26. None can deal with the Idea so as to develop it to the full, except the old society with which it comes into contact; and this can deal with it only by misusing it at first, whereby (as in the previous stage, at the opening of the poem) it is to be again disciplined into ultimate triumph.
I travelled through a land of men,
For there the babe is born in joy
And if the babe is born a boy,
She binds strong thorns around his head,
Her fingers number every nerve
Till he becomes a bleeding youth,
He plants himself in all her nerves
An aged shadow soon he fades,
And these are the gems of the human soul,
They are his meat, they are his drink;
His grief is their eternal joy,
And she is all of solid fire
But she comes to the man she loves,
He wanders weeping far away,
And to allay his freezing age,
The guests are scattered through the land;
The stars, sun, moon, all shrink away,
The honey of her infant lips,
For as he eats and drinks he grows
Like the wild stag she flees away;
By various arts of love and hate,
Till he becomes a wayward babe,
The trees bring forth sweet ecstasy
But when they find the frowning babe,
For who dare touch the frowning form,
And none can touch that frowning form
To a lovely myrtle bound,
Blossoms showering all around,
O how weak and weary I
Underneath my myrtle lie!
Why should I be bound to thee,
O my lovely myrtle tree?
Love, free love, cannot be bound
To any tree that grows on ground.
I wonder whether the girls are mad,
'Yes, Mary, I do another love,
Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau,
Mock on, mock on; 'tis all in vain;
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back, they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel's paths they shine.
The atoms of Democritus
And Newton's particles of light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore
Where Israel's tents do shine so bright.
'I see, I see,' the mother said,
'For a tear is an intellectual thing,
To find the western path,
Right through the gates of wrath
I urge my way;
Sweet morning leads me on;
With soft repentant moan
I see the break of day.
The war of swords and spears,
Melted by dewy tears,
Exhales on high;
The sun is freed from fears,
And with soft grateful tears
Ascends the sky.
THAMES AND OHIO.
Why should I care for the men of Thames
And the cheating waters of chartered streams;
Or shrink at the little blasts of fear
That the hireling blows into mine ear?
Though born on the cheating banks of Thames-
Though his waters bathed my infant limbs—
The Ohio shall wash his stains from me;
I was born a slave, but I go to be free.
Are not the joys of morning sweeter
Than the joys of night?
And are the vigorous joys of youth
Ashamed of the light?
Let age and sickness silent rob
The vineyard in the night;
But those who burn with vigorous youth
Pluck fruits before the light.
Since all the riches of this world
May be gifts from the devil and earthly kings,
I should suspect that I worshipped the devil
If I thanked my God for worldly things.
The countless gold of a merry heart,
The rubies and pearls of a loving eye,
The idle man never can bring to the mart
Nor the cunning hoard up in his treasury.
He who bends to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise.
If you trap the moment before it's ripe,
The tears of repentance you'll certainly wipe;
But if once you let the ripe moment go
You can never wipe off the tears of woe.
'Thou hast a lapful of seed
And this a fair country.
Why dost thou not cast thy seed
And live in it merrily?'
'Shall I cast it on the sand
And turn it into fruitful land?
For on no other ground can I sow my seed
Without tearing up some stinking weed.'
I feared the fury of my wind
Would blight all blossoms fair and true ;
And my sun it shined and shined,
And my wind it never blew.
But a blossom fair or true
Was not found on any tree;
For all blossoms grew and grew
Fruitless, false, though fair to see.
NIGHT AND DAY.
Silent, silent Night,
Quench the holy light
Of thy torches bright ;
For, possessed of Day,
Thousand spirits stray
That sweet joys betray.
Why should joys be sweet
Usèd with deceit,
Nor with sorrows meet?
But an honest joy
Doth itself destroy
For a harlot coy.
LOVE AND DECEIT.
Love to faults is always blind,
Always is to joy inclin'd,
Lawless, winged and unconfin'd,
And breaks all chains from every mind.
Deceit, to secrecy inclin'd,
Moves lawful, courteous and refin'd,
To everything but interest blind,
And forges fetters for the mind.
There souls of men are bought and sold,
And milk-fed infancy, for gold,
And youth to slaughter-houses led,
And beauty, for a bit of bread.
COUPLETS AND FRAGMENTS.
I walked abroad on a snowy day,
I asked the soft snow with me to play;
She played and she melted in all her prime;
And the winter called it a dreadful crime.
Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs and flaming hair;
But desire gratified
Plants fruits of life and beauty there.
The look of love alarms,
Because 'tis filled with fire,
But the look of soft deceit
Shall win the lover's hire:
Soft deceit and idleness,
These are beauty's sweetest dress.
To Chloe's breast young Cupid slily stole,
But he crept in at Myra's pocket-hole.
Great things are done when men and mountains meet:
These are not done by jostling in the street.
The errors of a wise man make your rule,
Rather than the perfections of a fool.
Some people admire the work of a fool,
For it's sure to keep your judgment cool:
It does not reproach you with want of wit;
It is not like a lawyer serving a writ.
He's a blockhead who wants a proof of what he can't perceive,
And he's a fool who tries to make such a blockhead believe.
If e'er I grow to man's estate,
O give to me a woman's fate.
May I govern all both great and small,
Have the last word, and take the wall!
Her whole life is an epigram—smack, smooth, and nobly penn'd,
Plaited quite neat to catch applause, with a strong noose at the end.
To forgive enemies Hayley does pretend,
Who never in his life forgave a friend.
You say reserve and modesty he has
Whose heart is iron, his head wood, and his face brass.
The fox, the owl, the spider, and the bat
By sweet reserve and modesty grow fat.
An Answer to the Parson.
Why of the sheep do you not learn peace?
Because I don't want you to shear my fleece.
Here lies John Trot, the friend of all mankind;
He has not left one enemy behind.
Friends were quite hard to find, old authors say;
But now they stand in everybody's way.
Grown old in love from seven till seven times seven,
I oft have wished for hell, for ease from heaven.
Prayers plough not, praises reap not,
Joys laugh not, sorrows weep not.
The Sword sang on the barren heath.
The Sickle in the fruitful field;
The Sword he sang a song of death
But could not make the Sickle yield.
O Lapwing, thou fliest across the heath.
Nor seest the net that is spread beneath:
Why dost thou not fly among the corn-fields?
They cannot spread nets where a harvest yields.
The Angel that presided o'er my birth
Said: "Little creature, formed of joy and mirth,
Go, love without the help of anything on earth."
EPIGRAMS AND SATIRICAL PIECES ON ART AND ARTISTS.
I asked of my dear friend orator Prig:
'What's the first part of oratory?' He said: 'A great wig.'
'And what is the second?' Then, dancing a jig
And bowing profoundly, he said: 'A great wig,'
'And what is the third?' Then he snored like a pig,
And, puffing his cheeks out, replied: 'A great wig.'
So if to a painter the question you push,
'What's the first part of painting?' he'll say: 'A paint-brush.'
'And what is the second?' with most modest blush.
He'll smile like a cherub, and say: 'A paint-brush.'
'And what is the third?' he'll bow like a rush,
With a leer in his eye, and reply: 'A paint-brush.'
Perhaps this is all a painter can want:
But look yonder,—that house is the house of Rembrandt.
'O dear mother Outline, of wisdom most sage.
What's the first part of painting?' She said: 'Patronage.'
'And what is the second to please and engage?'
She frowned like a fury, and said: 'Patronage.'
'And what is the third?' She put off old age.
And smiled like a syren, and said: 'Patronage.'
Oft the great encouragement given by English Nobility and Gentry to Correggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Catalani, and Dilberry Doodle.
Give pensions to the learned pig,
As the ignorant savage will sell his own wife
Seeing a Rembrandt or Correggio,
Of crippled Harry I think and slobbering Joe ;
And then I question thus : Are artists' rules
To be drawn from the works of two manifest fools ?
Then God defend us from the Arts, I say;
For battle, murder, sudden death, let's pray.
Rather than be such a blind human fool,
I'd be an ass, a hog, a worm, a chair, a stool.
To English Connoisseurs.
You must agree that Rubens was a fool,
And yet you make him master of your school,
And give more money for his slobberings
Than you will give for Raphael's finest things.
I understood Christ was a carpenter,
And not a brewer's servant, my good Sir.
Sir Joshua praises Michael Angelo;
'Tis Christian meekness thus to praise a foe:—
But 'twould be madness, all the world would say,
Should Michael Angelo praise Sir Joshua.
Christ used the Pharisees in a rougher way.
You call me mad; 'tis folly to do so,—
To seek to turn a madman to a foe.
If you think as you speak, you are an ass;
If you do not, you are but what you was.
To the same.
I mock thee not, though I by thee am mockèd;
Thou call'st me madman, but I call thee blockhead.
Thank God, I never was sent to school
To be flogged into following the style of a fool!