Blake was never so full of poetry as when brimming over with doctrine. Should anyone be depressed by the faded and scentless rhymes of a teacher here, or a teacher there, until he is inclined to become himself the worst and most prosaic of all by giving forth as a critical law the absurd maxim that poetry should not teach, because teaching is unsuited to poetry—Blake is here to put him to shame and silence.
The very first lesson the Songs contain is in itself sufficient to account for their unfailing poetic spring, all doctrinal though they be. For it teaches the very method of the making of such song, and is, in fact, Blake's one great, if brief, Essay on Poetry. It tells us how the poet went piping songs down a valley. The pipe is of all instruments the early and elementary type of wordless music. But the poet already gave forth songs, while as yet he only used the pipe. The intention is the life in these things. He meant what he piped for songs, and they were songs. A child on a cloud understood him and even ordered a song to be piped on a definite subject—a song about a Lamb. Not until the poet had done this was he bid to drop his pipe and sing, and then to write the songs. Here, then, is the order of the generation of these poems. First, the intention, then the melody, then the words, and finally the recording pen. Do all poets with a purpose allow their songs to grow into existence through this healthful and natural order of change? Do they not habitually begin with the pen? The secret of the difference between Blake and so many others is not far to seek. But the process of making songs does not tell us all about them. We should know something of the ancestry of the convictions and emotions from which the very meaning has its birth. The reader takes the songs first, and if he enjoys them, may perhaps care to look for a meaning afterwards. But the poet began with the meaning, which first took the form of songs by love of the musical impulse, itself a part of the same mind,—an Eve of the otherwise childless Adam. In Blake's poetry the meaning is easy to find when once we know the man. He did not often write obscurely. Twenty-five years ago, Mr. Swinburne said in his really magnificent essay on Blake, which has every merit except interpretation, and will sometimes even partly unlock the magical secret which it praises so generously:—
"It is pleasant enough to commend and enjoy the palpable excellence of Blake's work; but another thing is simply and thoroughly requisite—to understand what the workman was after. First get well hold of the mystic and you will then at once get a better view of the painter and poet. And if through fear of tedium or offence a student refuses to be at such pains, he will find himself, while following Blake's trace as a poet and painter, brought up sharply within a very short tether."—P. 127.
Mr. Swinburne himself confesses that he was not sufficiently "at such pains" as he recommends. The same Essay says of this Mystic of whom we are "to get well hold":—