Archive for September, 2013

In his marginal comments to Watson’s An Apology for the Bible, Blake considers Paine’s secular enlightenment assault on revealed religion to be the work of “either a Devil or an Inspired Man” (456).  He also notes that “Paine is a better Christian than the Bishop” (460).  For next Wednesday (10/2), write a post that reflects on Blake’s engagement with the French revolutionary debates of the turbulent 1790s.  How do any of the Blake works we’ve read thus far realign the radical ideals proposed by Paine with the poet-artist’s antinomian-Moravian view of Christianity?  Focus on a particular Blake work/image and please feel free to elaborate on your or other students’ previous posts.  Categorize under “Empire vs. Revolution” and don’t forget to create specific and relevant tags.


I’ve included below pictures of the idea map we created collaboratively in class today (the markings are color coded: yellow for Richard Price, blue for Edmund Burke, and red for Thomas Paine).  Use this map as a rough guide to help you position Blake’s political views in preparation for this week’s blog question prompt.


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For next Wednesday (2/21), students will write use the scholarly article linked below to support a specific interpretation of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

Provide a close reading of ONE specific passage from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that, in your view, displays Moravian images, themes, and ideas.  Please cite the article using the MLA citation guide (you can access the guide electronically under the “Children of Los” tab in the course blog).  Please categorize your post under “Christ and the Body” and don’t forget to create specific and relevant tags.

Proverbs of Energy and Imagination

The “Proverbs from Hell” are an odd mixture are proverbs that seem incredibly similar to Proverbs found in the Hebrew Bible it is meant to counter and proverbs that obviously occupy the position of counter to the Proverbs of the Hebrew Bible. One of my personal favorites of Blake’s proverbs is “What is now proved was once, only imagin’d” (72). To me, this proverb encapsulates a large portion of Blake’s personal philosophy. It is a simple proposition that many would find difficult to see much fault in. The status of this proverb as a possible counter to a traditional proverb and even to the Proverbs of the Hebrew Bible seems unlikely to me. I see this proverb as a statement of creative and poetic possibility. Here, Blake, yet again, makes a case for individual genius and progress through imagination. In his sense, Blake’s proverb takes me back to Plato and Aristotle. Much like Aristotle, Blake is arguing for the value of creativity and imagination and its potential for creating the future and stands against Plato’s desire to expel poets in his Ideal Republic.  “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is an interesting text. It continually asks the reader to analyze the words beyond their immediate surroundings. Within the “Proverbs of Hell,” there are proverbs that are easy to agree with, creating difficulty for the reader as these are meant to stand as a counter to the “heavenly” or “good” proverbs. These proverbs are from “Hell” in that they are energetic in large part and in that way counter passive proverbs, not necessarily “good” proverbs.

I think the most fascinating line in Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” is the very last one. He writes, “Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not to be believ’d” (73). If we read the rest of “Proverbs of Hell” with this line in mind, we can begin unpacking Blake’s complicated rhetoric. First of all, Blake has named this piece “Proverbs of Hell.” A proverb is generally understood to convey truth or advice, and the most famous example of collection of proverbs is the book of Proverbs in the Bible. However, Blake’s last proverb contradicts the fundamental meaning of a proverb—a proverb is a fundamental truth, yet Blake is arguing that truth can never be told in a way that conveys understanding. This is a theme we see woven throughout Blake’s works—truth cannot merely be heard and believed, it must be imagined. The complicated imagery and rhetoric of “Proverbs of Hell” is not meant to be taken at face value. Instead, this piece as a whole acts as a foil for both the book of Proverbs and the religious teachings of Blake’s contemporaries, such as Emanuel Swedenborg. Much like he does in “The voice of the Devil,” Blake uses an unbelievable narrator (someone from hell) to cast doubt on this work, and to force readers to make comparisons between these proverbs and the proverbs of religion. When compared, are they really all that different? In this way, Blake is inspiring his readers to find their own truth—for after all, “truth can never be told so as to be understood.”

The aphorisms of “Proverbs of Hell” operate on an antimonian rhetoric—indeed, their ideas often diametrical oppose to traditional conception. Such is there purpose: they are defibrillators for the soul, some shock, to stab into the stubborn, sluggish self and usurp pat formulations. Their infernal wisdom is one couched in dialectics. The proverb: “Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are the roads of Genius” is curious in that we imbue notions like “improvement” and “genius” with positive valences and prefer to pair like with like, yet it is the “crooked roads,” those that we would traditionally think of negatively—i.e. difficult to traverse, hazardous—that those of Genius. They do not lead to Genius but are of it; Genius is an inhabited state rather than a telos. “Improvement” here is pejorative, an imposition on what would otherwise lead to natural discovery. Patching the world as we are able provides resolutions, which precludes revelation. James Joyce, a disciple of Blake’s, is particularly elucidating here, having his Stephen Dedalus espouse: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” The dark, the gaps, the crooked, the imperfections in the world or ourselves (self-constructed or foisted) are apertures though which we can launch our search for constitutive meaning. Any attempt at an accord requires a delving down to some constitutive core, a common denominator that ties things together—the essential element in things. The essential element of anything cannot be approached via any convention as that preconditions it in some regards; it is already tainted with some self-perceived sine qua non and thereby the object/subject in question is distorted. “The eye altering alters all,” said Blake, after all. Conventions must be unsaid, emptied, dispensed, “the lights, the definitions[1]” thrown away. Otherwise we buy into the myth of even referentiality—that our words possess an empirically verifiable equivalence with that to which they refer, that they get at some definitive quid. The man of Genius recognizes that the world must be experienced and seen afresh, worn anew, and platitudes, assuagments, or “improvements” prevent such.

[1] Stevens, Wallace. “The Man With the Blue Guitar.” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1954. Print.

I chose this proverb because it is very incongruous with the Proverbs of Hell. If, as a footnote in our Norton Critical Edition explicates, the proverbs are “nuggets of infernal wisdom [that] counter the prudent ‘heavenly’ Proverbs of the Hebrew Bible,” then why would Blake include a proverb that sounds so like a biblical one? The idea of setting another before you is reminiscent of Biblical proverbs such as “The liberal soul shall be made fat: and he that watereth shall be watered also himself” and the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Perhaps its place in the Proverbs of Hell suggests that Blake wants to attack Christians who he would view as self-serving or hellish rather than neighbourly. As a dissenter who was affected by Anglican and state persecution, Blake might want to shock these readers out of their complacency by putting a heavenly commandment in the mouths of devils.

However, Blake is also drawing attention to the fact that setting others before you is an energetic act. It is also a sublime act, a term which in the Romantic context takes on a particularly complicated meaning. This is the diabolical element of this proverb in the context of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell because energy is associated with the devil and evil. For the Romantics, the sublime was associated with powerful experiences of awe, terror and danger. For example, Burke wrote that the effect of the sublime could place the soul in a state “in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” The proverb can therefore imply that setting others before you has to be done against a powerful compulsion not to do so. It stresses that you have to be powerful and energetic in order to be self-sacrificing. In other words, it is impossible to be good if you are passive.

In conclusion, this proverb illustrates a harmonious marriage of Heaven and Hell because it conveys a highly moral idea through Blake’s constructed logic of Hell. For this reason, I am inclined to view this proverb as sincerely meant even though it is designated as a proverb of Hell.

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We read much of Blake’s work as an attack on empiricism.  Beginning with his critique of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ representation of genius as following a certain form, Blake continually critiques acceptance of absolutes.  Through this Blake uncovers the contraries constructing the idea of absolute fact, implying that empirical “proven” data is not more valuable than imagined ideas.  The imagined and the proved are transitory rather than permanent states.  If this is the case there is more room for individual interpretation of one’s circumstances and surroundings.  That is, man need not subscribe to another’s system of determining meaning.

By placing this aphorism amongst the “Proverbs of Hell,” Blake requires the reader to question whether the speaker can be trusted.  In so doing the reader replaces the “proved” idea that things of hell are entirely evil and misleading with the “imagin’d” that even the words of the devil may contain truth.  We can extend this reading beyond the “Proverbs” to the broader work of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” presenting the work as Blake’s covert attack on the widespread acceptance of the absolute authority of religion.  Rather than directly criticize the dominance of the church, Blake gives value to the voice of hell.  Then, as the reader discerns truth amongst these proverbs, he must refute the idea of absolute evil and absolute good put forth by the church.  In this way Blake guides the reader to a position of religious skepticism while also providing the individual reader with interpretive space as he reaches an independent conclusion.

At first, the twin poems “Infant Joy” and “Infant Sorrow” seem to present contrary understandings of childhood. The infant in “Infant Joy” knows only happiness, presumably because he is just two days old and has no experience of the world. Indeed, the child’s separation from earthly reality is conveyed by the illustration, which suggests the child is closer to heaven than earth. The child, its mother and an angel are all cradled inside a flower, which represents the natural world. It is notable that trees, which are so prominent in Songs of Innocence, are absent from every illustration Blake made for “Infant Joy”. This suggests that the child has not yet gained knowledge of good and evil and instead exists in a state of prelapsarian harmony with the natural and divine worlds.

The infant in “Infant Sorrow” is depicted in an entirely human world. Like the infant in “Infant Joy,” it is with its mother, but there is no obviously divine element in the illustration. The real difference is what this infant is saying and how. It knows that the world is dangerous and painful. Its description of itself as “like a fiend hid in a cloud” suggests both that it is more cunning and self-aware than the baby in Infant Joy, who simply says: “I happy am/ Joy is my name.”

However, given the infants are roughly of the same age (as infants were both named and swaddled early), how can we explain why the child in “Infant Sorrow” has such a negative self-image? Experience is an unsatisfactory answer because while does explain the child’s knowledge of pain and danger, it is difficult to cite experience as the cause of the infant’s resignation (“I thought it best”) and self-perception this early on. The infant in “Infant Sorrow” is like a little adult to the extent that it comprehends and speaks like an adult, whilst the child in “Infant Joy” says how it feels directly and simply. It’s no coincidence that first infant is given simple words and the second infant complex ones.  Although the poems seem to present one innocent and one knowledgeable infant, the way these two depictions work together eventually suggests that our preconceived ideas of childhood are what Blake is really getting at.

In both images the child is with its mother and both are contained, just one by the swaddling bands and one by the flower. The swaddling bands and the flower represent different contemporary attitudes towards children. The flower suggests that children need to grow up as themselves, which was the philosophy Rousseau espoused when he wrote that “Nature wants children to be children before being men.”  On the contrary, swaddling forces the child to conform to the adults’ wishes. Blake also puts adults’ words in the infant’s mouth in “Infant Sorrow.” It seems nonsensical that an infant could view itself as a fiend, but it was also a contemporary position that children were born in sin and had to be disciplined. Both infants are framed by societal attitudes, so it is only with knowledge of them that we can guess at why the infants in both poems express themselves as they do. Although “Infant Joy” seems more simple and charming at first, when we look at it with “Infant Sorrow,” we can seethe the two poems acknowledge the mysteriousness of childhood and that we can only interpret it in relation to ourselves as experienced adults. As infants cannot speak as clearly as the infants in these poems, we are left wondering whose thoughts Blake’s infants are expressing. And as we cannot remember infanthood as we remember other parts of our lives, it is harder to draw on as a form of experience. The poems suggest that we imagine childhood more than we experience it. The two representations can be so fundamentally different because there are some aspects of life that experience cannot fully help us to understand.

Last week, I explored “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Innocence. In considering which two poems to examine as contraries, I immediately became interested in expanding my exploration of the original “Holy Thursday” by comparing it to its twin of the same name in Songs of Experience. The first difference I noted is the lack of a illustration associated with the “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Experience. I believe this is indicative of the fact that the children discussed in each version are one and the same. In Songs of Innocence, these children were singing to their benefactors. While I initially saw these children as another example, like that found in “The Lamb,” of joyful childhood innocence, upon further examination, I began to see the dark undertones associated with their performance. Instead of being ideal images of the lamb, these children are a herd of lambs blindly following their leaders, leaders who can teach falsehoods. Thus, Blake uses the second “Holy Thursday” to leave no doubt in the reader’s mind that these children are indicative of a much darker part of childhood, a childhood robbed of its innocence. In “Holy Thursday,” the reader is reintroduced to these children. Here, instead of participating in a lavish and false show, the children are living their everyday lives, lives that their benefactors hope to shield themselves from. Blake urges the benefactors and all of humanity to confront the ugly truth of the lives of these children in Songs of Innocence. In Songs of Experience, he forces them to confront the reality by conveying it through his poem.

A prominent sinister undertone runs through Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Innocence as the reader sees the Sweep’s exploitation.  Though he is forced to work, Tom Dacre remains in a state of innocence, and his imagination allows him to find hope.  Without a known identity from his parents, the idea of a heavenly father easily diverts Tom’s eyes from the hardship before him to the alternative reality he longs.  Innocence is then a state of the mind when dreams hold more power than reality.

The Chimney Sweeper of Songs of Experience is not so easily distracted.  Experience has chipped away at his readiness to believe the religious rhetoric.  Instead, religion has become a cause of neglect and pain as his parents abandon him to go to prayers.  While his outward behavior corresponds with what is expected of a child, his experience as a Sweep has brought his imaginative innocence to a premature end.  He now sees religion and hope as hollow and cannot see past the immediate reality of his circumstances.  Experience exposes false hope.

By connecting the two stories of the Chimney Sweep, Blake creates a continuous narrative of the decay of innocence.  These accounts then present complementary attacks on religion as an institution exploiting the innocent and bringing suffering to the experienced.  While at first religion and imagination can distract the sweep, experience makes him aware of harsher reality.