Blake’s Milton might have been called, at least as a second title, “The Lark and Wild Thyme,” since these are the objects of its most intensely lyrical passages, the passages most likely to convince a reader not only that these poems that Nicholas Shrimpton calls “diffuse epics,” of which Milton is one instance and the more demanding and greater Jerusalem another contain poetry as good as any Blake wrote, with a sensitivity for the resources of language as fine as Wordsworth’s. In their large designs, the “diffuse epics” pose special difficulties, arising in part from Blake’s seeking to write in the style of the Old Testament prophets, in part in the style of the poetic books of the Bible, from the perspective of a radical Christian, fully aware that his imagination needed to be nourished by the springs of English poetry and British history available to him at the start of the eighteenth century. They are also difficult because of the mythology, of course, but the difficulties of the myths are easily exaggerated, the desire to explicate exactly who stands for what across poems missing the life of the creations, Los a creature of passion and idealism; it is probably enough to know which Zoa stands for which aspect of humanity, letting the rest fall into place from there. In their “minute particulars,” though, Blake’s difficulty in the diffuse epics has not been given the attention that the lyrics have received and does not even seem to invite such attention. In part, that is because the diffusion of these epics is a matter of style as well as narrative and action, so that there are passages that perform fairly utilitarian work, set aside metaphorically dense speculation, set aside actions of terrible intensity, set aside prophetic beseeching, and so on, and they each require, not different intensities of attention, but attentiveness to Blake’s various ways of bringing English to life. The lyrical passages are easiest because most similar to Wordsworth, Shelley, and Clare—though none of these, though they all write of birds, and larks specifically, taking flight, have a passage that compares to this, from Milton:
Thou hearest the Nightingale begin the Song of Spring;
The Lark sitting upon his earthy bed: just as the morn
Appears; listens silent; then springing from the waving Corn-field! loud
He leads the Choir of Day! trill, trill, trill, trill,
Mounting upon the wings of light into the Great Expanse:
Reecchoing against the lovely blue & shining heavenly Shell:
His little throat labours with inspiration; every feather
On throat & breast & wings vibrates with the effluence Divine
All Nature listens silent to him & the awful Sun
Stands still upon the Mountain looking on this little Bird
With eyes of soft humility, & wonder love & awe.
I can’t think of any poet who has deployed the long line like Blake in this passage; nor of any other Romantic poem about a bird taking flight—be it by Clare, Shelley, or Wordsworth—that matches this. What does it do? “Thou hearest” assimilates command, affirmation, and fiat: he will make this hearing happen, and he tells us what it is we hear, and he insists that we do hear; this is the power of imaginative literature. But it does not run for long on the I-thou axis; the “thou” is assimilated, along with the poet, into the scene itself, and another axis emerges over the course of the passage, between “thou hearest” and “Nature listens.” The relationship of these words is puzzling to me in any setting, and Blake does not play on the puzzle or tease it out, but invites us to draw a distinction between hearing as registering, apprehending, or noticing, and listening as intending, with fixed attention, reaching out rather than being reached, so that it is listening that is an act of caring. “Listens silent” is, with the exception of the extra s, an anagram: to listen one ought to be silent; and to listen silently is to not speak, to remove oneself, as the first and second person are themselves eclipsed by the scene. It may be perverse to think too much on it, but the verb “begin” in the first line surprises, because when we heard a bird singing, we do not often think of it has beginning a song at all; the bird’s song is repeated, and we only know it for once it is once it has become itself; but Blake of course is saying that the nightingale begins the song of spring, and so the nightingale’s song is, as it were, the first theme in the symphony, and it is the harmony of all of nature, its parts coming together and falling apart, that he puts before us. “Begin” is right because this is a new beginning in a poem, because Blake is himself fascinated by returning to beginnings, to the beginning that is creation and recreation, regeneration as opposed to mere repetitive, mechanical generation. (I will translate “thou” to “we” readers though within the poem’s action it is not the readers being addressed).
The verb “hearest” cannot govern “the Lark sitting” unless the lark sings; it “listens silent” (the first of the anagrammatic coupling), but we do not see that yet, as the lines unfold, in dramatic sequence, so that we are momentarily baffled by the action of the lark—is it the object of “hearest” or is the present continuous verb a substitute for “sit.” Think how easily he might have written “The Lark sits upon its earthy bed and just as the morn,” but Blake in this passage does not conjoin actions with conjunctions; they appear instead in parallel. A few possibilities: Blake invites for us to imagine that we hear the lark sitting, which would mean hearing its song, only to exercise the power of the poet by then surprising us with the following line, where we see “lark sitting” is the subject of “listens silent”; he lets “hear” linger as a verb, because for Blake the illustrative-illustrator oracular poet, we hear the world to see it, we hear the poet’s voice summon creation into being before we know what we see; the shift of senses, from hearing to seeing is abrupt, as the senses are themselves continuous if distinct; there is an argument implicit about what and how we perceive, about how poetry helps us perceive. “Sitting” makes the action continuous, and so cooperates with “begins” to insist on the process of things, the long lines carrying an action that is momentous and not momentary, however fleeting each of its parts. The line-ending introduces a flicker of ambiguity: the Lark sits upon his earthy bed, just as the morn sits upon its earthy bed, its light spreading over the fields, the first occasion when the light and the bird are commingled (soon to issue forth in the most stunning phrase of the passage, “wings of light.”). But once we do turn the line to “Appears; listens silent; then springing from the waving Corn-field! Loud,” we see what the poem is about, sequentially unfolding the aspects of the scene, across the senses, one after another.
With the word “appears,” the resolution of the bafflement appears: light has been shed on the syntax of the lines. “Springing” makes an action of the Song of Spring, as the lark springs to a song; he is inspired by a breeze that is invisible in the lines themselves, rippling only across the verb “waving.” The exclamation mark should not be read as registering syntax, but only as pitching the voice upwards, joining the lark in flight, attuning us to the sound of the lines. “Loud” hangs on the edge of the line—the lark and waving cornfields alike are loud, for that instant, and loud also is the exclamation mark, and the word seems almost shorthand for the return of a voice, with the sensuality of phonemes taking the lead in the organization of the poem as “loud” turns the line and turns itself to “leads”: the poem that leads with hearing is led by sound. “Trill, trill, trill, trill”: four times and not three because the words, repeated four times, take on the pulse of meter, the beats inherent in English sound forth as they would not were they fewer than four, and the beats of the alternating “trills” are the beats of the wings of light. The metaphorical density of the line is fantastic and fantastical: “mounting upon the wings of light into the Great Expanse.” The word is Expanse because the sense of things, the sense of what constitutes the world and how it constitutes the world is itself expanded in these lines; expanse because Blake wants to liberate us from contraction, and to find expansion in the most contracted spaces—which is exactly what metaphors do, contracting together, squeezing, unlike elements, to establish far-flung relations that break open our sense of things.
The central metaphor is “the wings of light,” where each word is doing valuable work: “the” and not just “wings,” because these are not that bird’s wings, even though they are obviously related to it; these are instead “the wings of light” that inhere in the sunlight, that are part of nature’s divinity; it is, presumably, the bird that mounts on its own wings, but also on the wings of light, as it flies higher, but in the grammar of the sentence, it is the trilling that mounts on wings of light, uniting sound, touch, and vision in a single phrase; the sound is carried upward by the wings that are made of light or by the wings of the light itself; the two are different since the latter admits that the wings of the light itself may in fact be the wings of the lark, as if the bird were composed of light itself, and if that goes too far, then at least granting that it is the lark’s instinctive response to the sunrise that brings it to mount in the air; the light does act as its wings, since it causes it to rise. Reechoing, and not just echoing: trill trill, and then trill, trill, again but also because reechoing is excessive, and the lines celebrate the profligate bounty of the world. “the lovely blue” could stand as its own, “blue” an indeterminate quantity of blue, the sound reaching the color itself; but “the lovely blue and shining heavenly Shell” could also take “blue and shining” as an adjectival couple describing the shell. “Lovely” is not empty praise: it is loving, it is fashioned with love, and it is the object of love. Against “Great Expanse,” “Shell” contracts, but it does not entrap: the shell is the shell from which a bird is born, and the lark will be reborn; the shell is also itself fragile, delicate, object of tender devotion, and the great expanse, characteristically of Blake, is re-imagined on a different scale, small against the vastness of eternity that lies beyond the world of the senses. “Little” against the heavenly Shell, but also against a human perspective, the bird is delicate too, and overwhelmed, not weak, but overcome with “inspiration.” “Labours with inspiration”: labouring in the pangs of birth, but also the labour of work, the discipline of inspiration, and the necessity of song, as if the song is the only way inspiration can, just barely, be mastered.
“Every feather” attends to the minute particulars, as does “On throat & breast & wings vibrates with the effluence divine,” and here is Blake the sensual observer, akin to Clare; “vibrates” is so subtle a motion that it brings us, and Blake, in intimate proximity with the bird; why is it not that the feathers are vibrating beneath the breath of the speaker, himself laboring with inspiration? Who is looking? At “effluence Divine,” the lines themselves move with liquid syntax, the punctuation falling out, the momentum generated by one thing happening and then another, or many things happening all at once, barely registered in the intensity of the moment, in the final three lines of the passage. The song has transferred: what the nightingale began has been carried on by the lark and it is now “all nature” that “listens silent,” the anagram returning, echoing, but also reechoing since the letters are echoed in each phrase, across words. Empson argues, in Complex Words, that Milton gives distinct spin to the word “All,” turning it upon its axis, and this feels like the most distinctly Miltonic line, with the open-mouthed awe of “all” closing into the Milton “awful Sun,” the Sun, itself awed to stand still, having taken on, with the verb “stand,” the place that was the lark’s, though it stands still “upon the mountain,” the sublime equivalent to the lark’s “earthy nest,” with the final sensory burden shifted from the auditory to the visual, “looking on”: not “at,” but with the patronage, the protection, the distance and detachment of “looking upon,” looking with the beams of light that permit all others to see, that are themselves its “eyes.”
“With eyes of soft humility, & wonder love & awe” brings the period to a close, suitably enough with the word “awe” that looks back, through “awful” to “all,” and that once again leaves the mouth gaping, but this time, it is the awful sun that is awed, not only inspiring awe in others. The principle of anagrams is the principle of these lines, which rearrange the same parts, assigning them different places and different relations to one another; it is a statement of underlying identity against a sea of differences, and also differences composed of similar parts. “Soft humility” and “awe” bracket what is, to me, the most interesting of the phrases in the list: “wonder love.” Whether it is a phrase at all is a controversial claim, since it would be possible to read also “soft humility” as the first item, followed by a “comma and,” which sets it apart from a separate and distinct list: “wonder, love, and awe.” We should pause at this reading, as the comma itself invites us to pause, over the difference between “soft humility” on the one hand and “wonder, love, and awe,” a separate bundle, on the other. The difference would seem to be grandeur in the latter against the humility of the former, the Sun embracing the span of contradictions: what is it for the sun to look with humility? Let alone for the sun to look with “soft humility”? “Soft” suggests touch, the sun touching lightly, as if beseeching humbly, and that the virtue of humility is itself soft, not lacking strength (being of the sun, it can’t), but bringing implying that humility, even of the sun, is akin to the feel of the bird itself, which is likewise soft to touch; the bird possesses something of the sun, the sun something of the bird, since humility possesses something of the bird’s feel, astonishing as it is to impute that to the sun. But I prefer to consider another possibility: “soft humility,” because it patterns itself “adjective noun” suggests that the next item in the list “wonder love” follows a similar pattern, except that neither of the words is an adjective and so it functions somewhat as a compound noun, without the hyphen, love alloyed by wonder, wonder alloyed by love, but also gives the possibility of adjectival weight to either of the words, wonderful love, wondrous love, wondering love, wonder loved, wonder lovely, and wonder loving, holding all of the possibilities in suspension, along with, perhaps “the love of wonder” and “the wonder of love,” with which the sun looks on nature. We realize, looking into the phrase, how very different wonder and love are, and how in the structure “soft humility, & wonder love & awe,” a strange symmetry is achieved, with “wonder” and “awe” and “humility” and “love” pulling towards opposing poles, but here intertwined and united in “wonder love” itself. It is Blake’s epic ambition to write about the wonder of love and the love of wonder which are for him a creed and ethical faith.
The intensity of attention I’ve given this passage might seem excessive and antithetical to the intuitive and creative imagination prized by Blake. But Blake also, in Jerusalem especially, enjoins us to attend to minute particulars and not generalities; it is right by his own lights to approach the fine craft of his poetry for the minute particulars that it ranges in service of his vision.