Category: William Blake’s reception

I dedicate Patti Smith’s song, “My Blakean Year,” to my hardworking students, who have struggled to understand Blake’s works only to discover the joy of the poetic genius:

here’s Patti Smith’s lyrics to the song:

“My Blakean Year”

In my Blakean year I was so disposed
Toward a mission yet unclear Advancing pole by pole
Fortune breathed into my ear Mouthed a simple ode
One road is paved in gold
One road is just a road
In my Blakean year Such a woeful schism
The pain of our existence
Was not as I envisioned
Boots that trudged from track to track
Worn down to the sole
One road is paved in gold
One road is just a road
Boots that tramped from track to track Worn down to the sole
One road was paved in gold
One road was just a road
In my Blakean year
Temptation but a hiss
Just a shallow spear
Robed in cowardice
Brace yourself for bitter flack
For a life sublime
A labyrinth of riches
Never shall unwind
The threads that bind the pilgrim’s sack
Are stitched into the Blakean back
So throw off your stupid cloak
Embrace all that you fear
For joy shall conquer all despair In my Blakean year
So throw off your stupid cloak
Embrace all that you fear
For joy shall conquer all despair In my Blakean year

Ololon’s False Self-Identification

In forming a contrary, two opposing ideas or being create a new, fuller meaning in their relationship to one another.  Despite Ololon’s self-identification as Milton’s contrary, she does not fulfill this purpose.  Notably, Olonon’s self-identification as Milton’s contrary comes in the form of a question; even this status depends on his validation.  The question is paradoxical:  Milton cannot confirm this idea without asserting his higher position in the power structure.  Her question therefore means that any acknowledgement of the contrary would, in fact, render it invalid.

Both in this passage, and in Book I of Milton, Ololon finds her identity in Milton; as she earlier “lamented for Milton with a great lamentation” (Plate 24, Book I) and now concludes that she must go to Eternal Death to rejoin him (Plate 49, Book II).  As such, while she appears to choose the course of annihilation for herself, it is not true self-annihilation as the decision is based exclusively on her ties to Milton.  By predicating her own choices on those of Milton, she places herself below him in power; the two figures cannot then form a functional contrary.  While Ololon gains significance and purpose from her association with Milton, Milton’s function remains unchanged by this relationship.


In answering the question of what precisely happens to Ololon, how such fits in, relates, to the rest of Milton: A Poem, I feel, firstly, a few prefatory remarks—a naming of parts or clarifying of terms—is required. I take “self-annihilation,” as it manifests, in the scope of Blake’s poem at face value, that is, meaning precisely what it says: “making the self into nothing” (its root word nihil being the Latin for “nothing”). The crucial distinction, I submit, is in the nuanced fact that is a process rather different and apart from destruction per se, though we tend to think it synonymous with such. In a certain line of thinking—admittedly Eastern—and with a little mental acrobatics, nothing (i.e., the absence of something, an existential lack) can be thought of as the potential for all things, as, say, blandness might be conceived of as not the lack of flavor but the potential for any. This is how self-annihilation—achieved in the dialectical struggle between Spectre (self, convention, reason) and Emanation (other, imagination, energy)—can allow one to enter into the higher synthesis, or reconciliation, of Divine Humanity. All that said, while the revelatory scene in Blake’s garden in Felpham seems to enact such a self-annihilation for Milton, it seems it only brings about a self-abnegation for Ololon. The movement feels to be one of a patriarchal possessiveness rather than total reciprocity or a complete, mutual meeting-in-the-middle. It all seems to be done for the benefit of Milton; Ololon is only peripheral or utilitarian—a means to an end—subsumed into Milton rather than unified with him. Though these last points are more impressions, things felts, than empirically verifiable points in the text.

Holy Thursdays

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.

“The Clod & the Pebble” lacks an obvious contrary in the Songs of Innocence, itself containing its own internal dissonance and not requiring a counterpoint. The tension is that between the malleable and the rigid, self-abnegation and assertion of the will, acquiescence and defiance.  The clod is flexible and yielding and thereby subsumed into a greater than singular experience, i.e. mashed back into the earth by hooves; the pebble is intransigent, stalwart in the midst of flux, i.e. the brook, and, as such, retains its singularity. The two become representative of the dialectical tension between self-effacing (“seeketh not Itself to please”) and egocentric love (“seeketh only Self to please, / To bind another to its delight”). In the latter, love can only regard the beloved as object, something to be possessed; in the former, all obligation to the self and identity apart from the beloved is dispensed with. Each is given equal heft in the poem, with the first and third stanzas nearly mirror opposites of each other syntactically as well as in message. “The Clod & the Pebble” seeks to reconcile antimony by way way of a negotiated dialectic–operating in a manner synecdochic for the Songs of Innocence and of Experience proper–and irony. That a dirt clod and a pebble are taken as metaphors for differing types of affection is something of a comic undercutting for such a traditionally loftily-treated subject. The usual rhetoric trappings are cast aside in favor for simple particulars. The pastoral Songs of Innocence satirize the more tragic Songs of Experience and vice versa, illustrating what are, for Blake, the contrary, inevitably interwoven states of the soul. This is not deadlock, rather more akin to cross-pollination, as the poetic spirit unfurls itself in fighting, in reconciling such tensions.


Blake’s “Jerusalem” hymn performed by the London Symphany Orchestra at the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine (“Kate”) Middleton, April 2011


Discussion Question:

How did a hymn that calls for the radical remaking of England as the New Jerusalem become today a nationalist symbol of the British monarchy, the church and state establishment that Blake so deeply detested?

This might be a pretty late post on this topic.

I remembered that in class we talked about Blake’s reception and I raised the example that even English teacher in a good high school is reading the famous picture of Urizen in The Ancient of Days as God the Almighty. And Urizen’s act of systemizing and confining the human race is read as the creation of human.

It really strikes me when I again see this image with a  incorrect annotation during summer. I received a book from my teacher in China and was asked to change them into some SAT writing materials. The name of the Book is the Art of Being Human. In the chapter of Religion in Themes in the Humanities, the author uses Urizen as the preface to the chapter.

“An artist visualizes God the Almighty as described in the Hebrew bible.”
William Blake, The Ancient of Days 1794.

It brought me back to the beginning of the lesson when we saw how Urizen appears in the entrance of GE building.

People thought that’s God.

A Link between Taoism and Blaken Philosophy

Ka’s presentation was very interesting in its comparison of the work of William Blake to that of Laotse. I found it to be an incredibly interesting cultural amalgamation and it was striking that she detected a similitude between them that suggested a literary analog of each in the other. I was disheartened during her presentation when she said that little scholarly research, if at all, had really made this connection. It seemed like a novel concept but I thought such a point of comparison necessitated further study and it surprised me that the centuries that have passed since William Blake’s literary moment had not engaged in a dialogue surrounding this rather distinct point of similarity. Irving Babbitt, in his book Rousseau and Romanticism describes the new morality of the Romantic era and, to my great delight, also suggests a linkage between the themes of the Romantic genre with those of Taoism! Babbitt contends:


“A study of Buddha and Confucius suggests, as does a study of the great teachers of the Occident, that under its bewildering surface variety human experience falls after all into a few main categories. I myself am fond of distinguishing three levels on which man may experience life—the naturalistic, the humanistic, and the religious. Tested by its fruits Buddhism at its best confirms Christianity. Submitted to the same test Confucianism falls in with the teaching of Aristotle and in general with that of all those who from the Greeks down have proclaimed decorum and the law of measure. This is so obviously true that Confucius has been called the Aristotle of the East. Not only has the Far East had in Buddhism a great religious movement and in Confucianism a great humanistic movement, it has also had in early Taoism a movement in its attempts to work out naturalistic equivalents of humanistic or religious insight, offers almost startling analogies to the movement I am here studying” (xviii-xix)


Babbitt, though referencing the Romantic period writers more generally, hones in on central themes that Blake addresses in his works: namely the three levels of human experience. Herein lies the evidentiary support, or at least evidence of a shared supposition on the part of a scholar, that Ka lacked in her presentation. The fact that such a connection has been conjectured previously lends credence to her argument.

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Blake’s Artwork in History

I happened to be on the Vanderbilt History Department’s website and noticed this featured article on one of our faculty members and his new book: The artwork on the cover, of course, is by Blake, and I thought it was interesting that we just had a presentation on Wednesday that discussed the plate in depth. Interdisciplinary connections!

I’d like to think more about the role of women in the new Jerusalem, a topic several people touched on last week.  At the bottom of page 200, Milton commands Ololon to “Obey thou the Words of the Inspired Man/ All that can be annihilated must be annihilated.”  Milton orders Ololon to “obey” man, who is the one who figured out that everything needs to be annihilated.  Women, then, have had no role in the process of discovering the need to annihilate.  Rather, women must follow the lead of the “inspired man”.  With this in mind, the long monologue that Milton gives in the following lines is tinged with a sense of irony.  Milton says that “There is a Negation, and there is a Contrary; The Negation must be destroyd to redeem the Contraries.”  It seems that Milton himself has not destroyed the negation yet – he treats Ololon as an inferior being and imposes his will upon her.  After Milton’s long speech, Ololon trembles and “replyd in clouds of despair.”  She says, “Is this our Feminine Portion, the Six-fold MIltonic Female?/ Terribly this POrtion trembles before thee O awful Man.”  Ololon is upset and frightened, and calls Milton an “awful man”.  She asks Milton the same question we have been asking Blake throughout this book – what is the role of women in this new world?