327. (William Blake)

A source of strength for William Blake’s sensitivity towards freedom, and all that it can mean and be, is a concomitant apprehension of dependency. To the same extent that he is a poet of the former, he is also a poet of the latter. When he praises contraries and censures negation, he is condemning the impulse to deny an opposition by denying one or both of its parts; negation is not genuine freedom, intellectual or social, for Blake. The dependency that not only permits, but that follows from freedom, is obvious enough in The Songs of Innocence and Experience, which often concern reciprocally sustained relationships; it is also, however, a clue to making humane sense of the prophetic books.

Whatever else is made of the Emanations, Spectres, Orbs, Furnaces, and Looms that populate the fertile void of Blake’s imagination in those long works, the cycles of generation and regeneration, grief, anger, joy, and hope, that animate the myths owe to the only circumstances that Blake clearly establishes for the various figures: the relationships of kinship, dependency, envy, possessiveness, longing, and fear that exist between them. In so far as a key or set of notes is essential to attempting the later books especially (Vala and Milton and Jerusalem), they are valuable mostly because they remind us how one character comes into being thanks to another, in relation to others; the whole drama and circumstance of the books is spun out of the closed system of mythological characters, who ultimately stand for nothing, and can be interpreted upon nothing, except for what they make out of one another—none of whom any one is able to ultimately flee. They are as inescapable to one another as the parts of self are to a person; their conflicts are the conflicts of society as Blake has internalized and dramatized them, and one of the most unusual parts of the mythology is the unstable Russian Doll effect, by which one character lives at once within, and then without of the other. It is as if even the usual coordinates of space (and time, since the myths are retold, each retelling seeming a reenactment rather than a recapitulation) are irrelevant to making sense of where they are located vis-à-vis one another; they can only be determined relationally, so that even when we are told that the Daughters of Beulah or Oolon descend or rise, those terms of orientation mean little except in so far as they move toward Eden or Ulro or Milton or Los. Dependency of one on the others is inseparable from existence.

The prophetic books are themselves dependent on both Los and Enitharmon, where the former is the Prophet and the latter the Muse. Generalizing, it might be that the male Prophetic presence predominates the long poems over time, so that Milton and Jerusalem are both more concerned with masculinity, and also more prophetic in style, than the earlier books, of which the most stunning is Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Growing weary in the first Chapter of Jerusalem, I returned to Visions of the Daughters of Albion to refresh my sense of Blake’s voice, and I was surprised at how different that book felt, how much more I could read it as a poem under the auspices of Enitharmon, the Muse. Rather than divide poetry against prophecy, it is probably safer to divide Los-poetry against Enitharmon-poetry and to suggest that something happens in the course of Blake’s career to move him towards the former. I think the influence of Los makes Blake’s poetry more difficult to read; and I think the reason comes down to another dependency in Blake’s verse that I’ve admittedly not read about (though doubtless there is much written on it, as there is on all of Blake): the relationship between poem, ear, and eye, Blake’s understanding that is fantastic visual imagination must also, in a poem, be sustained by a pliable auditory imagination. Cadence depends on image, and image on cadence in Blake’s poetry.

In Blake’s earlier prophetic books, cadence does different work, and asks readers to do different work, from in the later books. That at least is my impression. Blake certainly does not abandon the care with cadence in the later prophecies. His note to Jerusalem is eloquent on the matter, though also puzzling in starting from the notion that he had to select a cadence for that which was dictated to him:

When this verse was dictated to me I consider’d a Monotonous Cadence like that used by Milton & Shakespeare & all writers of English Blank Verse, derived from the modern bondage of Rhyming; to be a necessary and indispensable part of the Verse. But I soon found that in the mouth of a true Orator such monotony was not only awkward, but as much a bondage as rhyme itself. I therefore have produced a variety in every line, both of cadences & number of syllables. Every word and every letter is studied and put into its fit place: the terrific numbers are reserved for the terrific parts—the mild & gentle, for the mild & gentle parts, and the prosaic, for inferior parts: all are necessary to each other. Poetry Fetter’d, Fetters the Human Race! Nations are Destroy’d, or Flourish, in proportion as Their Poetry Painting and Music, are Destroy’s or Fourish! The Primeval State of Man, was Wisdom, Art, and Science.

Blake would outdo Milton, finding Blank Verse itself a fetter; and yet, within his assertion of liberty from the monotony of blank verse, Blake nonetheless affirms a hierarchy and standard of fitness to which the cadences and syllables will be subordinate, as is suitable. Blake is opposed to fetters, not to fit (the two words cooperate audibly).

To my ear, the overwhelming impression of the verse of Jerusalem is declamatory, the mythological characters asserting Blakean philosophy, bewailing their circumstances, crying out to one another, often plangent. Here, selected somewhat arbitrarily, from Chapter 4, a moment of tenderness rather than prophetic-philosophical exposition:

Los first broke silence & begun to utter his love

O lovely Enitharmon: I behold thy graceful forms

Moving beside me till intoxicated with the woven labyrinth

Of beauty & perfection my wild fibres shoot in veins

Of blood thro all my nervous limbs. soon overgrown in roots

I shall be closed from thy sight, seize therefore in thy hand

The small fibres as they shoot around me draw out in pity

And let them run on the winds of thy bosom: I will fix them

With pulsations, we will divide them into Sons & Daughters

To live in thy Bosom’s translucence in an eternal morning

This is stunning, with “fibres” coming as the first surprise and then the Ovidian “overgrown in roots” and “closed from thy sight” suggesting the fecundity of fate in Blake’s generative-regenerative universe; throughout, the sensual and the affective are at one, and the form of these monstrously beautiful entities who love and need each other is evoked with clarity even as it never settles into anything identifiable or stable; it is like watching a time-lapse of geological formation. Notice especially “draw out in pity…run on the winds of thy bosom…fix them with pulsations…we will divide them.” And the imploring, importunate exhalation of Los’ words carries through the entire passage like a current of air to sweep Enitharmon up and away into his vision.

At the same time, it is difficult to imagine the cadence or tones varying; they do not themselves search out what they are trying to say. Put another way, what Los is saying does not require us to search out or search for moments when the cadence shifts, with the inwardness of self-doubt or self-discovery, and it is such an inwardness that we are not only invited, but required, to feel in Visions of the Daughters of Albion, especially when Theotormon and Bromion respond to Oothon’s plea [the punctuation of the following is modernized, editorial]:

‘Silent I hover all the night, and all day could be silent,        75
If Theotormon once would turn his lovèd eyes upon me.
How can I be defil’d when I reflect thy image pure?
Sweetest the fruit that the worm feeds on, and the soul prey’d on by woe,
The new-wash’d lamb ting’d with the village smoke, and the bright swan
By the red earth of our immortal river. I bathe my wings,        80
And I am white and pure to hover round Theotormon’s breast.’
Then Theotormon broke his silence, and he answerèd:—
‘Tell me what is the night or day to one o’erflow’d with woe?
Tell me what is a thought, and of what substance is it made?
Tell me what is a joy, and in what gardens do joys grow?        85
And in what rivers swim the sorrows? And upon what mountains
Wave shadows of discontent? And in what houses dwell the wretched,
Drunken with woe, forgotten, and shut up from cold despair?
‘Tell me where dwell the thoughts, forgotten till thou call them forth?
Tell me where dwell the joys of old, and where the ancient loves,        90
And when will they renew again, and the night of oblivion past,
That I might traverse times and spaces far remote, and bring
Comforts into a present sorrow and a night of pain?
Where goest thou, O thought? to what remote land is thy flight?
If thou returnest to the present moment of affliction,        95
Wilt thou bring comforts on thy wings, and dews and honey and balm,
Or poison from the desert wilds, from the eyes of the envier?’
Then Bromion said, and shook the cavern with his lamentation:—
‘Thou knowest that the ancient trees seen by thine eyes have fruit;
But knowest thou that trees and fruits flourish upon the earth        100
To gratify senses unknown—trees, beasts, and birds unknown;
Unknown, not unperceiv’d, spread in the infinite microscope,
In places yet unvisited by the voyager, and in worlds
Over another kind of seas, and in atmospheres unknown?
Ah! are there other wars, beside the wars of sword and fire?        105
And are there other sorrows beside the sorrows of poverty?
And are there other joys beside the joys of riches and ease?
And is there not one law for both the lion and the ox?
And is there not eternal fire, and eternal chains
To bind the phantoms of existence from eternal life?’

In the notes to the Penguin Complete Poems Alicia Ostriker points out that Bromion’s thought changes as he speaks. At the start of his speech, he comes near to the insight—valid in Blake’s view—that every creature has its own joy, cannot be subsumed or judged under a single law—and that the pluralism of gratification suggests a morality by which no one person should be held as a possession for the gratification of one other. But by the end of his speech, he seems to have slid back into Theotormon’s (or Urizen’s) morality: that there is a single law which all must obey. But if I am asked to imagine how the cadence of the questions drifts, I am guided less by the words than by my imagination of what Bromion is asking and where he intends his questions to lead. Specifically, in the first set of lines, from “But knowest” to “atmosphere’s unknown,” Bromion can be heard asserting his knowledge, but also doubting whether Theotormon is ignorant of, or only playing ignorant towards, the richness and variety of existence. Then, in the sequence from “Ah, are there other wars” to “And are there other joys,” Bromion’s genuine uncertainty rises; he is both asking himself and Theotormon and wondering at a possibility in which he believes, without sufficient self-assurance. Finally, though, he retreats into a question (“And is there not one law”) that can be heard as a rhetorical statement, an affirmation in disguise. But that sequence, and the peculiar mixture of doubt and hope, uncertainty and knowledge, is unsettled, and unsettles the cadence as I hear it. There is no cadence of words on the page suitable to the occasion; instead the words must admit the possibility of competing, ambivalent, or searching cadences. The cadence has not, in Bromion’s own mouth, quite found itself yet.

I hear the same in Theotormon’s line of questions, which begin with some of the most beautiful lines I know in a prophetic book:

‘Tell me what is the night or day to one o’erflow’d with woe?
Tell me what is a thought, and of what substance is it made?
Tell me what is a joy, and in what gardens do joys grow?
And in what rivers swim the sorrows? And upon what mountains
Wave shadows of discontent? And in what houses dwell the wretched,
Drunken with woe forgotten. and shut up from cold despair?

These speak with the vulnerability of Blake’s own psychological experience. They can be heard as scornful, dismissing even the notion of a thought as a reality amidst the pain (unjust as it is) that Theotormon feels); as imploring, seeking from Oothon, or Urizen, an answer; and as hopeless, as Theotormon knows himself to be utterly at the mercy of thoughts and joys and sorrows that are not his own, do not even properly emanate from his mind. But that alloy of motives and feelings becomes less distinct, more faded, as the questions go on and I do not know how to hear the final two or three questions of the series. The problem of course is that I cannot decide how to paraphrase what Theotormon asks, but that is exactly where cadence would help; there is no finding the cadence without paraphrase, and no finding the paraphrase without a better idea of cadence; and so I am forced to assay alternatives in my mind’s ear. Is the fantasy of the questions an acknowledgment of their own futility and absurdity? (This seems a better fit for the first two, or maybe just the rivers/sorrows question). Are they rhetorical in the sense that he asks a question about where sorrows and discontent resides in order to imply that they properly reside only or mostly or already within himself? Is he doubting whether they are natural or real phenomenon? With the question about mountains I cannot help but hear a sigh of relief, as if he is imagining discontent as something distant, even comforting in its absorption into a landscape scene, and removed from his own cares (the mountains dwarf even him, and they feel nothing). But the final question is the strangest of all:

            And in what houses dwell the wretched

            Drunken with woe forgotten. and shut up from cold despair?

In this transcription, I have preserved the punctuation of the plate, since “forgotten” can be, on that ground, read ambiguously, either referring to woe or the wretched (it anticipates “thoughts forgotten”) and because the full-stop, a rhetorical insistence on a pause of some substantial duration, shuts out the final clause from what precedes. The question itself could be heard as suggesting “they dwell here already with or within me,” or “Tell me where they dwell so that I can seek them out,” or “they cannot be said to suffer compared to me, so don’t try to answer the question.” In any case, if a reader plunges into Theotormon’s speech marching at a steady pace, they will soon find the ground beneath them shifting; the cadence of the first question differs radically from this last question, and the difference takes us into Theotormon’s feelings. The sense depends on cadence, even as the cadence depends on sense, all at once; this is perhaps a crucial aspect of that “inwardly searching” poetry that we usually associate with Shakespeare, and against which Milton, the poet of exclusion, has been contrasted.

It’s not unusual for readers of Blake to feel that, in the sublimity of his simple bare lyrics, he possesses an apprehension of feeling that recalls Shakespeare in its simultaneous detachment and depth; it is felt also here, in Visions of the Daughters of Albion.


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